I don’t know if it’s been noticed but I have had nearly a month pretty much away from the blog and social media, as I was feeling a little crime fiction’d out and just wanted to spend some time reconnecting with some of the other genres I enjoy reading. Obviously, I couldn’t let myself be totally crime fiction free so there will be some of my normal longwinded reviews appearing again soon, but for the most part I disengaged from crime and had a lovely time traversing the fictional globe. Having confidently stated which of the books of summer I would read for CATHY746Books annual summer reading fun, I very soon went off-piste, and have just been picking up a completely random selection of books, along with some of my stated choices. I will return to my original choices in the fullness of time- promise! So let us begin…
Meet Keiko. Keiko is 36 years old. She’s never had a boyfriend, and she’s been working in the same supermarket for eighteen years. Keiko’s family wishes she’d get a proper job. Her friends wonder why she won’t get married. But Keiko knows what makes her happy, and she’s not going to let anyone come between her and her convenience store…
Read this on the recommendation of a couple of work colleagues who have positively raved about this. It contains all the elements of quirky Japanese fiction that I adore with its slightly off-kilter central character, Keiko, and her unique perception of life around her. As much as I hate to use the word ‘charming’ it is totally charming as we observe her small microcosm of life within the store, and how the equilibrium of this is disturbed by a potential romantic entanglement. I can’t say that I altogether enjoyed the slightly deflating ending of the book, but if the opportunity arises to read this slender novella it’s well worth an hour or so of your time.
Dawn, mist clearing over rice fields, a burning Vietnamese village, and a young photographer takes the shot that might make his career. The image, of a staring soldier in the midst of mayhem, will become one of the great photographs of the war. But what Jonathan has seen in that village is more than he can bear. He flees to Japan, to lose himself in the vastness of Tokyo, and to take different kinds of pictures: of streets and crowds and cherry blossom – and of a girl with whom he is no longer lost. Yet even here his history will catch up with him: that photograph and his responsibility in taking it; his responsibility as a witness to war, and to other events buried deep in his past.
I absolutely adored this book for so many reasons, and it will definitely be a book I shall re-read in years to come. Opening in the killing fields of Vietnam where a photographer takes the defining war photograph of his career, but suffers a classic case of PTSD in its aftermath. Moving between Vietnam, Japan. and Jonathan’s former life back home in rural England, Harding depicts all three locations in panoramic detail, capturing the essence of nature and setting against these beautiful backdrops the futility and destruction of war, turbulent relationships, and exploring notions of home. The language just flows through the reader, the descriptions present themselves as technicolour photographs, and the exploration of Johnathon’s life and emotions is poignant and resonates with emotion. Quite simply a beautiful book.
Kim Jiyoung is a girl born to a mother whose in-laws wanted a boy. Kim Jiyoung is a sister made to share a room while her brother gets one of his own. Kim Jiyoung is a female preyed upon by male teachers at school. Kim Jiyoung is a daughter whose father blames her when she is harassed late at night. Kim Jiyoung is a good student who doesn’t get put forward for internships. Kim Jiyoung is a model employee but gets overlooked for promotion. Kim Jiyoung is a wife who gives up her career and independence for a life of domesticity. Kim Jiyoung has started acting strangely. Kim Jiyoung is depressed. Kim Jiyoung is mad. Kim Jiyoung is her own woman. Kim Jiyoung is every woman.
I read this book with an increasing sense of disbelief and anger, as Nam-Joo charts the life and experiences of Kim Yijoung, an ordinary woman of South Korea, struggling to exist in a hugely paternalistic and belittling society. Little wonder that this book has been such a touchstone in South Korea for women since its publication in 2016. Working as a mirror to society, the ordinariness of Kim’s existence from childhood to womanhood is delineated by the instances of sexism, chauvinism and subjugation that women endure in a society so completely controlled and dominated by the actions and needs of men, and the way that these needs, and their perceived ‘superiority’ are so routinely put before those of women. As a single Western woman with all the freedoms that this affords me, I felt myself growing increasingly enraged and frustrated by the denial of freedom and visibility of Kim herself. The writing is clipped and sharp where small explosions occur within the sedate pace of the book overall, and made all the more powerful for it. An eye-opening and necessary read.
When Cy Bellman, American settler and widowed father of Bess, reads in the newspaper that huge ancient bones have been discovered in a Kentucky swamp, he leaves his small Pennsylvania farm and young daughter to find out if the rumours are true: that the giant monsters are still alive, and roam the uncharted wilderness beyond the Mississippi River…
What can I say? 149 pages of sublime, intuitive, lively, and descriptive writing that encapsulates some big, powerful themes of destiny, family, and loyalty. With the cadence of some of the best American western writers, Davies has delivered a book that beautifully blends together history and pure storytelling so resonant of the western tradition. Punctuated by violence, and the strength of family bonds against the lure of discovery and exploration, this is all in all a perfect little package.
If only time allowed, I would attempt to read the entire Booker longlist as a few of my bookselling colleagues do, so instead a cherry pick a few, and then endeavour to read the shortlist in its entirety. To be honest Kevin Barry could pretty much write anything and I would lap it up, so of course Night Boat To Tangier is marvellous/wonderful/ exceptional in every way! In this Beckett-esque tale of two ageing gangsters, Barry offers a darkly witty, and sharply observed novel on the moral wasteland that defines the lives of these two career criminals. The Lost Children Archive is just so apt as a novel of our present time, as one New York family embark on a road trip to Mexico, and a stream of children and young adults travel from Central America to Mexico in a perilous mission to reach America. Contrasting the easy affluence of the American family with the worn down lives of those in search of a better life, this book is deeply moving and beautifully articulated, so this along with Kevin Barry should be shortlisted! I struggled with Lanny (unlike the world and his wife) finding it a wee bit mawkish and slightly pretentious, and am just halfway through Girl, Woman, Other which is hitting the bookish sweet spot so far, with its realistic characterisation and Evaristo’s trademark smooth prose, and biting observations.
So, it would seem that I couldn’t leave the dark and fascinating world of crime to one side completely, and have slightly binged on a selection of true crime accounts. I would wholly recommend all four of these whether you be interested in the forensic investigation of crime, or with The Five a whole new exploration of an iconic crime case with a sharp focus on the victims of this most notorious of killers, and bringing their lives to the fore, attempting to dispel many inaccurate perceptions of these women before their reduction to ‘victim’ and salacious Victorian tabloid fodder. Traces, When The Dogs Don’t Bark and Unnatural Causes all cast a light on the procedures of, and the scientific breakthroughs in, the forensic investigation of crime, and all traverse a myriad of crimes, some familiar, some not, in an incredibly readable and endlessly engaging style. All three draw the reader in the emotional lives of these incredibly dedicated individuals, and for those stout of heart and strong of stomach, the information they reveal along the way is absolutely fascinating…
(I borrowed a copy of Convenience Store Woman from the library. I received an ARC of Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 from Scribner UK. I bought The Gun Room, West, Lost Children Archive, Night Boat To Tangier and Lanny. I received an ARC of Girl, Woman, Other from Hamish Hamilton, The Five from Doubleday and Traces from Blink Publishing. I bought When Dogs Don’t Bark and Unnatural Causes)