Category Archives: Harvill Secker Books

The Strange Library – Haruki Murakami

The first book of the year I read is an important one, well it is in my head if you are me. You see I like the first book that I read every year to be like an foresight/omen/sign of what my year ahead is going to be like. You might think I would pick an obvious favourite, oddly no because I don’t want my year to be too obvious. Not that I want it to be difficult or just rubbish, see this is where it gets trickier. I decided on The Strange Library, which is the latest book (because it is too short to even be a novella) by Haruki Murakami. So what does that mean for the year ahead?

Harvill Secker, hardback, translated from the Japenese by Ted Goossen, 2014, fiction, 88 pages, bought by myself for myself

The Strange Library is so short that it is more a fairytale with lots of (weird wonderful and inventive) illustrations throughout that tell a rather quirky tale of a school boy who regularily visits the library. Once upon a particular visit he ends up talking to and old man who wants to know what he wants to read, rather flippantly the young boy asks for books on taxation in the Ottoman empire, well libraries are meant to have everything. The young boy gets more than he bargained for when he ends up being sent to where the books are and becomes a prisoner in the library. Now to many (unless you were the Waterstones One) this would be a dream but for this boy it becomes a nightmare he can’t wake up from.

I sat down on the bed and buried my head in my hands. Why did something like this have to happen to me? All I did was go to the library to borrow some books’
“Don’t take it so hard,” the sheep man consoled me. “I’ll bring you some food. A nice hot meal will cheer you up.”
“Mr. Sheep Man,” I asked, “why would that old man want to eat my brains?”
“Because brains packed with knowledge are yummy, that’s why. They’re nice and creamy. And sort of grainy at the same time.”

 What follows after I shall leave to those who read it, as I have given away about 33 pages of 70 page book (sorry but you don’t know the denouement, I’ve left you that) and I will leave you to imagine it. One of the wonderful things about Murakami is that you never have a clue where on earth he might take the story next – in a nice way – and with a whole underworld library to play with Murakami has many options.

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Did I like it? I did, it was a fun romp. I didn’t love it, though I certainly didn’t loath it. I think I was in that mixture of thinking ‘well this is rather fun and ridiculous’ whilst also thinking ‘I am not really sure what the point is’. I have given this some thought in the few days since I read it and I think my problem might have been the library element, or maybe how the library element was played out. I love books, I love libraries and so does the young boy yet by the end of the book they become a sinister place rather than an exciting one and I didn’t get the feeling he would go back. That to me is not the moral of a good story. Libraries should be seen as exciting places of escapism and adventure should they? Or am I taking it all too literally?

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If I give myself a good shake, and tell myself not to be such a bloody critic, I think it is brilliantly bonkers. There should be something other worldly about libraries and all the information they house. Plus with the wonderful interspersed images from books (be it the library card, the end papers, some of the text, some of the illustrations) from The London Library there is a real homage to them. So all in all a quirky dark unsettling bizarre fairytale and also a brilliant, rather bonkers and incredibly beautiful book!

What does this mean for my year of reading ahead? Well hopefully that I am off to have some wonderful adventures with some unusual and exciting books, which is all I could ask for really – as long as no one tries to eat my brains out. (Note – I have read two absolute corkers, both incredibly original too so it’s working and am now reading another.) It has also reminded me I need to read more Murakami, I do love his inventiveness and craziness. What about all of you, do you have New Years reading rituals? What is the first book you have picked for the year?

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The Troubled Man – Henning Mankell

I decided that I would break one of my habits of a lifetime when I received, a few weeks early, a copy of ‘The Troubled Man’ by Henning Mankell … I read a series out of order. I am sure that everyone is well aware that ‘The Troubled Man’ is in fact the final Kurt Wallander case, a detective series which has taken the reading world by storm. I am not really a huge Wallander buff, in fact apart from having read the first Wallander novel ‘Faceless Killers’ (which I thought was very good) and seeing both the Swedish and UK adaptations I guess I am a Wallander novice so I was aware that going from the first of his cases to the last might not work. Yet after reading ‘Great House’ by Nicole Krauss I needed something that would be just as page turning and readable but maybe less involved. Little did I know that reading ‘The Troubled Man’ would have me deeply engrossed from the start, despite my initial ‘eek’ moment when I realised the book would have a lot of submarines in it. I don’t tend to do well with books based on boats or at sea it has to be said.

