The Travelling Cat Chronicles – Hiro Arikawa (translated by Philip Gabriel)

After my last post – mostly spent exploring the history of bicycles in Taiwan – we are still in the far east. This time, however, I’m back on the more familiar ground of a novel written from the point of view of an animal. My last pet narrator was a post-apocalyptic dog so a street wise Japanese cat  makes for an interesting contrast. Obviously a much more self-centred sort of character – when I was 6 years old I thought our pet dog was my best friend, now I have a cat who won’t even consider sitting on my lap and spends most of her time sat behind the hi-fi speakers – because, well, cats…

34728079The cat in this story begins as a nameless stray, willing to accept food from a kind-hearted human but happy living on the streets of a Japanese town. He permits himself to be taken in after an incident with a car leaves him with a badly broken leg and soon finds himself a beloved pet, with a name and a strong attachment to Satoru Miyawaki, his rescuer. He has become a fully fledged companion animal and, although he’s sure he could go back to living as a stray, he becomes as attached to Satoru as a cat can. So, when Satoru begins trying to find someone to take the cat, now known as Nana, off his hands we are, initially, confused. As Satoru takes Nana to visit various friends from his childhood and early adulthood (to see if cat and friend are compatible – they never quite are…) we begin to realise that there must be a serious reason for him to be parted from his beloved pet. It didn’t take me until the final scenes of the book to realise what this ‘serious reason’ was but it was only the closing few pages that had me sobbing.

This was a wonderful book. Beautifully written (and translated) with a lovely contrast between the personalities of sensitive, kind Satoru and tough, straight-talking Nana it tells a deceptively simple story of a young man seeking to rehome a pet. But the heart of the book is a reminder of the fact that we are made most human by the love we show for others (even if you are, in fact, a cat).




The Stolen Bicycle – Wu Ming-Yi (edited by Darryl Sterk)

For me reading is a way of experiencing lives other than my own. I know I will never go to Mars and live on potatoes but I loved The Martian, I’m not an elderly man grieving for the things which have gone wrong in my life but I thoroughly enjoyed sobbing my way through The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. But, like many readers and bloggers of a white persuasion, I do find that a lot of my reading is quite monochrome. I do enjoy the odd foray into quirky Scandinavian novels or those with a more philosophical Gallic slant but even that is quite Eurocentric (and, it seems, we are meant to be weaning ourselves off that sort of thing…) so I have been looking towards the east. My next post will be about a Japanese novel that had me in tears but first let’s look at Taiwan: the small East Asian state which is still not quite China.

9781911231158I’m not sure if this book is typically Taiwanese (Wikipedia is equally confused about whether Taiwan has its own culture or is a subset of Chinese culture – it has given us Ang Lee and bubble tea though) but it was certainly pretty unique in my experience. The story is partly a general history of Taiwan – which seems to be a series of occupations, European, Chinese, Japanese… – but then also something much more specific. Not just of one thing though – not a history of Taiwanese bicycles, or of one particular family or of the elephants in a Taipei zoo but a blend of all three. I’m not sure if this sounds as if it could be rather dry but I certainly didn’t find it so – the writing (and the translation, obviously) is both lyrical and very human. Which is, for me, the true joy of reading – learning to understand the experiences of another person even if you have nothing (aside from humanity itself) in common.


Uncommon Type – Tom Hanks

There are many ways to tell stories ranging from the purely visual – painting, photography or even, perhaps, fireworks – to the verbal – novels and poetry. There are ways which blend combinations of images, words and other sounds – film, dance, theatre, songs and graphic novels – but the storytelling is the important thing. A novel, Wuthering Heights, for example, can be adapted into a comic book, a film or a song but we still feel Catherine’s passion and the bleakness of the moorland setting. We do tend, however, to assume that those who help to portray the stories which others have written – actors, singers, dancers – are just interpreters of the creativity of others rather than creators themselves. Skilled interpreters, who can wring realistic emotions from the written word which we, as readers, can only feel echoes of but they need the words of others. Or that is how we think of them. But Hedy Lamarr was an inventor who helped to develop a radio guidance system for torpedoes and Jimmy Stewart trained as an architect, so we shouldn’t be surprised by actors who are able to produce good fiction. Maybe it is the amount of books written by celebrities which make us forget that actors, really good actors, are something very different from celebs…

tomhanksTom Hanks, as an actor, is agreed to be very good. Double Oscar winner, with lots of other awards to his name, and the star of some of the biggest, and best-loved, films of the past three decades he is a household name. He’s a real celebrity but one with talent and, it appears, principles and plenty of human warmth. All this is apparent in this collection of short stories – in fact I could hear Hanks’ voice in my head as I read them (usually a good sign for me and, it seems, Hanks himself as he reads the audio book version…). Some stories connect to the world of Hollywood actors, which Hanks obviously knows well, but also that of immigrant workers, teen surfers and recently divorced mums. Hanks’ strength as an actor has, for me, always been his ability to be an everyman figure – someone we can all easily identify with – so it is interesting that this extends to his more purely verbal storytelling.

