“If Cats Disappeared From The World” by Genki Kawamura (2012)

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“If cats disappeared from the world, how would the world change?”

There seems to be an arbitrary divide in the world between “cat people” and “dog people”. Much as I do like dogs, I am definitely a cat person. There’s something endearingly sweet about them, and I like their nobility, which is often rudely punctured when they fall off something. We don’t keep cats – they just tolerate our presence. Of course they can be affectionate and loving, but I think it’s not possible to entirely tame a cat. The world would be a worse place without them, for sure.

In this Japanese novel, our protagonist is a postman who has just discovered that he has a brain tumour, and a matter of weeks or even days to live. Returning home to his pet cat, Cabbage, he struggles to think of anyone he needs to tell about this. He doesn’t have many friends, he’s been single for years, and he doesn’t speak to his father anymore, not since his mother’s death. While pondering, he finds that someone else has entered his house – it’s the devil, and he’s got an offer.

Our hero will get an extra day of life for everything he makes disappear from the world. The devil chooses something and he gets the option – get rid of it forever, or die. Desperate to stay alive, he agrees and over the course of the week, phones, movies and clocks are wiped out of existence. But when the devil suggests getting rid of all the cats, our hero is overcome with emotion for his beloved Cabbage. Can he really wipe out all the cats, just for an extra day of life?

There’s something almost melodic about Japanese writing. My previous encounters with it have been via Haruki Murakami and Kazuo Ishiguro (the latter of whom is actually British, but was born in Nagasaki), both of whom produced some books that I utterly adored, and again, Genki Kawamura does it again here. This is perhaps down to the translator, but there’s got to be something good beneath it, too. Casual in style and quite funny and irreverent in places, despite their being some deep themes here about making the most of every day and understanding what’s really important in life, I never felt I was being bashed over the head by the morals. The main character is sweet and I had a great deal of sympathy and fondness for him.

There is a certain amount of mystery regarding the novel – only the feline characters and one human get names – and no locations in Japan are explicitly given, but I didn’t really notice until I came to write this review and noticed I didn’t have any character names to hand. While the premise could be unbearably tragic, it isn’t, and while a “deal with the devil” story line is hardly new, it still seems fresh here and the version of the devil Kawamura produces is interesting, taking on whatever form the human he’s appearing to expects to see, rather than having one of his own.

A beautiful and thought-provoking novel about the important things in life, and living without regrets.

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“Danny The Champion Of The World” by Roald Dahl (1975)

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“When I was four months old, my mother died suddenly and my father was left to look after me all by himself.”

I was expecting to be reviewing a collection of supernatural stories by Rudyard Kipling this week, but I struggled to get into them and in a new policy of not forcing myself to read something I’m having a hard time with, I decided to read the short stories in between other novels and so found myself back in the imagination of Roald Dahl.

Danny grew up with only his father, William, who he worships without question. His young life is happy, spending his days helping his dad fix cars, working at their petrol station, and living in their tiny gypsy caravan on the outskirts of a small village. When he’s nine years old, however, his life takes an interesting turn. He wakes up to find that his father is gone and, feeling scared and alone for the first time in his life, he is unable to sleep until his father returns from out of the mist. It’s then that his father reveals a secret – he is a pheasant poacher.

Having not indulged in his hobby since Danny was born, the temptation has grown too much for William and he is determined to once again steal some pheasants from the land owned by the vile Mr Hazell. His old methods don’t appear to work very well anymore, and the keepers in the woods have become more savvy to old tricks. But Danny has a trick up his sleeve – one that will very likely change the face of poaching forever…

The biggest takeaways for people about this book, I suppose, is about the importance of family, and it seems particularly to be a love letter to fathers everywhere. Danny and William have a very affectionate, sweet relationship and it can’t fail to make you smile. They clearly enjoy one another’s company and completely adore each other. Danny is originally shocked to learn that his father – and indeed every other adult in the village – has a dark secret, but it’s definitely a moment of growth for him, and one that most of us experience at one time or another. It can be quite a moment to learn that the heroes that we’ve been looking up to, particularly our parents, are infallible and perhaps not always on the right side of morality. Danny almost seems to grow up in that moment, and while he still knows when something is right or wrong, he’s able to see in a few more shades of grey.

