At the End of the Matinee by Keiichirō Hirano

Although At the End of the Matinee shares stylistic and thematic similarities with Keiichirō Hirano’s A Man, it makes for a far less intriguing read. At the End of the Matinee lacks the psychological edge that made A Man into such a compelling read. The story and characters of At the End of the Matinee have little depth, and, as the narrative progresses and the storyline veers into melodrama, I found myself growing increasingly frustrated by what I was reading (and disappointed too, considering that—abrupt ending aside—I found A Man to be a well-written and engaging read).

The opening pages of At the End of the Matinee are very reminiscent of the ones from A Man. Readers are informed that the story they are about to read is real and that to “protected their privacy” this unnamed author has “altered” certain details (such as their names). Yet, whereas this ‘fiction posing as true story’ device fitted A Man (given that the novel adopts a story within a story structure) here it just seemed a half-hearted attempt to make Satoshi and Yoko’s story more interesting to the reader. This prologue, after all, has no real impact on the remainder of the narrative.

Set in the mid to late 2000s At the End of the Matinee recounts the love story between Makino, a classic guitarist who as of late has become a wee bit disillusioned by his playing and performances, and Yoko, a journalist daughter of a Japanese mother and a Croatian father, who happens to be a renowned film director. The two are introduced after one of Makino’s performances through a friend of Yoko and immediately hit it off. Yoko is however engaged to a generic American man.
Despite the distance between them—Makino is in Japan or on tours that take him all over the world while Yoko, who is based in France, is for a period reporting from Iraq— the two begin an email correspondence. Their connection to and feelings for one another are intensified by their virtual exchanges. Makino believes they are meant to be together so decides to visit Yoko once she is back in France. Their reunion is ‘complicated’ by Jalila, who was forced to leave Baghdad and is now staying with Yoko. Yoko, who is also dealing with PTSD from her experiences in Iraq, is unwilling to leave Jalila by herself so her relationship with Makino is postponed. It became quite clear that Yoko cared very little for her American fiancée, and he merely functions as a plot device to make Yoko ‘unavailable. Makino is also going through a musical crisis of sorts, he feels like he is no longer a musical prodigy and that he does not compare to up-and-coming young musicians. The guy was bland, he is the kind of male protagonist you could expect in a work by Murakami. Yoko, instead, is the kind of female character that was clearly written by a man. Her love for Makino makes her all the “more beautiful” and she “ached to give herself to [him] with total abandon, to dissolve in his arms”. After Makino declares himself to her she immediately wants “to marry him and have his child”. And we are supposed to believe that a female journalist in the 2000s has never been confronted by an arrogant and or condescending man. Yeah, two days ago a British man, who knew full well that I am Italian, felt the need to tell me about how the rest of Italy views Rome.

Half-way through the novel reaches sky-high levels of miscommunication and I hated how things unfolded. I just did not buy into any of it. It also seemed far too easy to make certain characters into ‘bad’ eggs make Yoko and Makino’s behaviour seem just. And, I am so sick of this kind of clichéd portrayal of women (Yoko with her “unself-conscious beauty”, the ‘other woman’ is vapid and big breasted—a trollop clearly—and the ‘jealous’ woman whose jealousy knows no bounds).
The story is brimming with platitudes (“Happiness was having someone with whom to share all the everyday experiences”) and spirals into soap-opera levels of melodrama. There are attempts to make Makino and Yoko Not Like Other People™ because they talk extensively of literature but I found their comparison to Death In Venice to be both contrived and ill-fitting (also, they do not seem to feel the need to point out that Aschenbach’s obsession with Tadzio is…problematic to say the least).
At the End of the Matinee was a vexing read. The story is clichéd, the characters lack depth, the obstacles that keep Yoko and Makino apart were overdone, and I found myself annoyed by almost every single thing I was reading (like having Yoko and Makino be Jalila’s ‘saviours’….bah!). If you have not read anything by this author I suggest you pick up A Man instead.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Blood Grove by Walter Mosley

“Life is one long side street with about a million crossroads, Sorry used to tell me when I was a boy. Every hour, sometimes every minute, you got to make the choice which way to go. Some of them turns don’t matter but don’t let that fool ya. The minute you start to think that one way is just like t’other, that’s when the shit come down.”

