Hiroshi Sato – This Boy

Originally released: 1985

What it sounds like: Pure mid-80s city pop bliss, with fizzing synths and soulful vocals. Fans of Tatsuro Yamashita will lap this up. Sato goes for a harder electro-funk edge, with deeper bass work and squelchy rhythms. This is neon-lit nightclub stuff, with perky female guest vocals – think early Madonna channeled via sun-kissed beaches and pure blue waves. The cover art is an apt match for this one.

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Himiko Kikuchi – Don’t Be Stupid

Originally released: 1980

What it sounds like: Super smooth J-style Jazz that mixes in a rich swathe of piano work with glistening string sections and sax work. Very much a late-disco crossover work, replete with dancefloor rhythms.

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Ali Smith – Autumn [Book Review]

I’ve already written about the more recent instalment in Ali Smith’s seasonal series – Winter – but what I want to do here is just share a few more of my own personal experiences with the first book – Autumn – and why, for me, it hooked me back into reading ‘literary’ fiction for the first time since my undergrad degree (when, appropriately enough, I studied English Literature).

More specifically, one of the modules I studied was contemporary Scottish literature – and Ali Smith’s wonderfully vivid compendium of prose-cum-poetry suddenly sent me back on a wave of nostalgia to such greats such as The Trick Is To Keep Breathing and Morven Callar – novels replete in their indie-movie esque vision of a bleakly grey, sad Britain. One in which the only hope was to find life’s little eccentricities and squeeze every ounce of feeling from them.

There’s one particular incident in Autumn that I’ll never forget – the Snappy Snaps scene, in which our character finds themselves beset by their inability to easily obtain the correct passport photo. It’s this kind of bleak, drily comic humour that makes Autumn such a jewel to read – a sensibility that is altogether wholly British, a sense of continually laughing at ourselves and our own foibles.

It’s as if the novel holds up contemporary British life and says ‘It’s crap, isn’t it?’ but laughs at it, all the same. We find solace in the simple camaraderie of knowing someone else has experienced the same as us. Likewise, the novel’s ruminations on Brexit allow it to function almost as a polemic on contemporary culture – a kind of newspaper piece within a novel, but one in which its views are subtly manipulated into a kind of avante-garde poetry. In this sense, it’s almost more like a song – a song of a Broken Britain.

One last thing I’ll mention – the novel’s (and this is something Winter does too) attempts to construct a kind of ‘is it really true?’ hidden history of Britain’s obscure knowledge. The bit about the Michael Caine film Alfie and how a blink-and-you-miss it character is possibly related to this novel, and is possibly a real person but maybe imagined – filled me with utter joy, the kind that has you scurrying on Wikipedia binges about lost train stations or defunct companies. The paraphernalia of useless knowledge and academic loose ends. Autumn is all these things – and so much more.

Naomi Alderman – The Power [Book Review]

It’s a sure sign of the eminent readability of a book when it’s still sitting there in the Foyles Top 10 bestsellers shelf months after its release. The Power is one such novel – a tour de force of publishing that seems undiminished in its *ahem* power, nearly a year into its run. It’s the kind of novel to kickstart an author into superstardom – the perfect blend of great, eye-catching cover art, easy readability and a great blend of genre tropes.

One thing that struck me about The Power is just how ‘sci-fi’ it is – for fans of science fiction, it’s rare to see genre novels occupy the Top 10 general fiction bestsellers this effectively. And as much as The Power might also tout itself as a ‘hot topic’ novel, neatly keyed into relevant trends like feminism, #metoo and gender relations, it’s also just a rip-roaringly good action novel. So much so, that at times it almost reads like a Young Adult novel. This could have been the next instalment in the Hunger Games series and nobody would have batted an eye.

With likeable characters, aptly electric pacing and a globe-spanning backdrop, I’d bet money on this being turned into a Netflix series before the next couple of years are out. It also amuses me how Alderman’s other previous novel – completely different in style, has been reconditioned with a series-like cover to play up to The Power’s success.

Put simply, The Power is also a power fantasy – but for women. For all those lads reading Dragon Ball Z imagining they’re Son Goku, then The Power is the female equivalent, tripping on its energies and an alternate world where women can send out electricity from their fingers. What’s more thrilling though is the endgame stuff where we see the equation thrown into overdrive – power used irresponsibly, and women gone riot over the world; and the inherent, leading question – isn’t this what men have been doing for thousands of years?

