Saturday, 27 December 2008

The Paradise Trail by Duncan Campbell

DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: December 2008 NOTES: This debut novel is a blend of murder mystery and a memoir to a lost era. It begins in the Lux Hotel – a backpackers’ insect-ridden hostel in Calcutta in 1971 where the usual odd bunch of hippy characters have ended up after time spent in Goa, Delhi, Nepal, Kabul etc. There is weird Freddie who communicates in Bob Dylan lyrics, Larry, an American who makes a little on the side by drug smuggling and Gordon, an ex-advertising executive who has “dropped out” and two oddball Australians, Karen and Keiran. The hotel is run by young Anand, a kindly and liberal Indian. The Bengali war of independence is just beginning so into this mix come Hugh, a British would-be war correspondent and Britt, a beautiful and ambitious American photographer. Some nasty murders happen and it is believed that there could be a serial killer who is after hippies….. But in the chaos of the end of the Indian-Pakistan fighting no culprit is found. The members of the group go their own ways and over the next thirty years have little contact with each other. But the daughter of one of the victims determines to find out how her father met his death and so the mystery of what actually happened in Calcutta is gradually unravelled. This is a brilliant read. The description of the drug-fuelled hippy trail seems very real and the main characters are three dimensional and believable. There are no real heroes – just a series of flawed characters like in real life. The thirty year gap in the narrative is covered by a series of news reports, letters, postcards, press announcements and emails. There is a great piece of writing when Gordon agrees to take part in a cricket match in Calcutta even though he hasn’t played in years. He uses various strands of eastern philosophy that he has learned on the road to help him to bowl. Very comical (but it works!)
This is a fun book but with some dark undertones of cultural imperialism, racism and egotism. One of the blurbs on the cover says: “A great beach read”. Yes, OK, The Paradise Trail would make a super beach read – but it’s better than that so don’t wait to be on holiday to read it! Highly recommended. (And if you want to know more about the Bengali War of Independence read A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam)

Monday, 22 December 2008

Crusaders by Richard T Kelly

DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: December 2008 NOTES: A sprawling “state of the nation” novel that takes a great sweep over two decades up to the election of New Labour. It is set mostly in the north-east of England and takes in lots of the issues of the 1970s – 1990s including steroid abuse, drug culture, gangs, political corruption, prostitution and the emergence of New Labour politics. Much of the book was enjoyable but it was spoiled for me by the weakness of the central character. John Gore is a Labour supporting Anglican minister who is sent to Newcastle to start a new church in a run-down council estate. His motivations are never made very clear and his relationship with a somewhat slovenly single mother did not ring true. The gangster Steve Coulson was a much stronger character, as was Martin Pallister (the New Labour MP who is prepared to accept any policies as long as they have something to offer him personally). The way in which religious faith insidiously became almost a necessity for Blair supporters is well documented. Some reviewers criticised the way in which the writer put so much of the dialogue in the local accent. I thought this was done well and the various “voices” were very believable. An ambitious first novel – but I really think it did not need to be over five hundred pages long. Some judicious editing was needed!

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

The White Tiger by Arivand Adiga

DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: December 2008 NOTES: Balram Halwai is a poor low-caste Indian, the son of a rickshaw-puller who somehow manages to crawl his way up to be an entrepreneur in Bangalore. He tells his story via a series of letters written to Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Premier who is about to visit Bangalore. The poor parts of India are referred to as the Darkness which is a world filled with hunger, servitude and life-long debt. Modern Delhi is referred to as the Light. This is a world where men and women grow fat, have air-conditioned cars, mobile phones and guarded apartments with large TVs and computer games. But the Light has some very murky aspects to it – bribery, corruption and murder. The story is told at a blazing pace. Balram is ambitious and astute. He does well to become a driver for a local landlord’s family – but he wants more….. The dilemma for him is whether he can shake off his chains by honest means or whether some blood will have to flow. (I was reminded of A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam in which a widow’s only way of keeping her children safe is to commit a crime.) This is not a comfortable read – it is an angry and subversive book about the new India where any notion of the “trickle-down” theory of wealth creation is well and truly quashed. I am not surprised it won the Booker Prize. As a work of literature it is not as good a piece of work as, say, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (also about poverty in India) but it is funny, satirical and a blistering exposĂ© of globalisation.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry

DATE PUBLISHED: 2005 DATE READ: December 2008 NOTES: Willie Dunne is an innocent young Dubliner who sets off for the excitement of war in Flanders in 1914. He leaves behind a loving family and a girl he hopes one day to marry. But by 1918 everything in his life has changed. The war has progressed and become more and more bloody and futile and Willie becomes confused and ambivalent about his own patriotism and about Irish nationalist aspirations. He seems to lose everything that he knows and loves. This is a heart-wrenching read. Sebastian Barry creates a haunting world of smells, filth, fear and humour. The Irish dimension to the story make it particularly interesting as this is not an aspect of WWI that is much dwelt on in fiction. This book will surely rank alongside the very best of World War One literature. It is beautifully written and many of the characters and scenes remained with me long after I finished reading. A Long Long Way well deserved to be on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize in 2005.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

The Road Home by Rose Tremain

DATE PUBLISHED: 2007 DATE READ: November 2008 NOTES: The story of Lev, an eastern European widower, who comes to England to seek a better life. Right from page one we enter into his world as he sits on the coach as it rolls along towards London. He has no definite plans, few skills and very little knowledge about the reality of life in UK. He has budgeted on existing on £20 a week! I had thought this book might follow one of two tracks. The first would have Lev as a downtrodden immigrant who was continually vilified and victimised as he tried to make an honest living. The second would have been Lev turning to criminality to survive – a bit of theft, a bit of drug-dealing and almost certainly cheating the benefit system. However Rose Tremain avoids both these traps and Lev develops as a likeable and hardworking man who is quick to pick up new ideas. However at the same time he is emotionally troubled – both by the loss of his wife and because he is missing his daughter. The reader begins to see England through his eyes – the litter, the obese population, the strange celebrity culture. Fortunately for Lev, most of the people he comes across are pretty benign – his landlord Christy, GK Ashe (his boss at the restaurant) and even Sophie who is attracted to him until she finds someone else. The writing is just lovely and we are drawn into his world. All the descriptions of restaurant life were superb - and those wonderful menus at Ferndale Retirement Home (chef’s fantastic fish gratin with zero bones and non-crap crumb). When Lev comes up with his own plan for returning home and opening a restaurant we will him to succeed. A lovely feel good book with some dark undertones. (One slight problem I had is the swiftness with which the hero becomes proficient in English. From not being able to ask a simple question on arrival he very soon is speaking and understanding in some very complex situations. He is even tackling Hamlet!)

