Friday, 12 August 2011

The Redeemer by Jo Nesbo


DATE READ: August 2011

NOTES: The Redeemer is a tautly plotted crime thriller. The wintery atmosphere of Oslo is brought to life as Harry Hole investigates the murder of a member of the Salvation Army. Much of the book follows the modern formula of a policeman with a troubled private life, drinking problem and antagonism to his superiors. However the writing is good, the characters well drawn and fairly credible and the action moves at a cracking pace.

The plot is fairly complex, involving a hitman (the Redeemer) from Croatia coming to Norway to carry out a contract killing. But who sent for him? Nesbo keeps us guessing right to the end. There are biblical references to the Redeemer and how he rises again on the third day – but this is not overdone. It may have been better with fewer characters but there were lots of twists and turns and it was a compulsive read.

Translators are rarely acknowledged – but Don Bartlett deserves congratulations for a very stylish translation.

The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam


DATE READ: July 2011

NOTES: This is the follow-up book to Tahmima Anam’s excellent A Golden Age. It follow the story of Maya and Sohail and their mother Rehana and what happened to them after the end of the Bengali War of Independence.

She uses the narrative device of two different time lines: the first in the immediate aftermath of the war in 1972 and the second in 1984. She shows how all have been affected by the war in different ways. Maya is cynical about the way things have turned out and is shocked and confused by her brother Sohail and his devout adherence to Islam. But even though she counts herself as an unbeliever she finds herself drawn into the spiritual atmosphere of the female followers of Sohail.

Feelings of despair about the new state of Bangladesh run through the book but fortunately there is a redemptive ending. The one false note in the plotting was Sohail’s attitude to his young son Zaid whom he treats with disdain and neglect.

The Good Muslim is beautifully written – and tells a good story.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Our Kind of Traitor by John Le Carre


DATE READ: July 2011

NOTES: After the somewhat disappointing A Most Wanted Man John Le Carré is once more back on form with his latest book. An English couple on holiday in the Caribbean meet a rich Russian, Dima, and his family. They are both curious about him – their relationship with him is a mixture of fascination and revulsion. Dima seems to be at odds with the Russian criminal fraternity and wants to make a deal with the British to enable him to live in London and bring his large laundered fortune to British banks.

Needless to say the plan does not go smoothly. Perry and Gail have different motives and the Intelligence Services are murky and untrustworthy. Our Kind of Traitor is written with great verve and style as we are propelled through political and financial machinations. Le Carré casts his cynical eye over the current British establishment. Links between grasping politicians, amoral bankers and the criminal fraternity? Surely not! The dialogue is terrific – especially that of the intelligence agents Hector and Luke. A film script already written….

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Prophecy by S J Parris


DATE READ: July 2011

NOTES: This is a follow-up to Heresy. Once again Italian ex-monk GiordanoBruno becomes involved in unravelling a mystery. This time two of Queen Elizabeth’s maids are found murdered and there seems to be a plot to kill the queen and install Mary Stuart on the throne.

Prophecy is quite a lively read. The atmosphere of late 16th century London is well drawn and the scenes at court are particularly vivid. The diplomatic rivalries, religious in-fighting and scheming are well drawn. I feel that the plot became over-complex with the introduction of occult symbols carved into the flesh of victims and the search for the esoteric book of Hermetic wisdom. Bruno is not a very attractive character, nor unfortunately were any of the other protagonists (though I liked Castelnau, the French ambassador). Although the plot moves at a good pace there are some rather “clunky” moments. At one point Bruno is trapped in a room and a villain informs him of his role in the plot and that Bruno will presently be killed. Then the bad guy leaves Bruno alone in the room. Big mistake! And right at the end just as Bruno is once again facing certain death a new character appears from nowhere! Very unsatisfactory.

A good summer read…..but my loyalties remain with Shardlake!

