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Book Reviews

by

Paula McMaster

Paula McMaster is a widely-travelled, widely-read, seasoned and acclaimed reviewer. She was born in London but spent her early years in France, at Chantilly, where her father was a successful horse trainer. The family relocated to England and she spent the rest of her childhood there, but later lived in Italy, Germany, and the USA. She now lives in Brighton, and is the mother of four children. She contributes reviews to the popular book group web site bookgroup.info. Please read the copyright notice at the foot of this page before reproducing any of these reviews. To contact the author, email paulamcmaster at yahoo.com.

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A BLESSED CHILD

by

Linn Ullmann

It was the hottest summer since 1874, and the little Swedish island of Hammerso, with 'its flat heath, gnarled trees, knobbly fossils and vivid red poppies' lay hot and dry in the sun.

Thirteen-year-old Ragnar has a secret hut. It stands in a little patch of open heath on the farthest edge of the forest, beyond some overgrown deciduous trees, a thicket of brambles, wild roses and some juniper bushes. Anyone venturing through the scrub and thorns risked being bitten by ticks and horseflies. Besides, there are so many prettier woodland paths leading to the flowering heathland or down to the sea. Ragnar has a stock of tinned food, thirty litres of water, forty seven bottles of Coca-Cola, boxes of potato crisps, cigarettes and matches, ring binders of The Phantom and Superman comics, two working flashlights, a good tape player, a favourite cassette, and a boxful of new batteries. A film poster is up on the wall above a campbed and a sleeping bag and a threadbare brown teddy bear that has to be hidden when Erika comes to see him. For her visits Ragnar has plates, cutlery, glasses, two cups and a flower-patterned oil cloth for the camping table.

Ragnar lives with his mother, Ann-Kristin, and goes to school in Stockholm, but they spend each summer on the island of Hammerso. Sometimes Erika visits the hut and lets him kiss her. She even puts his hands on her breasts as they lie on the campbed. Once he took out a pocket mirror, and angled it so that both their faces were reflected in it and said:

"You can see it, can't you? We look like brother and sister."

Being kissed by Ragnar doesn't make her feel sick, but she doesn't want him to take it all too seriously. But there is something between them, something serious that must be kept secret. She knows it drives Ragnar crazy when he waits for her in the hut and she doesn't come. But they are nearly fourteen and Erica wants to run with a clique of other teenagers who spend their summers on Hammerso.

Erika's father, the famous Isak Lovenstad, is a specialist in gyneacology and one of the pioneers of ultrasound. Her mother, Elisabet, beautiful, edgy and temperamental, was a ballerina when she met Isak. He worshipped her beautiful body, Erika was born, and they were happy until he met and fell in love with Rosa, calm and domesticated, who was a wonderful wife to him and with whom he sired Laura. He said he could never live without Rosa, but he very nearly had to when she found out about Ruth, who was about to have Isak's third daughter, Molly, but Rosa forgave him in the end. And when Ruth's mother dies three years later, the three little girls spend the glorious summer months with Isak and Rosa on Hammerso until 1979 when the tragedy happened.

The novel begins twenty five years later with Erika driving through a snowstorm on her way to Hammerso to visit Isak. She has persuaded Laura and Molly to make the long drive as well, and they meet up on the last leg of the journey. As she is driving through the snow and rain with her mobile phone on the seat beside her, she has difficulty in concentrating. The metronomic swipe of the windscreen wipers and the sound of the snow tires on the wet road is so monotonous that she keeps letting her mind wander to their last summer with Isak and Rosa on Hammerso, in 1979.. It had been the hottest summer since 1874.

This profound and searching novel is about fathers and daughters, very young love and teenage cruelty. It is beautifully written, and is this author's fourth novel published by Picador.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A FLORENTINE DEATH

by

Michele Giuttari

If your idea of a happy afternoon is hanging by your fingernails off Beachy Head this is the book for you. It is a terrific read, a mystery novel.

Set in Florence, it is written by a Sicilian, with passion, conviction, and arrogance.

Forty years a policeman, the author of this book was head of Florence's elite Squadra Mobile from 1995 to April 2003, conducting a major war against the Chinese Mafia, money laundering and a series of double murders attributed to the 'Monster of Florence'. Before that he did much to clean the streets of Naples of the Mafia and the drug barons. Giuttari is author of The Monster:Anatomy of an Investigation (non fiction) and two previous novels about Chief Superintendent Michele Ferrara. Giuttari has an epicurean and hedonistic love of Florence, combined with an unambiguous pragmatism and a sense of humour to be feared. He adores beautiful women and delights in his incorrigible friends; he roars with laughter when the Pope announces that sexual intercourse is bad for the health. But my guess is that during his reign children were as safe in the streets of Florence as in Preston Park. His PC might be a bit draughty at times, but his hatred of hypocricy, kidnapping and child abuse is tangible throughout his work.

This book owes nothing to nostalgia, it is of today and tomorrow. Those happy days when the Neapolitan traffic policemen could be bought with a packet of cigarettes are long gone, and the Neapolitan Mafia is more at home in the FBI Academy at Quantica (or in Brighton) today than on the streets of Naples. Where four star generals once used to run across Lucky Luciano at parties on the Via Posillipo, respectable housewives can now safely answer the door and let the children play outside.

But Giuttari's Italians are still as colurful, generous, mean and eccentric as they were in The Leopard or The Last Lamp Burning, and for that let us rejoice and thoroughly enjoy a 'thrilling and cleverly plotted mystery'. A FLORENTINE DEATH has been a bestseller in Italy and throughout Europe and has been translated into nine languages.

Monday, November 26, 2007

A GIRL'S GUIDE TO MODERN EUROPEAN PHILOSOPHY

by

Charlotte Greig

In case any young readers find the title and chapter headings of theis book discouraging, I have to assure them that it is not at all dull or difficult to read. And it has the most explicit sex passages I have ever read. Charlotte Grieg has written an excellent first novel for which she deserves high praise and a loyal readership.

The story is told in the first person. Susannah Jones is brainy, impractical, impressionable and too young for her own good. But the book is about growing up, and she does it the hard way. Her love of paradox, her disdain for those who would deny the nobility of philosophy, her spontaneity and her good nature help her accomplish her maturity, but not without pain. She has a treasured idea of acceptable behaviour, and she developes the determination to cultivate her own philosophy without imitating others. She reads very intelligently and is fortunate in her Sussex University philosophy tutor (to whom she propose marriage). But she is insecure and unsophisticated, and she actually tries to fall in love because she thinks she absolutely has to have a man in her life.

This book is not about the redemptive power of love, nor the curative qualities and superb courage of the human spirit. It is about the benefit to the human soul of betrayal, cruelty, greed and cunning in the hearts of one's lovers. Want of affection in one's nearest and dearest and the English weather (it pours with rain on almost every page) is also considered good, stimulating stuff.

Greig is ambivalent about religion, and prayers may not have been of much help to Susannah Jones in her hour of need, but Greig and the Holy Father both agree that grief is positively good for you, but they would disagree violently on what to do about it.

Susannah finds her young women friends (so often mistrusted in novels) are understanding and helpful in the best possible way. Her tutor and her doctor and a young homosexual man are all kind to her in her distress. But circumstances limit all their efforts. 'Don't do anything silly, will you?' says one. 'No I won't' says Susannah, 'I never felt less silly in my life'. She looks for the answer in her reading of Nietzsche, Heidegger and Kierkegaard.

