After You – Jojo Moyes

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8/10. A bit bare for my liking, but gives a nice throwback to Me Before You.

“Lou Clark has lots of questions. Like how it is she’s ended up working in an airport bar, spending every shift watching other people jet off to new places. Or why the flat she’s owned for a year still doesn’t feel like home. Whether her close-knit family can forgive her for what she did eighteen months ago. And will she ever get over the love of her life. What Lou does know for certain is that something has to change. Then, one night, it does. But does the stranger on her doorstep hold the answers Lou is searching for – or just more questions? Close the door and life continues: simple, ordered, safe. Open it and she risks everything. But Lou once made a promise to live. And if she’s going to keep it, she has to invite them in…”

The bar for the follow-up to Me Before You was always going to be high: Jojo Moyes’ first novel about Lou Clark, the small-town, everyday girl who falls in love with the disabled man she’s caring for, before she has to say goodbye to him, broke hearts all over the world (including mine). So I snaffled up a copy of After You as soon as it hit the shelves and started reading it as soon as it was delivered.

It’s safe to say that After You took a different turn to what I was expecting. The novel opens up on Lou, living in London and working in an Irish pub at an airport, and thoroughly disobeying Will’s last instructions before he passed away:

“Don’t think of me too often. I don’t want to think of you getting all maudlin. Just live well. Just live.

Despite taking time off to travel after Will’s death, Lou is now firmly stuck in a life far from the one he hoped for her – made up of long, punishing shifts, bereavement support group sessions, horrible uniforms and scratchy wigs, isolation, alcohol – and absolutely no bright-coloured clothes. Contemplating her life one night looking out over London from the rooftop of the flat she used Will’s money to buy, Lou sees a glimpse of a face and, shocked and startled, she falls off the roof and onto a balcony below, seriously injuring herself. Forced to move back home to recuperate, she’s quickly stifled by the life she used to feel so comfortable in – and her old town, which is now full of far too many painful memories.  Everyone – including Patrick and his new fiance – seems to be moving on, except for her. Until a knock at her door changes her life irrevocably – for the person waiting for her on the other side is oddly familiar and yet entirely strange. With one knock, the Traynor family is back in Lou’s life – a side of the family Lou has never met, or been aware of. Accepting this stranger into her flat opens up a whole new world: every aspect of Lou’s life is questioned, thrown into turmoil and turned completely upside down. But along with the chaos comes the possibility of new love – until that’s threatened to be taken away from her, too.

Just how much more can Lou Clark bear to lose – and stand to gain?

After You was never going to be an easy book to write for Jojo Moyes, and it certainly wasn’t easy to read. Lou’s pain and struggle jumps off the page, making for a bittersweet and truly heart-wrenching read. Opportunity mingles with loss, new love with old ghosts, heartbreak with healing. It’s a rare novelist that can evoke genuine emotions for a fictional character, and I think I speak for a lot of other people when I say that Lou Clark made her way into my heart from the first few pages of Me Before You – and stayed there during After You. This beautifully-written novel gives us much-needed closure whilst granting Lou much-needed new pastures. An utterly absorbing, heart-warming and poignant read – don’t even think about not reading it.

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An exclusive extract of Beth Lewis’ The Wolf Road!

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Welcome to the third stop on the blog tour for The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis, which came out on 30th June. If you haven’t already bought your copy of her fantastic (and gorgeous) new book, here’s an extract that will whet your appetite more than dried moose meat…

THE END A’ OLD ME

I sat up high, oak branch ’tween my knees, and watched the tattooed man stride about in the snow. Pictures all over his face, no skin left no more, just ink and blood. Looking for me, he was. Always looking for me. He left red drops in the white, fallen from his fish knife. Not fish blood though. Man blood. Boy blood. Lad from Tucket lost his scalp to that knife. Scrap of hair and pink hung from the man’s belt. That was dripping too, hot and fresh. He’d left the body in the thicket for the wolves to find.

I blew smoky breath into my hands.

