Book Review: Tokyo

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Tokyo, by Nicholas Hogg, is a story of loss and of the anchors that are grasped when a life is cast adrift. The writing demanded pauses for appreciation. It was a pleasure to read.

Social psychologist Ben Monroe studies group behaviour: the power of community, an individual’s desire to fit in, the benefits and drawbacks of crowd co-operation, and cults. Through his interest in the latter he meets his wife, Lydia. She is a strong willed woman who dismisses her husband when their toddler daughter, Mazzy, nearly drowns whilst in his care. However much Lydia may blame Ben for his momentary lapse it is nothing compared to the blame he heaps on himself.

Rejected by Lydia, Ben leaves her and Mazzy in California, traveling first to England and from there on to Japan. Whilst exploring this teeming yet fragile country he meets a beautiful young woman, Kozue, with whom he has a brief affair. Conflating good sex with love he struggles to forget her when he returns to England:

“this woman could bring me back to life”

Ben writes a book which will make his academic name and is subsequently offered the chance to return to Tokyo as a visiting professor. He persuades Lydia that Mazzy, now aged fifteen, would benefit by joining him there for six months. On her flight out she meets a young Japanese man, Koji. They speak only briefly but, unbeknownst to Mazzy, Koji becomes obsessed with her. It is not his first obsession.

Ben struggles to see his daughter as the beautiful young woman she is becoming. In trying to deal with his superficial perception he misses that underneath she still needs care. He takes to leaving her to pursue his will-o’-the-wisp of Kozue, a distraction that, once again, puts Mazzy in danger.

The style in which this book is written reminds me of Japanese authors I have read with its slightly surreal plot development and imagery. Characters are introduced but remain opaque. The reader is offered only glimpses of their depth, shadows emerging briefly as from behind the paper screen doors of the houses in which they live. Suggestion is powerful and no more is needed.

Japan is brought to life. I loved the observations on the irrelevance of so much that is valued by man:

“The earth moved […] oblivious to the act played out upon its surface”

When Ben visits the Fukushima exclusion zone he observes:

“In a shopping arcade grass shoots up from the steps of an escalator. How quickly the earth reclaims its space from our feeble endeavours.”

From “the safest country in the world”, despite the earthquakes, tsunamis and radiation, the descriptions of Japan darken as the tale progresses. The historical sex trade, where the geishas have morphed into hostesses, is explored alongside the attendant drugs and extortion. As the tension builds this distasteful side of Tokyo is offered up in contrast to the previously lauded order and honesty.

The plot of this story is compelling but it is the psyches of the protagonists that drew me in. The author captures the weaknesses of the middle aged man, the truculent teenager, and the let down wife with brutal honesty. He also takes the reader inside Japan, a country that I have never visited but, having read this book, feel I now know just that little bit better.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Cargo.

Book Review: Tenacity


Tenacity, by JS Law, is a searing thriller set within the confines and traditions of the Royal Navy. The pressure rises when the unstoppable force of  a tenacious investigator meets the immovable object of naval comradeship on board a submarine. The claustrophobic drama which unfolds is breathtaking.

Lieutenant Danielle Lewis, Dan, has just returned to active duty with the Crimes Involving Loss of Life division after a year long sabbatical. She has cut herself off from friends and family in an effort to deal with the fallout from a case she had worked on involving a senior naval officer whom she had single-handedly unmasked as a serial killer. Despite the break, her demons continue to haunt her.

An old family friend who is also her boss calls to inform her that she is to investigate the suicide of a crew member who has hung himself on board the submarine on which he was serving. Although foul play is not suspected the case is complicated by the fact that his wife was viciously attacked and then murdered just days before the crew member took his own life. The wife’s murder is in the hands of the civilian police force and Dan is informed that, although mutual assistance is permitted, she must not become involved in their investigation. It is an order that she struggles with when she sees pictures of the young woman’s body with injuries that are hauntingly familiar.

Her own task is hampered by the unwillingness of the submarine crew to break ranks and talk to her. With the boat due to sail she determines to pursue the case from on board. It soon becomes apparent that being a lone and unwelcome woman, two hundred meters below the ocean’s surface in the overcrowded environment of a working nuclear submarine, puts her in danger with no chance of escape. Desperately she seeks allies, relying on her instincts to decide whom to trust.