Saturday, 22 November 2008

The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh

DATE PUBLISHED: 2000 DATE READ: November 2008 NOTES: This is a very ambitious novel which takes a great sweep across three generations of Burmese and Indian characters. It starts in Mandalay and moves on to India and Malaysia. It is a complex story with a myriad of characters who are all related in some way. The book begins in 1905 with Rajkumar, an Indian boy who ends up in Burma. He is hardworking and entrepreneurial (though selfish and often oblivious to the sufferings of others). He becomes entranced by a young servant of the Burmese royal family who are being sent into exile by the British colonial powers. Many years later he eventually seeks her out in India. The story ends in 1996 with Burma in the grip of the army and Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. There are excellent descriptions of life in Mandalay at the beginning of the last century, of the rubber plantations in Malaya and teak forests in Burma. Amitav Ghosh explores the themes of colonialism, imperialism, loyalty and family ties. He really brings home the chaos of the wartime – when people had no idea what was going, communications were non-existent and yet decisions about which side to be on had still to be taken. An impressive novel and a lovely read.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Anne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery

DATE PUBLISHED: 1908 DATE READ: November 2008 NOTES: This is one of those classics that passed my by when I was young. But as soon as I began to read it I could understand how countless young (and not so young) girls over the decades have come to love Anne of Green Gables. Anne Shirley is an eleven year old orphan who is mistakenly sent to live with Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert after they had requested a boy to help on the farm. Their initial reluctance to keep her soon fades away as they become entranced by the bright but odd little girl. Her imagination continually lets rip and she chatters constantly veering rapidly from one idea to the next. (Today we would say she has verbal diarrhoea!) Her “homely” looks, red hair, freckles and skinny body are a continual worry to her but she nonetheless soon makes lots of friends including her “bosom” friend Diana. The story moves gently through the years as Anne grows up in Avonlea. She is bright and hardworking and eager to please Marilla and Matthew but her imagination and day-dreaming get her into continual scrapes. And lurking in the background is the handsome Gilbert Blythe. He had teased her when she first arrived at school and she refused to have anything else to do with him. But, of course, we know she will relent in the end! It’s a delightful book. I didn’t expect it to be so funny – for example when Anne complains that she is sure the teacher is saying her name without an ‘e’ at the end! And I didn’t expect to be able to say that Anne could be a role model for young girls of today. She is interested in fashion and hairstyles (nothing wrong with that) but she is also ambitious and really keen to work at school and achieve. And in the end she is willing to put the needs of Marilla before her own. It leaves you with a warm glow!

Monday, 10 November 2008

Things can only get better!

So there is going to be a new President of the United States who actually reads real books! Influential writers that he cites include Nietzche, Tillich, Jefferson, Lincoln, Gandhi, Adam Smith, Martin Luther King and James Baldwin and Philip Roth. Other non-fiction writers he has mentioned are Studs Terkel and David Halberstam. Fiction books that he mentioned in a recent article included Moby Dick, For Whom The Bell Tolls, Cancer Ward, Song of Solomon, Gilead (whoops, see my review!), The Golden Notebook, Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle, All The King's Men, The Power and the Glory and the Quiet American. For good measure he also had Shakespeare's tragedies on the list. Am I naive in linking a love and knowledge of literature with the quality of a person's character? Perhaps when we find out that he doesn't walk on water my optimism will come back to haunt me!

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Revelation by C. J. Sansom

DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: November 2008 NOTES: Another Matthew Shardlake novel this time set in 1543. The times are turbulent. Catherine Howard has been executed and Henry VIII is turning away from radical Protestantism but still wants no links with Rome. Different religious factions vie for supremacy and few people can feel completely safe. Although the bible is now translated into English laws are being passed to prevent women and the lower classes from reading it. Into this heady mix comes a serial killer who seems to be selecting his victims among people who have rejected radical Protestantism and killing them in accordance with the atrocities listed in Revelations. Believing there could be a link to Catherine Parr (who Henry is hoping to marry) Archbishop Cranmer enlists Matthew Shardlake to help find the killer without letting the general public (or the king) know what is afoot. This book is the usual great fun read that we have come to expect from the series. The characters from the earlier books (Jack Barak, Guy Malton and Bealnap) continue to be well developed. Matthew is a great central character – thoughtful, wise and kind to others. The religious and political problems of the times are described in a way that doesn’t disrupt the flow of the narrative. Of course, at the end everything is resolved. Catherine Parr marries Henry and seems to have a calming influence on him. Cranmer feels he is once again secure in his situation….but we know what happens to him when Mary comes to the throne.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher

DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: October 2008 NOTES: The Northern Clemency takes an ambitious sweep across the decades from the 1970s focussing mainly on two families in Sheffield. At the beginning of the book the Sellers family is newly arrived from London. Bernie works for the Electricity Board while Alice is very much the housewife. Fifteen year old Sandra is a precocious, ill-mannered teenager while her younger brother Francis is quiet and introspective (based on Hensher?) The Glovers are a pretty dysfunctional bunch. Malcolm works for a building society while Katherine stays at home – until she decides to get a part-time job in a newly opened local florists. Their oldest son Daniel is a handsome, sulky boy who spends his free time seducing girls. Jane is comparatively normal while young Timothy is a sad and troubled boy with an obsession with snakes (and a later obsession with Sandra and Marxism). I was soon sucked into the story and the book became quite hard to put down. The writing is particularly good in the way that the social history of the time – clothes, food, entertainment – is portrayed. He documents council house sales, mobile phones, gastropubs and the changing nature of canapĂ©s. Less effective for me were Hensher’s characters – only Daniel came really alive, the others were much more two dimensional. And radical Timothy was the least believable character in the book. Some characters were introduced but then dropped so we never met them again (like Andrew hospitalised with a broken leg and Nick the florist cum money launderer). The book refers to political events of the seventies and eighties in a somewhat oblique way. This works well at one level considering that these were middle-class families but it is hard to believe anyone in Sheffield at the time could have been so unconcerned with the miners’ strike or the Falklands War. Nonetheless this is a good read – and don’t be put off by the 700+ pages!

Thursday, 16 October 2008

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany

DATE PUBLISHED: 2007 DATE READ: October 2008 NOTES: The Yacoubian Building is set in Cairo at the time of the first Gulf War. The building itself is a somewhat ramshackle apartment block which has seen better days. The diverse inhabitants reveal a microcosm of life in this chaotic city. In the apartments are shady businessmen and a corrupt politician (who has lodged his second wife there), a gay newspaper editor and an aging Lothario who keeps an office for the main purpose of seducing women. On the roof more people live in improvised shacks – the doorkeeper’s family (including the son who becomes radicalised), a beautiful young woman who fights constantly with her employers to keep her virginity and a manipulative and scheming shirtmaker. The narrative moves between all these characters (and more) as they all strive to find success and happiness within the corrupt social and political world in which they find themselves. It is written with great verve and imagination and all his characters come alive for the reader. Although much of the book is dark and depressing it is also sympathetic and humane. However, I imagine the Egyptian Tourist Office would not recommend this book!