There are beautiful passages in this novel. At the beginning of Chapter 24 Susannah is walking in the mountains with Soren Kierkegaard; far below are meadows and she can hear cow bells (you can set it to Mahler's 6th); it is as if she is with him through her reading and his writing. 'Have you read Hegel?' he asks. 'Sort of', she says. 'For Hegel, there is hierarchy of thought, of spirit' he says. 'At the top is the universal:philosophy. Below that is religion. And below that is the ethical realm...' Later he says 'My world is one of conflict: in it the individual travels through the universal, the social realm, where actions can be explained in terms of ethics, until he reaches the realm of the particular. At that point he must leave the social realm behind and travel on alone...' I was disappointed to discover that she was actually dreaming.

I don't understand the significance of the Tarot card that is mentioned once or twice in the story.

Charlotte Greig has experimented with several careers from bun-selling and go-go dancing to the BBC World Service, folk singing and song writing. She lives in Cardiff with the novelist John Williams and has two children. A GIRL'S GUIDE TO MODERN EUROPEAN PHILOSOPHY is her first novel.

Monday, June 25, 2007

A LITTLE STRANGER

by

Kate Pullinger

This novel is about how to solve an intractible problem the hard way.

Pullinger's characters are intelligent,lively, young, and in love. Fran and Nick enjoy a good marriage and have great sex. In the beginning they both go to work in interesting jobs. Between them they earn enough to pay the bills and the mortgage and go to galleries, the theatre, clubs, out to dinner together, meet their friends, take taxis, holiday abroad; they buy clothes, presents, cosmetics, and out of the way things. They revel in all that London has to offer. They are still so much in love that they decide to have a baby. After the little boy, Louis, is born, Fran gives up her job to look after him. For four years. Without her salary they are not exactly poor, but cannot afford child care. She changes Louis nappies, baths him, reads to him, makes bottles and little meals, pushes the buggy to the park, to the shops. She loves Louis dearly, and is conciencious about his well being and his check-ups. She cleans, washes, irons, washes up, makes and changes the beds, and copes with the occasional tantrum. And it bores her out of her mind - literally.

Nick's work is demanding, and all-important now that he is the only bread winner. He comes home tired to a clean house and a happy, healthy child. He loves it all. He knows that Fran is quiet at times, perhaps even a bit stir-crazy from time to time, and they both look forward to when she can go back to work. What more can he do? She doesn't whine or try to make him feel guilty. Nick is only half aware that the routine is deadening. Even Fran's handbag is heavy with Louis needs, beside her make-up, passport, and purse.

One day she leaves the house. She doesn't plan anything. She just takes the tube to Heathrow and buys a ticket to Las Vegas with their joint credit card.

Suddenly Nick has her woek to do as well as his own job. So what is almost the first thing he does? He gets child care. But by now Fran is too spaced out to come home.

Pullinger takes us with Fran, out of the house, to the tube station, onto the plane, and all the way to Las Vegas. Another world, world away. It just happens. Fran makes a new friend, Leslie, a regular at the blackjack table, and well known everywhere in the acres of casino; she has a spare bed in her hotel room, and Fran moves in. No one notices. No one bothers anyone else in that hedonistic atmosphere. It is perfectly simple. Over the next few days Fran and Leslie move in a time zone all of their own: sleep, cards, cocktails, eat, sun, cocktails, cards, eat, cards, sleep, cocktails. Sleep, cards, cocktails, eat, sun, cocktails, cards, eat, cards, sleep. The casino provides cocktails, coffee and snacks so that people do not have to break off from losing or winning money. Las Vegas is unreal, bizarre. People are kind; they are there to enjoy themselves, in their way. Pullinger knows it well.

But Fran is sleep walking. Nobody knows it, or would care if they did. She hardly knows it herself.

A LITTLE STRANGER is well written, of course. The characters are attractive people; the pace is compelling, the plot unpredictable. The reader knows perfectly well how the characters feel. Only a brute would judge Fran: "Why can't she just think of motherhood as a protracted holiday from work and get on with it?" or "They planned to have this child, they did the sums, what did she expect?" And we all know people far worse off than she is, but still, we do know how and why she gets into that mental mess.

You will not put this book down until the very last page.

Monday, May 28, 2007

A RUSSIAN NOVEL

by

Emmanuel Carrere

There are passages in this book (p.178-179) which would discomfit some readers were they never so worldly were they to be observed reading on a train full of commuters whom they see every day. A brown paper dustcover or the loosecover from another book is recommended. The author has thoughtfully supplied his e-mail address: emmanuelcarrere@yahoo.fr) should readers wish to complain. However, readers with a penchant for sophisticated erotica (and they are legion, even in England) will read this novel with pleasure and buy the book in their thousands, and it will become a bestseller. Whether or not there are quite as many bookgroups ready to discuss it at a friend's house over a glass of wine remains to be seen. But Emmanuel Carrere is French, and the novel was originally written for a French readership, and everyone knows that the French have always been uninhibited about bodily functions.

The book is written in the form of a journal, and is lively, fresh and immediate in feeling and style, as though it is Carrere's habit to lie on his bed thinking it all out, and then to jump up and commit it to his laptop piece by piece. He wants us to believe it is a letter to his mother, Helene. He claims he is trying to exorcise her ghost, Emmanuel's grandfather of shameful memory, whom she has allowed to darken and poison their lives. But I think that that is a contrivance to make three stories hang together within one book. If this is a letter to his mother ( a well known and respected Acamedician) his Eodipus complex is unzipped. It hardly comes as a surprise that his relationships with other women, including his adorable and devoted Sophie, always seem to end in tears.

The hero is, of course, Emmanuel Carrere. The book includes his visit to Russia that he had already made into a film. He throws in a few wet dreams, some very interesting family histoty, and a fascinating love affair, and voila, A RUSSIAN NOVEL is presented to the world as bonny as a new baby, and Emmanuel Carrere is acclaimed as one of France's outstanding writers.

The maternal grandfather, poor ******?, haunts this narrative: Georges Zarabichvili wa born to a cultured bourgois family in Tiflis. His father, Ivan, was a jurist; his mother, Nino, translated Georges Sand into Georgian. They appear in the family photograph album with "the gravitas characteristic of intellectuals in colonised countries", for Georgia had long been an object of contention between Turkey, Persia and Russia, and only able to proclaim its independencefrom the Soviet Union in 1920, but was retaken by Lenin in 1921. The Zarabichvilis emigrated, first to Constantinople and then to Paris, and young Georges went off to Berlin to study something or other. In 1925 he rejoined his family in Paris, worked unwillingly as a taxi-driver, and married Nathalie de Pelken. Her father, the Prussian Baron Victor von Pelken, had divorced Nathalie's mother, born the Russian Countess Komarovsky, when Nathalie's little brother was fathered by the head gardener. Georges and Nathalie were very poor and virtually homeless. It is really no wonder that Georges grew to hate the cheerful, selfsatisfied French middle classes, hated the Communists, and hated himself for being penniless. Yet his wife, Nathalie, and his children, Helene and Nicolas, loved him. As the 1930s drew on Georges became an admirer of Hitler and Mussolini (and Franco and Beraud, Kerillis and Bonnard) and in them he placed all his hopes of the rebirth of Europe and the defeat of Communism. The occupation of France by Germany brought relief and a moderately respectable job as an interpreter for Georges, who spoke German, Russian and French. But in 1944 he was accused of being a collaborator, was marched away by men with guns, and never seen again. His daughter, Helene, Emmanuel Carrere's mother, who was fifteen at the time, was consumed with shame: A RUSSIAN NOVEL is addressed to Helene in an attempt to lay his ghost. Whether or not she appreciated his gift, she surely could not help but enjoy her son's brilliantly written book.

