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REVIEW : She Will Build Him a City by Raj Kamal Jha

I find that Raj Kamal Jha's prose is very hard to describe and I've already started writing this review couple of times without any success worth mentioning. The problem lies with the fact that Jha's novels often feel like poetry and I never know how to adequately describe the feelings that they tend to stir up. "She Will Build Him a City" is built as a cycle of connected stories with Delhi as their center. Jha's Delhi is a dangerous and frightening place that can eat you alive, one which at times becomes almost like an evil caricature of itself. Similarly to Jha who works in the city, each of his characters is full of stories and lifes its live despite all the chaos and menace in the air. But not everything is doom and gloom. There's hope if you want to find it - all those immigrants coming to build their lives out of nothing. Some of them will even succeed in reaching their dreams. Similarly to Delhi, "She Will Build Him a City" is a palimpsest with layer upon layer of stories to discover.

Stories themselves revolve around characters known only as Woman, Man and Child who are caught in everyday situations built around social tensions in this vibrant and ever changing community. Wealthy Man looks from the safety of his car as police is using water cannons on the protesters and dreams of murder while the Woman spends time telling tales of the past to her daughter. Child, on the other hand, comes from different side of the spectrum and is an orphan abandoned by its mother on the doorsteps of the orphanage. As the story unfolds, the three characters become connected by fourth and the final strand of the tale comes into view. Ultimately, its really not that important as by then you'll be perfectly aware of the city and its constant evolution. No matter what happens with our protagonists the city will go on with its endless onslaught of death, violence and occasional laughter.

Raj Kamal Jha's "She Will Build Him a City" is also notable for breaking the traditions of a classic Indian novel. Ruminations about the past are almost nonexistent and Jha is more willing to embrace the future however chaotic is might seem. More importantly, it also beckons full attention from its reader. Superficial glance will hardly do it justice because just as every metropolis only reveals its true colours when you stray off the tourist trail, "She Will Build Him a City" works best when you fully embrace and understand its symbolism and concepts. "She Will Build Him a City" is raw novel about Modern India and, equally as its subject, is irresistibly alluring.


Review copy provided by Bloomsbury UK
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REVIEW : Tricked! by Paul Frampton

 

Whether you scientifically inclined or not, there's a significant chance you've heard of Paul Frampton, albeit for two very different reasons. Those coming from science background will probably know him best for his occasionally groundbreaking work in theoretical physics which I won't pretend to completely understand. Others will remember him from an story that filled the media headlines in 2012. It's was the stuff of nightmares. A tale that felt like it fell out of some Hollywood blockbuster. You simply couldn't make it up. 

In 2011, Frampton was working as a Professor of Physics, respected by his peers but ultimately emotionally unfulfilled. After going through a divorce seven years ago he was lonely and as most of people do these days, he turned to internet dating to find love. Initially he was realistic with his expectations but soon after opening his profile Frampton he was contacted by a beautiful, 30 years younger woman named Katherine Roopnarine. After he noticed an imprint Denise Milani on one of the pictures she sent, Katherine responded to Frampton saying she's in fact Milani, a hugely successful bikini model. No, she absolutely doesn't mind that he is an older gentleman because she's tired of shallow younger men and is actually looking to settle down. While you would expect that at this point someone as intelligent as Frampton would run to the hills, curiously he accept her story and accept her invitation to visit her at in Bolivia. From this point everything goes downhill for Frampton. Without revealing too many details, he ends up being accused of being a drug mule and ends up in prison. As you probably guessed by now, Milani never was Milani.

Frampton never admitted to smuggling drugs and always insisted that he's simply been conned due to his naivety. Certain text has transpired against him and sealed his fate at the trial so in the end he was convicted. Personally, I've always thought that it was plausible Frampton was innocent. I've worked with enough scientists in my life and I've noticed a similar pattern reoccurring. While they're ofter undoubtedly brilliant intellects, they're often emotionally lacking so I can imagine them falling into the same trap as Frampton as unlikely as it sounds. "Tricked! The Story of an Internet Scam" in a way serves as a cautionary tale. It recounts his side of the story in a brutally direct manner and is admittedly a gripping read until you remember that all this actually happened to someone. It's sobering when you realise how quickly someone's career and life can be effectively shattered by a single bad decision. However, I can't say that this short text should be a final say in the matter as some crucial parts (such as said texts) are simply glossed over. But for what its worth, Frampton's account is well worth reading, both for its surreal story and the lesson it provides.


Review copy provided by Publishing Push
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The story behind The Generation by Holly Cave

What makes you, you?

These four words featured heavily in my former life, when I developed exhibitions for London’s Science Museum. And that compelling question—a mantra that formed the backbone of my work on researching the Museum’s Who Am I? gallery about genetics, neuroscience and identity—formed the seed of The Generation.