When you start reading ‘The Troubled Man’ you can almost instantly tell from its style and delivery that this is going to be the last of the Kurt Wallander novels. Not because the ending of it all is given away from the start, and fear not I shall not give anything away here either, but because Wallander seems incredibly reflective and nostalgic about his past and indeed his future. Initially this concerned me slightly. This wasn’t going to be a case of an author spinning out the final instalment using as many words and random tangents as possible was it? Not really, is the answer. What Mankell uses this for is to show us just where our protagonist is in his head and why he takes on a case that really doesn’t fall under his jurisdiction, though I could be wrong as I don’t know the ins and outs of Sweden’s legal system or its police procedures.

When Hakan von Enke suddenly vanishes on an April morning it is most out of character. However it is not a case which Wallander or his team are given and yet he gets himself embroiled in it all. This isn’t for professional reasons; in fact it’s all rather personal as his daughter Linda (now a police officer like her father) has met the man of her life, who happens to be Hakan von Enke’s son. This could seem rather intangible but having read ‘Faceless Killers’ and in the glimpses of back story we get we soon learn his and Linda’s relationship has not always been good. Here is a father who desperately wants to keep that relationship and help, and possibly protect his daughter.

As the mystery develops not only does Hakan’s wife Louise go missing, but a political secret starts to come to light from the past as well as some more personal family secrets the von Enke’s have been hiding. In fact these secrets from the past, which all evolves around the Cold War and Sweden’s part in it (based around submarines as Hakan von Enke was in the navy as a commander) becomes an additional strand to the novel and one that interested me far more than I would have expected it to.

I did think that ‘The Troubled Man’ could have done with a fair bit of editing. It seemed to go on with various sub-plots of crimes that Wallander sort of starts investigating, and then leaves in favour of this more personal case, seemed like padding. I also thought the characters slightly weaker, well lots of them vanished in fairness, in this novel. Wallander seemed fully built, if a bit solemn and self pitying (but then as the book goes on we see why), as did his daughter Linda, everyone else was a little more two dimensional, but maybe that is where me not having read all the series and previously followed all of the characters to this final dénouement comes into play. This is both a positive and a negative as it has made me want to go back and start again, but also disappointed me somewhat as I tend to think the best series are the ones you can pick up at any point. Even if normally I tend to read them in order.

Regardless of how good this book is or isn’t, and I did find myself hooked apart from the odd ten pages or so every so often, people will be buying ‘The Troubled Man’ in their droves. It’s not the thriller that I was expecting, in fact it’s darker and rather more depressing, than I had imagined but it is a solid crime novel. 7.5/10

This book was kindly sent by the publishers.

Will you be one of the many Wallander fans that will be devouring this novel instantly, if you haven’t already of course? Is there anyone out there who hasn’t read a Wallander novel yet, will you start at the end or the very beginning? Is anyoe not bothered about Wallander (you might find this review by The Guardian very funny, I sniggered)? I do feel like Wallander a little now, as I have the start of his story and the end of it, do I turn to the middle sections and discover more?

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The Paper House – Carlos Maria Dominguez

There will be a bigger post on ‘books about books’ and also on how this book and a surprising little bonus came into my hands tomorrow… but for now I will, if you will indulge me, give you my thoughts on a book that both reading HEiotL and a post that the lovely Simon of Stuck-in-a-Book lead me to which is a fictional book all about books called The Paper House and is one that starts with someone being killed by a secondhand book, can you imagine such a thing?

One day in the spring of 1998, Bluma Lennon bought a secondhand copy of Emily Dickenson’s poems in a bookshop in Soho, and as she reached the second poem on the first street corner, she was knocked down by a car.

It is with this very death that the novel, though I would say it was a novella though I do get them confused I will admit, starts. Though it is in fact the events after the death of Bluma Lennon that the book is in fact about, for not long after her death a parcel is delivered for her containing a cement covered copy of The Shadow Line by Conrad. The person who picks this up on her behalf is her Cambridge colleague. It is also he who then goes on a mission, to Uruguay, to find the person who sent the book a Mr Carlos Brauer, a man who in local book circles is renowned as one of the great bibliophiles. It was when the book collecting is discussed that I found myself thinking ‘oh I so agree’ which happened a lot.

It is often much harder to get rid of books than it is to aquire them. They stick to us in that pact of need and oblivion we make with them, witnesses to a moment in our lives we will never see again. While they are still there, it is part of us… Nobody wants to mislay a book. We prefer to loose a ring. a watch, our umbrella, rather than a book we will never read again, but which retains, just in the sound of its title, a remote and perhaps long-lost emotion. The truth is that in the end, the size of a library does matter.

