Sunday, 30 December 2007


AUTHOR: C. J. Sansom


DATE READ: December 2007

NOTES: The third Mathew Shardlake novel is excellent. The lawyer this time finds himself sent north to join with King Henry’s Progress to the North in 1541. As well as helping with some legal petitions he is also required to oversee the welfare of a prisoner, Broderick, who is being held in York before being sent to London for further questioning – and a certain death.

But nothing is as it seems and a multi-layered plot of heresy, greed and fanaticism ensues as Shardlake uncovers a conspiracy that could unseat the King. The Tudor England portrayed is not one of elegant court manners and devoted commoners. Instead he reveals a brutal and harsh regime with constantly changing mores – a regime in which just the knowledge of certain information could lead to execution.

The logistics of the Progress in the North are superbly well drawn, as are the scenes in the boat and in the Tower of London. His assistant Barak has developed well as a character and is a good counterweight to Shardlake. Although over 600 pages it is a very fast read – I found it hard to put down and it made a wonderful post-Christmas read.

Surely this can’t be the last we will hear of Matthew Shardlake? He is young enough for more adventures – and lots more conspiracies and political chicanery to come with Edward VI, Lady Jane Grey and Mary Tudor.

Thursday, 20 December 2007


AUTHOR: Catherine OFlynn


DATE READ: December 2007

NOTES: A very accomplished debut novel. A young girl who wants to be a detective regularly stakes out the local shopping centre making notes and looking for suspects accompanied by her loyal sidekick – a toy monkey. Twenty years later the ramifications of her disappearance are still being felt by people who knew her.

There are some great characters sharply defined and the atmosphere of both the 1980s and the present day well drawn. But central to the story is the Green Oaks shopping centre – glitzy and attractive to customers but tawdry and creepy to the staff who work there. There is a black comedic thread running through the story – the Mystery Shopper is fantastic!

But there is an underlying sadness – loss of love, loss of ideals, guilt and lack of ambition. But O’Flynn handles this all brilliantly and I found I could not put the book down. And for once all the loose ends were satisfactorily tied up……

Very highly recommended. This book well deserved its place on some prestigious book prize lists. One of my top ten books of the year - am now pressing it on others to read!

Tuesday, 18 December 2007


AUTHOR: John Fowles


DATE READ: December 2007

NOTES: As fresh and intriguing as on my first reading of this book. The Victorian age is brilliantly portrayed from the genteel pretensions of Lyme to the rough and tumble of the seedier parts of London. The main characters are strongly portrayed. Would-be paleontologist Charles is from a comfortable upper class background but condescends happily to become engaged to Ernestina who is a pleasant but shallow daughter of a prosperous middle class draper. But into their lives comes Sarah, the enigmatic woman who is rumoured to have been “ruined” by a liaison with French seaman.

Fowles is particularly good on the class war and social mores of the time: The attitude of society to Sarah is shocking as is the off-hand way in which servants are treated. When Ernestina’s father suggests that Charles join the drapery business he is truly aghast at the idea even though he has no career in mind.

Sarah remains ambiguous – we are left uncertain as to whether she is manipulative and self-absorbed or badly treated and depressed. Throughout the book she both irritates and evokes our sympathy.

The other central character is the writer himself. He drops in and out of the writing, discussing the motives of the characters and suggesting three different endings. This works superbly.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007


AUTHOR: Peter Hoeg


DATE READ: December 2007

NOTES: This is a complex crime novel. At its heart is Smilla, a feisty independent woman. Her Inuit ancestry makes her very much an outsider in Denmark – the iciness of the winter is reflected in her perceived coldness of the Danes around her. When her seven year old Greenlander neighbour, Isaiah dies she is convinced it is not an accident and sets out to find the truth.

There are some great characters in the book – all well drawn: Jakkelson, Lukas, Isaiah. The dialogue is sparky and often funny. The descriptions of ice and snow are brilliant, as are the flashbacks to life with her mother in Greenland. The pages are scattered with Inuit words which gave an added layer of authenticity and there are some wonderful descriptions of ice and snow (and Smilla’s affinity to them both)

The earlier parts of the book are brilliant and made compelling reading. Unfortunately as the plot becomes more and more convoluted it developed into a sort of sci-fi thriller and the ending is a bit of an anti-climax.

A book to be read in winter curled up in a warm place drinking hot chocolate!

Tuesday, 4 December 2007


AUTHOR: Patrick Gale


DATE READ: November 2007

NOTES: When Rachel Kelly dies the emotions felt by her family veer from sadness to relief. A talented artist, she had always been a powerful influence on her children who grew up in awe and fear of her mood swings and erratic behavior due to her mental problems. The book moves from present day Cornwall to Toronto in the 1960s and the story of each member of the family is gradually allowed to unfold, their struggles and their successes, their longings and their fears. The chapters open with a different “note from an exhibition” – each one intriguing and fascinating in its own way.

Rachel’s background is a mystery – she refuses to talk about where she comes from apart from vaguely alluding to Canada. After her death her husband Antony, encouraged by her oldest son, begins to seek out her origins.

The Quaker faith of Antony gives the book a calm still heart which contrasts well with the difficulties weathered by the family.

Above all it is an optimistic book that shows that although the family has had to endure the pain and misery of living with mental illness they can nonetheless find strength and happiness through the love and memories that they all share.

