Around the world in 10 books

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday hosted by Broke and Bookish gives me carte blanche to write about anything that takes my fancy. I know many bloggers and readers have a goal this year to broaden their reading horizons by selecting authors from different parts of the world. I’ve been making slow but steady progress down that path for the last few years so I thought this week I would take you all on my reading journey via 10 books I’ve discovered. I’ve selected novels that either a strong sense of the country or culture or that provide an insight into its history.

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We start our journey in Asia …

  • India: I had so much choice here. In the end it was a toss up between Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry or The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee. Mistry takes us into the heart of Mumbai at a time (1971) when the country was in the midst of internal upheaval and the Prime Minister uses her secret police to undermine the forces that threaten to disrupt the whole fabric of India. In the end I plumped for The Lives of Others which takes a similar path of portraying a family caught up in political turbulence. Mukherjee’s tale takes place a decade earlier than Mistry’s novel at a time when Communist forces were trying to de-stablise the country. I chose this novel because I had no idea about that aspect of India’s history but I also enjoyed the way Mukerjee showed how the breakdown in the political world was mirrored by a breakdown in the structure of one family.
  • Japan: Norwegian Wood by Murakami Huraki is an exquisitely written novel about love and despair but I chose this because it portrayed a different side of life in Japan. This is not the Japan of kimonos and geishas, of rituals and codes of behaviour but a world seen through the eyes of its young people. Huraki sets much of this novel in Tokyo in 1969, taking us through the student world of late night bars and all night cinemas with not a karoke microphone in sight.
  • China: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Saijie. I knew before reading this novella that intellectuals were considered abhorrent by the Maoist regime in the 1970s and often lost their lives as a result. But I didn’t know that the regime also tried to ‘re-educate’ them by sending them off to live with the peasants in the countryside. Saijie’s novel follows two young boys despatched to a remote village where instead of being cleansed of all tainted ideas, they instead discover new ones through the novels of Balzac, Hugo and Flaubert that they have to hide from the authorities.

Let’s pick up our suitcases and make a brief stop in South America  …

  • Colombia: The Armies by Evelio Rosero Diago. As you sip your next cup of coffee spare a few moments to think about the country from which many of those beans originate. Diago’s novel is set at a time when citizens of Colombia live in fear of armed gangs and drug dealers who hide out in the hills. They may be killed or they may have been made to ‘disappear’. This is what Ismael −a retired teacher – fears has happened to his wife when he returns home to find the place deserted. The result is a deeply moving story about a man who cannot seek safety for himself until he knows the truth about his wife.

And now we’re en route to Africa …

  • South Africa:  I was tempted to go for Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, a classic text set just before the introduction of apartheid but decided instead on a book that shows a completely different side of the country. Fiela’s Child  by Dalene Matthee is set well before the apartheid era but the issue of colour is still very much part of this novel about a white boy who goes missing from his woodcutter family and is found many years later living as the child of a native family. It’s a story that poses a question of which bond is stronger – that of the birth family or the family who raise and nurture the child?
  • Republic of the Congo: Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou. This short novel brings some light relief from the serious issues with which a lot of African fiction is concerned. It’s set in a seedy bar and features the host of characters to be found propping up the bar and boring the pants off the other customers with their hard luck stories. In between we get some insights into their thoughts on life in the Congo, the delusional nature of the nation’s male population and the distrust of politicians and the nature of African politicians. It’s great fun to read and to try and spot Mabanckou’s numerous allusions to other texts.

And finally we land in Europe …

  • Finland: White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen. Until I picked this up from the Pereine Press catalogue I had no idea that Finland had experienced a devastating famine in the late 1860s. This novella holds nothing back in relating the misery caused by that event and the desperate lengths to which its citizens will go to save themselves. One of them – a peasant farmer’s wife from the north – is the focus of the novel. She abandons her dying husband and sets off on foot through waist-high snow with her two young children. You read this with a sense of dread about what awaits her.
  • Hungary:  Satantango by László Krasznahorkai. This is an equally grim though fascinating book which exposes the way evil materialises to take advantage of poor and desperate peasants already suffering the misery of an oppressive political regime. Not a book that will make you happy but it will certainly make you thankful not to be living under such a regime.
  • France:  L’Assommoir by Emile Zola. Paris, the ‘city of lights’,  had its dark  side in the nineteenth century. Behind the magnificent facades and glittering wealth were people living in abject poverty amid open sewers and overflowing drains. They dreamed of a different life but – according to Zola’s theory of naturalism – their inherited flaws of character or the environment around them would always bring them down. Zola always bases his novels on meticulous research so you can be sure all the detail of living conditions is far from exaggerated.
  • Italy: Inspector Montelbano series by Andrea Camilleri. I’m going to end with something which could be considered light reading compared to most of the titles in this list. Ask people to name anything associated with Italy and though some will mention ‘art’, ‘heritage’ it won’t be too long before you hear ‘wine’ and ‘pasta.’  Food and Italy are inseparable  which probably explains why Andrea Camilleri devotes so much time to describing the meals eaten by his lead character Inspector Montelbano. Few pages go by without a scene where the Inspector pops into his favourite trattoria for lunch – not for him your typical working day lunch of a sandwich while sat at the computer. This is a full blown three course affair. When he gets home at the end of a long day chasing criminals it’s to find his housekeeper has prepared him something delicious for supper. Camilleri is pretty mean to his readers by listing all these fabulous sounding meals but the tourist board of Sicily must be thrilled because the Montelbano books are guaranteed to make you want to dig out that passport and head for the island.
How are your reading travels going?