‘You’re a long way from home, Kreagar,’ I called down.

The trees took my voice and scattered it to pieces. Winter made skeletons of the forest, see, made camouflage tricky ’less you know what you’re doing, and I know exactly what I’m doing. He weren’t going to find no tracks nor footprints nowhere in this forest what weren’t his, I know better’n that. Kreagar looked all around, up high and ’neath brushes, but I’ve always been good at hiding.

‘Who’s that talkin’ at me out in the trees?’ he shouted. His voice was like rubbing bone on bark. Something raw in it when he raged but when he was kind it was soft rumbling that cut through a chill night. I didn’t want to think about him being kind no more. His kindness was lies and masks.

‘Saw what you did to that boy,’ I said, ‘saw where you put him. See his curly hair on your belt.’

Kreagar sniffed hard. Cold making his nose run into his beard. Teeth bared like one of them mountain bears. Didn’t even have a shirt on, never did when he did his killing. Blood splashed all over his chest, mingling with the tattoos and wiry black hair.

‘That you, Elka girl? That my Elka playing squirrel in the trees?’ he shouted.

‘I ain’t yours,’ I said, ‘never was, never gonna be.’

I took out my knife. Long blade, barbed saw teeth on the back, and stag-horn handle.

Kreagar stamped around the forest, showing all the critters where he was, trailing blood like a damn invitation.

‘Come down, give ole Kreag a hug. I’ve missed you.’

‘I don’t think so. Think I’ll stay right where I am.’

His eyes searched the trees. Black as pitch them eyes, black as disease and disorder and hate and lies. He grinned, flat white teeth like gravestones, and twirled his little fish gutter in his fingers, flinging blood everywhere, rolling out the red carpet.

‘Elka, you know I don’t mean you no harm.’ His voice turned friendly. ‘I’d never hurt my Elka.’

He wandered around like a blind man, trudging through the snow, steam lifting off his body. Always hot after a killing. He was lean, carved out of wood some say and, but for the tattoos, had a face you’d take home to your mother. He leant up against a cottonwood tree, panting to keep the cold out, getting sick of hide-and-seek.

‘Could a’ killed you a hundred times, girlie,’ he said, slow. ‘Could a’ taken my pig-sticker and cut you neck to navel while you slept. Could a’ peeled your skin off easy as boiled trout.’

I remembered all those years calling him Daddy and felt sick.

‘Could a’ made my winter boots out of your back,’ he carried on, voice getting more excited, smile getting bigger, like he was reeling off courses at a feast. ‘New belt out of your arms. Could a’ stuffed my mattress with your silky brown hair.’

He laughed and I felt sicker. He raised his knife, pointed it into the trees, right at my face though he didn’t know it.

‘You’d make a fine pair of boots, Elka girl.’

Heard it all before but it didn’t stop the cold creeping up my back, cold that weren’t snow. Cold that weren’t ice and winter. I heard him say worse but never to me. I was still afraid of him, the things he’d done, the things he made me do. But damn if I wasn’t trying to turn it to good.

‘All these months you been looking for me, Kreagar, and I found you first.’

I raised up my own knife. Weighted right nice for throwing. I told him in my head to stay there against the tree, told him don’t you move a muscle.

‘I been worried something rotten for you, Elka. This world ain’t no place for a kid like you on your own. There are worse things than wolves in the dark. Worse things than me.’

But for the blood he could have been a normal Joe out on a stroll. But for the kid’s scalp swinging in the breeze, he could’ve been anyone. But he wasn’t. He was Kreagar Hallet. Murdering, kid-killing bastard Kreagar Hallet. Took me far too long to figure that out and no prettied-up words would change it now.

I stood up on the branch without making more’n a snowflake shudder and wound back my arm. Breathed out. Pictured him like a deer. Threw my knife with all the force I had, straight and true and hit him in that soft spot just below the collarbone. That metal went through his shoulder into that tree, pinned him hard, heard that wood-thud you get during target practice. And I’d done a lot of target practice. Damn if that weren’t a perfect shot.

