Well, I have properly surprised myself with my progress so far on the 20BooksOfSummer20 Reading Challenge particularly with other reading commitments, my wavering concentration, and some quite low days indeed. But enough of the negative, and to the books, the books I say. Obviously, being by nature quite single-minded (bloody-minded) I have played a bit fast and loose with my nominated books already, having had three that just really, really didn’t grab me. Yes, you will in time find out what didn’t really spark joy, so were consigned to the dreaded DNF pile. What does spark joy is that this particular reading challenge allows for deviations and diversions from your original list, and I love it for this very reason! Although I have opted to write slightly more truncated reviews than my usual waffle-fest, I hope these will capture for you the essence of the books, and why they are worth seeking out. So, here are some thoughts on the first five books:
In Tokyo – one of the world’s largest megacities – a stray cat is wending her way through the back alleys. And, with each detour, she brushes up against the seemingly disparate lives of the city-dwellers, connecting them in unexpected ways. But the city is changing. As it does, it pushes her to the margins where she chances upon a series of apparent strangers – from a homeless man squatting in an abandoned hotel, to a shut-in hermit afraid to leave his house, to a convenience store worker searching for love. The cat orbits Tokyo’s denizens, drawing them ever closer…
I must admit that I’m not entirely sure that I can do justice to The Cat and the City in any meaningful way, as it is such a multi-layered and, to be quite honest, brilliant book. Framed as a series of poignant vignettes, experimenting with the ergodic form, the main narrative maps the city of Tokyo and some of its local denizens and quite simply, I found the whole experience of reading this utterly mesmerising. Bradley intricately and sensitively links the lives and stories of his individual characters with a very naturalistic ebb and flow, moving them delicately and skilfully like literary chess pieces, to the fore and the aft of each story, seeking a sense of belonging and connection in a city constantly on the move.
The writing, plotting, and descriptive detail and atmosphere of this book is so perfectly rendered, that I literally sat down to read from start to finish in a day. I was moved from joy to sadness to laughter at regular intervals, and as the isolation of city life wends its way through these individuals’ urban existence, the points where meaningful connections are made or lost, were particularly emotive. The author completely captures the tautness and deceptive simplicity of Japanese fiction, where small events take on huge and metaphorical import, and simple lives give us a window into, and pause for thought on, our own existence and feelings. I’ve never understood it when someone says that they finish a book and then immediately re-read the same book again, but there was a definite twinge of this on finishing this one. Consequently, as someone who very rarely re-reads books, I can give this book no higher praise that I will re-read this, more than once I suspect, and will undoubtedly be as enchanted and moved by it as on my first reading. Highly recommended.
(I bought this copy of The Cat and The City)
Mona has almost everything: money, friends, social status… everything except for freedom. Languishing in her golden cage, she craves a sense of belonging. Desperate for emotional release, she turns to a friend who introduces her to a world of glitter, glamour, covert affairs and drugs. There she meets Ali, a physically and emotionally wounded man, years younger than her. Heady with love, she begins a delicate game of deceit that spirals out of control and threatens to shatter the deceptive facade of conservatism erected by Lahori society, and potentially destroy everything that Mona has ever held dear…
I will try to resist the urge to completely gush about Awais Khan’s In The Company Of Strangers, but this is something really quite special indeed. Written with such a stark clarity and perceptive tenderness, this story of love, conflict, religion, wealth and poverty set in Pakistan, was unutterably moving throughout.
As we become immersed in the lives of Mona and Ali, who ostensibly are polar opposites, but who make a vital and emotive connection, Khan draws us into their contrasting worlds so vibrantly and movingly throughout. Mona, who on the outside looking in, seems to have the perfect lifestyle, but there is a dark undercurrent to her relationship with her husband, and an intense dissatisfaction beneath the surface, bound up with issues of abuse, fidelity, age and status. I was mesmerised by the drawing and depiction of her character, as she really encapsulated all the doubts and insecurities that many women carry despite outward appearances. Her character is a maelstrom of emotion and self-questioning, but so sensitively depicted that the reader begins to feel a real connection and empathy with her. I will say less about Ali, the main male protagonist, as the gradual reveal of his inner demons is powerfully unfolded as the story progresses. Again, he is a character that is beautifully drawn, and represents on many levels the gaps and fissures in society of money, religion and social unrest. His tentative interactions and then growing relationship with Mona, whilst balancing the demands of family loyalty and coercion into acts of violence, is sublimely realised.
Khan also completely captures the mercurial nature of Pakistan itself, from the atmosphere of the city itself, to the disparity of its citizens, the unassailable gap between poverty and wealth, and the overarching threat of violence and unrest. There is a vibrancy and colour to Khan’s writing that not only exudes from his characters, but also the more mundane aspects of everyday life for these city dwellers, so that the high emotion of the central narrative is kept grounded by his other observations, and touches of the ordinary. As you can tell, I was incredibly impressed with this book, which also achieved a rare thing indeed, leaving me with a tear in my eye at its close. This has only happened once before, so I think that is probably a striking testament to the power and sensitivity of Khan’s writing. Highly recommend this one, and looking forward to this author’s next book.
