Book Review: The Cake Tree In The Ruins

The Cake Tree In The Ruins, by Akiyuki Nosaka (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori), is a collection of twelve short stories set in Japan towards the end of the Second World War. In 1945 the author watched the Allied fire bombing of Kobe kill his adoptive parents. He subsequently witnessed his sister starving to death. These stories are based on his experiences. They are dark and at times savage but this seems apt given the subject matter. Most end on the 15th of August 1945 when Japan surrendered leaving a population numb, subsisting amongst the ruins of the many towns and villages razed.

The collection opens with the tale of a lonely whale that mistakes a submarine for a potential mate. Excited by the thought that he may finally be able to raise a family, he accompanies it as it heads into danger. As with many of the stories this one does not have a happy ending.

The Parrot And The Boy is one of several stories that depicts a human survivor finding solace in an innocent creature. The eight year old protagonist has managed to keep the bird his late father gave him alive despite complaints from neighbours at his use of scarce food. When the town is fire bombed the boy and his parrot find themselves alone in a shelter. The shock of what has happened renders the boy mute, much to the consternation of his talking pet.

Mothers are lost to young children who, unable to grasp what has happened, wait for their return. In My Home Bunker it is a father who comforts a young boy. Before leaving for the front the man had provided his family with a shelter. Here his son goes to remember the work this took and to play out his games of helping defend his country. Unaware of the succour the child derives from this trench under their house, which she had never felt necessary, the mother assumes it is her thoughts and fears that are shared.

The Red Dragonfly and the Cockroach depicts a kamikaze pilot as he faces what will be his final flight. Towards the end of the war Japan was turning anything it could think of into a weapon in an attempt to thwart the evil Allies.

With all the men away fighting, children were required to help with the war effort. A Balloon In August describes how even paper and glue were used to create a device that could carry incendiaries into enemy heartlands.

The lack of food became a serious issue and forced people to take risks, creating bad feeling amongst survivors. The Elephant and its Keeper reminds the reader that humans were not the only creatures affected. As well as the provisions required to keep them alive, there was concern about what would happen if bombs destroyed zoo enclosures and dangerous animals escaped. A decree to kill these innocent yet potential predators became challenging to implement.

The Soldier and the Horse is another story that explores the bond between an animal and the young man tasked with keeping it safe that it may be worked beyond its capabilities for the war effort. Bombs do not just kill people.

The stories are haunting and heart-wrenching but bring to the fore the true horror of war and the effect of propaganda in perpetuating its cruelties. Official bodies talk of heroes and honour while people and other creatures starve or die in brutal circumstances.

As we commemorate the fallen this is a timely reminder of the realities of conflict – one that people in other lands are still living with. There is no glory in enabling such suffering, death and destruction.

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

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Book Review: Browse

Browse: Love Letters to Bookshops Around the World, is a collection of fifteen essays by various writers about what bookshops have meant to them throughout the course of their lives. Opening with an introduction by the book’s editor, Henry Hitchings, each contributor shares their experiences from a diverse selection of outlets that have, in some way, helped nurture and shape their development. The contributions are eclectic in style, preferences and setting. Not all the bookshops mentioned still exist but are fondly remembered.

Secondhand retailers feature, with Ali Smith writing of the treasures to be discovered between pages, not just the words. In a charity shop where she volunteered she has found letters, photographs and poignant inscriptions. A book’s value is not just what someone else will pay for it.

Michael Dirda also writes of a secondhand bookshop he regularly visits although he seeks titles as investments – rare bindings and first editions – to add to his vast collection. His enjoyment of reading has been affected by his job as a reviewer.

“while reading remains a pleasure it’s become a guarded pleasure, tinged with suspicion.”

Ian Sansom writes of working in the old Foyles on Charing Cross Road where he would try to avoid customers. His colleagues would help themselves to stock – this is not the usual dreamy depiction of avuncular booksellers. Despite the somewhat downbeat experience he laments the shiny edifice the shop has since become.

Daniel Kehlmann, on the other hand, prefers a vast, modern and impersonal bookshop that is well organised – he likes to be left in peace to browse. His essay is written in the form of a conversation between two writers and offers many witty observations. On the importance of bookshops in providing authors with an income his character says:

“I live off giving readings and talks. Also teaching sometimes. I teach people who want to write books how to write books that sell so well that you can live off them. I do that because my books don’t sell so well that I can live off them.”

Stefano Benni opens his essay with a poem that concludes:

“Books speak even when they are closed
Lucky the man who can hear
their persistent murmur”

He writes of a bookseller who, if he distrusted a customer’s motives, would refuse to sell to them. It is in these smaller bookshops that the writers get to know the proprietors and recall conversations that led them to books they would not otherwise have discovered. Benni recalls that the bookseller was also a writer and offered him the following advice:

“There comes a time when your work is over and it starts belonging to other people.”