I liked these stories because, as well as being well-written, they are very reminiscent of the kind of films Hanks is involved with. Some romance, some laughs, some heartbreak: no explosions. If you prefer something full of high-speed car chases, special effects and blood then this may not be for you: if you spent the whole of Apollo 13 on the edge of your seat (even though you know how it ends) then give it a try.


A Quick Pre-Pullman Catch-Up

I got a little bit behind on my reading and blogging recently – I decided to take a couple of weeks out to read the whole of the His Dark Materials before the publication of the new book today – so here’s a quick catch up on some of my recent reading. Not themed because, as you may have noticed, I’ll read just about anything that catches my eye…

Malala’s Magic Pencil – Malala Yousafzai

31932921Malala Yousafzai continues to be an inspirational young lady.  The determination which led to her being targeted by Taliban enforcers has sustained her through writing her life story, continued activism for the education of girls and her own education. I can’t be the only one who felt oddly proud to see that she has just taken her place at Oxford – she has become a sort of symbol for what girls and young women can achieve. Although her autobiography was issued in an edition for younger readers in 2014 she has not previously written directly to the very young. This book changes that – it is, through the simply told story of a girl who decides that, if she had a magic pencil, she would draw a world where life was fairer. Malala’s story is one that children understand – life really should be fair – but the reality of her experiences are the sort of thing that we would hope to shelter primary-aged children from. This book allows her to encourage youngsters towards the sort of activism they can appreciate – kindness and fairness to all and not keeping silent about inequalities. Nobody is too young, or too old, for that.

Everything You Do Is Wrong – Amanda Coe

9780349005058Set in a North Yorkshire coastal town where nothing ever seems to happen this is the story of Melody, a teenage girl who really wishes that something would happen to her. Her mother is absent – sometimes away, sometimes just too ill to get out of her bed – and her step-dad always seems to be working. Home-schooled (or rather mostly left to her own devices) she is working towards her GCSEs and what she really wants to happen is that her maths tutor will fall in love with her before her final exam. We also have Melody’s aunt Mel, trying to be in charge of everyone and everything, who finds a mysterious girl washed up on the local beach in the middle of a storm.

This book looks like it is the story of Storm, the name given to the mystery girl, who doesn’t speak or communicate in any way – she is certainly the focus of most of the town – but really it is about Melody.  She is adrift – her short experience of mainstream schooling mainly involved being bullied – and has very little contact with other young people (apart from her cousins).  Melody lives in a bit of a fantasy world – one where her tutor will fall in love with her and take her away from her boring, yet messy, life – but by the end of the book she is starting to grow a little. The story involving Storm ended a bit disappointingly (just a hint of the Bobby Ewings, if you know what I mean) but, once I reminded myself that, for me, this was just an also-ran of a plot that seemed to matter a lot less.

Pocketful of Crows – Joanne Harris

9781473222182Finally on this round-up is the latest from Yorkshire author, Joanne Harris. (Interestingly, well, to me anyway, she is another in my list of authors who add an initial M to their name to differentiate between the two genres she writes in)  This is one of her many books based on myths and folklore and a perfect short read for the dark nights around Hallowe’en. The main character is one of the ‘travelling folk’ (who we would probably refer to as witches, faeries or the like), a girl who lives wild in the woods. She is nameless and free, experiencing life through the eyes and bodies of various animals, until she steals a love token and then falls for its intended target. This is a book about a rather female folklore – maidens, mothers and crones – and our nameless heroine is bought low by the young man she falls for (especially when he gives her a name – naming confers power over the named). But revenge at hand and the wheels of both the seasons and life turns full circle. This book feels like a new version of every classic folk tale – as old as Old Age but fresh as springtime.



The Crow Garden – Alison Littlewood

I do love a bit of period drama. On tv, or film, I enjoy almost anything with a good costume department (although I do prefer it if they get the costumes mostly right – I don’t know how old I was when I first saw the 1940 version of Pride & Prejudice but I just knew the costumes were far too Victorian for a proper Jane Austen adaptation…) and in book terms I’m happy with fiction set in almost any period ( yes, starting with the ice age novels of Jean Auel and working through most of history since – I’m particularly fond of a Regency romance). Some historical settings work well with particular genres (Regency romance, as I already mentioned, or Medieval murder mystery – they don’t have to be alliterative but that’s all that springs to mind…) but nothing seems to suit stories of spookiness and the macabre like the Victorian era. And nobody seems to do the spooky and macabre like Alison Littlewood…

crow gardenNewly qualified Nathaniel Kerner leaves his widowed mother behind in London to work in windswept Yorkshire. His father’s suicide seems to have made it hard for him to find work but the director of Crakethorne Asylum is willing to take a chance on him. All seems positive until he meets Vita, Mrs Victoria Harleston, a beautiful young woman whose husband wants her cured. Her insanity appears to Kerner to be that she doesn’t wish to perform her ‘wifely duties’ and he plans to cure her with new-fangled talking therapies. Against a backdrop of superstition and dubious mental health care (all, sadly, ones used up until scarily recently…) he falls in love with his patient and, it seems, under her spell. They find themselves back in London, living with Kerner’s mother, and caught up in the world of psychics,  mesmerists and other fraudsters. Or, in the case of Vita Harleston, could these mysterious powers be true?