If you also are trying to broaden your reading this year, do share your experience. Perhaps you found some other gems for the countries I’ve mentioned. If you need inspiration take a look at the recommendations of bloggers who have written guest posts about the literature from their country – you’ll find them all on the View from Here page.

The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon [review]

angels-gameShadowy benefactors, corrupt policemen, ghostly figures, tortured love: the elements that made Shadow of the Wind such a commercial success for Carlos Ruiz Zafon, make their return appearance in his prequel The Angel’s Game.

Zafon takes us once more on an adventure through the twisting streets of early-20th-century Barcelona where the fading grandeur of bourgeoisie homes mingle with Gaudí’s strange and surreal constructions and a maze of dark passages created in Roman and medieval times. The city’s back alleys, parks and cemeteries provide the perfect setting for a story of mystery, death and devilment. It’s the city’s darker side that the narrator David Martin has to navigate in order to save his life, win back the love of his life and solve the mystery of the abandoned tower in which he lives.

David is an unhappy soul. Robbed of his mother at an early age, he is raised by his illiterate, brutish drunkard father. The boy’s only joy is reading, particularly his favourite novel, Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. David gets his own chance of betterment when he begins writing a weekly newspaper serial. His stories, written in ‘penny dreadful’ style, feature a glamorous murderess who kills with a kiss made deadly by her poison-impregnated.  Though readers love them, David is less than enthused. Nor does his mood improve when he gets a contract with some dubious publishers which requires him to produce a monthly pseudonymous series of books entitled “City of the Damned,” a pace of writing which brings him to the brink of exhaustion and a medical diagnosis of an incurable brain tumour.

The answer to his prayers may lie in an approach from Andreas Corelli, a suave and civilised man who describes himself as a publisher from Paris. He offers David a lucrative deal – 1000,000 French francs to write a sacred text that will create a new religion and a legion of believers.  As attractive as the money is, the stronger enticement for David is Corelli’s promise that in return for writing the book he will live. But who is Corelli? And what was his connection with Diego Marlasca a former lawyer who once owned David’s house but who died in mysterious circumstances. Is it simply a coincidence that Diego was also occupied in writing a book and his initials are also those of David’s?  The more David encounters Corelli, the more suspicious he becomes and the more convinced that he has made a pact with something evil. But then the sense of selling one’s soul goes is part and parcel of the writer’s life according to David.

A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story. He will never forget the sweet poison of vanity in his blood and the belief that if he succeeds in no letting anyone discover his lack of talent, the dream of literature will provide him with a roof over his head, a hot meal … and what he coverts most: his name printed on a miserable piece of paper that surely will outlive him. A writer is condemned to remember that moment because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price.

What we get with The Angel’s Game is a spirited, fast moving adventure story full of the conventions of pulp fiction and the Gothic mystery.  It’s absurd in parts (David evades police, survives gun shots and almost near death from being thrown out of a funicular) but then it wouldn’t be an adventure story without those absurdities.  The narrative is also of patchy quality in places – cliched conversations between David and his lost love and tedious conversations between David and Corelli about the nature of belief and religion slow the pace down. The denouement also felt rushed with many elements and sub plots not completely resolved.

But for all that I enjoyed re-visiting the Cemetery of Forgotten Books – the secret labyrinth of texts by authors doomed never to be remembered. I loved the way Zufon made Barcelona seem almost a character in the novel, using very cinematic techniques. And I laughed at the tongue in cheek way he portrays the life of a writer.

“Normal people bring children into the world, we novelists brings books,’  says David at one point and then goes on to bemoan the consequences of that birth:

We are condemned to put our whole lives into them, even though they hardly ever thank us for it. We are condemned to die in their pages and sometimes even to let our books be the ones who, in the end, will take our lives.

I’m not aware of that many authors who have died because they’ve written a book but it would certainly make for an interesting ’cause of death’ in an inquest report.

Footnotes

The Book:  The Angel’s Game is part of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series which began with Shadow of the Wind.  The Angel’s Game was published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in 2009. Translation from the Spanish is by Lucia Graves. 

The Author: Carlos Ruiz Zafon was best known in Spain as the author of young adult novels until Shadow of the Wind (his first adult novel). His newest novel The Labyrinth of the Spirits will be published in 2018. 