Sunday, 12 October 2008

TITLE: THE KINGDOM OF ASHES AUTHOR: Robert Edric DATE PUBLISHED: 2007 DATE READ: October 2008 NOTES: This book has a really interesting theme. It is set in Germany in 1946 when the British, American and Russian victors were rounding up war criminals and putting them on trial. Alex Foster is a British interrogator who finds himself in conflict with the interests of the Americans and the local Germans. Unfortunately from a promising beginning the book fails to deliver. The characters are not well developed, the writing is mediocre and the plot is disappointing. The dialogue comes alive during the interrogations with the German prisoners but is not sustained. Also the role of the British contingent is very unclear. As well as interrogating prisoners (which I suspect would be a full-time occupation) Foster investigates bodies found in a cellar from the bombing, helps a pregnant young German girl, visits a local displaced persons camp etc. All a bit implausible. And although he obviously is fluent in German, quite a few of the local people are fluent in English but with no explanation of how they learnt the language.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

TITLE: THE SUSPICIONS OF MR WHICHER AUTHOR: Kate Summerscale DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: October 2008 NOTES: This is a retelling of the Road House murder of 1860. The Kents – an outwardly conventional and respectable middle class family – are horrified to discover that three year old Saville has disappeared from his cot. He is soon found gruesomely murdered and his body dumped in the outside privy. The local police arrive and begin a somewhat haphazard investigation. They decline to ask any questions of the family in the belief that people of their class would be too genteel to be involved in murder. Later Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher arrives from London. He soon suspects one of the Kent daughters but she is released by the court and Whicher generally castigated by all for his error. Kate Summerscale has succeeded in writing a non-fiction book that reads like a modern detective story. Her research is obviously meticulous and she brings to life all the main characters as well as the social history of the time. Her references to Wilkie Collins, Dickens and Henry James all help to place Whicher at the heart of the developing interest in detective fiction. Even those who already know the story of the Road House murder will find this a page-turner. But at the end we are still left with an enigma. Constance Kent – was she mad, bad or abused? We will probably never know the whole truth.

Monday, 29 September 2008

TITLE: THE BIRTHDAY BOYS AUTHOR: Beryl Bainbridge DATE PUBLISHED: 1991 DATE READ: September 2008 NOTES: This is a fictionalised version of the ill-fated Polar expedition led by Scott. Each chapter is narrated by a different member of the team. Knowing from the outset that these were the ones who died making the final journey to the South Pole made it all the more poignant. It is a beautifully written book which makes all the characters come alive. Some of the errors made by the expedition are (seen in hindsight) unbelievable. Few of the team had any serious experience in either skiing or moving sledges with dog teams. The ponies were unsuitable for the terrain, as were the motor vehicles. Scott eventually chose (against all previous plans) to take five rather than four on the final push to the Pole – this had a damaging effect on their supplies which he failed to take into account. Bainbridge treats all the men with honesty and sensitivity. She exhibits a real understanding of the mindset of the officer class of the Edwardian era – the divisions between officers and men, the feeling that using huge dog teams was “unsporting” and the virtue of stoicism. A lovely book that led me to a greater understanding of a group of men who were heroic while at the same time slightly insane!

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

TITLE: GILEAD AUTHOR: Marilynne Robinson DATE PUBLISHED: 2005 DATE READ: September 2008 NOTES: This book won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and came with reviews from some very notable people. It is written in the form of a letter from 76 year old Reverend John Ames to his young son. I found this structure a bit clumsy and unhelpful. While I agree that the language and tone are beautiful it is not a book that I enjoyed. Much of it is taken up with the narrator’s musings on religious doctrine and the meaning of grace, forgiveness etc. The story unwinds painfully slowly. The setting is the small town of Gilead and although we learn a little about some of the townsfolk no clear picture of the town emerges. On page 272 Ames says “I think I’ll put an end to all this writing” If only he had decided that 200 pages earlier!

Sunday, 21 September 2008

TITLE: POINT TO POINT NAVIGATION AUTHOR: Gore Vidal DATE PUBLISHED: 2006 DATE READ: September 2008 NOTES: As a fan of Gore Vidal’s writing I was keen to read this second part of his autobiography. It is written in an unconventional style and moves back and forward in time with some chapters very short and others quite lengthy. This is a structure I found interesting. As expected he is gossipy, bitchy and pretty scathing about his perceived enemies. This is all great fun. His bits about films and actors were excellent, as were his forays into politics. But in parts he names and discusses strings of (American) writers many of which I had never heard. He continues to keep his private life just that and reveals very little about his partner Howard although he writes very movingly of his death. Vidal’s novel Creation remains one of my favourite books.

Monday, 15 September 2008

TITLE: LANARK –A LIFE IN FOUR BOOKS AUTHOR: Alasdair Gray DATE PUBLISHED: 1981 DATE READ: September 2008 NOTES: I had heard Lanark described as a Glaswegian cult classic but I didn’t quite know what to expect. There are two narrative threads. Books 1 and 2 are written in a fairly conventional and naturalistic style and tell the story of Duncan Thaw as he moves through a pretty unhappy childhood into an equally unhappy adolescence. His burning ambition is to paint and he takes on the mammoth task of a church mural. He receives no payment for this and in the end it is rejected by the church hierarchy. Thereafter he sinks into depression and breakdown. Books 3 and 4 describe the strange dystopic parallel world of Unthank and the adventures of Lanark. This is a surreal place – a mixture of sci-fi, Kafka and horror comics. Here the normal rules of reality have broken down. Although the book could be read as two separate narratives it soon becomes clear that Unthank is an allegorical Glasgow and Lanark is another version of Thaw. There are other parallels – for instance the eczema that Thaw suffers from and the dragon skins of the inhabitants of Unthank.
The story of Duncan Thaw was excellent – touching without being sentimental, a beautiful evocation of childhood and adolescence. Not being a fan of science fiction I was less enthralled by the Unthank sections - although I appreciated the vigorous language and the massive flow of ideas. You can play at “Spot the Influences” – Kafka, Joyce, Orwell etc. In fact Gray, in one of many comic touches, includes a list of “embedded Plagiarisms” which stretches over fifteen pages! Lanark is very much a political book – in the Institute of Unthank the patients are used as food for the staff (an allegory for capitalism in action?). The plot also involves pollution, environmental degradation and over-population. It is not easy to sum up Lanark in a few words. It is ambitious, quirky, funny and challenging. Quite an achievement!