Most interestingly, perhaps, is that this one more than ever plays up the links between all of Dahl’s worlds, as William tells Danny all about the BFG, the dream-catching giant who runs above the hills with his suitcase and blowpipe. This story is written seven years before The BFG would become its own story, so one wonders if Dahl had it planned all along, or he took the notion from this book later on. Similarly, in James and the Giant Peach, the peach rolls across the countryside demolishing a famous chocolate factory. There is definitely a thread running through his work that seems to imply they’re all somewhat linked. Danny even lives only a few miles from where Matilda grows up, although at the time of this publication, her story is still thirteen years away. Perhaps Danny’s school is Crunchem Hall before the Trunchbull took over?

Danny is a funny little book – the policeman’s dialogue is particularly well-observed – and my edition seemed off somehow, until I realised a few pages in that in my edition the illustrations aren’t by Quentin Blake. It’s not quite Dahl without him. Nonetheless, I still enjoyed it. It differs to most of the other stories, lacking in a magical or fantastic element, and being one of the few books to include a stated moral, and the content is particularly weird given that it’s about a father teaching his son how to commit crimes, but it still works. It’s probably the most forgotten of Dahl’s novels, and unfairly so.

If you’ve bypassed this one, turn around and come back. You’ll thank me.

“Not Working” by Lisa Owens (2016)

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“There is a man standing outside my flat wearing khaki-greens and a huge Free Palestine badge.”

I, unfortunately, have a great deal of experience with the horror of late-twenties unemployment. I’m not going to go into it here – partly because it’s very boring, partly because I don’t want to – but Lisa Owens has done an incredible job of capturing the struggle in her novel Not Working.

Claire Flannery has just quit the job she hated with plans of finding the perfect job and one that she really wants to do. Unfortunately, she doesn’t know what that is. Sleepless nights begin and she struggles to get to grips with the job market and dealing with her judgemental friends and family who try to be supportive but have limited patience. It also doesn’t help that her grandfather has just died and at the funeral, Claire made an ill-advised comment and now her mother isn’t speaking to her, convinced that Claire has disgraced the memory of the deceased.

As Claire tries to work out exactly what she wants to do with her life, she begins to clash with long-term boyfriend Luke, her grandmother, several friends who are settling down with unsuitable partners, and her former colleagues. Desperate not to head back to square one, she wishes she could work out what she wants to do with her life, other than entering competitions on the Internet and sitting around in her pyjamas. But maybe it’s when you stop looking for things that life gets easier…

Owens is particularly good at capturing the minutia of life, from observations about people on public transport, to the silly little conversations we have with our nearest and dearest. There’s a great moment where Claire recites a text message from her father, complete with bad grammar and sudden switch to capital letters halfway through a word. She is also incredibly (and somewhat horrifically) skilled at pointing out a painful truth with a single line. I found myself somewhat stunned when I found one of my thoughts written down as if someone had crawled into my brain and dug it out while I’d been pretending it wasn’t true. (It was “I wish I liked myself a bit more, and wine more than a bit less.”) There’s also the thought many of us have probably had about how jobs aren’t necessarily as we imagine them to be: “I didn’t work hard at school and go to university so I could spend my life sending emails.” But the absolute killer, the thought that I’ve had but never been able to put into words, was thus:

What’s wrong is, I would tell them, if I could be bothered, were anyone even interested, but they wouldn’t understand, so what’s the point? But … what? Oh yeah, what is wrong with ‘her’ – i.e. me – is, I’m the spare human in the world. If you counted everyone up, I’m the one who’d be left over, the one who does nothing, only takes, always takes things, a drain on everyone, completely pathetic like the poor old – poor old thing, the poor old wooden spoon, floating in the dirty sink…

Ouch.