This is a superbly researched historical novel which brings to life the Victorian era but also a wonderfully creepy tale of the uncanny. A perfect read for Halloween – unless you live on a moor. In Yorkshire. Surrounded by crows…




How To Be Champion – Sarah Millican

Before I moved to Yorkshire (and after my early years in darkest Essex) I lived for a dozen or so years in the North-East of England. I lived in a small pit village just outside Durham and worked in both Durham itself and Newcastle. They were very happy years and I still have many friends living around the area. I don’t get to visit very often so I miss them, I miss the charm of Durham, the bustle of Newcastle and the glorious countryside of the whole region. I’d say I miss the accents (Geordie, Mackem and Wearside, among others) but I’ve been hearing them a lot on tv recently – I got quite nostalgic watching Neighbourhood Blues from Sunderland the other week. And, of course, some of my favourite comedians from the North-East are on heavy rotation on both the BBC and Dave. I’ll never pine for the sounds of Tyne and Wear while I’m sure of finding either Ross Noble, Chris Ramsey or Vic and Bob as I channel surf. My favourite though is Sarah Millican: although I can’t tell if this is mostly for her potty-mouthed humour or because of how much she looks like my sister.

34514547How to be Champion is Millican’s first book and is described as ‘part autobiography, part self-help, part confession, part celebration of being a common-or-garden woman, part collection of synonyms for nunny‘. For me this perfectly sums up what I love so much about this woman – she is refreshingly normal (complete with anxiety, weight issues and love-life traumas), a warm and nurturing human-being (she wants to help other women with their own anxiety, weight issues etc) and is hugely funny in a way that makes you wince at her honesty (as you also guffaw at her utterly filthy turn of phrase). She isn’t perfect (and the Geordie word ‘champion’ doesn’t mean being the best but rather it means being good enough…), and has never claimed to be, but she is learning to be happy in her own skin – this book is offering help to others in working out how to be happy in theirs.


The Diary of a Bookseller – Shaun Bythell

I like to read all sorts of things. In fact, I’d almost go as far as to say I have a bit of a morbid fear of not having anything to read. Never mind worrying about crashes, delays or even *gasp* running out of tea, my worst fear is a long journey without a book. I’ve been known to read, in great detail, the ingredients list on a pack of buffet-car crisps or every word of the inflight magazine and the safety instruction but, of course, I prefer a book. I’m not, as you may be able to tell from this blog, fixated on one type of book – I’ll read lots of fiction genres, history, biographies, science-writing as well as books written for children and young people – but I do have my favourites. I love history (both in fictional and non-fiction forms), to wallow in a good post-apocalypse or books that make me cry a bit: but the one things that will almost guarantee my interest is a book about books themselves. Like most people I enjoy reading about someone I can identify with – I like stories about booksellers. That sorts out my fiction needs but, generally speaking, booksellers aren’t really famous enough to feature in the biography or history sections. Although, of course, most booksellers aren’t Shaun Bythell, who runs The Bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland’s Book Town. We visited the town (and most of its bookshops) a few years ago on a short holiday in the Galloway area. We stayed at the Galloway Astronomy Centre so that Rob could play with big telescopes at night and during the day he ferried me round various art galleries and bookshops. A blissful few days marred only by the total elusiveness of the local red squirrels. The visit to Wigtown to see the bookshops (and pick up a book or two, obviously) was a highlight – if I’d read this book first we may have had to visit every day instead of just once.

35512560This book is, as it says on the cover, a diary of a year in a secondhand bookseller’s life. On the factual side we are told how much the till took each day and how many online orders the shop received (and was able to supply) – this gives quite an insight into how financial vulnerable small independent retailers are. But the bits that I, and many others by the look of the reviews, really enjoyed was the no-holds-barred account of each day’s interactions with staff, neighbours and customers (both the paying kind and the looky-loos). I’m sure anyone who has ever worked in retail has had ‘moments’ where they have been confused, amused or shocked by the comments and reactions of customers – although I don’t think many could describe these interactions as amusingly as Bythell does.  Not always in the most polite way (especially when talking about some of his staff) but with honesty, wit and a fair amount of dark humour. Think Black Books and you won’t go far wrong. What does shine through though is the love of the job itself – buying in stock, working with authors and helping people to find the books they want (even if they didn’t know what that book was) – and of reading. I’m a little bit jealous of Bythell’s life – the job, the beautiful part of the country he lives in and the community he is a part of –  but his sales figures make me worried that it’s a life that is under threat. The best thing I can think of to do is to plan a return trip to Galloway – taking lots of book-buying cash with me. It’s a tough job, but I think I could manage it…