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher


DATE READ: June 2011 (audiobook)

NOTES: The King of the Badgers shows Philip Hensher at the top of his form. If you liked The Northern Clemency you will love this. Set in a fictional North Devon town, the book is inhabited with a huge range of (mostly awful) characters. On the surface everything seems fairly conventional but it doesn’t take much scratching to find out the reality of their lives. In these genteel streets there is adultery, betrayal, cheating, lying, lying and megalomania! Catherine is thrilled that at last her son is coming to visit – and is going to bring his boyfriend. But David never succeeds in attracting a boyfriend and persuades the desirable Mauro to accompany him and pretend to be his partner to please his mother. Kenyon and Miranda seem like the ideal couple except he is having an affair and their daughter is an appalling. Sam is a cheerful owner of a cheese shop in a long-term relationship with Harry but this doesn’t prevent them from joining in the local gay couplings. The gay orgies portrayed are shown to be funny but at the same time somewhat pathetic. And then there is John Calvin the mad-as-a-hatter Neighbourhood Watch Co-ordinator.

The part of the book that is definitely not funny is the disappearance of China, a child from the local housing estate. Actually I retract that statement – there is much comic material here in the attitudes surrounding the disappearance. But the part dealing with what happens to her subsequently is unfunny in the extreme. He uses a different writing style and relates the shocking details as if he were telling a fairy tale.

The whole book buzzes with ideas and observations. Among the choices for Miranda’s book group are Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas and The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki. (Ye gods, I’d be drummed out of my book group if I made suggestions like these!)

A sharply observed black comedy.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Burying the Bones by Hilary Spurling


DATE READ: June 2011

NOTES: I have been fascinated by the books by Pearl Buck that I have read…..especially The Good Earth which paints such a vivid picture of peasant life in China. However I knew virtually nothing about the author so was intrigued to read Hilary Spurling’s biography.

Pearl Buck had an amazing life that Hilary Spurling brings alive to the reader. Buck’s
parents went out to China in 1880s as missionaries. They were met with indifference from the local people and at times antagonism. But they also had to face dirt and disease. Spurling recounts the heart-rending events of losing three of their children in quick succession to cholera and fever. Pearl’s father was a driven man who cast aside everything except his work of proselytising; her mother was lively and sociable. Spurling acknowledges the contradictions in their lives. They were happy to ride roughshod over Chinese culture to encourage the conversion of souls but gave Pearl a Chinese tutor (as well as an amah) who taught her Confucianism as well as Calligraphy. Her ability to understand and communicate with so many different strata of Chinese society is what made her so different from writers at that time. She was able brave enough to tackle some taboo subjects: the subjugation of women, infanticide and marital rape.

From an early age Pearl Buck seems to have felt compelled to write but was only really keen to publish when she needed the funds. Spurling points out the irony that in her later life Buck was referred to in China as an interfering imperialist while back in America her espoused liberal causes made her a target for McCarthy.

This is a beautifully written book that sweeps the reader into the world of a fascinating woman writer.

The Beacon by Susan Hill


DATE READ: June 2011

NOTES: A well-crafted novella that creates the atmosphere of a northern farmhouse and the somewhat dysfunctional family living there. It began well with some good characterisations and interesting plotting. An unprepared and unsupported May Prime goes off to university in London but suffers from mental problems and returns home after a year. This episode rings true – especially the way in which there seems to be no support system for May either at university or at home.

The central theme of the book is the rift in the family caused by the second son Frank. We have to wait a long time to find out the cause and when it emerges it raised some questions. If Frank had decided to break with the family why would he have taken photographs from his childhood with him? I don’t want to give away the plot but surely newspaper reporters would have approached the Prime family for their side of the story….

There are ambiguities in the family and hints of hidden memories. The way in which The Beacon was written made it a gripping read but was ultimately unsatisfactory – especially the ending which was really a bit feeble.

Monday, 30 May 2011

WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy by David Leigh and Luke Harding


DATE READ: April 2011 (audiobook)

NOTES: This book reads like fiction as it details the remarkable story of WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange. At the time of its publication it was still very much an unfinished story – Assange was awaiting extradition to Sweden, Bradley Manning was awaiting trial for espionage in US and repercussions of the leaks were still reverberating round the world. I did wonder if the Guardian reporters felt it important to lay out their side of the story so far….

