Last week the news broke that the adultery website Ashley Madison had been hacked and its subscribers' details would be revealed unless certain demands were met. Large proportion of the population had little sympathy with the plight of those who were threatened with exposure. The revelations would be embarrassing to all concerned, and possible several marriages would fail. But for any woman who came from a more "conservative" background, such an outing may well be a death sentence. Should the clientele of Ashley Madison be afforded the same protection in law as anyone else?

In the Hanging, the same question is asked. But this time the stakes are higher. Now five men are found murdered, their mutilated bodies left hanging in a school hall. It transpires that these men were brutal paedophiles, and their murders were met with tacit approval of a large proportion of the Danish population and the near blanket approval of the press. Justice has been done. The police are not required.

Bit by bit, like the best of Scandinavian crime fiction, we are taken though the process of solving this case – in the face of public opposition. We are introduced to Konrad Simonsen who is in charge of the investigation. Simonsen is no pin up bow. He is overweight, diabetic, middle aged, smokes too much and there were times when I wondered if he would live to the end of the book. But he does. And he gets his man even if his methods are somewhat unusual.

It is a good read, but the reader needs to concentrate. There is a lot going on and the narrative can appear to be disjointed if your concentration falters.

Strange weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

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What a strange story. A story of the romance between a high school teacher and a former pupil. A story of the relationship between two drinking partners and their love of food. A story of how a friendship between two lonely single people blossoms into a very touching romance. And a story of our mortality. Forget about the vaporous flights of fancy of Bridget Jones. Tsukiko is a Japanese woman fast approaching 40. The Japanese career has consumed Tsukiko's life. Throughout the book, we do not meet any of her friends, the girlfriends that support single women. The closest thing to a friend that we are introduced to is the occasional boyfriend Kojima, a former classmate. Kojima loses out in the end to the old school teacher, Sensei.

The friendship between Sensei and Tsukiko begins when Sensei recognises Tsukiko in a bar. From that chance meeting, a friendship grows, laced with copious alcohol and plates of food. We learn a little about Sensei's life, and we also learn that despite his advanced years, Sensei is considerably fitter than Tsukiko.

At times, I found the reading uncomfortable, I do not want lengthy descriptions of an old man, but that is part of the story, the age difference between Tsukiko and Sensei. It is an interesting read, a beautifully crafted love story with a slow fuse, and an ending that is to be expected. Worth reading.

The Lost Girls of Rome by Donato Carrisi

Initially I bought this as an audio book because Audible ad a two for one offer. But I eventually succumbed to buying a Kindle version as well. As an audio book it was difficult to listen too, especially when driving. It starts off as two separate stories, completely unconnected, and then a third story is added later in the book. So now we have the story of Marcus, a man with no memory investigating the disappearance of Lara an architecture student, the story of Sandra, who is trying to find out why her husband died 6 months previously and the story of the hunter, a man with no name on the trail of "The Transformist", a mysterious serial killer. Some reviewers have likened the work to that of Dan Browne, but this does it a great injustice. OK, so there is a secret society, the Penitenzeri. Very Dan Browne. A society dedicated to documenting evil, and whose members are Roman Catholic priests. But this is a dying society, phased out by the modern Church. All that remains are a few individuals. Not very Dan Browne, for Mr Browne wants the Church to remain as a mythical superpower of evil.

"There is place in which the world of light meets the world of darkness. It is there that everything happens: in the land of shadows where everything is vague, confused, undefined.." The litany of the Penitenzeri. And some move from the world of light to the world of darkness. And therein lies the evil and the danger of the Penitenzeri.

The ending is unexpected. Lara is recued. Sandra discovers why her husband died. The hunter finds his quarry. But there is one loose end. The fate of Marcus.

I think I would recommend this as a book-read first before listening to it. And try not to drive when listening.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (First thoughts)

OK, so I was supposed to be listening to "The Narrow Road to the Deep North" on my daily commute. A worthy book, but definitely one for the chaps I think. I feel sort of guilty abandoning it in favour of this book. But it was such a relief to listen to a light-hearted narrator. Although I know, from reading other reviews, "we are all completely beside ourselves" is not really a light hearted romp, but is in fact a lot more serious. And I do wish I hadn't read all those reviews for I now have some expectations. But still. So far, this is a really good book to listen to while driving. This promises to be a "cracking good read".