I’d already started writing another novel, five chapters of which languish to this day on my home screen. But it was going nowhere. I needed a single idea; one strong enough to support a story and all the complexities of the characters within it.

The inspiration came at the right time. I was in my mid-twenties and somewhat discontent as I grappled with my own identity and place in the world. I found myself resisting definition, and the more I discovered about the science of identity, the more I longed for knowledge of a more soulful nature.

As I researched and explored what science has to say about what makes us unique individuals, I came across some astonishing stories and some remarkable people. It reaffirmed what I already knew: that human diversity is to be celebrated. We each have a universe within ourselves—completely unique—and shaped by our genes, the people around us, the substances that flow around us as we develop in the womb, and much, much more.

Freedom to be the person we are—and trying to become the person we want to be—is a wonderful thing. I imagined a future without that precious freedom, and in doing so, the chilling world of The Generation was born.

I first started writing it in 2009, but in all honestly, I wasn’t ready to be a committed writer. With the pressures of a demanding, full-time job I found it hard to find the time to write. When I did sit down at my desk, the words flowed out of me, but there was no planning involved; I had no idea how it would end.

The exhibition was completed and I moved on—quite literally—by travelling around the world for a year. Despite moving from bunk beds to sleeper trains to hammocks every few days, a fully formed manuscript finally emerged. A fond memory of that time is watching my husband-to-be read through that first draft at a roadside picnic table in New Zealand.

Returning from my travels, anything seemed possible. I started freelance writing and haven’t looked back. I love writing about both science fact and science fiction. The two seem to give each other oxygen.

The next book won’t take me so long. Already several thousand words in, The Architecture of Heaven has corralled my imagination for the foreseeable future.

I’ve promised myself that I’ll read fifty books this year and write one. Check back in August and give me a nudge, will you?


Holly Cave
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REVIEW : Aquarium by David Vann

Bard of the troubled David Vann has taken his readers to some very bleak places. Vann is not afraid to explore even the darkest of themes but study of his characters often offers hope in the unlikeliest of place. "Aquarium", his latest novel, doesn't stray away too far away from this familiar territory and through what superficially feels like a coming of age story explores the impact of family secrets on a relationship between parents and their children. "Aquarium" is also a development of sorts for Vann. While being full of palpable tension and emotions, it is also his first novel written from female perspective and one where the ending doesn't come with an impact of a Greek tragedy.

Caitlin, twelve-year-old, is at the heart of the story. She lives with her mother Sheri in a grimy apartment in an industrial Seattle and likes to spend her time in a nearby aquarium. She's absolutely fascinated by fish, loves the sense of calm they bring and the pocket universe they inhabit. With their shapes and sizes, fish provide a welcome escape for Caitlin who doesn't have too much joy in her life. On one of her escapades she meets an older man and while initially they're connected mainly by their mutual admiration of aquarium it soon transpires that there's something more to their relationship. Older man is connected to a heartbreaking secret that could destroy the fragile existence she has with her mother. Her he long gone Grandfather. Caitlin is at a turning point in the life. She's at that precious age when she becoming aware of the world and about her emotions and body, and revelation like this can spin her out her orbit. Slowly the truth comes out and details of her mother's troubled relationship with her father and the abuse that cause the rift are revealed in excruciating details.

 

If you've never read David Vann's work before, "Aquarium" is a perfect introduction. It's a fantastic overview of his writing skill and is a slightly less heart wrenching experience than his previous novels tend to be. In a way, it is an amalgam of his work so far. This dark voyage into the family breakdown is also his most hopeful book yet. It's clear by now that Vann is without question one of the most important American writers of our age and as far as I'm concerned, his latest novel finds him at his graceful best. Well recommend.


Review copy provided by William Heinemann
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REVIEW : If I Fall If I Die by Michael Christie

 

Michael Christie's debut novel "If I Fall, If I Die" is one of those rare books that has the tendency to fill your heart. This coming of age tale revolves around Will, a boy held captive by his mother Diane Cardiel who despite loving him deeply never lets him go outside. She's suffering from a debilitating case of agoraphobia which she's transferring to her boy. So Will can't remember ever going outside of his house despite living all across the world in some of the most vibrant cities. He just spends his days in those few rooms that his house contains, drawing and daydreaming. But as his 11th birthday comes to pass, he suddenly starts wishing for more. Like an explorer preparing to climb Everest for the first time, Will decides to embark on a greatest adventure of his life and to venture outside. Instinctively he realises that his mother is wrong and damn the consequences. Armed with a protective helmet and fear that makes him weak in the knees, he eventually makes a step and then another only to discover a wonderful new world. He even meets new friends, like Marcus and Jonah who teach him how to skateboard, and every little thing is full of wonder. Inevitably, Will discovers the shortcomings of life Outside as well but unsurprisingly he even takes these in his stride as after being held captive for so long even the bad days are not so bad. Even here Christie is brutally honest and delivers a crash course in prejudice and racism, few of the things Will was completely unaware of while being in his gilded cage. Counter argument is provided in chapters told about Diane and her horrific past which is largely the cause of her suffering. Despite being rather happy about Will's new found freedom I have to admint I was also increasingly worried about how well will Diane cope with losing Will to the Outside.