Why I read this: I bought this from a charity shop having enjoyed Shadow of the Wind in 2012  (see my review here). But I never got around to reading it until this month when I started digging into the shelves of my personal library in pursuit of one of my 2017 goals. 

Off to Philadelphia in the Morning by Jack Jones [review]

off_to_philadelphiaIt’s unlikely the name of Joseph Parry will mean much to anyone who is not from Wales. But if you’ve ever experienced a performance by a Welsh male voice choir you’ll certainly have heard his music.  Although he died more than 100 years ago,  versions of his composition ‘Myfanwy’ have been recorded in recent years by Cerys Matthews and the opera singer Bryn Terfel. Parry’s music is also said to have influenced Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, the national anthem of South Africa.

Not bad for a man born into poverty who left school at the age of nine to work in the local coal mines and iron works. From those humble beginnings he rose to become the first person from Wales to achieve a Doctorate in Music from Cambridge University and become the first Welshman to compose an opera – Blodwen, was the first opera in the Welsh language.

Off to Philadelphia in the Morning by Jack Jones is a fictionalised biography of Joseph Parry from his early beginnings in the industrial town of Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales. In the 1840s when Joseph was a young boy, this was the largest industrial town anywhere in the world according to Jack Jones. The discovery of large iron ore deposits encouraged wealthy investors to build iron works employing thousands of people but industrialisation brought overcrowding, poor sanitation, water shortages and disease.

Some of you who had visited the place during one of our dry summers will remember the stink of the place … and no doubt wondered how we could go on living there, You get used to anything can’t you? It was the cholera we were most afraid of for that did not give us any chance to get used to it. It cut us down and few of us were lucky to get up again.

This was the life the Parry family escaped in 1854 when they emigrated to Pennsylvania (hence the book title), settling in the town of Danville which had a large Welsh community. Though Joseph had regularly sung in chapel choirs back home, he had no formal musical training until the age of 17. From then he began making rapid progress, travelling throughout the United States to give concerts, winning awards back home in Wales at the National Eisteddfod and gaining funding to enable him to study full time in Cambridge.

The portrait Jack Jones conveys in Off to Philadelphia in the Morning  is of a man with huge resources of creative energy, always buzzing with ideas for new compositions and projects, but whose work was often not received with the level of acclaim he anticipated. Late in his life he came to question his decision to return to his native land, thinking that if he had stayed in America he would have been better appreciated. Frustrated by the lukewarm response in Wales to some of his later composition, his wife agitated for a move from South Wales to London where she believed his talents would be better recognised.

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Joseph Parry’s memorial in Penarth, Wales

But their finances were so precarious they couldn’t gather enough money to set up home in the capital. Nevertheless Parry drove himself on despite failing health, the premature death of two sons and lack of money.  But in death his contribution to the musical life of Wales was recognised with a huge funeral attended by at 7,000 people from all parts of the UK and a memorial close to his final home.

Off to Philadelphia in the Morning is an odd book. Jack Jones never claimed it was anything other than a work of fiction yet it contains a significant amount of factual information from the size of the population of Merthyr Tydfil to the fortunes of the landowners who exploit it and the chapels that try to provide hope for the inhabitants. If it’s not pure fiction neither is it a straight biography. It has an unnamed narrator who is clearly a working man from Merthyr Tydfil and one who knew Joseph Parry well enough to be invited to his concerts and his home. This narrator wants to be seen as a historian not just of Parry’s life but of the changes that happen to the town of Merthyr Tydfil as it goes from prosperity to decline. We get frequent digressions to relate the lives of a number of other inhabitants – some of which are interesting but which do tend to make this an over-long book and take attention away from the main subject of Joseph Parry himself. Consequently I found myself skimming quite a number of pages….

 

But there is one question that remains unanswered in Jack Jones’ book – who was Myfanwy? There is a girl by that name who is a childhood friend of Parry in the book, a girl who looks after her blind, drunkard father until one of the iron magnets spots her musical talent and pays for her to be taken care of and given lessons. In the book she becomes a world famous opera singer who meets up with Parry when they are both well established in their field. Legend has it that Parry wrote ‘Myfanwy’ in her honour (there is no mention of this in the book) though in reality he wrote only the music for the ballad and the lyrics came from another source. So now I’m left wondering how much of this book can be relied upon as an accurate account of his life and how much is myth?

Footnotes

The Book: Off to Philadelphia in the Morning was published in 1947. My copy, which I picked up from Bookbarn International dates from 1978. A TV series based on the book was broadcast by the BBC in 1978.

The Author: Jack Jones was – like Joseph Parry – born in Merthyr Tydfil. He went to work in the coal mines at the age of 12. During the depression years of the 1920s he became involved in politics and became a trade union leader. He began writing newspaper articles as  a freelancer before progressing to novels.

Why I read this: the name of Joseph Parry is one that I’ve heard ever since I was a child but although I’ve seen his birthplace in Merthyr Tydfil and I live close to his last home, I knew nothing about him.

If you want to hear Parry’s music have a listen to this rendition of Myfanwy by the Morriston Orpheus Choir from Swansea.

