Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight by Riku Onda — New Review, Bookclub Too

Cover: bookshop.org

I was doubly intrigued by the blurb of Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight; first by the premise of a man and woman sharing a final night together before the end of their relationship, then by the twist that each believes the other to be a murderer.

I arrange my face into a smile, ready to greet the man who may be planning to kill me.

Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight, Riku Onda

The opening chapters certainly live up to that promise. Riku Onda successfully evokes the tension from both characters’ perspectives without any hint as to which of them is more justified in their anxieties. Riku Onda doesn’t pull her punches, the atmosphere is immediately charged with danger as well as the complicated emotions of two people saying goodbye to each other and to a phase of their lives.

Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight isn’t a detective novel, even though both characters profess to want to know ‘whodunnit’, and in some ways that hurts it. Riku Onda never successfully conveys any motive for the possible murder from either character, which makes it hard to really believe their suspicions of one another.

Why do her words come to me in snatches, like sound bites from a documentary? They filter into my brain like pieces in a mosaic and settle into place.

Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight, Riku Onda

Despite the fraught situation Aki and Hiro find themselves in, Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight isn’t an emotionally raw novel. The prose keeps the reader somewhat detached from both characters, even at moments that are supposed to be loaded with fear or anger. Similarly, the twist ending feels interesting without having much impact, either on the readers’ feelings or the course of events. By the end of the book, nothing has really changed from the beginning in a material way.

Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight was interesting, but not hugely memorable, nor something that seems it would reward rereading.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill by Gilbert Keith Chesterton — New Review, Bookclub Too

Cover: bookshop.org

I knew very little about The Napoleon of Notting Hill, except that it was set in London and would allow me to check off another book from my ‘Literature in London’ list. Although I’ve heard of him, I’ve never read any Gilbert Keith Chesterton and I don’t even know which books he’s most famous for. As with all the Bookclub Too books so far, The Napoleon of Notting Hill is quite unlike anything else I’ve read. Written in 1904, set in the 1980s but with 15th-century weapons and clothes!

The establishing chapters of The Napoleon of Notting Hill read like political satire, though the latter half feels more like offbeat speculative fiction. Aubern Quin, the main character, is probably intended to be a comic character; he certainly believes he’s playing a great joke on the city of London. Even for readers who don’t gel with Chesterton’s sense of humour, there’s plenty to keep them interested in both the story and the writing.

Twenty feet from him (for he was very short-sighted) the red and white and yellow suns of the gas-lights thronged and melted into each other like an orchard of fiery trees, the beginning of the woods of elf-land.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill, Gilbert Keith Chesterton

While the overall plot (or what there is of one) wasn’t particularly compelling, many of the threads woven into The Napoleon of Notting Hill were thought-provoking. An essay could be written about the uses of colour, for example, and G K Chesterton’s take on using urban landscape as inspiration for art was interesting. The ending reflected back on all that had gone before in a way that invited contemplating of life in general, despite the absurdity of some of the plot’s events.

Overall, I’m not sure what I got out of The Napoleon of Notting Hill was what G K Chesterton intended, but I’m glad I read it and I think I’ll continue to process and digest it before I ultimately return to it at a later date.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex — New Review, Bookclub Too

Cover: bookshop.org
Cover: thestorygraph.com

When book club nominated a book with a lighthouse on the cover, obviously I had to vote for it! The Lamplighters actually has two covers, both with lighthouses, but which give wildly different ideas of what the book is going to be like, so I was curious to see which one would prove more accurate.

A fifty-metre column of heroic Victorian engineering, the Maiden looms palely magnificent against the horizon, a stoic bastion of seafarers’ safety.

The Lamplighters, Emma Stonex

Like most of the lighthouse books on this blog, The Lamplighters is historical fiction, set when lighthouses were still manned rather than automatic, but it’s more recent than most, only going back to the 1970s. What also sets it apart is that it’s about a tower lighthouse, jutting directly out of the sea, where there isn’t space for keepers to bring their wives and families with them. Perhaps that was why it was difficult to keep the threads of the marriages straight. Arthur-and-Helen and Bill-and-Jenny merged into such a shapeless muddle that I had to make a note in my reading notebook which I referred back to every time there was a chapter from one of the wives’ perspectives.

Even after finishing The Lamplighters, it’s not entirely clear what happened in a couple of of the plots. Emma Stonex was clearly keeping information back from her readers, raising questions which you’d hope would be answered by the conclusion to the story. Except, several of them weren’t. Maybe it was intentional, because real life rarely offers neatly-wrapped solutions to every question, but in a novel billing itself as a mystery, it was more frustrating than thought-provoking.

