The Guest Cat – left me scratching at the door

guest cat

Lovely Mum bought me Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat, I assume because it had such a beautiful cover. The cat’s eyes stare up at you beseechingly in teal foil (the above picture doesn’t do it any justice) and when you leave the book on a table in a dark room they are capable of a slightly unnerving flash when the moonlight hits them.

I love cats, for all the reasons dog-lovers often despise them. I love their haughtiness, their indifference to attempts to suck up to them, the way they sometimes look at you as if to say, “What on earth are you doing, cretin?” So you’d think I’d love Hiraide’s celebration of a cat who came to visit him and his wife in their small guest house. But I didn’t. I wanted to, I did. But this book, for me, was hard work.

Perhaps I’m out of practice with reading difficult books. Perhaps I’m lazy. I tried to apply myself to it, but it always felt like work. When I got home after a long day I didn’t want to pick it up. I couldn’t lose myself in it. Perhaps it’s that I like to dive into people’s lives when I read, understand what makes them tick, and I didn’t really learn anything about the author (I assume from the biographical note that this is somewhat autobiographical) or his wife (her speech is reported but she’s an otherwise opaque, shadowy character) when reading this. I know, it’s about the cat, not them, but it’s hard to really understand what the cat meant to them if you don’t know anything about what makes them tick. It’s hard (at least for me) to care. Since we can’t get an insight into the cat’s thoughts or feelings either, it felt like there was a kind of void at the heart of this book.

Sometimes the prose is beautiful and poetically descriptive and in those places the book feels like a lovely, refined artefact of love. But other times Hiraide gets bogged down in describing in painstaking detail the angles of the alley behind his house and ruminating about the meaning of ‘lightning capture’ versus ‘capture of lightning’. Perhaps it’s a matter of certain things getting lost in translation from the Japanese (and indeed there are some interesting translation notes at the back of the book that support this theory). And of course, not every book ever written needs to be easy and fun. But I found it a bit self-indulgent and humourless if I’m honest, and I just never felt like I was inside the writing. It was an extremely short book but it still felt a bit like a chore. I felt like a cat scratching at the door of a dark, possibly empty house. Perhaps Takashi Hiraide’s writing is just not for me.

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The Adventures of Vaclav the Magnificent and his Lovely Assistant Lena – it’s magic


Straight off the bat, I loved this book. Go out and find it right now, buy it and read it. Haley Tanner’s debut novel is fantastic and I can’t wait to read more of her work (I’ve been meaning to read this book which has been sitting on my shelf since 2012 so there’s hopefully at least a second novel out by now!). The story of Russian immigrant children, Vaclav and Lena, who live in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, near Coney Island, is a story of friendship, magic, hidden horrors, broken hearts and a deep and enduring love.

We first meet Vaclav and Lena when they are ten and nine-and-eleven-months respectively. Vaclav, who worships Houdini whose worn autobiography he has brought with him all the way from Russia, is determined to be the world’s greatest magician. Lena, he is determined, will be his lovely assistant. They practice every day after school at Vaclav’s house, after which Vaclav’s mother, the warm-hearted, hard-shelled Rasia, makes dinner, frequently borscht or something hot and cabbage-related. Vaclav’s home is a poor but happy one, in a quiet, frayed-at the-edges, unfashionable way (this is not an over-romanticised immigrant story, let’s get that straight). Lena’s life, with her cold, unfriendly stripper aunt, in an apartment full of overflowing ashtrays, mould and strange men, is, we feel uneasily, less so. But Tanner doesn’t wallop you over the head with this feeling, which is her genius. She lets it creep into your heart slowly, like it does to good-hearted Rasia.

The character’s voices: small, hard, secretive and quietly bossy Lena; lively, magic-obsessed Vaclav, whose heart is wide open and who loves unreservedly; and kind, tough, proud Rasia, are all alive and fascinating and different. Tanner’s prose is simple, quotidian, deliciously easy to read, and her characters grip you. This book had its hooks in my brain from the first chapter, and I started squirrelling away furtive extra little bits of time to read it whenever I could, much like Lena steals little bits and pieces from Vaclav’s house, a toilet roll here, a slice of bread there (Rasia realises and starts to treat her tiny thefts like a shopping list, leaving extra bits out for her, for this secretive, lonely, frustrating little girl that she loves, dearly, with her huge heart).