They do this in unflinching detail. Their part in the story is told without hyperbole – their share with us their initial doubts and anxieties as well as their increasing frustrations in dealing with Assange. Julian Assange is revealed as an intriguing character. His computer skills are brilliant, he is a driven man in his campaign for freedom of information but is also egotistical and arrogant. Leigh and Harding reveal how he often changed his mind about future plans and acted contrary to agreements made about publication. To their credit they recount these events objectively and calmly (but I bet they raged in private!)

It will be interesting how the WikiLeaks story will be viewed by future historians. The published Afghan war logs revealed the existence of US death squads, the Iraq files told of the torture of prisoners and of civilian murders. The huge release of thousands of diplomatic cables at the end of last year caused a sensation – the current uprisings in North Africa can be directly linked to the reaction to these cables.

At the time of writing this review (May 2011) things have gone rather quiet on the Wikileaks front. But Hilary Clinton’s fury is unabated and she is demanding Assange’s extradition. Bradley Manning, the soldier who downloaded the files, is in solitary confinement in gaol awaiting trial for espionage and a threatened 55 year sentence. His fragile mental state will cut very little ice with his accusers.

A fascinating and well written book – but it will probably need to be updated in a few years hence.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Wish You Were Here by Graham Swift


DATE READ: May 2011

NOTES: Graham Swift is a very skilful writer. In Wish You Were Here he is terrific at evoking atmosphere – both physical and emotional. He describes the bleakness of an out-of-season seaside caravan park, the strange formality of repatriating the bodies of soldiers and the hard life of a dairy farmer. In particular the grief (bordering on madness) felt by Jack about the loss of his younger brother is powerfully written.

This novel is less successful with the characters. Apart from being not very sympathetic (which may not matter in the long run) some of their actions and attitudes were not wholly believable. There is no real explanation for Tom choosing never to communicate with his brother after he joins the army. Ellie’s refusal to accompany Jack to his brother’s funeral is similarly inexplicable.

Wish You Were Here shifts in time between points of the past and present. Sometimes this could be a bit confusing – especially when he further introduces passages detailing not “what happened” but “what might have happened”.

The ending is tense and I wanted to find out what was going to happen. While this book has many positive points I sadly found it relentlessly depressing and gloomy.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Towards the End of Morning by Michael Frayn


DATE READ: April 2011

NOTES: I had forgotten how funny Michael Frayn’s writing could be. Towards End of the Morning is a comic novel set in a newspaper office in the 1960s – a cross between The Observer and The Guardian. Much of the story is very funny – the pre-TV programme meal could have been straight out of Monty Python – but there are also some dark undertones of ambition, job security and jealousy. Frayn is very prescient about celebrity culture and the middle-class angst about getting one’s children into the “right” school.

In many ways this book is “a blast from the past”. Mrs Mounce recommends the wearing of a roll-on, suitcases have no wheels, flat-dwellers shared a bathroom, and it was not the done thing to have your girlfriend stay overnight. All that, and the non-stop smoking and drinking make it very much a period piece.

An odd thing is how little work anyone seems to be doing…..I did wonder how any newspaper actually got printed. There are some sympathetic characters but others are appalling. Comparisons have been made with Waugh’s Scoop – and rightly so.

Great fun.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber


DATE READ: April 2011

NOTES: This book languished on my “to be read” shelf for many months. I had heard good reports of it but was put off by its enormous size: 830 pages of small print! However I so enjoyed the first episode of The Crimson Petal and the White on TV that I decided to make a start…..

What a brilliant book! Right from the start we are swept up into the Victorian London world of Sugar as she makes her way through life. She works as a prostitute but is bright, articulate and quick to take advantage of anything (or anyone) that comes her way. But at the same time she remains a mystery. Is she the tart with the heart of gold or the whore with her eye on the main chance. One of her customers, William Rackham, becomes enamoured with her and she seizes on the chance to escape from her depraved surroundings. But again we are never sure whether she feels any real affection for William.