Blood Grove is hard-boiled crime at its best. Walter Mosley’s smooth and level-headed narrator is a Black private investigator in 1960s LA. Easy is, excuse my pun, easy to root for. While Easy is close friends with some not so morally upright individuals, his integrity and empathy set him apart from other hard-boiled PI. The mystery is intriguing if labyrinthine, and I enjoyed seeing how things would unravel. Easy’s latest case is a knotty one. A young white veteran clearly suffering from PTSD claims he may or may have not killed a man who was attacking a young woman. Easy, who fought in WWII, feels sympathy towards this clearly traumatized young man and so begins his investigation.

Throughout the course of the novel, we encounter big and small crime bosses, racist and incompetent policemen, prostitutes with hearts of gold, and Femme Fatales. Mosley’s commentary on race, sexism, inequality, corruption, war, and violence felt at times all too pertinent to our own times (showing how some things change, and some things don’t). I found Easy’s unflappability reassuring and the inclusion of his home life (such as his bond with his daughter) made him all the more endearing.
Not only does Easy’s narration have style but the crackling dialogues and vivid descriptions (“If a smile had a sound his would have been a death knell.”) make for some spectacular reading material. Also, for those wondering whether you have to read the previous novels in order to be able to appreciate this one, I, personally, did not have any trouble ‘catching’ on to things. Mosley doesn’t reiterate the events that occurred in the previous novels but he gives us an idea of who’s who.
If you are a fan of Raymond Chandler, Dennis Lehane, or if you, like me, loved S.A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland you should definitely read this.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Travelers by Regina Porter

The cast of characters and locations at the start of Regina Porter’s The Travelers is a tiny bit daunting as they promise to cover a far wider scope than your usual family saga. The Travelers explores the lives of characters who are either related, sometimes distantly, or connected in less obvious ways. Porter’s switches between perspectives and modes of writing, always maintaining authority over her prose and subjects. The Traveler provides its readers with a captivating look into Americans lives, chronicling the discrimination black Americans were subjected during the Jim Crow era, the experiences of black soldiers and female operators in the Vietnam war, the civil rights protests in the 1960s, and America under Obama. Porter combines the nation’s history with the personal history of her characters, who we see at different times in their lives. Sometimes we read directly of their experiences, at times they are related through the eyes of their parents, their children, or their lovers. Rather than presenting us with a neat and linear version of her characters’ lives, Porter gives us glimpses into specific moments of their lives. At times what she recounts has clearly shaped a character’s life (such as with an early scene featuring two white policemen), at times she provides details that may seem insignificant, but these still contribute to the larger picture.
Porter provides insights into racial inequality, discrimination, domestic abuse, parental neglect, PTSD, and many other subjects. Although she never succumbs to a saccharine tone, she’s always empathetic, even in her portrayal of characters who are not extremely ‘likeable’ in a conventional way. Sprinkles of humour balance out the more somber scenes, and her dialogues crackle with energy and realism. The settings too were rendered in vivid detail, regardless of when or where a chapter was taking place.
Porter’s sprawling narrative achieves many things. While it certainly is not ‘plot’ oriented, I was definitely invested in her characters. Within moments of her introducing use to a new character I found myself drawn to them and I cared to read more of them. Part of me wishes that the novel could have been even longer, so that it could provide us with even more perspectives. I appreciated how Porter brings seemingly periphery characters into the foreground, giving a voice to those who would usually be sidelined.
Her sharp commentary (on race, class, gender) and observations (on love, freedom, dignity) were a pleasure to read. I loved the way in which in spite of the many tragedies and injustices she chronicles in her narrative moments that emphasise human connection or show compassion appear time and again.
An intelligent and ambitious novel, one that at times brought to mind authors such as Ann Patchett (in particular, Commonwealth) and one I would definitely recommend to my fellow readers.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop

At Night All Blood is Black is a short yet certainly not breezy read. David Diop’s novel reads very much like the increasingly feverish confession of a man whose every-day reality is permeated by violence. He is both victim and perpetrator, cognisant of the violence that dominates his life yet somehow unwilling to truly consider the brutality of his as well as other men’s actions.