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

I have a small but select list of authors that are good for comfort reading. Robert Galbraith (aka J K Rowling) has become a member of this elite club. To qualify for this club, an author must write books which are good reads, good enough to be worthy of a second or even a third reading. Also, the book must have a good story, well told, and be pleasurable to read. This book ticks all the boxes. It was a good port of refuge as I struggle through The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

The Silkworm follows on The Cuckoo's Calling with its unlikely pair of detectives, Cormoran Strike and Robin. Lurking in the background is Matthew, Robin's cross, unimaginative and slightly jealous fiancé who Robin is shortly due to marry. Love interest between Cormoran and Robin? None, Cormoran is still in love with Caroline, the unstable beauty, Charlotte, who dumped him in The Cuckoo's Calling. And Robin does love Matthew, whatever his failings.

So what is the book about – a detective story, and like all good detective stories, there is a body and a race against time to clear the prime suspect's name. There is a theme, and this time Galbraith has set the story against the backdrop of the bizarre work of publishing.

A good novel should take you out of your comfort zone and open your eyes to a different world. I now know more about a certain type of literature that I would never consider reading, the gothic sex/horror novel. Galbraith has populated the novel with a memorable cast of characters; there is the transgender girl/boy, the grotesque literary agent, the predictable police detective, the very peculiar publisher. There two characters which really stand out for me are Leonora Quine, the wife of the victim, and the daughter, Orlando. Orlando is twenty-five, has significant learning difficulties and lives at home, sadly now just with her mum. Leonora is brilliantly drawn; a woman who can be dismissed by a few lines as thin, grey, mousy, few social graces. And yet. Leonora, seemingly totally unimaginative, focused on what she and her daughter now need for survival has to be respected. Even under the greatest pressure, she does not crumble. Arrested and imprisoned for a crime she did not commit, Orlando, her vulnerable daughter, is still her concern. There is no room for displays of grief in Leonora's world, for she is there to provide predictability and normality for her family. For years she had been the wife of Owen, a flamboyant and imaginative author. Whatever his latest mistress thought, Owen would not have left his wife and daughter. His home was where his typewriter was, and hi study and those domestic routines that allowed him to write.

Do we see something here about Rowling/Galbraith's view on relationships? That volatile, interesting relationships are not sustainable, what sustains a relationship and thereby marriage is love, concern, friendship, loyalty, affection – the qualities that are there in the relationship between Robin and Matthew but were never present between Cormoran and Charlotte?

This book is a great read.

The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike)

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Normally I would not read (or listen to) a book like this as it is far from my comfort zone, centring as it does on the construction of the Thailand Burma railway by the Japanese combined with the romantic liaisons of the main character. And it is the winner of the man Booker Prize 2014. Somehow, the prize seems to be won by difficult books that can only be read by enthusiasts, selected by experts, and I just do not have that literary background. OK – so I have actually read some of the other books that have won, and enjoyed them – such as the Life of Pi and Mantel's Wolf Hall.

The book is not the easiest read. It can be confusing, especially if you are listening to it, rather than reading it. The confusion lies in the way that Flanagan weaves several strands together, but always in the same voice. And at the core is the narrative of the men on the Line. Dorrigo Evans' women, his adventures with them, their embrace and his longing for their bodies are in sharp contrast to the brutal reality of Japanese occupied Burma and the fate of the POWs. It is this that makes the story bearable. Every time you feel enough, you lurch forward or back into the arms of a woman.

And then there is the novel's title. The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Written by the poet Matsuo Basho, the work is a poetic diary of his travels through Japan in the 17th Century, and as such is one of the major texts of classical Japanese literature, the soul of Japan. Stark contrast to the reality in Burma and the war which devoured the humanity of all in its wake. At one point Dorrigo thinks "The world is. It just is" There is no rhyme or reason for its being. And here we find the existentialism and humanism of Flanagan's Dorrigo merging with the Zen Buddhism of Basho. Then there is Japan. There are two Japans. The first is the noble vision of Basho's Japan. And the second if the inhuman machine if Imperial Japan that destroys the humanity of all caught in its thrall, the imperial machine that rewards psychopaths and bullies and turns others, more gentle souls into its fodder.