There are some wonderful larger-than-life characters. Mrs Castaway is the abusive brothel keeper who is mother to Sugar. William’s brother Henry has rejected the family perfume business and is hoping to become a minister of the church and rescue lost souls. He loves the widowed Mrs Fox but is incapable of being open with his feelings for her. She in turn is portrayed as a somewhat comical creature at the beginning of the book as she attempts to convince young prostitutes to give up their life of sin and turn to Christ and honest work. But as story progresses she becomes a rather fine human being who is motivated to do good works. And then there is Agnes, William’s wife – naïve, abused, depressed, addicted and anorexic. Poor thing, what fate awaits her?

The whole is a wonderful mix of class and sexual politics. It has been compared to Dickens – this is how Dickens may have written if he was not constrained by Victorian censorship. There are echoes of Our Mutual Friend, Jane Eyre, Vanity Fair and Middlemarch.

Some people will be disappointed by the ambivalent ending. I loved it – it is very much within the spirit of the book. Michel Faber takes us by the hand and leads us into this world. But he doesn’t tell us everything – some things are best left to our own imaginations.


Sunday, 1 May 2011

So Much For That by Lionel Shriver


DATE READ: April 2011

NOTES: Shep Knacker has a dream of leaving New York and setting up home in some distant place. He plans to lead a simple life with the help of his substantial nest-egg acquired from the sale of his business. However his dream is his alone and not shared by his wife and children. His research tells him that an ideal place to spend his “Afterlife” would be an island paradise off the Tanzanian coast. But his determination to set off on this adventure is shattered by the news of his wife’s cancer.

From this point disastrous events occur. All Shep’s former financial decisions have been wrong and he is now caught up in battles with a third-rate health insurance company that will only pay a portion of the astronomonical fees. His wife Glynis is put on a range of experimental (and expensive) drugs and month by month Shep sees his nest-egg diminishing. He seems to love Glynis rather than like her and an inner resentment builds up. Shep is a decent character but is generally considered a “soft touch” by his whole family. As well as supporting an ailing wife he has a son at an expensive school, a daughter being subsidised through university, a sister who is too creative to actually earn money and a father who despises the monetary system but expects to be assisted by his son.

His long term friend Jackson has a disabled daughter suffering from a horrific genetic syndrome. Jackson is often filled with rage and has frequent rants about how the government is ripping everyone off. He is convinced that people who works hard and pay their taxes are made fools of by both the federal government and by idle scroungers.

Sounds awful, doesn’t it? But actually this is a really compelling read. I was enthralled, horrified and angry in turn. Sometimes I wanted to scream: “Shep – get a grip!” By halfway through this book I expected the ending to be really depressing. But amazingly it is not. Lionel Shriver actually gives us a redemptive and (dare I say) uplifting conclusion.

(This book should be compulsory reading for anyone who thinks more privatisation in our Health Service would be a good thing!)

Saturday, 30 April 2011

The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer


DATE READ: March 2011

NOTES: An extremely readable approach to medieval life. Ian Mortimer points out that “Medieval England” covers a very long time span and so rightly chooses to concentrate on one century – the fourteenth. It is written in guide book style and gives us insights into what life was like for people (or travellers) of that time. He describes the landscape, homes, food, clothes, health and transport. There is a fascinating chapter were on Health and Hygiene – if you do get ill you are best to avoid the ministrations of doctors! It was also best to try to keep to the right side of the law but even this might not keep you out of trouble. The short, sharp shock was very much in vogue at the time. But as Mortimer points out the law is designed to find somebody guilty – it does not necessarily follow that that somebody is the person responsible for the crime in question.

This is a really fascinating and insightful book into an England of long ago. It is obviously meticulously researched but wears its scholarship lightly as it is a very entertaining read. It is helped by the selection of superb colour illustrations.

An essential for any potential Time Traveller…….