The progression of the plot is relentless and compelling. The author brings to life the cramped conditions, the closeness of the crew and their need to work as a team. It is clear that Dan is in over her head in more ways than one. As the reader gasps for air amidst the resentment and derision, willing Dan to somehow survive the relentless verbal and then physical attacks, the action somehow ramps up a gear towards the blistering denouement.

This is a must read for fans of psychological crime thrillers. The unusual setting with its uncompromising laws of the sea make Dan’s lone pursuit of justice seem untenable. That the author produces such a believable and satisfying story in these circumstances is impressive. I do hope that we are offered a sequel.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.


Book Review: If I Knew You Were Going To Be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go


If I Knew You Were Going To Be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go, by Judy Chicurel, is a coming of age story set in 1970’s Long Island in the USA. Despite being populated by chain smoking, hard drinking, drug taking teenagers it has a poignancy that transcends the antipathy these activities may evoke in some readers who have perhaps led more sedate lives. The characters are universal in their hopes and dreams for a better future, their feelings and frustrations portrayed vividly despite the veneer of their rebellious lifestyle.

The protagonist, Katie, is the adopted daughter of parents who frown upon many of her choices, from friends, to habits, to the places she chooses to hang out. In her desire to find a place where she can belong she has taken to frequenting the down at heel cafes and bars, a result of the economic fragility of an area abandoned by the rich when they discovered cheap air travel. The story is set in the summer when Katie and her friends graduate from High School. They are on the cusp of the rest of their lives.

Katie has grown up in this area. She has had friendships at elementary school with the Puerto Ricans who are now drug dealers. She has watched from afar the privileged Dunes with their cashmere sweaters, their clothes never to big, their teeth never crooked.

“Those girls from the Dunes! We envied them, hated them, and wanted to be them, isn’t that always the way? It’s an old song, because those girls are everywhere, in every story, in every life; fairy tale princesses […] Prettier, brighter, lovelier than everyone else, or at least they think so, and they are never fearful of ridicule or laughter or life.”

Katie and her eclectic group of working class compatriots dream of escape from parental displeasure and the confines of a community where they are so well known. Some dream of marriage and babies, a fate which several achieve early. Others eschew this result of unwise couplings seeking abortions. Sex is a hot topic of conversation as they make out on the beach or in the back of cars. This is teenage life at its most raw.

Alongside the growing up and getting out is the shadow of Vietnam which only those who have experienced it can fully understand. The vets are welcomed home but then silently resented when they fail to slot back into the places they once held. Katie has long held a candle for one such boy, Luke, who she dreams of seducing. As she bides her time, believing this summer to be a beginning rather than an ending, she watches as her friends, one by one, move on with their lives.

There were things about this story that I felt were overdone: the constant smoking, the drinking and drugs; but what do I know of the reality of the time?

However, the teenage dreams were memorably intangible yet painfully authentic. The generational disconnect, the importance of friends and the aching need for something more were evoked perfectly.

I loved the denouement. The author wove together all the stories told; treasured memories of experiences, good and bad, that can never be repeated. Who does not look back on this period in their lives with both fondness and regret? Katie’s story reminds the reader of the transience of the present, no matter how important it may seem at the time.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tinder Press.

Book Review: Our Souls at Night


Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf, is an exquisitely written story of aging, loneliness, empathy and the cruelties inflicted by those who should have our best interests at heart. It is a beautiful book despite the sadness it evokes. The sparse prose was a joy to read.

Addie Moore is a seventy year old widow who misses having someone to talk to when she is alone at night. One evening she pays a visit to her neighbour, Louis, a widower of a similar age. She proposes that he come over to spend the nights with her. She is not looking for sex, although this is not ruled out, but rather warmth and companionship. Thus begins a relationship that disquiets many in their small town community and shocks their children.

As Addie and Louis get to know each other better they settle into a routine that suits them well. They find contentment in each other’s company and the strength to rebuff those who criticise what they are doing. Quite a few of their friends are in fact a little envious that they have found happiness at their age. It is their children, their loved ones, who threaten all that they have gained.

Just as parent’s of young children can fail to regard their offspring’s feelings, convinced that only they know what is best for them, so Addie and Louis’s grown children cannot seem to regard their parents as people with regular desires. They see them merely as old and denounce the relationship. It is embarrassing, inappropriate and a threat to their inheritance.

The protagonists in this book are ordinary, everyday folk trying to get by as best they can. What comes to the fore as the tale progresses is how society condemns the elderly to a certain lifestyle and fails to see them as people who want to live rather than merely survive. Both Addie and Louis are of sound mind yet are treated as incapable of wise self-determination.

