The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

8686068“It’s more difficult to create the problem than to solve it. All the person trying to solve the problem has to do is always respect the problem’s creator.”

Is it a coincidence that the only other Japanese crime novel I read also involved bento box production and a woman strangling her husband? The Devotion of Suspect X opens with single mother Yasuko Hanaoka strangling her ex-husband after a period of stalking, sponging off and threatening her teenage daughter Misato who finally cracks and hits her stepfather over the head with a vase. Faced with the problem of a dead body they are  overheard by their next door neighbour, a maths teacher named Ishigami, who proceeds to come conveniently to their rescue.

There is no give away of the plot by saying this. The murder happens in the books opening. The majority of the plot is dedicated to the cat and mouse game Ishigami plays with the police, the genius consultant they bring in and the strength of Ishigami’s devotion to Yasuko when an old flame re-enters her life.

Despite committing the murder Yasuka and Misato are not really the protagonists of this story. They only seem to react to the situations around them. It is the male characters doing the scheming, the investigating and the brainwork. I was a bit disappointed because the opening led me to believe it would be the two women at the centre of the plot

This book sold over 2 million copies in Japan and is considered Higashino’s best work. While I enjoyed the read I wasn’t exactly on the edge of my seat as the detectives circled around the evidence for nearly the entire book. It wasn’t like the speeding car falling down hill in Out where the situation spirals out of control and in fact I found the novel dragged quite a bit. It is unfortunate for this book that I read Natsuo Karino’s work first and the premise was so similar. However Karino created a work of devastation you can’t look away from and imprints the horror on your mind. The difference between the two crime novels is like the snow outside to the snow inside a snow globe.

 

 

The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery

bluecastleWhen I’m sick or sad or it’s raining outside this is my number one book to reach for. What Anne of Green Gables did for me as a child The Blue Castle does for me as an adult. This story is as timeless and warming as hot soup and a warm blanket.

Valancy Stirling lives a cramped dreary life, cowed by her overbearing and critical family. Dismissed as an old maid at 29 and meekly doing everything her family asks of her, her only escapes are her “dream sprees” in her imaginary Blue Castle every night and the nature books of John Foster. A shocking diagnosis from a doctor frees her from her miserable existence and causes her to say and do what she thinks for the first time in her life.

“Fear is the original sin,” suddenly said a still, small voice away back—back—back of Valancy’s consciousness. “Almost all the evil in the world has its origin in the fact that some one is afraid of something.”

Valancy stood up. She was still in the clutches of fear, but her soul was her own again. She would not be false to that inner voice.”

Montgomery is a genius at capturing the intricacies of human interaction. I grew up reading her Anne series so I always appreciated this but seeing her skill in a novel directed towards adults illustrates her skills in an entirely new light. Her ability to inject warmth and humour into the tragic and mundane makes me return to her again and again.

I love Valancy and her efforts to find “her own little dust pile.” Despite the flowery romantic cover this is actually predominantly a novel about gaining psychological and financial independence. There is a romance with a character brilliant enough to rival Gilbert Blythe and I loved all the other characters too from the colourful “Roaring Abel” to the petty clan of Stirlings.

I can’t recommend this book enough, it’s severely underrated. As I grow older I’ve returned to it more than any of Montgomery’s other books and it also remains close by for a re-read.

Deathless by Catherine M. Valente

deathlessFrom the first chapter of Deathless, I was ordering, pleading with myself to slow down and not to read so fast. But I couldn’t help gobbling the story down in one lavish gulp. Valente has written book that is both beautifully written and exactly the kind of book I love to read.

Set against the backdrop of Russia in the twentieth century, the story follows Marya Morevna as she watches the world change from a narrow house in Leningrad. A young man who is neither young or a man knocks on her door; he is Koschei, the Tsar of Life and he is Marya’s fate.

Every part of this book was so clever and imaginative I felt like I was stopping to gawp at the pages every five minutes. Valente writes the kind of story where I can hunt for the hidden meaning buried inside each passage or let the true significance fly over my head and just admire how beautiful it is.

After that, Marya Morevna understood that she belonged to her secret and it belonged to her. They had struck a bloody bargain between them. Keep me and obey me, the secret said to her, for I am your husband and I can destroy you.

