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: 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: The Beauties

The Beauties, by Anton Chekhov (translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater), is a collection of thirteen, freshly translated short stories, presented in a beautifully bound edition of this esteemed writer’s work. The book is slightly smaller than a standard paperback with a textured cover, french flaps and clear print on quality paper. It is an ideal size and weight to carry and to hold. I mention these physical attributes as they are notably pleasing – fitting given the title.

The stories inside offer the reader insight into why Chekhov is considered one of the greatest writers of short fiction. They also provide a window into the mindset of the Russian people before mass industrialisation. There is cruelty and hypocrisy but also desire and a search for meaning. The private lives the characters live, their thoughts and aspirations, are timelessly relevent.

The collection opens with The Beauties, in which a schoolboy is travelling with his grandfather across the dusty steppe in summer, pausing for rest and refreshment at the home of a land worker. Here the boy meets a young woman whose unconventional beauty moves him, not with desire but a kind of sad longing that draws him, and the other men in the vicinity, to observe her every move. Several years later the boy, now a student, has a similar experience at a railway station. The imagery places the reader alongside the narrator as he recounts the feelings engendered by these encounters, the melancholy they create.

The Man In A Box tells the tale of a teacher whose habitual behaviour is regarded as odd by his aquaintances. When an additional teacher is sent to the village, bringing with him an unmarried sister, a plan is hatched.

“What a lot of things get done out of pure boredom, in the provinces – unnecessary, pointless things! […] I mean, why did we have to marry off Belikov all of a sudden, when you couldn’t even imagine him married?”

A Day In The Country depicts beauty in its knowledge and descriptions of plant and animal life. This contrasts with the harshness of the lives of the poor, who still manage small kindnesses. The man portrayed is unusual within this collection in not being entirely self-absorbed. He notices those in need and gives without fuss.

Several of the stories explore the temptations their married protagonists succumb to, even those who claim to regard their spouses with some affection. Being admired anew changes how both men and women view their families, the excitement of ardent attention proving hard to resist.

Marriage is presented in several stories as a restrictive burden, love as a feeling that is unlikely to last. In About Love parents try to trick a young suitor into accepting their daughter as his wife. In Grief a long married husband is fighting his way through a blizzard to get his wife to a doctor, driven by guilt and duty more than compassion. The beating of wives is commonplace. The casual cruelty meted out to animals upsetting to read.

The Bet is about man’s greed and egotism. During a drink fuelled debate, a wealthy banker challenges a young lawyer to endure fifteen years of solitary confinement in exchange for a hefty reward. Both men learn difficult truths about themselves as this time progresses. Their knowledge is unlikely to be put to use.

The final story, The Kiss, tells of an unassuming army officer who has no experience with women, and the effect on him of an accidental kiss. His outlook changes despite circumstances remaining the same. Hope is shown to be a powerful force.

The writing throughout is precise, almost simplistic, yet the insights offered have abiding depth. Few of the characters are wholly likeable yet they arouse a degree of empathy. These are snapshots of flawed humanity viewed through a studied, concise lens. They were a pleasure to read.

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

Book Review: The Evenings

The Evenings, by Gerard Reve (translated by Sam Garrett), is a book about one man’s ennui. Set in post war Amsterdam, its protagonist is twenty-three year old Frits van Egters, an office worker still living with his parents. The story follows his day to day existence over the course of a few weeks in December. His actions, mostly banal, are presented in hour by hour detail. There are repeated references to the clock as he watches time slowly pass, frustrated by his lack of fulfilment.

Frits leads an ordinary life in every sense. He cycles to and from work, prepares food or eats with his parents. He calls in on friends, visits the cinema, seeks company then counts the minutes until he can leave.

Frits is not a pleasant character, although this view is exacerbated by the detail of his private thoughts which few would ever share. He treats his parents with contempt, insults his friends with impunity. Uncomfortable with silence when with others, his conversation is often offensive.

Amongst his friends there is cruelty, in word and deed. A dog is tortured, the young men exchange anecdotes about the deaths of children, they imagine how they would choose to kill. As a young boy, Fritz dismembered insects and took fish out of water just to see how they would cope, how long they would live. He states that women are ‘defective, deplorable creatures’. He advocates the culling of all those over sixty.

Much of what he says is taken as humour by his friends who, despite knowing he failed at school, consider him a thinker. Fritz has a relentless preoccupation with baldness coming up with many wild theories for its cause and prevention.

In the privacy of his home Fritz will examine himself in front of mirrors. Despite deploring his parents’ slurps and unhygienic practices, he too has distasteful personal habits. He sleeps long hours when he has the opportunity and suffers vivid, violent dreams.

I found the telling repetitive, a book about boredom that I wanted to end. In the Absence of Absalon, by Simon Okotie, proved that the meticulous detail of a life can be portrayed with humour. Unlike that perspicacious tale, I found this soulless.

Other reviewers have described this book as funny and it is not the first time I have failed to see the vaunted humour in a portrayal. The voice and structure cannot be faulted, the setting and imagery impress, but this was not a book I enjoyed reading.

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

Book Review: Resurrection Bay

Resurrection Bay, by Emma Viskic, is the first in a proposed series of crime thrillers featuring Caleb Zelic. Set in and around Melbourne, Australia, it opens with the brutal murder of the protagonist’s friend, Gary, who the police then insist must have been involved in some dodgy dealings. Caleb has known Gary since they were children and refuses to believe this can be true. He sets out to find the culprits, and their motive, for himself.

