Book Review: Secret Passages In A Hillside Town

Secret Passages In A Hillside Town, by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen (translated by Lola M. Rogers), is a quirky tale of a middle aged man whose past comes back to haunt him. Its protagonist is Olli Suominen, a husband, father, parish counciller and head of a small book publishing business based in Jyväskylä, Finland. Olli considers his home town to be a monument to dull ordinariness. His marriage has grown stale and he barely knows his young son.

Olli has recently joined a film club and Facebook. A girlfriend from his teenage years, Greta, connects with him on the social network. Greta has written a bestselling book – A Guide to the Cinematic Life – which Olli’s wife buys him for his birthday. It prescribes a new way of living.

“The deep cinematic self is an artist that sees life above all as an aesthetic construct. It is like the voice of the conscience but instead of moralizing it leads us to make cinematic choices and interpret our roles as well as we possibly can. It also silences the stage fright of slow continuum attachment so that stories can be set in motion and cinematicness can be achieved.”

Olli’s publishing house needs to find a new title that will sell well. When Greta mentions online that her current publisher is unhappy with her ideas for her next book – the first in a series of magical travel guides starting with Jyväskylä – Olli suggests that she could publish with him. This business arrangement soon starts to affect his personal life.

The reader is taken back to the childhood summers Olli spent with his grandparents in Tourula, where he first met Greta. Olli was part of a group who called themselves the Tourula Five; they even had a dog named Timi. The children would spend their days going on adventures, seeking out underground passageways, eating picnics, messing about on the river. It was a thrilling time until it all went horribly wrong.

Olli has disturbing erotic dreams which are described in detail. His real life sexual encounters are also recounted leaving little to the reader’s imagination. The sex scenes were too numerous and graphic for my tastes, but the same could be said of many popular films, and this story is cinematic in style. As happens on screen, sex is regularly conflated with love.

Much of the story seems preposterous but this appears to be the point. A cinematic lifestyle does not require that the script be realistic, only that it be aesthetically memorable, and the writing reflects this.

Greta’s ideas, which include the existence of mood particles in certain places that affect behaviour, are granted potency. The power of suggestion and the adoption of fads is mocked throughout. When characters become inconvenient they are written away without consequence.

Two denouements are offered for the reader to choose from allowing film preferences to be catered for. The big reveal adds a little depth to the somewhat fantastical plot.

This is a story that encapsulates adventure, mystery, romance, fantasy and comedy with references to the numerous films it parodies. As a whole it is kooky, which at times I found irritating, but despite this it somehow works.

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

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Book Review: Enemies of the People

Are you happy with the way our current crop of politicians and their influencers are running the world? Do you believe Brexit will make Britain Great, that Trump is good for the USA? If so then this book may not be for you, unless you wish to gain a better understanding. It offers, in bite sized chunks, key facts about those who helped create the situation in which we find ourselves today.

Enemies of the People, by Sam Jordison, is divided into fifty short chapters dedicated to those who have worked tirelessly to further their personal agendas at such potentially devastating cost. These include the usual subjects – Vladimir Putin, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Nigel Farage, Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump – as well as the men and women who inspired their skewed ways of thinking. There are unexpected names – Pepe the Frog, Jesus Christ, Chris Martin, Mel Gibson, Simon Cowell, Your Granny. Although dealing with weighty subjects the content is not entirely sober and serious.

I was familiar with the majority of the names but not all of the information included. This is an important point to make. Although partisan in presentation the information has been verifiably sourced and makes for interesting reading, even for someone who tries to keep up with current affairs.

I learned that there is an inheritance of ideas, cherry picked and repolished but undoubtedly affecting decision making over decades. Country-wide catastrophe means little when personal power is at stake, when there are private fortunes to be made. Who says we learn nothing from history? These people have learned plenty from their predecessors and don’t care that their actions cause untold damage to those they purport to represent.

As well as politicians there are economists, religious leaders, writers, advisers and media figures. The common thread is the impact of their actions on the general population, and how most have got away with such behaviour. Methods of manipulating public thinking are among the most valued of skills. Wider suffering is shown to be of little interest to the perpetrators.

I bought this book for my seventeen year old son who is developing his own political views. The historical perspective, accessible language and concise structure will, I hope, offer him a wider perspective than he is picking up from popular web-sites, YouTube channels and the family influenced conversations of his peers. The book is witty without being bland, angry but on point. It does not attempt to offer answers but encourages readers to pay more attention, and not just to the dead cat on the table or Kim Kardashian West’s shoes.