10 under rated books

10gemsThis week’s Top Ten topic is about books we consider to be underrated and hidden gems. My list is a bit of a cornucopia, comprising of a smattering of historic fiction, literary fiction and works by authors from Africa and South America. All hyperlinks are to my reviews.

Let’s start in Brazil with Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis, an author little known of outside of South America but is a familiar name to every schoolchild in Brazil (he’s required reading in the education system). It is supposedly an autobiography written by Bento Santiago, a lawyer from Rio de Janeiro, in which he describes his early life, his years of happiness married to his childhood sweetheart and then the heartbreak when he thinks she has betrayed him. Whether this is the truth is uncertain because Bento isn’t exactly a reliable narrator nor one who can be trusted to stick to the point. He can be in the middle of describing the grande passion of his life and then suddenly switches to commenting on ministerial reshuffles and train travel. A great choice for readers who like quirky novels.

Moving on to Africa, first up is Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a novel deemed so dangerous by the Kenyan government that they imprisoned the author. What was so incendiary about this novel? Quite simply because it turned the spotlight on the authorities for their betrayal of ordinary people in Kenya, promising them the earth when the country gained independence but then when the rains failed, the crops died and people faced starvation, they ignored their calls for help. A powerful novel that sadly depicts a situation happening in too many parts of the world.

From Ethiopia comes All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu which I picked up on a whim while at the Hay Literary Festival a few years ago. This is a book about love but also about the lengths to which someone will go to build a new life for themselves, even if that means leaving their homeland and their identity.

By complete contrast The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso offers a tale of rivalry and hostility between two very stubborn women who live next door to each other in Cape Town. Many of the scenes are hilarious but this is a novel which also asks searching questions about racial tension and the possibility of reconciliation between the different sectors of South African society.

And finally from Africa we get Wife of the Gods by the Ghanian author Kwei Quartey. The plot revolves around the murder of a young female medical student but the novel does far more than offer a well-paced detective story. This is a tale which takes us to the dark side of Ghana’s culture where young girls are offered as trokosi (or Wives of the Gods) to fetish priests and villagers still believe in the power of medicine men to assuage vengeful gods.

If those titles have given you a taste for fiction from Africa – or indeed from anywhere in the world except your own country, but you don’t know where to begin – your saviour will be The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction by Michael Orthofer. This offers profiles of the literature on a region by region and country by country basis and a multitude of author names to explore.

Changing direction totally I offer one of the best historical fiction novels I have read in several years. Antonia Hodgson’s debut novel The Devil in the Marshalsea takes us into the heart of the notorious squalid and disease ridden Marshalsea prison for debtors. Reading this, you can almost smell the place such is the power of Hodgson’s narrative. Her protagonist Tom Hawkins ends up in the Marshalsea because he has too much of a liking for gambling and women. The question is whether he will leave the prison alive or dead.

I couldn’t possibly create a list of under-rated gems without mentioning Holiday by Stanley Middleton. I know it seems strange to think of a Booker prize winner as a hidden gem but this winner from 1974 is one that few people seem to know. Middleton himself also seems to have disappeared from the public consciousness. This despite the fact he wrote more than 40 novels. Holiday is a quiet novel in a sense because the action, such as it is, is all inside the head of the main character.  Edwin Fisher, a university professor takes a spur of the moment holiday at the seaside where he reflects on the breakdown of his marriage. It’s a well observed story of a man who is more an observer than a participant in life.

The Spinning Heart  by Donal Ryan was also a contender for the Booker prize. This is a novel about a community and the individuals within it that feel the effect of the collapse of Ireland’s economic boom. It’s a novel that almost never saw the light of day. It had been rejected by numerous publishers but was rescued from yet another reject pile by an intern who raved about it and persuaded her employers to give it a go. It then went on to make the long list for the Booker Prize. What happened to the intern is not known but I hope she got a permanent job for showing such great intuition.

And finally, a novel that should have won the Booker  in 2013 but sadly the judges felt otherwise. Harvest by Jim Crace is a beautifully written lyrical novel set in a period in history where a traditional way of life where people rely on the land to make  a living is ruptured in the name of “Profit, Progress, Enterprise”.

 

That’s my list – now it’s your turn  

What books have you read that you’d consider to be under-rated or hidden gems?

Narcopolis – see Mumbai through a haze of cannabis

narcopolisNarcopolis by the Indian author Jeet Thayil is a tale of obsession told through the blue haze of opium smoke and the white lines of and heroin powder. It’s a strange, often confusing, yet compulsive debut novel that largely revolves around the owner and clients of an opium house on Shuklaji Street in Bombay.

As the book opens we’re introduced to the owner Rashid and his assistant Dimple who it transpires has been a eunuch since early childhood. She’s an expert in the art of preparing the pipes for clients, an expertise acquired through a friendship with Mr. Lee, a former soldier who fled communist China and ended up in Bombay.