The cleverest and lightest, and by far the most amusing part of A RUSSIAN NOVEL is a chapter in which Sophie is intended to take the train from Paris to the Ile de Res, and find a love letter from Carrere to her through the pages of La Monde. In Carrere's imagination she heads for the "rest room" (as Carrer calls it) and hears panting from within, and presently a young women with a beatific expression on her face and with La Monde under her arm and remarks that she has thoroughly enjoyed herself. Well! It will never happen on the train between Littlehampton and Victoria (and is unlikely even between Brighton and Three Bridges), and what on earth it has to do with poor old grandfather Georges is a mystery. Perhaps Carrere has so many "untitled" files on his laptop that the stories have become inadvertently mixed, and Emmanuel has lost the plot. Haha.

Wednesday, 2 Mar 2011

A STAIN ON THE SILENCE

by

Andrew Taylor

From the lips of her dying mother, a petite dark haired 25-year-old discovers the name of her biological father. Within a week she is on his doorstep (to his utter dismay).

"How did you find me?" he says. "Carlo told me your name. I found you on the web."

Well! From a grainy old photograph she is at once scanned into your subconcious at 600 DPI. Exactly what you see doesn't matter, because its only purpose lies in furthering the author's design, which is to ensnare his reader.

Such is the magicky-moo of good storytelling: half the time the reader is unknowingly seduced into colouring and clothing the scenery and cast from his own experience and memory; to release it a writer of Andrew Taylor's intelligence and subtlety knows exactly where and when to press the tit. Lesser novelists can, and do, write half a page describing a character to far less effect.

The problem with reading a book by an author as professional as Andrew Taylor is that when you subsequently see the film you are amazed and annoyed at how the director appears to have misunderstood and miscast the whole thing. Sighs of patient resignation can be heard from every corner of the cinema, believe me.

The reader, however is too busy reading to notice that he's been seduced. Which is why A STAIN ON THE SILENCE is so suitable a book to take with you on holiday. If all goes well and your journey has been uneventful, you are now relaxed beside the pool with a long, cool drink. You open A STAIN ON THE SILENCE and are irrevocably drawn into its web from page 1 to page 415.

If, on the other hand, you have had the usual hassle A STAIN ON THE SILENCE is an absolute boon. Your flight is delayed? Never mind, you decide to open your new book. The baggage handlers go on strike? You read on. There is a bomb alert? You read on. You spend a day and a night on the floor of the departure lounge in the company of 5000 other people? You just read on..and on...and on...

Sunday, January 28, 2007

A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS

by

Khaled Hosseini

Today the novel seems to be enjoying a Renaissance. Modern fiction has depth, reach and originality of thought. Much of the best literature has come of terrible and prolonged suffering. From the trek out of Poland to escape the Russian army, from Jackson Mississipi, from China, from divided India, from the Lebanon, from Afro-Caribea, and from Bhopal has come an avalanche of words, stories, laughter and tears. A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS is from Afghanistan: the author of THE KITE RUNNER has written the finest novel I have read for many years.

The story is about Mariam, the bastard child of a suicidal mother. She is an acute embarrassment to her father, who marries her off when she is only fifteen to a forty-five-year-old Pashtu widower, Rasheed, whose poverty lay in his mind as much as his hovel. After several miscarriages and many beatings,she is made to tolerate and serve Rasheed's new child-wife, Laila, orphan of the Taliban battle for Khabul. Drawn together by starvation, brutality and fear, the two women become friends, and their love for onanother helps them endure, even unto death. But it is not a tale of woe by any means.

A natural and very talented storyteller, Khaled Hosseini was born in Khabul, but has left the bombs and the gunfire of Afghanistan and now lives in California. His first novel, THE KITE RUNNER, quickly became a best seller, and was widely acclaimed. A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS is named for a poem, and the book is dedicated "to Haris and Farah...and the women of Afghanistan". Written with passion, knowledge and understanding, it is a treasure to share and to recommend and an unforgettable joy to read.

Friday, November 13, 2009

ANIMAL'S PEOPLE

by

Indra Sinha

From the pen that wrote THE DEATH OF MR LOVE comes another exciting and absolutely original new novel, well worth a Booker Prize.

Its author, Indra Sinha, was born in India and spent his childhood in Bombay and in the hills of the Western Ghats.

ANIMALS PEOPLE defies a perfunctory bookgroup. info review. Interlaced with several languages, it resembles zari-work or a Persian rug, yet it seems to be a living thing with the startling golden eye of a goat, and again it has the sharpness and density of a pomegranate and the delicate flavour of Tai chai. It is a deeply affecting book, witty, egregious, timely and memorable. It is set in rural India, anciently ruled by maharajahs, now the site of a ruined American chemicals factory, where the heat in the dry season is almost insupportable, but when it rains it is "cloud horses pissing in the eye of the world".

The are beautiful pasages in the book. Hideously damaged and orphaned by a huge escape of poisonous gas from the factory, the usuallly foul-mouthed Animal lies beside a child prostitute, Anjali; he looks in awe at her "mysterious thing", "like a canna lily, two whorled petals whose edges are almost black, tinged with purple like the bloom on a grape...it reminds me of the hibiscus at the base of whose petals is a tube filled with liquid, you pick a flower and suck, it's joyous as honey...I try to imagine the womb and realise it is an empty space, which means there is nothingness at the very source of creation...by some this grace is worshipped with incence and flowers and prayers...it contains the whole world...in it's depths is the whole of the past plus all that will be...the power of this grace makes nuclear bombs look like fire crackers, the glory is that it makes its home between the thighs of this child whose thighs are bruised by the hips of drunken men..."

Yet so damaged is Animal that even he thinks of himself as a brute.

The plot of this story is intricate, worldly and unpredictable, and just for once there is a surprisingly happy ending to a contemporary novel.

Its author, Indra Sinha, was born in India and spent his childhood in Bombay and in the hills of the Western Ghats.

ANIMALS PEOPLE defies a perfunctory bookgroup.info review.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

BANK OF THE BLACK SHEEP

by

Robert Lewis

Robin Llywelyn wakes up with his right hand cuffed to a hospice bed and a cannula dripping morphine into his left. He has no memory at all of who he is or what he has done to deserve the close attention of the Law. Days and nights sail by when he is not looking and the light and dark behind the curtains is a slow but steady strobe. A visit from a bent DI of the Avon CID does nothing to help: pointing to the drip he says: "Junkies at St. Pauls would go crazy for a bag of that stuff". And Llywelyn's doctor, a turbaned and bearded Sikh, explains politely that No, there is no mistake. Robin has cancer. Which is why he is being attended to by a stern, middle aged blonde imported from beyond the Oder; she has a Slavic snort and a fine set of Soviet dentures. Llywelyn discovers that he has no wallet, no watch, no phone, no keys, no credit cards, no cash and no friendly visitors who care about him. But at least the Crown decides that it is in the greater public interest not to prosecute ( it seems he has helped to reclaim most of the money). He is no longer handcuffed to the bed, and the morphine drip has been removed. After a very unpleasant bout of withdrawal he is told that his memory may return, and he hopes he will turn out to have been a good person. He continues to cling to this hope even after he steals forty pounds from an old faux-leather handbag belonging to another inmate (admittedly comatose) and slopes off to the seediest pub he can find. Walking into it is like going home. But he is still surprised when he finds himself caught up in a very promising scam.

