Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

I love Japanese literature, it has a style unlike anything else. I have Mr B himself to thank for introducing it to me.

This particular book was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary prize, and it is utterly beautiful, in an understated way. It is the gentle love story of Tsukiko, now in her mid-thirties, and Sensei, her Japanese literature teacher from her High school days. They see each other at random in a local bar, eat and drink, but always with a distance. At almost glacial speed, their relationship takes tentative steps forwards, and the a few back, but always there is a need for closeness, but also a yawning gap.

This is not a romcom, a slushy romance, or anything which would have you raise an eyebrow. It is a story which evolves, slowly, and gently as the attraction between the two of them is left unspoken.

The writing is beautiful, and I was particularly struck by the way the passing of the seasons are described. I love experiencing the seasons change here in the UK, that sense of tangible time, and this captured it perfectly.

It’s a short book, but a lovely one, which will slow your mind, and warm your soul. 

I Say! Time for a Snifter!

Today marks the final three Everyman Wodehouse books to be published. These are beautiful editions, with fantastic covers. They are a joy to read, with the text well laid out on acid free paper. 

The Wodehouse Collection at Fennell Towers

The Wodehouse Collection at Fennell Towers

The photo is of my own collection (The Delightful Mr F buys me copies every so often), don't they look lovely? 

Wodehouse died 40 years ago this year, and his books still bring such joy to so many people. He created a slightly daft world where nothing really bad ever happens. It is a world to sink into and watch the gentle chaos evolve. A perfect antidote to the modern world. 

If you haven't read any Wodehouse, try starting with one of the Jeeves and Wooster books. Jeeves is the clever valet to Wooster's not too bright man about town. For an idea of the Wooster world, have a look at this video taken from a the fantastic series Jeeves and Wooster staring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. Geniuses, the pair of them.

See? That can't fail to put a smile on your face. I really must get on and continue my What Ho! Challenge. Anyone fancy joining me for a snifter?

Pratchett Top 5

Since the death of Terry Pratchett on the 12th March, I have been thinking on and off about his writing, and how much I enjoy it. I have read all of his books, and there aren't many authors I would stick with for that many novels. I was chatting to some colleagues about his writing and trying to describe how clever and funny it was. I didn't do it justice. Then the inevitable question of "which one should I read first?" came up...

I read them in order of publication more or less as I started when his fifth or sixth novel was published. The Colour of Magic was the first for me, although not my favourite. The Discworld books are arranged around different groups of people, and the characters and the Discworld itself progress and age. We see Ankh-Morpork go from a medieval type city to a grand metropolis as it gets it's own Industrial Revolution. The Watch who police the city become better at crime detection as they learn forensics and some characters progress up the ranks. Meantime, DEATH is going on adventures, including joining the Klatchian Foreign Legion and pretending to be the Hogfather*. I do have a special reading place in my heart for the books starring the witches of Lancre, namely Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg. Granny is a powerful witch who won't stand for nonsense. Nanny Ogg is rather mischievous, has had fives husbands and been married to three of them. The pair are firm friends, and along with a third witch, sometimes Agnes Nitt, sometimes with Magrat Garlic, have beaten vampires and solved murder at the opera.

A great reading order for the different sets of books can be found on L-Space.org.

So, my own personal top 5... It was really hard to choose, but here we go and in no particular order...

1. Soul Music - Rock and roll comes to the Discworld in the form of Music-with-rocks-in and seems to do something a bit strange to the residents. The Wizards of the Unseen University seem to be regressing back to their teenage years, staying out late and drinking in coffee bars. The Band-with-rocks-in is lead by Imp Y Celyn, known as Buddy, which translates to Bud of the Holly (geddit??). There are so many wonderful puns and lines in this one. I love that one character mentions that Buddy looks a little "elvish" and they sing "Don't step on my new blue boots". The effect of the music on the Discworld reflects the hysteria of celebrity now, with that slightly innocent slant that the Discworld has. 

2. Hogfather -  The Discworld version of Christmas is Hogswatch, where the Hogfather delivers presents to children from a sleigh pulled by eight giant pigs. Unfortunately a sinister group has hired the psychopathic Mr Teatime (pronounced Tea-a-tah-mey) to assassinate the Hogather. DEATH realises that without the Hogfather reality could collapse, so shoves a pillow up his jumper and pretends to be a fat jolly man in department stores and delivers presents. This book also features Susan Sto-Hellit, DEATH's grand-daughter, the most sensible person on the Discworld. This is a great Christmas read. It wanders around a bit, but Mr Teatime is a perfect baddie, and DEATH as a pseudo-Santa is priceless. 

