Bellman & Black

It’s been 6 long years since Diane Setterfield’s novel The Thirteenth Tale touched me with its gothic structure encasing a twisted tale of siblings with red tresses. I squealed with excitement on learning her new novel, Bellman & Black, was to be published this year and almost fainted when I won a copy of a signed ARC from Orion Books which I collected from Goldsboro Books situated in a tiny lane filled with antiquarian bookshops connecting Leicester Square to Covent Garden. Wonderful!

Bellman & Black
is the tale of William Bellman, son to the heir of Bellman Mills so unceremoniously kicked out after making a hasty marriage and who subsequently disappears leaving his baby son and heartbroken wife in the small town of Whittingford. But William grows up hearty and loved and carries the potential of hope and happiness around him. But a childhood incident binds him to his playmates and will change his life forever although he doesn’t know it as he grows older and is hired by his uncle Paul to help run his family mill. Everything William touches flourishes and soon Bellman Mills’ success means they cannot do without William. But when he loses his mother, slowly his life begins to unravel. Even a happy marriage and children cannot stem the slow encroachment of the darkness which began that fateful day when William and his friends killed a rook when they were ten. While William struggles with his memories and suppresses his horror of death, his business empire expands until he comes up with the idea of creating a business which has never been seen before. He will call it Bellman & Black – but who is this mysterious Mr. Black who has haunted William since his mother’s death? And is William’s slow transformation into a workaholic man determined not to be bound by time really ok?

There is so much to love about this book. The writing style, the structure, the way in which Setterfield subtly interweaves all her incredible ideas into not only a coherent but a touchingly beautiful story devoid of over-sentimentalisation is wonderful. Bellman & Black is difficult to categorise. On one hand it is a gothic tale but split into two. The first half charting the rise of William Bellman and filled with laughter and happy memories. The second is a totally different side showing all the different shades of black so beloved of Bellman & Black’s emporium. The novel was somewhat different from what I anticipated, a straightforward contract regarding death, but it became something else entirely. I felt I had gone on a long journey with William and come out feeling so much for him. Setterfield masterfully makes the reader forget the past as well as she did William. For this novel is about thought and memory and rooks. There’s layer upon layer of dark and sorrow and yet it’s not empty of hope and love.

You can spot lots of Dickensian characters in Bellman & Black which sets the scene for the tale dusted with a touch of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. And you will learn a lot about mills and cloth and retail and especially about how to be a cracking businessman. And you will also learn about how to be a part of a community and how to be alone. And you will learn not to harm any rooks. Bellman & Black is a beautifully written tale. Just perfect.

I read this as part of R.I.P. VIII.

Slightly Peckish Wednesday

2 October, 2013

Umami Mart

Check out my second post on Kuala Lumpur eating at Umami Mart: Slightly Peckish. Go on!

In bookish news, I’m am SO excited about three new books being published in October: Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch which I’m reading right now and let me tell you it is exquisite, Scott Lynch’s much-awaited The Republic of Thieves which is the third in the Gentleman Bastards series and the wonderfully dark Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield. Are you as excited as I am? I don’t think so!

Aarti is also rolling out A More Diverse Universe 2013 challenge again this year. I do hope you’ll participate and read a book with us. It’s a great way of trying out something new and also become a little more aware about some of the issues in genre fiction.

A More Diverse Universe 2013

Strange Weather in Tokyo

I’m torn in my feelings for Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo. Originally titled Sensei no Kaban which translates to My Teacher’s Bag/Briefcase (The Briefcase in the US), Kawakami’s tale is of 38 year old Tsukiko who leads a rather solitary life in Tokyo, living alone, working in a nameless, nondescript job, whose one pleasure is to unwind after another day at work with a cup of sake and something seasonal to eat at a local izakaya. It’s probably an existence that is familiar to a large portion of the single working population in Japan and elsewhere. It’s boring and familiar and comforting but you feel your life slowly ebbing away, lost forever. It is at one of these drinking joints that she meets one of her high school teachers whose name she can never remember. And so begins an unlikely friendship with Sensei (Teacher), meeting once in a while to have a drink and a bite to eat. It’s never planned and they pay separately. But slowly, a chance meeting with an old schoolmate at the annual teachers’ ohanami (cherry blossom viewing picnic) forces Tsukiko to confront her feelings and she begins to realise the growing importance of Sensei in her life.

