Category Archives: Modern Literature

Before the Coffee Gets Cold: Tales from the Cafe

Before the Coffee Gets Cold

by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

by Toshikazu Kawaguchi (translated by Geoffrey Trousselot)

The next in my occasional forays into the works of non-English writers introduced me to a world of fantasy unlike any I have encountered before. Japanese writer Toshikazu Kawaguchi certainly knows how to spin a tale and manages to squeeze a lot of story into the book’s 192 pages. 

This is his second novel, the first, “Before the Coffee Gets Cold”, was adapted from an award-winning play. I haven’t read the first book yet but don’t feel I have missed anything as this is fairly self-contained.

It is actually a collection of four short stories all set in the Funiculi Funicula cafe, tucked away down a Tokyo side street. The cafe boasts not only good coffee and company, but also a unique opportunity for customers to travel in time. There are some very strict rules to this particular service, the most important that you must return to the present before the coffee gets cold. 

For each of the four customers whose stories are told here, there are deeply personal reasons for wanting to travel in time. They may be unable to change what has or will happen, but they are each drawn to the opportunity this experience offers to reassure themselves and the ones they love.

I won’t lie, at first I was not sure I was going to enjoy this book. It took a little while for me to come to terms with the premise and the characters, but once I did I was hooked. Toshikazu has a simple and direct style of writing that gives the story a real pace and the characters are well defined and likeable. 

Although each of the tales is self-contained, the relationships between the characters and their individual arcs bind the collection together impeccably. 

Like most other translations I struggled with the character names, but thankfully the publishers include a “relationship map” that I found invaluable. 

 

The First Bad Man

The First Bad Man

by Miranda July

by Miranda July

Picking up a book by a new-to-me author brings with it a mix of excitement and mystery. This is particularly true when all the chatter around it make the sort of claims this book has attracted. Judging by the quotes that emblazon the cover and leading pages, this is a novel that will leave an indelible mark on my soul. 

Mind you, if I have learned anything from a lifetime as a book addict, it is to be wary of such self-promotion. In fac, CanonGate has included so many glowing testimonials that they ran out of room to print even a brief synopsis.

For anyone who needs to know, the book follows a year in the life of Cheryl, a single woman in her forties, whose stable and routine life is just about to be turned upside down. There is no great tragedy, just the arrival of her boss’ daughter, Clee. 

It is difficult to describe what follows. As Cheryl tells her story in a frank and open way, we see the complex relationships that glue her life together become unstuck.

The characters we come across are all as mixed up as Cheryl herself, some more so. Whilst the book has its moments of both comedy and tragedy, for me, it just didn’t come together in the way I would have liked. For one thing, I never really felt much empathy for any of the characters. Even poor Cheryl, who tries so hard to do the right thing I found it hard to like.

One thing that does come across is the inherent instability of everyone in her life. Even her doctor and psychiatrist really need professional help.

I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy the book. It is well written and at times very entertaining. For me though, it was over-hyped. I had been led to expect a book that would change my life. Instead I found a story I couldn’t fully relate to, populated with characters I didn’t understand.

The First Bad Man is an interesting read, just not one I would feel comfortable recommending to friends. 

Us Three

Us Three

Us Three by Ruth Jones

by Ruth Jones

Anyone who has seen Ruth Jones’ TV work on Stella and Gavin & Stacy will already be aware of her gentle but sharp observational comedy. She has a way of capturing the humour in everyday situations with her clever use of language and her eye for detail.

In Us Three she does this in spades. It is a touching story of three girl’s lifetime bond, sometimes stretched but never completely broken. Lana, Catrina and Judith are very different girls from diverse backgrounds, but they become the closest of friends through shared experiences and a bond that goes beyond the obvious. They support each other through family tragedies and the angst and turmoil of adolescence. They are inseparable, or so it seems.

Throughout their childhood, they have never been apart. Then comes university and things begin to change. There are new friendships and relationships that challenge the status quo. Their love for each other remains, but cracks begin to show.

For me, this is one of those books I couldn’t put down once I had started it. As Larna, Cat and Judith face love and heartbreak together I felt envious of their relationship with each other. One of the things I like about Ruth’s work is that she doesn’t sugarcoat things. The highs and lows of the three friends are realistic. Friendships are not always easy to maintain. Sometimes it takes work. And betrayal, whether it is real or imagined, hurts all the more because of it. 

It is an endearing story that examines the strengths and weaknesses of female friendship. It is warm, uplifting and brutally honest. This could be the story of any group of young women anywhere, but as always, Ruth Jone writes about the people she knows best – the Welsh. You can almost hear the comforting Welsh lilt in the dialogue. 

A great book.

White Teeth

White Teeth

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

by Zadie Smith

White Teeth is Zadie Smith’s acclaimed debut novel, and what a great debut it was. It was published to much critical acclaim and is as relevant today as it was back in 2000. It is not the first of her books I have read but is undoubtedly the best so far.