3. Moving Pictures - This is one of those books when the Discworld gets some new technology, in this case the "clickies". People flock to "Holywood" to try and make their fortune as a moving picture star, but reality starts to tear and things end up going quite badly wrong. The ending is a masterpiece, with... well... you will never look at King Kong in the same way again. 

4. Maskerade - Based very loosely on The Phantom of the Opera, Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax set out to find their friend Agne Nitt who has joined the Opera and also to get some money from a publisher who is selling Nanny Ogg's cookbook, with it's famed recipe for Strawberry Wobbler**. 

The Opera is being terrorised by the Opera Ghost who seems to be killing people off. Again, the ending is a scream, with Nanny Ogg taking parting in the tail end of Swan Lake. 

5. The Wee Free Men - This is a young adult novel, and is just as wonderful as all the others. We meet nine year old Tiffany Aching, who has inherited the role of Witch in the chalk country. As she develops into her role she is "helped" along the way by the Nac Mac Feegle, a type of fairy, who like nothing better than drinking and fighting. There is a lot of heart in this book and for younger readers it is funny and offers a protagonist who is essentially just like them.

 

So there you have it. If you haven't tried any Pratchett, then do. They are funny and warm and clever, but once you start you will have to read them all. Don't say I didn't warn you...

 

 

* Discworld's version of Santa

** I'll leave you to work out that one... Nanny's books are generally about "goings on" as Granny would put it. 

Reader's Reads #2: Steve Morton

Of late I have become an obsessive listener to Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4. Clever, famous (not necessarily the same thing) and interesting people are interviewed and asked to choose eight records they would like to have with them on a desert island. I wanted to get to know some of my readers a little better, so thought it would be fun to feature readers and their favourite reads. This spawned the rather natty, although probably not originally named "Reader's Reads".

Each reader has a comfy seat, anywhere in the world, real or imaginary, a beverage and snack of their choice and a bookcase which will only hold eight books. 

If you would like to be featured, please contact me via the email button (bottom left of the main page) and I'll email out the bits and pieces to you. 

Today we have Steve Morton, of the famed blog Philofaxy, the best blog on the web. Over to you Steve...

Hello I'm Steve Morton a retired specialist radio communications engineer. These days I live with my wife Alison in France. Originally I am from north west England but during the last 40 years I've spent time in Milton Keynes, Cyprus, Tunbridge Wells before moving to France for a quieter life nearly 5 years ago.

These days I occupy my time with running a website and community interested in Filofax and other brands of personal organisers, a long way from radio comms that is for sure, but it is fun and I enjoy doing what I do.

I'm a keen photographer and enjoy listening to a lot of 1970's music as well as reading... thank you Helen for letting me take part.

The one which kickstarted your reading habit: 

Gipsy Moth Circles The World - Sir Francis Chichester  - I can remember his round the world voyage being in the newspapers and on TV, there was a lot of coverage in the colour supplements. It was the first of quite a few books I've read about yachtsman/women. I followed Claire Frances and also Ellen MacArthur with their voyages too. Not something I long to do myself, just something I enjoy reading about.

The one which changed your view of the world:

Numerous books about World War II not just from the English point of view either. I read a book about a German Air Force pilot when I was about 15 or 16 I just wish now I had made a note of the title to re-read it, it was a very good book but it was one I borrowed from my local library so 40 odd years on it is lost as a distant memory!

The one you go back to again and again:

There are numerous technical books I refer back to every once in a while, but I rarely re-read any fiction more than once.

The one which is your guilty pleasure:

Principles and practice of multi frequency telegraphy - J.D. Ralphs. A technical book, but an interesting one to read, especially as I can remember working for Denis Ralphs in the early days of my career, it puts a lot of things perspective now when I look back on that time in the R&D section of the Communications Engineering Department.

The one which you had an unexpected response to:

On The Edge: My Story - Richard Hammond - written about his accident when filming for Top Gear in 2006, he cheated death in a way, but his honest account of his recovery was quite moving in an emotional sense.

The one you wish you had time to read:

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, closely followed by Getting Things Done by David Allen, which is slightly ironic don't you think! I have pre-ordered the new version of GTD on Kindle, so I think I might stand a better chance of reading it this time! My 'To Be Read' pile never seems to get any lower.....