In a packed genre the author has succeeded in creating an original lead character. Caleb is deaf but determined to prove that he can cope independently in a hearing world. His reluctance to accept help, or admit when he is struggling, has cost him his marriage. Now he finds that his continuing love for his ex-wife, Kat, can be used against him.

Kat is a talented artist of Koori descent. They grew up a few streets apart in Resurrection Bay. In this small community, where everyone takes an interest in each other’s business, it can be hard to keep secrets. With the death count rising Caleb starts to question his innate ability to read body language. He is unsure who he can trust, including his brother, Anton, a recovering drug addict.

Together with his business partner, Frankie, Caleb attempts to work under the far-reaching police radar to uncover what Gary had been working on and if, as he suspects, this led to his death. Gary had made a series of frantic phone calls, including to Anton and Frankie, so knew his life was in danger. Caleb comes to realise that whoever took his friend’s life may wish him to meet a similar end.

The denouement is bloody with an excellent twist. There were perhaps a few too many threads thrown out before it all came together but this did keep me guessing. The pacing was balanced whilst maintaining the tension. The writing flowed effortlessly which always takes skill.

Enjoyable and compelling with sufficient originality to keep this popular style of storytelling fresh. A recommended read for all crime thrillers fans.

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

Book Review: Karate Chop

Karate Chop, by Dorthe Nors (translated by Martin Aitken), is a collection of fifteen stories exploring ordinary people and situations they encounter, with incisive wit and perception. The Danish author has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. This is a rebound edition of a selection of their shorter works.

The snapshots of life offered up are varied, as are the protagonists. All are recognisable and relateable. There is a cogency, a poignancy to the prose. An undercurrent of isolation and the frailty of human interactions pervades.

The Buddhist tells of a man whose job requires him to write speeches for a government minister. When his wife leaves him he decides that he will turn to Buddhism, thereby gaining insight from the pain. He no longer wishes to spread lies so writes an article for a national newspaper exposing the deceits in which he has been complicit. He harbours delusions of grandeur believing his actions, inspired by Buddhist teachings, could change the world. As time passes he becomes increasingly selective in following his ideals. The circle turns.

The Winter Garden is narrated by a young boy caught between divorcing parents. Wanting to please, he lives first with his mother then his father, feeling distanced when they introduce new partners who have their own children. The special regard he felt for each parent is stripped away when he realises he is not uniquely valued. Opinions, once sought, lose their impact.

The Big Tomato offers a story of hope amongst displaced people. This is a gentle tale of burgeoning friendships and appreciation of kindnesses shared.

Duckling is narrated by a young girl facing the hypocrisy of her caring but opinionated father.

“Dad had his boxes and he put things away in them, even things that contradicted each other.”

The smooth surface of family life relies on much being left unsaid.

Female Killers shares the private thoughts of a husband when alone late at night, his wife in bed. The reader may decide if, as no action results, his musings are harmless or grotesque.

Flight is a tale of loss told by a wife whose husband has left her. In trying to deny the hurt she feels, an emptiness is created. Moving on from a situation when change was not desired proves challenging.

The Heron is set in a park and offers glimpses of those passing through. Of note are approaching mothers pushing their baby carriages with intent.

“They always come in flocks, great flocks of mothers, and they stir up bad feelings in one another.”

The storyteller suspects that the stony mothers regard him as they would a sickly heron he has observed – tired and sallow, often in the way. He thinks of showing kindness to their babies but recognises the impossibility of such behaviour given the mothers’ demeanour.

She Frequented Cemeteries tells of a love story that is insular, perhaps unrequited. The protagonist is nevertheless contented but has no wish to share her new formed feelings with friends. She suspects they may demand that she regard her valued happiness differently. As in so many areas, the unusual is treated with suspicion.

These stories are concise, just a few pages each in length. They offer circumstances and concepts that the reader may then interpret. There is much to ponder in the difficulties being faced. An empathetic, rewarding little read.

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

Book Review: School of Velocity

School of Velocity, by Eric Beck Rubin, is a story of music, love, and the abiding impact of close childhood friends. Told in the first person by fictional pianist Jan de Vries, it opens at a concert where he is struggling to hear the music he needs to play above the cacophony that pounds inside his head. Back in his apartment he packs a bag, not intending to return.

The reader is taken back to when Jan starts at his first arts school near his parents’ home in the Netherlands. Here he meets Dirk who proceeds to woo Jan’s girlfriend. Dirk is wild and dangerous, in thought and deed. The quiet and diligent young musician is lured inside the outrageous and confident boy’s web, and finds himself smitten.

Jan and Dirk become best friends, meeting after school and spending weekends together. As the school years pass they experiment with the pastimes many teenage boys brag of – alcohol, porn, drugs and sex. When they graduate they believe that glittering futures beckon. Although they will now continue their training in different countries, Jan is confident their closeness will endure.

Jan fills the gap created by Dirk’s absence with music, determined to fulfil his potential. Abroad Dirk becomes something of an enigma. When they meet again the balance of power has shifted, although Jan is unaware to what extent.

The writing is finely tuned and lyrical, presenting life with all its self-absorption and contradictions. Jan regards Dirk only in relation to himself, never considering the impact others have had along the way.

Jan’s development as a pianist is beautifully portrayed offering appreciation of the emotional depths music can provide for both player and listener. This depth is also present in the subtlety and insights of the prose. The story is captivating, affecting, a pleasure to read.

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