Hollered and howled he did, more out of shock than pain. Didn’t think his little Elka could throw that hard I’ll bet. Kreagar shouted some things I daren’t repeat, some threats that shouldn’t see light of day. His own blood met the boy’s. The fat black lines on his chest now coated red, hot and steaming fresh in the cold. He tried to pull it out but I cut them barbs deep. He screamed like a dying sow when he tried.

‘Get here, girl, I’m gonna rip you up!’

Still looking around for me, screaming up something fierce. He roared at me, filling the forest, making birds flee their nests, rabbits scrabble into their warrens, but he still couldn’t see me. Ghost I was in those woods. He’d taught me well.

‘I’m gonna find you! I’m gonna kill you slow, Elka!’

I couldn’t help but laugh. I had him. Finally. Sprung the trap and caught me a rabid bear.

‘Magistrate Lyon’s gonna find you first,’ I said. ‘Told her where you is and where the boy is too. She’ll see what you did to him. She’s been hunting you a long time, across mountains she’s gone, looking for you.’

That shut him up. Colour drained right out of him. Nobody wants Lyon and her six-shooter on their tail and Kreagar had for months. But then, so had I.

He started pleading, trying the friendly on me, but I wasn’t hearing it. Strands of spit hung off his beard, flaring out with every breath. I watched him until I heard the clomping horse hooves, kicking up snow and soil. Steam rising off hard-ridden flanks. I smiled. Magistrate Lyon and her lieutenants, here to bring in the bad guy. Another life and that bad guy could a’ been me.

No reward a’ course, gold don’t mean nothing to me no more, only life got value in my mind.

I saw them coming through the trees, Kreagar still stuck and hollering, panicking and pulling on the handle, that blood trail leading them right to his feet.

Lyon’s smarter than Kreagar, got eyes like a sparrow hawk, she’d see me in half a breath and she’d take me too, for what I done. She’d have questions. Big ones I didn’t feel much like answering.

Kreagar heard them hooves, heard them whinnying mares. His eyes went wide like a buck about to be shot and that’s when I got to leave it up to the law. Shame about the knife, that skinned me many a rabbit and marten, saved my life more’n once too. A good knife is hard to come by, about as hard as finding a good person in this damned country. When your life is your only currency and you got debts to pay, a good knife can make all the difference. I might’ve lost my blade but I paid my debt. Lyon shouldn’t come looking for me no more. Less a’ course, Kreagar tells her the truth.

Get your copy of Beth Lewis’ remarkable new novel The Wolf Road from Borough Press.

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Apple Tree Yard – Louise Doughty

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7/10. Not bad, but a little cliche… I can’t help feeling a bit of apple-green wouldn’t have gone amiss! 

‘Yvonne Carmichael has a high-flying career, a beautiful home and a good marriage. But when she meets a stranger she is drawn into a passionate affair. Keeping the two halves of her life separate seems easy at first – but she can’t control what happens next.’

I’ve been enjoying the wave of psychological thrillers and unreliable narrators recently – a couple of highlights have included Black-Eyed SusansI Let You Go and In a Dark, Dark Wood. I decided to try Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard to keep my cravings at bay and, whilst it was a slightly different kettle of fish to the other thrillers I’d read recently, it was an enjoyable one.

Yvonne Carmichael has a steady, sensible life as a high-profile geneticist, respected in her field and by her husband and two children. But her whole life is turned upside down one day when a chance meeting with a mysterious, handsome stranger leads to a passionate affair. As she grows further and further away from her husband, who seems to barely notice her, let alone her extra-curricular activities, she realises that her feelings are growing for her enigmatic, suave lover. But she can’t help but feel like this is par for the course with him; expert at scheduling romantic trysts, keeping two separate phones that gives them a dedicated line,  and indulging in anonymous sex in tucked-away public locations, he seems well-practised at cheating.