It is easy to see why each of the characters thinks as they do. They are rounded and believable with a depth that the author provides with a minimum of words. I loved this tale and feel sated by the telling. I recommend it to all.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Picador.

Book Review: All Involved


All Involved, by Ryan Gatiss, hits the reader with a metaphorical punch to the gut. It is raw and bloody, ambushing the senses with its evocation of how little life is valued in gangland LA. This is a story of a section of society where the most powerful currency is fear, fear that is acquired by hurting others.

On April 29th 1992 a jury acquitted three LA police officers of using excessive force to subdue a civilian, Rodney King. The jury failed to reach a verdict on the same charge against a fourth officer. That evening riots began which lasted for six days and caused more than a billion dollars worth of property damage. As the city burned rival gangs seized the opportunity to bolster their power bases and settle old scores.

The reader is introduced to seventeen characters, most of whom are members of gangs or related to them in some way. I had expected to feel some empathy for them, to better understand the anger they would feel at the outcome of the trial which sparked the riots. This is not what I took from this story.

Where the media talks of coloured folk’s anger at another verdict seen to be racially motivated, this tale focuses on those who took advantage of a lawless situation to hide crimes which no one would have the resources to investigate. The maimed and murdered may not have been seen as valuable members of society by the forces of law and order, but neither were they valued by their communities. “If you play, you pay” was their mantra. Most were young, still in their teens. They hunted and killed their rivals, as some do animals, in an attempt to impress.

I read this book and wondered if it was my pale skinned, middle aged, middle class prejudices which kept me cold to the reasons behind these attitudes. However, there were still those who had chosen not to be involved, to live a better life despite their background. Poverty does not have to lead to a demand for ‘respect’ from behind a gun.

The writing is gritty, believable and depressing. In researching his book the author talked to some who were gang members during the riots. His characters reminded me of the hard line Belfast folk from both sides of the sectarian divide at the heart of The Troubles, with their uncompromising views that they believed were worth dying for. Perhaps it is that, from my personal background, which coloured this depiction as such a pointless waste of lives.

Sometimes a book can change a person and this one has certainly made me rethink how I translate the media reports of unrest in America following alleged police brutality of young, coloured men. I am not sure that this is a good thing. I want to consider all people as having some good in them. Too many of these characters came across as fools, desperate for acclaim, void of humanity.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Picador.



Book Review: At the Water’s Edge

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At the Water’s Edge, by Sara Gruen, tells the story of a disparate group of individuals and the damaging effects of the monsters which invade their lives. Set in the remote Scottish Highlands in the last months of the Second World War we are introduced to British, American and Canadian folk who have been thrown together at an Inn on the edge of Loch Ness. Whilst trying to survive the effects of the Nazi monster rumbling across Europe they must each face up to the demons they encounter closer to home. This is a tale of love, loss and a search for peace.

Maddie, Ellis and Hyde have publicly embarrassed Ellis’s father at a high society party in Philadelphia. As a result he has cut them off financially and evicted them from his home. To regain his favour they decide to travel to Scotland where they plan to prove the existence of the Loch Ness monster, something which Ellis’s father had tried to do a decade before. This ill fated attempt brought him fame and then infamy when it was shown that he had faked the pictures he had taken. Ellis believes that if he can capture undisputed footage then he will earn his father’s forgiveness.

This trio of privileged, young Americans use their upmarket contacts to gain passage on a cargo ship crossing the Altlantic in the midst of the war. Maddie is deeply affected by her first taste of the realities of conflict and is discomfited by her husband’s lack of empathy to the suffering around them.

They check in to a remote Inn where Ellis treats the staff as he has always done those at home, expecting them to quietly meet his every need. He becomes angry when they openly display the contempt in which they hold him, retreating into a drunken stupor exacerbated by drugs prescribed for his wife’s nervous complaint. He cites this complaint at every hint of her unhappiness with his behaviour.

The author introduces the Scottish bar staff and customers who each have their own stories to tell. The Inn is a haunt of Canadian lumberjacks who are contributing to the war effort and courting the young women of the area. Ellis and Hyde remain aloof, believing that they are above this hoi poloi. When Maddie starts to befriend those they regard as socially beneath them Ellis accuses her of showing her lack of breeding, of letting them all down.