Alfa Ndiaye’s first person perspective makes for an extremely effective narrative as it forces us to glimpse his violence through his own eyes. After Alfa, a Senegalese soldier fighting with the French army during WWI, witnesses the death of Mademba, his “more than brother”, he decides to avenge him by enacting a brutal ritual: he severs the hands of the “blue-eyed” German soldiers he kills. Alfa’s guilt towards Mademba’s death makes him relive that painful scene time and time again. Although his ‘trophies’ initially earn both black and white soldiers respect, after the fourth hand they cease to be congratulatory. Through a style that verges on the stream-of-consciousness Alfa details his time before and after Mademba’s death, allowing readers to see the way in which ‘inhumanity’ was forced upon him (the French army demand that soldiers such as Alfa perform the role of “savage”) and the repercussion that his own violence have on his psyche.
The repetition of phrases such as “I know, I understand” and “God’s truth” give Alfa’s mental meanderings an anguish sort of rhythm. Alfa’s grief and guilt threaten to his sanity and alienate him from his fellow soldiers. There were many raw and harrowing passages that were incredibly effective as they conveyed—almost to an unpleasant degree—Alfa’s pain, sorrow, and thirst for revenge. I was not a fan of the role female bodies play in this story. A trench is described as “open like the sex of an enormous woman” and there are one too many references to Alfa’s “insides” being “inside” a woman.
At times the novel seemed to place more importance on style than substance, which is a pity as I wish Alfa and Mademba’s relationship had been explored in more depth. Still, given how short this novel is it did not ‘drag’ on. The repetitive language was no always too my taste as it sometimes stood in the way of truly understanding/seeing Alfa.
While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to a lot of readers as this novel’s subject matter and style may not have large ‘appeal’, I would encourage those who are interested in reading more translated fiction to give this one a try.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Street by Ann Petry

 

“A woman living alone didn’t stand much chance.”

Ann Petry is a terrific writer. The precise way in which she articulates the thoughts and various state of minds of her characters brought to my mind the writing of Nella Larsen and Edith Wharton. But whereas I could stand the cynicism and tragic finales of Wharton’s novels (in which usually horrible things happen to privileged, and often horrible, individuals) I had a hard time stomaching the ending in The Street.

Set in 1940s The Street follows Lutie Johnson, a single black mother, who moves on 116th Street in Harlem. Lutie is a resilient woman who has come to believe that through hard-work and self-sacrifice she can attain a level of happiness and prosperity. She also happens to be beautiful: white and black men treat like a sexual object, white women regard her with open contempt, and other black women tend to be jealous or suspicious of her.
Lutie’s daily existence is punctuated by racism, sexism, and classism. Witnessing the violence, desperation, and death around her reinforces her desire to escape her neighbourhood and the growingly inappropriate behaviour of her building’s super, an unstable man named Jones.

Through flashbacks we learn more of the characters’ history, such as the dissolution of Lutie’s marriage and Jones’ time in the navy. Scenes take their time to unfold as the narrative is focused less on action and more on character interiority. Petry allows her readers to view the world through their eyes and at times this can be quite jarring. Jones’ disturbed thoughts are troubling indeed and his growing obsession with Lutie is guaranteed to make readers as uncomfortable as reading from Humbert Humbert’s perspective. Petry demonstrates how gifted a writer she is by outlining his skewed worldview and disordered thinking, so much so that I was afraid of being inside his head.
Petry also gives two other women in Lutie’s building a voice: there is the watchful—and formidable—Mrs. Hedges who runs a brothel and Min, a seemingly docile woman who lives with—and is abused by—Jones. There are also portions of the narrative centred around Boots, yet another man who wants Lutie for himself. Petry once again showcases her skill by making us sympathise, however briefly, with a character such as Boots (who happens to be a rather reprehensible human being).
Throughout the course of the narrative Lutie tries to overcome obstacles and hardships. Her dignity and strength made her into an admirable character. As a single black mother Lutie is subjected to a myriad of injustices, and as her preoccupation with money—and leaving ‘the street’—grows, she unwittingly pushes her son towards Jones.

Petry brings to life—more for worse than better—the city in which her characters move in. She renders the cacophony on the streets as well as the atmosphere within closed spaces (like the charged and suffocating atmosphere in Jones’ apartment).
I really liked the rhythm of Petry prose, created in part thanks to the repetition of certain specific words, phrases, and ideas. While I loved how perceptive Petry was in registering the nuances of her characters’ different moods and thoughts, I was exhausted by how relentlessly depressing her story was (throughout the narrative women are slapped around, threatened with physical assault, intimidated, or are treated as if belonging to a lesser species).
Given Petry’s disenchanted portrayal of the American dream, I wasn’t expecting a rosy finale. Still, I was quite bitter about the way she ends things. While I understand that it is a realistic ending, I didn’t find the Bub/Jones situation to be all that credible.

