Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The Last Hangman

One of the loveliest parts of book blogging are the days you come home from a long day to be greeted by an unexpected little parcel of books. It was in one such package I received Shashi Warrier's The Last Hangman, which promised to transport me to "the heat and dust of the Indian South". Faced with the miseries of a wet London January, I tucked it into my bag and hoped it would combat the back to work blues.

Janardhanan Pillai was the last hangman of Travancore and his retirement is frequently interrupted by journalists wanting to buy his story. He is persuaded to write a journal of his past by an author and his companion after being suitably intrigued by their relationship. What follows is the story of Pillai's struggles as committing his life to paper awakens ghosts and forces him to seek meaning and answers to the moral questions his religious and educational mentors have never given him.

Warrier creates a very colourful picture of Pillai's world. He also tells the tale of the man first and foremost; although the story is told in the time of independence and great change within India, politics only comes up where it  directly impacts the hangman's life, such as his conversations with his old teacher, or when assessing the morality of hanging in the name of a now defunct king. Rather than politics, the focus is on the hangman's quest for peace and redemption. Was he right to kill in the name of the state, to be slightly outside of society, in exchange for guaranteed food for his family? Duty is a theme which continually crops up and was most interesting for me in the tale of how Pillai's father became the hangman, which was largely due to the neglecting of their duties by wealthier relatives.

The troubled hangman carries the story very well, but I couldn't help feeling there were a few gaps. The writer is a key part of the action, but his role felt very two dimensional. I think too much was unsaid here, and a secondary narrative on his motivations to write the tale would have been interesting. I also think this would have allowed a deeper exploration of the issues raised by Pillai's narrative. But then again, that would've taken the power away from the hangman; perhaps the gaps needed to be there for the reader to feel totally at one with the narrator's perspective.

Overall, this was an interesting read which takes you to a different little corner of the world. While the wind whipped around my train carriage, I couldn't have asked for more from my rush hour read!

(Available from Atlantic Books)

Friday, 10 January 2014


Before I start, I have to confess that Rachel Joyce's hit novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, is one that hasn't made it onto my to-read so I can't make comparisons. Which is probably no bad thing. I opened Perfect with no preconceptions and I was greeted with a haunting tale of class, broken dreams and how the course of our lives can change in the blink of an eye.

The thrust of the action takes place in 1972, where public schoolboy Byron Hemming is informed by his friend James that two seconds are going to be added onto time. This idea deeply troubles Byron, and a course of events and the two seconds result in an accident when his mother, taking a route through the undesirable part of town, knocks a girl off her bike.

These two seconds result in the unraveling of Byron's life as he knows it. His mother, Diana, changes before his eyes from a perfect housewife in a 1950s timewarp, threatening the security he has always known. She becomes friends with the working class mother of the child injured in the accident (although I doubt this accident actually happened and instead was a figment of Byron's imagination). Diana's transformation unleashes insecurity in her husband, convinced he is losing his grip on the wife he transformed from prostitute's daughter and stage performer to middle class housewife. His perfectly groomed house becomes a mess as his mother abandons domesticity.

I found Byron's innocence and the simplicity of his emotions as the veneer of his family's background cracks heartbreaking. Class is all around and constraining, crushing Diana's free spirit. Byron adores but does not understand his mother, placing her on a pedestal and is confused as her true self is set free. For me, this is Diana's tale and all I wanted was for her to be well and to be free. The ending for their tale moved me and stayed with me long after reading.

There was a second strand to this tale, focusing in the future with a troubled man named Jim who works in a cafe following a stint in a mental health facility. I just couldn't get into this part of the tale and I felt it added a slightly predictable element to a story that's otherwise full of surprises. Other than this, I felt this was a dark, haunting tale of family life, and definitely one to lose yourself in on a bleak January morning.

(Available in hardback, paperback and Kindle edition from Amazon)

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

The Summer We All Ran Away

Looking back I can't quite remember what caught my eye about Cassandra Parkin's debut novel. I guess the title captured a certain end of season whimsy that echoed my own memories of the fast fading summer as the leaves turn golden on the trees. Whatever it was, I'm glad I did, as this proved a great read with accomplished story telling - I was truly gripped from the off.

Parkin's tale begins with Davey, a teenage runaway drunkenly making his way somewhere, anywhere, away from his past. Somehow, he finds himself in a secluded house in the West Country, living with three others also sheltering from their past. He is welcome to stay as long as he likes, where the only rule seems to be to not ask any questions about how the others got to where they are.

His story is juxaposed with that of Jack, a rock star trying to recover from his demons, hiding away in the same house in the seventies. He meets Mathilda, a young actress. From these beginnings, Parkin dips in and out of their stories, taking lots of different strands and eventually pulling them all together to make sense in the final few pages.