I struggled towards the end of the book between wanting to know Rachel’s story but not wanting the book to end! It is the first Patrick Gale book I have read – but I’ve already started looking out for his other work.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007


AUTHOR: Ronan Bennett


DATE READ: November 2007

NOTES: Zugzwang: chess term derived from the German, Zug (move) and Zwang (compulsion, obligation). It is used to describe a position in which a player is reduced to state of utter helplessness. He is obliged to move, but every move only makes his position even worse.

This thriller is set in a pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg inhabited with anarchists, Bolsheviks, secret police and double agents. Dr. Otto Spethmann, a psychoanalyst, is visited by the police who demand to know his relationship with a dead man, Yastrebov. Spethmann has no knowledge of him but from then on a whole series of dramatic events unfold – murders, kidnappings, threats and assassination plots. There is a whole range of great characters: Rozental, the chess genius on the verge of a complete breakdown, Kopelzon, an acclaimed musician who is vain and hypocritical, Lychev, the intelligent and complex policeman and Anna, the damaged beauty with whom Otto falls in love. Otto’s daughter is also a surprisingly modern young woman – headstrong and liberated.

The plot is convoluted with lots of twists and turns involving revolutionary and counter-revolutionary plots – all great fun but infused with political and ethical dilemmas. Can the murder of one man be justified if it eventually means the lives of others can be improved?

The whole book is infused with a chess game between Spethmann and Kopelzon, complete with diagrams and moves. Even readers who don’t follow chess could enjoy this battle which is also reflected in the plot.

On the surface it appeared that Spethmann was the character who was obliged to move but in doing so only made his position worse but in fact Zugzwang was the position that Tsarist Russia found herself in – whatever was tried, things could only get worse.
A really great read - highly recommended.

And did I spot a mention of Djugashvili? Wasn’t that Stalin’s real name?

Friday, 23 November 2007


AUTHOR: David Lodge


DATE READ: November 2007

NOTES: Laurence “Tubby” Passmore seems to have all the trappings of a successful life but knows that something is missing. He suffers from a variety of ailments and attends a range of therapy sessions on a weekly basis – physiotherapy, acupuncture, cognitive behavious therapy etc. As usual with David Lodge there is lots of male angst but gently blended with humour (some “laugh out loud moments). Passmore is so caught up in his own perceived problems that he fails to notice what is going on around him and his marriage and his career begin to fall apart.

The book becomes his quest to find contentment and meaning to his life. But it is all done with a lightness of touch and at the end comes to a very satisfying conclusion.

Lodge is particularly good when he writes as a female character (even if it is a male character pretending to be a female!) He does this even more successfully in Thinks – so if you liked Therapy you should read Thinks next.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

A Christmas Carol is the classic Victorian Christmas story. Even though we know it well it continues to be a joy to read. Dickens creates some wonderful pictures of the bustling life in 19th century London. Some of the dialogue remains so fresh and still raises a smile in the reader no matter how many times you have read the book before. “You’ll want all day tomorrow, I suppose” says Scrooge to his clerk on Christmas Eve. And the conversation between Scrooge and the two gentlemen who are asking him for donations to help the poor and destitute at Christmas is as funny (and poignant) as anything in any Dickens novel.

Sunday, 18 November 2007


AUTHOR: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


DATE READ: November 2007

NOTES: What a wonderful book! The compelling story of the Biafran War is told through the intersecting lives of people in the country – Olanna and Kainene, feisty twin sisters from a privileged background, Richard, an Englishman who grows to love Africa (and Kainene) and Ugwu, the bright, vulnerable houseboy of Olanna. There are many other strong characters who make the sad story of civil conflict come alive.

The roots of the war are explained through the narrative. Adichie doesn’t lecture us but lets the history be explained via her characters which is much more effective. She brilliantly describes the excitement and optimism of the Biafrans as independence was declared and charts the inexorable decline into civil war, chaos and hunger. Much of the book is harrowing but the warmth and strength of the main characters and their will to survive shine through. A compassionate and humane book.

Thursday, 8 November 2007


AUTHOR: Alex Barclay


DATE READ: November 2007

NOTES: The reviews on the book said “Excellent” “A terrific debut by an exciting new writer” “A knockout”. It was none of these. A garbled plot, badly drawn characters and completely unbelievable. A sort of crime thriller written to order following a prescribed template.

And why do modern crime novels have to be so vile to women? Who gets off on this? Hero’s wife is attacked in a horrible manner – but wait, she had been unfaithful to him decades previously so perhaps she deserved it. And another victim is overweight so probably she deserved to die as well.

All very depressing.

Monday, 29 October 2007


AUTHOR: Tim Moore


DATE READ: October 2007

NOTES: Tim Moore set off from Valcarlos to Santiago accompanied by a donkey called Shinto. A very lighthearted look at the Pilgrims’ Way of Saint James – his battles with Shinto, the strange places he has to sleep in, the assorted villages and towns he trundles through and the wonderful mix of people he meets along the way. He treats the pilgrims he meets with warmth and humour even though he obviously finds many of them to be frankly batty. The travelogue is interspersed with historical facts – but even these are given a cynical 21st century treatment.

I liked the descriptions of the places he walked through – many just as I remembered them.

All great fun, but not to be taken too seriously.

Friday, 26 October 2007


AUTHOR: Robert Harris


DATE READ: October 2007

NOTES: Another great read from Robert Harris. Imperium is narrated by Tiro, secretary and slave who relates the rise to power and fame of his master Cicero. It is really two books in one: the first part deals with Cicero’s early political life and in particular the lengthy and dangerous court battle against Gaius Verres whose corruption as governor of Sicily is challenged.