As the years pass Rashid’s business thrives as its reputation grows, and not just among the local population. Western travellers make a bee line for the shabby joint once word gets around about the quality of the opium on offer and the meticulous care with which Dimple prepares her pipes. Thayil makes life in this joint all very cosy sounding. To enter through the door in a narrow street is to be insulated from shoddy brothels and beggars, and “roads mined with garbage, with human and animal debris and the poor, everywhere the poor and deranged stumbled in their rags.” The gentleman’s club atmosphere changes however when heroin arrives, grabbing both Rashid and Dimple in its savage claws. They begin the rapid descent into a life governed by the ever increasing need for stronger doses – their descent mirroring the disintegration of the city into riots and aggression.

Narcopolis is a dazzling novel, as seductive as the drugs that permeate every page and told in a way that destabilises the reading experience. So many times as I read this novel I was unsure whether the events described were ones the characters experienced for real or were the hallucinatory results of their close acquaintance with opium and heroin. For much of the book this narrator is high on drugs so it’s probably not surprising that the text is full of long rambling multi-clause passages like the single sentence running over seven pages with which Narcopolis opens.

It’s a world Thayil knows intimately having spent two decades of his life as an opium addict. He treats his people with sympathy and understanding :

An addict, if you don’t mind me saying so, is like a saint. What is a saint but someone who has cut himself off, voluntarily, voluntarily, from the world’s traffic and currency? The saint talks to flowers, a daffodil, say, and he sees the yellow of it. He receives its scent through his eyes. Yes, he thinks, you are my muse, I take heart from your stubbornness, a drop of water, a dab of sunshine, and there you are with your gorgeous blooms. He enjoys flowers but he worships trees. He wants to be the banyan’s slave. He wants to think of time the way a tree does, a decade as nothing more than some slight addition to his girth. He connives with birds, and gets his daily news from the sound the wind makes in the leaves. When he’s hungry he stands in the forest waiting for the fall of a mango. His ambition is the opposite of ambition. Most of all, like all addicts, he wants to obliterate time. He wants to die, or, at the very least, to not live.
Reading Narcopolis is an intense experience that is best approached by following the advice Dimple gives her clients when they first bend their lips to her opium pipe “pull deep and keep pulling, don’t stop …”

Footnotes

The book: Narcopolis was published by Faber & Faber Ltd in 2012.  It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in that year.

The author: Jeet Thayil was born in Kerala, India in 1959 and educated in Hong Kong, New York and Bombay. He is a performance poet, songwriter and guitarist, and has published four collections of poetry. Narcopolis is his debut novel. It apparently took him 5 years to complete.In this You Tube video you can hear him talking about the novel and how he navigated the tricky subject of writing about drugs without glamourising them.

Why I read this: The Chutes and Ladders challenge run by The Readers Room required me to read something associated with India. This happened to be number 113 on my shelf of unread books having bought it at very low cost in 2013.

Why indie presses need your Amazon reviews

helpIn the five years since starting this blog I’ve posted reviews on Goodreads and Library Thing but I never gave much thought to putting them on Amazon. It’s not that I’ve consciously ignored that site or decided to make a stand over the way they allegedly use strong arm tactics to squeeze discounts from publishers and authors. It just never occurred to me that there was any real need to post reviews or comments there.

But then I got an email from an indie publishing company late last year which has caused me to rethink my approach with books I get via NetGalley. Anne from Le French Book www.lefrenchbook.com provided a reality check on the economics of book publishing and why, for small publishing houses Amazon reviews really do matter. Apparently publishers have to pay to get their books listed on NetGalley – they give these copies away in order to promote their authors. The reviews we put on our blogs don’t bring them any income however though they are important in word of mouth promotion.

On average, there are about 260 people who click to read our titles on Netgalley. If they actually all bought the title, we could pay our Netgalley subscription, but they get it free. If we actually got 260 (or even 200, or 150, or 100) reviews online, it would have a real impact on our sales. Amazon’s algorithm would do the work.

Despite an aversion to Amazon that I’ve noticed among some bloggers, the reality is that this is the site where visibility matters. This is still the biggest market place for potential buyers, they go there in their hundreds of thousands and they use reviews to help them make decisions on which books to buy. A handful of reviews per book,  simply isn’t enough for readers to start noticing – these publishing houses need well beyond 30 reviews for them to make the promotion efforts worthwhile and help them keep generating enough profit to bring out new books.

How we can help

The appeal from Le French Book is really simple. It’s just requires each of us to take these few steps:

  1. Visit the Amazon website page for the books we read on Netgalley.
  2. If you are able to buy it, the publisher would be extremely grateful
  3. Either way, leave an honest review of the book. Even just a few lines could make all the difference but of course a few paragraphs are even better one line or five.
  4. And a step that never occurred to me – if you are A UK, Canadian or Australian reader, don’t just put your review on the local version of Amazon. Cut and paste it to the  US page, too (that’s the one the publisher refers to when they try to book advertising and promotions).