Intended to provide a snapshot of our times rather than a roll call of evil the author states:

“I can’t pretend to be objective. In fact, I can’t pretend to be anything other than royally cheesed off. I’ve seen the world I love torn to shreds and I wish it hadn’t happened.”

If the enemies listed here can learn from history, so too can readers. This perfectly sized stocking filler offers as good a place as any to begin the conversation.

Enemies of the People is published by Harper Collins.

Book Review: The Second Body

This review was written for and originally published by Bookmunch.

The premise of this essay by Daisy Hildyard is that every living being has two bodies – the physical body that can eat, drink and rest, and a body embedded in a worldwide network of ecosystems. Its purpose is to explore what the author calls the second body, and the alleged boundaries between all kinds of life on earth. It is not altogether clear if she is attempting to prove a conclusion she has already reached or to discover something new.

Her musings and anecdotes are wrapped around interviews with a number of individuals: staff working in a butcher’s shop; a criminologist specialising in wildlife crime; a PhD candidate working on micro biology; a senior researcher studying bio information; an evolutionary biologist. The author admits that she does not always fully understand the detail what these experts in their fields tell her.

There are repeated references to an Earthrise image which the author credits with making people consider the world as a single entity, something she appreciates herself when flying to a holiday destination. She also brings up climate change but does not make clear the point this raises, other than when she blames it for the flooding of her home.

“The river was in my house but my house was also in the river.”

To be clear, I make no argument against climate change but its inclusion in this essay comes across as a throw in.

There are mentions of the ordinary in her interviewees’ lives – opera, gaming, washing dishes – as if there is a need to prove empathetic aspects of the human condition. The author is seeking a definition yet fails to make clear the reasons for inclusion of certain subjects along the way.

She comes at the same points from numerous directions.

Each human being, as an entity, is made up of the same parts. However they look, when cut they bleed. The same could be said of other beings. Defining the boundaries between species can at times appear arbitrary. Each takes inside itself parts of others in food, air particles, water. A body expels skin, hair and other substances which are inhaled, absorbed or fertilise other living things. Around the world this process has an effect. Everything is in a relationship with everything else.

An individual’s impact on the world is consumption of resources and expenditure of waste, not what their life story may be. The human body replaces itself over time, shedding and renewing cells, yet each body is regarded as one separate being.

“This critical tradition speaks of psychology, the unfathomable depths of the individual, cultural identity and private individuality.”

There is symbiosis between cells, animals, people. Not everything acts purely in its own best interests. There is invasion, dependence and loss. Even amongst bacteria there is collaboration.

The author explores the boundaries between our first and second bodies as she seeks her definition. Interspersed with her commentary are musings on personal experiences, on Shakespeare, on death.

Any Cop?: There were interesting aspects but overall the essay lacked coherency and innovation. I expected something more than a somewhat rambling discourse on man’s place within the natural world.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Ms Ice Sandwich

Ms Ice Sandwich, by Mieko Kawakami (translated by Louise Heal Kawai), is a short novel about a young boy’s infatuation with a woman he observes working behind the sandwich counter at a busy supermarket. He is drawn to her eyes, the lids of which are ice-blue. He is fascinated by her attitude, the aloofness with which she treats her customers being so at odds with the typical obsequiousness of service industry employees in Japan. Over the course of a summer he visits the supermarket each day to watch as she slips sandwiches into bags and hands out change. He saves his money that he may purchase the products she sells and thereby get close enough to speak.

When school resumes he cannot spend as much time watching the woman he has named in his head Ms Ice Sandwich. Nevertheless she remains on his mind. He tells his grandmother all about her and draws pictures of her face, painting in the ice-blue eyelids. Grandma is a good listener as she lies in her bed, unable to interact, waiting to die. The boy’s mother is too distracted by her work to converse about more than daily essentials. Peers have their own obsessions, the reasons for which are rarely understood or appreciated.

The boy has a school friend, Tutti, who enthuses about the foreign movies she watches with her dad. She has invited the boy to join them one evening to share a favourite film although a date has yet to be agreed. The boy would like to tell Tutti about Ms Ice Sandwich, especially when other classmates make derogatory comments about her looks. He cannot find the words. When Tutti finds out how he feels she is saddened but advises him to act.

