Harry Parker – Anatomy of a Soldier

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There’s very few novels that I’ve read recently that have stood out in terms of the originality of the storytelling but this is certainly one that really took me aback. It tells the story of Tom Barnes leading British troops in a desperate war situation from the perspective of a 45 inanimate objects and it works very effectively.

We’re presented with the character of Tom as a number at first,  his name only being revealed later. Telling the story from the perspective of the footwear shows us Tom going out running and all the preparation involved in going out. Later we see the story from the other side of the war, with Latif getting a pair of fancy new trainers that are frowned upon. The story here allows us to see the nerves of the man as the trainer feels his toes curling in and shows how unsettled he must be by the situation he’s found himself in.

The objects give us a window into the world of the characters, with one showing us a mother’s torture after hearing her son has been injured. Sometimes this can get into the sheer brutal impact of war, with an oscillating saw giving us the graphic detail of the surgery that takes place. A machine and blood tell us the story of the character’s confusion in hospital and the need for people to stay with him in the initial stages of his treatment.

The book is very fast paced as we move through the story told by the various objects. It’s extremely moving at times, especially when we see the pain that he’s going through and the feeling that he eventually doesn’t want people to see what he is suffering. There’s a brilliant, methodical description of receiving new legs and a feeling that what he has gone through was neither brave nor dignified. The impact of war on both sides of  conflict is fully confronted and the book featured a harrowing scene of a father wheeling his son’s dead body away in a wheelchair.

Anatomy of a Soldier is an expertly paced, moving book that gives us an insight into the challenges and suffering of war. It pulls no punches in giving us a straight account of the impact on the individuals and their families and a large part of this is achieved through the wide scope given to us by telling it from the perspective of the 45 objects.

Elizabeth Strout – My Name is Lucy Barton

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My Name is Lucy Barton is set in a hospital where Lucy is recovering from an operation. This is a short book, but one in which we learn so much about all the characters involved and their relationship to one another.

Lucy is feeling lonely in the hospital when her mother arrives. They haven’t seen each other in a very long time and Strout really delves into the background of this to show the trials of family life. She stays for five nights in a chair and the conversation flows more freely between them than Lucy would’ve expected from previous experience.

She goes to sleep at night thinking that this is all she wants, her mother telling her stories from home. She loves the sound of her mother’s voice and what is actually being said isn’t really that important. She later wishes that her mother will ask her about her own life but this is just not forthcoming. When Lucy tries to fill her in on the details of her life her mother just stares out the window.

Lucy reminisces about her family, how they were put down by people and seen as smelly. Strout really shows the loneliness that was felt and Lucy wonders what it is in us that makes us look for others to put down in life. The poverty and upbringing has clearly taken a toll on Lucy and brother and we get an insight into this with the stories of them living in a garage, being kept in a truck and her brother sleeping with pigs. There’s a distressing description of the public shaming of her brother by her father but also a reflection on the blurring of memories, the notion of whether things actually really did happen in the way we remember them.

There’s a real sense of wonder in the book too. Lucy is in awe of the city and the way people behave. There’s thanks for the kindness of strangers as Lucy will never forget the way a doctor behaved towards her and the help he gave. Lucy goes to a writing class and the book is very big on the nature of writing.

The book is brilliant on the things that go unsaid in a family relationship and the desire to establish connections that may have been lost. The writing is sparse and perfectly formed, with very short sentences and My Name is Lucy Barton is very easy to read in one sitting but it has a warmth and depth that will certainly resonate with the reader for a very long time.

Ragnar Jonasson – Snowblind

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Snowblind is the first book in the Dark Iceland series, a series of books that have already been optioned for television. This is Ragnar Jonasson’s debut and it sets out the stall for what should surely be a compelling series.

It starts with the vivid image of a blood in the snow in a very tense place, a place where people prefer to stay in and look out at the white outdoors rather than going out to play. Later, a child leaves a woman lying out in the snow, not wanting to disturb the snow angel. Our leader character Ari Thor sees the scene as almost artistic before snapping back to the reality of what is happening.

Ari Thor is a man who has been unable to finish things, including a Theology and Philosophy course, and he has enrolled in police college and bulked up. He hadn’t been doing Theology because of any major faith, but rather hoped it’d instil something in him. He likes the buzz of police work, poring over books is not really for him.