The second part deals with Cicero’s complex path to become a consul. The machinations of the Roman republic make a gripping tale. And although we know in advance that Cicero succeeds in his rise to power this comes at a cost to his principles. Cicero himself is brilliant portrayed and really came to life in this book.

There are obvious analogies to the modern world: the war on terror, political spin, the assumption of moral superiority by the imperial state, but Harris does this in a subtle way without labouring the issues.

Having only recently finished reading Tom Holland’s Rubicon this book made an ideal follow-up by fleshing out many of the characters of the time: Crassus, Pompey, Metellus, Cato and Julius Caesar. (Julius Caesar intriguingly only plays a very minor role – is Robert Harris planning a sequel that deals with the fall of the Republic?)

Thursday, 25 October 2007


AUTHOR: Jane Harris


DATE READ: October 2007

NOTES: The Observations is narrated by Bessy, an illegitimate ex-child prostitute who becomes (almost by accident) a maid to the beautiful but slightly unhinged Arabella Reid. The book recounts their life together and their changing relationship. Bessy is cynical, outrageous, funny and totally lacking in respect for her “betters”. Her tough narrative voice carries the book along effortlessly. There are some really sinister moments and the plot keeps you guessing until the end.

There is a wealth of weird and wonderful supporting characters and some good sub-plots (such as the erection and unveiling of the new town drinking water fountain). At one point Bessy sends a manuscript off to publishers but only receives in response a range of negative responses such as ‘sorry, not quite what we are looking for’. I can only assume that this is taken from Jane Harris’s earlier attempts at publication! Thank goodness someone had the good sense and foresight to publish The Observations.

Monday, 17 September 2007


AUTHOR: Tom Holland


DATE READ: September 2007

NOTES: Brilliant account of the period of the fall of the Roman republic. A serious (but not difficult) read infused with wit and insights. The narrative takes us from 140 BC to the death of Octavian (Caesar Augustus) in AD 14. A fascinating period of history that left me wanting to know more about lots of the characters – such as Sulla, Cato and Cicero. There are obvious parallels with modern societies but these are not laboured.

He creates a wonderful picture of Rome and its wonderful ideals that were never quite lived up to. Also had brilliant illustrations, maps and timeline.

Saturday, 8 September 2007


AUTHOR: Margaret Drabble


DATE READ: September 2007

NOTES: Humphrey Clark and Ailsa Kelman met briefly as children in north-east England. They later meet up as lovers and embark on a short unfortunate marriage. Both have gone on to eke out very different careers. Ailsa has made a name for herself through her academic work on feminism and then through media appearances. She scandalized people by putatively wearing a foetus as a pendant. Humphrey has had a fairly successful career as a marine biologist albeit not without disappointments. At the Green Grotto (in the white elephant at Greenwich) which he had a part in setting up is a robotic mermaid who moves in and out of the water. His embarrassment at this as he escorts his grandson is almost tangible.

Their stories unfold as they travel back to Ornemouth fifty years later to receive honorary doctorates at one of the country’s newer universities.

The book is a wonderful evocation of childhood at the seaside as well as the anxieties and uncertainties of ageing. There are constant references to sea life and marine biology (Ailsa’s name, her mermaid-like dress, their journey compared to salmon coming home to spawn)

Margaret Drabble is one of the best writers about older people - very welcome in a youth obsessed world.....

A grown-up book for grown-ups!


AUTHOR: Jed Rubenfeld


DATE READ: August 2007

NOTES: A young psychoanalyst links up with Freud and Jung when they are visiting New York to help solve a complex murder plot. Superbly atmospheric of the times and some great characterizations. Freud’s approach and the arguments against him are forcefully put forward in a very readable way. Also includes some great background details – the building of the Manhattan Bridge is fascinating and is at the same time intrinsic to the plot.

Ultimately I found the plotting to be overcomplicated and there were just too many twists and turns. However as I read it I was increasingly intrigued as to what was historically true and which characters were real and which were fiction. The notes at the end were very illuminating. A really good read.

Monday, 3 September 2007


AUTHOR: Kate Morton


DATE READ: August 2007

NOTES: Ninety-eight year old Grace is looking back over her life and in particular her time as a maid at Riverton in the early part of the last century. Her life (and her parentage) is entwined with the stories of the family who live there and the ultimate “secret” is not revealed until the last few pages. (Think of sub-literary Atonement crossed with Gosford Park) Unfortunately the story does not justify the nearly 600 pages it takes to tell. The device of the maid relating the story through overheard conversations is clumsy and could probably have been avoided by a straightforward narrative. Lots of research has obviously gone into the book but this whole thing has been done better elsewhere (Pat Barker, Evelyn Waugh) and it adds little to what has gone before.

Quite a disappointment – I fell for the hype but fortunately bought this book at a car boot sale for 50p.

Wednesday, 22 August 2007


AUTHOR: Jamila Gavin


DATE READ: July 2007

NOTES: Coram Boy is set in 18th century England and contrasts lives of the fortunate and unfortunate children of the times. Well written beginning given a horrific picture of child trafficking and murder. Unfortunately it all becomes a bit predictable – abandoned child is reunited with his parents, bad people get their just desserts etc. Not sure which age group this book was aimed at. Concepts such as pregnancy outside marriage, selling of young children into slavery and infanticide suggest it is aimed at 12 – 13 year olds. However the actual writing is very simple and the main boys are aged nine.

