The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami

I’ve never read Japanese fiction at all, not even Murakami. The only thing translated from Japanese I’ve ever read is Naoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump, which is a non fiction account of autism, written when the author was around 13. (Side note – he’s just released another book which I am greatly looking forward to reading.) I’m bad with translated fiction – because I am able to read some foreign lit in the original, I have tended to think that reading in translation somehow doesn’t count, which is a) snobbery and b) just weird.

With the aim of correcting this gap in my reading, I requested The Nakano Thrift Shop from the publisher through work, in exchange for feedback or a review on the Waterstones website. It is set in a little thrift shop in a suburb of Tokyo, and the characters are the group of people who work there. There is Hitomi, the narrator, a young woman who has no real direction in life, Takeo, the abrupt, prickly delivery driver, Mr Nakano, the owner, an aging womaniser, and Masayo, his sister, an artist and hopeless romantic.

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I’ve heard it described as more like an interconnected collection of short stories, and while it definitely is episodic and you could argue that it is sort of presented like a collection of short stories, given that each chapter is titled with an object which comes into the shop, and appears to have a conclusion of sorts, I don’t think it is as vignette-y as that would imply. It is loosely chronological and there are plots which run throughout: Takeo and Hitomi’s relationship, Mr Nakano’s affair with an antiques dealer, Masayo falling in love with a man of whom her brother does not approve.

This is a look at relationships, love and sex, and the way that these things can falter and struggle, the awkwardness that we experience as we try to form relationships, with women given the primary voices and much of the power, both in the actual establishment of these relationships and in the discussion of them. This is not to say that these are all powerful, decisive women going after what they want from men; Hitomi in particular is hugely indecisive and often has no idea what she wants from Takeo, or struggles to voice it when she does know. But the power to begin or end this relationship often seems to be in her hands; even when Takeo appears to have decided against the relationship, it is within her power to change his mind.

This is a subtle, melancholic, hesitant book, which I believe is typical of Japanese fiction. It is slow, the characters aren’t enormously expressive, and I can see why, as I scroll through goodreads, there are a fair few two star reviews. But that is the beauty of this novel. It takes its time to tell a simple story, with an enormous amount of nuance. It is romantic and moving and emotional, but only if you’re willing to just sit with it and allow it to wash over you. It’s probably not for everyone, but honestly I don’t have a bad word to say about it, and I will absolutely be reading as much Kawakami as I can get my hands on.


Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Recently, I decided that it was finally time for me to put my money where my mouth is with my love and admiration of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and actually read another one of her novels. I have literally nothing of consequence to add to any discussion of her work, because all I can do is loudly affirm that she is brilliant and that I love everything she writes.

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Purple Hibiscus is narrated by Kambili, a fifteen-year-old girl living in a repressive, abusive household. To the outside world, her father is a pillar of the community, a deeply devout man who stands up to what is wrong in society. But behind closed doors, it’s a very different story. He beats his wife and sacrifices the happiness of his children to his maniacal religious belief. Kambili and her brother Jaja live in a constant state of terror, from which they are finally freed by a stay at their Aunty Ifeoma’s flat, where they begin to understand that the family they have known is not the only possibility.

This is in no small part a classic coming of age story. Kambili is timid and nervous when we meet her, and we gradually see her bloom as she escapes from her father’s influence and begins to form friendships with her cousins and even develop a tentative crush on a young priest (this crush is maybe my favourite thing about the novel, it’s wonderfully done). It’s a heartwarming look at the good it does young people to be truly loved and valued, alongside being treated as equals – both in that they are respected but also in that they are expected to pull their weight alongside everyone else at their Aunty’s home. The coming of age aspect of the novel means that it’s a perfect recommendation for teenagers who are just starting to read adult fiction, and I’ve already been recommending it to customers.

While it does have that heartwarming look at growing up, it is also filled with the oppressive presence of an abuser. Kambili’s every action is influenced by what her father would think, what he will do if he finds out, fear of his responses, even when she is in a different city. Every time she manages to take a step forward, he pulls her back. You can feel this uncomfortable, constant sensation through the entire boo, even though the way he controls her is not necessarily something she is aware of. Adichie suffuses the entire boo with his looming presence, so that the reader also begins to feel stifled by it.