Readers may feel embarrassed when they burst out laughing at Robert Lewis' very black humour: BANK OF THE BLACK SHEEP has that effect. It is very fast moving, superbly well plotted bleak Welsh Noir, misanthropic and sad, but with brilliant dialogue and extremely funny jokes This is Lewis' third novel. Let's hope it will not be the last we shall see of Llywelyn in his race against the reaper.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

BIRDS WITHOUT WINGS

by

Louis de Bernieres

In BIRDS WITHOUT WINGS Louis de Bernieres tells, with great affection, of the little Anatolian town of Eskibahce, which was too unimportant to appear on any map. It was carved from the mountainside above a valley through which an ancient river, no longer navigable except to caiques, made its way to the Mediterranean, just where it joins the Aegean Sea. Its streets were too narrow for camels to pass, but the houses were stacked up the mountainside so that every dwelling recieved light and air. Dogs lay asleep in the shade cast by latticed upper windows; boys could be heard playing on the hillside, running and jumping amongst the Roman ruins and the tombs.

The track to Eskibace meandered through pine trees in the shade of which were scattered Muslim graves in varying states of attention. The track passed the Mosque and the Church of St. Nicholas, and the Christian chapel with its smelly little ossuary. Christian and Muslim families had intermarried for generations, and the same could almost be said for their faiths, for the worshippers in each religion liked to hedge their bets. Here the imam and the priest argued contentedly (but secretly) into the small hours, and chivvied their Turkish speaking flocks to a Heaven where God spoke only Greek and Arabic.

In 1884, far away across the Aegean Sea, a child was born, little Mustafa, son to the customs officer; he was later to have 'Kemal' (perfect) added to his name, and later still 'Ataturk'. And so Macedonia, home to Vlads, Greeks, Bulgarians, Turks, Serbs, Slavs, Albanians, Europeans of many origins and a large colony of Jews, was to give to the world its greatest Turk, as it once gave Alexander, its most conquering Greek.

The deeply conservative, superstitious and almost entirely illiterate people of Eskibahce hear in 1912 that Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia have rebelled against the decrepit Ottoman Empire, under the wing of whose senile old Sultan most of their kindred had prospered for generations. In 1914 came other news of war. The people of Eskibahce have never heard of the Germans, the French, or the British Empire, which, it seems, has governed so much of the world without their even hearing about it. Eskibahce is unaware that in Austria-Hungary a vainglorious Aeranthal has persuaded old Emperor Franz Josef to annex Bosnia Herzogovina, thereby changing the course of European history forever.

In Istanbul the Sultan decrees a Jihad, a Holy War, in alliance with Christian Germany against Russia, France and the British Empire (many of whose soldiers-in-arms are Muslim). Millions of his subjects give their lives as martyrs, especially at the appalling killing field of Gallipoli. But they perish in vain, for the war is lost. Thousands upon thousands of prisoners and refugees of all races and creeds suffer and die in the death marches, pogroms, massacres, and genocide. The Ottoman Empire implodes upon itself, the Sultan is deposed (fainting into the arms of his chief eunach), and Greece and Turkey embark on an internicene, merciless, and pointless war with onanother.

The happy tranquility of Eskibahce proves as fragile as that of the rest of the world, and its distress is such that the cats and dogs cry in the streets of the desolate little town. Earthquakes in 1956 and 1957 finally destroyed all human habitation in Eskibahce: the painted pink walls of the ancient houses fell; the sounds of camels and donkeys, goats and poultry, dogs and children ceased; now, lizards and cicadas are all that lives amongst the rubble, and only the song of blackbirds and nightingales can be heard amongst the Tombs.

Louis de Bernieres' first three novels are THE WAR OF DON EMMANUELS NETHER PARTS (Commomwealth Writers Prize, Best First Book Eurasia Region 1991), SENOR VIVO AND THE COCA LORD (Commonwealth Writers Prize, Best Book Eurasia Region 1992) and THE TROUBLESOME OFFSPRING OF CARDINAL GUZMAN. He was selected as one of the Granta twenty Best of Young British Novelists in 1993. CAPTAIN CORELLI'S MANDOLIN won the Commonwealth Writers Prize, Best Book 1995, and was made into a widely acclaimed film. RED DOG is his latest book, BIRDS WITHOUT WINGS being published in 2004. It must surely rank with 'War and Peace' and 'Dr. Zhivago', among the finest novels of our time. The love stories in the book are written with wry insight and originality. Between the covers of BIRDS WITHOUT WINGS can be seen and heard humour, irony and despair; over against the hideous cost of war are extraordinary depths of love, lifelong friendship, and the sort of unexpected, unplanned and undeserved happiness that occurs in all walks of human life every day: 'the obvious, unnoticed things'.

Various august reviewers have shouted Bernieres' praises from the hills. They have rightly compared his work with that of Charles Dickens, Evelyn Waugh, Tolstoy, Stienbeck...

For his love of small things, his delight in human frailty, his joy in the pursuit of love, and his belly laugh at pomposity, may I be allowed to add (in a very small voice), 'Mitford'?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

BLACK MULBERRIES

by

Caitlin Davies

The electrifying characteristic of BLACK MULBERRIES is its author's depth of research and understanding of her subject, whether it is a remote Muyengi village in the Okavanga Delta, the daily life of a castle in Scotland, the career of a top model in London, or the tribal mores of a village in northern Botswana.

Caitlin Davies describes the lives of four disparate women: the story is told through their thoughts; it is uncompromising, unflinching, and at time very funny. The generation brought up on stirring tales of the derring-do of our Grear White Hunters (and I mean everything from Stanley and Livingstone, through Out of Africa to Black Mischief) are in for a surprise. BLACK MULBERRIES is honest to the point of irony in its economical but faithful portrayal of a fool's paradise. A nasty and dangerous fool's paradise. There are ingenious and masterly sketches of Africa, England and Scotland.

Nanthewa's story begins in a tiny village in the Okavanga Delta, where 'at six pm the sky turns the colour of milky peach and the fronds of the palm trees on the watery islands become silhouetted against the sky like black knitting needles. Within thirty minutes, the light will be gone and the sky the colour of a raisin'. Nanthewa is born a Muyendi, autochthonous to the Delta; she enjoys a happy childhood on an island and her early marriage is arranged out of decency and respect for the elders, but is clearly to her own satisfaction. She marries a young hunter of her own kin, Rweenda, who loves her and treats her kindly. The Muyendi are peaceful and live their lives undisturbed by war. They eat fish caught in the many teeming rivers and a few animals killed for the pot; animal skins are sold as a small cash crop. A son is born to Nanthewa and Rweenda and named Isaac after the white man who regularly visits the little kraal to buy the skins. Suddenly the outside world intrudes in the form of black game wardens who represent a nameless South African company which has bought all their land in order to create a safari park. The village is burnt and Nanthewa, by now late into her second pregnancy, follows her husband on foot through the bush for two days, with beds and blankets and pots and pans balanced on her head and her little son on her hip, until they reach another village, where they are allowed to stay. After a miscarriage and a few unhappy years, a daughter, Katzi, is born.

Kazi inherits her pale, apricot complexion from her Bushman grandmother. She is not as dutiful as Nanthewa would wish, and eventually defies her mother and tradition by marrying a 'white', who takes her to a castle in Scotland. She wonders why he had never described the 'hills of purple as if they'd been sprinkled with bougainvillea petals' and 'dense green fir trees, low mountains with deep shadows that crept along the crevaces like elderly hands'. But after a year she leaves him (he deserves it) and with her lovely skin and unusual beauty, achieves fame as a model in London. Her brother, Isaac, stays in Botswana; he takes good care of his mother, and after his father dies, developes a father-and-son relationship with Lenny Krause, their disreputable white-hunter neighbour. Isaac buys hunting licences at citizen prices and sells them to Lenny Krause, who developes safari parks. In due course Isaac marries, and a daughter, Candy, is born.