His girlfriend Kristin flies through her exams and there’s some tension as he can’t understand why she can’t be happy about the new job he’s got. He’s been passed over for previous jobs and he’s not going to be deterred from this one. After he arrives he’s unsure if he’s made the right decision moving to a tight knit community. He’s told people don’t lock their doors, that nothing ever happens here and he wonders what he’s got himself into.

The landscape plays a big part in Snowblind, it adds to his feeling of claustrophobia and really ramps up the sense of dread that I felt while reading it. There’s a sense of an outsider trying to get to grips with the everyday interactions of the people and trying to make sense of what is happening. All of this while feeling shut off from the rest of the world as the climate can be so overwhelming.

Ari has been affected by loneliness all his life and the situation he finds himself in in this small village certainly increases this. He lost his parents when he was young and many of the characters in the book appear haunted by the loss of close family members.

One of the main events in the book is the death of Iceland’s foremost author. It’s believed to have been an accident by some but Ari is keen to get to the bottom of it, delving deep into the politics of the Dramatic Society and beyond to establish the background. While he’s doing this he also has friendly dealings with a woman called Ulga, something that leads him to question his relationship with Kristin. He’s very much immersed in a whole other world now.

Snowblind is a delight to read. I was involved in the world of Ari from the start and Jonasson craftily puts together a bleak feeling of claustrophobia that draws us into this inner world. I’m very much looking forward to reading Nightblind, the second book in the Dark Iceland series, very soon indeed.

Patti Smith – M Train

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Patti Smith’s Just Kids was a joy to read, a pretty much perfect book about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. It was the rarest of books, one that was revealing, honest and profoundly moving. She’s back again with M Train, a book that’s certainly on a par with the former.

This is a deeply meditative book that allows us into the mind of this great artist. She goes to a local cafe and gets her usual order of brown toast, a small dish of olive oil and black coffee. She sits at the same table every time. When someone sits at her table she imagines how the scene would play out if it was an episode of Midsomer Murders or Luther. This is the kind of thing that we get throughout and it may come across as trivial from another writer but this works brilliantly well as we see her reflections, thoughts and humour.

It feels like we’re really taking a trip with her as we go on journey through her mind and across the world with her. She’s excellent at describing her mood throughout and I really admired her passion and willingness to travel the world to visit the graves of her favourite artists and writers and to leave tributes at particular places. She travels for all kinds of things, going in pursuit of the perfect coffee and sleeping in Frida Kahlo’s bed.

She pats the coffee maker, which ‘sits like a huddled monk’ and wonders why some inanimate objects appear prettier than other. She’s got an attachment to certain objects of significance to her, keeping her father’s chair close by but never sat on. The descriptions of these objects and the emotion attached to them is overwhelming at times and builds across the book and I felt I’d really got to know how her mind ticks as it went along.

She writes lovingly of her husband and how he has been gone from her for far too long. She desires things as they were; the voice of her mother, her children as children and her husband by her side. There’s very much a sense of life lived here and a need to hold on to the past, keeping treasure memories to hand.

She mentions a huge amount of books throughout M Train. She looks for inspiration from them, is intoxicated by them and draws so much out of them. Murukami puts her head astray as she likes certainty and wants answers to her questions. M Train is peppered with thoughts like this and I loved her writing on these books and there’s certainly quite a few I’ll have to get hold of at some point.

She also watches crime shows, likening detectives to poets, sniffing out the last line and wrapping up cases. She sees things in their personality that matches her own and she imitates some of their behaviour. She loves some TV characters as much as her favourite writers or people in real life and mourns their loss when shows come to an end..

I loved this book. It really puts the reader into the head of this remarkable artist and it’s every bit as great as Just Kids. There can be little higher praise than that.

Donal Ryan – A Slanting of the Sun

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Donal Ryan returns with a collection of short stories, following his excellently received The Spinning Heart and The Thing About December. This collection has all of the wisdom of the depth of human experience we’ve come to expect from his work.

It features a story about a man just after coming out of jail with his family and feeling that prison has changed him. It turns out he killed a loved one after driving too fast. What follows is surely an example of forbidden passion, something that would surely be frowned upon.

Later we have the story of a man talking of a murder, where a group joined up to help a friend kill the man who raped his daughter. It shows the effect this had on him and he’s certainly aware that it didn’t help the girl who later killed herself. He talks of people losing their faculties in a care home and struggling with memory. Care homes recur in the book as and there really are some quite disturbing stories featuring death and abuse.

