Reviews catch-up: Harris, Murata, Daré & Wigglesworth

My pile of read but not yet reviewed books runneth over, so some shorter notes follow, plus some Shiny linkiness.

The Book Lover’s Quiz Book – Novel Conundrums by Gary Wigglesworth

My full review of this fun book is over at Shiny, but I’m writing about it here too as it’s an ideal Christmas present for book lovers who enjoy a quiz. I’ve been taking part in Gary’s book quizzes on Twitter all summer, and they were superb fun, which carries on in his quiz book. Many of his questions are pitched so that you can have a good guess at an answer without the absolute knowledge, so all can have a go. There are multiple choices, author anagrams, fill in the blanks, themed sets and many more. He has a great sense of humour which runs throughout, but never stronger than in his ‘Say What You See’ questions which are excruciating visual puns on book titles!

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Archangel by Robert Harris

This was our book group read last month, ‘H is for Harris’ – we’re working our way through the alphabet at the moment, and it provoked a good discussion. I read it back when the first paperback came out in 1999, but had completely forgotten its plot, so I was happy to re-read. 

Archangel was Harris’s third novel, and it’s a real goodun. The prologue begins with the death of Stalin and, as Harris tells it, it is nearly as funny as Armando Iannucci’s brilliant film. The story is told by an old man to a young English history professor, who had worked for Beria as a security guard, and witnessed everything that happened – it was time for him to pass his secrets on including the location of Stalin’s fabled lost notebook that Beria was rumoured to have taken.

The man he entrusted this information to is Dr ‘Fluke’ Kelso – an unconventional British academic and Stalin expert. He consults an American colleague, who says the whole thing is a set-up, like the Hitler diaries. But Kelso was convinced enough by Papa Rapava’s story to follow it up. When Kelso visits a former KGB officer to ask a few questions about Stalin’s missing personal papers, he unwittingly alerts the attention of the present Russian security service. From hereon in, his every move will be tracked, subject to manpower being available (a real problem for Major Suvorin!). Kelso will retrieve the notebook, but with the SVR on his tail, he needs the help of seedy Moscow bureau journalist O’Brian – the notebook will take them to Archangel in the far north on the White Sea coast where Stalin’s real secret will be revealed in the novel’s dramatic climax.

Our group all enjoyed this thriller thoroughly. Harris manages to combine a fascinating ‘what if’ style plot full of action that keeps the reader guessing, with impeccable research. So what if Kelso and O’Brian were stereotypes: thrillers, more often than not, need them to save slowing down the action by having to explain their characters to us! We enjoyed the atmosphere of 1990s Russia, from the greyness of Moscow to the frontier-like snowy streets of the north. Archangel is a quality thriller that I enjoyed a lot. (8.5/10)

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Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori

Convenience Store Woman (reviewed here) put Murata on the map in the English-speaking world. Her dark tale of Keiko, a socially awkward single woman in her late thirties who has worked for eighteen years in a convenience store and is under pressure to be more normal, was a big hit. Her follow-up novel, Earthlings, takes that skewed outlook on life and dials it up to eleven…

As the novel begins, Natsuki is ten. Her parents and sister are all awful and abusive to her; her only friend at school is her complete opposite girly girl. She longs for summers, always spent at her grandparents’ house in the mountains, where she and her cousin Yuu wait for an alien spaceship to take them home to the planet Popinpobopia where she believes her toy hamster talisman came from. This year, they make a promise to each other to be alien husband and wife – but get separated by events. Later – Natsuki, now a woman, still believes she is not human, not destined to be part of the ‘factory’ as she describes the normal process of marriage and babies. She pretends, even taking a (platonic) husband who has a similar outlook on life, but her heart is in the mountains with Yuu. Will a reunion work, can they transcend normal life?