Petra, daughter of Lenny Krause, is of an age with Isaac, and has long been in love with him, but he marries a local girl and Petra leaves for Cape Town, becoming a journalist for the Cape Argus. She returns to the Delta to investigate the mysterious human deaths and mutilations by animals, which Isaac and Lenny Strause are anxious to conceal and cover up. Kazi reurns from England and she and Petra renew their friendship.

Candy, Isaac's daughter, a fey child, sees far more than anyone realises. She provides an insight that is both disturbing and intrigueing, and is essential to the narrative.

Of course there is a belief in witchcraft, and sibling rivalry, and deep sexual and maternal love. There is betrayal, and some well-deserved resentment against The Great White Hunters, although on the part of the Muyengi much of it dissolves in laughter.

The book is delightful, absorbing and memorable. It is also timely, and historically accurate (there is grateful mention of Sir Seretse Khama, an Oxford Graduate and son-in-law of the British Foreign Secretary, who obtained for Botswana its independence in 1966). Caitlin Davies sees life through a very beady eye, but she clearly has a very warm heart.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

BLOSSOMS AND SHADOWS

by

Lian Hearn

The story is set in Japan and begins in the late 19th Century.. A thoroughly researched historical novel, and, I think, an important book, it might be best avoided by featherbrains. The 60-long list of characters at the beginning is a great help to the reader and is a clue to the richness and measure of the narrative. The author is not Japanese, but her lifelong delight in and understanding of Japan has already brought forth the TALES OF THE OTORI series which have been worldwide bestsellers. (And let us not forget Kazuo Ishiguro and The Remains of the Day).

BLOSSOMS AND SHADOWS is a deeply romantic love story, but Lian Hearn has much in common with Shakespeare and none at all with such as Barbara Cartland. The heroine of the story, Isataki Tsuru, is the daughter of a good and respected doctor, and she longs to become a doctor herself. But she is also a daughter of her time and will be expected to marry a man of her father's choosing, produce many sons, and bring honour to her family. Her struggle to be treated otherwise leads her into great danger.

For centuries Japan had chosen to be isolated from the rest of the world; her remote islands, peopled by perhaps thirty million souls, are divided into over two hundred and sixty domains, racked by turmoil and civil war. Comets, earthquakes, famines and epidemics plague and amaze its citizens. Nevertheless, the strongest instinct of both aristocrats and commoners is to revere the Emperor and expel all foreigners, and above all to resist colonisation by the West.

But in the Meiji Restoration of 1868 an alliance of young sumarai overthrew the semi-feudal and incompetent government, and so began the birth of modern Japan. It is in this setting that the lovers prove their love.

Part of the Itasaki Tsuru story comes to pass in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, which gives an ironic and poignant touch to the novel for today's readers of BLOSSOMS AND SHADOWS: had Tsuru lived to be over eighty she and her family might have suffered the inferno and horror of the Atomic bomb. Perhaps she and her grandchildren will be the subject of a sequel to this book.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

BLUE COLLAR

by

Danny King

It's a manual job, bricklaying. It gives a bricky time to think. And Terry thinks. He arrives at conclusions, argues with himself, analyses attitudes. His girlfriend, Charley (Charlotte to her Daddy), says she knows psychologists who don't do half the head-churning he does. He talks to his mates on the site, of course, but that's different: they're his mates. They go for a pint Friday night, perhaps an Indian or Chinese, see each other day after day, year in year out, in all weathers. But Terry never talks to Charley about how he feels. He jokes, of course, they both do. They share childhood memories and compare notes on families. But Terry would die rather than mention that he worships the ground her Guccis have trod. And Charley? Well, she's cool. She's middle class, after all. She doesn't ooze adoration, or brim with emotion; she's not Miss Marvellous or Superwoman. She knows what to wear, but not how to hang it up. She knows about posh food, but not how to cook it; she knows how to love, but not how to say it. From the moment they wake up in bed together and introduce themselves to onanother they are in love. But neithet of them knows how to give out such sensitive information: it has to be half-inched, leaked and lifted from the telly.

Danny King's humour is subtle, unPC, and I don't pretend to understand a few of his one-liners, although I expect the penny will drop unexpecredly as I think about and remember the book. I shall never again see a crack-arse bricky in quite the same light. And this novel is an education. For instance, just look at the Leaning Tower of Pisa: if the subby on that job hadn't shown up with a busted theodolite we would never have heard of Pisa. Not many people know that. And there is a new religion called Shittabric, and the prayers begin 'Christ Mite'; the language is Texted, and goes something like 'wnt 2 cm ^ + hv drx in isl @ 7? :-)'

gd bls U 2 dny kng

Sunday, September 6, 2009

BLUE LIGHTS AND LONG NIGHTS

by

Les Pringle

Les Pringle joined Birmingham's Metropolitan Ambulance Service in 1977, and subsequently spent three unbroken decades of round-the-clock emergency work. He is the holder of the Queen's Medal for Long and Exemplary Service. So who better to write about the bizarre and unpredictable occurrences in the great and sprawling cosmopolitan city. BLUE LIGHTS AND LONG NIGHTS is the story of his first rather nervous eighteen months in the Service. It is 1977.

From old ladies calling 999 just to have a midnight cup of tea and a chat with the ambulance crew, through hideous traffic accidents which put his every nerve to the test, and the delivery of an unexpected baby to a frightened and over-modest Asian girl who speaks not a word of English and to whom Les and his colleague might as well have been a couple of Martians (and male ones to boot), all are simply patients to the ambulance crew.

The drives to hospital are often a blur of traffic and sirens. A & E have been forewarned and crowd round as they transfer a limp body to a trolley in a resuscitation room while simultaneously trying to give an account of all that has happened. If they are not called out again on their way back to the mess room they might get a cup of tea and a read of the paper before the phone rings again. There are nights like New Years Eve when his thoughts dwell longingly on his warm bed and his young wife of only a few months, while he wonders what idiocy on his part landed him up in the Ambulance Service.

He is not made of sterner stuff than anyone else, and the patients he feels the most sympathy for are those who have been led astray: the less sophisticated office-party goers, often unused to heavy drinking, who have been coaxed to imbibe far more than they can handle. In this category he places a university student, who, with her friends, has looked foreward to a graduation party. She, like other girls, has taken great care and spent money, time and thought on her dress, hair and immaculate mke-up, in order to look her very best for the end-of-term dance. But some time in the early hours Les and Howard are called to a women's toilet, which is crowded with drunken girls. The air is filled with the sounds and stench of retching, flushing toilets, shouts, laughter and giggles. A girl appears beside them: 'She's wrecked, you know! We're all wrecked! But she's so seriously, seriously wrecked!' And there, in the furthest cubicle, a girl sits on the floor with her back resting against the lavatory pedestal. To use Les's own words: "For lateral balance her legs were splayed wide apart, each knee wedged against the partition walls on either side. The long black dress was hitched up to her thighs to reveal her tights, which were pulled halfway down her shins. Her head was slumped forward and a long, swaying strand of saliva spiralled down from her chin to merge with a substancial pool of vomit in her lap." The two young men, denied a university education themselves, knowing themselves to be the only sober people in the building, pull on their gloves. As they heave the dripping girl on to the carry chair Les wonders what her thoughts would have been earlier in the day if she had known that by the end of it no one would have dared touch her unless protected by rubber gloves.

