“After Dark” by Haruki Murakami (2004)

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“Eyes mark the shape of the city.”

It seems that eventually, if you read enough, you will brush up against Haruki Murakami. A few years ago I read Kafka on the Shore and was simultaneously smitten and bemused by it. He is probably Japan’s most famous literary export (Kazuo Ishiguro wrote his books in English) and his books are charmingly bizarre.

After Dark takes place over seven hours, from midnight to 7 am, in Tokyo. Mari Asai is sitting in a restaurant at midnight, reading a heavy book, when she is joined by a skinny trombonist who claims to know her sister. The sister, Eri, however, is asleep, and has been for two months. In another part of the city, a late-working businessman has attacked a Chinese prostitute and stolen everything she owns.

As the night draws on, these characters become linked and their stories wrap around one another in the black of the Japanese night. But not everything is as it seems. There’s a Man with No Face, staring at something unrevealed. An unplugged television is starting to show signs of life. And mirrors are are holding onto their reflections longer than they should. Is it all a trick of the night, or is something strange going on?

In parts, the book almost feels like it’s written in blank verse, having an almost lyrical quality to several parts. The narrator is “pure point of view”, able to watch, from any angle, but not interfere. It’s a short book, but the characters have enormous depth and are oddly likeable and, weirdly, relatable, despite the strangeness going on around them. The short time frame and the fact it all takes place at a time when most of the world is meant to be asleep gives it a haunting, magical quality. And, of course, as in everything Murakami does, there are cats.

There’s not much in the way of plot, and while things happen, little is resolved because daylight invades at the end of the novel and a new day starts. We are not allowed to know what will happen to any of the people here, but we can count ourselves lucky to have been able to spend a little time with them. Murakami’s style seems to cleverly mimic the way that time seems malleable in the early hours of the morning, and how the whole time is really one big liminal space. Everything feels a bit off, which means that you accept the more magical aspects of the story without hesitation. If a mirror is going to stop working properly, it would be at three in the morning.

Haunting and very beautiful, a shot of magic that will linger on like a half-forgotten dream long after you’ve woken up.

“Nina Is Not OK” by Shappi Khorsandi (2016)

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“The burly bouncer was holding me by the scruff of the neck.”

I like a drink. A lot of my friends like a drink. We are, however, generally capable of knowing when we’ve had enough. We don’t drink to black out, but whether that’s down to our age (hangovers are much worse in your late twenties than they were at university) and or an inbuilt sense of responsibility, I won’t state here. However, in Nina is Not OK, the first novel by the phenomenal British comedian Shappi Khorsandi, we meet a girl who definitely doesn’t know when to quit.

As the story opens, Nina is being kicked out of a nightclub where she has been engaging in, let’s say, a public display of sexual activity. Followed out by the man involved and one of his friends, the next thing she remembers is being in a taxi holding her knickers. Things don’t get any better from here. Still smarting from the sudden departure of her boyfriend Jamie, she is unable to remember quite what happened on this night. Knowing something bad did, however, she seeks to block any ideas out from her mind, sending her into a downward spiral of heavy drinking and sleeping with whoever comes her way.

Amongst all this, she discovers that her friend Zoe is now dating the guy she met at the club, her mum and stepdad are planning on moving to Germany, Jamie isn’t replying to any of her messages, she’s struggling to come to terms with her sexuality, and her exams are creeping ever nearer. Things reach a head, however, when she tries to hit on her best friend’s dad. Rehab seems to be the only option, but even that isn’t going to be the end of all the drama…

I find myself deeply conflicted about the character of Nina for much of the novel. The trouble is, she reminds me quite a lot of a girl I knew at school. She was perpetually drunk, sleeping with inappropriate characters, and generally struggling to keep her life together. But we were all seventeen – as Nina is in this book – and what on earth do we know about helping keep one another sane? She moved away eventually – none of us had been able to cope with her – and I happen to know that she is now healthy and happy elsewhere. This whole thing makes the character far more real and less of a stereotype than Nina may appear to others. However, the girl I knew didn’t quite go as far as this, and her life wasn’t quite as much of a soap opera. I did, however, find myself sympathising more with her friends and family who had to put up with her drunken antics than I did Nina herself though.

It wasn’t until later in the book when the truth comes out that I began to feel sorry for her. I found it hard to have any sympathy for her as she seems to be willfully destroying her own life, and because the incident from the opening chapter is left vague, I seemed to forget about its severity. She goes through a lot, and Khorsandi handles it all with compassion and skill. The characters are vibrant and real, if not always particularly pleasant, and there are some horrible but vital truths about our society and its treatment of men and women, rape victims and alcoholism. The scenes set in rehab are tragic and bring home the reality of the situation for many people.