Not only is this a quirky unusual mystery it is a book about books and one that any book lover will happily devour in a sitting or two as I did. It looks at how different people collect books and what makes collection books such a joy to each individual as well as the pleasure gained from reading. However it does in some cases give a forewarning of the costs a serious book addiction and not money something much darker indeed. Though there is no real depth to any character, apart from Carlos into whos obsession we very deeply go, it is beautifully written and you go on an unusual bookish and mysterious journey with the narrator.

I thought this was a very clever book which managed to pack in a huge amount in just over 100 pages. It seems to genuinely get into the mind of a true book lover which I can only assume is a quality that the author has within himself. I thought that the start of the book was quite a darkly comic way to start the book as the narrator tells of his grandmothers thoughts on books and reading “stop that, books are dangerous”. Also with the dark sting in the tail of the tale it covers all peoples attitudes to books from the unimpressed to the obsessed and that makes for a very intriguing and unusual read one that I am very glad to now have on my shelves. It has also left me with a list of more books that I really want to read, and what more could you want from a book about books even if its fictional?

To build up a library is to create a life.

I am amazed that this book hasn’t been more heard of, though as the book itself goes on to illustrate (ooh which reminds me there are lovely slightly fable like illustrations in the book the whole way through) with the world be so full of books how can we know all of them let alone read them all? I think anyone who likes books should while away an hour or two with this, it certainly did the trick of cheering me up after a fairly rubbish Thursday. Oh for the weekend, back to Sensation reading and catching up on rest and all your blogs. Do you like the idea of The Paper House? What could be the pitfalls of having too many books or can there not be one?

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Filed under Books About Books, Carlos Maria Dominguez, Harvill Secker Books, Random House Publishing, Review

Notwithstanding – Louis De Bernieres

Some books people tell you that you simply must read and yet you simply don’t. One book that my Gran has always enthused about and even my mother has always said I must read (both are book obsessed, the later less so at the moment) is Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. I don’t know if it’s the fact so many people have said that it is wonderful that has made me hold off (overhype can be a terrible thing) or the fact that Nicholas Cage is in the film, which I haven’t seen, and therefore I sadly associate the book with an actor I cant stand, either way I have held off from the book and the author. However when the lovely people at Harvill Secker sent me the new Louis De Bernieres book which is about a village filled with unusual crazy characters I couldn’t hold myself back from reading it almost instantly.

Notwithstanding is not only the title of Louis De Bernieres latest book it is also really the biggest character in the book. Notwithstanding is a fictional village somewhere in Surrey, England not too far away from the very real Haslemere and Godalming. What the book actually entails is some of the unusual and interesting characters and the stories of what they get up to. It is in fact based on an English village that the author actually lived in when he was younger though this isn’t a memoir it’s a fictionalised version. It brings to life those English idylls that are very much still out there and celebrates the quirkiness of village life.

It was a day in middle March, of the kind that for early risers begins sunny and uplifting, but which for late risers has already degenerated into the nondescript gloom that causes England to be deprecated by foreigners. The rooks were breaking off the ends of willow twigs and building their nests with raucous incompetence, most of the twigs ended up on the ground below, whence the birds could never bother to retrieve them. The box hedges were in blossom, causing some people to ring the gas board, and others to wonder what feline had pissed so copiously as to make the whole village smell of cat piss. Out on the roads, squashed baby rabbits were being dismantled by magpies, and frogs migrating to their breeding ponds were being flattened into very large and thin batrachian medallions that would, once dried out, have made excellent beer mats.

The characters are all marvellous in the novel. I say novel but in many ways it reads like a collection of short stories which is what it also is I suppose though characters intertwine with stories and so it comes together as a novel. You have the marvellous mother and son who communicate to each other via walkie talkie… in the same house, Polly Wantage who dresses like a man and spends most of her time out shooting squirrels, several mad dogs, a general who spends most of his time naked, a spiritualist who lives with her sister and ghost of her dead husband and people who confide their biggest secrets with spiders in their garden sheds. It is a huge amount of fun.

Though this isn’t just a funny throw away book. Though there is endless humour the book has a real heart, celebrating the ordinary and delighting in the quirky nature of us English folk. The prose is beautiful and makes everything very vivid so in no time I felt like I had newly moved into the village and was ‘getting to know the neighbours’ as it were. I could happily have moved there tomorrow. De Bernieres also experiments in less than 300 pages with various genre’s of fiction, there is the comic side but we also have a historical tale of the village of old, a ghost story and a mystery.