Sunday, 7 September 2008

TITLE: THE PAINTED VEIL AUTHOR: W. Somerset Maugham DATE PUBLISHED: 1925 DATE READ: September 2008 NOTES: A delightful well constructed story of an unhappy marriage. Kitty Fane is shallow and vain while her husband is stiff and socially inept. They travel out to Hong Kong where Walter works as a bacteriologist. Here Kitty meets and is besotted with Charles Townsend. When Walter hears of her affair he gives her several alternatives and in the end she feels her only choice is to travel with him to the interior of China to work in a cholera-ravaged community. Kitty’s honesty about her own feelings and weaknesses endear her to the reader – but we are equally drawn to sad cuckolded Walter. At Mei-tan-fu Kitty begins to work in the Catholic convent and gradually comes to recognise good qualities in her husband while finding spiritual solace through hard work. Maugham introduces some great characters – Waddington the Customs Officer living with a Manchu woman and the wise Mother Superior. Some of Kitty’s shortcomings can be explained by her loveless family background. We do not get an insight into how Walter became the man he is. The Painted Veil is a good old-fashioned story beautifully told.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

TITLE: THE NAMING OF THE DEAD AUTHOR: Ian Rankin DATE PUBLISHED: 2006 DATE READ: September 2008 NOTES: This Rebus story is set in the week covering the G8 meeting at Gleneagles. Rebus and Siobhan realise that a recently murdered rapist may be only one victim of a serial killer. Meanwhile at Edinburgh Castle a SMP falls to his death. Suicide, accident or murder? Rebus is thwarted in trying to find the truth by Special when he begins to see links with the SMP and an arms dealer. A convoluted plot involving revenge, political intrigue and murder but Rankin keeps the whole thing going with great pace and verve. The background atmosphere of the G8 conference is brilliantly portrayed – the marches, the riots, the concerts, the anarchists, the egotistical pop stars and the well-guarded politicos. The London bombings were particularly well integrated and meshed into the story in a believable way. Siobhan is given plenty to do – even leading her to make a few misjudged acts. Rebus is his usual cynical self and there is plenty of sparky dialogue. All the loose ends are more or less tied up at the end making this a satisfying read.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

TITLE: THE TURN OF THE SCREW AUTHOR: Henry James DATE PUBLISHED: 1898 DATE READ: August 2008 NOTES: Ostensibly a ghost story set in late Victorian England but The Turn of the Screw a strange little book that leaves the reader with more questions than answers. A governess is put in charge of two young children who seem to be “good” but perhaps are not nearly as innocent as they seem. She begins to see visions that she is convinced are filled with evil and wanting to capture the children. But it is debatable as to whether she really sees the ghosts or whether she is hysterical. There is also a strange sub-Freudian relationship between the governess and the boy, Miles. Being a reading group choice, this is not the sort of book I would normally choose to read. I can’t say I enjoyed it particularly – I especially didn’t like James’ long sentences! However I can understand how this work has given rise to so much discussion and criticism and to subsequent works such as film and opera.

Monday, 25 August 2008

TITLE: LOLITA AUTHOR: Vladimir Nabokov DATE PUBLISHED: 1959 DATE READ: August 2008 NOTES: For as long as I can remember I have resisted reading Lolita. But because it is so often referred to as a “classic” I felt in the end I should put aside my prejudices and tackle it. In many ways it is as I expected it to be. It is not a comfortable read and the unreliable narrator continually beguiles and tricks us. Humbert claims to love Lolita deeply but at the same time reveals the damage he is doing to her. The narrative is made even more intriguing by its attitude to Lolita – neither “innocent” nor “pure”. Nabokov’s language is superb – he revels in word play and the book is filled with literary allusions. The road trip across America is brilliantly seen through an outsider’s critical eye. I can see how Lolita has enthralled and irritated so many readers. It is in turns sad, subversive, funny and creepy.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

TITLE: THE GOOD PLAIN COOK AUTHOR: Bethan Roberts DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: August 2008 NOTES: Set in a (large) country cottage in 1936 the story tells of 19 year old Kitty joining the somewhat Bohemian household of Ellen Steinberg and her live-in lover George Crane. Each has a daughter who act like sisters and further enliven the house. Kitty is both fascinated and in awe of her employers. The story progresses slowly – this is not necessarily a criticism as life in a country house in the 1930s probably moved at a very sedate pace. The themes of country house living and master-staff relationships are somewhat well worn and this book does not add a lot. I found myself waiting (and hoping) for something cataclysmic and life-changing to erupt at any moment – but it never does. On the positive side Kitty, Ellen and the girls were all well drawn. George Crane much less so. His interest in communism was very vague (but perhaps the writer did this deliberately to reveal his shallowness?) Although the era was evoked through clothes, food and music there was very little reference to what was happening in the wider world. A communist may well have had something to say about Hitler being in power, the Spanish Civil War or the Blackshirts marching in London. Nonetheless this is a pleasant summer read.

Monday, 18 August 2008

TITLE: RANDOM ACTS OF HEROIC LOVE AUTHOR: Danny Scheinmann DATE PUBLISHED: 2007 DATE READ: August 2008 NOTES: The best thing about this book is probably its intriguing title (though I don’t actually know what “heroic love” is!) All in all a bit of a mixed bag. The book has two strands – one starting in 1992 and one in 1917. The modern strand tells of Leo and his girlfriend Eleni who dies in a bus accident in Ecuador. Her death devastates him and he is left grieving and filled with guilt. I found it hard to relate to Leo and all his weeping and wailing…. (all very irritating) He subsequently finds inspiration from a wacky physics lecturer, Robert. However rather than finding Robert inspirational, I think he is the sort of person you would cross the road to avoid. The earlier section told the story of Moritz conscripted to fight against the Russians in WW1. He is captured and sent to a Siberian prison camp from where he escapes and makes his way back home buoyed up all the way by the hope of meeting up again with the girl he left behind. Because so little has been written in English about this aspect of the war I found it quite interesting – but the writing fails to rival other WW1 works. One problem (for me) was the fact that there was so little differentiation between the two narrative voices. The two narratives eventually merge – as you know all along they will. All a bit sentimental and touchy feely! MEMO: Don’t read any more books with a Richard and Judy sticker on them!