Despite the truth pills, it’s actually a very wonderful book – raw and honest and very funny. I’m not the first to say similar, but imagine the diaries of Adrian Mole and Bridget Jones had had a child, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what it’s like. Owens doesn’t shy away from the stigma attached to being unemployed as an adult, and how everyone around Claire reacts feels very real. And yet, she also is great at talking about how many of us want to find the thing we’re really good at or really want to do, but unfortunately we don’t always know what that is.

A great little read, but prone to hitting a bit too close to the bone.

“PopCo” by Scarlett Thomas (2004)

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“Paddington Station feels like it should be shut.”

Everyone likes a mystery – or rather, everyone likes solving a mystery. There’s little more infuriating than a mystery that is unsolved. They’re fun, sure, but the real mystery fans like solutions. There is a mystery promised at the heart of PopCo, but in my opinion it fails to entirely materialise. People have raved to be about Scarlett Thomas before, so I was curious to dive in and see what all the fuss was about. Turns out I think I dove into the wrong end of the pool.

Alice Butler works in the ideas and development department of PopCo, the third largest toy company in the world. Her childhood was unusual in many ways. Her mother died young, her father vanished one day, and she was raised by her grandparents who both had a deep love of maths, mystery and code breaking. Something of a loner, obsessed with paradoxes and crossword puzzles, she was headhunted by PopCo to work on their series of products centred around the world of codes and ciphers.

Now, she finds herself in Dartmoor at Head Office, with her and a number of others from the company told they have been gathered to come up with a product that will appeal to teenage girls. The staff members chosen are eclectic and diverse, coming from every aspect of the company including plush toys, video games and advertising. As time goes on and she attends many seminars, lectures and focus groups about the industry, she and those around her begin to rethink their lives. She embarks on a relationship with the quiet and handsome Ben, and then she begins to receive secret messages in a code that only she would be able to understand. Someone is trying to get hold of her, but is it someone from her past, or someone most nearer…

It’s always fair to first talk up the bits I liked about the book, although there aren’t many I can think of that I loved. I liked the grandparent characters, and I do generally find anything about secrets and codes quite interesting, so there is that. I also enjoyed the references to idea creation and the work of Edward de Bono, who I’ve used before too. There are some fascinating asides about how ideas spread and how we are now as a species almost blind to advertising. The big problem is a word I just used there – asides.

Because much of the code breaking plot requires you to know how these codes work, Thomas gives Alice long passages in which she explains how particular codes and ciphers work with explanations that slow the action to a crawl. Certain paradoxes, logic puzzles and riddles are discussed and analysed too, often to make a very small point, if they even have an impact on the story at all. I’ve no issue with it switching between Alice as a child and as an adult, that’s fine, but because of the frequent exposition dumps, it makes for a very erratically paced novel which can never get up to full steam. Every time you think you’re about to learn something new or have something answered, the brakes slam on and you have to read about another cipher.

Without giving too much away, the ending is also something of an anti-climax. Yes, I suppose things are tied up in some way, but not everything is explained to us (not necessarily a bad thing in a book) and there are definitely a few threads left hanging. Indeed, it feels like the story that Thomas actually wants to tell begins about fifty pages from the end, leaving absolutely no time for what, in my opinion, should be the bulk of the story. Alice’s characterisation feels slightly haphazard too, and in another writers hands, her idea of a product to appeal to teenage girls would be the focus, although almost certainly in a dystopian work. Here, the dystopian world is our own, which is somewhat depressing.

I’m reliably informed by many people that this isn’t Thomas’s best work, so I may return to her at some point, but I’m not enthralled as of yet.

“The Man I Think I Know” by Mike Gayle (2018)

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“You’re stopping my dole money?”

Mike Gayle has long been one of my favourite writers. With a tone that always sounds like he’s just telling you a story over a pint, and a sharp turn of phrase, his books are lined up for a re-read sometime soon, as only a couple of them are on the blog so far, which means it’s been a long time since I read his earlier books, and I think they’re all worth talking about. Let’s focus today, however, on his newest book, The Man I Think I Know.

Danny and James haven’t seen each other for many years – not since their time together at one of Britain’s most prestigious boarding schools. Every student who attends ends up curing a disease, serving in government, making big headlines, or generally just being a complete success in whatever field they chose. And yet our heroes are entirely at odds with this. Danny has just had his dole money cut off after failing to find work yet again, and James has had to move back home with his parents after The Incident that changed his whole way of life.