Iain Sinclair writes of the closing of a beloved bookshop, and also of booksellers becoming writers.

“You would think that booksellers would be the last to write bks, surrounded as they are by bestsellers that are now forgotten”

Not all the tales told are positive. Dorthe Nors’s essay recounts a painful bookshop experience when a scathing proprietor ordered her to leave for daring to move her latest publication face out on the shelf.

My favourite essay was by Saša Stanišić in which he writes of his need to find a dealer for his regular supply, one he can trust to offer a quality fix. The depiction of books as drugs is cleverly done, humorous and apt.

The essays are from all over the world and reflect the varied tastes of the authors. Whether they prefer: big shops or small, old books or new, cluttered or well organised outlets, antiquarian or stocking their own latest works; there is a nostalgia for the past that is understandable given the memories evoked. In our current times this did leave me a tad wary – the past is not always rose coloured.

What is clear though is how important bookshops are in widening the perspectives of aspiring writers.

“We have the potential to become greater than the role we’ve been expected to play.”

Many of the recollections of second hand bookshops revolve around treasures found amongst the stacks before the internet offered instant valuations for sellers to compare. I did feel rather sorry for the business owners who lost out. On line sellers are, however, blamed for the decline in the number of bookshops and this is understandably lamented.

As someone who derives pleasure from visiting bookshops but who buys books to read rather than with an eye on resale value, not all the essays resonated. Nevertheless they offer a fascinating window into the eclectic nature of bookshops worldwide, and the preferences of both customers and proprietors.

On writers and the evolving business of book selling, this is an affable and entertaining read.

“A book is not just a product; a book is an experience”

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

Book Review: Soul of the Border

Soul of the Border, by Matteo Righetto (translated by Howard Curtis), is set in the remote and diminished village of Nevada near the alpine border between Italy and Austria. Here the De Boer family have lived for generations, eking out a living growing tobacco on the steep valley terraces. By the end of the nineteenth century the border has been moved, the land changing from Austrian to Italian rule. The high quality tobacco grown in the area is strictly monitored and purchased by the monopolistic Royal Tobacco Company.

Augusto de Boer is married to Agnese. They have three children: Jole, Antonio and Sergio. Each must work relentlessly to grow the crop that keeps them from starvation. The threat of famine and illness have driven many in the region to abandon their land and seek fortunes elsewhere.

To make life a little easier for his family Augusto has found ways to hide and process small quantities of their crop. Following the main harvest he will traverse the mountains and cross the dangerous border to reach the mining towns in Austria. Here he trades his smuggled tobacco for minerals that the exploited miners sneak out from below ground in their bodies. He brings home the valuable silver and copper that he may trade them for food and livestock. It is a dangerous business as customs officials roam the border lands intent on punishing those they regard as robbing The Crown and their wealthy acolytes.

When Jole turns fifteen Augusto decides that she will accompany him on his dangerous journey that someone else may learn the route through the mountains. Several years later, when he has not returned home from a smuggling trip, she sets out with tobacco to make a trade and find out what happened to her beloved if taciturn father. What she learns on this journey will change her forever.

The book is written in three parts. The first sets the scene and explains how the family lives. The second and longest part covers the journey Jole makes, the dangers encountered and the people she meets. The final section details her attempt to return. The perils encountered at home and away are both natural and man made.

The plot progression is, at times, slow with unremitting dangers described in detail, only some of which are actually encountered. There are depictions of the poverty experienced by those whose harsh and poorly rewarded work ensures the wealthy continue to live in comfort. Balancing this bleak outlook is the beauty of the mountains and their natural inhabitants, although these can, at any moment, become life threatening.

In many ways this is a timeless tale of mass exploitation to generate wealth for elites. By establishing and then strictly enforcing borders and laws, to remove hope of improvement for workers, there will naturally be those who turn to subversion. Augusto and then Jole force themselves to face fear and danger for the love of their family. The risks they take may feel worthwhile but ultimately the personal cost is high.

The writing is well structured with keen portrayals of time and place. The premise of the tale may not not be original but it is vividly told.

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

Book Review: Layover

“people’s identities are constructed like birds’ nests. That frantic and fragile. So what? Most of the time, they manage to hold together.”

Layover, by Lisa Zeidner, is the story of a woman going through a breakdown. Claire Newbold is a competent and successful salesperson travelling throughout America to meet with customers who buy medical equipment. She is married to Ken, a cardiathoracic surgeon in Ohio. Their much wanted and tried for young son died following a car accident. Claire is struggling to come to terms with this loss and the impact subsequent events have had on her marriage.