While this would be a gripping story were it just to look at one family’s story, Adichie doesn’t leave it there. She uses the moving stories of these individuals to tell a wider story about post-colonial Nigeria. During the course of the novel, there is a military coup, which Kambili’s father uses the newspaper he owns to criticise, with horrific results for his employees. Ifeoma is a university lecturer while students are rioting and attacking faculty houses. The part which really hit home for me was the way that the country has been brutalised by colonialism, as represented through Kambili’s father, whose violence and abuse stem from his Catholicism, from a religion brought to him by white men.

This is a glorious novel, simultaneously shocking, brutal, heartwarming and moving. I’m literally the last person to this party, but Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is incredible, and you should read her.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

I’ll hold my hands up and admit that I was sceptical about this book. I do like YA, but I’m a little cautious when it comes to YA dealing with serious topics. I think because I was disappointed by Brian Conaghan’s The Bombs That Brought Us Together, I got it into my head that I would rather read adult books about big issues and I would just be turning to YA for romance. I was so mistaken. I knew that this book was going to be capital-I Important, but I don’t think I was prepared for just how GOOD it is.

I’m sure you’ve probably heard what this book is about by now because it was absolutely everywhere when it first came out, so I’ll keep it brief. Starr lives in the rough, black part of town, but goes to school in the posh, white part. One night, her oldest friend, Khalil, is driving her home from a party when they’re pulled over by the police. Things escalate and a white police officer shoots the unarmed Khalil. Starr is then faced with the choice of whether to speak out or not.

Thomas gives depth to a huge range of characters in this book. The neighbourhood where Starr lives is layered and complex: life is hard there but there’s a lot of good too. Her dad is a former gang member who now runs a grocery store, her uncle has risen up in the police and left the neighbourhood, her mum is a nurse. We meet kids who have been caught up in the gang culture and kids who are desperately resisting it, as well as adults and elderly people who have spent their whole lives in the neighbourhood. Thoas deftly weaves together this community, showing the way in which Khalil’s death sends fractures throughout it.

We are also, through Starr’s school life, shown the other side of the coin, with the soft racism of her supposed friends and the reaction of this community of wealthy white kids, which is to jump on the bandwagon of the protests in order to get out of lessons. There are those white kids who try to understand, Starr’s boyfriend Chris among them, but an awful lot seem to think that Khalil probably got what was coming to him, and that there’s nothing wrong with their using his death as a way to skive off.

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Thomas’s characters are often insightful and intelligent, and she skilfully has them explain race relations, identity and philosophy to one another without it ever seeming clumsy. Whether it’s Khalil explaining Tupac Shakur’s philosophy of THUG LIFE to Starr in the early pages, Starr’s parents arguing over the pros and cons of leaving the neighbourhood, Starr explaining the way she code switches between school and home through the narration, or her dad giving Chris the opportunity to ask questions about race, these are super smart characters, and it’s impossible to close the book without feeling like they’ve taught you something, without this ever weighing down the plot.

This is a brilliant book, and it takes a complex, nuanced look at a black community in America today. Angie Thomas is a wonderfully talented writer and this is one of the best debuts I’ve read in a long time, YA or otherwise.

When In French by Lauren Collins

Lauren Collins’s look back at her experience of learning French skilfully moves out beyond her own life to look at what it means to speak a language, the history of French, attitudes to language and human relationships.

The subtitle is “Love in a Second Language”, and the novel does look at the relationship Collins has with her husband, Olivier, and at how that relationship changes as she begins to be able to communicate with him in his mother tongue. They met in London, and she didn’t actually begin to learn French until they were already married and living in Geneva. (By the way, the hilarious, disdainful way she talks about Geneva is brilliant. Read the book just for that.) She notes that, as Olivier also speaks fluent Spanish, she only knows him in what is actually his third language. There are things that he does, ways that he interacts and expresses himself, which she finds completely inexplicable, but as she begins to understand French, these things start to make more and more sense. She starts to find English inadequate herself, which is an experience I think anyone who has learnt a second language can relate to.