Saturday, 18 August 2007


AUTHOR: Anita Shreve


DATE READ: August 2007

NOTES: Kathryn gets a knock at the door in the middle of the night and her life begins to unravel. Her husband has been killed in a mid-air explosion en route to US from London. She and her teenage daughter are both distraught and are comforted by Robert, sent by the airline, and Kathryn’s grandmother Julia. It soon becomes clear that her “good marriage” may not have been all she thought. She picks up the clues and travels to London where she meets up with Muire who has also been “married” to Jack and has two children by him. Meanwhile the press are suggesting suicide by Jack (and at the same time killing a hundred other people) caused by a bomb brought on the plane by him.

This is not the best Shreve book I have read. The prose is lovely and the emotions of Kathryn and Mattie are well handled and believable and the character of Julia is strong. Muire is much less real and the plot all a bit contrived……

The ending is ambivalent which suits the tone of the book.

Thursday, 16 August 2007


AUTHOR: Rajiv Chandrasekaran


DATE READ: August 2007

NOTES: Superbly researched and lucid account of the US attempts to impose a new order in post-invasion Iraq. Records the unreal life led by the Americans in the Green Zone compared to the unfolding chaos in the rest of the country. He also tells of how the main criterion when recruiting staff was allegiance to the Republican Party rather than any past relevant experience. Also very revealing on how differing US agencies were at odds with one another and were trying to impose differing agendas. Breathtaking amounts of dollars were paid to contractors who then failed to carry out their agreed work while other people with specific needs to aid the reconstruction were denied any real funding.

A hard hitting account of the blunders, venality and cynicism of the occupiers but at the same time Chandrasekaran acknowledges the undoubted good motives of many of those involved in this continuing tragedy of a broken country.

Sunday, 12 August 2007


AUTHOR: W G Sebald


DATE READ: August 2007

NOTES: In 1939 a five year old is sent from Prague to Wales to escape the imminent disaster. He soon forgets all of his previous life and grows up knowing nothing of his past. However in adulthood he comes he is haunted by his unknown identity and by his absence of memories. The loveless Welsh household and the harsh private school are superbly described.

The book is narrated by someone who meets Austerlitz in Belgium. Their friendship continues and they meet up occasionally and Austerlitz continues to tell of the progress he has made. The writing is atmospheric and haunting – goes off into reveries on architecture, fortifications, moths, museum exhibits, maps, etc etc. I have to confess I found some of these quite irritating – and some of the vocabulary seemed deliberately esoteric…….

Austerlitz took photographs continually and the book is liberally illustrated by these. Many are very badly reproduced (deliberately?) and I am not sure how much they finally contributed to the overall narrative.

The reviews were glowing but this book is not one I would want to return to.

Wednesday, 8 August 2007


AUTHOR: Stephen Kinzer


DATE READ: July 2007

NOTES: A well documented and impressive narrative of US intervention in foreign governments and the resulting disastrous consequences. Stephen Kinzer begins with the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarch in the 1890s and ends with the invasion of Iraq. Clearly written with lots of new (for me) information – e.g. the Panama Canal was originally planned to go through Nicaragua. Although this is a serious piece of work it is very readable – in fact at times it reads like a novel and hard to put down.

The next time we hear of a US politician wondering why so many people seem to hold their country in contempt they should be directed to read this book and find the answer.

Friday, 27 July 2007




DATE READ: July 2007 (audiobook)

NOTES: Well researched story of sixties London gangland told from different perspectives – rentboy, would be actress, corrupt MP, fellow criminal Jack the Hat and hippy sociology lecturer. Focuses on Harry Starks, a charismatic gangster with very brutal tendencies.

Ambitious sweep across the decades which includes factual figures – Kray brothers, Judy Garland etc. The inclusion of the sociology/Open University part was very entertaining and there was a satisfactorily dramatic ending. Very well read on this audiobook by Dave John.

Friday, 20 July 2007


AUTHOR: Jonathan Coe


DATE READ: June 2007

NOTES: Brilliantly constructed follow-up to What a Carve Up! A group of students share a house in the early 1980s and despite their intense impact on one another they appear to go their separate ways. But things are not that simple and their paths will cross again. The whole book is suffused with theories of sleep and dreams which are in themselves fascinating even if we don’t know how much of the information given has any real scientific background.

Alternate chapters recount the story from the 1980s and from June 1996. The student house becomes a private clinic specializing in sleep disorders run by the ghastly Gregory who was Sarah’s sadistic lover in student days. Terry, a friend of Sarah’s, arrives as a patient and is surprised that Gregory’s assistant Cleo reminds him of Robert and wonders if she could be his sister.

Lots of very funny bits but with some really dark moments. The whole structure is all very cleverly worked out – it propels the reader (well, me anyway) along as you really want to know how everything turns out.

Thursday, 12 July 2007


AUTHOR: Michael Morpurgo


DATE READ: June 2007

NOTES: This book was written for young people but nonetheless has achieved an adult audience. The prose is simple but still manages to create a wonderful picture of the English countryside in the early part of the 20th century, the evolving relationships of the Peaceful family and the horrors of the Great War. He describes the brothers at war in a brilliant way as the supposed heroic adventure of going to fight gradually becomes a living hell on earth.

The dramatic twist at the end of the story works well and I have to admit the last few pages were read with tears falling down my face.

Two negative thoughts: I realise that he was writing for a young audience but I felt that the “baddies” were a bit crudely portrayed. The Colonel in the big house and the vicious Sergeant were both a bit like cartoon characters. Rural poverty and the cruelties of war were caused by the class politics of the time not by individuals.


