Books I Read in April 2022

Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

Water flows from high places to low places. That is the nature of gravity. Emotions also seem to act according to gravity. When in the presence of someone with whom you have a bond, and to whom you have entrusted your feelings, it is hard to lie and get away with it. The truth just wants to come flowing out.

This is a story set in a retro underground cafe in Toyko, where – by sitting in one particular seat – you can go back in time for a short while, just until your coffee gets cold. 

I loved this little book. It’s told as a series of vignettes about different characters who make use of the cafe’s time travel. There’s a sentimentality running through these stories, but for me it was not forced or indulgent. There was a lot about love and loss and regret. About the things we wish we’d said, even though saying or not saying them makes no material difference to events. About the strange stretchy emotion tying past to present.

I know some readers dislike the bluntness of the narrative voice, which tells us what the characters are feeling and thinking in a sometimes exposition heavy way. It’s a possible hangover from the fact Kawaguchi is a playwright and this is his first novel. The whole book does in fact feel very theatrical: a small cast, a single setting, narrative that sometimes reads like stage directions. This style did not spoil my enjoyment though. I was actually drawn in and captivated by the simplicity. 

It’s such a fast read (a little over three hours for me), you really don’t have much to lose by picking this one up. I really recommend it. 

Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie

“As for being a good man,’ and Glokta curled his lip, ‘that ship sailed long ago, and I wasn’t even there to wave it off.”

Possibly the biggest contrast possible to lightly emotive and bittersweet time travel vignettes, but no less enjoyable. 

This is the second book of Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, following The Blade Itself. I’m listening to them all as audiobooks and having a brilliant time with them. It’s close viewpoint character driven fantasy, with an intricately detailed world and loads of dark humour, and it’s just really skilfully written. What I particularly liked about Book 2 over Book 1 is the development of characters – one in particular has something massive happen that changes his outlook in an interesting way – and that I began to notice themes emerge more than previously – around what it is to be a leader, and what it is to be good (and does that even matter). 

I’m looking forward to Book 3 but taking a small break before I dive in, because these audiobooks are more than twenty hours long each!

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

It was just after four, a cold blue twilight. The afternoon had been stormy and the lights of the cars were pixelated by rain; the pavements collaged with wet black leaves. 

This book is so imaginative, so beautifully written, with such an engaging and sympathetic main character. I loved reading this. It starts with our viewpoint character chronicling his life in a vast and strange house filled with classical statues, and where the lower rooms are sunk in a tidal sea. From there a mystery unfolds. There are themes of identity, loneliness, kindness, obsession, and probably a whole lot more I didn’t get on a first reading. I think this book has as many hidden depths as the house it depicts!

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

“Is this how it’s going to be for the rest of our lives? Time dissolving into thick dark fog, things that happened last week seeming years ago, and things that happened last year feeling like yesterday.”

The first Sally Rooney book I’ve read, and suffice it to say I’m going to be reading the others very soon. The themes explored in this book – around the past, present, getting older, looking back, how life ended up the way it did and whether it means anything beyond the day to day – are fascinating to me and beautifully explored. 

My slightly fuller feelings are in this blog. 

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

“I was always hungry for love. Just once, I wanted to know what it was like to get my fill of it – to be fed so much love I couldn’t take any more. Just once.”

This was my first go at reading Murakami. I’ll definitely try more of his books, but I had mixed feelings about this one in particular. It’s beautifully written and the descriptions of Tokyo in the sixties are wonderfully evocative and engaging. However, I couldn’t quite get on with the portrayal of women, such that I did stop reading it at the halfway mark. I’d like to return to it someday, but for now I put it aside. 

The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri

But in Syria there is a saying: inside the person you know, there is a person you do not know.

This is the story of a couple’s journey from Aleppo to the UK, fleeing war and  coming to terms with the death of their young son. It is lyrically written, with a lot of beauty in the prose and imagery, while delving deep into grief and trauma and the ugliness of the world. I did spend most of it feeling heartbroken and hoping for a small cadence of hope at the end. I won’t say whether or not that came.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns. 

This was another book that hurt to read, centring as it does around the death of a child. 

Though the narrative switches in both time periods and across multiple points of view, the main character is arguably Hamnet’s mother, wife to William Shakespeare (who appears but is never mentioned by name). The mother, known in this story as Agnes (a variation of her more common nomenclature of Anne) is a shadowy figure in history, meaning that Maggie O’Farrell could have some fun with building out her character. In this story she is born slightly on the edges of society to a woman who roamed barefoot in the forest and who widely and deeply loved her two children. After her death when Agnes was still a child, the shadow of this mother haunts the story, appearing symbolically at moments of importance, and informing Agnes’ own deep love for her children, her link to nature, and her implied supernatural ability to see elements of future things. This last part of Agnes’ character is both really fun to read, and poignant against the losses she experiences, which – in a cleverly written way – she does foresee, yet does not understand until they come to pass. 

There’s so much that is really touching in this book: the very empathetic character of Hamnet, the twisting, not always good but ultimately close relationship between Agnes and her husband, the raw and tender descriptions of loss and grief, and of fear for one’s children. 

The Familiars by Stacey Halls

Women carried life and death in their stomachs when they conceived; it was a fact of life.

This is a story surrounding the 1612 trials of the Pendle witches in Lancashire. Though it is fiction, it feels very true to history and the struggles of the time in which it is set. Most of the characters were real people, and the events of the witch trials, down to who lived and who died. The story is told through the eyes of Fleetwood Shuttleworth, who was the young mistress of Gawthorpe Manor at the time. She is pregnant with the heir to the manor, but fearful of whether she can carry the baby to term or even survive herself, having suffered several miscarriages before. She finds a young midwife, Alice, who eases her sickness during pregnancy, and whom Fleetwood becomes convinced is her only hope of surviving birth. But Alice is arrested and set to be tried as a witch. Fleetwood must try to save her friend – and thereby, herself.

This is an exciting read that delves into the struggles of women of the time on two levels – first, that of the supposed ‘witches’: working class women threatened with the noose through the zealous advancements of a patriarchal aristocracy fawning to a superstitious king, and then that of the female gentry, navigating different sorts of dangers within manors run by their husbands, where their will comes second and secrets abound. 

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