I think my favourite thing about the book is that Collins clearly loves French in much the same way as I do, in the way that I think anyone who has studied and adored the French language does. It is a beautiful, nuanced, complex language, the study of which has, without meaning to sound pretentious, enriched my life in more ways than I can express. However, it is also the stupidest fucking language on the planet, filled with irritating idiosyncrasies and frustrating exceptions to grammatical rules, which, for many Francophiles, is both the hardest part of learning French and the thing we love the most. Collins is incisive and witty as she looks at these tiny, funny details, which will be familiar to anyone who has learned French. She taps into exactly the mindset of exasperation and delight which, for me, has characterised my French learning experience, at least since I started my A level and started being able to really get into the nuances of French.

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For context, I really, really love French. I’ve been learning it since I was five or so, visiting France my whole life, and I lived in the suburbs of Paris for a while. I studied French and Russian at university, and the French half of my degree (although by final year, it was more than half) was pretty much entirely focused on literature. I love writers who use language as a playground, who use French purposefully. In September, I’ll be starting a Masters in French, again looking at literature, specifically at writers who are not native speakers of French but choose to use it for one reason or another, whether that is stylistic, political, whatever.

And that brings me to maybe my only critique of the book. If you don’t have at least some experience of learning French, and if you didn’t enjoy that experience, I don’t know what this book would be to you. This memoir tapped into something that is hugely important to me, that I have spent a lot of time engaging with and analysing. I don’t think you need to have the relationship with French that I do in order to take pleasure in this wonderful book, but I think you would have a hard time relating to it if you have never learnt French, or if you did it for GSCE because you had to and hated it.

That said, this is far from being purely an elegy to French. Collins takes her life as a jumping off point and uses it to bring together dozens of fascinating facts and tidbits about language, whether that is French, her native English or other languages around the world. I found myself highlighting parts that I wanted to be able to flick to quickly just to be able to remind myself of how fascinating language can be. She demonstrates a pretty thorough understanding of sociolinguistics and linguistic psychology, and these are the parts I think do have an appeal beyond those of us who are Francophiles.

I think it’s pretty clear that I have a massive personal connection to this book, and the next time someone asks why it is that I love French so much, I’m just going to thrust a copy of this book into their hands.

Mr Loverman by Bernadine Evaristo

This is a story about Barry, an Antiguan man in his eighties living in Stoke Newington in London. His wife, Carmel, suspects that he’s having an affair, but what she doesn’t realise is that for sixty years, he has been in a relationship with his lifelong best friend, Morris. It’s a look at prejudice, sexuality, immigration, race and family.


I loved how much the protagonist is shown as growing and changing and learning, even at this late stage in his life. He’s pretty self important, pretty convinced of his own rightness a lot of the time, but through the book he is forced to reexamine himself, his prejudices and the way he has treated his wife and daughters. He might be gay, but he’s kind of homophobic and pretty sexist a lot of the time, but he does realise his flaws as the novel goes on.

I also loved the nuance that Evaristo gave to the story. Most of it is narrated from Barry’s point of view, but every now and then a chapter from his wife’s point of view is inserted and you see all of the ways that he is kind of a shitty person, and realise that the way he sees her is so, so inaccurate and belittling. These are characters who could easily become stereotypes, but Evaristo never allows herself to slip into that – even when the characters pigeonhole one another into stereotypes, she forces them and the reader to reconsider those lazy, inaccurate categorisations. Barry thinks Carmel is a total harpy, while she thinks that he is a serial womaniser – neither turns out to be true.

The narrative also refuses to judge these characters for their flaws. Carmel holds some pretty awful homophobic opinions, and while other characters do voice their disagreement with her, she is not painted as evil for this. She is shown to be a result of the environment she was brought up in and the times she has lived through, as well as easily influenced by the faith she has turned to while her husband has neglected her for so many years.

This is a capital-I Important Book, looking at a group in society which is often ignored, but it is also charming, funny and warm-hearted.

The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan

This is absolutely not a book I would have picked up had it not been on the Bailey’s Prize shortlist. When it made the longlist, it was among those that I wasn’t bothered about, but once it got through to the shortlist, and particularly once I saw a few bloggers who I really trust rave about it, I decided that I would give it a try.

