A Review of “Life for Sale” by Yukio Mishima

I was interested to read “Life for Sale” as I am not familiar with Japanese writers – except for Kazuo Ishiguro who grew up, and lives, in Britain.

The protagonist, Hanio Yamada, fails to commit suicide and decides to put his life up for sale, hoping that someone else will do the job for him. There follows a series of adventures as different buyers turn up with a proposition but no situation works out as planned and he remains alive, becoming wealthy as each sale brings in a lot of money – and a few dead bodies.

The book is well paced and so quotable! (I had to choose among so many.) It is a surreal tale with impossible scenarios, including one with a vampire:

“There was a lustrous quality, for sure, but it was the lustre of a corpse. The faint boniness of her arms betrayed her extreme thinness. And yet her breasts were full and firm, while her stomach was soft and white like a vessel brimming with an abundance of rich milk.”

And I did laugh out loud a few times:

“A dead body reminds me a bit of a bottle of whisky. If you drop the bottle and it cracks, what’s inside pours out. It’s only natural.”

“Tall, and probably rather snooty, the steward had clearly just spent a lot of effort squeezing blackheads. “

Eventually Hanio has to re-think his life and his decisions.

“How fearless, utterly fearless he had felt when he first put his life up for sale! But now, a warm furry fear clung to his chest, digging its claws right in.”

I don’t think I’ll re-read this book but I did really enjoy it. It’s the sort of book where you jump in and see where it takes you. You immerse yourself in the strange world of Hanio and that way you get the best out of it. I will definitely try this author again.

A review of “Iron Lake” by William Kent Kreuger

So, I was looking forward to reading this book as it had been highly recommended, and I did like it, but not as much as I expected. To begin with the main character Cork O’Connor is interesting and likable. He is part American Indian and there are quite a lot of American Indian characters in the book, known collectively as “the people” which interested me very much as I know nothing of their culture.

The story is gripping from the off – incomprehensible murders, a wealthy politician, a crumbling marriage, a sweet love story – and secrets and silence everywhere. An occasional mention of a supernatural element adds to the whole but doesn’t intrude. There’s an easygoing quality as well, and many back stories, but they are so engaging – and easygoing doesn’t mean slow.

However. nearing the end of the book I found that some situations were very contrived to allow the hero to unravel the mystery. Also, the denouement is very drawn out and quite boring. It was disappointing after so good a story.

There isn’t any quotable dialogue here but the pace and shape of the story is good. This is the first in a series of books featuring Cork O’Connor and I will definitely read another one in the future. If formally reviewing this book, I would give it three and a half stars.

Five Best Endings . . .

I got the idea for this post from Stephen Writes at Top Five Memorable Endings I Read In 2020 – Stephen Writes (wordpress.com) and he kindly allowed me to use his idea. For me the ending of a book, the last sentence, indeed the last paragraph, is very important. Often, especially in thrillers, the last few pages are long-drawn out and boring. So when you love a book, and are approaching the end, it’s great when the last words are just as good – and just as important – as the beginning.

No. 1. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick de Witt

The story is about two brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, who are sent by their boss to kill someone. They have various adventures on their journey. The younger of the two is tired of the harsh life they lead and wants to go home. Here’s the wonderful last paragraph:

“I dropped into sleep but awoke with a start some minutes later. I could hear Charlie in the next room, washing himself in the bath tub. He was saying nothing and would say nothing, I knew, but the sound the water made was like a voice, the way it hurried and splashed, chattering, then falling quiet but for the rare drip, as if in humble contemplation. It seemed to me I could gauge from these sounds the sorrow or gladness of their creator; I listened intently and decided that my brother and I were, for the present at least, removed from all earthly dangers and horrors.

And might I say what a pleasing conclusion this was for me.”

No. 2. The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

When Quoyle, discovers that his wife has been unfaithful, he heads for his ancestral home on the wild coast of Newfoundland with his two small daughters. He secures a job on the local paper, reporting on the shipping news. This book is the story of his life there, and the characters he meets. It finishes thus:

“Quoyle experienced moments in all colors, uttered brilliancies, paid attention to the rich sound of waves counting stones laughed and wept, noticed sunsets, heard music in rain, said I do. A row of shining hubcaps on sticks appeared in the front yard of the Burkes’ house. A wedding present from the bride’s father.