The idea behind "If I Fall, If I Die" is not particularly innovative and has been extensively explored in literature (admittedly it shares a lot more with Scarlett Thomas' "Going Out" than with Emma Donahue’s "Room") but what sets "If I Fall, If I Die" apart from the crowd is that Christie successfully manages to make his case for our increasingly ordinary world. He invites us to go outside and to rediscover our surroundings. To notice once again all those things and details we take for granted -for example, a tree - isn't it amazing with all it's branches and bark? And that's exactly how you'll feel for some time after finishing "If I Fall, If I Die". Despite the sadness, everything will become important and beautiful and because of that Christie's debut is one rather special book. It works its magic without succumbing to cheap sentimentality and for most of its parts, succeeds.


Review copy provided by William Heinemann
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REVIEW : Blood Brothers by Ernst Haffner

This slim volume is the only known novel by Ernst Haffner, German social worker and journalist, which only a year after its publication in 1932, was banned by Nazis for its apparently anti-Aryan propaganda. It's hard to see why when considered by today's standards but those were different time. Germany between two world wars was country to the edge of the abyss. In an atmosphere filled with prejudice and hate, only the boldest were willing to raise their heads above the crowds. Ernst Haffner was one of them and it was extremely courageous of him to publish "Blood Brothers” (originally titled Jugend auf der Landstrasse Berlin” (“Youth on the Road to Berlin”) when he did. The reason why is not because of what he has written but rather what he hasn't. What's strangely absent from "Blood Brothers" is any glorification of Aryan way of life. Instead Haffner has decided to show the life in socially deprived German as it is and no one is more human than his protagonists. It time of trouble they run from crime to crime and this lifestyle as harsh as it is unites them. And this is what probably caught the eye of authorities. In all their despicable acts his character as only human, no better or worse than the rest. There's no place for politics if you're scraping barely enough to survive.

"Blood Brothers" as a story works primarily as a historical document. As Hitler is gaining power with each new day that passes, on the streets opportunistic gangs are slowly preparing for land grab. Perpetually living on the Berlin's streets and underground hostels, these street gangs are organized by their own code of honour and are ran by military discipline that spits our those who can't handle the brutality and grittiness. It's easy to throw parallels with similar works of literature exploring seeds underbelly of American cities and you wouldn't be mistaken. "Blood Brothers" is a good as any of them and Haffner's sparse prose is unflinching in its honestly. Sadly, Haffner's story didn't have a happy ending. All traces of him disappeared after the second world war but mystery of what actually happened to Haffner has not been solved to this day.However, in 2013 his only novel was found again and subsequently published in Germany to great acclaim. Its easy to understand its appeal. "Blood Brothers" stands as true testament to his writing talent and to his unfulfilled potential as well a thrilling insight into a time best left behind. A great rediscovery.


Review copy provided by Other Press
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REVIEW : The Buddha's Return by Gaito Gazdanov

 

Gaito Gazdanov is one of the best examples of Pushkin Collection's panache for finding those brilliant but forgotten authors. His surreal masterpiece "The Spectre of Alexander Wolf" was loved by everyone in our office and its mesmerizing quality still surprises nearly everyone to whom we recommend it. Coming up next from Gazdanov is similarly hypnotic and metaphysical "The Buddha's Return", a novel stepped deep in detective tradition and one which only reveals all its secrets after couple of re-reads.

"The Buddha's Return" follows the story of a unnamed Russian émigré who is suffering from debilitating fits. These fits are accompanied by realistic visions which are often so lucid that they feel real. One such vision opens the novel and recounts a vivid description of our narrator's death. In the following pages our protagonist soon meets an acquittance from years ago. Having originally met him as a pauper and having given him princely sum of ten Francs, in the intervening years this poor soul, Pavel Alexandrovich, became an incredibly wealthy man. Two quickly become close friend but soon afterwards our student is arrested, accused of having stolen his friend's precious golden Buddha statuette as well as murdering him. It's a nightmarish scenario that blurs the borders of reality. Unexpectedly, from that point on a lot of "The Buddha's Return" feels like a Boir detective story interspersed with hallucinatory fragments and meditations upon life and death.