But what I love most about The Power is it proves that disparate reading audiences can and will be brought together by simple, effective prose that needn’t be overly dense or high-minded. Yes, The Power engages with some highly relevant social themes – but it does so in ways that a layman can enjoy and engage with them too. Under the guise of populist prose, it slips its way into your suitcase of summer reading. And it lingers.

Colson Whitehead – The Underground Railroad [Book Review]

What fascinates me about The Underground Railroad is that it feels like quite possibly the most subtle ‘sci-fi’ novel I’ve ever read. If you can even call it that. And yet, in its utterly unique ‘alternate reality’ – an American deep south of the slave era in which the titular ‘underground railway’ was not simply a phrase, but a real railway, becomes an incredibly evocative, mysterious world.

The Underground Railroad – is aptly, also a novel about travel. Not a destination, but the journey. And in this it finds its greatest strength, and greatest weakness. There is a grand denouement of sorts, a reverent, passionately delivered speech on so many of the novel’s core themes (ones which ring true to this day) – but for its central character (who is arguably weakly characterised) the conclusion is less clear.

What is infinitely more entertaining is following her on her journey from stop to stop on the railroad – a kind of risky ‘will it be better or worse than the last place’ that recalls greats like Watership Down. This is a novel of movement, a transitory, observatory experience in which each segment is fundamentally different from the last. Sometimes, it is incredibly static – giving us space to breathe and ponder, sometimes it is fast-paced, hot headed and dangerous. That danger is constantly palpable, and it adds to the electric thrills of the novel’s better moments. Ironically, the weakest part is the beginning – for the first quarter or so of the novel we find ourselves rooted in a indistinguishably historical setting – as if we’re reading a droll schoolbook on the history of plantations.

It is only when our central character Cora manages to escape that things change – the first trip through the Underground Railroad itself is unforgettable, characterised in a sudden gear-change and sense of ‘am I still reading the same novel?’ strangeness that is worth the price of the book alone. Moments like this pepper the novel, an almost alien ‘not quite right’ bizareness that commands us to look not only at our own world and history, but imagine the interlocking weirdness of the novel’s own malformed creation.

The Underground Railroad is filmic in scope, and beautifully described. It feels overly weighty and dense at times – especially in the lamentable early acts – but when it’s pumping on all cylinders, it’s every bit the international prize-winner it became.

Kazuo Ishiguro – The Remains of the Day [Book Review]

After Ishiguro’s Nobel Literature Prize win, much was made of his status as British author – quite apart from his Japanese heritage. And the thing is, if ever there was proof of that, it’s right here in The Remains of the Day, which is quite possibly *the* most British novel ever to exist.

It’s reaffirmed in Ishiguro’s other works like his immensely popular Never Let Me Go, but the man is a veritable master of tone of voice, this kind of quasi conversational and yet British stiff-upper-lip stoicity that can bring you to tears in how accurately it speaks of hidden emotions tucked away inside, the things we forbid ourselves from uttering for so many reasons. Class, social status, pride, duty – all these things bind us, and mask away our true selves, the hearts so bound up in simple human emotion.

In The Remains of the Day, we have a vision of a lost England – a final glorious moment in the sun before the Empire truly died. Stevens is a relic of a dying age – his body growing old in syncopation with England itself, time itself becoming palpable to taste and touch as we pass from a beloved Downton Abbey-esque halcyon age, through the horrors of the world wars and into a post-60s New Age that seems content on severing all links with the past. Brought on in an onrush of motor cars and changing social graces and employment, a man like Stevens – a man of *service* is out of place and time.

What I love about Remains of the Day (and Ishiguro’s writing as a whole) is that primarily, it trades out traditional A-to-B narrative in favour of vignettes – something that, ironically, feels like a very Japanese style of storytelling. It prioritises a kind of ‘golden moments’ vision of our lives, fragments of memories that recreate how our brain actually processes the key events of our lives. Nostalgia becomes an inherent process of this, as is the utter sense of emotion present in casting ourselves back into the minds of others. Our lives and theirs start to blend – and even if we have never experienced anything quite like the life of Stevens’, we start to feel as if we have.

His heroes are the everymen (and women) of England, real or imagined. Simple people – but beautiful people, beautiful in their ordinariness. And in that ordinariness – true magic.