It is on another night that Les is on duty with Mike, a grizzled veteran with a strong line of mess room banter, whom Les holds in awe, but whom he likes immensely. Mike is staring moodily through the dark windscreen of the ambulance.

'Didn't keep him out of the pub, did it?'

Les looks at him. 'What didn't?'

'His ankle!...What time did he sprain the bloody thing?'

'Eight o'clock,' Les offers.

'Yeah, eight o'clock. And then what did he do?'

'Well, he-'

'I'll tell you what he bloody did.' Mike folds his arms tightly across his chest. 'He limped to the bloody pub. That's what he bloody did. Then at chucking-out time, he limped to the take-away. Then he limped home and ate his bloody curry. Then...' he pauses for emphasis, 'then, at one in the bloody morning, he decides that he wants to go to the hospital and has the brass neck to whistle up an ambulance to take him there! I ask you, what's the bloody world coming to?'

Les Pringle is above all a wonderful story teller, and he has a compelling story to tell. I can't wait to read BEHIND THE BLUE LIGHTS, his next book, which came out in January 2010. But I'm glad I read BLUE LIGHTS AND LONG NIGHTS first.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

BREATH

by

Tim Winton

The small town of Sawyer near Perth in Australia is the setting for an extraordinary novel from the author of THE RIDERS (1995) and DIRT MUSIC (2002), both of which were shortheaded for the Booker Prize.

Bruce Pike (Pikelet) is the only child of emigrant parents whose steadying experience of nightly bombing raids during the London blitz has tayed with them. Work at the sawmill and fishing the river on Sundaysis all the excitement his father enjoys; his mother is happy with her hens,her needlework and caring for her little family. Together they listen to the 'wireless' in the evenings, and spend their afternoons attending to their kitchen garden. Living within sound of the Indian Ocean, they are afraid of the sea and neither has ever learned to swim.

Pikelet has arrived rather late in this uneventful household. He grows up a lonely boy, and consequently feels drawn to his opposite, Loonie, a pub-bred, feral stray, whose defiance of authority has set him beyond the pale even in Sawyer. Their love of swimming and the sea is really all that the two boys have in common. Together they sneakoff down to the beach to watch the older boys surfing the great waves: soon they are daring each other on their own small surf boards.

Meanwhile, at international level, Sando and Eva Sanderson have both excelled at their own extremely dangerous sport. Surfing magazines feature Sando at Hawaii, Sunset Beach, Pipeline and Makaha; full page ads for Dewey Weber surf boards picture him riding impossible waves at Spiney Reef. Eva was famous for ski-ing freestyle, jumping off high ramps and turning 360 degrees in the air. At Utah in 1971 she landed awkwardly and damaged her knee beyond mending. They have come to live in a remote house in Sawyer, she to recuperate, he to surf the most dangerous waves he can find along the coast.

Of course, the day that Pikelet and Loonie fall in with Sando the boys' lives are completely changed. Catching his addiction to risk takes them to places they could never have imagined. Rivals for Sando's approval,the two boys push themselves to the limit in fear and exhilaration. Sando, feeding on their adoration, teaches them to defy the treacherous power of the sea. Eva stays at home, nursing her broken knee and her longing. When he becomes involved with her, Pikelet finds himself seriously out of his depth.

The novel is about addiction in its different forms and what happens when risk is carried to extremes. Tim Winton writes brilliantly and powerfully, and with understanding, about a subject that is as elusive as it is deadly. This novel celebrates him at his best yet.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

BURNT SHADOWS

by

Kamila Shamsie

The cosmopolitan city of Nagasaki was unique in Japan for its International Club, its intermarriages between European men and Japanese women, and its English-language newspaper. A cathedral and a synagogue nestled within its graceful but confusing mixture of European and Japanese architecture. An amphitheatre of purple roofs, frost flowers in winter and a sea of blue azaleas in summer lent enchantment to a harbour deep enough to accomodate a shipyard.

Hiroko Tanaka will be 21 in August 1945. The day is cloudy; there has been an air raid warning. A terrible bomb has been dropped on Hiroshima, and everyone is crowding into the air raid shelters or into the cathedral. But Hiroko is at home, dreaming of the end of the war,when she will marry Konrad Weiss, the writer and philosopher whose book she has been translating from German into Japanese. She loves teaching languages, and has grieved for the pupils who have left to join the Air Force: flying his plane into an American aircraft-carrier is the highest possible honour in life for a Japanese boy. Hiroko has recently been made to work in a munitions factory, but today the workers have a day off, ostensibly as a holiday, but in reality because Japan has no more steel with which to keep the factory going.

Konrad Weiss knows there has been an air raid warning, and about the bomb on Hiroshima. But if they are to die he wants to be with Hiroko. He finds her at her home, and Hiroko takes him up to her bedroom. Konrad longs to make love to her in this moment, when the rest of the world is empty and silent. But he leaves her, perhaps because he doesn't want the rest of their life to begin like that, or perhaps because the all-clear has sounded and her father may return at any moment. Konrad would not have wished his relationship with his future father-in-law to begin badly. He sets off to walk to the Cathedral (one of the priests is a friend who is going to lend him a book). Hiroko feels so full of happiness that she opens the chest where her mother's clothes have been preserved, and, with sensuous pleasure she slips onto her naked body a white silk kimono on which three birds have been beautifully embroidered. Her body from the neck down is a white silk column with three black cranes flying elegantly across her back. She looks out towards the mountains: she thinks Nagasaki looks more beautiful than ever, lying beneath sunlight that has broken through the clouds. She runs to the verandah hoping to catch a last glimpse of Konrad as he walks away down the hill. It is then that the world turns white.

All that is left of anyone in or near the Cathedral is the melted fat from their bodies, burned like shadows into walls and onto rocks.

Hiroko, almost a mile from the epicentre of the explosion, suffers deep burns to her back, deepest where the black birds had been embroidered onto the white silk The silk is burned into the skin of her back. She is hospitalised in Tokyo for months with burns and radiation sickness. Eventually she recovers and joins the other young women who party with American servicemen in the night spots of Tokyo. After all, the war is over. Hiroko and other young girls who have been exposed to radiation from the bombs are known as "hibakusha": unsuitable as brides or mothers, unlikely to bear healthy chilsdren, and who may become helpless invalids within a few years. Hiroko cuts her hair to just below her ears, smokes cigarettes, drinks cocktails and dances the nights away. But one day The Bomb is mentioned, and a kindly young American explains apologetically that the atomic bombs had to be dropped on Japan in order to save thousands of American lives. Hiroko knows she has to leave, she has to get away, but where is she to go? Hearing that a traveller is about to leave for Delhi, where Konrad's sister lives, she packs her few belongings and sets off on what is to be a lifelong journey which would have surprised even herself, had she known about it in advance.