AUTHOR: Sarah Waters


DATE READ: July2007 (audiobook)

NOTES: Sub-Dickensian tale of Victorian pickpockets, babyfarmers, confidence tricksters and heiresses. Very convoluted plot (which in the end didn’t really stack up) with an underlying lesbian subtext. Some excellent atmospheric writing but spoiled by the overblown plotting. Slow moving in parts – felt it could have done with editing. However despite all this I did want to know what happened at the end.


AUTHOR: Hilary Mantel


DATE READ: July 2007

NOTES: Alison is a medium who earns her living by taking part in psychic fairs along with a sundry group of other practitioners. She is overweight and outwardly confident but she is soon revealed to be surrounded by spirits of men from her childhood. These all seem to be malevolent and a sad, abusive and neglected childhood is gradually revealed. She is joined by Colette, a rational and controlling woman, who becomes her business manager following her unsuccessful marriage to Gavin. Alison and Colette develop a love-hate relationship and after seven years Colette leaves and returns once more to Gavin (who has not had any luck in his life since she left).

The writing is terrific. Alison’s past is shocking and the book is very dark in parts, contrasting sharply with the humour which is frequently “laugh out loud” funny. Even though the subject matter is not one that I would usually care for I found I was swept along by the narrative and in particular by the relationship between the two women and the other psychics.

It is creepy and inventive but not sure if I actually enjoyed it!

Saturday, 16 June 2007


AUTHOR: David Mitchell


DATE READ: June 2007

NOTES: A very impressive story of teenager coming to terms with the world around him in the 1980s. The story tells of the thirteen months of Jason’s life between childhood and adolescence – the stammering, the bullies, the family strife, the Falklands War and the diverse and strange characters living in his village. As a sensitive, intelligent boy Jason has to make his way in life through a maze of dangers – knowing which boys to avoid, not using the wrong words, wearing the right clothes, not letting anyone know he writes poetry etc. The whole story is laden with cultural and historical references: Curly Whirlies, Thatcherism, Gotcha and ZX Spectrums.

An authentic narrative voice is in turns funny, perceptive and moving. In parts it is desperately sad (even though Jason expresses no self pity) but is ultimately positive and uplifting. Beautifully constructed novel and exuberant language.

Saturday, 26 May 2007


AUTHOR: C. J. Sansom


DATE READ: May 2007

NOTES: A really great read. The story brings to life the sights, sounds and smells of Tudor London as Matthew Shardlake and his sidekick Barak tear round the city in an attempt to regain the secret of Greek Fire for Cromwell and the King while at the same time trying to save the hapless Elizabeth Wentworth from being wrongly condemned to a grisly death. The author doesn’t shy away from the complex religious issues of the day and how small deviation in belief could lead to a hideous execution. Well paced, a cracking plot and good characterisations – what more could you ask for from a historical crime fiction? (Better than Dissolution!)

Wednesday, 23 May 2007


AUTHOR: Gustave Flaubert


DATE READ: April 2007

NOTES: I can well understand how controversial this novel was when it was first published. Overall it is a vicious portrayal of small town France. Most of the characters are revealed to be self-seeking and vain. At the heart of the story is Emma Bovary – and Flaubert is, I feel, ambivalent in his attitude to her. He sometimes describes her very favourably and at others as selfish hard-hearted. And we as readers share this ambivalence – is she a cruel temptress who cares little for her own child or is she a victim of the social mores and unable to act independently? Certainly the book highlights how women of the time could only find happiness and fulfilment through a male partner.

The suicide at the end is prolonged and horrific. Was Flaubert hoping to attract our sympathy for the hapless Emma or was he ensuring that she was suitably punished for her infidelities?

The writing is splendid – surprisingly modern and beautifully descriptive. I am sorry I let this book sit unread on my bookshelf for so long!

Wednesday, 16 May 2007


AUTHOR: Martin Amis


DATE READ: May 2007

NOTES: I chose to read this book as it was included in the recent Guardian list as one of the books best evoking the 1980s. And it had been sitting unread on a bookshelf for ages….
It’s the story of John Self as he weaves his way through life, revelling in money, sex, alcohol and pornography. From a background in advertising he is caught up in plans to make a film in US but gradually falls foul of a financial scam and his world gradually falls apart. Very exuberant language – including some very evocative invented names for actors, fast food etc. Martin Amis appears as a character – this is done in a clever and intriguing way and not as an ego trip.
There are lots of literary references eg Otello the opera (Self get the plot wrong!) and a car called Iago. Reference to Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 also very funny. Most characters are venal and untrustworthy and the whole book is a mixture of darkness and hilarity.

Thursday, 3 May 2007




DATE READ: April 2007

NOTES: I loved The Dream of Scipio and An Instance of the Fingerpost so I was looking forward to this book. It is a pretty easy read although he has chosen to use a narrator (the artist, Henry MacAlpine) speaking as a monologue to his subject (art critic, William Naysmith) Not an easy way to tell a story involving betrayal, jealousy and spite – but he copes with this pretty well. He built up the picture of the windswept Breton island and of life in the artistic community at the end of the 18th and beginning of 19th centuries. The ending is a bit predictable, but nonetheless satisfying, as there were a few surprises along the way.

Would make a good radio play – or would be good to have as an audio book.