This book is excellent, both in its essence, its characters who are authentically, unquestionably alive and flawed, with imperfections you recognise from people you love, or that you share, and in the story itself, which is an absolute page-turner. It’s not a Big Narrative with caps and otherworldly drama – it is everyday, it is just people’s lives, brilliantly documented by a writer with extraordinary sensitivity to the human condition. Even the book’s villains, once they get their say, make you realise that no one is completely good and no one is completely bad. We’re all a combination of the things that made us and the things that shaped us after that.

This is a story of the uncertainty and the coexisting certainty of youth, the rescuing power and also the futility of love in its strongest concentration. It is a wonderful, wonderful story which has sunlight and darkness and borscht and magic and left me tripping over myself to get to the next paragraph, the next page. You know when your eyes start skimming ahead without your volition, desperate to know what happens next? Well yeah, that. It is charming and insightful and memorable and I highly, highly recommend it.

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The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul – not my cup of tea

coffee kabul

Lovely Mum almost never lets me down with her book purchases, but when I saw a Kirkus Reviews quote on the front of this book that said “As if Maeve Binchy had written The Kite Runner,” I thought this book probably wasn’t going to be my dream read. The story revolves around a group of five very different women who come together in a Kabul coffee shop run by ex-pat Sunny.

There’s the beautiful pregnant widow Yazmina, who was left for dead by warlords her uncle was indebted to, and who now have their sights set on her younger sister in Nuristan. There’s English tough-on-the-outside, broken-on-the-inside journalist Isabel, wealthy middle-aged socialite Candace who has divorced her husband and come to Afghanistan to be with her younger lover, the mysterious Wakil. And finally there is Hajalan, my favourite, who has sixty-odd years of Afghan history in her memory. She wears her hair short under her headscarf and smokes when her rigid son Ahmet isn’t looking. She’s in love with Rashif the tailor, and has been since they were children, though they’ve both been married and widowed since.

Rashif writes Hajalan letters that she can’t read, and these poignant letters were my favourite part of the book. Their love story in general really moved me … the rest of the book, well, I can’t say it was rubbish. It just wasn’t the sort of book I like to read that much. It was a bit on the worthy side for chick-lit, and a bit on the light side for anything else.

It also had more proofreading errors than any book I’ve ever read in my life (I’m sorry! I’m sorry. I can’t help it. I’m an editor. We’re arseholes.) I found that especially puzzling because the copyright page said that it had been reprinted twenty times in 2013, so they had plenty of opportunities to sort this out. And they weren’t even little things. One of the main characters’ names is spelt wrong on the back for a start. I wasn’t going to get into this because it makes me sound insufferable but I had to go with it in the end because I guess I just am insufferable.

Anyway, this is a perfectly good read that just didn’t hit the spot for me but clearly did for tons of other people as it sounds like it sold bucketloads of copies. Kirkus Reviews hit the nail on the head when they said it was “As if Maeve Binchy had written The Kite Runner,” so if that sounds like your cup of tea, don’t let me put you off it!

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The A-Z of You and Me – life unravelling


James Hannah’s The A-Z of You and Me is a bittersweet look back at a life by a man looking at the rapidly approaching end of his life. At forty, death is coming sooner than he expected it and when we meet him he is struggling to cope with this fact. His main carer at the hospice, the warm, lively Sheila, suggests he play a game to help him pass the time and keep his mind active. He is to go through the A-Z naming his body parts and conjuring a memory of each as he does.