When James’s parents go on a much needed holiday, James is booked into a care centre for the duration, where he meets Danny who now works as a carer. Trouble is, when he introduces himself, Danny says he doesn’t recognise him. This is a lie. The two men form a strange bond. In James, Danny finds someone who doesn’t think he’s a hopeless waste of space. In Danny, James finds someone who treats him like the man he used to be before The Incident, and not as a fragile patient. Desperate to get out from his parents’ home, James offers Danny the chance to move in with as his live-in carer. What happens next will change both of their lives for the better.

In my experience, media focuses far more on romantic relationships than any other, with family coming second, and platonic friendships a long way down the list. Even rarer are stories about male friendship. Mike Gayle is one of the few writers who has tapped into this market and writes brilliant stories about men growing up and trying to maintain friendships. This is perhaps his most tender, with the relationship between James and Danny front and centre of the story. They are both single thirty-somethings who have been dealt an unfair hand by life, although in very different ways.

Gayle sympathetically writes about ABIs (acquired brain injuries), which is what James is now suffering from, and it’s clear he’s done his research into this world. In the chapters narrated by James, it is clear from his way of speaking that The Incident had a profound affect on him, and while we aren’t treated to any scenes of him before his ABI, indications of who he was do slip through. James is a great figure as he also destroys the harmful stereotypes some people have about those with mental illness. As James reminds us throughout, people treat him differently because he has difficulty walking and talking, but inside he is still intelligent, ambitious, and capable of telling jokes. This is an important thing to never lose sight of in the real world, as too often we judge on appearances. Danny is also very compelling. Perhaps at first it’s easy to write him off as someone unworthy of our sympathy as most of his problems seem to have been caused by his own failings, but as the story unfolds, we learn the tragedy at the heart of his existence and cheer him on as he picks himself up and finds some direction in life.

Gayle’s usual warmth, wit and charm are all present in this book and I’m far from the first to heap praise on it this year, but I’m more than happy to add my name to the list of fans. A very engaging read.

“The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047” by Lionel Shriver (2016)

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“Don’t use clean water to wash your hands!”

Many people have long lived by the notion that money makes the world go round. I’m not sure that’s true, but there’s no denying that if you have money it makes for a more comfortable ride. During the credit crunch last decade, the general population wised up a little to economics and realised that things weren’t necessarily always going to be so rosy. Indeed, with Brexit looming here in the UK, the cost of it and how that money will be raised seems to be a constant topic. Economic destruction is just one of the many negative options for the future of the planet, and Lionel Shriver explores that notion here.

The year is 2029 and things in the USA are bad. The dollar has imploded and is barely worth anything. The national debt will never be repaid. An international currency war is wiping out bank accounts with great speed. The Mandible family are just one of many that are struggling to survive in this world where cabbage costs $38 a head (and rising) and homeless shelters are bursting at the seams. When the family patriarch, Douglas Mandible, sees the inheritance he was set to leave his large family disappear, the whole clan now must deal with disappointment, frustration, and a lack of anything approaching luxury.

Florence works at one of the homeless shelters and is tired of having to turn away people every day because they’ve got a distant uncle with a spare bedroom. Her teenage son, Willing, is precocious and seems to have an innate understanding of economics and the way the world is going. Avery and Lowell are struggling to give up their expensive wines and quality clothes, and their children – Savannah, Goog and Bing – aren’t at all used to going without. In fact, the only one who seems to be doing OK for himself is Jarred, who has disappeared upstate to run a farm, now that agriculture is the only way to make any money.

As prices rise and everyone’s situation becomes increasingly desperate, the family find themselves making one compromise too many as they do whatever they can to survive through to a better future that may or may not be coming.