They both have everything under control, until an unexpected bump in the road derails everything. At a work party with colleagues, one of Yvonne’s esteemed friends, George, comes on to her. Yvonne isn’t interested – but he forces himself on her. Dazed and traumatised, she tries to get back to her everyday life after the incident, but George starts to shadow her, subtly at first but then more threateningly. Yvonne is cornered; she can’t tell her husband, she can’t her friends and she can’t tell anyone at work. But she can tell her lover, and so that’s what she does.  Together they concoct a plan to frighten him off – but what starts as a simple scare tactic ends up in horror…

Before she knows it, Yvonne is up on trial in the Old Bailey, barely aware of how she got there or what she and her lover stand accused of. Used to giving evidence on the other side of the bench, Yvonne isn’t accustomed to what’s about to happen. The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about their sordid affair is about to become unravelled for all to see – but what else will be revealed, and will it be enough to put Yvonne behind bars for life..?

A taut psychological thriller, Apple Tree Yard will keep you guessing until the very last page. Louise Doughty teases out the story and denouement, bit by bit, playing on the disconnection between the reader and the characters to create a truly unexpected ending. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but they make this novel a very good read.

Black Rabbit Hall – Eve Chase

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10/10. Beautiful cover – mysterious and evocative, with a lovely use of colour and imagery.

“Amber Alton knows that the hours pass differently at Black Rabbit Hall, her London family’s country estate where no two clocks read the same. Summers there are perfect, timeless. Not much ever happens. Until, one stormy evening in 1968, it does. The idyllic world of the four Alton children is shattered. Fiercely bonded by the tragic events, they grow up fast. But when a glamorous stranger arrives, these loyalties are tested. Forbidden passions simmer. And another catastrophe looms… Decades later, Lorna and her fiancé wind their way through the countryside searching for a wedding venue. Lorna is drawn to a beautiful crumbling old house she hazily remembers from her childhood, feels a bond she does not understand. When she finds a disturbing message carved into an old oak tree by one of the Alton children, she begins to realise that Black Rabbit Hall’s secret history is as dark and tangled as its woods, and that, much like her own past, it must be brought into the light…”

This is a review from my lovely friend and fellow KCARAB blogger, Jane.

1969. Black Rabbit Hall is hidden between the woods and the sea in a forgotten part of Cornwall. A tumbledown, magical place where hot summers slowly slip by, clocks can’t keep their time and all the pleasures of childhood seem endless. For Amber, Toby, Barney and Kitty, Black Rabbit Hall is a sanctuary of nature and play and family time – a respite from school and the bustle of their London lives. Until one summer, when a seemingly small quarrel between the children whips up a much bigger storm – with consequences that reach far into the future.

1990s. Lorna discovers Black Rabbit Hall when searching for the perfect wedding reception venue. Trailing down hot summer roads with her fiancée, the mysterious homestead seems to call to her. Upon discovering the ramshackle house, its downtrodden housekeeper (Dill) and the ferocious and ancient owner Mrs Alton, Lorna finds that she is attracted to the place beyond sense and reason.

Despite her fiancée’s warning, she accepts Mrs Alton’s strange invite to stay at the hall for a few days. The house – with the hint of a secret that seems to remain tantalisingly just out of reach – repels and attracts her in equal measure, but Lorna’s family become increasingly concerned as her captivation with the house’s past ensnares her.

This is a charming and atmospheric novel, beautifully written, capturing hot, endless summers and the approaching threat of a storm that will change so many lives. The two interlocking stories – that of Amber on the cusp of womanhood and Lorna on the cusp of marriage – blend together in a narrative which slowly gives up its secrets, much like the house around which the novel is centred.

With a beautiful cover, and captivating prose, this is a highly recommended read, especially if you want a story with a dash of mystery.

Thanks to Jane for the review!

 

 

TAMPA – Alissa Nutting

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10/10. Clever, bold, subtle… All the things a good cover should be (I’ll even forgive the unnecessary use of ‘a novel’), though sadly I got the much less suitable and more boring button version.