Friday, 22 April 2011

Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson


DATE READ: March 2011

NOTES: Another great (if somewhat confusing!) read from Kate Atkinson. A complex story set in two different time scales and from the point of view of lots of characters. The plot cannot be encapsulated easily. In 1975 a prostitute is found murdered in her flat. One of the officers attending is Tracy Waterhouse. We then move on to the present day when Tracy, now a retired police inspector, buys a child from a know drug-user. On the same day Jackson Brodie takes possession of an abused dog. A doddery ageing actress, Tilly, loses her purse in the shopping mall. Jackson is trying to help Hope (who lives in New Zealand) to find her real family but some people seem to be deliberately blocking his way. More confusion abounds when another detective appears – also called Jackson.

We have an incredible mix of lost parents, lost children and sad memories. There are murdered relatives, aborted babies, lost loves, road deaths, police corruption and a dramatic funeral. But the whole is infused with Atkinson’s joyful language and energetic pace. Some of the best bits are when Tracy tries to be a parent to Courtney – very much an unknown territory for her. Tracy was surprised that more kids weren’t killed on so-called play equipment. People (parents) seemed blithely oblivious to the peril of small bodies arcing high into the sky on swings they weren’t strapped into, or of the same small bodies launching themselves from the top of a slide when they were knee-high to a gnat. Courtney was astonishingly reckless, a kid without a reck was a dangerous thing.

I enjoyed it very much although I wasn’t always sure if I was keeping up with the plot. There were a few loose ends (or was it me?) And I did wonder about the brilliant abilities of the ex-gangster Harry Reynolds. No request seemed too much for him and he deserves a book of his own!

(The Yorkshire Ripper has worked his way into the social and cultural fabric of the 1970s and 80s. The references here are not at all gratuitous but does Sutcliffe know – and does it give him pleasure?)

Monday, 18 April 2011

The Perfect Murder by H R F Keating


DATE READ: April 2011

NOTES: I was first introduced to the Inspector Ghote books over thirty years ago. I overheard a conversation on the London Tube as a passenger praised the books written by an Englishman about an Indian policeman. He said that the author had never visited India and had used a street map of Bombay to help with his plotting. I was intrigued and on returning home I got a couple of Keating’s books from the library. I remember enjoying them at the time but never bothered to seek out any more.

Now some of this series is being re-issued so I was happy to have another look into the life and work of Inspector Ghote. The Perfect Murder has a lot of charm – and Ghote is a great creation. He cares about doing a good job; he wants to be a person of high morals but is all too aware of corruption all around him. The story itself is well plotted and coherent which makes it a very easy read.

The atmosphere of 1960s Bombay “feels” right. But does that mean it is right? As (like most readers) I have not lived any length of time in India but have nonetheless built up a picture of how the country works, how people relate to one another and how they use the English language. But what are the sources of this picture of India? E M Forster? Paul Scott? Kipling? – or Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Ruth Prawer Jhabvali and Rohinton Mistry. Do any Indians really talk like Arun Varde with his rhyming words (“corruption poppuption” and “doorstep poorstep”)? I would like to hear how and Indian born and bred in India responds to these books.

Or perhaps I am taking the whole thing too seriously……

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Heresy by S J Parris


DATE READ: April 2011

NOTES: Giordano Bruno is an Italian ex-communicated monk who escaped from the Inquisition to France and then on to England in 1583. He has rejected much traditional religious thinking and his heretic philosophy goes beyond Copernicus. With his friend Philip Sidney he travels to Oxford – ostensibly to debate with their senior don but also to seek out a lost book of Hermetic writings. As a further complication Sir Francis Walsingham has inveigled him into looking out for anti-Elizabeth sentiments among the Oxford academics. While in Oxford some murders occur and Bruno finds himself in the role of investigator.

Heresy is a well-written atmospheric historical fiction. The scenes of London, the Thames and Oxford are all well done. The tensions caused by religion and politics in Elizabethan England are clearly described. Although there were many who clung desperately to their chosen religion and were prepared to be martyred others just wanted to get on with their lives. “You must excuse Doctor Bernard some of his harshness,” he said, apologetically. “He has had to change his religion three times under four different sovereigns.”