We flit back and forth – childhood, terrible teens, twenties, now. Ivo, our narrator, has had a life that is both colourful and full of missed opportunities. In part, it is a painfully authentic story of friendship – how it can be both comforting and destructive, and the author’s strongest talent is his ability to write what feels real, in all its frustrating, messy glory. We can see where Ivo is headed; we have the benefit of hindsight. We want to shake him: “No, not that way! Don’t do that! For God’s sake, can’t you see you’re going to ruin everything?!” But Hannah also paints those prophetic things in the mundane colours they appear in to all of us at the time. The turning points in our lives are rarely things we recognise as turning points on the day. The bus you get on, the decision to go to that club, to let this person lead you here or there.

Hannah writes sweetly, and sadly, about love, without being maudlin, and he writes excellently about addiction too – or maybe addiction is the wrong word. He writes excellently about habit, and that sickening feeling of doing something you know is wrong but you can’t seem to find the energy to halt your progress somehow, until you feel the consequences, and sometimes even then. I read the book when travelling home on a long journey and I cried in the airport, on the plane, even on the tube (leaking sly little tears behind the cover of the pages).

The author conjures up futility, restlessness and regret in a very human way that never feels overblown, and is never tempted to stray into sounding grand. Ivo was never a hero, and he never becomes a hero, even as you feel perfect sympathy with him and understanding for him and his life. He feels like a real person, with all the weaknesses and shittiness that come along with it and James Hannah writes the unravelling of a life in a way that is both painfully honest and deeply moving.


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I Know Where She Is – gritty and gripping

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I Know Where She Is by S.B. Caves is the story of Autumn, a young girl snatched from her mother’s side ten years ago, and Francine, a seemingly fragile drunk, who has never been able to come to terms with her only daughter’s disappearance. While her pompous husband Will has moved on with his life, even starting a new family, Francine remains convinced that Autumn is still out there somewhere. So when a disturbed young runaway approaches her with an outlandish-sounding story about what happened to Autumn, Francine can’t help but be sucked in…

This fast-paced thriller is a real page-turner. First-time author and one to watch, Caves lures you in to a shady world where glittering public lives can hide some very dark secrets indeed. It’s easy to relate to Francine who, when we first meet her, is still drowning in the raw pain of her loss, long after the rest of the world has moved on. It’s easy to feel her frustration when her hope against the odds is dismissed as craziness (especially by her ex-husband Will, who I could cheerfully have throttled at times!). And it’s easy to get sucked in right along with her when it starts to look like the trail to Autumn, long gone cold, might lead somewhere after all…

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Quiet – on the power of the introvert

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Every so often, a book comes along that changes things, and Susan Cain’s Quiet, a study of introverts, their traits and their habits, and an examination of their place in a world run by and for extroverts, is one of them. It wasn’t always this way, she tells us. Before the rise of the Culture of Personality in the early twentieth century, when Dale Carnegie taught us all how to win friends and influence people, there was the Culture of Character, when moral standing in one’s community was the most important thing of all. As people increasingly moved away from small, tight-knit communities where everyone knew everyone else (and their business!), it became more important to make a good first impression, something that often comes more easily to extroverts than introverts – or at least introverts who know how to exhibit extroversion.

Introversion isn’t the same as shyness, says Cain, and that is very true, although many introverts are also shy. Many are also what she calls ‘sensitive’ or ‘high reactive’. She discusses a study of children (from the time they were babies) where the subjects were tested for reactivity by measuring their responses to things like loud popping balloons (babies) and seeing scary-looking strangers in gas masks (young kids). Some babies and children took these surprising new things in their stride and others reacted strongly, but this isn’t a case of one set being deliberately braver than the other; the study showed that some children (and therefore some adults) simply are more sensitive to stimulus than others.

High reactives are not always introverts, and vice versa, but there is a strong correlation between the two types and it makes sense. Low-reactive extroverts need more risk, noise, colour, company and novelty to make a dent on them, whereas sensitive introverts need far less. Being curled up on a sofa quietly reading a book may seem understimulating to the point of deathly boring to one person, while being jostled in a colourful, loud bar, full of new faces is another person’s worst nightmare. That is perfectly natural, and indeed there many of both types of personality (it is estimated that between one third and one half of the world is made up of introverts). So everyone knows plenty of introverts, and yet, Cain argues, in the modern world they often seem invisible, at least in the West.

