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'The way you love your children, they take your heart with you everywhere they go'. Exploring motherhood and Tokyo with Emily Itami's stylish modern love story. Plus a step back into the world of Barbara Pym, three books we can't wait to read and the books we've currently got on the go.  

Fault Lines by Emily Itami

If you ever visit Bookbar in North London and encounter its owner Chrissy Ryan you will discover it's impossible to leave without at least one new book under your arm. And of course I'm not someone who needs a lot of encouragement so I left with a few more than that. But top of my stack was this, which Chrissy loved and said had transported her to Tokyo. As someone who has visited Japan a few times – and indeed had a trip planned when lockdown struck – I was curious to read more.

'Mizuki is a Japanese housewife. She has a hardworking husband, two adorable children and a beautiful Tokyo apartment. It's everything a woman could want, yet sometimes she wonders whether it would be more fun to thrown herself off the high-rise balcony than spend another evening not talking to her husband or hanging up laundry. Then, one rainy night she meets Kiyoshi, a successful restauranteur. In him, she rediscovers freedom, friendship, a voice, and the neon, electric pulse of the city she has always loved. But the further she falls into their relationship, the clearer it becomes that she is living two lives – and in the end, we can choose only one.'

According to the back jacket flap Itami grew up in Tokyo before moving to London where she now lives. One of the very pleasing things about this book is the way that it somehow manages to bridge the gap between the experience of a Japanese person living in their native city, and that of the gaijin, or foreigner – basically everybody else. I think in part this is achieved by the way not everything is explained. Food is often mentioned, for example, but Itami almost never translates this, you either know what she means or you don't. Parts of Tokyo are described with just enough detail to give you an impression if you don't know them, and to remind you if you do. It manages to be both an insider portrait and have an aura of exoticism at the same time. 

As a mother of three unsurprisingly I also loved the protagonist, Mizuki, once a successful nightclub singer, now urban mum, required to be the textbook perfect wholesome mother but dying inside. 'Sometimes', Mizuki thinks, 'living in the world created by my children, knowing them better than I know myself but still finding them baffling, I feel like the rest of the world is nothing but shifting sands around me. I read somewhere that the twenty identifiable traits on the Hare psychopathy checklist apparently don't count in children, since they tend to display all of them. These include poor behavioural controls, irresponsibility, superficial charm, parasitic lifestyle, need for stimulation, lack of realistic long-term goals and impulsivity. I suppose it's unsurprising one might question things sometimes, being in a state of indentured servitude to two small psychopaths.' 'Yes', I thought, 'yes!'.

If I was being ruthless I'd have to say the character of Tatsyua, the husband, wasn't as well-developed as Muzuki's as a result the arc of their relationship felt unrealistic to me. As a result the ending might have disappointed me but Itami had built up so much goodwill through my sheer delight in her writing, her brilliant and acute observations on motherhood and the relish with which she created Kiyoshi, the perfect lover, I didn't mind. I was happy to take this story in the spirit with which she presented it to me and had no desire to pick holes in it. So not one for book club, I guess, I feel too protective of it, but definitely a hugely enjoyable read I thoroughly recommend. 

Buy Fault Lines from Bookshop.org

Further reading: Tricky to recommend follow-ons without hinting at the plot of Fault Lines, which I would hate to spoil, but Mizuki and Tatsyua might both have benefitted from reading The Course of Love, Alain de Botton's novel that looks at what happens to the heady excitement of first love when faced with the dull routine of everyday life. A love story for the modern world, chronicling the daily intimacies, the blazing rows, the endless tiny gestures that make up a life shared between two people – Laura and I may have disagreed on how much we liked this book, but were in complete accord there's no finer writer on the subject of sulking.
Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

I can't claim to have discovered Barbara Pym because there are about a million people who have got there before me, but now I've joined the party I'm happy to have arrived. Excellent Women was the second of her published novels and is often recommended as a good place to start.

We meet Mildred Lathbury, an unmarried women just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties. Spark writes '[she] must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people's business, and if she is also a clergyman's daughter then one might really say that there's no hope for her.' A new couple are moving into the flat below hers. As they will share a bathroom (London living arrangements, back in the day?!) Mildred wastes no time in making their acquaintance and discovers Helen Napier is an anthropologist while her husband Rockingham is on the point of leaving the Royal Navy. They are glamorous and fascinating  and Mildred soon finds herself drawn into their world. Rocky is kind and flirtatious with her. It's established early on that his role in the navy involved charming bored Wren officers and Mildred never forgets this. We also meet Everard Bone, another anthropologist, this one awkward and distant, and yet who also becomes interested in Mildred.

As Alexander McCall-Smith noted in The Guardian 'One smiles and puts down the book to enjoy the smile. Then one picks it up again and a few minutes later an unexpected observation on human foibles makes one smile again.' I never found this laugh-out-loud funny but I was deeply appreciative of the sharp asides and well-observed foibles of all the characters. 'Virtue', Mildred observes, 'is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing.' I liked the fact that Mildred came to terms with her various disappointments and indeed as a reader you are rooting for her all the way. I wondered if some things you had to be English to appreciate fully. At a Parish meeting: 'Perhaps there can be too much making of cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy tea-pot. We had all had our supper, or were supposed to have had it, and were met together to discuss the arrangements for the Christmas bazaar. Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Statham and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look, 'Do we need tea?' she echoed. 'But Miss Lathbury ...' She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realise that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind.'

I love this for book club, it's beautifully written with some poignant deeper themes on the fate of unmarried women, and I think it would be a wonderful one to read and discuss. Or for any non-bookclubbers, just to read and enjoy.