Is this an enjoyable read? No. Yet there is something that says read on, for if you do not, then the stories of all those who suffered and died in Burma on the railway will be lost. And that is why I continue reading.

The Small Hand by Susan Hill

Dear reader, just a warning. If you have not read the book and/or seen the play and you wish to do so, then read no further. A ghost story needs suspense and knowing what will happen removes that suspense.

I read the book, because I was about to see the play. The book is enjoyable, if a little short. And the play is suspenseful with lots of scary moments. However, the play and the book tell two different if not related stories. This I found very disappointing because when I went to see the play I was looking forward to seeing how certain parts of the story would be portrayed on the stage and certainly how the bittersweet ending would be handled. Instead a different ending was inserted and a different story told.

Adam Snow, antiquarian book dealer in quest of a first folio Shakespeare becomes Adam Snow, art dealer in quest of a rare and early Rossetti. The remote French monastery becomes a Scottish castle. The list goes on. The substitution of the Scottish castle for the monastery seriously changes the story. In the book, Adam goes to the monastery to view the Shakespeare folio, and in the process has two encounters with the small hand, both encounters nearly result in his death. For these sorry times, this story is a rarity, presenting Catholic monasticism in a positive light. Adam has found a sanctuary among the monks, who are will to offer support and a place of safety for as long as he needs. The abbot advises Adam that he has a choice, either to just accept this less than benign intrusion of the small hand into his life and hope that eventually it will move on, or he can "draw the sting". The choice is his. And of course, Adam chooses the latter and the story moves into the second phase.

As the book draws to its tragic conclusion, more and more the nature of the "ghost" becomes the focus. Adam recovers some of the past, his past, his childhood and he confronts his brother Hugo to discover the truth of a fateful afternoon when they were children. You are left with the question: is the deadly and malevolent spirit of the small hand really the ghost of a small child, or is it the personification of guilt, Hugo's guilt, for his actions that afternoon. "At eleven years old, one is still a child. I tell myself so" says Hugo. That may be so, but the guilt, that deadly secret remains active and grows like a cancer, all consuming. Hill has used this theme before, the theme that children are moral agents and are capable of good and evil (for instance in I'm the King of the Castle").

The change to the story in the play completely removes this and one wonders about the motives of the playwright, Catholicism, guilt, moral agency are excised and in its place is what? A weakened story. A pleasant, gently scary story that does not challenge. There is no mirror held up to our lives, making us think and reflect. And for this, the play is disappointing, it is ordinary and common place.

Recommendation

Read the book in one sitting.

Watch the play, it is entertaining but is not the story in the book.

Reading in October 2014

October and the nights are drawing in. And my journey to work is getting longer – and longer. A few days ago my 45 minute commute became 2½ hours as the Heathrow area descended into gridlock. So now is to time to dig out the audio books, and perhaps the eReader again.

This was funny in all the right places, pleasantly anarchic and boring. Somehow I had already read something like this – in the form of Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred Year Old Man and The Girl who Saved the King of Sweden. Underpinning these two books is a liberal and tolerant view of humanity combined with a “Horrible Histories” view of modern history. These two made the books eminently enjoyable to listen too. But I have given up on the Little Old Lady. Perhaps if I had found her before I found The Hundred year Old Man I would have persevered.
Next book to be abandoned was The Kabul Beauty Shop. Set in Kabul, this is the account of Deborah Rodriguez’s life in Afghanistan as she sets up a school to train Afghan women to be hair dressers and beauticians.

It does provide a fascinating view on a woman’s life in Kabul, the cruelty, the daily privations, and how life is lived in a burqa.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Little Coffee shop of Kabul, but this book drags. Perhaps it is the difference between a story, a narrative that pulls you along and account, which becomes a catalogue.

So what am I planning to read this October:

Booker Prize winner Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Audio book – I started to listen to this and decided to get the eBook version as well as it is a little difficult to follow at times in audio book format.

Short listed: We are all completely beside ourselves by Karen Fowler – audio book.

And Susan Hill’s The Small Hand as we are due to see this as a stage play in Guildford.

Lastly, the latest Robert Galbraith novel The Silkworm for light relief.