It’s the story of three generations of the Forge family, wealthy white Kentucky farmers, and later horse breeders, as well as the story of a black family, the Shaughnesseys, who are the descendants of a former Forge slave. It’s a look at family, legacy, race and class. It is also, notably, considerably less interested in horse racing than the cover or title would suggest. Horse breeding works because it has implications of class and wealth and race, and because it allows for a large number of stunning descriptions of horses’ physicality and cultural significance, but honestly it’s not a book about horses.

That said, if you don’t get on super well with lengthy, elaborate descriptions, you might struggle with this a little. There is an awful lot of plot going on, but it is frequently put on hold for descriptions, particularly of the countryside that surrounds the Kentucky farmhouse which is the primary setting. I personally loved those parts, but they won’t be to everyone’s taste. Even for me, who loves floral language and lengthy description, the descriptions of horse races got annoying. Personally I didn’t feel the tension of those races and I could have done without them.

Personally, I have an enormous amount of admiration for what C.E. Morgan does stylistically. She’s holding a lot of different balls in the air, transitioning between genres and messing with a lot of different writing styles, but she does it seamlessly. There are two sections in particular which are among my favourite things I’ve ever seen an author do.

The first is a scene between the young Henry Forge and his neighbour Ginny, which starts out with them talking in the barn in winter as Henry milks a cow and follows them as they leave the barn and walk down the road. What makes this pretty simple scene wonderful is that as they talk, the seasons change around them so that by the time they part ways, an entire year has passed.

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The second is much, much later, in a scene between the black jockey who rides Henry’s best horse and Allmon Shaugnessey, the black groom who cares for her. The jockey, whose overwritten speech patterns might bother some people but I, predictably, loved, gives a version of the Queen Mab speech from Romeo and Juliet which is adapted to be about race and class. The Queen Mab speech is my favourite speech in Shakespeare and I adore what Morgan did there, but I do acknowledge that this is the sort of thing you either love or that you think is pretentious and ridiculous.

As much as there is a huge amount that I love about this book, I have to admit that I did not particularly enjoy the reading process. It’s hard damn work. It’s 550-odd pages, with the most ridiculously tiny font I have ever come across, and you feel every single page go by. It’s a rewarding process, but only once you’ve put it down and started to process it.

The Children of Jocasta by Natalie Haynes

I don’t know anything about Classics, really. I did learn about Greek myths and Legends when I was at primary school, and I think we had a big Dorling Kindersley book on them when my sister and I were little, but I must have mostly looked at the illustrations because all I really remember are these images of muscular, beardy men in what I think are called chitons(?).

Because of this, I wouldn’t naturally be drawn to books based on classical stories, but after seeing Jean of the YouTube channel Bookish Thoughts talk about this one, and then spotting it in the proofs pile at work, I decided to try this one out. It turned out to be a great decision, and I’m now really keen to pick up some more classical retellings (Madeleine Miller’s Orange Prize winner, The Song of Achilles, is currently at the top of my list).

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This is a look at the myths of Oedipus and Antigone through the eyes of two of the more neglected characters from the original plays: Jocasta, Oedipus’s wife/mother, and Ismene, their younger daughter and Antigone’s sister. The chapters alternate between their two perspectives (although, oddly, Ismene is in first person while Jocasta is in third, a decision which I can’t work out the reason for, although I don’t think it detracts in any way). I have to say, I did at times find the alternating perspectives and particularly the fact that they are narrating from different points in time a little frustrating. Particularly in the beginning of the novel, I much preferred the Jocasta chapters, and was mildly irritated each time I was removed from her story. However, as the book went on I found Ismene increasingly engaging.

I particularly loved the way she removes the mythological elements from the story. The Sphinx who terrorises the hills outside Thebes is transformed into a band of robbers and highwaymen, while the characters are taken down from their mythological pedestals to become human, fallible and relatable. They refer to the mythical origins of their city with scepticism, and doubt the truth of prophecies even as they look to the Gods for answers.

While the book focuses in on the thoughts and motivations of two women who are sidelined in the original plays (Haynes includes an afterword which was extremely helpful in understanding how her novel relates to the source material), giving them rich inner lives and helping us understand the all-consuming grief they both experience, this is still an action packed story. While a novel which focused purely on their personal grief might be grim and depressing, this, thanks to the plot elements necessitated by the original plays, is still a page turner. Although, to be fair, the plot is still bloody grim.