“Celeste Price is an eighth-grade English teacher in suburban Tampa. She is attractive. She drives a red Corvette. Her husband, Ford, is rich, square-jawed and devoted to her. But Celeste has a secret. She has a singular sexual obsession – fourteen-year-old boys. It is a craving she pursues with sociopathic meticulousness and forethought. Within weeks of her first term at a new school, Celeste has lured the charmingly modest Jack Patrick into her web – car rides after dark, rendezvous at Jack’s house while his single father works the late shift, and body-slamming encounters in Celeste’s empty classroom between periods. It is bliss. Celeste must constantly confront the forces threatening their affair – the perpetual risk of exposure, Jack’s father’s own attraction to her, and the ticking clock as Jack leaves innocent boyhood behind. But the insatiable Celeste is remorseless…”

TAMPA was all the rage when it was first published, and for that reason I steered clear of it for a while (I think I’ve mentioned a few times that I get a bit anti-hype, working in the publishing industry), but I suddenly decided that it was time to give it a go. A quick look online at the reviews told me that this was a divisive book – no surprises there – but with one of my favourite books being Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, a book sorely mistaken by those who haven’t read it as filth (thanks, pop cult), I decided to give it a chance.

From the get-go, I was taken aback; Alyssa pulls no punches with her brazen plot, her brash writing, and her sexual under- AND overtones . Subtle this book ain’t; it’s overtly, openly sexual, with a boldness not seen in modern literature for a long time. Whilst I found this slightly distasteful – I can’t tell if it’s due to the book’s originality, the watering-down of sexual scenes in other novels that aren’t outright erotica, or the fact that this definitely ISN’T Lolita – I was hooked by Alyssa’s daring story and shameless metaphors.

Much like the main characters in the popular TV show Breaking Bad, Celeste is not really a likeable or admirable person, but you find a little bit of yourself rooting for her not to get caught – even as she breaks the law so distastefully. However, as her sexual proclivities start to go further and further past the reasonable border of psychological conditioning regarding her choice of lovers – which is what explained Humbert’s penchant for young girls in Lolita – I was relieved to get to the end of the book.

As the reviews show, this book isn’t for everyone – I lent it to a friend with two stepsons, only a little older than Jack in the book, and she simply couldn’t get past that – and I don’t think that I’ll read it again, but I’m glad that I did. Literature deserves more bold writing like Nutting’s and original plots; if we didn’t write the things that people found shocking to read, many great books and films would never have come to light, which would be an absolute travesty. TAMPA is provocative and audacious, whilst being brave and subversive: two things that books and authors should be striving more towards.

Brooklyn Girls: Coco – Gemma Burgess

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8/10. Fits in with the genre nicely, and I get the wallpaper, but I didn’t like the soft blur on the picture – doesn’t fit with Pia and Angie. I prefer the purple to my yellow though!

“Coco has always been the ‘good one’. But when she catches her boyfriend cheating on her, she decides it’s time to break bad. Coco swiftly goes from spending all her time baking and reading to working in (and dancing on) a bar, and falling in and out of love. Meanwhile Coco’s best friends are suddenly plunged into break-ups, break-downs, big breaks, and before long the group is on the verge of quitting New York City altogether. Is Coco strong enough to keep them all together – and find herself at the same time?”

I’ve said it before and I’ve said it again: I LOVE Gemma Burgess. You’ve probably spied her on my blog a few times before (I love The Dating Detox and A Girl Like You) and I’ve reviewed the first two books in the ‘Brooklyn Girls’ series – Pia and Angie. When I saw that the third book came out I was simultaneously excited to read it and saddened to find out that it was the last ‘Brooklyn Girls’ novel; I’d long been waiting to see life from super-sweet baker and perpetually internalising quiet girl Coco, but I still feel that Julia and Madeleine (especially Madeleine) should have their stories told, too. Moving on…