For if Jack Buggit could escape from the pickle jar, if a bird with a broken neck could fly away, what else might be possible? Water may be older than light, diamonds crack in hot goat;s blood, mountaintops give off cold fire, forests appear in mid-ocean, it may happen that a crab is caught with the shadow of a hand on its back, that the wind be imprisoned in a bit of knotted string. And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.”

No. 3. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

I’m sure everyone knows this story of the Joad family, and their trek through the Oklahoma dust bowl during the great depression of the 1930s in America. At the end of the book they take shelter in a barn where they find a man dying of hunger, and his small son. The daughter of the family, Rose of Sharon, (Rosasharn) has just given birth to a still-born child, and sharing a deep look with her mother, agrees to breast-feed the dying man:

“For a minute Rose of Sharon sat still in the whispering barn. Then she hoisted her tired body up and drew the comforter about her. She moved slowly to the corner and stood looking down at the wasted face, into the wide, frightened eyes. Then slowly she lay down beside him. He shook his head slowly from side to side. Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast. ‘You got to,’ she said. She squirmed closer and pulled his head closed. ‘There,’ she said. ‘There.’ Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.”

No. 4. The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien

From the blurb on the back of this book – It is a murder thriller, a hilarious comic satire about an archetypal village police force, a surrealistic version of eternity, and a tender, brief, erotic story about the unrequited love affair between a man and his bicycle.

“We saw, standing with his back to us, an enormous policeman. His back appearance was unusual. He was standing behind a little counter in a neat whitewashed dayroom; his mouth was open and he was looking into a mirror which hung upon the wall.

‘It’s my teeth,’ we heard him say abstractedly and half-aloud. ‘Nearly every sickness is from the teeth.’

His face, when he turned, surprised us. It was enormously fat, red and widespread, sitting squarely on the neck of his tunic with a clumsy weightiness that reminded me of a sack of flour. The lower half of it was hidden by a violent red moustache which shot out from his skin far into the air like the antennae of some unusual animal . . . He came over ponderously to the inside of the counter and Divney and I advanced meekly from the door until we were face to face.”

‘Is it about a bicycle?’ he asked.

No. 5. Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen

I’ve always been a fan of The Boss and I know he writes his own songs, but still, I was a bit surprised by how good his writing is in this autobiography. The book flowed along and I thought the prose was delicious. This is how he finishes the book – he is riding his motorbike south to Manasquan Inlet:

“My “ape hanger” high-rise handlebars thrust my arms out and skyward to shoulder height, opening me up to the winds full force – a rough embrace – as my gloved hands tighten their grip on that new evening sky. The cosmos begins to flicker to life in the twilight above me. With no fairing, a sixty-mile-per-hour gale steadily pounds into my chest, nudging me to the back of my seat, subtly threatening to blow me off six hundred pounds of speeding steel, reminding me of how the next moment holds no guarantees . . . and of how good things are, this day, this life, how lucky I’ve been, how lucky I am. I turn the corner off the highway onto a dark country road. I hit my high beams, scan the flat farm fields looking for deer. All clear, I twist the throttle as rushing into my arms comes home.”

That will do for now. Reading all these wonderful writers makes me question my ability to write, or even to put a sentence together. I’m very happy that the world is full of so many wonderful books – I’ll probably do another five endings in the future!

A Review of Ablutions by Patrick de Witt

“Discuss the regulars.”

So begins “Ablutions”, the first novel by Patrick de Witt. Reviewers have said that it is not as good as the two subsequent books – but it is.

It is written in the second person which isn’t always appealing but in this case it suits perfectly. The blurb on the back cover describes the book as “Hilariously gloomy”; neither word is correct. Certainly there is plenty of black humour in the book but it is not hilarious, and gloomy is too slight a word to describe the terrible sadness which runs throughout.

The prose is wonderful:

   ” . . . before settling into a life of wealth and flashbulbs.

   ” . . . the desire to celebrate the rhythm of your own beating heart.”