This is what magical stories should always be. Showing the real world for what it is. Where the mythological world reflects the real world, where house elves have embraced Stalinism and the Tsar of life is at war with the Tsar of death. Where everyone pretends not to know what happened yesterday and the dead still have to go to work the next morning. Where Baba Yaga rides her pestle and mortar and turns girls into soup. The rich world of Russian folklore has been weaved into the twentieth century so effortlessly it sent shivers through me even though these are not the stories I grew up with.

After reading this gorgeous book and glancing at Valente’s website, where I see she has written a number of fantasy books and won dozens of prestigious awards, I can’t believe it has taken me this long to read one of her works.  I recommend Deathless not only to fantasy fans but also to those who love history and writers with a mastery over storytelling and the English language.

 

 

Crush by Richard Siken

41prd9tiqel-_sy344_bo1204203200_I haven’t been able to read anything since I finished this collection of poetry. As soon as I finished I just wanted to go back and read it all over again.

In her introduction Louise Gluck quotes Emliy Dickenson, “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?”  This is a bold quotation to use but I thoroughly agree with it.  I never expected Crush to excite me this much when I picked it up on a whim but I’m so very glad I did.

Richard Siken was the winner of the Yale Younger Poets prize in 2004 and Crush is an intimate and devastating account of queerness, violence and romance.  I didn’t know poetry could be written like this, Siken writes long breathless lines that are effortless to read yet can hit you like a punch in the gut and speed towards the margins like a car falling downhill.

           The blond boy in the red trunks is holding your head underwater

because he is trying to kill you,

                    and you deserve it, you do, and you know this,

                                        and you are ready to die in this swimming pool

          because you wanted to touch his hands and lips and this means

                                                                                your life is over anyway.

Siken is so emotive that sometimes I would read a poem on my commute and then stare gormlessly out the window unable to handle the rush.

and you know that a boy who likes boys is a dead boy, unless

                                                  he keeps his mouth shut, which is what you

                                                                                                              didn’t do,

There are a whole range of poems in this collection, the one thing they have in common is the ability to drown the reader, to drag them under into Siken’s universe. This is a beautiful train crash and heartbreak of a book. I have never enjoyed being made to experience despair, claustrophobia and desperation so much. Not only can Siken emote like a master but he also is an artist with language itself, using it to paint beautiful fiery images in the air.

Chemical names, bird names, names of fire

and flight and snow, baby names, paint names,

delicate names like bones in the body,

Rumplestiltskin names that are always changing,

names that no one’s ever able to figure out.

 

The Summer Queen by Elizabeth Chadwick

summer-queen-uk-2I was craving an easier read after the last book so I picked up The Summer Queen from my library. It is the first of a trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the most powerful women in the Middle Ages. All I knew about her, despite her infamous reputation, was the story of when she offered her husband’s mistress, Rosamund, a choice between death by dagger or death by poison. I don’t know yet whether this is true or not.

The story opens with 13 year old Eleanor and her marriage to Prince Louis of France after her father dies in 1137. This book focuses mostly on the result of that marriage, Eleanor’s role as Duchess of Aquitaine and Queen of France and the long journey of the Crusades.  Chadwick doesn’t descend to the levels of Islamaphobia and racism that Lainez did but I am getting tired of the trappings of Orientalism that come from involving the crusades and perhaps should have read up on Eleanor before I started this book.

I got off onto a bad start with this book because I found Chadwick’s decision to name her protagonist “Alienor” to respect a historical figure a bit affected. If this were a historical biography I would have had more patience but it is after all a work of fiction and I found the decision extremely unnecessary. However I soon got caught up in the plot and raced through this book in three days. I found the language enjoyable and sensory, Chadwick has the talent of immersing the reader deep in the past, but occasionly the writing is verging on the overblown.

Alienor straightened in the saddle. The realisation that she was Duchess of Aquitaine was stirring within her, like a dragon awakening and stretching sleek, sinuous muscles. “I do not fear them,” she said.

The breakdown of the marriage between Eleanor and Louis was cleverly and emotively done and I found myself emotionally immersed in it. It signals not just court intrigue, scandal and personal danger to Eleanor but the shifting of a dynasty. I will certainly be reading the next book, The Winter Crown, which focuses on the Plantagenet’s in England and the children Eleanor has there, a family tree I am more familiar with- admittedly largely because of the Disney film Robin Hood.