The truth is that women are important to each other. More important than the men, and that isn’t what you’ll want to hear because this book, like all your others, is about the men, isn’t it? Men are interested in men.

The Lamplighters, Emma Stonex

Those plots which did feel complete were enjoyable, particularly the stories of those left behind: Jenny, Helen and the novelist Dan Sharp. (Michelle, despite being the most distinct of the female characters, sadly got a bit abandoned.) Bill’s storyline could have been more effectively handled, because the bare bones of it were interesting.

There was certainly a lot going on in The Lamplighters, arguably too much because no single plot or detail really got the attention and weight that it deserved. Maybe a less complex structure would’ve delivered the story with more impact. While I’ll be keeping this for lighthouse reasons, I won’t necessarily be running out to buy more books by Emma Stonex, unless one catches my interest or comes highly recommended.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen — Reread Review, Bookclub Too

Cover: bookshop.org

Despite taking a Jane Austen module at university, I was certain I hadn’t read Northanger Abbey. Imagine my surprise when I opened the book and found notes, in my own handwriting, all the way through! It’s never happened to me before that I have absolutely no memory of previously reading a book (though, I suppose the question is: how would I know? Spooky!). I can only assume that reading books for six modules, and reading several other Austens, Northanger Abbey didn’t have time to make much impression.

At length, however, having slipped one arm into her gown, her toilette seemed so nearly finished, that the impatience of her curiosity might safely be indulged.

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen

Catherine Morland feels incredibly different from Jane Austen’s other heroines. She’s neither in total possession of herself like Elizabeth, Emma and Elinor nor giddily irresponsible like Marianne or Lydia. Instead, she’s guileless and a little socially awkward. Watching her thrown into Society in Bath will little in the way of helpful guidance from anyone on how to pick her friends and acquaintances was very relatable, despite the wealth of years since Jane Austen was writing.

Speaking of characters, General Tilney is an amazing villain. Not, as Catherine thinks, because he might have murdered his wife, but because the ways he breaches etiquette feel as outrageous today as they presumably did over two hundred years ago. Contrasted against her father and Isabella, Eleanor shines as friend worth making. As the romantic lead, Henry is… fine. He’s certainly no Mr Darcy. There are moments where his teasing of Catherine seems based in intelligence and affection, but then Austen also explicitly states that he only fell for her because she was interested in him, which is hardly the stuff of a great love story.

From that point on, it has been the novel’s fate to be read by successive generations who have not read the books to which its author and its characters make reference.

Introduction to Northanger Abbey, David Blair

Of all Jane Austen’s novels, Northanger Abbey particularly needs a good introduction, and David Blair does a decent job. Some sentences are a little wordy, but the main points are interesting and illuminate the text. The point he makes about Catherine’s taste for novels giving her a vocabulary to express her discomfort with General Tilney made a nice contrast to the usual perspective that Catherine is a young woman carried into foolishness by her overactive imagination.

Northanger Abbey‘s ending is a little abrupt. Austen never really dwells on what happens between the proposal and the wedding, but in this case, her quick summary and dismissal of Eleanor’s contribution to proceedings felt unearned. If that plot line had been brought up earlier, it would have been more satisfying, and it’s not as if the book is overlong as it is!

Despite enjoying Northanger Abbey more than I expected to, it doesn’t quite displace Emma as my current favourite Jane Austen novel.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu — New Review, Bookclub Too

Cover: bookshop.org

Interior Chinatown is unlike anything else I’ve read. The book is written as if it were a TV show, with exterior and interior shots and dialogue laid out in script format, but it’s also about a TV show and the lines between what’s ‘real’ in the universe of the book versus what’s only acting are never terribly clear. Charles Yu writes in the second person, which was much more palatable than the second person narrative in The Raven Tower.

Even if Older Brother were not actually a real person, he would still be the most important character in some yet-to-be-conceived story of Chinatown. Would still be real in everyone’s minds and hearts, the mythical Asian American Man, the ideal mix of assimilated and authentic.

Interior Chinatown, Charles Yu

Despite the confusion about what was happening, Interior Chinatown managed to maintain interest. The reflections on living as an Asian-American weren’t subject to the same uncertainly as the action of the plot; the descriptions of living in the SRO above the Golden Palace restaurant (or the film set of the restaurant…) were particularly memorable.

Your whole life you’ve wanted to be Kung Fu Guy, to be something you are not, and here is this person who is whatever she is at all times.