As the book progresses, we start to learn what the four housemates - Davey, Priss, Tom and Kate - together, and what they have all run from. The present day tale centres around the two teenagers, Priss and Davey, as they seek answers. For me, the most compelling part was Davey's story as he attempts to conquer his demons. As his tale unfurls it's clear he's a resilient young man with a distance still to travel, adding a great coming of age element.

This was a very atmospheric read, full of wist and promise. It was indeed very different, but the familiar themes of abandonment and the quest of belonging was told in a masterful style. I found myself whizzing through this book and was definitely sad to reach the end of my hidden haven at the end of a commute. An unusual read, but definitely worth a dabble.

(Available in Kindle format or paperback from Amazon)

The Engagements

As regular readers of this blog know, I'm not the biggest fan of the "chick lit" genre. My hand hovers warily over any book about weddings, engagements, slightly dreading all the predictable twists and turns that follow.

I'm glad I cast my initial doubts aside as The Engagements proved to be a real treat; complex, layered, yet simple. Best described as a series of short stories linked by the theme of diamond engagement rings, J. Courtney Sullivan creates a wonderfully rich cast of characters in which love is not an easy game.

We follow the lives of 5 characters across different eras, all struggling with their own dilemmas. For those who have happy marriages, their path is not an easy one. Wealthy grandmother Evelyn, for example, finds her marital contentment cannot erase the pain of her son's abandonment of his wife, nor the tragedy of her past. James, an ambulance driver in 1987, is struggling with debt and desperation to keep his beloved wife happy and fulfill his son's musical potential. Frenchwoman Delphine's escape from her safe marriage with her young lover proves to be a risky move...all the stories had me gripped and despite their variances; Sullivan weaves between them masterfully as the multiple narratives never jar.

Against this backdrop is the fascinating tale of the real-life Mary Frances Gerety. An advertising creative, Sullivan tells the tale of her dreaming up the "diamond is forever" slogan for De Beers. In her tale Sullivan provides an inspiring alternative path; the happily single woman who shaped a career in an era where it was not the norm. Her battles were a compelling read, all the more so for knowing this tale was true. It also created a healthy pinch of cynicism about the diamond tradition, highlighting how this is more a product of advertisers such as Gerety rather than one passed through the generations.

Overall this was a sparkling (forgive the pun!) read. Diverse tales that do not lose their flow, stories with a message of hope and love alongside a firm dollop of real life make this a book of real substance. My only slight dampner was the tale of Kate, a liberal who has to put her strong views on marriage and blood diamonds aside for the marriage of her cousin. I didn't feel as much of a connection with this character, although her views did provide an important emphasis on the human price paid for that month's wages on your ring finger.

I found this a gripping read, and it successfully navigates between its different strands with ease in a way that lent itself well to 45 minutes of rush hour. I'd definitely recommend this as a great antidote to the happy ever afters and a real, satisfying read.

(Available in Kindle, hardback, paperback and audio formats from Amazon)

Monday, 12 August 2013

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared

Following last month's review of Gone Girl, I decided I really ought to tackle more of the "everyone's read it" books lurking on my Kindle. So, after a few months on the to do list, it was time to delve into the Hundred-Year-Old Man.

This was my first foray into the world of Swedish literature and my, what a strange tale! The basic plot is the adventures of the elderly Allan Karlsson who escapes his old people's home on the day of his hundredth birthday and embarks on a series of accidental adventures involving, among many other things, vast sums of money, gangsters, a rogue elephant and a bumbling investigator and prosecutor. Interwoven with this is the story of Allan's (again accidental) adventures through 20th century history.

I really enjoyed the simple narrative and felt it gave a distinct whimsy to proceedings. It's a unique combination of many different styles and genres; it's what Forrest Gump would have been if following a mild mannered, quick witted Swede around pivotal moments of European and world history. In parts too it reminded me of Inspector Clouseau and Fawlty Towers...so as you can tell, a novel that is tricky to define!

It did take me a little time to get used to the style but I do think it's well worth persevering with. I would describe the pace as easy going but if you're looking for thrills and spills it probably isn't for you. This is very much due to the nature of the main character; Allan is calm and unflappable, even in the face of great danger. As a result, everything is dealt with in a rather understated way. For me, this was a large part of its charm. If only I had Allan's cool reserve under pressure - who knows what global events I could have stumbled upon and inadvertently influenced, all while drinking vodkas with world leaders?

It is a great bit of escapism and does require the suspension of disbelief; this, combined with a good understanding of 20th century history, made this a book that amused and entertained throughout my commute. Definitely one to try on the journey to work if you're looking for something a little different.

(Available from Amazon in ebook, hardback, paperback and audio)

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Early Summer Round-Up

Phew, what a busy few weeks it has been! In the ever elusive juggle to get the work / life balance right, I've fallen a little behind in my reviews. However, in such busy times the rush hour read is ever important! So here's a sneak peak at my recent reads.