I loved the slow and leisurely way in which Kawakami peels back the evolving friendship between Tsukiko and Sensei. Their formal manner towards each other even though they often get very drunk together. The slow revelation of each other’s histories. The still moment when you just want to sit next to someone. And yet, there is always this nagging sensation of discomfort that wouldn’t vanish. Although I understood and sympathised with their friendship, I found it difficult to accept anything more. Is it their 30 year age gap? Did I put myself in Tsukiko’s shoes and wonder whether I could fall for a man so much older than myself? I don’t know. Although a common theme in Japanese literature and popular culture during the mid-Showa era, I couldn’t love this book completely because of this central issue which is so relevant to the book and which, I think, mirrored Tsukiko’s misgivings at the beginning. But the two seem so in tune with one another, as though there isn’t another person in the world who gets them, who understands their silences, their reticence, their solitude, that in some ways it seems inevitable.

It’s a deceptively quiet book with some wild emotions churning just below the surface. I was taken with Kawakami’s description of the nondescript existence of so many single people in Tokyo. It resonates, on the one hand, with the yearning for a simple life but also for something more to fill the gap. Although I found it troubling, there is something about Strange Weather in Tokyo that stubbornly remains in my thoughts long after I finished the last page.

I would like to thank Portobello Books for kindly sending me a copy to review.

I read this as part of Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 7. Do go and see what others have been reading.

R.I.P. VIII has started!

9 September, 2013


Hurray! It’s shiver me timbers time as Carl’s R.I.P. VIII has started. This is one reading challenge I look forward to every year as my thoughts turn to darker tales. I will once again be doing the Peril the First Challenge and this year have lined up the following books of which I hope to read four or more.

Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield – it’s coming out in October but I was lucky enough to win a copy!
The Twyning by Terence Blacker – all about rats
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis – time-traveling into the Black Death
Evil and the Mask by Fuminori Nakamura – can you be groomed to be a cancer?
Observatory Mansions by Edward Carey – a touch of gothic

And I’m still on the search for a book that will really scare the pants off me. Any suggestions? The Woman in Black didn’t work and nor did The Greatcoat. But I’m hopeful. Something spooky rather than gory. So suggestions please!

Jap Lit 7

has started already. Go and check out Bellezza‘s wonderful review site with lots of reading suggestions.

This year I’m going to keep it simple. I’m aiming to finish Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 which I rushed out to buy when it first came out in hardback way back in 2010 and from which I quickly got distracted when carrying the behemoth tome around on my commute got painful. Should have really waited until the paperbacks were out but hey, you know me, no self control when it comes to new books.

I also purchased a copy of Jacob Ritari’s Taroko Gorge when I visited New York’s Strand Bookstore in spring and although Ritari is American, it’s all about Japanese high school kids on a school trip to Taiwan. Bellezza’s reading it too so I’m going to jump on the wagon.

I’m also tempted to try Ryu Murakami’s From the Fatherland, With Love about Japan in a dystopian present under attack from North Korea. Sounds fascinating, no?

And I might throw in another Shusaku Endo, possibly Scandal, a Yasunari Kawabata and a Yukio Mishima if I can stay focused. Fingers crossed, eh?

What about you? Will you be joining us during the next 6 months in reading some Japanese literature books?

Silence by Shusaku Endo

23 January, 2013


Lord, why are you silent?
Why are you always silent…..?

Shusaku Endo’s Silence is probably his most famous novel. Like The Samurai and The Volcano, it is a study of Christianity in early modern Japan and the terrible path it carved through the lives of its believers and those who tried to stamp it out.

It is almost 60 years after Francis Xavier’s successful mission to Southern Japan. But the Tokugawa Shogunate, fearing the growing popularity of Christianity amongst the country’s poor and the possible fomentation of anti-government sentiment, has closed Japan’s doors against outsiders, leading the country into self-imposed isolation and declaring a ban on Christianity. It is in this harsh period of forced apostasy and danger that the Jesuit priest Sebastian Rodrigues and his companions set out from Portugal to discover the fate of their teacher, Christovão Ferreira, who has disappeared in Japan after rumours of his apostasy sent shock waves across the Christian world. Via Macao, they board a ship to a village near Nagasaki and there, their ideas and views on their vocation and the land they had dreamt of comes under increasing attack as they realise that the path they have chosen is harsher than anything they ever expected.