The Tudor period has given rise to many other novels so any writer approaching this period needs to show considerable originality. Although Heresy has many positive attributes it is far from original. There are echoes of The Name of the Rose – especially with the reference to the secret book. The Shardlake books have already encompassed the role of Tudor detective so S J Parris had her work cut out to compete.

One of my problems with this book was the characters – none were especially prepossessing. Among the Oxford academics there was little differentiation and they all become merged in my mind. However the pace picked up towards the end and the final denouement was exciting if not credible. Why do the villains admit and explain what they have done? They don’t do this in real life but it happens again and again in books and films.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Orchid Blue by Eoin McNamee


DATE READ: March 2011

NOTES: This is a novel based on real life incidents. In 1961 and young girl was savagely murdered in Newry following a dance at the Orange Hall. A local man, Robert McGladdery, is accused but the Detective in charge is concerned that because feelings are running so high he might not get a fair trial. Things are further complicated by the appointment of Lord Justice Curran as the trial judge. Nine years previously his own daughter had been murdered and the accused in that case was deemed of unsound mind and sent to a mental institution. The death sentence still exists and there seems to be a general feeling that the ultimate penalty should be paid for such a dreadful crime.

Eoin McNamee is a very good writer. He creates the atmosphere of the sixties brilliantly and all the characterisations are excellent. McGladdery is shown to be an enigmatic character who is not helped by the sloppy police tactics of the time. There are also the many ambiguities regarding the murder of the Judge’s daughter. Parts of the story do not add up but it is as if he was too important a person to be vigorously questioned.

If this was a complete fiction it would be a brilliant book. But as it is based on real people and real incidents I felt very uncomfortable reading it. 1961 is not so long ago – some of the people involved could still be alive. He also writes in a detailed way as to what people said and what they were thinking. I found myself thinking “How does he know this”.

I didn’t know about this case before reading Orchid Blue so would not have known how McGladdery’s trial ended. However on the inside cover is a spoiler….. black marks to the publisher!

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

One of Dickens’ best loved books – and no wonder. Bleak House is a complex many-threaded tale filled with an astonishing array of characters including gentle Esther, menacing Tulkinghorn, kindly John Jarndyce, ambitious William Guppy and illerate but wily Krook. At the centre of the narrative is the legal case of Jarndyce versus Jarndyce. This has been going on for years and concerns some disputed wills (never fully explained) but many of the characters are hoping to gain from the outcome of the court action – or gain along the way from ongoing fees.

Dickens keeps his readers guessing – Who is Nemo? What is his link to Lady Dedlock? Just how hopeless will Richard turn out to be? Some of the characters are essentially “good” such as Esther, Ada and John Jarndyce. Others are much more nuanced although some are real caricatures – such as Mrs Jellyby. And what a wonderful creation is Stimpole – he was so irritating that it is hard to believe he would have survived without someone taking a blunt instrument to him!

I hate to say this but I thought the narrative dragged a bit in the last third…..

David Copperfield remains my favourite Dickens’ novel but Bleak House is not far behind….

The Einstein Girl by Philip Sington


DATE READ: February 2011

NOTES: In pre-war Germany a young girl is found barely alive near Potsdam. She seems to have no memory and the only clue as to her identity is a handbill advertising a lecture by Einstein. Einstein has a summer house in the locality so there is a possibility that she was on her way there. The police are baffled and the press interested and soon she is named in the newspapers as the Einstein Girl.

Martin Kirsch is a sympathetic psychiatrist (who has coincidentally seen her before her accident) and is fascinated by her case and she enters his hospital for treatment. Strong links with Einstein emerge – but as we are in a world of insanity it is hard to know the truth from dreams. Even Martin has problems with reality as his latent syphilis moves into a dangerous stage.

The Einstein Girl is very good on describing the prevailing atmosphere of inter-war Europe. The emergence of the Nazis as a political force is well told – as are the subtle shifts in the requirements of the medical staff to collaborate with the authorities.

This was an intriguing read – quite challenging in parts. It was advertised as a thriller but it was not really part of that genre. It was not a “whodunit” – more of a “what’s going on?”