As soon as I opened the book I was assured that this was typical ‘Brooklyn Girls’ style; witty, warm and relatable, with lots of entertaining drama hiding genuine life advice for other confused twentysomethings, no matter where they live or what their life situation might be. Coco is very good at smiling, being pleasant and not rocking the boat – but when it seems like her current life isn’t quite working out (she finds out that her boyfriend is cheating on her and she’s fed up of working in a job with heinous colleagues that she doesn’t truly love) she bails, in a very un-Coco style, and makes some dramatic new choices. First move: get a job in a bar. Second move: publicly dump her traitorous boyfriend in said bar. Third move: start a fling with her hot Irish boss whilst also flirting with an old friend who’s sneaking her into NYU literature classes for free…

Whilst everyone questions Coco’s choices and tries to put her back on a safe shelf (her gently controlling sister and father being the two worst culprits) Coco stops listening to the self-doubting voice in her head and slowly realises that she’s loving her cobbled-together new life. She’s not baked cakes in a while, her body-image neuroses start to fade away with the help of handsome Joe’s attention, and she’s actually really good at her combo day job of cocktail maker and lecturer stealer. But when she suspects that the feelings she has for Joe aren’t entirely mutual, she presses self-destruct on her new life and all of the choices that she’s made…

Apart from ending a little too quickly for me (personally the series ended a little too quickly, but there you go), Coco is the perfect addition to the rest of the series. Quirky, hilarious and no-holds-barred (my favourite line has to be “I can’t iron my goddamn vagina, Martha“), Gemma Burgess’ ‘Brookyn Girls’ series has turned out to be an unexpected favourite – despite me being quite a bit older than 22.

 

The Two of Us – Andy Jones

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10/10. Perfect for the genre, nice symbolism, not to twee. Right on the money.

“Falling in love is the easy part. What matters most is what happens next… Fisher and Ivy have been an item for a whole nineteen days. And they just know they are meant to be together. The fact that they know little else about each other is a minor detail. Over the course of twelve months, in which their lives will change forever, Fisher and Ivy discover that falling in love is one thing, but staying there is an entirely different story. The Two of Us is a charming, honest and heart-breaking novel about life, love, and the importance of taking neither one for granted.”

The Two of Us is a charming and bittersweet tale of a whirlwind romance between Fisher and Ivy, a couple who meet and quickly fall head over heels for each other. Though there are some differences between the two – Ivy is older than Fisher, and has a lot of facial and bodily scarring due falling through a glass table at a young age – on the surface they’re perfect for each other. Fisher works for an advertising company; Ivy does make-up for television and film actors.

Interestingly for a romance novel, The Two of Us is written from the male point of view (not surprising, given that the author is male) and far from giving it a jarring style, it works extremely well here. Heart-on-his-sleeve Fisher adores Ivy – it shines through the pages – and the relationship moves forward with speed. A ‘happy accident’ sees the pair move in together and start planning their future – and family – together. Nothing puts besotted Fisher off; not when Ivy can be a bit cold and distant, not when her older brother moves in and massively cramps their style, and not when a girl that Fisher’s working on an independent film with comes on to him. Not even when it turns out that the baby Ivy is carrying is actually twins – which will cramp their small flat, and modest budget, even further.

But their relationship is not without their troubles, and as Ivy grows in size Fisher finds himself dealing with new territory and picking his battles carefully (plus spending a fortune at his new local artisan butcher). Most of the book is taken up by documenting Ivy’s pregnancy; as his love for Fisher’s babies grows, so does his love for Ivy, though trying to deal with so many new aspects of their relationship at once – Ivy being pregnant, having just moved in together, having been together less than a year, Ivy being older – is trying at times. But their ultimate test will come when mother nature twists the knife cruelly in their happy little family situation and everything that they’ve built threatens to crumble…