The one with sentimental value: 

The Bridges of Madison County - Robert James Waller - Loved the film had to read the book and the follow on he wrote a few years later, A Thousand Country Roads. Being a Clint Eastwood fan, the range of parts he has played over the years is quite astounding really.

The last one you read:

Standing in Another Man's Grave - Ian Rankin I read a lot of Crime books both fiction and non-fiction, sometimes alternating between the two for a few months!

My beverage of choice is: Sparkling water
My snack of choice is: A slice or two of home made carrot cake
My comfy chair and bookshelf are located: Sleepy rural France

Thank you Steve! This is a great selection of books. Your sparking water is on the way. Would you like ice and lemon?

Mr B's Reading Spa No. 7 - More Book Joy!

Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights

Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights

The Delightful Mr F has given me another Reading Spa at Mr B's. Seriously, I must be the easiest wife in the world to buy for! Unfortunately I was suffering from some sort of dreaded lurgy, which meant that I arrived on the doorstep of Mr B's with a handbag full of over the counter medication, a box of Kleenex and no voice at all. 

Not put off by the fright that I must have looked, Nic (Mr B himself) sat me in a comfy chair, put the fire on and proceeded to talk about books, whilst I croaked where I could and provided hand signals to show approval whenever my voice gave out. 

I often wonder whether I am hard to do a reading spa for. I read a lot, and as I buy nearly all my books at Mr B's* there must be a worry that I have read the entire shop already**. On the plus side, I will try pretty much anything, and I am happy to try odd, and obscure stuff. It is rare that I dislike a book. There has only been one book in the last few years, not recommended by Mr B's, that I have hated with a vengeance. If you keep an eye on the side bar of what I am reading, you will have seen it mentioned there, and then never spoken of again on this blog. 

I digress. I have explained what a Reading Spa at Mr B's entails before. You can see the details here, here, here, here, and well, here. In short it is like personal shopping for your reading. 

A list of the books I bought is at the end of this post. Instead of a blow by blow account of the discussions, I thought I would concentrate on why I like these spas so much and what it does for my reading. What the Mr B's team is so adept at doing is picking up a small, throwaway comment you might make and using that to show you books, books you have probably never heard of, and never would have heard of, if not for the reading spa. I am now a big fan of Scandinavian fiction, and this came about because I mentioned that I had been working with some Norwegian people and how nice they seemed. Out came books by Scandinavian authors, not Scandi-crime, but stories, embedded in the tradition of that part of the world. 

The combined literary knowledge of the Mr B's team is vast, and they use it to leap from books you know and love to seemingly unrelated books, which turn out to be more books you will get to  know and love. It is like literary athletics! Since that very first reading spa, the breadth of my reading has expanded exponentially, I am no longer stuck in a classic crime rut, but will willingly read everything from the stories of ancient Greece through contemporary Japan, Russia, Scandinavia and across the Atlantic to Hellions in LA.

I can honestly say that the Reading Spas bring me a great deal of joy, on the day, and then the weeks and months afterwards as I read through my new pile of books. So, if you haven't had a reading spa, spoil yourself and book yourself in (or drop massive hints to your loved ones). If you are too far away from Bath to be able to make it to the shop, then take a look at a  Reading Year where Mr B will send you a book every month, just for you!

Here are the books from Spa No. 7:

The Adult by Joe Stretch

Still Point by Amy Sackville

Botchan by Natsume Soseki

They Shoot Horses Don't They? by Horace McCoy

Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

A Riot of Goldfish by Kanoko Okamoto

I Was Jack Mortimer by Alexander Lernet-Holenia

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf by Gaito Gazdanov

Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy

The Enchanted by Rene Tenfold

Closely Observed Trains by Bohumil Hrabal

Sombrero Fallout by Richard Brautigan

After Dark by Haruki Murakami

American Rust by Phillip Rust

Clash of Civilisations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio by Amara Lakhous

*The rest are generally are presents, or bought in the Waterstones in Woking, where the booksellers are also helpful and knowledgeable.

** I haven't, but I am doing my best.

He Wants by Alison Moore

This is the first book of Alison Moore’s I have read. After finishing it, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, but now it has rested for several weeks, I can stand back and see what a wonderful book it is.

The book centres on Lewis, a widowed, retired RE teacher. He has one daughter Ruth, although he really wanted a son. Through Lewis we see the minutiae of his life now, and the opportunities he missed when he was younger.  An old school friend re-enter’s Lewis’s life, and this shines a spotlight on the regrets that Lewis has.