Kamila Shamsie, author of BURNT SHADOWS, is an extraordinary novelist, able to absorb her readers attention to the exclusion of all else until her story is told. Her knowledge and understanding of international politics and her ability to weave her immaculate plot into a book of immense scope without losing a shred of her intellectual compassion and sensitivity is surely the mark of a great writer. It is certainly the mark of a great storyteller. Her comprehension of language, her sly use of comedy, her mastery of English, and the book's capacity to wring the withers, all would have set her apart. But her wry perception of race, manners, and the fine points of love and marriage, motherhood and brotherhood, in different peoples, define her work as evocative of what is most significant in our global environment, and in our new century

Monday, January 18, 2010

BUTTERFLY

by

Sonya Harnett

As the stretch limo does its three-point turn from hell outside No10, Downing St., Mrs. Obama listens to a choir of very young Afro-British girls singing a song of welcome. Their enthusiasm delights her, and in her speech at the end of her visit she speaks from the heart, without notes. "In the future" she says (more or less), "you must be strong and you must be smart. Always do what you know is right, and don't be afraid to take the reins. Look at me" she says, "there is absolutely nothing in my background to suggest that I would become the wife of the President of the United States." I do hope she reads BUTTERFLY - she could have written it. BUTTERFLY is about Plum (short for Ariella), who is soon to turn 14. She lives in the uneventful respectability of suburban Melbourne. Typically, she hates her looks, is failing in her bid for peer popularity, and is hyper-critical of her very loving parents. Her elder brothers tease her, and nobody listens to what she says. She is defenceless in her metamorphesis from greedy, unthinking childhood to bewildering, oversensitive puberty. Feeling exposed and inadequate, she seeks the camouflage quite common to young girls: she tries to be like somebody else, or pretends to be something she is not, or just pretends. Sonya Hartnell writes with assurance, wit and insight about the esoteric metaphysics of growing up, drying out, and learning to fly. It is a well constructed book, uncluttered by gimmicks; the plot is unpredictable and intrigueing, the characters are finely drawn, and the reader is swept along at a great pace as the story unfolds.

Monday, June 1, 2009

CASTORP

by

Pawel Huelle

Born in 1957, Pawel Huelle, novelist, playwright and newspaper columnist, has lived most of his life in Gdansk. He graduated in Polish studies from Gdansk University in the early 1980s, and worked as a press officer for Solidarity. He was also a university lecturer in philosophy and was later head of Gdansk's television channel before becoming a full time writer.

In THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN by Thomas Mann, Pawel Huelle read that Hans Castorp "had spent four semesters at the Danzig Polytechnic..." So he wrote CASTORP, which tells the story of Hans Castorp's student years in Gdansk, studying to be a ship builder, long before his adventures in Davos, described in THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN. In creating this amusing but bittersweet scenario for the influential period in Hans Castorp's development, when the rational German student was exposed to the Slavonic eastern edge of the Prussian empire, Huelle pays tribute to Thomas Mann, and a poetic, humerous and affectionate tribute to Gdansk.

CASTORP is not in any way derivative: it is pure and elegant fiction, and a delightful novel, recreating as it progresses the heady atmosphere of central Europe before the two world wars. There is a faint echo of DEATH IN VENICE, as it has romantic obsession as its theme.

Hans Castorp falls in love with a beautiful Polish girl, Wanda Pilecka. She is sole heiress to landed properties to the east of former Poland, and rich enough to spend her time between her house in Warsaw and Switzerland, Italy and the Riviera. In Zoppot, the spa and kurhaus-by-the sea near Gdansk, she has her secret life of meetings with her lover, Sergai Davidoff, a Russian army officer. But their affair is avidly and covertly observed by young Hans Castorp, who is spellbound by her beauty and sophistication.

Hans Castorp's meticulous, prosperous and carefully planned little German world is typified in the way he buys a bicycle. He has to have a bright blue Wanderer with a pump made of chrome and a basket in which is a cardboard box with spare inner tubes, valves, glue and trouser clips; he wears a Loden cape, a Finnish knapsack with a smart wicker frame, goggles, chamois gloves, a leather flying helmet, and plus fours with matching socks. As his cycling becomes a passion we become familiar with Huelle's beloved and charming Poland in a way that would be impossible by car. And as Hans takes to lolling "casually" in a deck chair near the kurhaus pumproom, or strolling along the promenade, all in the hope of seeing Wanda Pilecka, he adopts a way of life that actually benefits his ability to study. Roderer's Electro-technical Equipment of Modern Shipping comes far more easily to him than in the days when he had observed every excersize and lecture with truly Prussian discipline. He passes his examinations with a fluent and accurate reasoning on the Balsano-Weierstrass theorem of a curve that has no tangents, and thus exists ideally, despite which it is constant. In fact, Huelle uses this curve and Ariadne's thread as metophers for life. The earth beneath the cobblestones in the streets of Gdansk is the ancient native Polish and Kashubian population, dispossessed by the Prussians. But Huelle invites the reader, on his splendid bicycle, to the street where, nowadays, hundreds of cars rush from Gdansk to Wrszeszcz and from Wrszeszcz to Gdansk, and where you will hear no other language than Wanda Pilecka's sibilant speech. He would like to see the reader, a virtual reader, like Weiestrass's magic curve.

Pawel Huelle is the author of WHO WAS DAVID WEISER? which was translated into 17 languages, and MERCEDES-BENZ, which was short listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2006.

CASTORP was published in Poland in 2004 and comes out in English on September 6th. 2007.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

CHAM

by

Jonathan Trigell

It was while he was at Sheffield University that Itchy had fallen in love with Tina 'a bit of bright Beverly Hills heaven in the beige of Sheffield'. Tina was girl friend material, marriage material, and he was getting nowhere with her. Tina was reading English; she was his only reason for attending lectures on the Romantic period. Assiduously he studied Shelley and Byron and Keats and Tina. His tutor, Dr Ragworth, persauded the department to fund a creative writing competition. The challenge: to reproduce one of the three lost Gothic ghost tales from the infamous summer at the Villa Diodati. Itchy wrote all three, each mentally dedicated to Tina. He won the first three prizes, which earned him a holiday in Chamonix. He did not win Tina.

It was partly to forget her that Itchy became head of the hedonists at Chamonix Mont Blanc, and also to numb the memory of a drunken, inexplicably stupid and shaming incident for which he feels he cannot atone.

Itchy loves women. At the end of an evening he might end up with spares or single birds, with MGM hourglass figures, or little boy-girls with hard tits and tight asses. Best of all he loves the static before the first kiss. Anticipation.

And Itchy loves ski-ing. Preparing for powder: strapping on his knee brace; wrapping the corset belt of his spine protector; buckling into place his avalanche transciever; checking that his collapsible shovel and probe are in place in his pack; and throwing in three Mars Bars because there is no time to eat on a powder day.

Itchy and Aussie Mark, his flat mate, and Josey, his fall-back shag (a posh girl who did a season at Chamonix and stayed too long, she loves the life and plucks what she wants from the world), are ski-ing off-piste in the Grands Montets, the mountain's mountain. Only the Meije in La Grave, the Matterhorn in Zermatt and the Aiguille de Midi can be compared with the Aiguille Verte. Its untamed glaciers are what the aficianados and the addicts come to ride. Josey is good, has skied since she was a kid, and keeps well up with Itchy and Mark as they plummet down the Glacier de Pendant. 'Yeah, bro' Aussie Mark shouts, when they stop on the Rock Ridge, 'powder is the stuff they make cocaine out of'. Itchy laughs, but wonders whether there isn't an edge of truth in the comment. Only in powder or Class As can nearness to death be so blissful.

There are risks that the three of them celebrate: choice of line; steepness of slope; depth of snow; height of drop. Anticipation, exhileration, danger, blue sunshine, and unbroken snow.

Itchy never goes back to Sheffield, and seldom thinks of his well-off, divorced parents in Hertfordshire. He works at night in a small but enjoyable bar in Chamonix. It is as good a place as any for a near-alcoholic to hide...