The Two of Us is a genuinely lovely novel. Some sad elements aside – including the gradual worsening of Fisher’s best friend’s Huntington Disease – the happiness and love that the protagonist Fisher feels for Ivy seeps through the novel. It’s by no means perfect – the major plot twist is orchestrated in a slightly anti-climatic manner and there are times, if I was Fisher, that I genuinely would have wanted to throttle Ivy – but it’s a poignant and ultimately uplifting novel of an everyday, not-without-their-flaws couple finding love, making the best of difficult situations and, eventually, finding happiness together. A traditional storyline for the genre, but happiness is often underrated (and nonexistent in a lot of the ‘unreliable narrator’ novels dominating the market today). A tale as old as time it may be, but it’s a tale that I genuinely enjoyed reading, and felt emotionally invested in.

Haruki Murakami – Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

41gt5J0BVhL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_“Tsukuru Tazaki had four best friends at school. By chance all of their names contained a colour. The two boys were called Akamatsu, meaning ‘red pine’, and Oumi, ‘blue sea’, while the girls’ names were Shirane, ‘white root’, and Kurono, ‘black field’. Tazaki was the only last name with no colour in it. One day Tsukuru Tazaki’s friends announced that they didn’t want to see him, or talk to him, ever again. Since that day Tsukuru has been floating through life, unable to form intimate connections with anyone. But then he meets Sara, who tells him that the time has come to find out what happened all those years ago.”

I fell in love with Haruki Murakami as soon as I opened Norwegian Wood eight years ago, and it’s a love affair that’s carried me through his entire canon. So it was with glee that I started Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (hereby to be known as Colorless; I don’t know how his publishers don’t have RSI from typing all that out repeatedly). I was prepared for a long read; it was a thick, glorious hardback book – not quite as thick as IQ84, an undertaking that took me a week’s holiday to get through, but that justified every minute of reading – but thick enough. So I was surprised that the book was initially much shorter than I thought – I finished it in a matter of hours.

Having read most, if not all, of Murakami’s other books, three things struck me once I’d finished it: that this book seemed more westernised than his previous works (I think this was the first book to feature a European love interest); that this book was more ‘normal’ than most (most Murakami books require a large amount of belief suspension, reading between the lines and a fan of delicate, quirky, and often odd prose – he tends towards downright bizarre and sexual prose, always written in a somehow dispassionate and disconnected manner); and with a more ‘unresolved’ story than most. Though few of Murakami’s books have a finite ending, the protagonist usually reaches some metaphysical or metaphorical conclusion that he finds peace with.

Colorless‘ protagonist, Tsukuru Tazaki, used to enjoy a close relationship with his four best friends – all who have very colourful translated names, whilst his is eponymously colourless – until one day, without any explanation, they abruptly cut him off. It’s an event that drives him to the brink of suicide: without a close family, and with a life that he doesn’t feel quite connected to without his companions, losing his friends impacts on him more than he could ever have predicted. It’s not until years later, when he meets Sara, and shares his story, that he is persuaded to track his old friends down, one by one, and find out what happened all those years ago.

The first three friends he finds now all lead very different, and unconnected, lives. Surprisingly, they all make time to see him – though they are shocked that he has tracked them down – and the reason for their surprise becomes quickly clear: their last friend, Shiro (Shirane), levelled accusations against Tazaki, which was their reason for ostracising him. The disturbing accusations take Tazaki aback, as he is innocent of what Shiro claimed. He wishes to find her and unravel the reasons behind her lies, but she died in a freak accident some years ago. Will Tazaki ever find out what drove Shiro to her accusations, or will Tazaki be besieged by doubts and uncertainty for the rest of his life?

Although Colorless didn’t quite meet my expectations, I still enjoyed it greatly. I would recommend it as a starter novel for those who I think would enjoy Murakami’s works, but who probably aren’t quite ready to start with some of his more surrealistic fiction. It’s still got all of the elements that make Murakami’s books inherently his: exquisitely beautiful prose, extraordinarily accomplished writing, and with an elaborate depth of detail of even the most mundane objects that plunge readers firmly into the sometimes otherworldly worlds of his characters and stories. Murakami, I still love you.

