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.