My reading of Silence as a non-Christian will probably differ from those who do believe, and yet, I feel that Endo successfully manages to get to the root of what he is trying to portray and shows the reader the real, honest and true anguish of someone who is trying to understand what it means to have faith and to live their life in a true and meaningful way.

I don’t think I have ever come across another novelist who has managed to do this in such a searing portrayal of a man struggling against fear and doubt and still trying to do justice to his vocation. Rodrigues is constantly treading water, at the edge of desperation, as he sees his flock captured, forced to step on fumie and apostatise, tortured and killed. He is perpetually caught between wanting to end the suffering of the Japanese Christians and staying true to his vocation, that he must continue his mission to spread and uphold his faith in Japan. It is a struggle from the beginning as most Christian converts are from the lower orders of the social hierarchy; many are peasants who are struggling with poverty and whose lives are hellish.

for a long, long time these farmers have worked like horses and cattle; and like horses and cattle they have died. The reason our religion has penetrated this territory like water flowing into dry earth is that it has given to this group of people a human warmth they never previously knew. For the first time they have met men who treated them like human beings.

You are there with Rodrigues as he jumps from one painful situation to the next, always shadowed by his Judas, the wretched, weak apostate Kichijiro, until he is finally captured himself. And there he comes face to face with the man he has come to Japan to find, his teacher Ferreira. And this is where his real struggle begins.

SPOILER ALERT (click and highlight to see text)

I was expecting Rodrigues to die at the end of the novel. But what Endo has done is something I hadn’t expected. Something much worse. And also something which really drives home and makes you think about what it must mean to have true faith. Does the fact that you have stepped on a fumie mean that you are an unbeliever? Can you really choose between stopping someone’s torture and keeping your own hands clean? And most importantly, Rodrigues finally believes that God had spoken to him and shown him the way, that by apostatising, he has become a true Christian and is saving his brethren from death. I may have gotten this all wrong but I found the ending to be truly painful but the fact that Rodrigues did not take his own life must mean that although he has no choice but to comply with his captors, he has found some kind of peace within himself and found meaning in his Christianity. But I’m not really sure.


Endo’s portrayal of Rodrigues is that of a real blood, sweat and tears man. A man who is struggling with what he believes and what he thinks is the right thing to do. It’s a vital, anguished portrayal but one which really touched me. There are hardly any clean, beautiful characters in this novel. It’s raw and gritty and wretched. And yet it stays with you. The Samurai showed how Christianity lifted some of the burden from the lives of the poor peasants in feudal Japan but Silence shows how much the Japanese and their Portuguese priests had to give up in order to protect their faith.

There is a word in Japanese, shugyo (修行), which loosely translates as an apprenticeship or training with roots in Buddhism. It’s often used to denote a period of training that one must undergo in order to become stronger, to achieve success or some sort of enlightenment. Rodrigues’ ordeal is akin to this. He doesn’t shy away from it, knowing that he must get through it in order for there to be some meaning in his life, for there to be a link with his faith.

I finished reading Silence almost two weeks ago but Rodrigues’ struggle  still lingers in my mind as I try to understand whether he managed to come to terms with his choices. I am in awe of what Endo has accomplished here (together with William Johnston’s superb translation) and will definitely be seeking more of his novels to read as I hope some of you will too.

Do check out Bellezza and Tony‘s posts and Tanabata‘s discussion of Silence and Teresa has posted on a new translation of Kiku’s Prayer.

*Do also check out Teresa’s post on re-reading Silence.

I read this as part of Bellezza‘s Japanese Literature Challenge 6, Tony‘s January in Japan and Ana and IrisLong Awaited Reads Month.

JLC6 #1 January in Japan LAR Button Final

Some plans for 2013

2 January, 2013

Hello and a happy new year, everyone!