The premise is this: a barman, in a bar off Hollywood, is making notes for a novel so there is no narrative as such – each episode takes place in the present – but now and then the reader becomes aware of time passing with the detieration of the barman’s health. He studies the failed actors and writers who people the bar every day and the characters are wonderful, (if people so bereft of hope and joy could be described as wonderful), the ageing child actor, the crack addict, the unhappy doorman, among them. A temporary bar manager is the only one to escape into glamourous Hollywood, a flash of light in the dim room.

The amount of alcohol and drugs consumed is staggering – causing terrible hangovers and punishing the poor, malnourished bodies. And sex: there’s plenty of sex in the backroom, and there’s a scene where a sort of orgy takes place, not like a penthouse orgy with champagne and nibbles and beautiful bodies; no, it’s a sad, woeful, cold occasion, not even lively enough to be called sordid.

Throughout the book there are snatches of empathy and snatches of vicious, casual violence, but loneliness pervades all. The barman, afraid to give in to tears in case he could never stop, hurts himself to deflect the feeling:

   “Once this starts you believe you will not be able to stop, or will soon reach a point from which you will not return without damaging your mind . . . you draw back your hand and punch the brick wall as hard as you can.”

There is very little direct dialogue but this is not noticeable as the barman is always addressing himself so it reads like conversation. The pace and shape of the book is perfect in the way that “Of Mice and Men” is perfect, no part too long, none too short, the last line as important as the first.

A short review of “A Keeper” by Graham Norton.

I didn’t originally intend to write a review of this book but having finished it I am compelled to make a few comments. To begin with, I enjoyed it very much. I wouldn’t say I loved it, but I couldn’t leave it out of my hand. I just had to find out what happened next.

It is told from two separate points of view in different times; a mother (Patricia) and a daughter (Elizabeth) which I really liked. The prose is grand – no repetition or padding that I could see. But the plot is the thing. It is so creative, so ingenious, so shocking. The two main characters were very similar, I thought, but that ‘s my only criticism; the others were more distinctive – the farmer, Edward/Teddy and his mother, Mrs Foley. Oh, she was a quare one – I wish I had written her myself!

” . . . when the old lady slapped the dead bird on the rough bench in front of her and with one swipe took its head off with a large knife. The violence of it made Patricia gasp. Mrs Foley turned and held the headless corpse upside down. The red juice steamed as it trickled noisily into a waiting bucket.

“As if to reassure her Mrs Foley raised her free hand and absent-mindedly licked the blood that was dripping from it. Something shifted in Patricia’s stomach.”

“‘That’s Sunday lunch sorted.'”

I enjoyed that character so much. And indeed the whole book. I raced through it to find out the whole story and the secrets of long ago. Definitely recommend it to anyone. And I’m looking forward to reading some more of Graham Norton’s books.

The Top Three!

Last week was a strange one for me with various family situations, now resolved. Today I resume my routine. This morning I was out for my walk along the river and I thought very hard about which three books I loved the most; I came up with these three. David Copperfield, Catch 22 and Redhead by the Side of the Road. Which surprised me a little as my favourite writer for some years now is Patrick de Witt.

I first read David Copperfield when I was at school and I’ve read it at least twice since; so many wonderful characters, so many quotes still in my head. There was Peggotty, who worked as cook and maid in his mother’s house until she agreed to marry Mr Barkis, who signalled his intentions with the phrase,”Barkis is willin’.” And the wonderful Mr Micawber who was always sure that “something will turn up” and his wife declaring that she “would never desert” Mr Micawber. I’m going to stop with quotes here or I’ll be writing all day! I will just mention David’s cousins who lived in an upturned boat on the beach in Yarmouth; the boy he met in school called Steerforth who was a bad ‘un and became involved with Rosa Dartle. I can’t leave out his Aunt Betsey who took him in and cared for him and called him “Trotwood”. David’s first wife, Dora, made very little impression on me but apparently she was based on Dicken’s real-life first love. There are many more I could include and many, many quotes but – enough!