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

TITLE: CHICAGO AUTHOR: Alaa Al Aswany DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: August 2008 NOTES: Chicago takes us into the world of the University of Illinois Medical Centre where we meet a range of staff, students and their partners. Many of the students are Egyptians as are two of the professors. The characters quickly come to life: Rafat Thabit claims he has shaken off his Arab past and is now a fully fledged flag-waving US citizen. Muhammad Salah is a generous, kindly man who has never got over leaving his first love behind in Egypt. John Graham is a professor with a left-wing political past who still claims to hold liberal credentials. Shaymaa tries to be a good student and a devout Muslim but wants a loving relationship. Tariq is handsome and hard-working but very egocentric. Ahmed Danana is greedy, corrupt and manipulative. Into this mix comes a new student Nagi who is idealistic and strongly opposes the Egyptian regime. The characters collide and interact and the narrative moves towards a climax of a visit by the Egyptian president. This is supported by some people, opposed by others. But nothing in Chicago is quite what it seems. There are no heroes – all the main characters are flawed. The two “baddies” Danana and security officer Safwat Shakir are unremittingly corrupt, cruel and unpleasant – almost like cartoon characters. Unfortunately, they were both all too believable! And throughout the book is the pervading presence of modern Egypt which none of the characters is able to escape from. Although there is much affection for the country Al Aswany doesn’t flinch from describing the torture, the corruption and the stultifying religious attitudes. A great read. You know you are in the hands of a natural storyteller.
TITLE: BELOVED AUTHOR: Toni Morrison DATE PUBLISHED: 1987 DATE READ: August 2008 NOTES: Beloved recounts the slave experience in the late 19th century in the southern states of America. It is a complex, multi-layered work with the time switching backwards and forwards as the details of the tale are gradually revealed to us. A challenging work that leaves the reader pondering over many aspects. Among the themes explored are memory and forgetting, sexual and physical abuse, child murder, the deliberate destruction of the slave families leaving parents fearful of becoming attached to their children in case they are snatched away from them. Morrison (cleverly) depicts the main slave owners in the narrative, the Garners, as well-meaning people. But the writing makes clear that there can be no such thing as a “good” slave owner. Morrison makes us work hard….. but it is a rewarding, magical read that will stay with you long after.

Sunday, 3 August 2008



TITLE: A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS

AUTHOR: Khaled Hosseini

DATE PUBLISHED: 2007

DATE READ: July 2008

NOTES: This is the story of two Afghan women from 1970s to the present day. Hosseini is a masterful story-teller and we are quickly drawn into the lives of Mariam and Laila as they try to survive during times of great political and social upheaval, war, hunger and disease. As co-wives they gradually draw closer together and gain comfort and security from each other’s company and, in time, courage to stand up to a brutal husband. We come to know the characters of Mariam and Laila but most other characters (such as Tariq and Rasheed) remain somewhat one-dimensional. I also felt that it was odd that the two women appeared to have no social interaction of any sort with other women in the neighbourhood. It’s a very fast, easy read and I did want to know how everything was resolved at the end. However after finishing the book it all felt a bit unsatisfactory and I didn’t feel I had learned anything new about the lives of the Afghan people.

I would certainly recommend A Thousand Splendid Suns to anyone who only knew a little about the situation in Afghanistan and who wanted an untaxing read.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

TITLE: FULL TILT – FROM DUBLIN TO DELHI WITH A BICYCLE

AUTHOR: Dervla Murphy

DATE PUBLISHED: 1965

DATE READ: July 2008

NOTES: I read this when it was first published and her bravado and guts filled me with admiration. The lands she travelled in seemed so exotic and far away – although they soon became part of the Hippy Trail of the late 60s and 70s.

On re-reading it my admiration for her courage is undimished – but I was soon struck my just how much the world has changed. Some of the countries she travelled through (albeit with some difficulties) have since become impossible for any independent traveller. The cold war conflict between the USSR and USA were being played out in Afhanistan but who could have guessed the tragedy that lay ahead for the Afghans? I had forgotten the episode visiting the Buddhas at Bamian – a sight no-one will ever see again as these were destroyed by the Taliban a few years ago. She writes of both Afghanistan and Pakistan with great affection but is much less kind to Iran and India…..

She is well able to cope with the simplicity on offer. Her description of a Grade A hotel in Herat was wonderful: “It has an Eastern lavatory but with flush attached (when I pulled the string the whole apparatus collapsed and I was drenched in rusty water!) and there is also a holder for lavatory paper on the wall which makes one feel that if one stayed here long enough it might have paper too some day.”

I do have problems with writers who make sweeping negative statements about a whole people. About the Kashmiris she said “The people are in general the most moronic I’ve met since Persia…” Also “The standard of intelligence of the average village school-teacher is incredibly low” – this was stated after 26 days in Pakistan!

And I wonder if she would still agree with her statement re literacy: “We have yet to prove that universal literacy as we know it advances the mass of the people in any worth-while direction”

As a traveller she obviously relates well to the people she meets along the way. However she is not clear about the number of invitations and introductions she arranged before she set out. How many travellers end up dining with the President of Pakistan?

Loved the list of kit at the end – today surely this would be fleeces and Gore-Tex!



Tuesday, 29 July 2008


TITLE: THROUGH SIBERIA BY ACCIDENT

AUTHOR: Dervla Murphy

DATE PUBLISHED: 2005

DATE READ: July 2008

NOTES: Having some very fond memories of her first book, Full Tilt, I decided to read one of Dervla Murphy’s more recent books. This journey takes her into Siberia and although she travels with a bicycle she covers great distances by train.

She obviously brings out the best in the people she meets as she is continually being assisted by folk along the way. Despite a series of accidents and mishaps she carries on regardless – her positivity is to be applauded. She meets many interesting people as she travels and describes well the towns and villages in post-Communist Siberia and the constant conflict of the stable but repressive past and the instable and corrupt and uncertain present.

The bits I liked best were her description of the Lake Baikal and of the BAM railway (and the towns and people that were associated with it)

The history of the region, the church and the people, are continually brought up. I found myself skimming much of this as it did not really fit in well with what should have been a travel narrative. It felt very much like “padding” – as if she had looked it all up on the web when she had returned home!

Very often when I read a travel book I have an urge to visit the place written about – but not in this case!

Thursday, 24 July 2008

TITLE: GHOSTS OF SPAIN – TRAVELS THROUGH A COUNTRY’S HIDDEN PAST

AUTHOR: Giles Tremlett

DATE PUBLISHED: 2006

DATE READ: July 2008

NOTES: An in-depth and thoroughly researched examination of this intriguing country. This is an extremely readable account of the history, the people, the languages and the culture that have gone into the making of the Spain of today. Although from the title this looks like a travel book it is far more than that. Giles Tremlett devotes a large part of the book (and rightly so) to the Civil War and its aftermath and how the Spanish have adopted a “pact of forgetting”. But other chapters are equally interesting and informative (such as ETA and Basque separatism, the Catalan language, Galician culture) The chapter on Islamist terrorism and Aznar’s response reads like a thriller……

This is an affectionate look at Spain but he doesn’t pull any punches or save us from the seamier side of political corruption or the rise of a criminal gangs.

Highly recommended.

Friday, 11 July 2008


TITLE: ARCHANGEL

AUTHOR: Robert Harris

DATE PUBLISHED: 1998

DATE READ: July 2008

NOTES: Another thriller from Robert Harris. It gives a very bleak (but not inaccurate) picture of post-Cold War Russia. Fluke Kelso, an historian, is invited to participate in a symposium in Moscow on Stalin (his speciality). An old Russian, Rapava, visits his hotel room and leads him to believe that Stalin left a notebook which could be of real interest to anyone interested in the history of the period and its legacy. Rapava disappears but soon Kelso is on the trail of the notebook aided by Rapava’s estranged daughter and a young American news reporter. The notebook turns out to be not written by Stalin but by a young maid who became pregnant.