Interior Chinatown, Charles Yu

The romance was sweet, though the rapid jumps in timeline meant it didn’t have as deep an emotional impact as it might otherwise have done. The biggest problem with Interior Chinatown was that it set the scene at one pace but then sped through the rest of the story so much faster that it felt disjointed.

It was a surprise to find Interior Chinatown listed as a comedy; the comedic tone didn’t come through, though that may be because Charles Yu was parodying a specifically American experience. The section which was supposed to be a children’s show was particularly surreal, so that may have been funny to people who found comedy in Geek Love.

Overall, Interior Chinatown probably merits a second read at some point in the future.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone — New Review, Bookclub Too

Cover: bookshop.org

I’d heard good things about This is How You Lose the Time War, and I enjoyed Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone, so in as much as I had any expectations, I suppose they were fairly high. And yet, I just felt as though I didn’t connect with the book at all for the first 80 per cent of it. The prose is nice, but it flowed over me without leaving much of an impression. The characters write about their lives, but they’re from such a different reality from our own that I never felt like I had enough context to understand their significance.

Let me also speak plain, before this tree runs out of years, before the fine fellows under your command make siege weapons of my words: what do you want from this, Red? What are you doing here?
Tell me something true, or tell me nothing at all.

This is How You Lose the Time War, Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Usually, I like epistolary novels, but despite their long correspondence, Red and Blue never stopped feeling like strangers to one another. I did get slightly more interested toward the end, when Red finally felt as though she had some motivation to actually do something, but I finished the book only a few days ago, and already I can’t tell you how the story concluded.

Perhaps This is How You Lose the Time War would be more compelling on a reread, though I’m not convinced. Certainly, I expect it would be more interesting to someone who likes puzzling out how a world works and piecing together the bigger picture from small fragments — what, in video games, is called ‘environmental storytelling’. It just didn’t work for me, but I’m still curious to see what other people say about it on bookclub’s discussion day.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers — New Review, Bookclub Too

Cover: bookshop.org

I didn’t go looking for a second book club, but a Discord community I’m in started one up, and The Gallows Pole looked interesting enough to be worth manipulating my timetable a little to be able to fit it in. From the blurb, it sounded like a fast-paced historical crime novel which might suit my tastes for all things heist. The Gallows Pole wasn’t like that at all, but I still had a very good time with it and I’m glad B2 introduced me to it, as I probably wouldn’t have picked it up otherwise.

King David Hartley is the man’s name, said Jack Bentley. And if you don’t know it then you can’t run the woods like you say you do because everyone knows Bell Hole belongs to the Hartleys, and the moor above it and the sheep and the cows that graze them moors and the Hartleys own the sky above it too, and the kestrel and the hawk that hunt there and the hares that box there, and the clouds and the moon and the sun and everything that passes overhead.

The Gallows Pole, Benjamin Myers

Some of the things that happen in The Gallows Pole are extremely nasty (seriously, check out the content warnings before you read if you are at all squeamish!), but Benjamin Myers’ prose is always rhythmic and enthralling. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what kept drawing me in, but The Gallows Pole was written not quite like anything else I’ve read before. Deighton’s final scene is the perfect example of the juxtaposition of beautiful and horrible. Granted, it might be more difficult for readers with vivid visual imaginations or who feel the pain a character feels to get lost in the play of words next to each other, but for those of us who don’t, it really works.

Benjamin Myers makes unsympathetic characters sympathetic. Despite David Hartley’s violence, arrogance, homophobia, the reader wants to spend more time with him. Whether its the sections told from his perspective or the third-person narrative, he maintains and rewards that interest. Even lesser characters with serious flaws are still given their fair share of story. Actually sympathetic characters (like Grace) are rarely in the foreground, but Benjamin Myers uses them to good effect to keep The Gallows Pole from becoming an entirely bleak narrative.

Without you I’m certain this valley will fall fallow. The coining will die off and the men will lose their will to fight because no man will go back to the loom after having the taste of gold on his tongue.

The Gallows Pole, Benjamin Myers

It’s not surprising that The Gallows Pole won a literary award. This is a book with definite themes, of class struggle, social mobility, history. If I were going to write an essay, I’d probably begin with something about inevitability and the enduring of myth. I also appreciated the structure, how the end mirrored the beginning.

The Gallows Pole was beautifully written and cleverly constructed, but those content warnings I mention would make me hesitate to recommend it to anyone who might not know what they were getting into.

Rating: 4 out of 5.