(I bought this copy of In The Company Of Strangers)
Michael North, assassin and spy-for-hire, is very good at killing bad guys. But what happens when his shadowy bosses at the dark heart of the British government order him to kill a good woman instead? Rising political star, Honor Jones, MP, has started asking dangerous questions about the men running her country. The trouble is, she doesn’t know when to stop. And, now that he’s met her, neither does North…
I’ve been reading such good reviews of Killing State across the board, and its follow up Curse The Day, that it would have been positively rude to ignore this one. I’m a real fan of conspiracy thrillers generally, and as events unfold across the world of politics and big business, it is becoming increasingly impossible to deny that these shadowy cabals of corruption do exist, manipulating our lives from the corridors of power. I loved the pace and energy of this one, being both a fast moving and gripping thriller, but also solidly basing the story in a world of lies and conspiracy that holds you firmly in its thrall. I would also like to congratulate O’Reilly in presenting us with a character- a female Tory MP- who actually exhibits evidence of a spine which is no mean feat. Ha. Little bit of politics there…
Seriously though, I thoroughly enjoyed the interplay between the two main characters, the mysterious assassin Michael North ( sharp-thinking, brawny and attractive) and his potential target, the aforementioned MP, Honor Jones (intelligent, fearless and attractive) whose true natures O’Reilly stealthily reveals, within the increasingly perilous situation they find themselves in as events unfold. There is a completely assured control of tension within the book, with some real heart-in-the-mouth episodes of violence and danger, balanced with a steadily creeping sense of unease as the underlying conspiracy comes to the surface. Combining both these aspects to the narrative, O’Reilly effectively keeps the reader on tenterhooks as to the real motivations of her characters, and providing an enjoyable game of cat and mouse for her characters and by extension, the reader. Really enjoyed Killing State and have bought the follow up. There can’t be a better recommendation than that.
(I bought this copy of Killing State)
Just outside a sleepy Highland town, a gamekeeper is found hanging lifeless from a tree. The local police investigate an apparent suicide, only to find he’s been snared as efficiently as the rabbit suspended beside him. As the body count rises, the desperate hunt is on to find the murderer before any more people die. But the town doesn’t give up its secrets easily, and who makes the intricate clockwork mechanisms carved from bone and wood found at each crime? Whirligig is a tartan noir like no other; an expose of the corruption pervading a small Highland community and the damage this inflicts on society’s most vulnerable. What happens when those placed in positions of trust look the other way; when those charged with our protection are inadequate to the challenge; when the only justice is that served by those who have been sinned against?
I tell you what, this was an absolute winner on so many levels for me, and with absolutely no disrespect to Andrew James Grieg, I will immediately draw comparisons with Benjamin Myers excellent thrillers, Turning Blue and These Darkening Days. This is purely on the basis that I have been looking for a comparable crime read to these books, in terms of darkness and violence set against a natural, brooding environment for some time, and, hallelujah, I have totally found it in Whirligig. I don’t quite know why people say they devoured a book, but think I understand a bit better now. Sometimes I will admit, reading predominantly crime fiction can become a bit of a chore, but this book hooked me from the start with its taut prose, an impending feel of dread and unease from the outset, and a nicely inventive killing to kick things off. Then it just got even better. And darker. And more inventively murderous.
Incorporating a classic police combo of older male DI, James Corstorphine, and younger female DC, Frankie McKenzie I was singularly impressed by how quickly this partnership and by extension, their police colleagues, were so effectively embedded into the narrative. Grieg’s character building was exceptional from the very start, instantly making a connection with this reader, through flowing dialogue, peppered with dry wit and gentle joshing, but then unfolding the character’s lives with depth and detail, until there was a real layer of comfort with them, which some authors take more than one book to achieve. This rested not solely with Grieg’s police protagonists as victims and suspects take their place in the plot, achieving new levels of empathy with the reader, or in some cases outright hostility. The violence is bleak but never gratuitous, and being played out against the Highland backdrop, as dark and sinister as the evil machinations in the book, only added to overall feeling of unease. Absolutely hoovered it up, leaving me with an almost tangible sense of loss when I finished it. Highly recommended, and can’t wait for the next.
(I bought this copy of Whirligig)
On a remote island in the Adriatic, an enigmatic billionaire hosts a twisted form of entertainment to satisfy the jaded appetites of his exclusive guests. And for one unsuspecting family, the holiday of a lifetime is about to become a desperate battle for survival. As young parents, Sam and Jody have managed to defy the odds once before. But years of struggle have taken their toll, and Sam’s demons return to haunt him at the worst possible time. Caught up in a sick game of cat and mouse, can they put their differences aside and work under intolerable pressure to save themselves and their children? Live or die. It’s the only choice they have…
During lockdown, I am sure I am not alone in having periods of such lack of concentration that I felt almost like I would never pick up a book again. If you totally give yourself over to the suspension of disbelief, and turn off that nit picky, endlessly questioning worm in your head, this was a complete tonic. On paper, it looks a fairly unbelievable premise, young couple on holiday with kids get immersed in bizarre Tales Of The Unexpected meets Hunger Games-esque fight for survival, but I tell you what, could I put it down? No, I could not.
I loved the whole farfetchedness of the story, because Bale makes you feel a real connection and empathy with this hapless family. I was completely rooting for them throughout. Well apart from one of the kids, who was really annoying, but that’s a minor quibble. He puts this perfectly ordinary family under such pressure, extreme torment and a pervading sense of violence, that you have to wonder if Bale’s partner has to sleep with one eye open. What a dark and twisted mind…. I like it. The baddies are, oh so bad. So scheming. As one character falls foul of this cartel of carnage you know how ruthless these people are. Do all of the family escape? Do they survive? Will you emerge with your nerves completely un-shredded? Why not find out? Mwahahahaha….
(With thanks to the author for an ARC of Survive)