First up is Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, to tie in loosely with June's film theme. It was a nice, easy read and entertaining; I quite enjoyed the fairly unsympathetic lead, as there's nothing like a flawed hero for me. The supporting cast of music shop misfits was also amusing, but I couldn't quite shake the feeling of familiarity throughout. Part of this was from other Hornby works I've read (notably, Juliet, Naked - perhaps a little unfair as High Fidelity came first...) and also the wickedly brilliant The Average American Male from Chad Kultgen (firmly classed in the "I loved it but I shouldn't" category). I guess this highlights what a pioneer Nick Hornby has been of the genre; either way, it's a fun and nostalgic read - one day we shall study this and marvel at a time when people actually made a living from running record shops!

(available in hardcopy, paperback, Kindle and audio formats)

Next up, A.M. Holmes' May We Be Forgiven. I've always loved a family saga since the first time I read Catherine Cookson's Mallen Trilogy (should that be filed under a guilty pleasure? I'd like to think not - give them a read if you haven't already). The first few pages are black comedy of a grand scale; terrible thing after terrible thing happens as the reader watches a family fall apart, and I found myself wondering just how this exciting pace could be sustained through it's length...which was the problem for me. After a great start, I don't think Holmes really maintains a compelling pace as another less conventional family forms from the ruins. The rest of the novel is a series of random episodes as main character Harry seeks redemption, and I felt it become a little too unbelieveable as Harry's unconventional family accrues more members. I did find the last few chapters dragged a little and at times descended into schmaltz, which didn't really fit with its early promise. Overall, OK, but not much more.

(available in hardcopy, paperback, Kindle and audio)

Finally, I got round to reading Gone Girl after much hype. I think I'm probably the last person among friends to have read it so thought I should get round to tackling it. Thrillers are not normally my thing, but this one really had me gripped. A psychological thriller which focuses on the toxic marriage of beautiful Amy and Nick, the story of Amy's disappearance is not all what it seems. This is a novel which twists and turns so subtly that the reader is never sure exactly what's going to happen next and, until the halfway point, you find yourself starting to doubt everything.

Every detail plays its part and I found myself admiring Gillian Flynn's cunning in her craft. Just when you think you've solved it, boom! In comes another curveball. I did find the end slightly disappointing; this for me was another where the first half wasn't quite up to the initial promise and towards the end I guessed where it was going. Still, overall this was a book that's hard to put down and I regret leaving this as long as I did. This was a book that never quite made it into my bag when my train pulled into the station as I desperately tried to eek out the last bit of a chapter on my walk to the office. Fellow pavement strollers, I apologise - but if you gave this book a read, I'm sure you'll understand why!

(available in hardcopy, paperback, Kindle and audio)

So, these are the reads that have gotten me through the hot summer so far; hopefully not quite so many reviews at once next time!

Monday, 10 June 2013

Rosemary's Baby

This month I was toying with a theme; following the release of The Great Gatsby, perhaps I could base my month's reading on books that were made into films?

My subsequent Google search brought me to Rosemary's Baby. Adapted by Roman Polanski in 1968, Ira Levin's second novel was far from what I normally read, but embracing the spirit of Movie Month, I decided to give it a go.

Creepy and unnerving, this is the tale of a young couple who ignore warnings of serial killers, Satanists and suicides in their block and move into a new apartment, seduced by its old world charm and generous space. After the initial shock of their neighbour's suicide, things start to go well for the couple; but how much of that is to do with the influence of overbearing neighbours Roman and Minnie Castavet, with their strange midnight chanting and unknown good luck charms...?

When Rosemary falls pregnant, it had been everything she had wished for. But as the pregnancy progresses, her suspicions increase. Who are the Castavets? Why are they so interested in her and her husband? And just what is that crippling pain that never ceases?

This was a deeply unnerving read for many reasons. Minnie and Roman's suburban Satanists are brilliantly banal; they are unsettling in how well they fulfil the role of the harmless, elderly neighbours. Even as suspicions build about their links with the dark side, there is a slight sliver of doubt that perhaps they are just harmless old folk with boundary issues. Meanwhile, you feel Rosemary's world narrowing around her. Just who can she trust? How complicit is her husband, Guy? Would he really sell out her womb for his career?

Some parts of this were very unsettling. The conception of the baby is a scene that is still playing on my mind somewhat, and the ending was definitely not what I expected. I'm still not sure if I felt this was the right way to end the tale, but it definitely provided a brilliant twist!

This is a very easy to read book with its power deriving from its simplicity, so it's a good one for the commute in that sense. It is full of suspense, surprise and stays with you for a long while after. In my view, definitely worth a try, but be prepared to feel ever so slightly on edge throughout.

As for the film theme - if anyone has a favourite book that's been adapted, feel free to share your thoughts in the comment box below. I'm open to suggestion!

(Available in paperback and Kindle format from Amazon)