It tells the story of two unlikely friends and their dysfunctional families across three generations. Concentrating on three points during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, we are introduced to the most mixed-up set of characters outside of a TV soap. 

It is a chance meeting during the later stages of the Second World War that first bring Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal together. Thirty years later, and both with young wives, the pair are reunited. Their shared experience creates a bond that will last a lifetime, but it a friendship not without its problems. Struggling with the challenges of parenthood, the old friends follow very different paths.

Taking up the reigns of the story, the next generation of Jones’ and Iqbal’s face very different challenges.  

What I really liked about this book was the way that cultural clashes between the characters highlight the struggles within multicultural Britain through the decades but in a very amusing way. There is comedy in even the most serious of situations and in White Teeth, Zadie Smith captures it perfectly. There are plenty of laughs but also some touching insights into how the various prejudices and assumptions on every side impact our relations.

White Teeth is a compelling yet surprisingly easy read. The subjects tackled by Zadie are as serious and relevant today as they ever were, but the way she deals with them is more entertaining than preaching. 

As an introduction to Zadie Smith’s writing, this is as good as it gets. It is a book I would happily recommend to anyone. 

The Island

The Islandby Victoria Hislop

When this book was passed on to me I was told simply that I would love it. Reading the synopsis, I wasn’t so sure, but then you can’t always judge a book but it’s cover.

The story begins when Alexis Fielding, holidaying on Crete with her boyfriend, takes time out to visit the village of Plaska to see an old friend of her mother’s. Alexis’ mother, Sophie, was born on the island but has kept her past a closely guarded secret, even from her daughter. Alexis soon begins to learn the truth behind her connections to not only Crete but also the former leper colony of Spinalonga.

In the spring of 1939, the Petrakis family are about to be torn apart when much-loved schoolteacher and beloved mother of Maria and Anna, Elenia, is forced to leave her home and take the one-way journey to Spinalonga.

The inhabitants of Spinalonga live an isolated and peaceful existence, but nothing can hide the toll that mankind’s oldest disease can take on those who unfortunately contract it. Whilst the family are spared the worst of Elenia’s suffering, they soon face new troubles when your Maria is diagnosed with leprosy.

Anna is now married into a wealthy family but there are problems brewing and their father, Giorgis doesn’t know how to health either of his daughters.

The outbreak of war brings research into a cure for leprosy to a halt, prolonging the suffering of those living on Spinalonga.

The Island is a story of love, heartbreak, prejudice and determination. It challenged my preconceptions about leprosy and introduced me to the history and people of Crete. It is entertaining as well as thought-provoking. I loved the characters and their intricately woven lives.

 

Great Small Things

Small Great Thingsby Jodi Picoult

Reading Small Great Things made me angry!

Now I know that may not be the way you would expect a positive book review to start, so I suppose I really need to explain myself.

You see, if there is one thing that is guaranteed to get my hackles up, it’s blatant injustice. I am by and large a tolerant, liberal-minded person. I always look for the good in people and am willing to see the best. When I see innocent people suffer at the hands of institutions, governments or individuals for no good reason I find myself wanting to do nasty things to those behind it all. To read or hear of people persecuted or denied their basic rights simply because of the circumstances of their birth I find totally unacceptable and it makes me very angry.

Small Great Things made me angry. Not because I didn’t like the book, but because I did. The story was very frighteningly real. The plot, the narrative and the issues it raised forced me to question my own preconceived ideas about race and equality in a way I never have before.

The story centres around the death of a newborn baby, Davis Bauer following a routine procedure. When the fingers start pointing there is an inevitability about where the grief-stricken father’s finger is pointing – the nurse who he had banned from looking after him. But why had she been told not to treat young Davis? Did the family question her qualifications? Had she done something terrible? No, to the child’s parent’s Ruth Jefferson’s only crime was not being white.

The story is told through the eyes of the book’s three main protagonists: Ruth Jefferson the nurse accused of murdering the baby, her lawyer Kennedy McQuarrie and Turk Bauer, the father. As they each tell the story as they see it, it becomes very clear that although each is doing what they think is right, their perceptions are very different.

Using three voices to tell the story highlights the very different life experiences and turns this from a gripping drama into something very special. We all see the world from our perspective; what this book does is give the reader an insight into someone else’s point of view.

From the initial events, through the investigation and trial to the gripping conclusion, Great Small Things is an exceptional work of fiction that reads like a true story. A great book that I can thoroughly recommend.

An Unsuitable Attachment

An Unsuitable Attachmentby Barbara Pym

Originally submitted in 1963, An Unsuitable Attachment was rejected by her publishers. Even after revision it failed to be accepted and marked the end of Barbara Pym’s initial success as a published author. Barbara enjoyed a second helping of success in the late 1970s but this, which should have been her seventh novel was not published until 1983.