The Dish – Stella Newman

24485926I’m a big Stella Newman fan. Pear Shaped is one of my favourite novels of all time and Leftovers is up there too. I’m a big fan for a number of reasons: Stella’s witty dialogue, her excellent characterisation (I will always root for a character who would prefer pasta to a salad) and her plotlines, to count but a few. But one of the things Stella truly excels at is giving her readers a fantastic insight into an industry or career that they wouldn’t generally otherwise have. Take her latest read – The Dish, which focuses on the life of Laura Parker, anonymous food critic and divorcee who’s been lying low in love since breaking up with her husband, Dave. Fans of Pear Shaped will remember her as Sophie’s best friend/side kick, and the feisty Miss Klein makes a number of welcome visits in this novel.

But this love story is all about Laura, and her blossoming relationship with Adam Bayley, the head chef at pretentious new restaurant LuxEris. Laura eats at the restaurant before they meet and hates everything – from the ridiculous menu and the high prices to the lurid, tacky décor. She writes a damning review for her publication – The Dish – but she starts to change her mind once she meets and starts dating Adam. He’s a brilliant chef and a master of flavours – surely he couldn’t have been cooking that night? Laura decides to go back and do a re-review, and sure enough the food, this time around, is exquisite. So she decides to change her review – before her first one gets out there and damages Adam’s reputation, and his position at the restaurant. But a snide colleague sabotages her, and suddenly everything starts to fall away – Laura’s beloved boss falls ill, she’s plagued by guilt over the death of her mother, and when Adam finds out who the face of The Dish is, he’s furious with Laura for keeping it a secret. But it’s not as big as the secret he’s keeping…

The Dish is classic Stella at her best: cracking wit, sparkling ripostes and, as always, a protagonist you always want to win. My only complaint is that she doesn’t write fast enough – more books please, Stella!

NB: For fans of Pear Shaped, why not try my version of Sophie Klein’s compost cookies?

The Last Anniversary – Liane Moriarty

LastAnniversary_UKThis is another review for keepcalmandreadabook from my lovely friend and fellow book lover Jane.

“One abandoned baby, two sisters with a secret, one chance to rewrite the past…”

Liane Moriarty is a Sydney-based author who has had 6 bestselling novels in recent years. The breakthrough book which brought her to many reader’s attention in the UK was The Husband’s Secret – you’ll probably remember the eye-catching cover featuring a butterfly in a jar that seemed to be pervasive across bookshops last year.

The Last Anniversary is her latest book to be released in the UK by Penguin and is again set in Australia. As teenagers, Rose and Connie discover an abandoned baby on their home island, Scribby Gum, and raise it as their own. The abandoned baby girl – named Enigma by the girls – does indeed live up to her name.

The Munro Baby Mystery, as it comes to be known, brings fame and fortune to the sisters, and sustains the island community for many years, giving employment and a way of life to the families living there. This year, however, things looks set to change after Connie dies. Her family, cut loose from her settling presence, start to drift and reach for new horizons. The island’s newest arrivals – the intriguing Sophie Honeywell and new mother Grace, who struggles with her baby blues – simply add fuel to the powder keg of secrets on the island.

Liane’s novels have a distinct Australian flavour, coupled with an Australian directness to the dialogue. I especially like the way she captures the realities of relationships; from sparkly new love to the comfort and familiarity of older loves. Her novels are filled with believable characters living with the same frustrations and desires as, well, all of us really. Despite a focus on the female point of view, these are not formulaic, chick-lit novels – there is a dark edge to all of Liane’s books and this novel certainly touched upon some difficult issues.

Liane has a great observational eye, making many real-life situations, dilemmas and day-to-day situations into very intriguing fiction. Even though this is not my favourite Moriaty novel (I read it immediately after Little Lies, which I found more compelling), she still ensures you stay up long past your bedtime to discover how the characters unravel the many complicated webs she has woven…

Many thanks to Jane for the review.