Sunday, 8 April 2007


AUTHOR: C. J. Sansom


DATE READ: April 2007

NOTES: In 1537 Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer, is sent by Thomas Cromwell to investigate the murder of one of his commissioners at a monastery on the south coast of England. Shardlake and his companion Mark at first make little progress in solving the crime and they are unsure who among the monks and their servants can be trusted. Other murders occur during their stay as well as an attempt on Shardlake’s life.

The tension of the times is brilliantly portrayed. There are few clear heroes or villains but instead there is a rich mixture of lazy, corrupt monks, greedy local officials and avaricious politicians and nobles plotting to take over the church’s land and property. Time is given to discuss the religious and political questions of the time and Shardlake begins to question his own place is Tudor society as he begins to realise that things he has accepted as true (such as the guilt of Mark Seaton as a lover of Ann Boleyn) have been concocted as a deliberate device to please the king.

(I wanted to know more about Brother Guy, a Moorish physician – hope he reappears in later books!)

A great historical crime novel – super atmosphere, good characterisations and a cracking story.

Saturday, 31 March 2007


AUTHOR: David Mitchell


DATE READ: March 2007

NOTES: Quite an amazing read – a complex, exuberant book with six interweaving and overlapping stories (any of which could be a novel in their own right). The writing style and spelling change according to the setting of each part: the 19th century Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, an American notary, the letters of Robert Frobisher, an impoverished young would-be composer working with an older musician in Belgium, a 1970s thriller involving corporate crimes, a struggling present day publisher trying to survive against a tide of modern problems (debt, the train service, old age, street crime), a sci-fi story of clones and servitude and the tale of Zachary set in a fallen dystopic world.

There are some obvious links and it is altogether a great read. Not sure which bit I like best – possibly the Luisa Rey story or the Orison of Sonmi-451. I found the Sloosha’s Crossing part the most difficult to read because it is written the way Zachary was supposed to talk with lots of apostrophes and new vocabulary (“Nay, I din’t murder her, see in a split-beat b’tween aimin’ an’ thrustin’….”). This part would probably be brilliant to listen to on an audiobook.

Highly enjoyable and well worth the effort. A tour de force!
Have now bought his latest book Black Swan Green and look forward to reading it.

Wednesday, 28 March 2007


AUTHOR: Clare Morrall


DATE READ: March 2007

NOTES: I came to this book with false expectations – I had expected it to be more literary and to deal seriously with issues. Oh dear, quite a disappointment! The story dealt with a dysfunctional family par excellence. Unfortunately all the main characters were seriously damaged but their problems are not offset with humour or lightheartedness (as in I Capture the Castle or any of Kate Atkinson’s books). I was really interested in how she approached synaesthesia (a condition in which emotions are seen as colours) but she seemed to quickly lose interest in this and it was never really developed as an idea.

The book has a great opening and the episode of taking her nieces to the theatre was beautifully told. I liked the local setting of Birmingham and the references to Peter Pan. However the central character Kitty is extremely irritating and I found it hard to sympathise with her despite the fact she had a) lost a baby and was now unable to have any more children b) been raised in a motherless family c) had a really unpleasant father d) had an older sister Dinah who had disappeared at the age of 15.

Halfway through it all became a bit predictable. Yes, we knew the mother would reappear and that Kitty was probably turn out to be Dinah’s child. Sorry, but I just didn’t believe that so many secrets would remain untold for so long.

There is some lovely writing in this first novel but it really didn’t (for me) live up to the rave reviews.

But we had a great discussion at our reading group about it!

Thursday, 22 March 2007


AUTHOR: J B Aspinall


DATE READ: December 2006

NOTES: Medieval tale of a witch terrorising an area of Yorkshire and the church’s battle against her. Written by Brother Edmund who is asked to record the story as a penance for his carnal thoughts. Language has an authentic feel and author seems true to the ethos of the time. Edmund believes in witchcraft and that his bad dreams mean that he has been invaded by demons at the behest of a witch. It was an interesting device to have a narrator who actually believed the church’s teaching of the times rather than have someone with a much more rational outlook. Very well written and quite a page turner. It is subtly satirical – the power of the witch is described in graphic detail and Edmund has no problem in believing what he is told. Some parts are truly shocking – especially the notion that the women who invade Edmund’s dreams must be bewitched and therefore should be put on trial and executed for witchcraft. Age old problem of blaming women for the effect they have on men! Although Edmund is not happy about this he makes no real attempt to prevent it happening – he is totally immersed in church propaganda and not intelligent enough to think more rationally.

The story tells of Sukie – a peasant girl of great spirit and little beauty – who is badly treated by her family and eventually arrested and imprisoned. While imprisoned she is continually abused and when she is eventually freed she becomes a virtual hermit in the hills, but makes a living by selling herbal potions. After two mysterious deaths of men (it is never made entirely clear that Sukie was to blame) she flees and is not heard of for many years. But it is only a matter of time before the church feels the need to be rid of her.

Friday, 16 March 2007


AUTHOR: William Boyd


DATE READ: October 2006

NOTES: What happens to your life when everything you thought you knew about your mother turns out to be an elaborate lie? During the long, hot summer of 1976, Ruth Gilmartin discovers that her mother, Sally is really Eva Delectorskaya, a Russian emigre and one-time spy. In 1939, Eva is a young woman living in Paris. As war breaks out, she is recruited for the British Secret Service by Lucas Romer, a mysterious, patrician Englishman. She learns to become the perfect spy, to mask her emotions and trust no one: even those she loves most. Since then, Eva has carefully rebuilt her life - but once a spy, always a spy. And now, she must complete one last assignment. This time, though, Eva can't do it alone: she needs her daughter's help.