Not difficult is it? It doesn’t take much time but when publishers are feeling the pinch it seems only fair for us to show our appreciation of the free copies we receive.

One other thing I’ve learned from this publisher is to avoid getting over enthusiastic when requesting books from NetGalley. I have too many sitting unread on the e-reader and for every one of those, there is a cost impact on the publisher. So from now I am going to request only those books I am committed to reading. And to make sure I upload the review to Amazon.

 

Now it’s over to you  

Do you put reviews on Amazon? Will you consider doing so for books you get from indie publishers in the future?

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

risingasiacollageAlthough How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia sounds like the title of a self-help book, it’s actually a work of fiction. It does however take its structure from the kind of book that is bought and opened with great anticipation and expectation only to invariably disappoint. Self-help books are a triumph of hope over reality but we still can’t seem to get enough of them because every year sees a new clutch of titles. Mohsin Hamid’s novel ridicules such books and – by implication – the people who read them and try to follow their advice.

Look, unless you’re writing one, a self-help book is an oxymoron. You read a self-help book so someone who isn’t yourself can help you, that someone being the author. This is true of the whole self-help genre. And it’s true of personal improvement books too…. None of the foregoing means self-help books are useless. On the contrary, they can be useful indeed. But it does mean that the idea of self in the land of self-help is a slippery one.

The 12 chapters of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia are positioned as guidance for a poor, nameless, boy who wants to rise above his impoverished circumstances. Each chapter contains a lesson: Move to the City; Get an Education; Don’t Fall in Love; Avoid Idealists; Learn from a Master; Work for Yourself; Be Prepared to Use Violence; Befriend a Bureaucrat; Patronise the Artists of War; Dance with Debt; Focus on the Fundamentals; and Have an Exit Strategy. It follows him from a child who is “huddled, shivering, on the packed earth” to a metro city which is “enormous, home to more people than half the countries in the world, to whom every few weeks is added a population equivalent to that of a small, sandy-beached, tropical island republic”. There he spots an opening selling bottled water. To get from a lowly job as a water delivery boy to the proprietor of his own distilling plant takes many years of effort, intuition and cunning plus some questionable practices – this is a business based initially on selling food with false eat-by dates and then selling boiled municipal water as ‘mineral water’ Over time in order to grow into our entreprenneur has to resort to bribery and extortion. All the time his heart remains set on something else: the ‘pretty girl’ from his neighbourhood whose star rises along with his. Their paths cross and recross but always she seems one step ahead of him.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is told in an audacious second person narrative style. Hamid says at the end of the novel that he adopted this approach because he wanted to push the boundaries of the reader-writer relationship. He sees the process of writing as a collaborative effort so for him the novel “is a self help book that is a second-person life-story that is an invitation to create. Together.” 

I know some readers felt Hamid didn’t quite pull off the second person narrative voice and I don’t see how it fulfilled his objective of being a collaborative endeavour but I still loved the boldness and freshness of the style.  There is a feeling of real energy about the novel, partly coming from the pace of the story – large chunks of time pass in just a few pages. Sometimes I wished Hamid had slowed down a bit to give more depth to his hero’s struggle up the greasy pole of business. It’s only in the latter chapters do we get a slower feel, when the boy is now an old man alone in the world and appreciating that he can find happiness only by relinquishing the advice of the self-help book. In essence the book’s message puts a different spin on the title – to become filthy rich as a human being means giving up on material ambitions. 

Because the location is not specified (though it’s a fair bet the events take place in Hamid’s home country of Pakistan) and none of the characters have names, only generic descriptors (“the politician”; “the pretty girl”); the implication is that this is a tale which could be about anyone. The desire for wealth doesn’t apply just to Asia;  aspiration is a fundamental part of human nature. There  are thus – or could be – people just like them in many parts of the world going through similar experiences. The ‘you’ to whom this book’s guidance is directed could equally be ‘me’ is what Hamid seems to be suggesting. But this isn’t a book of mere polemic. Yes is does paint a portrait of the perils of a love of wealth but it’s also a warm and charming love story.

Footnotes

The Book: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid was published in 2013 by Penguin.

The Author: Mohsin Hamid was born in Lahore, Pakistan though has since lived also in California, New York and London. His first novel, Moth Smoke  was a riches-to-rags story about a Pakistani financier, who descends through the circles of Lahore society becomes addicted to heroin. His second novel  The Reluctant Fundamentalist (my review is here), was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and looked at the changing relationship between the new Pakistan and the west.