Readers who prefer fast-paced or plot-driven novel may want to skip this one but those who are interested in a meticulous character study should definitely consider picking this long-overlooked classic up.
While I’m not necessarily ‘happy’ to have read this book (I’m not a sadist), Petry’s adroit social commentary and captivating prose are worth reading.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

 

“We all lived in an unwalled city, that was it. I saw lines scored across the map of Ireland; carved all over the globe. Train tracks, roads, shipping channels, a web of human traffic that connected all all nations into one great suffer body.”


This is the third novel I’ve read by Emma Donoghue and I’m afraid to say that it just didn’t quite work for me. Maybe I shouldn’t have approached The Pull of the Stars with such high expectations. Or maybe these kind of historical novels are just not my ‘thing’ (I was similarly underwhelmed by
A Long Petal of the Sea and The Night Watchman).
Given the current pandemic The Pull of the Stars, set in a maternity ward in Dublin during the 1918 influenza and the close of WWI, makes for an eerily pertinent read. This is a meticulously researched novel, from the blow by blow descriptions of medical procedures to the grimly evocative depiction of the environment in which our narrator, a nurse, works. Although the novel is set over the course of three days, Donoghue renders all too vividly the stark circumstances of the various women under Julia’s care. We witness the physical and emotional toll that result from too many pregnancies, the stigma attached to unmarried mothers and the mistreatment of their children, and the extreme abuse that ‘fallen women’ experienced in the Magdalene laundries. The lives of these women and children are shaped by injustices—such as sexual/physical abuse, poverty, illness, being forced into labour, being separated from your child—and Donoghue is unflinching in revealing just how horrific their realities are.
In spite of this, I just couldn’t help but to find the bluntness of her prose to be detrimental to my reading experience. While her unvarnished style does suit both the setting and the subject matter, it also distanced me, especially from Julia. She felt like a barely delineated character, often seeming to exist in order to explain things or provide ‘modern’ readers with context (especially one of her later discussions about the ‘homes’ and Magdalene laundries with Birdie). She was a very undefined character, a generic take on a good ‘nurse’. Doctor Kathleen Lynn, a far more interesting figure, sadly plays only a minor role in the story. Birdie was okay, although at times I had a hard time believing in her. The romance sprung from nowhere and didn’t really convince me either (and this is coming from someone who sees everything through sapphic-tinted glasses). If anything the ‘love’ story seemed to exist only to add an unnecessary layer of drama, unnecessary especially considering that the novel was quite tragic without it. The ending, more suited to a historical melodrama, was painfully clichéd.
The thin plot too did little to engage me. Although the lives and stories of the women in the ward were both compelling and distressing, I just didn’t particularly care for Julia’s narrative. Perhaps if this had been a work of nonfiction, I would have appreciated it more.
I don’t consider myself squeamish but The Pull of the Stars was almost relentless in the way it detailed EVERYTHING. Maybe readers who watch One Born Every Minute will be able to cope with it but I just could have done without it.
Another thing I could have done without is the lack of quotations mark. When will this trend stop?

Although The Pull of the Stars wasn’t my cup of tea, I’m sure that plenty of other readers will find this more riveting than I did.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
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Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese — book reviews

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“In the Ojibway world you go inward in order to express outward. That journey can be harrowing sometimes but it can also be the source of much joy, freedom, and light.”

It is difficult to describe Medicine Walk as a work of fiction as this novel reads like reality. In a gracefully incisive prose Richard Wagamese tells a moving father/son tale. By turns brutally honest and deeply empathetic, Wagamese’s narrative explores the many undercurrents of this complex father/son dynamic. He renders with clarity Franklin Starlight’s tangled feelings—sorrow, rancour, pity—towards his estranged and alcoholic father.

“He wondered how he would look years on and what effect this history would have on him. He’d expected that it might have filled him but all he felt was emptiness and a fear that there would be nothing that could fill that void.”

Set in Canada during the 1950s Medicine Walk follows sixteen year old Franklin, referred throughout the majority of the novel as ‘the kid’, who lives on a farm with his guardian, ‘the old man’. When his father reaches out to him, Franklin finds himself unable to refuse him. Years of drinking have finally taken their toll on Eldon. Knowing his death is imminent, Eldon asks his son to travel alongside him to the mountains, so that he can be buried in the Ojibway warrior way, facing east. Franklin reluctantly embarks on this journey, and as the two make their way into the mountains, old wounds are reopened. He has few memories of his father, and in most of them Eldon appears as a chaotic and disruptive individual, hell-bent on self-destruction and far more interested in staying drunk than acting like Franklin’s father. It is ‘the old man’ who takes on a father role for Franklin. Still, Franklin has clearly suffered, and his relationship with Eldon is strained. It is perhaps his approaching death that makes Eldon finally open up to Franklin.