CJ Sansom – Dominion [Book Review]

CJ Sansom’s Dominion is a monolith of book – a veritable brick of a novel. And yet, I absolutely devoured it in around a week, so compelling a thriller it is. We talk a lot about Netflix binge watching these days, but as other commentators are increasingly making these days – what of the binge-read? The thriller genre is precision tooled for this kind of experience, with cliffhangers aplenty and a masterful sense of easy-read pacing that compels the reader to plunge headfirst on, into the late hours of night.

This aside, I had a feeling I’d enjoy Dominion going into it. Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is one of my favourite books of all time (I wrote my undergrad thesis on it) and Robert Harris’ Fatherland is another favourite of mine – replete with its depiction of crisp officialdom in an imagined 60s Germany. In this sense, Dominion is closer to the latter – but transposing the action to a richly described and evocative London. As a lifelong Londoner, I found Sansom’s portrayal of the city under the Nazi’s to be fantastically done, right down to the hefty references to the SS occupying Senate House.

Make no bones about it, there are some notably weaker aspects to the novel – many of the characters, in particular lead man David – are intensely unlikeable. It’s hard to tell whether Sansom is being intentional in his depiction of a sexist, archaic dinosaur like David – a relic of civil service cast into a political plot way over his head, but the way he breezes through a host of women, casting them and their emotions aside (not least his long-suffering wife) means that while he is the central anchor to the plot, it’s also intensely hard to empathise with him.

Better done is tortured, subtle Frank – suffering from a host of mental neuroses, and yet utterly central to the outcome for both the Allied and Axis sides. We see him painted as a tender friend and fragile human being, his plight all the sadder for it. And Frank is only one of many in a cast that is incredibly memorable and well-realised.

Some would criticise Dominion for being too populist – and yet, for all that it is commercial to the core, it is not without its depth either. The art of writing clean, clinically accessible prose is grossly underrated, and while Dominion is hardly the kind of novel to appear on more ‘artistic’ best novel lists like the Booker or Pulitzer Prize, Sansom’s command of deft pacing and good, honest legibility is a masterclass in its own right.

If there hadn’t already been a spate of TV adaptations of ‘Germany won WW2’ novels recently (The Man in the High Castle included) I’d be saying expect an adaptation of Dominion very soon – it has that eminently cinematic quality to it. But for the mean time, I’d say grab a copy of this before a long holiday and dive in deep – the most compellingly page-turning novel I’ve read in a long time.

Patrick Modiano – Villa Triste [Book Review]

Villa Triste is the definition of a hipster read, and it knows it. This beautiful edition from Daunt Books’ imprint wonderfully captures the upper-class baroque beauty of the novellette itself – like a Great Gatsby for our age, draped in nostalgia for both place and time. Sometimes a book just so perfectly captures a particular moment you can almost taste it – Villa Triste did this for me, conjuring up visions of my own summer holidays in the south of France; aging villas and non-descript country towns in the middle of nowhere. That’s its beauty, and it carries it from the first page to the very last.

The book plays out like a beloved soft focus indie movie, depicting a trio of friends that revolve through a dizzying life of hedonism and bizarre antics foreign to lower classes. Its a life of indolence and inaction – but one that never feels boring. Theatrical and camp to the max, it speaks of a yesteryear of touring cars, cigarettes and endless boozy relaxing in the Mediterranean sun.

There’s sadness throughout the novel – though it only really becomes overt toward the end. Rather, its a sadness born deep in the soul – one of an increasing alienation with the realities of the world. For a core part of Villa Triste’s charm is that the life it depicts is pure fantasy – it acts as a short, blissful escape from the harsh, brutal concrete realism of our own lives.

A longer novel would fail if told in this style – but here, in this short, compact length – it works. It’s like a reborn Hemmingway, a French ‘Fiesta’ if ever I’ve seen one. Travel literature told through a monocle, and shot through with a descriptive flair I’d love to experience again. Thoroughly recommended.

Min Jin Lee – Pachinko [Book Review]

Pachinko is a rip-roaring read. There’s no other word for it – I consumed this novel ravenously, compelled ever onward by its fascinating, tri-layered dynastic storytelling of a family history over three generations, taking in the whole scope of the 20th century from beginning to end. Each segment is wonderfully distinct – and yet, comes with frustrations too.