Cain considers the difference between Eastern cultures, which are often based on community ideals, and the Western culture of the individual. Interestingly, she studies a number of Asian-Americans who are often, and in many ways, caught between two different worlds. She explores the idea of ‘soft power’ and how this can sometimes be more effective than ‘hard power’ and considers how introverts and extroverts can work together in harmony (see Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt), and how each type has its own particular strengths and weaknesses. She discusses how dangerous it can be when a relentless insistence on extroversion leads to groupthink, how the Wall Street crash was wrought in large part by an imbalance of power between introverts and extroverts, and investigates some fascinating outliers – the super-wealthy introvert Warren Buffett, for example.

Cain also considers how far temperament is destiny, how much nature and nurture interact when it comes to temperament, whether it ever makes sense for introverts to borrow extrovert ideals (and vice versa), and crucially, what introverts and extroverts need to be happy, and how you can live in the modern world and stay true to the core of who you really are in terms of temperament.

This is an absolutely fascinating read, whatever your personality style, but if you suspect you might be an introvert, reading this could genuinely change your life. It’s meticulously researched, but written in an appealingly accessible style and will make many people reassess certain things in their lives and how they approach them. Maybe your child likes their own company and you worry they won’t learn the things they need to live in this extroverted world; maybe you’re an outwardly gregarious person in a high-powered job who sometimes shuts yourself away in a bathroom stall for an hour and thinks you’re alone in doing that (you’re very much not); or maybe you’ve always thought there was something a bit weird about the way you think and the way you are inside, and you wish there was a way you could just be allowed to be yourself at work, at home, or wherever. If so, this book comes particularly highly recommended.

Susan Cain’s Quiet is an ingenious, intriguing thesis that turns on its head the prevailing view that introverts are people who are simply not capable of being extroverts, and asks whether we can make the world better by righting its lop-sidedness, and looking at certain things in a different way. It’s worth considering at least, isn’t it?

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The Art of Thinking Clearly – imperfect evolution


I found Rolf Dobelli’s The Art of Thinking Clearly on my bookshelf and I’m not sure where it came from, but it’s a fascinating study of the human mind: specifically, the common thinking errors we make in everyday life. Ever ordered something rank and then forced the food down because you’ve spent good money on it? Then you’ve fallen victim to Sunk Cost Fallacy (after all, the money’s been spent either way). Ever taken credit for a success and then blamed a failure on external circumstances? Well, Rolf Dobelli is here to make you think again about doing these things.

The book has 99 fascinating entries, each only a few pages long, making this the ultimate dip-in read. Dobelli covers everything from Why We Prefer the Wrong Map to No Map At All (Availability Bias) to Why Evil Strikes Harder than Good (Loss Aversion). He invites us to ask ourselves all kinds of odd questions like Would You Wear Hitler’s Jumper? (If not, that’s probably Contagion Bias.) He explains How First Impressions Deceive, Why Those Who Wield Hammers See Only Nails, Why You Shouldn’t Read the News and Why You Have No Idea What You Are Overlooking. There’s so much pause for thought in this little book. With the help of maths (lots of it, but accessibly explained even for those like me who don’t really speak the language) Dobelli explores our species’ imperfect evolution. Like songbirds, who have unknowingly harboured cuckoos’ eggs in their nests for hundreds of thousands of years, we have had bred out of us only those things that really led, in the past, to something terrible. We have been able to get away with error-riddled behaviour and survived, and these errors have therefore survived with us. But many things that once served a purpose in the wild (following the crowd, for example) no longer make sense in a world where innovation pays dividends.

Another reason, Dobelli points out, that we carry on with our thinking errors is that we are wired to persuade others we are right – evolutionarily speaking, that has always been more important than actually being … well, right. And rational. There’s power in persuasion, especially for the purposes of passing on your genes to the next generation. But when it comes to everyday life, Rolf Dobelli makes a convincing case for trying to iron out those thinking errors that naturally plague us all. And he does it in a very entertaining and accessible way. Well worth a read.

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