Each of these characters has family and friends yet are portrayed as isolated. What matters to an individual is put at risk when its importance is shared with someone else. The boy does not wish to be laughed at, to have his feelings mocked. Tutti offers him a place in her world, which he is grateful for even if he cannot match her enthusiasm for her interests.

A deftly written, unusual tale of the changes life inevitably brings. Although emotive it is never sentimental. The story touches on universal attitudes, the desire to belong, and the difficulties of conveying what is deeply felt. It is a thought provoking, satisfying read.

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

Book Review: Compass

Compass, by Mathias Enard (translated by Charlotte Mandell), narrates the thoughts of a middle aged academic as he spends a sleepless night in his apartment in Vienna. Franz Ritter is a musicologist suffering from insomnia. He believes he is ill, possibly dying, although doctors have yet to diagnose any specific ailment. As he lies in his bed he thinks back over key events in his life. These include travels in the Middle East, acquaintances he spent time with there, and his obsession with a woman he has been friends with for many years. Franz met Sarah, another academic, when she was working on her thesis for her PhD. She has since gone on to enjoy success in her field. Despite being an intelligent, articulate and personable colleague, Franz regards her through the lens of desire. He has an image of how she should look and behave, expressing annoyance when she diverges from this construct. His supposed love for her is based on possession; he grows jealous when she expresses interest in other’s work.

As the night progresses Franz recounts conversations and adventures with other colleagues, many of them fellow academics. They take themselves and their work very seriously, assuming each will be remembered for what they regard as important contributions to obscure studies. Franz is often condescending, self-aggrandising and self-pitying. When Sarah laughs at his habits and conceits he feels hard done by. When others show an interest in Sarah he develops a dislike for them.

Despite travelling extensively himself, Franz complains of the activities of tourists in Vienna. His arrogance would be amusing if this story were not so heavy. Franz’s melancholic nature permeates each rambling recollection. There is a huge amount of detail provided. Some of this is interesting if sieved from the surrounding asides.

As with anyone’s tired night-time thoughts, the discourse wanders. Franz considers the lives of musicians and composers alongside the histories of Middle Eastern countries. He remembers his encounters with eastern natives and the reactions of the westerners he travelled with. All are explored in depth, piecemeal, alongside his memories of Sarah. The night drags on, as did my progress through these pages.

It was not the quality of the writing but rather the garrulous pretentiousness of the narrator that stifled engagement. Franz’s devouring passions may be interesting but were drowned by the relentless intensity with which he shares. He is easy to dislike with his opium habit, hypochondria, and treatment of female colleagues. Given this, the denouement was unexpected.

“better to publish well-chosen, brief articles than vast works of erudition”

A book about an insomniac that offers a cure for insomnia; reading this felt like hard work. There is much about the Middle East that piqued my interest, but I felt relief when I turned the final page.

Compass is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Book Review: Playing Possum

“It’s pastiche. Don’t underrate it.”

Playing Possum, by Kevin Davey, is a clever and playful murder mystery written largely using quotes from and references to other artistic works. The dialogue is script-like, interspersed with narrative ensuring the action required is understood by the players. Many of the characters appear to be based on real life subjects. An audience watching the film being made is mentioned along with scenes that will subsequently be deleted. This unusual structure required a degree of reader awareness. I have no doubt that I did not appreciate much of the amusing cleverness.

The protagonist is Thomas who is married to Fanny and living in London in 1922. They argue noisily and regularly, much to the chagrin of their neighbours. One evening an altercation goes too far and Thomas pushes his wife causing her to hit her head and become disorientated. What he does next is portrayed in the manner of a silent movie with the speeded up action and comic touches of panic and escape.

Ninety years later a man is engaged to re-investigate the murder. Interested parties in Whitstable, where Thomas flees, hope to use whatever is uncovered as a draw for tourists. The man retraces Thomas’s footsteps, researching locations alongside evidence and reports from the original investigation. The story is told as if the two men are travelling together, the differing timelines irrelevant.

“In the auditorium, here on the page, wherever and whenever we read, we experience the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous.”

Kent in 1922 was struggling with the aftermath of the recent war. Soldiers had returned from the conflict to find they lacked homes and work. The country, struggling financially, was trying to cut wages, an action being contested by the growing Labour movement. Thomas ends up in Whitstable rather than Cliftonville, where he was heading, due to workers protests. As ever, the wealthy have little sympathy for those in need.