Catch 22 I first read in my twenties and again, I’ve read it many times since. It makes me laugh so much. Sometimes I stand at the book case and open it at random . . . I could be standing there for a long time! And sometimes I remember various passages when I’m on a bus or a train and I have to keep myself from laughing out loud. The first chapter sets the tone; the chaplain appears at Yossarian’s hospital bedside and begins a conversation. Yossarian doesn’t realise he is the chaplain and thinks he’s another mad soldier but he is happy to continue the conversation:

“Oh, pretty good,” he answered. “I’ve got a slight pain in my liver and I haven’t been the most regular of fellows, I guess, but all in all, I must admit that I feel pretty good.”

“That’s good,” said the chaplain.

“Yes,” Yossarian said. “Yes, that is good.”

The conversation continues in this vein with many – that’s good, yes that is good, and that’s bad, yes that is bad – until Yossarian realises he’s talking to the chaplain and is disappointed that there is a sane reason for the visit.

And what about Major Major Major Major whose father marches along the hospital corridor and register’s his son’s birth in the name of Major Major, unbeknownst to his resting wife. And the episode where the soldiers are listening to a speech by one of the Generals and they begin to moan at the sight of the General’s bosomy nurse, started by Yossarian of course. Ah yes . . .

Finally, Redhead by the Side of the Road. I won’t say much about this book as I recently posted a review on it. Suffice to say, when I was reading it, I carried it about with me and had many conversations with the main character, Micah Mortimer. Happy days!

A Review – Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler

I haven’t read any reviews of this book but I’m looking forward to doing that as soon as I have posted this. I’ve never really been a fan of Anne Tyler’s but I loved this book and I will read it again sometime.

The first and last sections pose a question:

“You have to wonder what goes through the mind of man like Micah Mortimer. He lives alone; he keeps to himself; his routine is etched in stone.”

I expected a boring, colourless man with no joy in his life, no excitements, nothing unexpected, doing the same things at the same time every day. But I fell in love with Micah Mortimer when, a few pages in, I read that he spoke aloud to himself – in what he thought of as a foreign accent – while he did his chores about the house. Monday was the day for mopping the floor:

‘”Zee dreaded moppink,” he said. “Zee moppink of zee floors.”‘

This delighted me; I was on his side forever; I loved him. Next, we find out about the “traffic gods” – these supreme beings whom he imagines watching him when he’s driving, commenting to each other in tones of awe at the perfection of his moves:

‘“Flawless,” traffic god murmured.’

I’m beginning to appreciate now that Micah is not a dull, blank, robotic man and when a young lad appears at his door claiming that he’s actually Micah’s son, he becomes even more interesting. (Not only does he have a present, but maybe a past too!) Instead of turning Brink away he brings him in and feeds him and lets him stay for a few days.

Enter Cass, Micah’s long-term woman friend; a tall buxom woman; a school teacher. She plays music all the time in her apartment; the television talks all evening whether they are watching it or not. Micah finds it extremely irritating but he considers Cass restful to look at so he puts up with it when he’s there. But Cass has a problem; she may have to leave her apartment. It never occurs to Micah that she would like to move in with him and this causes a breach between them.

‘”In fact,” Cass said steadily, “what did you do? Quick-quick invite the nearest stranger into your spare room.”‘

And of course, there’s his wonderful four sisters and their families, boisterous, happy, loving, interested in everything that happens to Micah; they know Cass well and like her very much. Micah tolerates and loves them back equally.

I thought about Micah a lot; he’s very self-sufficient, content to live alone, kindly when anyone asks for help but always at a distance – until Cass suggests a break-up:

‘Something hit him in the concave place just below his rib cage.’

I found the writing warm, humourous, and delicious. When Micah meets his old girlfriend, he says:

‘ . . . she was so sharp-edged, both literally and figuratively – a small, vivacious mosquito of a girl, all elbows and darting movements.’

It’s the word – mosquito – that makes that sentence for me. And one final quote – I can’t leave it out:

“I’m a roomful of broken hearts.”

The pacing was perfect and the ending just as it should be.