He gets into the soul of people. A story of physiotherapy can reveal so much about a life, getting into the promise of marriage, a love affair and the death of a son. We get to see the horror of war in story too, showing death all around and featuring commentary about the people that feel death is necessary.

It’s not all dark though. One story talks about the beauty in the world that can keep someone going, like a story, a book, a friend, a family member. Another has a character feeling everything he’s ever said is still floating around, as indeed is every sound ever made. There’s beautiful stuff here, like the talk of the distance between people and lost connection.

This is a stunning collection, with Ryan hitting all the right notes and getting into the deeper parts of the soul. There’s so much expressed in each and every story and the overall collection underlines his supreme talent once again.

Colum McCann – Thirteen Ways of Looking

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The great Colum McCann returns with a novella and three accompanying stories. The novella is particularly brilliant and marks McCann out once again as one of the best writers of his generation.

J Mendelssohn is pondering why the heating won’t work in an apartment that’s worth millions. He’s an old man now that seems to have lived an illustrious career as a judge. He’s wondering how to write about his life and old memories are constantly coming up. He thinks about his late wife Eileen and sprays some of her perfume onto the pillow to pretend she’s still there. This is the sweetest of things and their story is quite a love story, with him having known her from his time in Ireland but never actually speaking to her. They built up their relationship with a series of letters to each other from the different countries.

He’s a frail man now and his memory seems to be slipping away from him. He’s frustrated that he can recall dinners with Muldoon and Heaney but he can’t remember his carer putting a diaper on him that very morning.

He leaves the house to have dinner with his son. He’s clearly a sweet man, highly thought of by the staff in the restaurant. His son is more than rude to everyone on his visit. Shortly afterward Mendelssohn is attacked and the book looks at what happened and who may have been involved.

The detectives are looking at everything, playing and replaying for clues. They look at cameras from home, the restaurant, the street and the funeral. The past is something that keeps living on, with them looking for new clues and angles to help them with the story of the death. The attention to detail is paramount in teasing out the exact nature of what happened, something similar to McCann’s supreme writing skill.

The second story sees a writer teasing out a story, looking at all the scenarios and how the characters interact in order to try and get into the reality of the story. The final story in the book sees cameras and screens play a role, acting as another witness to events.

McCann himself was a victim of a horrific attack. His reaction to this shines through in this book, a work that looks at the nature of humanity and the role of the writer and the need for multiple angles and perspectives to build up a true picture of a story. It could’ve been released a novella in its own right but the other stories are certainly of the standard we expect from McCann.

James Wallman – Stuffocation

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There seems to be a lot in the media recently about people decluttering, trying to not consume quite so much and spending their money on experiences. James Wallman looks at this very subject in Stuffocation.

He reckons we’re burdened with too much stuff and we need to focus on experiences. We’ve been conditioned to think that if we buy more and bigger stuff we’ll be happy. Instead we’re just working more to buy this stuff and people are depressed and suffering from anxiety. He shows how people moved away from being thrifty and items these days are no longer built to last.

He puts together a clear argument about how people can save money, move to jobs they’d rather do and live in smaller homes when they’re not wasting money on buying and hoarding stuff. He feels that we’re moving toward a world where people will be less materialistic and and have more fun. He talks of the idea of minimalism but feels it won’t be taken up bu enough people to be the answer to stuffocation. People just like having things.

Experiences are the way forward. He says it doesn’t have to necessarily be big holidays but just something as seemingly simple as a walk in the park. He says that experiences are part of us and make up our identity and connect us to people. He looks at events like Secret Cinema to highlight how people will pay for super experiences and how that could lead to a new type of economy that could work for all of us. Our quality of life will improve with this drive for experiences.

Apart from buying a lot of books and records this book very much reflects my own personal viewpoint. I’ve never placed any value on material things, preferring to spend money on concerts, cinema trips and other experiences. James Wallman is very much preaching to the converted in some respects here. It borders on the ridiculous at some points (he certainly overcooks it a bit by highlighting getting rid of stuff could save your life as your house would be slower to go up in smoke in a fire) but generally there’s much to admire here. The idea of only buying a small number of quality products that serve out needs is a good one and the book certainly represents a positive experience.