Buy Excellent Women from Bookshop.org

Further reading: I'm quite keen now to read The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne, excellently reviewed by Rachel Cooke in The Guardian. The setting and time-period of Excellent Women reminded me of Business as Usual by Anne Stafford and Jane Oliver, a light but winning novel in letters with the sort of ending you would wish for any of Barbara Pym's heroines but that I fear they rarely, if ever, get.

 

Three to Try

 

The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris

I hadn't quite meant to start reading this novel set in a literary publishing house but thanks to Netgalley I had an advance sitting on my kindle and the other night idly I began it. Could I put it down? Reader, I could not. It's deliciously compulsive. For a long time Nella has been the only black person on the publishing team until Hazel arrives. But is she friend or foe? I'm hugely enjoying all the well-observed details of the publishing world and the nuances of Nella's relationships with her colleagues. Plus the opener leaves you racing through to find out what it's all about. I will finish it and report back. 

The Great Mistake by Jonathan Lee

Recommended by the discerning folk at Mr B's Emporium this popped up on my radar this week. It's a fictional novel about the real-life man who founded the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and created New York's iconic Central Park. Jon McGregor, whose book Lean, Fall, Stand I've just finished and very much enjoyed, says of it 'Jonathan Lee has taken the bare facts of a nearly forgotten life and turned them into a rich and unforgettable story.' It also got a rave review in The Guardian. Potentially a good one for book club, I thought.


Turning Pointe by Chloe Angyal
'Every day, in dance studios all across America, millions of little girls line up at the barre and take ballet class. Their time in the studio shapes their lives, instilling lessons about gender, power, the value of their bodies and minds, and their place in the world both in and outside of dance. In Turning Pointe, journalist Chloe Angyal captures the intense love for ballet that so many dancers feel, while also grappling with its shortcomings: the power imbalance of an art form performed mostly by women, but dominated by male choreographers and ballet masters, the impossible standards of beauty and thinness, and the racism that pervades ballet.' Flagged up for me by @whatereads on Instagram, this sounded intriguing. As someone who loves to watch ballet I'm curious to learn more about the industry and Elizabeth promises it is 'unputdownable'.
 

Ask us a question

Next up for us is our 100th episode, and as we rarely talk much about ourselves we thought for this one we'd get personal. So if there's anything you ever wanted to ask us now is the time. Drop us an email with your question at thebookclubreview@gmail.com.

What to Listen To


Don't miss our Women's Prize episode which was so much fun to make. After weeks reading the six shortlisted books and a WhatsApp group buzzing with cryptic first thoughts, we finally got together with our guests Elizabeth Morris (of the wonderful Crib Notes newsletter) and Sarah Oliver (back for more after guesting on our Booker shortlist show) to find out what everyone really thought of the books. Listen in for a no-holds barred book club discussion that in the best tradition of book club covers the things we loved, the things we didn't, and everything in between. Plus we have a go at tipping the winner – listen in to see if you agree with us. The prize will now be announced in September so there's still time to read some or all of the shortlist, an activity we highly recommend.

This week I've also enjoyed Literary Friction and their Deborah Levy interview. I love the way Carrie and Octavia interview writers so thoughtfully and this is such a wonderfully expansive discussion, I found my thoughts flying along with them in a way I so enjoyed.
 

What to Watch


The Boswell Book festival of memoir and biography has now ended, but you can catch up with any of the talks online for free until June 30th. I loved the talk with Kapka Kassabova, whose 'To The Lake' I am currently dipping in and out of, and Rory Stewart was the perfect companion with his own interest in place, community, shared culture and history. Register with the box office to get the link to watch.
 

What Kate is reading:

I'm reading Explaining Humans by Camilla Pang for book club on Wednesday. I had been finding it slow going but then we got to the chapter on the universal laws of thermodynamics which suddenly electrified it for me. Finally I understand that the fact that my house is a mess and has cracks in all the walls is down to entropy and not some personal failing of mine as a human being. Such a relief, I can't tell you! On the side I'm reading The Other Black Girl, see above. But what I'm really aching to get to is another book by Caroline Blackwood that arrived from the London Library the other day. It's called The Last of the Duchess, a fictional biography of the Duchess of Windsor that begins with the promising disclaimer 'The Last of the Duchess is not intended to be read as a straight biographical work. It is an entertainment, an examination of the fatal effects of myth, a dark fairy-tale.' 
 

What Laura is reading

Laura cracked open the beast of a book that is A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry this week, the summer book chosen by her new-found Vancouver book club. Its 800+ pages are a little daunting but so far it’s an easy, atmospheric read, almost Dickensian, with a broad cast of characters from different backgrounds thrown together in the days of the 1970s Emergency in India.

Browse our bookshop. We've had fun putting together a shop window of this week's recommendations. If you're thinking of investing in any of them, buying through Bookshop.org supports independent bookshops and you'll also be supporting us at the pod.

Thanks so much for subscribing to our newsletter, we hope you're enjoying them. Do get in touch at thebookclubreview@gmail.com or via our website. Let us know what you're reading – we always love to hear from you.

Anytime you're in the mood for a books podcast do check out our archive of almost 100 (we're nearly there) episodes from book club discussions to our bookshelf round-ups and interviews with book clubs far and wide and people from inside the book world.

And if you enjoyed the newsletter do forward it on to a book-loving friend. Sign up link is here. Spreading the word is the best possible way to support us and we are so grateful when people do. But for now, until next week, happy reading.

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