So, made plans for the new year yet? Last year I chose not to participate too much in challenges just because I was feeling a bit too restricted in my reading and I’m just not one for being tied down (crazy, I know, since all the books I plan to read are ones I actually do want to read). But I’ve been seeing loads of blogs posting about challenges they are looking forward to and I’m tempted. SO tempted.

So I’ve pencilled in a number that I’m interested in:

Bellezza‘s Japanese Literature Challenge and Carl‘s Once Upon a Time and R.I.P. Challenges are no brainers.

Double dog dare

Then there’s C.B.’s TBR Double Dog Dare which I think I really need to do. I know a number of you out there do this every year and I think I want to join you as my TBR has spiralled out of control. I bought two new bookshelves (OK, they were small ones) and they didn’t help de-clutter my room at all. Sadface. Four months is pretty long though so let’s see how this will pan out.

LAR Button Final

This ties in nicely with Ana and IrisLong-Awaited Reads Month. Do you have books that you’ve been meaning to get to for a while but still haven’t touched? Then this one is for you.

January in Japan

Tony is also doing a January in Japan during which I hope to read Shusaku Endo’s Silence (finally!) I had been meaning to read more Japanese fiction but have, alas, been distracted by other books.


And Iris and Amy are planning a year long readalong of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I’ve been meaning to read this for the last few years and it’s been sitting on my bedside table looking at me accusingly. So maybe 2013 will be the year I actually get to grips with it? One can only hope!

But I’m going to keep it short and sweet again this year and allow myself the luxury of meandering through my books and reading a little more whimsically.

What about you? Any big reading plans?

Why does a girl like Gerti have to go falling in love with a banned person of mixed race, for goodness’ sake, when there are plenty of men around the authorities would let her love? … Before you know it, you may find yourself castrated or in prison, which is not pleasant.

Set in 1930s Frankfurt on the eve of World War II, nineteen year old Sanna is desperately trying to understand her dramatically changing world. Caught between adulthood, love and ever-growing threat of National Socialism, Irmgard Keun paints a portrait of daily life in Germany in After Midnight as the spectre of Nazi control and war draws near.

What is clever about Keun’s novel is that it is set before Hitler wields total control. This is the period when people are just beginning to realise the severity of their social situation, still toying with the notion on informing on their neighbours, saluting the Nazis and openly voicing dissent. As they begin to realise that their actions may have severe consequences, Sanna and her friends slowly begin to feel the tight stranglehold of the autocratic state.

The thing that tempers this growing fear is Sanna’s naïve and yet piercing observations of the people and situations in which she finds herself. For example,

I’ve often noticed how pleased and proud men are at having to knock in a certain way at the doors of perfectly harmless pubs, in order to get in. I expect there are some men who take to politics just for the sake of the secret signals you have to give.

Still nineteen, her thoughts are occupied by Franz, her lover whom she left behind in her home town with his cold, heartless mother. Sanna is staying with her cousin Algin, a famous novelist who is now blacklisted, and his beautiful wife Liska, who is in love with a jaded journalist named Heini. Their circle of friends is bohemian and mixed, an increasingly dangerous cocktail as stringent racial laws are passed. It is a damning time, and yet Sanna sees the absurd and comic side of life, especially the doomed love affair between her friend Gerti and mixed-race Dieter Aaron whose Jewish father is all for the National Socialists.

And then the pair of them sit in a bar looking at each other, the air around them positively quivering with love-sickness. Everyone in the bar must notice; no good can come of it. They just live for the moment, and cause the air to quiver, and don’t stop to wonder what next…

Sometimes I keep them company, so that the impression they make in the bar won’t be quite so dangerous.

But as things grow more tense, Sanna finds herself in a quandary when Franz turns up a hunted man and must make a decision about her future.

After Midnight is a stark yet comic portrayal of a Germany being devoured by the Nazi ideology. But Keun manages to keep the tone light, the novel itself retaining a dream-like quality in a fin-de-siècle style. With hindsight, the reader can see the ever-growing traps laid out for the people, but the people of Frankfurt are bumbling from one trap to another, denouncing their neighbours and friends in an increasingly vicious cycle, unaware of their own doom. It’s a sad testament to the nature of humanity but the absurdity of it all drives home the very human-ness that is being suppressed.