"The Buddha's Return" firmly establishes Gaito Gazdanov as one of the best Russian authors you've never heard off. In my opinion he often writes on the same level as Dostoevsky or, at a stretch, Kafka. The psychological profiling of his victim is definitely on par. However, Gazdanov is different in a way that his stories are often much subtler and restrained affairs and often feel like they were pulled from Gazdanov's eventful life. Once again, I can only reiterate my gratefulness to Pushkin Press for re-discovering Gazdanov - his fiction still feels contemporary and relevant as it ever was and I'm privileged to have a chance to read it.


Review copy provided by Pushkin Press
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The story behind The Cherry Blossom Murder by Fran Pickering

 

If you ask people what comes to mind when they think about Japan, chances are they’ll say geisha, samurai and sushi. But the Japan I know, 21st century Japan, isn’t like that. It’s fast and modern and full of Starbucks and McDonald’s, yet it’s still completely different to the West. Just not in the way you’d expect. 

It’s hard to explain what modern Japan is like, so I decided to do it through a murder mystery series about an expat Londoner and amateur sleuth, Josie Clark, and her life in Tokyo with her Japanese friends and work colleagues. She goes to Starbucks a lot, but she also eats traditional Japanese food and tries to fit into a society with rules that are rather different to what she’s used to. And she finds herself with a dilemma when her former English boyfriend reappears in her life, forcing her to choose between him and her new Japanese boyfriend. 

The first book in the series, The Cherry Blossom Murder, is set partly in Tokyo and partly in a small town in the mountains outside Osaka called Takarazuka, home of the unique and spectacular all-female Takarazuka Revue. It’s one of the biggest theatre companies in the world, with four hundred actresses, two giant theatres and its own television channel, yet it’s hardly known outside Japan. It’s a fascinating world. The Takarazuka star actresses have large and enthusiastic fan clubs with their own arcane rules. Josie’s experiences as a member of star actress Tammy Izumo’s fan club are based on my own experience as a fan club member, an insider in a world that non-Japanese people rarely get to see.

People always ask me what got me interested in Japan. Well, it all started when Takarazuka came to London in the 1990’s and I went to see them with my husband. We were blown away by their all-singing, all-dancing fast-moving show, full of sequins and ostrich feathers, as glamorous as a Parisian revue from the 1920’s brought back to life.



After that we went to Japan for a holiday, learning a bit of Japanese first — just enough to get by. But that first visit became another and another; my simple Japanese grew and developed as I made more Japanese friends and finally I was lucky enough to go to Japan to work, and see inside the strict formality of the Japanese workplace. I now speak Japanese fluently and read and write it too, which has opened up so many opportunities to get beneath the skin of Japan, a country where immigration is tiny and huge numbers of people have never spoken to a foreigner. 

I’ve met many ordinary Japanese people, whose lives are very different to Western lives. Housewives whose role is to stay at home, cook the meals and support their children though the challenging Japanese education system; businessmen who relax in the evenings with karaoke and whiskey in bars where the ‘Mama-san’ keeps their personal whiskey bottle waiting for them. And, of course, salarymen and office ladies. Japan is full of salarymen, toiling office workers in black suits and white shirts who work long hours and put the company before everything else. But at least they have a career; office ladies just make the tea and are expected to leave to become housewives when they get married. Japan is still an unequal society.

That’s the Japan I’ve tried to show in my books. But writing a book about people who speak another language has its own problems. It’s hard for foreigners to deal with unfamiliar Japanese names, so I’ve tried to keep them as simple and westernised as possible. And I’ve let my characters speak naturally, with no foreign accents or sentence structures, so the reader hears the person, not the ‘Japaneseness’. 



After The Cherry Blossom Murder I wrote a second Josie adventure, The Haiku Murder, where Josie goes on a haiku-writing trip that turns to tragedy when a charismatic financier falls from the top of Matsuyama castle. Haiku are short poems of three lines with five syllables in the first line, seven in the second and five in the third. They’re part of Japanese history but are still very popular today, and most Japanese people can write haiku. Trips to the country to write and share haiku are quite popular, though Josie struggles with her own haiku writing.

I’ve also written a short novella set in a Tokyo karaoke box - quite different from a western karaoke bar, it’s a private space for a small group to sing in privacy - the perfect setting for a murder. And I’m currently writing the next book in the series, The Bullet Train Murder, set on one of Japan’s famous high-speed trains. 

There’s an endless amount to discover, which keeps me going back to Japan to visit friends, eat delicious food and check out the locations for the latest book. And then I share my experiences, and hopefully my love of Japan, with readers. What could be better than that?


Fran Pickering
Official website: franpickering.com
Twitter: @franpickering
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