There are also some tales which on the outside seem to be fun and light but read on and they become much darker and deeper. Two of the stories moved me greatly and one was incredibly sad. The one which hit me most was that of the naked general who ends up in Waitrose with no pants on, at first I was laughing away and then realised that this isn’t a tale of a nudist but a tale of a widowed man who only has his dog for company and is undergoing the onset of Alzheimers. Not so funny then is it, yet in earlier tales its hilarious.

The tale that actually nearly made me cry on two levels was ‘Rabbit’, which also appeared in a collection of shorts by Picador in 2001. This is the tale of friends walking through the fields to find a rabbit with myxomatosis which is described in detail (and is just upsetting) so one of the party decides to go get his gun and put it out of its misery. In doing so the act itself is so horrid to the elderly man it brings back all the killings he endured during his time in the war and even the mercy killing of a friend. A very clever, breathtaking and emotional tale told in just ten pages.

I thought this book was fantastic, it made me laugh out loud, had me on the verge of tears and everything in between. It has also made me want to pack up my London flat and move off into some small random village somewhere and embrace myself in all village life has to offer, maybe not now though, something to look forward to in my retirement. I have noticed I do love a good village based read Joyce Dennys ‘Henrietta’s War’ had me entranced, and I have two more on my bedside table that are village based. ‘Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield as recommended by Elaine of Random Jottings and P.D James ‘Cover Her Face’ the latter being a slightly morbid take on village life after someone is murdered at a village fete. What other village based quirky fiction is out there?

I think I may have to give in to the charms of De Bernieres words more often now and may have to get my hands on a copy of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin finally. Has anyone else out there read it? What did you make of it (no spoilers please)? Oh and how could I forget if you would like to win a copy of the book do pop by tomorrow before the Sensation Season Sunday post (its Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon this weekend) as there will be a little village based competition and giveaway. Now your thoughts on village fiction and Louise De Bernieres please!

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Summertime – J.M. Coetzee

I don’t know what’s happened with my blogs of late they seem to be getting later and later. I was quite a way ahead a few weeks ago but with all this Man Booker Long List reading I am doing far more reading than blogging. That’s not a complaint by the way it’s just something I have noticed. Anyway in the frankly glorious sunshine we had in London I managed to finish reading ‘Summertime’ though the content of the book didn’t quite match the title as ‘summery’ is not how I would describe my first foray into the writings of Coetzee. 

‘Summertime’ is a very clever novel and all at once a very confusing one. It is fiction and yet is the memoirs of J.M. Coetzee. Hang on let me explain… this is a fictional novel written by a researcher who is writing a biography of John M. Coetzee after his death. He meets with five people who were important in Coetzee’s life in the 1970’s when Coetzee was living in South Africa with his Dad himself a grown adult and as many say ‘fathers were not meant to live their lives with sons’.

The start and end of the book are two sections of the Coetzee’s notebooks (are these real or fiction – we never know) that look at his life at that time and in many ways the relationship he had with his father and see’s Coetzee not only reflective but also questioning himself. These are the notebooks we learn that inspire the researcher after reading them and has used to form the book on Coetzee he is writing. Are you keeping up with this? It’s easier to read than it sounds I will admit.

The people the nameless researcher interviews are an interesting collection. Julia a married woman with a child who John had an affair with, even though by the sounds of it it wasn’t a particularly enjoyable relationship between them somehow it went on and bizarrely started sparks in Julia’s dead marriage for a time. I slightly wish this has been the final part of the book as I found this the most insightful and interesting into both Coetzee how he was deemed to see women and also how he lived with his father as Julia stays there for a time. The next interviewee also stayed with them for a while, Margot his cousin discusses their childhood love for each other and his sudden return from “jail in America” and what a changed man he was. Adriana, a Brazilian dancer, believed he was infatuated with her and even more inappropriately her daughter whom he taught. Martin was a friend he made when they both failed an interview, and didn’t quite seem to have a point at only ten pages long. Finally there is Sophie a colleague and lover he had.

In fact this book to me seemed less about father and son and more about Coetzee and his relationship with women. In fact with the mentioning on several occasions of the possibility that Coetzee was a homosexual by all interviewee’s and the researcher I was expecting Martin to have been a lover also, maybe a dalliance.

It is written incredibly well and despite being a complex idea, I don’t know if the other two novels in his fictional memoirs are the same format, he makes the whole thing work and actually read in parts like fiction, in others like research and interviews and then also like a work of non fiction. I couldn’t work out, which riled me somewhat, whether with the fact the researcher always mentions ‘he sold well but was never popular, the public never took to him’ if he is being bitter, ironic or wanting sympathy. I also couldn’t work out if all the tales of what an odd, awkward and dark person Coetzee was, Coetzee is in fact wanting sympathy or doubly proving he is trying to be unbiased.