It’s a dark and brave novel full of heart and horror. Emotional doesn’t even begin to cover it. I’m a big fan of Khorsandi’s comedy, and I always turn to a novel by a celebrity with trepidation as I’ve been burnt before, but this one came highly recommended, and I’m pleased to say that she’s written a wonderful, if shocking, novel.

“A Long Way Down” by Nick Hornby (2005)

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“Can I explain why I wanted to jump off the top of a tower-block?”

Suicide still seems to be one of the most taboo subjects in the Western world. Death is rarely something any of us want to think of, and many of us are upset, perhaps outraged, by the concept of someone taking their own life. Most, if not all, religions look upon it as a grave sin, and there are organisations dedicated to preventing people from doing it. I’ve, fortunately, never been in a position where I felt that death was the only option, so I can offer no explanation for how these people feel or what drives them to the edge, sometimes literally. In my first foray into a Nick Hornby novel, he dips his toe into the world of the suicidal and tries to shed some light on it all.

Martin Sharp doesn’t think he has anything left to live for. After sleeping with an underage girl, he’s done time in prison and is now dealing with no contact with his children, no career prospects, and no hope. On New Year’s Eve he makes his way to the roof of Topper’s House, a popular suicide spot in north London. However, while contemplating the leap, he finds himself joined by three other would-be jumpers: Maureen, a single mother struggling to cope with the prospect of another year with her disabled son, Jess, who is eighteen and only wanted an explanation from her ex-boyfriend as to why he left her, and JJ, an American whose dreams have not come true and he’s not a world-famous musician.

Unable and unwilling to jump with an audience, Martin comes away from the ledge and the four eat the pizza JJ was delivering to the building and then descend through the building to a party to find Jess’s ex. The four vastly different people are soon bound by this one act, and when the press hunt them down and start asking questions, they find themselves united and lying to the country about what really happened on the roof. As time goes on and their friendships develop, they begin to see that maybe death isn’t the answer. Maybe they were just asking the wrong questions.

The most incredible character of the novel is, in my opinion, Maureen. She has a son who is trapped in a wheelchair, unable to move or communicate, and she has dedicated her life to him, sacrificing any joy from her life to take care of him. Her life is tragic in the extreme. She is incredibly isolated and generally unaware of anything that’s happened in the outside world for about twenty years. You can see fully why she would want to end it, but are heartbroken by the fact that she thinks that’s the only option. She is as trapped as her son, and her passages are the most poignant and wonderful. She was my favourite character by a long way, if only because I wanted to help rescue her.

The narration shifts around between the four characters, and Hornby does a brilliant job of making them all sound so distinct. Maureen bleeps out her swear words, Jess doesn’t use correct punctuation and her sentences run on, and JJ uses Americanisms throughout. I like the other three characters just fine too, but they are all less sympathetic than Maureen. Jess seems like a typical angst-ridden teenager but we learn more about exactly who she is and what happened to her to get her in this position. JJ has the least reason to jump, almost seeming to find himself at Topper’s House on a whim, so he at first lies about his reason for wanting to end it all. Martin is arrogant and foolish, but he’s also rather self aware and his character does undergo some development throughout the novel, showing he is capable of learning from mistakes, even if he doesn’t always follow the lesson fully.

In another novel, maybe some of the things that happen to them would seem far-fetched, but here they seem to work. People bond in difficult times in strange ways, so I took it that it had to take something extraordinary to bring these people together, but once they were, everything they did seemed normal. There’s no reason these four should ever have met otherwise, but I think life generally throws us in the path of the people we need most.

A couple of laugh-out-loud moments, but generally not as funny as billed, however that’s not really a complaint. It’s very wise and thoughtful and really rather beautiful, and I enjoyed it immensely.

“The Five People You Meet In Heaven” by Mitch Albom (2003)

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“This is a story about a man named Eddie and it behind at the end, with Eddie dying in the sun.”

Given how many books I have unread on my shelves, I always feel a bit guilty re-reading something. However, this took me a single evening and half an hour the following morning, so I don’t feel too bad about it. Plus, it’s totally worth it. I think I last read Five People either while I was at university or perhaps even earlier. I recalled fragments, but I wanted to see if it was as good as I remembered.

The story opens on Eddie’s 83rd birthday. He is the head of maintenance at Ruby Pier, an old amusement park that still attracts a great number of tourists. He continues on his day, not realising that soon he will die. When one of the rides malfunctions, Eddie rushes forward to save a small girl from death, but in the process, loses his own life.