Classy and intelligent.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Trespass by Rose Tremain


DATE READ: March 2011

NOTES: Set in the Cevennes regions of south-east France Trespass has two separate narratives both based on siblings. Anthony Verey’s antiques business in failing and he seeks solace with his sister Veronica who has moved to France with her partner Kitty. His plan is to buy a house and settle there. Aramon Lunel lives in a large decrepit farmhouse that he has inherited from his father. His sister Audron was only left a small portion of the land on which she has built a small modern (and ugly) bungalow. Aramon, an alcoholic, decides to sell his house as he is led to believe that he will get an enormous price for it but soon realises that his sister’s bungalow is a blot on the landscape. He has no qualms about turning her out of her home.

This is a fascinating story of sibling rivalry, jealousy, greed and inheritance. The “trespass” of the title occurs throughout the narrative. Anthony is trespassing on his sister’s relationship. Kitty hates his presence and is desperate for him to go. In her turn Veronica resents Kitty trying to come between her and her beloved brother. And the memory of their long dead mother continues to trespass into the thoughts of both of them.

Much more sinister “trespasses” have occurred in the past of the Lunel family. But now Aramon views his sister as a block on his future fortunes, while she in turn vows to remain on the family land. Another more subtle trespass is the influx of foreigners buying up French property.

As we have come to expect from Rose Tremain this is a beautifully written and cleverly constructed novel. It begins with a child’s scream but we are not told why until over halfway through the book. The atmosphere of France is brilliantly conveyed and all the characters believable (if not likeable!).

I was not entirely happy about the redemptive ending which I thought was lacking in credibility but this was nonetheless a great read.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Pub Walks in Underhill Country by Nat Segnit


DATE READ: March 2011

NOTES: This book consists of the notes made by the now-departed Graham Underhill. He set out to produce another in his series of walking guides but was unable to resist telling us about his own life and problems. It’s a great device for a comic novel and on the whole works really well.

Graham is a keen walker but is unable to prevent pedantry and pomposity creeping through. While describing the (genuine) walks well he tells us lots of things we really don’t want to know. In relating his refreshments he describes the “two compartment picnic cooler” which holds the “Snap’n,’lock food containers”. He is always keen to let us know about flora and fauna, geology, history, philosophy and poetry. Poor Graham. He is so well-meaning but, let’s face it, he is the person you make sure you are not walking beside if you are on a group ramble!

It is soon made clear that his marriage to the beautiful Sunita has very rocky foundations. We know this but Graham fails to see what is going on under his nose. Many of the incidents recorded are ambivalent and it becomes hard to judge what facts can be relied on.

I was drawn to this book as I like walking. So what about the walks described? I have done some of these in the past but will put some of the others to the test in the coming year. Hopefully I will not succumb to some of Graham’s potential threats: angry farmers, slippery paths, dangerous cliffs – or even aggressive schoolgirls!

Great fun.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

The Railway Children by E Nesbitt


DATE READ: February 2011

This is the well known classic children’s book that I knew from the film but had never actually read it. Set in 1905 it is the story of a prosperous London family stricken by the tragedy of the father being taken away by the police. The three children are unaware that he has been arrested and sent to prison for espionage. They leave their large London home and travel to a small cottage in the countryside.

Despite missing their father (and at the beginning worrying about him a great deal) they are interested and excited to be living in the country – and are particularly thrilled to be so near to the railway line and the local station.

It is a charming story – no wonder it has been read by generations of British children. The children are great characters and the author also shows real affection for the people living nearby. The appearance of a Russian dissident in the story was probably quite brave for the time – and also a reflection of Nesbitt’s own somewhat Bohemian life.

From an adult point of view the plot doesn’t really hold up – but in the end this really doesn’t matter. And I did wonder why these middle-class children were not at school. Only towards the end does their mother start to give them lessons.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

A Room With A View by E M Forster

A Room with a View is one of Forster’s lighter books – but it is still infused with humour and wit and offers a satirical dissection of the middle class both at home and abroad.