The Summer Queen took hold of my imagination, kept me turning the pages and was a wonderful introduction to Eleanor of Aquitaine but it didn’t quite manage to capture my heart.

The Wandering Unicorn by Manuel Mujica Láinez

thewanderingunicornEl Unicorno or The Wandering Unicorn is one of the most bizarre books I have ever read. It was written by the Argentinean author Manuel Mujica Láinez in 1964 and translated by Mary Sitton into English. The only copy I could get was a battered Berkley edition from 1984 so I don’t think it has recently been reprinted.

The story begins with the infamous medieval romance about Melusine the fairy, who marries Raimondin of Lusignan until their marriage disintegrates when he sees her half serpent body in the bath and she is compelled to go screaming around one of the many castles she has built. The tale then follows Melusine watching her family branching out across Medieval France and across to Palestine during the crusades.

I haven’t seen mythology this rich and archaic since I studied Arthurian literature at university. Fairies, unicorn horns, heraldic banners, knight’s templar, Jerusalem and angels living like monks in castle towers.

“From my retreat in the church tower I could see across to his cell and watch him pacing up and down, reading his devotions by the feeble light of a taper; but though we were neighbours, and the only non-human inhabitants of  Lusignan, we never exchanged a word.”

The main thread of this story is Melusine falling in love with her very distant descendant, Aoil, who has no personality to speak of. Melusine’s endless resentment and jealousy of other women bored me to tears and I found her stalking of a fifteen year old boy and lusting after him deeply disturbing especially when he was in the bath or sleeping. The only character I could have liked was Aoil’s half sister (who has some peculiar issues herself) but I strangely found her the only one I could feel empathy with

This is not a story to read in big sections; it takes concentration. Mainez goes off into tangents about the history of everything. The dry humour and lushness of imagination saved this from being tedious but authors like Susanne Clarke in Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell managed to do this with more success. The story definitely picks up halfway through and I didn’t have to force myself to read anymore especially when there is an utterly briliant twist I did not see coming.

Since this story follows the medieval tradition of the crusades there is a lot of Orientalism, Islamaphobia, anti-blackness and general western superiority. There are some people who would excuse this with being “a thing of its time” but it is never fun to read about. Nevertheless this is a very odd yet beautiful book and like Jorge Luis Borges said in his introduction: “a glowing dream of the past

The King’s Curse by Philippa Gregory

9780857207586There is a whole shelf of my bookshelf full of Philippa Gregory books. I’ve been reading them since I first picked up The Other Boleyn Girl over a decade ago. That said, I haven’t been too enthusiastic about her latest books and couldn’t even remember what most of them were about after just finishing them. They all seemed to run in together with characters and expressions I had read before.

I am happy to say that (despite the glaring historical inaccuracy on the first page that even I couldn’t overlook) this was a very enjoyable read. It was not the kind of book I’d re-read over and over again but it kept me hooked for two days. I read it well into the night and found it hard to put down.

The King’s Curse is part of The Cousins War series but I think it’s very much a transitional book between the Plantagenet and Tudor works. It tells the story of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, and the struggles she faces as one of the last Plantagenet heirs in a rising Tudor dynasty. At the story’s opening her cousin Elizabeth of York is married to Henry VII, her little brother, the White Rose, has been marched out of the tower to his execution to stop “half of England turning out just for that haunting flicker of white embroidery” and she has been married off into obscurity to Sir Richard Pole:

“I don’t dare shrug him off. He is my husband, I dare not offend him. He is my only refuge. I am buried in him, my name hidden in his. I am cut off from my title as sharply as if my name had been beheaded and rolled away into a basket.”

This book covers the same ground as A Constant Princess and The Other Boleyn Girl and yet I was gripped from start to finish. By using Margaret Pole we see the Tudor Court from an entirely different perspective; as something new, and volatile even compared to the War of the Roses. Gregory still has the remarkable talent of bringing events and people into vivid colour. While this book isn’t one of her greats it revived my enthusiasm for her work and she still sits at the top as my favourite historical novelist.