Why I read this book: Quite simply because I enjoyed The Reluctant Fundamentalist 

 

Miss Christie Regrets: Reviving the Golden Age of crime

The revival of interest in crime classics from the Golden Age of (the 1920s and 30s) continues unabated it seems.  The British Library decision to publish hitherto neglected titles from that era was a smart move, coming just as book pundits began to detect a desire by readers to move away from dark modern thrillers. Whether the interest in the Classic Crime series (now 20 titles and growing) was really a reaction to the complexity of modern life and a yearning for the ‘simpler’ life of the past, is debatable. It may be that the interest in the Golden Age will be short lived but for now, it’s definitely on the rise.

misschristieMiss Christie Regrets by Guy Fraser-Sampson harks back to that era but also brings it up to date with a whodunnit trail involving espionage and a threat to national security. It doesn’t slavishly follow the conventions of the Golden Era detective story (no locked room mystery here for example or English country house setting) but it acknowledges its heritage with multiple references to the leading practitioners of the genre like Marjorie Allingham and of course Agatha Christie.

This is the second title in a series set in the Hampstead area of London and the police station serving that suburb. It features some of the same characters of the earlier novel Death in Profile; in particular Detective Superintendent Simon Collinson, the psychologist Peter Collins and Detective Sergeants Bob Metcalfe and Karen Willis. It begins with the discovery of a body at an art gallery/museum, with our old friend the blunt instrument soon identified as the murder weapon. There are a few obvious suspects including the caretakers of the building though the security system was so lax anyone could have walked in from the street and done the evil deed.  The police team are already struggling to make much progress when a second murder victim is discovered in the basement of an iconic apartment block which boasted illustrious tenants including Miss Agatha Christie herself. Collinson is convinced the two cases are connected even though they happened some 60 years apart. He’s also convinced Miss Christie somehow holds the key to the mystery. He’s not able to make much progress however until Special Branch begin to reveal some of their secrets. I won’t give the game away much further other than to say the trail uncovers connections that the intelligence service have sat on for decades. 

It’s a plot that’s not fiendishly difficult but has enough complexity to keep me guessing until the final stages. Miss Christie Regrets has a satisfying quota of dead bodies though they happen off stage as it were and are not described in any gory detail and plenty of red herrings. Ultimately it’s a straight forward police procedural murder mystery in which the detectives reach a solution not through sudden ‘light bulb’ moments but by meticulous attention to detail and protocol. Good old fashioned detective work I suppose one could call this.

CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=384681

The Isokon building: Creative commons licence: CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=384681

My enjoyment would have been even greater if there had been less of the police procedural element and more depth to the setting. I enjoyed learning about the history of the Isokon building which was intended as an experiment in communal living and designed in the style of the Bauhaus movement. But given that the series is named Hampstead Murders I would have expected more of a sense we were in this particular part of London. There are some occasional references to pubs or buildings like Burgh House where the first murder victim is found:

Burgh House sits rather smugly in New End Square, as if well aware of the fact that it is both one of the largest and also one of the finest houses in Hampstead. 

These glimpses were tantalising. I’d hope that as this series progresses  and the characters are given more depth that more emphasis is also given to portraying the unique character of Hampstead. I would have welcomed more of that element and less of the daily recaps of the investigation. Police work does involve a higher degree of routine work than TV dramas suggest but I don’t necessarily need to see that mapped out in such detail as in this novel. It made the book feel longer than it needed to be.

Overall however this was a highly readable novel and one I can see having a strong appeal to people who enjoy being challenged by the mystery of death but don’t need all the gruesome details.

Footnotes

The Book: Miss Christie Regrets is published January 2016 by Urbane Publications UK

The Author: Guy Fraser-Sampson has a list of writing credits to his name including works on finance, investment and economic history. He is best known as the author of  three novels in the Mapp and Lucia series created by E.F.Benson.

Why I read this book: I received a review copy from the author in exchange for an honest review (which I hope this is).

 

10 books that escaped 2016

escape-_final

The Broke and Bookish has chosen as the theme for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday: 10 books released in 2016 I meant to read – but didn’t. I read more contemporary fiction last year than in previous years but even then couldn’t keep up with so much that was new. Here’s my list of the ones that got away….

The Sellout by Paul Beatty – the novel that won the 2016 Booker prize. I have a signed copy awaiting me….

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh: I read a sample of this when it was longlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize and was struck by the strong voice of the narrator. It’s had mixed reviews since then but I have my own copy now so will get around to reading it. Someday..

The Book of Memory by  Petina Gappah: I wanted to read her collection of short stories before starting on this novel but never got to finish the collection.

Paris Mon Amour by Isabel Costello: This is an unusual choice for me because it’s essentially a story of love but it’s set in one of my favourite cities (Paris). I know from Isabel’s blog that she researched the setting extensively.

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon, the debut novel that ‘everyone’ seemed to be talking about last year

His Bloody Project  by  Graeme Macrae Burnet- another Booker contender. I’ve taken this out of the library twice now and each time had to return it unread. Third time lucky maybe.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I saw a number of reviews all recommending this but couldn’t get it via our library system and I don’t typically buy novels in hardcover on the grounds of cost so have been waiting for this to come out in paperback.

Old Soldiers Never Die by Frank Richards. This account of life in the trenches of World War 1 was published in 1933. It was given fresh life last year through a new edition by the National Library of Wales

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney. Another popular novel from 2016 that I missed. Usually the more attention a novel gets the less likely I am to want to read it but this one refused to go away.