“His life was built of the stories of vague ghosts. He wanted desperately to see them fleshed out and vital. History, he supposed, lacked that power. ”

As his body begins to shut down, Eldon finds himself recounting his life to Franklin: his childhood, marked by poverty and loss, fighting alongside his best friend in the Korean War, what led to him to a path of spiralling alcoholism and self-hatred, before finally turning to his relationship with Franklin’s mother. Eldon’s troubled past brings about questions of cowardice and bravery, of loneliness and connection.

“The certainty of failure, the landscape of his secrets, became the terror that kept him awake.”

Wagamese’s story hit close to home as Franklin’s confusing emotions towards his father are depicted with incredible realism. Is it fair for Eldon to seek forgiveness when he’s about die? Should Franklin condone him in light of Eldon’s traumatic past? Wagamese doesn’t offer us simplified answers, letting his characters talk it out (with each other and themselves).

“The light weakened. He could feel the thrust of evening working its way through the cut of the valley and he watched the shapes of things alter. The sun sat blood red near the lip of the world and in that rose and canted light he sat there filled with wonder and a welling sorrow. He wiped his face with the palm of his hand and he stared down across the valley. Soon the light had nudged down deeper into shadow and it was like he existed in a dream world, hung there above that peaceful space where the wind ruled, and he could feel it push against him.”

In many ways Medicine Walk feels less like a novel that a long conversation: between a dying man and his child, between a man and his past, and between people and nature. Wagamese compassionate portrayal of addiction and shame, as well as his affecting examination of grief, family, history, forgiveness, and freedom, make Medicine Walk a book of rare beauty.

“He sat on the fence rail and rolled another smoke, looking at the spot where the coyotes had disappeared. The spirit of them still clung to the gap in the trees. But the kid could feel them in the splayed moonlight and for a time he wondered about journeys, about endings, about things left behind, questions that lurk forever in the dark of attic rooms, unspoken, unanswered, and when the smoke was done he crushed it out on the rail and cupped it in his palm while he walked back to the barn in the first pale, weak light of dawn.”

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The Divinities: A Crane and Drake Novel by Parker Bilal — book review

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The Divinities: A Crane and Drake Novel is the promising start to the ‘Crane ad Drake’ series. This events recounted by the narrative take place over the course of a few days which adds a sense of urgency and suspense to the storyline.
We follow two somewhat disgraced figures, the recently demoted Detective Sergeant Calil Drake and forensic psychologist Dr Rayhana Crane. Both have involved with ‘scandals’ of sorts which made them all the more keen to prove themselves (although they might claim otherwise…). Most of the action takes place in a hectic London which thanks to Bilal’s writing buzzes with a barely contained chaotic energy. Be it day or night, we see many of London’s faces…
Against this urban and shifting backdrop Drake—and later on Crane—attempt, in a fight against time, to catch the person responsible for a brutal murder. Drake possesses many of the qualities of the usual noir protagonist: poor lifestyle, works too much, drinks too much, not very social. He reminded me a bit of Strike from The Cuckoo’s Calling. He is the type who does things his own way regardless of what his superiors or the public might think. I was soon fond of him as we see many of the reasons and causes that have lead him to become the person he is now, navigating a city and a country which keeps reminding him that he will never quite belong. Many of the people he encounters in his investigations will tell him to ‘switch’ sides, or downright accuse him as a traitor (since for a period of time he was a devoted Muslim). Crane too has acquired a status of outsider given that within her profession she is considered a ‘rarity’ (as she is a) a woman 2) born in Tehran). So it isn’t surprising that the two become allies of sorts..
It was interesting to see differentiating perspective on the same topics, in a way that never demonises or condemns those who hold that view. There were discussion on terrorism, xenophobia, gentrification, class divide, war, PTSD…in many ways this novel taps into many topical issues but it does so in a realistic and matter-of-fact way.
The storyline closely follows Drake’s investigation, and we follow each step of the operation. Milo and Kelly provided some welcome diversion and gave Drake the opportunity to showcase some ‘warmer’ emotions. The investigations sees Drake and his ‘team’ following different leads, hunches, and testimonies…The ending act was a tad overdone (view spoiler).
Still, I was hooked by the very first page where we are introduced to Drake…who is taking a piss after a drink too many. If you like noir, or gritty crime novels, The Divinities might be the right read for you.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.5 stars

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