Claire is well used to moving from hotel to hotel via flights and rental cars. She likes to swim in hotel pools when they are quiet. On a business trip she swims for too long and misses her connection. With nothing urgent to return home for, such as collecting a child from daycare, she simply lies down to rest.

Thus begins a period when Claire steps outside of her routine. Something in her has shifted granting her permission to exist groundless and answerable only to herself. She sleeps, she swims, she eats from room service. Not wishing to be traceable by her concerned husband she starts to stay in hotels she has regularly frequented without paying, gaining illicit entry to unused rooms. She continues to keep appointments until this is thwarted by others’ apparent concern for her behaviour.

At one hotel she meets a young man at the small swimming pool and considers why she has remained faithful to Ken.

The reader sees the world through Claire’s eyes as she moves through her days. She has detached herself from expectations, become an unknown travelling through who will not be met again. Thus she can claim to be whatever she chooses at that moment and can say what she thinks. Her honesty appears shocking at times demonstrating how censored everyday actions and conversation can be.

Claire wishes to better understand relationships, to find out more about the husbands of women she encounters, the lovers of the men. There is a voyeuristic element to her stepping inside the lives of almost strangers. However disconnected she feels there is a need to be perceived.

Whilst relishing the anonymity and freedom it grants her, Claire recognises that this period is a coda from which she must eventually extricate herself. When the time comes to return to her life she encounters more difficulties than she had foreseen, not least because Ken has become frustrated by his errant wife’s avoidance and left it to her to contact him. Claire is worrying about potential health issues she has self-diagnosed and believes could be serious.

There is an honest fragility to the sometimes sharp but always authentic prose with its undercurrent of grief and subtle need. Through each of the characters the reader observes how precarious even the most outwardly comfortable of lives can be, each individual’s need for validation. This is a well structured and engaging read.

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

Book Review: The Trilogy of Two

The Trilogy of Two, by Juman Malouf, is a YA fantasy adventure story. The protagonists are identical twins, Sonja and Charlotte, who are twelve years old (I would guess the target audience to be a similar reading age). The girls are musical prodigies who live and perform with a travelling circus. The world created within these pages is dystopian with magic and imagined creatures. The baddies have the upper hand and the twins will be key in fighting against their wicked plans for wider domination.

When the story opens the girls’ place in the circus is threatened by disruptions that occur when they perform. Their mother, a tattooed lady named Tatty, comforts them but will not explain this strange development. The girls are left unhappy and frustrated. The precocious pair are used to getting away with misdemeanours, such as illegal scavenging in the growing rubbish dumps outside the expanding and filthy cities. They wonder if they would be better leaving the circus and going to a School for the Gifted where they could find friends their own age and perhaps become revered musicians.

Another resident of the circus, Tell the Fortune Teller, suggests to the twins that the mysterious occurrences may be a result of magic inside them which they could one day learn to control. Before the girls can consider this further: a cat steals their talents; the circus is raided by Enforcers from the city; Tatty is kidnapped. Tell takes the girls to stay with old friends for their own safety. They discover that few of the people they have grown up around are as they were led to believe.

A great many people are introduced and the action jumps rapidly from place to place: through the Outskirts; to the city; and on to lands where creatures conjured from the author’s imagination reside. These are all evoked in rich and colourful prose although I struggled with the lack of fluidity. A great deal happens as eclectic peoples must be brought together to fight a new evil. To keep the various reveals secret, little is explained at the time – my reading pleasure frequently stalled.

The developing emotions of the twins are well portrayed with their desire to be together but also recognised as individuals. There are fledgling romances and the jealousies these arouse. The key story idea of why the children’s artistic talents are stolen is depressingly believable and rendered effectively.

I was about three quarters of the way through before my reading became effortless (this did not happen with the Mortal Engines series or the Fleabag Trilogy, young people’s fantasy fiction I have previously reviewed). This tale had some innovative underlying tropes and threads but too often failed to hold my attention.

There are illustrations throughout that guide the reader in understanding how the author perceives her characters. My overall impression of these is that they are otherworldly.

For children who enjoy fantasy adventures this is an original slant on the power of self belief and the perceived value of the arts. Impressed as I was with the individual ideas, their joined up realisation did not engage.

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

Book Review: Only Killers and Thieves

“Listen to me now. I’m going to tell you what will happen if we were to let that man live. He will hate us. Not only you and I personally, but all white men.”

“Remember, he will breed also. He will produce a dozen heirs, all with this hatred in their blood.”

“It is laughable, the ignorance of the educated classes, sitting in their parlours and their clubs. The blacks don’t want to integrate. They want us to leave. So either we domesticate them or we kill them”

Only Killers and Thieves, by Paul Howarth, is set on the frontier lands of Central Queensland, Australia, near the end of the nineteenth century. Much of the local area has been claimed by a white man, John Sullivan, whose grandfather first cleared it for the raising of cattle. Sullivan has expanded, taking over settlement after settlement, intent on driving out the indigenous population. To this end he calls on the Native Police Force, employed by the Queensland government, to disperse those who remain. The local force is led by Inspector Noone whose methods are pitiless. He is widely feared.