The writing is very careful, each and every word seems to have been carefully chosen so as not to waste it. It is slow and precise, but doesn’t drag or bore. In some ways Lewis and his thoughts are so beautifully and realistically captured I felt as though I was imposing.

I think this is one of those rare books that I will re-read. I think it deserves a second go, not to try and enjoy it more, but to allow myself to really engross myself in the prose. 

Penguin Little Black Classics

Penguin books is 80 years old this year. That penguin doesn't look a day over 21 does he?  To celebrate Penguin have published 80 short classics in a rather elegant format, each at only 80p! The full list can be seen on a rather snazzy website, where you can move the little Penguin around a circle to look at each book in turn. 

There is a really nice range of authors and stories to choose from, and it would be a great way to try a new author, especially if you want to try a classic, but find the idea of ploughing through a doorstop of a book a bit too much as a first foray. 

Some which have made it onto my list are by Jonathan Swift, Walt Whitman (yes, I have been watching Breaking Bad), John Keats, Thomas Hardy, Guy de Maupassant and Edith
Wharton.  I am sure you have realised that actually, I would like them all, which will only add to my mountainous TBR pile. I will definitely pick up one or two to be going on with though. 

Reader's Reads #1 - David Fennell

Of late I have become an obsessive listener to Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4. Clever, famous (not necessarily the same thing) and interesting people are interviewed and asked to choose eight records they would like to have with them on a desert island. I wanted to get to know some of my readers a little better, so thought it would be fun to feature readers and their favourite reads. This spawned the rather natty, although probably not originally named "Reader's Reads".

Each reader has a comfy seat, anywhere in the world, real or imaginary, a beverage and snack of their choice and a bookcase which will only hold eight books. 

If you would like to be featured, please contact me via the email button (bottom left of the main page) and I'll email out the bits and pieces to you. 

To start us off we have none other than The Delightful Mr F.  The Delightful Mr F has very different reading preferences to me, and is as clever as clever can be. He is also a black belt in Karate. Here  are his Reader's Reads:

The one which kickstarted your reading habit:

The Hobbit (JRR Tolkien).  I read it when I was 7, and still have my 30-something year old paperback copy of it (the one with Smaug on the cover).  I thought it was such a good story, and so much less insipid than some of the other childrens books that were put my way in school.  I went on to read all of Tolkien, and lots of others, and loved every minute of it.

The one which changed your view of the world:

To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee).  I liked the way it positioned both adult & childrens views of the world and made me wonder at what point in someone’s life do they pick up such irrational attitudes towards race and class.  No-one’s born with them. 

The one you go back to again and again:

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series…..yes all of them……sorry to cheat on the book count…...I’m sure there will be a compendium version along soon, to get me out of trouble.  For a start the stories are a lot of fun, and then there’s all the references to other films, books and cultures, which I enjoyed.  I think Terry Pratchett was a very knowledgeable man.  Some of the Discworld characters reminded me of people I met at university and in my first job.  I guess these characters are the same everywhere…..I thought their portrayal was really spot on, and written with considerable affection.

The one which is your guilty pleasure:

Flashman (George MacDonald Fraser).  George MacDonald Fraser picked up the character from Tom Brown’s School Days and developed him into a Victorian anti-hero.  The Flashman books span all military campaigns of the Victorian era, and blend great fiction (Flashman’s own story) with so much historical detail.  If you want to learn about British History, reading the Flashman books is a really enjoyable way to do this.  As a character Flashman has no redeeming features and is clearly beyond redemption.  While he has few, if any commendable qualities, I just can’t help wanting to read more.  Plus its the only book that I’ve seen get good reviews from both The Guardian & Telegraph newspaper critics, so I guess there must be something in Flashman that appeals to just about everyone.

The one which you had an unexpected response to:

The Mighty Atom - Life and Times of Joseph L Greenstein (Ed Spielman).  I got into feats of strength & steel bending a while back.  I wanted to learn some more about the Mighty Atom, who was a performing strongman well into his 70’s.  The book is written very simply.  As well as telling us about his fascinating life, there’s lots of subliminal strength tips in there, plus observations on life in general.  Anytime I’m suffering from too much comfort its good to dip into a chapter of this one.