Back in London the body of a young woman is discovered. Thomas and Fanny’s neighbours become concerned when they are able to enjoy a peaceful night in.

A film crew are at work in Whitstable at the time Thomas is staying but show little interest in the various troubles brewing. There are many instances where the action turns meta.

“Why isn’t anyone making a film about this – the postwar crusade of our picturesque proletariat?

Tom is thinking what would be the point? Hope doesn’t come from people who march in step.”

The tale is divided into sections with titles that would be typical of those that appear on silent movie cards used to switch scenes:

INTERLUDE: IN A BAR

MAKE THE BANKERS PAY!

THE KILLER RETIRES TO HIS ROOM

There is a bedroom scene with a hotel maid, where body doubles are employed for “The usual hayroll”. Much of the action takes place in two hotels facing each other, pictures of which are included on the inside covers of the book. Like much of what goes on they existed, a real life basis for this fictional retelling.

Thus we have a murder, the hiding of the body, an escape by train, an unscheduled stopover in a hotel, a night of passion, an arrest. All of this is presented using literary and cinematic references in the style of a silent film. It is clever and fun but a tad confusing due to the merging of timelines. Much enjoyment may be lost if the references are not recognised, the cleverness understood.

I am wary of a work of fiction that relies on the reader having prior knowledge. The story may work without but its essence would be missed. For those familiar with the arts over the last century, creatives lives as well as their work, this will doubtless be a romp to be relished. Those without such knowledge are unlikely to be as impressed.

Playing Possum is published by Aaaargh! Press.

Book Review: Blue Dog

This review was written for and originally published by Bookmunch.

Louis de Bernieres’ short novel, Red Dog, was loosely based on the true story of a Kelpie cattle dog that travelled around Western Australia’s Pilbara region in the 1970s. The book was adapted for film and proved popular in the legendary canine’s home country. Although little can be confirmed about Red’s origins, a prequel was commissioned and this film released in 2016. It covers the imagined early days of the Pilbara Wanderer, known during this time as Blue. Louis de Bernieres was approached by the filmmakers about novelising the story. Although initially hostile to the idea, the author changed his mind when he read the script. He writes of Blue Dog:

“Novelists are routinely appalled and dismayed by what scriptwriters and film directors do to their stories. I have therefore been completely shameless about diverging from the script, excellent though it is, because revenge is sweet.”

The story opens with an eleven year old boy, Mick, being flown to the bushland area of Pilbara where he is to live with his paternal grandfather following the death of his father. Mick’s mother has suffered a breakdown and is being cared for back in Sydney where the boy was raised. Mick is eager to explore his new surroundings after his Granpa installs him in his father’s old room. The farm is staffed by a mix of natives and incomers, all men.

The practicalities of living in such a remote region result in Mick being granted freedom to roam and lessons in fixing anything that is damaged or that breaks. Whilst he enjoys adult supervision his activities involve helping out and learning independence. He rebuilds a motorbike which he is then permitted to ride. He learns to recognise and respect the wide variety of local wildlife.

In the wake of a cyclone Mick rescues a puppy from a flooded creek. He calls it Blue and it soon settles with the farm residents. Blue joins Mick on his many games and adventures. The dog is unimpressed when a woman is engaged as Mick’s tutor and keeps the boy inside for lessons.

Boy and dog mature with both discovering an interest in the opposite sex. Granpa meanwhile has worries of his own – rumours of a buyout for the farm and potential health issues.

The story is aimed at twelve year olds and this age group will likely regard the liberty Mick is granted appealing. It is somewhat Boy’s Own in aspect, although Granpa enjoys his rum and occasionally forgets himself in conversations with Mick. This adds to the humour; there is no inappropriate content. Emotions are acknowledged lightly as are the aboriginal culture and its loss at the hands of white settlers.

The denouement asks more of Mick than any of his challenges living in the bush. Blue’s reaction places the tale as the prequel it was intended to be.

As one would expect from an author of this stature, the writing is fluent and engaging. It certainly appealed to this adult reader. There are regular illustrations that add to the sense of place. I was also delighted by the little blue dogs on each top right hand page which move playfully when the book is flicked through at speed.

Any Cop?: A story of a boy more than his dog but one that charms without descending into schmaltz. It is good sometimes to read of the positives in human nature.

 

Jackie Law