Human Acts by Han Kang. A very intriguing novel but before I get to this I’d better hurry up and read her earlier novel The Vegetarian 

 

2017 goals: my breakthrough to guaranteed success

A few days ago I was bemoaning the lack of progress on my 2016 goals. It’s now well into 2017 and high time I set my goals for this year – in an attempt not to repeat the same mistakes I’ve turned for guidance to some experts.

In his best-selling book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell suggested that the key to success is in regular and extensive practice. Whether you want to get your golf handicap into single figures, become a chess master or perfect your language skills, it takes effort. In Gladwell’s view success would require 10,000 hours of practice in your chosen discipline or task. To support his argument, Gladwell cited the Beatles, who amassed over 10,000 hours of playing time during their club days in Hamburg, and Bill Gates, who spent a similar amount of time on computer programming.

Sadly I don’t think even if I were to find that much time I think it a bit late for me to become the net computing guru, nor am I likely to top the music charts, become principal ballerina with the Royal Ballet or become the winner of the new-look Great British Bake Off. But Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule is still a good piece of over-arching advice for anyone setting a goal: to make any progress requires time and effort. There is absolutely no point spending hours crafting a goal and then doing little to achieve it. If I’m not 100% committed, then it shouldn’t be a goal……

Another influence on this year’s plan is an article I found in Harvard Business Review written by Dorie Clark a marketing strategist and the author of Reinventing You – a guide to how you can identify and change your professional ‘brand’. Clark says two of the biggest mistake corporations – and individuals make – when goal setting are attempting to do too much at once and then trying to stick too rigidly to the plan.

clocks-1098080_1920Goal setting Tip 2 : use a shorter planning time frame 

Dorie Clerk’s advice is to build in more flexibility to goals on the basis that research by Columbia Business School professor Rita McGrath shows that the best companies plan on a quarterly basis not annually. This shorter time frame means they can be more responsive to changes in their environment.

For individuals, says Clerk, it means that if part of the way through the year you discover your original goal is unworkable or you no longer have an interest in it, you don’t feel compelled to press on regardless. A goal that seems desirable at the beginning of the year like learning to play Mah Jong, or reading the entire sequence of A Dance to the Music of Time might seem like a terrible idea after four months. If you press on regardless it means you might miss out on an even more attractive opportunity that comes along later in the year.

goal_settingGoal setting Tip 2: Be realistic 
The other key mistake is to be too ambitious, spreading the energy over too many projects and activities. Many of us fall into this trap where the only way to manage all the activities is to keep a To Do list – and then end up frustrated because instead of crossing stuff off, the list just seems to grow … and grow…. and grow. We’re not alone – research by a others fail to generate meaningful accomplishments because they spread their energy too thin and attempt to accomplish too much at once. A startup called iDoneThis analyzed their users’ data and discovered that 41% of the to-do list  users created were never accomplished. Why? Too many items were included so the list looked overwhelming and there was little attempt at prioritisation. It was easy to knock off some things – ‘send email to xyz’  for example or ‘buy milk for tonight’ but by spending all the effort on the easy things, the harder, more rewarding activities simply never got done.
Understanding these two challenges helped me reach a decision on my 2017 goals. My mantra is encapsulated in this image….

enjoy-2017

 

Booker Talk’s 2017 Goals

Instead of creating an annual goal I am going for a six month plan. I’ll re-assess it at the end of June and decide on the plan for the remaining six months.  And instead of a long list of goals for each half-year, I am limiting myself to just two.

Goal 1: Relish the books I own but have not yet read

I’ve lost track of the number of blog posts I’ve seen over recent weeks about the ever-expanding size of people’s ‘to be read’ collections. Mine has grown enormously since I started this blog. It’s now around the 295 mark as a result of far too many indulgent purchases last year (69 I think) and there simply isn’t enough room left to stack them all.  I could see this as a problem but thats not the relationship I want with my books. So henceforth my TBR is re-named as ‘my library’ and I am going to make the most of it this year.

My goal is: Enjoy my library collection to the full by reading only these books for six months. 

Yes it does mean in effect a ban on buying anything new but it sounds much more positive stated this way doesn’t it? Especially since I’m the kind of person when told I can’t do something, I immediately want to begin doing that very thing. My get out clause is that I have the right to borrow from the public library if anything strongly takes my fancy but I will not be requesting anything from NetGalley for a while or succumbing to deals from publishers no matter how attractive.

Goal 2: Unleash my creativity on the blog

I’ll be coming up to the fifth anniversary of this blog next month and it’s time to up the stakes. I’m bored with the way I use images on the site – there isn’t often anything very unusual about them, just a basic cover image of whatever book I am reviewing for example or a photo of the author. There’s surely more I can do…

My goal is: Learn how to use Photoshop to create more compelling images. 

And there you have it – a plan that I think is so realistic I’m confident it will be successful.

Anyone feel like joining me in this new breakthrough with your own goals?

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