The McBride family live on a neighbouring settlement. When the story opens the region is suffering a lengthy drought and the teenage McBride boys, Billy and Tommy, are out hunting for food. Against their father’s orders they stray onto Sullivan territory where they observe Noone and his men with captive natives. They are discovered and warned away.

Unlike the cattle kept by Sullivan, which have somehow remained healthy, the McBride livestock are dying. When those that remain are rounded up for selling they do not raise what is needed to provide for the coming year. Tommy watches as his father clashes with Sullivan, who he once worked for. Although the boys are required to help – their father can no longer afford to employ other men – they are given no explanation for the animosity with their neighbour.

All this is set aside when Tommy and Billy arrive home late one afternoon to discover that their parents have been killed. With their little sister grievously injured they turn to Sullivan for help. A native is suspected so Noone is called in. Sullivan coaches the boys in how they should testify thereby making them complicit in the ensuing retribution. Leaving their sister in the care of Sullivan’s young wife they ride out beyond the land claimed by settlers.

This is a vivid evocation of a bloody period in Australian history. It is also a story of family and the challenges faced by pioneers. With their parents dead the teenage boys are left in a precarious situation. Sullivan and Noone offer them a type of protection but it costs the boys dear. Billy looks up to the wealthy Sullivan as a success his father could never hope to emulate. Tommy sees things differently.

Rarely have I read such a powerful account of the racial oppression and abuse perpetrated by those at the forefront of white man’s empire building. It is vivid and disturbing yet never overplayed for effect. The reader is not spared the graphic detail yet the account remains nuanced and balanced. The inhumanity is sickening, and based on fact.

Although a work of historical fiction the story is written as an adventure and a thriller. The tension throughout makes it a compelling read. Each character is rounded and believable, earning their place in the narrative and adding to the readers depth of understanding. Even the most horrifying of actions are portrayed with explanations, the skewed personal justifications for brutal acts of terrorism.

An impressive debut and a timely exploration of the potential impact of dehumanising an entire people. This is an engaging and satisfying read.

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

Book Review: The Peace Machine

The Peace Machine, by Özgür Mumcu (translated by Mark David Wyers), tells the story of an invention designed to bring world peace. Set at the beginning of the twentieth century, when citizens around the world were scheming to overthrow their autocratic rulers, a man living in the country now known as Turkey drew up plans to harness electromagnetic technology and create a mind control machine. He believed that a terrible war was looming and that averting such a crisis was more important than free will.

The protagonist of the story is Celal who uses his unusual strength to save the life of a wealthy stranger. The man then takes him in, raising Celal as his son. The boy makes the most of the opportunities this grants him, although chooses to be a writer rather than study law as his adoptive father wished. Celal writes erotic fiction, circumventing the ban on such output by working with an old schoolfriend, Jean, who lives in France. Jean finds a talented illustrator for Celal’s texts. The books prove popular netting them a sizable income.

As a result of a badly judged decision, Celal must leave his home country. He travels to France where he is told that Jean has been murdered and their money stolen. Whilst investigating this tragedy he finds out about the peace machine and becomes involved in a plan to overthrow a king and queen. To play his part he must join a circus along with the young illustrator.

The story zips around between cast and countries. There is a great deal of fighting and many deaths. Much like the circus in which part of the tale is set, each character plays numerous roles utilising disguise, bluff, costume and trickery. Celal and his associates believe in the worth of the peace machine but cannot shake off the strings of their elusive puppet master whose aims shift as the tides of power change.

“we hold the key to world peace. But if it were to be used in the wrong way, the already warped order that humanity has brought into being would be destroyed. Celal, that’s why the people should rule their countries. […] if people were left to decide for themselves whether or not to go to war, the chance of war breaking out would be slight.”

Persuasive words, smoke and mirrors take Celal on dangerous adventures. Despite the intrigue he remains convinced of the potential of the machine.

The plot is fast moving, original and well structured but I found too many of the characters, particularly the women, two dimensional. Females were introduced only to be lusted after. Even Celal’s love interest, despite her supposedly dominating personality, lacked depth.

The story is allegoric in tone with a darkly magical feel, incorporating trickery and sleight with a touch of the surreal. I enjoyed the weaving of history with the variations in achieving mind control by the wealthy and powerful. There is plenty to consider, especially in today’s world. The denouement remains open to interpretation.

There are positives but for me this was not a satisfying read despite its intriguing premise. Those female characters and the weaknesses they highlighted in the men proved too much of an irritation.

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