He wakes up in the afterlife, where he learns that he will, one by one, meet five people who somehow made a big impact on his life. Between them, they will teach him lessons and explain what his life meant. Some of them he will know, others he will not, but each of them changed his life forever. As Eddie encounters his five people, he is forced to look back on his life and perhaps re-evaluate what that life was really like. Only when he’s met the five will his life make complete sense, and he can move on to whatever the next stage is.

While a quick read, the morals and messages will last longer. I can see already why parts of this story had stuck with me for so long; just a few tired synapses working hard to make themselves known at times of importance. Eddie is a sympathetic character, and in many ways the book and his life are tragedies, but there is hope there too, and love, and above all the feeling that no one is insignificant and everyone matters. There’s a huge emphasis on how all our stories are interconnected, which I’ve always loved to think about. You are only the protagonist in your own story; supporting cast in the story of everyone you know, and a background extra in millions more. But everyone’s story is important, and they all create changes in others.

It’s heartbreaking and beautiful. I’ve read Mitch Albom a couple of times before, and I always find his prose to be wonderful. He doesn’t waste words, but with the merest explanations and descriptions paints vast images for you to swim in. I don’t know why, really, I feel guilty about re-reading books, because I believe that many times a book comes along just as you need it, and maybe my brain knew that I needed to read this again right now. I implore you to find a copy and find some peace. Because if nothing else, this book will teach you the most important lesson of all, and the one that we all need to be reminded of now and again – you matter.

“King Crow” by Michael Stewart (2011)

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‘king hell…

“When I look at people, I wonder what sort of birds they are.”

It’s been a long time since I found myself close to not bothering to finish a book, so this was very overdue. I haven’t not finished a book in years, and this one was only small, but after getting only 70 pages in over three days (given I read the 600+ pages of Dead Like You in the same time), I seriously thought about not finishing. But, then today happened, the weather was nice and I had a hangover to fight off, so I got stuck in and finished the damn thing.

Paul Cooper is a sixteen-year-old boy with no friends and a fascination with birds of all kinds. He has a rotten home life – his father left when he was very young, and his mother now has a string of affairs with unsuitable women – and has recently moved to a new school, where he’d rather read his ornithological books and ignore the world around him.

Then he meets Ashley, who is cool, good-looking and basically his polar opposite. Ashley has got involved with a gang of drug dealers and when a deal goes wrong, Ashley is tortured. Cooper helps him escape, and the two steal a car to get away from their assailants, but may kill one as they drive off. With some pissed off men on their heels, the two set off to the Lake District – Ashley to escape whatever crime he’s committed, and Cooper to finally see some wild ravens. Along the way they pick up the wealthy Becky who seems to fancy Cooper and his oddities, and soon their story reaches the national press. There’s a manhunt underway, but all Cooper can think about is how ravens scavenge at carcasses…

So, while it’s never explicitly stated, it’s fairly obvious that Cooper is meant to be somewhere on the autism spectrum. While this is handled beautifully in some novels, such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, unfortunately here it seems to have been penned by someone who once read a pamphlet on the condition and all they took away was the fact that sometimes autistic people develop strong obsessions with one topic. This is played out here with Cooper ticking off all the birds he’s seen wild. Throughout, he’s more interested in the fact he’s just seen a woodcock and a raven than knowing he’s carrying drugs, or is embroiled in some serious crimes. His behaviour seems to be that of two entirely different people, which I guess plays in to the ending, but I found it so jarring to read.

While the ornithological facts that intersperse the text are quite interesting, there’s no engaging plot to hang them on. Cooper is irritating, Becky doesn’t seem deep enough to contain all the facets of the personality she’s supposed to have, and the resolution, as far as I’m concerned, just leaves so many questions unanswered that I was simply frustrated.

According to Amazon and Goodreads, I appear to be all but alone in this summary of the book, with everyone else hailing it as a masterpiece and an exciting new voice, but I was utterly unmoved. If you like birds, read H Is For Hawk instead.

“Vox” by Nicholson Baker (1992)

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“What are you wearing?”

I last stumbled into a Nicholson Baker novel two years ago, and admired The Mezzanine for its ability to hold together a clever and engaging narrative, despite the entire story taking place on one escalator journey. I don’t know if Baker picks small moments for all his stories, but he has done it again here. This time, we’re spending the entire novel in one phone call.

Two strangers are among the people who have called a sex chat line and, liking the sound of one another’s voices, they switch to a private chat line to get to know one another better. There, instead of launching into phone sex, they find themselves opening up, talking about past sexual experiences but also leading into conversations about wallpaper, circuses, tights, car washes, spontaneous human combustion and what to do with a fork when it gets damaged in the dishwasher. As their conversation becomes more and more intimate, it becomes more exciting, and it seems soon that they’ve both found something unexpected.