Maddie is at the centre of the story. As her eyes are opened to the vacuity of her husband’s existence and the worth of her new, Scottish friends she changes. She also comes to realise that the hold her husband has over her will not be willingly relinquished. In these times it was common for women who did not conform to be diagnosed as mentally deranged. Her own mother once threatened her with a lobotomy and now she fears her husband may do the same.

The horrors of the war, the remoteness of the location, and the monsters that men may become are all evoked in the gentle, compelling prose. Alongside is a burgeoning love story as Maddie encounters a world beyond the privileged lifestyle in which she has been a pawn.

I had mixed feelings about the denouement. The rest of the book was a pleasure to read, easy but with plenty to consider. The ending was not to my taste.

This is a well written tale that takes the reader inside the time and place in which it is set. The characters are believable, the plot enjoyable. I suspect that the reservations I have about the ending say more about my cynicism than about the pleasure others may derive from the tying up of the tale.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Two Roads.




Random Musings: On loving and letting go

Seventeen years ago today I gave birth to my elder son. His birth was a very civilised affair. My labour got going in the morning, not too early, so the neighbour who had offered to take my daughter could be summoned without getting her out of bed. It was the weekend so my husband was available to drive me to the hospital. I was admitted, walked around a little, and then pushed my son out just before lunch with no more histrionics than are absolutely necessary to birth a child. He was a healthy, 8lb boy. Once we were cleaned up there was no reason to stay in the hospital so we went home to introduce him to his sister. That afternoon the football team my husband supported won the FA Cup. It was a good day. In so many people’s eyes that was our family complete; a girl and a boy, less than sixteen months apart in age.

Unlike his sister, my second child was an easy baby to care for. Determined to get it right this time I managed to breast feed him for his first year. He would sleep between feeds, or lie within sight of me without grizzling. He seemed settled and happy. There was no jealousy from my daughter. She took the new addition to our family in her stride.

These two children have always been close. When one wished to try a new sport or club the other would go along too. Thus they played football, learned to ride, became Scouts, joined the hockey club, trained at judo together. They were active, intelligent and eager to learn. Early on they developed a strong sense of fair play and became frustrated at the injustices meted out by the adults charged with their care. School was a trial, not for the work which they found so easy and repetitive it often bored them, but for the culture of favouritism.

I wished for my son to enter school early but was denied. When his teachers complained that he did not concentrate in class I pointed out that he always knew the answers to their questions and perhaps needed to be stretched more. They labelled me a difficult mother. Perhaps I am.

The other mothers regarded my son as undisciplined and blamed me. His energy and constant questions appeared to them as rude, unacceptable behaviour. He would stand up for himself against the bullies, their mothers blaming him for aggression although he never went to far. He bruised egos rather than limbs.

Our family unit folded into itself and I shouldered the criticisms as nagging guilt, sure that I was doing what was right for my children but concerned that society would quash their potential with demands for conformity. We had fun, so much fun, but only when alone.

At four years old my son could swim a length of the pool and ride a two wheeled bike. At eight years old we bought him hiking boots and climbed a mountain. He and his sister would storm ahead, eager to meet the next challenge. My husband took them in hand while I lagged behind with their little brother, just as willing but, due to his lesser age and size, never quite as able.

At some point in his teens my elder son’s intelligence overtook mine. How difficult it must be for a child to discover that a parent is not the font of knowledge they have previously appeared to be. I wonder if he felt tricked.

These days I watch my son through the filter he has erected between us. When he chooses I am allowed a glimpse of his world. I see that he has friends, that school has worked him out and can now offer him the opportunity to learn. At home he teaches himself through the resources available on line.

I remain a disappointment to him. Despite having been accepted into university to study Maths I cannot answer his queries on a subject whose challenges he adores. Despite having worked in the IT industry for a decade I cannot teach him to code. He does not understand why I spend my days as I do when he sees that there is so much to learn. He does not understand that my learning is of a more nuanced nature.

I know that the teenage years can be challenging for both parent and child. I ponder if this is nature’s way of enabling independence, making it easier for both to let go. I recognise that I am lucky in so many ways. My son does not indulge in nefarious activities. He enjoys sports, the company of like-minded friends, academic pursuits.

I miss the regard he once had for me. My sadness is selfish. I want for myself, to be a part of his world. He is doing just fine on his own.

As we celebrate this birthday I remember the little boy who once took me by the hand and showed me his world. I hope that, in time, he will allow me to share in a part of it again.

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