I am very happy to give Redhead by the Side of the Road 5 stars. *****

A few words on “GOD, A USER’S GUIDE” by Seán Moncrieff

When this book was first published, I couldn’t wait to read it. World religions and all the various creation myths fascinate me, which is surprising as I’m an atheist. (I grew up in a deeply religious home and traces of those old beliefs surface from time to time.) I had to read the book twice as I gobbled it up so quickly the first time and I have referred to it many times since. The first chapter is Rastafari and the book works it way around the continents and finishes with Christianity. There’s an index at the end which I always appreciate. Here is part of the introduction:

“However, writing this book did present me with one problem; particularly the ‘How they came about’ explanation for each belief. All religions, by definition, claim to have been divinely revealed by God; otherwise they wouldn’t be much of a religion. Depending on the religion in question, adherents can be horrified, and, yes, even offended by the suggestion that their belief was influenced by a pre-existing one.

Yet if you view religion from a solely historical point of view, this does seem to be the case. And not just for one or two.

Thus, for the purposes of this book I am, for the record, dealing with Religion, not Faith. Faith is belief in God and an after-life; religion is the all-too-human business of figuring out what God wants us to do, and organising the worship.

Not everyone will agree with this division, and it is far from perfect. But humans, unlike deities, are imperfect creatures.”

The author also says in the introduction that he does not want to cause offence to anyone and that he remains objective throughout. However, his cynicism, and amusement even, does show through now and again. I think the reader would be better served without this personal attitude. All the same, it’s a small enough fault in a very well researched and informative book.

Seán Moncrieff is an Irish journalist and has worked in many radio and television programmes. He has also published the book “Stark Raving Rulers”.

A review: The Chain by Adrian McKinty

I have read a good many books by Adrian McKinty, all of them a series of police procedure thrillers set in the north of Ireland and centred on the detective, Sean Duffy. They were great fun to read.

But here we have a stand alone novel, a new look at the kidnap and ransom trope. You r child is kidnapped; to get her/him back you have to pay a ransom and kidnap another child. When you have done that your child is set free; you free the child you have taken when her/his parents repeat the procedure. This is the chain and you are given to understand that it has been going on for a long time, unknown to the police or the general public.

At the beginning I thought – I can’t read this; I hate anything to do with children suffering in any way but I was intrigued and the narrative drive was so good I decided to read on for a bit. After a while I realised that this could never happen – life and people are too unpredictable, and unforeseen complications would always arise. So I relaxed into the story then, treating it as a puzzle to be worked out.

I found the characters interchangeable, loving desperate parents, cute, clever children; the story is entirely plot-driven and everything depends on whether parents, mothers in particular, are capable of doing ANYTHING for their own child.

To avoid spoilers I won’t give details, but I had many questions regarding the Big Brother aspects of the plot. I couldn’t imagine how the story would be resolved and it was a terrible anti-climax when it arrived. The reason the baddies were caught was far too light considering the heavy material being written about here.

The writing itself was fine and the dialogue was good but the pace just wasn’t right, especially in the last quarter of the book. It was a novel idea though and I think the book should have been a good bit longer with a more thought-out resolution.

I’ll give it 3 stars ***

I’m happy to announce Launch Day for the paperback edition of “We All Die in the End” available now from Amazon.

This intriguing collection of interlinked stories set on the Co Down coast, is full of devious, eccentric, lonely characters. Many of the stories are grim, some deal with abusive relationships, but there’s a lot of black humour in this book. and an odd flash of joy too.

“SADIE said nothing. She trimmed the fat off the kidneys and the liver, her fingers curling away from the soft, red slither and she held her breath against the faint smell of blood.”

“Well, that didn’t make any sense but then Lydia stopped and I saw her speak to the doll. Oho, ARTHUR, I said to myself and I threw down the cigarette. Oho, I said, what’s this? What have we here?”

“Elizabeth Merry’s characters leap from the page, fully formed.” Jean M Roberts, historian and genealogist.

“The stories were compelling and addictive.” Sammi Cox, writer, blogger and reviewer.

“Merry’s is some of the best writing I’ve read in a while. Like Faulkner, she creates a fictional world unto its own . . . “Kurt Brindley, author and blogger.

If any of you are kind enough to read this book please leave a review – good or bad- all feedback welcome. Thank you.

Elizabeth