So, it’s obviously all about people on a sex line, and so I was expecting something sexy. Mostly though, it didn’t happen. I wasn’t seeking out a thrill from the book, but I thought it might be a bit full on. The characters talk openly about masturbation, sex and people they’ve had sex with, as well as describing in great detail several fantasies they have. There’s actually something oddly innocent about the whole thing. Towards the end though, it becomes incredibly explicit and phone sex is in full flow, which suddenly came as a surprise after so long.

Our strangers are engaging people though, both perhaps a little unused to these phone lines, or particularly meeting someone on them they have a genuine connection with. Baker’s command of the dialogue – and the book is mostly dialogue with only a couple of “he said”/”she said” tags – is wonderful and it feels very realistic, with them restarting sentences, repeating themselves, and stringing their thoughts together in long, pauseless streams, providing the reader with sentences sometimes a page or more long.

Did it turn me on? Actually, yes, a bit. No, I’m not going anymore specific than that, but it’s a really quite remarkable novella with in unusual form. There’s no real story, nothing much happens, but you grow to feel for the characters fairly quickly and it moves you in a way I can’t precisely put words to. Definitely one to check out.

As a final fun fact, it’s a book that gained notoriety after Bill Clinton received a copy while he was President from a young, up-and-coming intern called Monica. I wonder what happened to her…

“Five Rivers Met On A Wooded Plain” by Barney Norris (2016)

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five-rivers“Long before the steep trickle of the Channel widened to make an island of England, before the first settlers arrived and started claiming the land around, laying down tree trunks to make pathways through marshes from ridgeway to mountain to hill, something unusual happened in the green south of Wiltshire.”

Every so often you stumble across a book that feels particularly special. All the truths of the world are hidden in the lies of novels, and Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain has done something really rather wonderful. I’ll get my bitterness over the fact that the author, Barney Norris, is only a year older than me and wildly more successful and talented out of the way as quickly as possible and on we go with the review.

Set in the beautiful city of Salisbury and its picturesque surroundings, Five Rivers… brings together the overlapping stories of five residents. Rita is the wrong side of sixty, selling flowers in the market by day and dealing drugs by night. Sam has just turned sixteen and is dealing with the hormonal headache that comes from falling in love for the first time. George has just been widowed from his wife of fifty years and doesn’t seem to have a clue what’s meant to happen next. Alison is a desperately lonely middle-aged woman, left alone for weeks on end with a son at boarding school and a husband serving in Afghanistan. And Liam is a security guard, running  away from his problems and finding himself back where he began. A car crash brings the five together and their lives loop around one another, bringing to the surface feelings that they’ve tried hard to hide.

Despite his relatively young age, Norris slips into the roles of his five narrators like a man trying on a series of tailor-made suits on Savile Row. He inhabits the role of the nervous, awkward Sam as naturally he does the older woman Rita. His style is mesmerising, and each character leaps off the page as a complete individual, despite us few if any clues as to their physical appearances. It doesn’t matter though, because they feel plenty real enough.

Norris has tapped into something utterly remarkable here, and frequently I found myself having to stop for a while, tears threatening to expose themselves, as he reveals yet another painful truth about the world. As Sam himself notes, “It’s so strange when a song or a story can […] put your own feelings into words as if you’d hidden them there yourself”. The text is full of emotions and thoughts that have definitely occurred to me, but I’ve never been able to get them out quite right. Some writer I am, huh. Norris makes it look easy. Sam’s chapter is the one I had particular difficulty in dealing with, as I saw a lot of myself in him, right down to some painfully specific details.

While the book contains all sorts of themes on the smallness of the world, how to find happiness, and how to decide what really matters in life, there are two overwhelming themes for me. The first is the relationship between parents and their children, in particular that of mothers and sons. Most of the characters have issues in this field, and we explore them from different angles. Sam has lived in a quiet house where he and his parents have never spoken about anything “important”. Alison feels herself drifting from her teenage son and wonders if she’ll ever be able to be friends with him. Liam’s parents are moving on with their lives and starting again in their fifties, leaving him feeling lost. The strongest theme is, however, loneliness. Despite being cripplingly afraid of loneliness myself, I seem to keep finding books about it and almost without fail falling in love with them. Each of the five main characters is lonely in one way or another, either cut off from their family, or unable to open up, or feeling isolated and trapped. So many of us plod on through life, but how many of us are actually happy with what has happened to us?

A deeply beautiful book from an author who I shall be keeping an eye on, because I think this could be the start of a very promising literary career.

My novel contains much less in the way of beautiful, worldly truths, but instead fills Salisbury with bickering gods and an ancient cannibal. Get hold of The Atomic Blood-stained Bus on Amazon if you like that sort of thing.

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