I’ve made it sound rather simple above, but this novel is so dark. So much happens that I don’t want to spoil for you. (You should really avoid The Guardian review in this respect!) Parts are very shocking and quite difficult to read, but are there to emphasise the degree to which Natsuki believes she is not like other people, not purely to shock. I can’t say I enjoyed Earthlings, but it is a compelling novel. I had to keep reading to see where Murata would take her heroine and how she would resolve this strange and increasingly horrific situation she created. (8/10)

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The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré

Life for poor village people in Nigeria is very hard. When Adunni’s mother died, her position in the family was put into jeopardy. So, her father sold her as a child bride at just thirteen years old to an older man to get the rent money. She was her husband’s third wife, the first wife hates her, the second is pregnant and friendly. But events conspire against Adunni, and she is forced to run away, being taken in by an old friend of her mother’s who is an agent for jobs in Lagos.

She effectively becomes a slave in a rich household run by a Nigerian businesswoman, whose previous maid had disappeared. Again, she has a hard life, often being beaten by Big Mama, and lusted over by Big Mama’s husband, but their Ghanian cook and a neighbour of Big Mama’s, a young doctor’s wife, come to her help… I won’t say any more about the plot.

Adunni is a wonderful protagonist. She always tries her hardest, but always dreams of returning to school to finish her education which stopped when her mother died. Her narration begins in broken English, but as she grows up a little and things start to change for her, her language improves.

Her life as a child bride in the first chapters of the book was particularly shocking to read. Then, when events conspire against her when she was only helping someone, to know that she would face shame and probably death if caught was more shocking still. So she escapes, only to be tricked into modern slavery within her own country of a different kind.

Although Adunni has these dark periods in her young life, Daré writes with a lightness of touch that keeps us hoping that Adunni will find a solution and be able to become the educated and strong young woman that she surely is underneath. A compelling read which I enjoyed. (8/10)

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14 thoughts on “Reviews catch-up: Harris, Murata, Daré & Wigglesworth

  1. Laura says:

    I couldn’t remember if I’d read anything by Robert Harris so I had to Google him. Turns out I did read Fatherland when I was a teenager but didn’t like it, IIRC. I didn’t realise it was his debut – do you think he got better over time?

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I rather enjoyed Fatherland! I think he’s a bit up and down. My favourite is The Ghost, then this one. Pompeii was meh, but it’s sequel was much better, Imperium, if I remember. My dad particularly enjoyed Conclave which is fairly recent, but I haven’t read it yet.

  2. Rebecca Foster says:

    Robert Harris is a local author to me (he’s married to Gill Hornby, Nick’s sister, and they live in Kintbury Rectory), so we’ve tossed around the idea of doing one of his books at my neighbourhood book club as well. Is there one in particular that you’d recommend for a discussion group?

    The Abi Daré is on the way to me from the library. I’m looking forward to it — one of many 2020 releases I hope I’ll get to before year’s end.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I knew he was local, but not that he was married to Gill Hornby! Of the six I’ve read, Fatherland would be a good discussion one. The What If the Germans won WWII scenario – that was his debut too which adds more discussion, I enjoyed it. I know I really enjoyed The Ghost but can’t remember enough about it, (filmed with Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan).

  3. BookerTalk says:

    I’m currently reading Louding Voice and loving it. The broken English is a clever decision, it makes the character seem so much real. It reminded me of the way language was used in Colour Purple.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It was a really good read, I thick it would make a good book group choice too (doesn’t fit in with my book group’s A-Z plans – although we could do L is for Louding, or N for Nigeria for it)

  4. Liz Dexter says:

    I loved The Girl with the Louding Voice, which I read through NetGalley so quite early – it’s been great to see it trickling through into people’s blogs over the past few months. Glad you enjoyed it, too. I am a bit sad about Earthlings as I loved Convenience Store Woman but know this one is not for me – hopefully she’ll have another out soonish!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I must admit Earthlings took me by surprise, (a bit like the film Parasite does, but differently). The Girl with the Louding Voice was a super novel, and would make a wonderful book group choice.

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