A novel about friendship by Kazuo Ishiguro’s daughter; a book telling the wild, unlikely story of Charles Masson’s discovery of the lost city of Alexandria; and Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s brilliant final volume in his House of Adam trilogy. Here’s what our Balmain bookshop staff are reading this month.
Bron is reading…
The younger Ishiguro, cosy crime and more
I am not a winter person, so curling up with a good book or three is the best way to take me away from how cold I feel!
This past month has been great for quick reads.
I thoroughly enjoyed Naomi Ishiguro’s Common Ground. Like her more famous father, she writes about class in the UK from the outsider’s point of view. Unlike her father, she writes stories with a very contemporary setting. Common Ground is a post-Brexit story about two unlikely friends who, despite their differences and societal pressures, discover the importance of solidarity and friendship. Kindness is at the heart of this modern story. Naomi Ishiguro is a writer to keep an eye on.
Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri starts off like a short story collection. However, you quickly realise that the stories are about one narrator – an unnamed woman, a university lecturer, in an unnamed city, living alone. Each vignette places the narrator in a specific situation – in the bookstore, at the museum, on the couch. Some of the stories are only 1-2 pages long; others 4-5. They all celebrate the art of solitude.
I was pretty impressed by the angst-ridden journey that Gwendoline Riley took me on in her previous book, First Love. My Phantoms is no different. This time she drills down on the parent/child relationship. Her ability to draw out small quirks of character and behavioural tics is remarkable and very unsettling. Detachment and wry humour are the main survival techniques used by her protagonist to protect herself from bad parenting. Her life is not happy or satisfying. This is not going to end well.
Next up will be some cosy crime. The Satapur Moonstone is book two in Sujata Massey’s Perveen Mistry murder mystery series set in 1920’s India. Perveen’s character is very loosely based on Cornelia Sorabji, the first female graduate of Bombay University and the first female advocate In India. The stories are light, easy to read mysteries with a social conscious, set during a fascinating period in history. I may even be tempted to jump straight into book three, The Bombay Prince, just out this month.
Tim is reading…
Books about the search for truth
On my recent break I read Alexandria: The Quest for the Lost City Beneath the Mountains by Edmund Richardson and We are Bellingcat: An Intelligence Agency for the People by Eliot Higgins. Both books will remain close to my heart for as I read them I was also trying to improve my typing (a regular exercise), by transcribing Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes From the Underground, a book which I didn’t understand. Then all of a sudden as I typed at a friend’s dining table in The Southern Highlands, I did. I felt as if I’d tracked down and outrun an unreliable narrator who I didn’t know I’d been chasing. One moment I was wandering unawares through the shadowy corridors of a Raymond Chandler novel then an instant later it felt as if Sherlock Holmes stood at my shoulder and whispered “He went thataway –”
That would not have happened without these two books for they both portray people in search of truth, whether it be the location and proof of an ancient civilisation in the case of Charles Masson’s search for Alexandria whilst finding himself inside a plot I’d liken to a le Carré novel in war torn 19th century Afghanistan, or Bellingcat’s ongoing efforts to stand up for civilian populations rendered defenceless in war. Caught up in zones beyond personal comprehension they find the imaginative strength to pursue their worthy goals and add much to our understanding of the world in doing so. I’ve learned that the history of Afghanistan and the wider region is far more fascinating and porous than I’d imagined and that the East/West – Ancient/Modern divisions are inauthentic. I’ve also learned that the digital realm doesn’t have to be a place controlled by power but that it can also be a place where power and its abuses are at their most vulnerable.
Kate is reading…
Michael Mohammed Ahmad and Jessie Tu
I remember the first time reading Michael Mohammad Ahmad’s Miles Franklin shortlisted The Lebs. It was as if the book were pulsating in my hands, boiling with all the stories that have gone ignored by the publishing industry, marginalised by readers or warped by the media. It tells the story of Bani Adam, a young Lebanese Muslim boy attending Punchbowl High, and his struggles to come to terms with his identity and ambitions in a world which presumes to know him better than he knows himself.
The Other Half of You follows on from The Lebs, and is the final book in Ahmad’s semi-autobiographical trilogy. Like Ahmad, Bani is now a young father of a son called Kahlil, and the novel tells the improbable story of how this child came into the world. Tender, raw and full of tremendous love and suffering, it’s a story of race relations, duty, faith and enormous courage. As he told the Guardian, the book came as a response to Bill Leak’s racist caricatures depicting “men of colour” who are fathers. I also got to interview Ahmad in a Q&A – you can read it here.
Last year, I couldn’t stop hearing about Jessie Tu’s A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing. On podcasts, in articles, on Twitter, everywhere. Reading it became something inevitable and extremely exciting to look forward to. This month, I finally did, and can confirm that it is as astonishingly good as everyone said it was. It follows a fallen Asian-Australian child prodigy, now an young woman, who has again taken up the violin and relaunched her ambitions. Her craving for the attention she commanded as an international soloist is mixed with a resentment of her lost childhood, and the white patriarchal superstructure that has made rigid and diseased the world of classical music. Self-sabotage – to her body, relationships and career – has become associated with a sense of power in her mind, and the fallout is often devastating. This is the first novel from Tu, who herself trained as a classical musician for 15 years. I’ll add my voice to the throng: read it.