A great read – very much a page turner. Chapters alternate between Ruth in 1976 and her mother in wartime espionage. Well plotted with good atmosphere in wartime sequences but less so in 70s. Relationship between mother and daughter is beautifully explored. Would have liked Ruth’s story fleshed out more – ends a bit limply.

Not as good as Brazzaville Beach or Any Human Heart, but nonetheless a great read.

Monday, 5 March 2007


AUTHOR: Khaled Hosseini


DATE READ: February 2007

NOTES: A beautiful evocation of growing up in Afghanistan and trying to come to terms with the complexities and paradoxes of the place. The narrator Amir is guilty of cowardice and betrayal and but in the end he is redeemed by his actions. Some wonderful characterisations – Amir’s father Baba, his young wife Soraya and, of course, his servant/half-brother Hassan and all vividly drawn. His descriptions of place are terrific. A very fast read – very much a page turner.

However I did have some reservations. I know it is a novel not a political history, but he does give the impression that all was fine in Afghanistan until the Russians invaded……. fine for people of his class perhaps?

Thursday, 1 March 2007

World Book Day

It’s World Book Day – so what a great excuse to leave all the chores and spend time reading.

Was interested in the results of the World Book Day poll – people were asked to name their top ten books that they could not live without. An odd criterion – not the greatest literature ever read, nor the books with most impact on our lives.

So here are my top ten books that I would always want to have on my bookshelves: (not in any particular order)

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
Atonement by Ian McEwan
The Radiant Way (trilogy) by Margaret Drabble
Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd
The Quiet American by Graham Greene

OK, that’s eleven but it’s my blog so I can do what I want! If I made this list in a week or a month’s time I am sure it would be different. All very subjective.

Wednesday, 28 February 2007


AUTHOR: Peter Boxall (General Editor)


NOTES: This is a great book for “dipping into” rather than reading from start to finish. One of the members of the reading group I belong to brought it along to one of our meetings and I knew I had to buy my own copy. Like many people I had to do a count of how many of the 1001 books I had actually read – it was about 140. So I have a long way to go……

However I don’t think the purpose of the book is to spur us on to competitive reading or to demoralise us if we haven’t read a lot of the books selected. What this book is great for is to alert you to works you may want to read at some time in the future but have simply never got around to – such as To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf or The Idiot by Dostoevsky (both sitting on my bookshelves gathering dust).

It is also a good reminder of some books read long ago – The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell, Germinal by Zola and The Razor’s Edge by WS Maugham.

Obviously any list of this type is contentious and we all bring our own prejudices to such a venture. (No William Boyd? Shame on you! Six Margaret Attwoods….hooray)

And it is beautifully illustrated throughout with pictures of writers and original book covers.


AUTHOR: Donna Tartt


DATE READ: October 2006 (audiobook)

NOTES: Harriet is haunted by the childhood death of her brother Robin and vows to find and punish the murderer. Set in a Mississippi summer – you can feel the heat and dust. The maid Ida Rhew suggests perpetrator is local “white trash” Danny Ratcliffe and Harriet begins to follow him and his brothers. Danny and his elder brother are drug dealers and another brother Eugene is a trainee preacher, hoping to learn to use poisonous snakes in his sermons.

Aided by her friend Hely she breaks into Eugene’s house and the snakes are released. However the brothers see her and from then on are aware of her presence. She sees Danny going up the ladder to a disused water tower and decides to see for herself what is up there (It’s the elder brother’s drug stash which Danny decides to steal to fund his escape from the town) But while she is up there Danny arrives, shoots his brother and comes up to get his drugs (which Harriet has destroyed). He thinks he has drowned her but she fools him and escapes leaving him in the water to drown. But she finds out at the end that Danny was not the murderer at all.

Racism of the time is dealt with with subtlety (dismissal of Ida Rhew, sacking of Hely’s housekeeper, failure to tell Libby’s maid that Libby had died)

Gripping narrative, superb writing and great characterisations.

I first got to know this book as an audiobook. It was beautifully read and great to listen to.

TITLE: The Righteous Men

AUTHOR: Sam Bourne


DATE READ: August 2006

NOTES: Thriller set in US involving Brit newspaperman and Messianic prediction of Judaism. Fast moving and lots of intriguing clues and twists and turns involving murder of 36 righteous men. Involvement of Hassidics and Christian fundamentalists. Pacy but ultimately just a holiday read.

I chose to read this as I knew it had been written by Jonathan Freedland, an erudite Guardian writer. This book is definitely a dumbed down version of his writing! I should have been warned by the quote on the cover "The biggest challenger to Dan Brown's crown"......


AUTHOR: James Shapiro


DATE READ: July 2006

NOTES: I heard James Shapiro talk at the Hay Festival in 2005 and as a result bought his book.

Erudite and scholarly work. Very good detail on the political scene of the time and how this impacted on the writing of William Shakespeare. Great insights into the life and times of late 16th century England. I liked the way he relates the happenings of the times directly back to Shakespeare’s works. Fascinating.


AUTHOR: Anne Tyler


DATE READ: June 2006

NOTES: Macon and Sarah have lost a child, Ethan, who was murdered in a robbery at a store. This tragedy has torn them apart and Sarah decides to leave. Macon is a very quirky person, unconventional and unsociable. Likes everything to be very controlled and organized. He works as a travel guide writer for business men who really don’t want to be away from home. Advises on how to cope in strange cities by keeping everything as similar as possible to life at home.