I’m not an economist by any means, but even I can see that the culture of spending money we don’t have is surely going to cause problems eventually. Shriver uses her characters (in particular Willing and Lowell) to explain the fundamentals of interest, taxation and inflation to us, and while these are the clunkier parts of the novel, they’re very useful to have. The first two thirds of the book are set between 2029 and 2032, when the country is falling apart and the final third takes us to 2047 with the surviving characters in a country that has begun to rebuild itself in a new way to aid its survival for longer. During the gap, a number of characters we’d grown to be interested in are wiped out, which is a shame and a bit of a cop out, but I also understand why it’s done.

One of my favourite aspects of dystopian futures, or anything set in the future really, is simply how the author envisions that world. I don’t mean the major details, more the little ones. In this one, for example, most of the technology brands we know have vanished and been replaced by superior models, which is by now a common idea. I do really love glimpses at future politics, too. While the story is set entirely in the USA, it’s mentioned that North and South Korea have undergone reunification, Ed Balls is the current British Prime Minister, the USA has its first Latin American President, and at some point before the story begins, Putin declared himself President for Life, and the USA went to war with New Zealand for some reason.

It’s an intelligent book, and actually quite funny as well, although the reality of what’s happening is perhaps a little daunting. I’m not sure society will ever get to these extremes, but odder things have happened. While the end careens towards a slightly more positive future, the very final paragraphs suggest that humanity, once again, has never learned from its mistakes. If humanity has a fatal flaw, it’s that, and I think it’s important to show it. Maybe one day we’ll pay attention.

“Dead Man’s Time” by Peter James (2013)

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“The boy’s father kissed him goodnight for the last time – although neither of them knew that.”

It’s not been long since my last visit to the criminal underbelly of Brighton, but the next visit is never all that far away. I’m going to crack on, but there may be spoilers here if you’ve not read the rest of the series and are bothered about having aspects of the ongoing plot revealed too soon. If not, press on.

A few weeks after the birth of his son, Detective Superintendent Roy Grace hopes that work might give him a bit of a break and let him enjoy some time with Cleo and the new baby. Brighton, on the other hand, has other ideas. There’s been a burglary in a wealthy part of the city that’s left an elderly woman fighting for her life after being tortured, and millions of pounds worth of antiques smuggled off to the black market. The woman’s brother, Gavin Daly may be ninety-five, but when he discovers that a particular item of enormous sentimental value was also taken, he vows at nothing to get it back.

As Roy Grace and his team try to stop Daly and his son from taking matters into their own hands, a story unfolds that reveals a familial promise almost a century old. The race is on to get hold of the missing antiques and bring the villains to justice. Elsewhere, however, unwelcome faces from Grace’s past are closing in, and they’re not coming for a pleasant reunion and catch up over coffee.

As ever when I review a lot of books by the same person, particularly when they’re in the same series or on a similar theme, it’s difficult to keep knowing what to say. This it the ninth novel in the Roy Grace series, and it remains as interesting and captivating as ever. However, the books are beginning to spend more and more time away from Brighton – the reason I became interested in them in the first place – and in other countries, usually the USA. I do miss the simpler times of them being set in locations I know, and while much of the book still is, James appears to be stretching the net wider now. It’s not really a complaint – I enjoy the books and the characters a lot – but just a note that if you came here for the same reason as me, you may be disappointed.

As ever, more layers are added to the characters and they continue to be some of the most three-dimensional and realistic people to ever populate a fictional world. There are a couple of bigger developments here, too, while other aspects have been forgone. More than any other, it feels like a sequel and while there are still introductions to every character, they’re noticeably shorter and some prior knowledge is required. Previous threads – such as the constant leaks to the local press – have by now been resolved, but new sub-plots are emerging. There is the real sense that no one in the story is entirely independent. Every character, no matter how small, has a fully developed life of which we only see a little.

The actual criminal activity in the book is also incredibly dark, but then most of James’s books seem to follow that line. Not for the very faint of heart, this book dabbles in topics of torture and attacks on the weakest members of society, but there is also much about loyalty, familial love, and letting go. There even seem to be more red herrings than usual here, with you never being quite sure how everything links up and what exactly is going to happen. Nonetheless, it all does, and James even provides a surprising final chapter that in the hands of a lesser author might seem cheesy.

Roy Grace and Peter James continue to dazzle, and long may they do so.

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