The trail takes them to Archangel on the Arctic Coast where they seek out the mysterious offspring of the maid. But the secret police are on Kelso’s trail……

The atmosphere in this book is terrific and the action is fast and (on the whole) believable. The bleakness of Archangel is really well drawn. Unfortunately the plot became a little too fanciful for my taste. But the descriptions of Stalin’s putative son returning to Moscow by train were brilliant and his story telling is great. And there was a good ambivalent ending……

TITLE: I’M NOT SCARED

AUTHOR: Niccolo Ammaniti

DATE PUBLISHED: 2003

DATE READ: July 2008

NOTES: Lovely story of a childhood in southern Italy. A poor boy, Michele, living in a tiny hamlet finds a boy chained in a hole in the ground. He copes with the discovery by telling himself fairy stories. There is a gradual loss of innocence as he realises his own parents and other villagers are implicated in the kidnapping of this little boy.

The summer heat, the golden wheatfields and the poverty are all brilliantly described. This is a short book, beautifully crafted with not a superfluous word.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008


TITLE: INGRID – A PERSONAL BIOGRAPHY

AUTHOR: Charlotte Chandler

DATE PUBLISHED: 2007

DATE READ: June 2008

NOTES: This is not a book I would have chosen to read (a reading group choice). If I choose a biography I prefer it to be of an important historical character (eg Pepys or George Eliot) and prefer not to know the minutiae of the lives of film stars or celebrities. Of course, she led an interesting life but I am not sure that this had any bearing on how she acted in films and on the stage.

This biography is written in an uncritical rather dull way and is hardly a page turner. Do we really need to know the story of her early Swedish and German films? And would a woman as intelligent as Bergmann have no comment to make about working in Germany in the film industry when it was being run by Goebbels?

I would have liked a little more explanation or theory as to why she allowed herself to be dominated by Rossellini who refused to allow her to work with any other directors or to go to America…..

Friday, 27 June 2008



TITLE: REVOLUTIONARY ROAD

AUTHOR: Richard Yates

DATE PUBLISHED: 1961

DATE READ: June 2008

NOTES: How come I only just heard about this fantastic book? Set in 1950s suburban Connecticut, it tells the story of the less than idyllic relationship of Frank and April Wheeler. Although an onlooker may see them as an ideal couple in an ideal situation they both have layers and layers of dissatisfaction which come to the surface as their marriage crumbles.

The book was written in 1961 and seems to encapsulate all that we have come to associate with that time. April appears willing to give up any pretence of a career to look after house and children while Frank goes each day to his “boring” office job (but he manages to find time for an affair with a secretary). Everyone drinks and smokes to excess – even in pregnancy. Frank’s boss declares electronic computers to be the coming thing…..

Although both Frank and his neighbour Shep sometimes reflect on their time in the army during the war very little of the wider outside world creeps into the empty surburban world of Frank and April and their small circle of acquaintances. April comes up with a plan to move the family to France believing this will give Frank a fresh impetus to “find himself” but from the start you wonder if this will never happen.

Revolutionary Road is powerfully written and draws you into the lives of the Wheelers and their neighbours the Campbells and the Givings. It has some darkly comic moments and many flashes of brilliance. Yes, an American classic.

Did the creators of Mad Men (US TV series) get some of their inspiration from this book?
-constant drinking and smoking
-office liaisons
-coercing unhappy wife into seeing a psychiatrist
-coping with unwanted pregnancy

Saturday, 21 June 2008



TITLE: THE GHOST

AUTHOR: Robert Harris

DATE PUBLISHED: 2007

DATE READ: June 2008

NOTES: A nameless ghost writer is brought in to finish the memoirs of ex- prime minister Adam Lang. His previous collaborator has been found dead (either an accident or suicide) but the terms the ghost writer is offered for the work are just too good to turn down. Needless to say things fail to go smoothly and our narrator is soon engulfed in a search for the truth about Lang’s past. There are obvious parallels with New Labour and the War on Terror and these are all fun to spot and they don’t get in the way of a cracking story. The story is told at a fast pace and is a genuine page turner.

The tone of the book is much more “chirpy” and modern than his previous (historical) novels and this suits the plot. He makes some insightful comments about today’s society and our links with the United States.

All great fun but with some serious undertones.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008


TITLE: THE BETHLEHEM MURDERS

AUTHOR: Matt Rees

DATE PUBLISHED: 2006

DATE READ: June 2008

NOTES: A very graphic crime story set in the West Bank with brilliant descriptions of the everyday lives of the people living there. The hero is set in the mould of many other modern detectives and is portrayed as flawed and only a reluctant hero. The story moves fast and most of the characters are well drawn and believable. However there is (to me) one serious flaw. The bad guys are just too implausibly wicked with no redeeming features whatsoever. And in the final confrontation the murderer simply admits his crimes and how he did them. Surely this never happens in real life – only in crime fiction!

Sunday, 15 June 2008



TITLE: I, ROBOT

AUTHOR: Isaac Asimov

DATE PUBLISHED: 1968

DATE READ: June 2008

NOTES: Read this rather reluctantly as it was a Reading Group choice and not a book I would normally have attempted. It is a collection of short stories first published in US magazines in the 1940s about the development of robotics in the world in the middle of the 21st century. They are in chronological order and have several characters occurring throughout – in particular Susan Galvin, a robopsychologist who recalls all the stories. She emerges as a strong and well drawn character. Most of the others are a bit one dimensional and the dialogue has not lasted well.
However some of the stories are quite riveting and I can well understand their appeal. Asimov explores ideas about the roles of robots in relation to humans. If robots are programmed not the make mistakes and always to put the interests of humans first then should we allow them to make all our decisions for us? Is this better than allowing humans to fail?
Asimov developed the Three Laws of Robotics and cleverly refers to them in all the stories.
-A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
-A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
-A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Monday, 9 June 2008



TITLE: ON CHESIL BEACH

AUTHOR: Ian McEwan

DATE PUBLISHED:

DATE READ: June 2008

NOTES: This novella is a beautifully constructed piece of writing. You are quickly drawn into the world of Florence and Edward as they approach their wedding night with trepidation. They obviously love each other but do not have the language to explain their fears and phobias. Florence is revolted by the whole idea of sex but tells herself she is prepared to go through with it because she loves Edward and it is what is expected of her. Neither of them realises that their love could have held their marriage together……

Although only 160 pages the book contains an amazing amount of detail about the backgrounds and histories of both Edward and Florence as well as a projection into the future following that fateful night.

I did have some problems with the general attitude to sex. Even though the “Swinging Sixties” were still waiting to happen, Florence’s pre-marital behaviour would have been considered somewhat extreme. (Compare with Frederica’s easy sexual alliances in A S Byatt’s Still Life)

However it is a delightful read which had me turning the pages rapidly as I was desperate to know how it would all turn out…….