Lucy Honeychurch visits Italy with her uptight Aunt Charlotte as her chaperone. Charlotte is constantly alert to the rules that should be followed – not mixing with “unsuitable” people, being wary of foreigners, not allowing Lucy to go anywhere unaccompanied, etc. But despite her best efforts things go awry.

It is the old story. Girl meets boy but rejects his advances. She meets much more suitable and conventional boy and agrees to marry him. Continues to reject first suitor….but does she protest too much?

Mrs Honeychurch is the archetypal middle class snob. “If books must be written, let them be written by men,” she says. All the characters are well drawn but young George Emerson is beautifully described. Was the author in love with him?

I was intrigued by the quotation painted on Emerson’s wardrobe in the Florence hotel: “Mistrust all enterprises that require new clothes.” How wise….

Swan Peak by James Lee Burke


DATE READ: January 2011

NOTES: Dave Robicheaux and his friend (and ex-colleague) are on vacation in Montana when some murders occur and Dave is assigned temporarily to the local Sheriff’s staff. In the meantime Clete is obsessed with Jamie Sue Wellstone – an ex-Country and Western singer now married to a scarred war veteran. The wealthy Wellstone family have a ranch and some shady connections and are hoping to search for oil on their land.

The plot is fairly convoluted but what makes this book so great is the richness of the characters and the way in which they interact. Sometimes Clete must feel like a weight around Dave’s neck but he is continually loyal to his troubled friend. The bad guys are really bad but in the end no match for Dave and Clete.

Swan Peak has some lovely writing – and is sprinkled ideas: “…we love the earth but we don’t get to stay” or “Never go to bed with a woman who has more problems than you”.

There were a few bits of plotting that bothered me. Firstly, J.D. escaped from gaol and took refuge with Albert Hollister. He was miles from home – so where did he get his guitar from? Also I thought that Troyce Nix talked a bit too readily to Candace about his problems and his past transgressions. Seemed a bit unlikely.

But once again, Dave Robicheaux is the person to have on your side. And he makes great picnics!

Monday, 10 January 2011

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese


DATE READ: January 2011

NOTES: Cutting for Stone is a very ambitious novel which takes us to Ethiopia, Kenya, India and United States. Its main setting is a mission hospital in Addis Ababa run by an odd collection of medical staff. In an early dramatic episode twin boys are born and one of them, Marion, relates the strange symbiotic relationship that exists between him and his brother Shiva.

Verghese has created some wonderful characters – especially Hema and Ghosh who act as parents to the twins. The medical staff of the hospital in New York are particularly well drawn – in fact some of the best parts of the novels are set in United States. There is a Dickensian feel to the book – disappearances and reappearances, objects lost and found, betrayals, love and family loyalty.

The political situation (in both Ethiopia and US) is dealt with skilfully and intelligently. Surgical operations are described vividly – so this is not a book for the squeamish!

I thought the plot at the end was just too melodramatic and unbelievable but I can nonetheless understand the overall appeal of this book.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Hand Me Down World by Lloyd Jones


DATE READ: December 2010

NOTES: An African woman, working in a Tunisian hotel, gets pregnant by a German visitor. When she gives birth she is tricked into signing adoption papers and the child is taken away by the father. Her story is told through some of the many people she comes into contact in her search for her child – but when she at last is given her own voice many of these narrators turn out to be very unreliable. (Or perhaps it is the woman who chooses not to tell us the whole story?) The book is interesting inasmuch as the information the author withholds from us – we never know the real origins of the woman, nor her real name (she adopts the name of Ines), nor the eventual resolution of her missing child.

Interestingly, Ines is not shown to be an innocent victim – she acts as a prostitute when necessary, steals and lies. But the writing makes clear that we are meant to believe that she has been wronged and our sympathies should lie with her.

The writing is superb. The different voices are well defined – not an easy task with so many characters. There are also some lovely “set pieces” – such as the scene in the mountains when the American food writer resists giving money to Ines but is “persuaded” (i.e. blackmailed) into it by his Italian hunter companions.

The blurb on the cover said “This is a novel you cannot stop thinking about”. True.