The one you wish you had time to read:

The Book of Five Rings (Miyamoto Musashi) - it’s one of the definitive martial arts books, written around 400 years ago.  Lots in this book about swordsmanship, and overall strategy for the wider martial arts and beyond.  Its not a long book by any means, but needs time to be read, re-read, and really be absorbed properly.  It also seems to have been the inspiration for some scenes in Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon.  Personally I think the similarity for one scene in particular is too much to be a coincidence (if you’ve read the book and seen the film, you’ll know which one I mean).  

The one with sentimental value:

Again its a series rather than a book (sorry!) - “Best Karate” by Masatoshi Nakayama Sensei.  I have a full set, bought for me by the Delightful Mrs F.  What could be better than that?

The last one you read:

Sandman Slim (Richard Kadrey).  The Delightful Mrs F has just reviewed this on Fennell Books, and written more eloquently & succinctly about this than I ever could, so look there for the details.  It’s just fun, pure and simple, and I can’t wait to read the next in the series.

My beverage of choice is:  Coffee, very dark roast, freshly made & unadulterated.  Lots of it.

My snack of choice is: Right now its slow cooked lambs hearts (though I reserve to right to go back to something more chocolatey in the future…..), bought from Holdshott Farm Shop in Heckfield.  Very nutritious and they taste fantastic if you cook them right (don’t knock them if you haven’t tried them…..).  Also they’re very good to eat at work while you’re reading…….eat a whole one with your fingers…….and suddenly no-one seems to want to interrupt you anymore.

My comfy chair and bookshelf are located: My comfy chair is a 35 year old Parker Knoll Norton recliner that used to belong to my uncle, in the Fennell Towers library.  It’s definitely one of my favourite places, surrounded by our books, and being able to listen to the garden birds outside.  Reading here with the Delightful Mrs F is a "perfect moment” (spot the reference  :)).

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

So, where to start with this one? It isn't my normal bookish fare, but I had a thoroughly great time reading it. 

The book is set in LA, an LA where hellions and angels walk the streets and magic is possible, although most folks are not magical. Don't get the wrong end of the stick here, this is about as far away from Harry Potter as you can get. 

James Stark was a member of a group of magicians, learning to control their magical skills, lead by a rather power and slightly mad chap. The group trick James and manage to send him to Hell, whilst still alive. In Hell, it turns out being alive is a bit of a novelty and he is pitted against the worst of the monsters in Hell as sport for Lucifer and his generals. 

James manages to escape and ends up back in LA and out for revenge against those who sent him to Hell and went on to kill Alice, the love of his life. The trouble is that during the twelve years or so that he has been gone, relations between the hellions and the angels seem to have become a bit strained, and things are bordering on all out war. 

It is rip-roaring, violent, blood splattered, comic book fun, with a protagonist that you can sympathise with, even if his morality is a little bit off kilter.  The other characters are interesting, and a few minor characters look as though they may have an interesting back-story that could come out in later books. 

There are six books in the series.  The Delightful Mr F is currently devouring book two, and I suspect will be seeking out the remainder of the series in due course. 

Having read this, I am now wondering what other great writers in this type of Sci Fi I am missing out on. Any suggestions would be gratefully received!

Sir Terry Pratchett

The sad news that Terry Pratchett had died broke whilst I was at work. I adore his books, and have a copy of every single one, here at Fennell Towers. I never met him, but he struck me as being a very clever, very funny and also very kind man.

His books have been with me since I was about eleven years old, when my friend Heather showed me her copy of The Colour of Magic. A few weeks later, during a rainy summer holiday my Mum and Dad took me to the Bournemouth branch of WH Smith where I bought the first four books in the Discworld series. After that, it was one every year for Christmas. I read them at University as an escape from my engineering degree, under trees in the summer and under blankets in the winter. When I met The Delightful Mr F I found out he was a Pratchett fan too, we were a perfect match! When we moved in together our duplicate copies of the Discworld novels sat side by side on the bookshelves. The line "its a burger" still has us in stitches and it is amazing how many people will reply "you're telling me" when you say it. 

There are 40 or so Discworld novels some of which I have read multiple times, and at a rough calculation I think I must have spent well over a year of my reading life wandering the streets of Ankh Morpork.

Many of the obituaries are using the word "joy" in relation to Terry Pratchett, and I can't think of a better word. So, thank you Sir Terry for all the joy you have bought me, and I will enjoy re-reading your books over and over again when I want a good giggle. Rest well, and know that you will be remembered on the bookshelves of Fennell Towers and around the world with enormous fondness.