However his dog is uncontrollable and frequently attacks people and this is how he comes to meet Muriel who works as a dog trainer. She is the opposite of him – casual, untidy, talkative and sociable. He is drawn to her and her child, Alexander, a weakly child who warms to Macon gradually. However he is still drawn to his wife and eventually they move in together again. Muriel follows him to Paris (she had said that she wanted to go with him on his next trip) and hopes to make things work again. However because Macon hurts his back his wife flies out to be with him. Macon soon realises that their relationship is not what he wants and he misses the chaos of life with Muriel.

A super read. Beautiful characterisations – everyone is believable. Macon’s heartbreak at losing his son and his genuine confusion about life in general is well drawn. There is a heartwarming subplot of his siblings.

What a great storyteller Anne Tyler is!


AUTHOR: Rohinton Mistry


DATE READ: May 2006

NOTES: An amazing book – paints a brilliant picture of India for ordinary people. A huge sweep of history from before independence to early 1980s. Interlinking stories of Parsis, Outcastes, Muslims and Hindus – characters really live within the pages. In some ways it is a very bleak story (especially the harsh attitudes towards lower castes and the political abuses of Mrs Ghandi’s Emergency) but in other ways it has humour and is an uplifting tale of the human spirit. Among all the bleakness and cruelty there is really kindness and generosity. Characters are rarely “good” or “bad” but their actions stem from the situations in which they find themselves.

A real page turner, Mistry is a wonderful story-teller. A Fine Balance is one of the best books I have ever read – remained with me long after I had finished reading it.


AUTHOR: Cecelia Ahern


DATE READ: February 2007

NOTES: Since a childhood schoolmate went missing twenty years ago Sandy Shortt has been obsessed with missing people and missing objects – to the point of obsessive compulsive disorder. After leaving the police force she sets up an agency to seek out missing persons for others. While travelling to meet the brother of a young man who disappeared a year ago she finds herself in a mysterious world inhabited by “lost” people and objects.

Will she find her way back home? Will Jack, who is determined to find her, succeed? Quite frankly, I didn’t care where she ended up or what happened to any of the characters. I only kept reading because I thought there may be some actual rational explanation for what was happening. I should have known better. What a load of tosh.

Could the time I have lost reading this nonsense ever be found again?


AUTHOR: John Steinbeck


DATE READ: January 2007

NOTES: I first read this book about 30 years ago but it was great to return to it again. A phenomenal achievement – telling the story of the Joad family as they struggle to survive in the depression of the thirties in US. There is hope and despair in the book but Steinbeck always ensures that the innate goodness of ordinary people shines through. Some wonderful characters: Ma who is determined to keep the family together, the fiery Tom who leaves to organize other workers, Rosasharn whose dreams of a happy future fall away but she nonetheless is prepared to give her mother’s milk to a starving man. And the picture of Casy is remarkable – a preacher no longer certain of his faith but who finds practical ways of putting others before himself.

Although the story is set some 70 years ago there are still many modern parallels. Some of the comments made about the Okies are echoed today in relation to immigrants. And big companies trying to reduce what they pay to their suppliers? Did someone mention Tesco?

Some chapters hardly move the narrative forward but instead offer Steinbeck’s reflections on the situation. These are little gems, beautifully written, and could be part of a book on political philosophy.

A triumph of a book – should be compulsory reading for everyone!


AUTHOR: Ian McEwan


DATE READ: March 2006

NOTES: A day in the life of Henry Perowne, neurosurgeon, set against the background of the anti-Iraq war march in London. An apparently privileged man has his world rocked by the events of the day. Every event is told from his point of view (Mrs Dalloway?) and how it impacts on him and his family. From waking early and watching a cargo plane on fire as it flies over the city, (a terrorist attack in the making?) to his final resolve to forgive the man who desecrated the sanctity of his home and family. He gets into a quarrel with another motorist as he hurries to his morning squash match. This ends in being punched by other motorist – and could have been worse but Perowne identifies Baxter as being in early stages of Hodgkinson’s disease, a neurological problem, and uses this information to escape. A bad-tempered squash match with a colleague and then shopping and a visit to his mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s. All this is suffused with thoughts on the marchers and their motives, his own uncertain approach to the coming war, his family and especially his daughter (who is beginning to be published as a poet) and her fraught relationship with her maternal grandfather, who is a well known poet.

This all makes a really compelling read – some lovely well drawn family relationships. He is a faithful husband very much in love with his wife and proud of his children. Beautiful evocation of living in London. A wonderful book.


AUTHOR: C J Sansom


DATE READ: February 2007

NOTES: Well crafted story of three school fellows and how their lives collide and separate. Bernie, a communist travels to Spain and later joins International Brigade – injured and captured and not released after the end of the war. Harry – middle of the road academic who is enlisted in 1940 by Intelligence to work in Spain. He had been shell shocked at Dunkirk. In Spain he is asked to find out what Sandy Forsyth is up to – seems to be into shady business deals.

Meanwhile Bernie’s girlfriend Barbara has moved in with Sandy, believing Bernie to be dead. Barbara finds out that Bernie is alive and sets about rescuing him from a prison camp near Cuenca.

Paints a very vivid picture of Spain in the Civil War and the years following. Deals well with the complex issues and varying political complexities of the time. Plot is complex but the machinations of the British Embassy are all too believable.

This author is new to me - but I shall look out for his other work.