Reading the book now I can see why it failed to excite the interest of publishers at the time. It is in much the same vain as her previous six novels but if lacks full characterisation and the premise is dated, even for the early 1960s. The story lacks focus and seems to meander about between the various characters, as if looking for somewhere to land. The central characters of the story, whose relationship inspires the title, are ill formed and lack any real depth. This is down to the fragmented nature of the narrative rather than the ability of the author. Don’t get me wrong, there are some really good characters, they are just not fully realised in the way they deserve to be.

There is still plenty of gentle humour and wry observation that are the hallmark of Barbara Pym’s work and make her books so enjoyable. But, for me, it was a little disappointing. I really wanted to know more about Ianthe Bloom and her beau John Challow.

This is not one of her best works. It is a pleasant enough read but failed to capture my imagination.

The Humans

by Matt Haig

The Humans opens with Professor Andrew Martin walking naked through the wet streets of Cambridge. To say he is not feeling himself at that moment is something of an understatement. In more ways than one, he really isn’t himself.

The Andrew Martin that his family and friends know is no more. In his place is a very different Professor Martin for whom clothes are a mystery and food and drink sickening. Even his lovely wife and teenage son he finds repulsive.

For Andrew Martin is literally not of this world. He has been replaced by an alien sent to Earth with a simple mission – to prevent the dissemination of Professor Martin’s recent discovery by whatever means necessary. 

As a life-long reader of science fiction, I am quite at home with the concept of alien abductions, body snatchers and close encounters. They are de rigueur as far as sci-fi goes. What I am not used to is coming across these plots in a book that is very clearly not of that genre. “Humans” is not a science fiction story, just a thought-provoking and witty tale whose narrator just happens to come from another galaxy.

I have read plenty of books where we see alien life from the human perspective, but never before have I been asked to view humans from the alien point-of-view, at least not si directly.

Matt Haig’s unique approach is both funny and profound. As out unnamed alien discovers for itself, humans are much more complicated than a quick glance at our history or new headlines might imply. Certainly, there is more to humanity than conflict and greed. You just need to get up close to see it.

Although I was a little uncertain at first I very quickly realised that the odd nature of the book was one of it’s most compelling attractions. The inner conflict between the new Andrew Martin’s mission and his newly discovered humanity give the story its impetus. It is well written, very funny and ultimately revealing about human nature.

This book may not be for everyone – I know many people may find the concept of an alien amongst us difficult to deal with – but I found it very engaging and enjoyable. 

Luck Bunny

Luck Bunnyby Jill Dawson

Lucky Bunny is on the second Jill Dawson novel I have read and I am already seeing a pattern. Not that that is a bad thing. It is a story of a strong woman looking back on her tough childhood.

Queenie Dove’s story is one of frustrated opportunities, abuse and determination. She grows up in the grim surroundings of London’s East End during the 1930’s Life is tough for everyone. Queenie is a genius but any ambitions that she or anyone es might have had for her are stifled by her would-be criminal father and her depressive mother. Her only anchor is her Nan who does all she can to protect Queenie and her brother Bobby from the worst excesses of their unsuitable parents.

With her father’s connections, it is almost inevitable that the two children find themselves on the wrong end of the law. But this in itself brings Queenie new friendships that will last a lifetime.

There is nothing fanciful in Jill Dawson’s writing. Her characters and the situations they face are believable because they are disturbingly real. Children like Queenie really did exist and to some degree still do. The events portrayed in this book can and did happen.

Queenie Dove is a strong woman molded by the opportunities and terror of the war years. Her story will resonate with many women I am sure.

Luck Bunny is full of atmosphere. The story has a gritty reality that makes Queenie’s tale believable and compelling. 

 

Watch Me Disappear

Watch Me Disappearby Jill Dawson

Watch Me Disappear is a haunting and at times disturbing tale. Tine Humber returns to her native Norfolk for her brother’s wedding only to reawaken tragic memories she has fought long and hard to suppress.

Thirty years previously, in the summer of 1972, her childhood friend Many Baker disappeared. No trace was ever found of the 10-year-old and now, as Tina begins to reassemble the fragmented memories of that long-ago summer, she begins to see events more clearly. But with the new clarity dawns a certainty that the truth behind Mandy’s disappearance may be much closer to home than she had dared to believe.

Her questions threaten to tear her family apart and bring to the surfaces memories and feelings they would all rather forget.

I found this book a little disturbing in places, dealing as it does with a subject most of us would much rather not contemplate. It reminds me that sometimes, true horror and real monsters are with us every day and not just between the well-crafted pages of a Stephen King novel.

The plot is slow-burning leaving the reader plenty of space to consider their own speculations about what happened Mandy on that summer afternoon. It also offers an interesting view of the remote and often-overlooked corner of England.

Jill Dawson is a skilled storyteller. She brings not only her characters to life but also the period itself and the innocence of youth. This is the first Jill Dawson book I have read and I am sure it won’t be the last.