Friday, 6 June 2008



TITLE: PEACE NOT APARTHEID

AUTHOR: Jimmy Carter

DATE PUBLISHED: 2006

DATE READ: June 2008

NOTES: An honest and decent book from an honest and decent man. Peace Not Apartheid charts the conflict from the establishment of the state of Israel up to the present time. The writing is plain and simple and the book is all the better for this. As Carter describes his own involvement in the peace process and his first hand observations of life in Israel and Palestine you can sense his growing frustration and resentment with Israel, the United States and (to a lesser extent) the PLO.

He describes the chain of events of violence, retaliations and petty officialdom – such as the deliberately obstructive attitude of Israeli officials towards Arabs trying to vote, the carving up of Arab land, the erection of the “security” wall which separates families etc.
The book is not written as a polemic – but it is hard to read without becoming angry!

It finishes with the words: “It will be a tragedy – for the Israelis, the Palestinians, and the world – if peace is rejected and a system of oppression, apartheid, and sustained violence is permitted to prevail.”

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

TITLE: STILL LIFE

AUTHOR: A S Byatt

DATE PUBLISHED: 1985

DATE READ: May 2008

NOTES: The second in Byatt’s Frederica Quartet continues the story of the clever but irritating Frederica (though she has become much more sympathetic in this book). It is mostly set in the late 1950s with Frederica at Cambridge where she is working hard and has great ambition while at the same time sleeping with a range of men. She still loves Alexander but as he slips from the scene she transfers her affection to Raphael – a somewhat acetic don.
Stephanie has opted for a life of domesticity as Daniel’s wife and in the course of the book gives birth to two children while at the same time the household includes Daniel’s horrific mother and the still troubled Marcus. She still longs for time to read her beloved Wordsworth but this more often than not proves impossible. The hospital birth scenes are brilliant and really evoke the mores of the time.
Towards the end of the book the focus seems to switch north to Yorkshire again. A new university opens to which Marcus and his friend Jacqueline go as students and some of the tutors from Cambridge move.
Like The Virgin in the Garden this is a tough read, infused as it is with ideas on painting, the nature of language and philosophical ideas. But the story and characters are gripping and there are some really shocking episodes at the end – I look forward the next two in the series.
Although there were some definite endings in Still Life there were plenty of intriguing threads still to be followed up. Will Frederica marry Nigel? How will Daniel cope with his grief? Will Gideon’s transgressions ever be made public? Will Thomas and Elinor’s marriage survive? Will Bill’s anger ever subside?

Saturday, 24 May 2008



TITLE: FATHERLAND

AUTHOR: Robert Harris

DATE PUBLISHED: 1992

DATE READ: May 2008

NOTES: Fatherland is set in Germany in the 1960s – but this is a Germany that won the war and changed the face of Europe. Xavier March is a policeman – honest but increasingly cynical about the regime – who begins to investigate the deaths of some high ranking officials. He meets up with a young American woman and together they try to unravel the trail of corruption and lies. But soon he is being sought by the Gestapo and he soon realises that the lives of both Charlotte and himself are in serious danger.

This is an extremely well written thriller that is made all the more interesting by its imaginary setting. Much of the detail rings true – the architecture, the culture, relations with the rest of Europe and with the United States. One minor problem I had was the way in which the horrors of the regime begin to be made clear – although they may have been relevations to March they were not new to the reader.

There are also some references to how much people actually knew about the atrocities committed by the Nazis. There is a subtle difference between not knowing something and choosing not to know. Harris could have explored this more deeply.

Nonetheless a great read and a thought provoking book.

Sunday, 18 May 2008



TITLE: THE IDIOT

AUTHOR: Fyodor Dostoyevsky

DATE PUBLISHED: 1869

DATE READ: May 2008

NOTES: Having read and loved Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov I started this book very enthusiastically. Prince Myshkin is portrayed as an innocent, child-like Christ figure – the epitome of all that is good. Rogozhin is the antithesis and is described as dark and his actions are the opposite of the prince’s. The central premise seems to be whether an innocent and good person can survive in a cruel and evil society.

While there were flashes of brilliance and some very exciting “set pieces” (eg when Nastasya throws the parcel of money on the fire) I was somewhat disappointed on the whole. It was really much too long and rambling and (dare I say) rather tedious. Some of the characters were interesting – Myshkin, General Ivolgin, Nastasya – but not enough to redeem the book overall. There were simply too many people who seemed to have no real work to do who had lots of time to sit around gossiping. No wonder they had a revolution!

Thursday, 17 April 2008


TITLE: TREE SURGERY FOR BEGINNERS

AUTHOR: Patrick Gale

DATE PUBLISHED: 1998

DATE READ: April 2008

NOTES: The story moves at a fast pace and is a very easy read. Lawrence’s wife leaves him, taking their young child, Lucy, following a violent quarrel. He is suspected of her murder and much is made of the case in the newspapers. But he is exonerated when she appears a few weeks later having been with an American she has befriended. After an intriguing beginning the book went downhill for me after that with too many wild coincidences and strange secrets. For instance he meets an American woman when he is working at a holiday complex in California and they are drawn to each other in a platonic way – surprise, surprise, it turns out that when Lawrence’s mother gave birth to him (illegitimately) he was a twin and the girl was given up for adoption.

And his father-in-law turned out to be a murderer….

All a bit of a disappointment after the previous two books I read by Patrick Gale.

Sunday, 13 April 2008



TITLE: HOWARDS END

AUTHOR: E M Forster

DATE PUBLISHED: 1910

DATE READ: April 2008
NOTES: A stunning read brimful with ideas and wonderful characters. Forster is very perceptive about class issues of the day and the place of money in society. Margaret says “few of us ……admit that independent thoughts are in nine cases out of ten the result of independent means”. The three families in the book represent different strata of society in Edwardian England. The Schlegels are intellectual, altruistic and middle-class, and interested in the arts and politics. The Wilcoxes are rich and money and property all important to their well-being. The Basts are working class and struggle financially and emotionally.
At the heart of the book is Howards End – the house that Mrs Wilcox inherited and wishes to bequeath to Margaret Schlegel. It plays an important symbolic role in the story – contrasting the idea of “home” and “house” (or prose and poetry).
Forster makes some interesting social comments that are still relevant a century later – the polluting role of the motor car in society, urban sprawl and the place of women.
A wonderful book that remains a classic.

Sunday, 6 April 2008



TITLE: THE HISTORIAN

AUTHOR: Elizabeth Kostova

DATE PUBLISHED: 2005

DATE READ: April 2008

NOTES: A re-working of the Dracula myth in a 20th century setting. Told through three narrators: Professor Rossi, Paul, his student and an unnamed sixteen year old girl who is Paul’s daughter. It is very intriguing at the beginning of the book but I soon got bogged down with all the detail that was included in this huge book. The author obviously did lots of research but was unable to discard any of it as being superfluous. We were also given lots in information that we really didn’t need to know – such as a description of every interior and of every meal eaten. This all slowed down the narrative and made the book very unwieldy.