I was definitely left wondering how much of ‘Summertime’ is fact and how much really is fiction? Either way it’s a great read, one I would recommend to people looking for something different but very readable. I was new to Coetzee and would certainly read more.

Yet another reason why I am so pleased I am reading the whole long list this year as I am being introduced to so many new and interesting authors and works. As you will see I have started reading (which I was quite apprehensive about) ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel and am loving it. I am just over 120 pages in and am reluctant to stop every time I have to put it down. At only a sixth of the way through (well just over) it could all change but if it carries on like this it could be a favourite, more of that later in the week.

Back to Coetzee though have any of you read any of the other of the trilogy of his ‘memoirs’? What are your thoughts on writing a fictional memoir like this? What about any of his other works? I have two copies of Disgrace at home and now will have to give it a go, have any of you read it… thoughts (though of course don’t give anything away)?

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Heliopolis – James Scudamore

Having listened to the praise that has been coming out of ‘The Converted One’s’ mouth for James Scudamore’s debut novel ‘Heliopolis’, I was really looking forward to it. Before I started it though I suddenly thought ‘do we actually have the same taste’ which is something I had never thought before. We both loved ‘The Cellist of Sarajevo’ but other than that we haven’t read any other books in common bar a Harry Potter or two with ‘The Converted One’ isn’t the biggest fan of. So how would ‘Heliopolis’ fare? Would I not get it as I am not from Brazil or would James Scudamore create the world of Sao Paulo so vividly I would feel I had walked the streets myself?

If you have never been to Brazil, like me, then ‘Heliopolis’ will definitely give you an insight. Though born in the UK Scudamore lived in Brazil (as well as Japan) during his childhood. The streets are vividly drawn in a culture where rather than knock down or redevelop you simply either flatten and rebuild or simply move elsewhere and start again. It is also, as one of the biggest and most densely populated cities in the world, also very much a crime leaden and poverty stricken city. In Brazil the rich are rich and the poor are poor “there is no middle class”.

Our narrator Ludo was one such boy born into poverty in favela’s of Heliopolis not far from Sao Paulo. However his destiny changed and one day rich man’s wife (and also British) Rebecca comes across Ludo and his mother during a day out for the charity she works for and decides to adopt Ludo and take his mother in as the cook at their weekend retreat. From then on in Ludo sees a life quite unlike any that he has ever seen before. Moving to Angel City is a slightly traumatic experience as the rich even employ and discipline the police. If your son or daughter rights off your Porsche in a drunken drug fuelled crash, as long as they are ok, who cares you just buy another one.

This is all told in hindsight as we follow a week in Ludo’s life. We open with the discovery the Ludo is sleeping with his adoptive sister who is also married, has been given a job by her (and his adoptive) father in advertising where his boss hates him and someone is leaving him threatening messages on his answer machine. As for a social life? Well Ludo spends most evenings alone with a bottle of vodka. In fact in many ways he has become one of the affluent people who coast through life he hates.

As for the plot, well Ludo leaves his adoptive sisters bed on morning and stops on the way to work at one of the old squares no one could be bothered to build over or renovate and is slightly lost in history. Whilst there a beggar tries to persuade him to give him money and Ludo pushes him away, a few minutes later the boy is shot by a security guard and Ludo feels the guilt. The very same day Ludo is given a new job, not only working for Ernesto his adoptive sisters husband, but working with the people of the ‘favela’ or as his boss puts it “the people he knows” leading Ludo to ask himself some big life questions.

Did I like the book, yes I did. I thought that the description of Sao Paulo was brilliant both in the poor and rich parts. I did however feel that though the description was great Scudamore had done what a few authors do and gone for description (not prose – though this was good) over content if that makes sense. One rich house invariably is the same as another; one beggar shares the same story as another and so on. I did like the contrast that it presented though and I do find it fascinating that a country can be so black and white in terms of rich or poor. I am glad I have read it, even if maybe a short story could have sufficed instead.

For ‘The Converted One’ however it was a true eye opener, as he was very much brought up in the ‘Angel Park society’ and his family had truly shielded him from it as much as possible. Yes, of course he had seen squats and the like but I don’t think having never been allowed, or dared to go near them he knew what it was like in there and that’s been quite and emotional thing for him. See it just shows you how experience in life can make you relate quite differently to the same book. Let’s see how he gets on with ‘The Life of Pi’ and then ‘The Kite Runner’ experiences of which we have never had anything close to. Do you think your personal experience can sway your feelings about a book?

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