The beginning, funnily enough, is in my eyes the weakest of the parts – it feels suffused with the early 1900s age of itself, like a tale not just old in the telling, but inherently ‘old’ in its literary stylings too. It is only when the action moves from Korea to Japan that we begin to comprehend the full scope of exactly just what Pachinko is trying to do as a novel. For as much as this is a novel about Korea (or more specifically, Koreans), it is also a novel about Japan – still sitting pretty at this moment as the ‘most read’ current read themed around Japan on Goodreads.

This is understandable – there’s an almost chic-lit style page-turning verve to the bulk of Pachinko’s middle segments. A will-they-won’t-they survive type subsistence mentality that reminds one of Victoria Hislop’s The Island at times – and just as Pachinko presents itself as a similar story of minorities and outcasts, we find ourselves gripping to these poor souls as they try to find scant happiness in an unforgiving land. There’s a soap-opera like wonder in the minutiae of every day life, but also the grand overarching arc of rags to riches.

If I were to pick faults in the novel – they’d come chiefly in the lack of local flavour – it feels inauthentic at times, the characters are wonderfully detailed, but the locales feel like they could be anywhere. Inexpertly painted, there’s little at times to tell the Korean and Japanese settings apart – they are merely places where things happen. Mostly, the strength of the characters papers over this – but still, it could have presented a fuller picture if the backdrop had matched.

And lastly – it is the final third of the book, which I consumed in an increasingly angry, frustrated single sitting. For here, Pachinko transforms almost completely – literally, into an almost entirely different novel. Jumping ahead to the hedonism to the Japanese bubble 80s, the squalor of the earlier segments is cast off, and suddenly everything is about money and glamour. It’s as if you’ve been reading War & Peace for most of the week, and then on the last day, are suddenly watching Gossip Girl. The characters become increasingly shallow and vacuous – disappearing into their own egos. Internationalised American characters are introduced – presenting a more modern outlook, but their presence feels jarringly like an author-insert voicepiece, as opposed to the genuine, fully-formed voices that made the rest of the book a pleasure to read.

Pachinko, then, is an intensely frustrating read – but all the same, an incredibly compelling one – one that is easy to recommend for its easy readability. Boy does it have ‘hook’ – as they’d say. Briskly told, it may be abrasive at times, but this is widescreen, box-set style storytelling, and on that front, I love it.

Robert Seethaler – The Tobacconist [Book Review]

I’ll start by saying how much I love the cover art for The Tobacconist (and how a similarly matching treatment has been given to Seethaler’s other short novel – A Whole Life). Pretty cover art is ten a penny now, but something about the rusty, sepia toned fleckles wrapping Seethaler’s words speaks to the particular tone of nostalgia and Autumnal comfort The Tobacconist offers.

In some senses, The Tobacconist is *just* another short historical novel. A bite-size episode from an immediately pre-war Germany. One tinged with the oncoming sadness of what will inevitably come. This sadness suffuses the novel, and eventually reaches a more overt fever pitch in its closing pages, a death-like stillness descending on the novel as its final page flip closed. But crucially, there is hope, and it is hope – particularly a very youthful sense of hope – that offers the flipside to The Tobacconist.

In our young, boys-own-hero protagonist, we see a glimpse of a more innocent age. When the young really did feel indestructible, that wonders were to be found round every corner – the next town, the far shore of a lake, a mysterious shop, or perhaps even that kindly old gentlemen. The Tobacconist paints this kind of feel, introducing us both to its rambunctiously likeable young male lead, but also the titular shopkeeper himself, who it is impossible not to warm to. Coupled with a historical injection of actual Sigmund Freud, The Tobacconist at times treads a careful line between caricature and universally loveable tropes. In many ways, it feels similar to the kind of feel conjured up in The Book Thief – one in which we see the beauty Germany lost in the war, as well as the horrors. It is a window into the last years of a final, magnificent century. A Germany that is about to die – the sun setting on the final paragons of a better world.

And yet, there are faults – the book, despite its short length, is glacially paced – and despite that being kind of the point, I was not without some frustration as it trundled its wheels through another lazy afternoon conversation between our young hero and Freud as they puffed on fat cigars. This is a book of sensations and feelings – at its strongest in its early movements as it describes in meticulous detail the central Tobacconist’s shop and its particulars. It is weaker in its surrounding periphery – driving toward a conclusion, but through an exceedingly scenic route, never ever in a hurry to reach its destination.

For some, this will be the book’s real joy – a kind of holiday read to while away lakeside sunbathing and endless blue skies. But for others, there are gems to be found in here, twinkling amidst the slowly crinkling pages of a fading yesteryear.