The three narrators were not differentiated – all had a similar “voice”. But we do lots of travelling in the course of the 700 pages: USA, Oxford, Istanbul, Bulgaria, Hungary, France….. For gothic novel it lacked any real feelings of horror or evil. She attempted to link the powers of Dracula with Stalin and other East European leaders but this was all a bit feeble. Found I was turning the pages because I wanted to get to the end, not because I was desperate to find out what happened.

Saturday, 29 March 2008


TITLE: A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY

AUTHOR: J L Carr

DATE PUBLISHED: 1980

DATE READ: March 2008 (re-reading)

NOTES: Tom Birkin arrives in the Yorkshire village of Oxgodby to work on restoring a mural in the church. He meets and befriends Charles Moon who is doing archaeological work nearby. Both are damaged as a result of the war and quickly find solace in each other’s company. As Birkin uncovers the wall painting of The Judgement he is intrigued by the figures being consigned to hell – and one in particular. Moon meanwhile is finding the remains of a Saxon village while ostensibly looking for the grave of an ancestor of the local landowner.

At one level not very much happens – no sex, no violence, no cataclysmic revelations. But at another level this little book (only 100 odd pages) overflows with small incidents, ideas and some fantastic characters. Who could fail to admire the feisty Kathy Ellerbeck? Or fail to despair at the sad, cold Reverend Keach?

A lovely book about the healing power of friendship, love and the English countryside.


Friday, 28 March 2008


TITLE: THE WELSH GIRL

AUTHOR: Peter Ho Davies

DATE PUBLISHED: 2007

DATE READ: March 2008

NOTES: The story is set in the final month of WW2. There are three main threads to the story. Rotheram, a German refugee, assists British Intelligence by interviewing POWs, a young patriotic German soldier, Karsten, who surrenders in Northern France and Esther, the teenage daughter of a shepherd. All the threads come together in a small North Wales community.

At its heart is Esther, whose mother has died. She has few females to identify with or to be friends with and finds herself confused by the males that she comes into contact with. Rhys, a school friend, is attracted to her but she has rejected him and as a result he joined the army. She is attracted to Colin, a soldier based locally, but he only has a short term relationship in mind. She is intrigued by Karsten and becomes attracted to him.

The book is well researched and beautifully written and the story flows well. Many themes are explored – patriotism, nationalism, racism, identity – but none are laboured. Another recurring theme is the sense of belonging - “cynefin” – passed down through the maternal line of sheep.

The introduction of Rudolf Hess as a character worked well. He is portrayed as clever, cunning and manipulative.

As well as being very atmospheric The Welsh Girl is a riveting page-turning story.


Sunday, 23 March 2008


TITLE: QUARANTINE

AUTHOR: Jim Crace

DATE PUBLISHED: 1997

DATE READ: March 2008

NOTES: Four people enter the wilderness in Judea to take part in time of fasting and prayer – Aphas, an old Jew with a cancerous growth, Marta, an infertile woman, Shim, a Greek seeking enlightenment and a primitive wild man from a far-off tribe. Hardly noticed by them is a young Galilean – Jesus.

Already nearby are the despicable merchant Musa and his gentle wife Miri. Musa has been left to die from the fever by the rest of his family and Miri is secretly glad that she will be rid of such a cruel husband. But Musa has a half waking dream that the Galilean enters his tent and touches him and when he awakes he realises that he will not die and is well enough to get up. Jesus has nothing more to do with the others but his presence is felt by all of them.

Crace evokes an amazing picture of this disparate group of people surviving in the desert two thousand years ago. He doesn’t attempt to offer us any rational explanations as to how Jesus survived (or not) in the desert. But through the other character we are able to see how the cult of Jesus was able to arise through story-telling.

Musa was such a brute that he deserved a long and suffering end (whoops, a very un-Christian thought!) Although this doesn’t happen the ending us positive and uplifting.

A beautifully crafted book.

Saturday, 22 March 2008



TITLE: JACK MAGGS

AUTHOR: Peter Carey

DATE PUBLISHED: 1997

DATE READ: February 2008

NOTES: The story is set in 19th century London. Jack Maggs is told with great verve and has echoes throughout of Dickensian writing. There are obviously some deliberate parallels – Jack Maggs = Magwitch Tobias Oates = Dickens Henry Phipps = Philip Pirrip and Silas = Fagin.

Tobias the writer comes over as egocentric and self-serving – in no way a heroic figure. This is a refreshing change as writers in novels are so often portrayed as noble and sensitive beings.

Jack is desperate to find his “son” who helped him when he was a prisoner in chains. The “son” Phipps fears being found as he thinks he will lose his house (owned by Maggs) and wants nothing to do with his benefactor.

As a felon Maggs should not be in England but it is not in the interests of the main characters to have him arrested as they could be accused of harbouring him. Phipps would lose the house if Maggs is arrested – but not if he is dead…… It all moves at a cracking pace with superb descriptions of London at the time. I would have liked more of the relationship (i.e. a conversation) between Maggs and Phipps – a minor quibble.

Friday, 14 March 2008


TITLE: A GOLDEN AGE

AUTHOR: Tahmima Anam

DATE PUBLISHED: 2007

DATE READ: March 2008

NOTES: A Golden Age is a beautifully written book. The writing is simple and straightforward and creates a vivid picture of life in Bangladesh. It is the story of Rehana, a widow, and how she seeks to protect her children during the Bangladeshi War of Independence in 1971. Her student children want to become active in the war and Rehana reluctantly adds her support. But soon she is pulled more and more into supporting her adopted land of Bangladesh. The war is brutal and is graphically described and the narrative is gripping. The relationships between Rehana and her children, the Major and her neighbours are all very well drawn and perceptive.

Rehana is forced to make some hard choices – but having once lost her children in a custody battle she is determined to do anything within her capability to keep her son and daughter safe.

In the west the Pakistan-Bangladesh conflict is hardly remembered so this novel is a timely reminder of the recent history of the region. A brilliant debut – I do hope she has some more books in the pipeline!

Wednesday, 5 March 2008



TITLE: THE BULLET TRICK

AUTHOR: Louise Welsh

DATE PUBLISHED: 2006

DATE READ: February 2008 (audiobook)

NOTES: Crime story of conjuror (with a drink problem) William who gets offered work in Berlin at “exotic” club. Before going he is given a package to look after by an “associate” who claims someone is blackmailing him over the contents. This turns out to be an ex-Met Police Officer. Bill and his male partner are murdered and William decides to find out what is going on. He meets up with mysterious woman Sylvie in Berlin who becomes his stage assistant. But Montgomery follows him to Berlin to get back what he claims is his.

Quite a complex plot for such a short book. But some really smart dialogue and good characterisations. Funny, erotic and dark.