Take the story of little Berta, chosen to present flowers to the Führer on his visit to Frankfurt. Her parents her decked her out in finery, ordered a bouquet of lilac from Nice and her father has composed a poem especially for the occasion for her to recite. But the parade is mistimed and Berta misses her chance, reciting her poem in the pub afterwards, and promptly falls down dead from an allergic reaction to the flowers or a fever. Amidst the chaos and tragedy is the seed of absurdity and you can’t help but see Keun’s genius.

Although I can’t describe After Midnight as a thrilling read, it’s one filled with succinct observations and humour which, on careful thought, may be a little too mature for a nineteen year old. Not much happens and yet Keun’s beautiful prose and excellent translation by Anthea Bell made me reluctant to put the book down. A small book with a big punch indeed.

And don’t you just love the beautifully simple cover by Melville House?

I read this as part of German Literature Month hosted by Lizzy and Caroline.

R.I.P. VII Wrap-up

1 November, 2012

I wasn’t sure whether I was actually going to find time to read all the books I planned for Carl’s R.I.P. VII this year but lo and behold, it seems nothing can keep me away from gothicky goodness. MWAHAHAHAHA.

All in all I read 11 books:

Ash by James Herbert
Twelve by Jasper Kent
The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura
Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness
Inquisition by Alfredo Colitto
Still Life by Louise Penny
An Evil Eye by Jason Goodwin
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
The Legend of the Wolves trilogy by Alice Borchardt

OK, strictly speaking I read Twelve and Shadow of Night before September and I haven’t posted my reviews of The Secret History, which was a re-read, or the three volumes in The Legend of the Wolves trilogy yet but I’m working on it. Incidentally Alice Borchardt is Anne Rice’s sister which makes it even more interesting, right?

But I did surprise myself by reading most of the books I planned to, which is a first, since I always get distracted and I did complete my Peril the First challenge of reading more than four books. I say it’s a win-win situation.

I’d like to say a big THANK YOU to Carl for hosting such a wonderful event and do please check out the R.I.P. VII review site to see what everyone else has been reading. I hope you’ll join us next year because I’m a little sad that it’s over as R.I.P. is one of my favourite bookish events I look forward to every year.

An Evil Eye by Jason Goodwin is the fourth book in the Ottoman mystery series featuring Yashim, the Sultan’s investigator and eunuch. Beginning with The Janissary Tree, Goodwin has brilliantly recreated 1840s Istanbul, an international port of devilish intrigue. In such a sophisticated world, only a well-trained and discreet palace servant such as Yashim can uncover the deadly mysteries that occur while at the same time preserving the reputation of the people he serves.

In his latest case, Sultan Mahmut II is dead and his young teenage son, Abdülmecid, has taken the throne bringing with him his coterie of staff including his concubines. It is a distressing time in the sultan’s harem as the deceased sultan’s concubines are replaced by much younger and more beautiful versions of themselves. The cruel bickerings following the displacement occurs at the same time as the body of a Russian spy is found drowned in the well of a Christian monastery on a small island not far from Istanbul. Yashim is sent to investigate and soon realises that he must confront his old mentor and nemesis, Fevzi Pasha, someone he has studiously avoided all these years and who is now commander of the Ottoman fleet. For this man has taught Yashim everything including how cruel humans can be. When people start to turn up dead in the sultan’s harem, Yashim soon begins to realise that the seeds of this case lie many years in the past and he must unravel the sticky strands carefully in order for him and his friends to survive.

In between the mystery are little nuggets of information about daily life in Istanbul including tantalising descriptions of Yashim cooking his meals. One of these days I really must try some of his mouthwatering recipes.

We are also reacquainted with Stanislaw Palewski, Yashim’s friend and the Polish Ambassador to the Sublime Port who still maintains his Embassy although now sadly diminished in monetary terms with the demise of a sovereign Poland. It’s these little political details which are fascinating. Goodwin is brilliant in bringing Istanbul with its complex political and military history alive while at the same time injecting it with the humanity that keeps you reading the stories.

I can’t wait to find out more, especially about Yashim’s own murky history.

I read this as part of R.I.P. VII.