Jonathan Trigell was born in Welwyn Garden City in 1974. In 2002 he completed an MA in creative writing at Manchester University. He has spent over a decade of winters in the Alps, working right across the ski industry, from bar work and holiday repping to journalism and organising major events. In the summer months, he has worked as a TV extra, an outdoor-pursuits instructor and a door-to-door salesman, among othe things.

Friday, March 25, 2011

CHILD WONDER

by

Roy Jacobsen

I tired, long ago of novels written as though by a small girl. There seemed to be a spate of them, and oh, how clever and witty these small girls were! But CHILD WONDER is completely diferent. For one thing it is written by a man, and it is about a small boy who is growing up in the 1960s in a poor district just outside Oslo "when a social-democratic welfare state was no more than a vague and desperate idea"... It is the year that the Berlin Wall is erected and Yuri Gagarin makes man's first journey into space.

Finn, a six-year-old, lives with his attractive widowed mother in an apartment block. They are trying to improve their flat by hanging some wallpaper which they can't really afford, when Finn's mother decides to take a lodger, in defiance of the delicate balance they have achieved in their family of two.

The lodger is almost a mistake, but just as things are beginning to work out, Mother plumps down on a kitchen chair and announces that he has a sister.

"What?"

"A half-sister."

Actually he has known about this sister, vaguely aware that she is somewhere out there enjoying the widow's pension that should have been their's. Her name is Linda, and she is almost as old as Finn. Very gently, Mother explains that Linda's mother, a hairdresser, is not only a widow, but also a drug addict, and she can no longer look after her shild

But:

"Is she going to live here?"

And all at once it seems to Finn that he and his mother are strangers speaking sensibly about how to cope with another stranger, a girl called Linda, the daughter of a cranedriver (killed in an accident) who also happens to be his father.

Although this smacks of a triumph for Mother over the person who had gone off with her cranedriver husband and who was perhaps the indirect cause of his falling to his death, it was not an easy decision to make. Finn asks about the widow's pension.

"No, we won't see any of that," Mother says. Finn wonders if she is secretly fulfilling her old longing to have had a daughter. And he cannot understand why he is secretly looking forward to an event which a mere two weeks ago would have seemed like a catastrophe: having a sister, a little sister.

Once the lodger has been sorted out (Kristian, their new source of income, the tram conductor and ex-seaman, ex-toolmaker,, ex-construction worker, trade union man, tent-owner and wear-and-tear philosopher in a poplin mac), and the top half of Finn's bunk bed has been brought down from the loft, they are ready for the new arrival.

She arrives by bus. Alone. She is small and fat and quiet with eyes that bore into the tarmac. She smells, and her hair is unkempt, and Finn's mother falls in love with her, and cries when she looks at her.

Linda changes everything, not only in her own existance, but in Finn's and Mother's and even Kristian's.

In writing this novel Roy Jacobsen reveals a deep love and understanding of children, and a powerful ability to tell a story. The theme of the book is "how to lose one's innocence without losing one's soul". It is a beautiful book, I loved it, and I can't wait to find the translations of his other books.

He has twice been nominated for the Nordic Council's Literary Award: for SEIERHERRENE in 1991 and FROST in 2003, and in 2009 he was shortlisted for the Dublin Impac Award for THE BURNT-OUT TOWN OF MIRACLES.

Friday, June 17, 2011

CLOTH GIRL

by

Marilyn Howard Mills

Marilyn Howard Mills was born in Switzerland and brought up in Ghana, the daughter of a Ghanaian father and a Swiss mother. She was a practising lawyer for twelve years, and now lives in South London with her husband and two children.

Her background probably explains her shrewd understanding of her wide, dissimilar caste of characters: she has a very discerning eye. Her writing reveals a sensitive, penetrating but tender appraisal of her peers, her elders and those traditionally beneath her in status. In CLOTH GIRL, her first novel, which is set in Ghana from 1940 until independence ten years later, she shows a wide understanding of the world order of things. Here we see the Diplomatic Service in contrast to well educated Ghanaian men and their hopes for and about independence; and here are christian Ghanaian families who still hedge their bets with visits to the fetish priest. There is a special place for the Ghanaian house servants who put up with the British.

The most charming character in the book is Matilda Quartey. She is a Ghanaian girl who, at fourteen, is plucked from school and given in marriage, as his second wife, to a middle aged but handsome and agreeable man, Robert Bannerman, whom she knows only by reputation. Unlike the fourteen year old bride in IN THE COUNTRY OF MEN, Matilda has absolutely no privacy in her life at all. She finds herself unable to live in her husband's house because of the spiteful and dangerous resentment of his first wife, yet she is unable to feel welcome in her parents' house unless she very quickly becomes pregnant in order to properly consummate the marriage (so advantageous to them) in the eyes of their world. Her husband, a busy and successful Ghanaian lawyer, although obsessed with desire for her, is above bothering about such humdrum matters as where she is supposed to live and how she can safely bring up her children. She does not share his bedroom but visits him when he sends for her. Matilda shares with many Ghanaian women a delightful personality and sense of humour. She and her circumstances are cleverly described. Marilyn Howard Hughes spares nobody their blushes.

Nor does she spare Audrey Turton, the British wife of the ADC to the Governor. Audrey's life runs parallel but quite seperate from Matilda's. They live within a mile of onanother, and yet their lives could not be more different. Where Matilda has nothing at all of her own, and sleeps on a mat on the concrete floor, Audrey is spoilt, bored, has everything she wants except her ticket home to England, and is exhausted by the heat. She is appalled and repelled by everything African, especially the colourful and friendly (but rather fly-blown) market, and she is unforgivably rude to her servants (who forgive her). She takes no part in the simple activities of the other wives in her position, doesn't play bridge or tenis, and appears to be unable to read anything but out-of-date English magazines. She loses interest in her husband and her looks, until, after a while, her cats and her gin bottle are her only friends. However, her spoken English is good (most of the time) and her husband asks her to teach it to Matilda, whose husband Robert is a good friend of his.

Marilyn Howard Mills shows a wonderful understanding of both women and the men in their lives. Her novel is a masterpiece.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

CUCKOO

by

Julia Crouch

Time must be set aside for the reading of CUCKOO. This novel does not allow interruption: it commands the reader's absolute attention. Julia Crouch's psychological drama moves too swiftly for the reader to keep jumping up and getting on with other things.

The story ranges widely from cocaine fuelled high living in London to middle class rural Wiltshire and from Goldsmiths University to the Greek Island of Karpathos. It is a nailbiting domestic drama that unfolds, surprisingly, in a large old house in a Cotswolds hamlet.

Rose and Polly have been inseperable since attending primary school in the comparatively well-shod Queens Park area of Brighton. The story follows them through their university love affairs, and later, marriage and motherhood. But they are completely different in character. Rose tries successfully to draw a veil over her past and be a conventional wife and mother, but she is always teetering on the edge of the glamourous lifestyle of Polly, whose fame as a mood singer and whose unstable existance and sexual competence seem to attract every man within range. Skinny and scruffy and addicted to drugs though she is, Polly has an insatiable appetite for everything except food When she is suddenly widowed and made friendless by unforgiving relations-in-law in Karpathos, Rose overcomes her husband's objections and insists on making the annexe to their large and comfortable Wiltshire house a tempoary home from home for Polly and her two small boys. "Aha," you say, "big mistake!" And to some extent you are right. But the friendship between the two women is more powerful than cynics like you would expect. In fact, the more severe the ensueing domestic drama and betrayal becomes, and the more bizarre the behaviour, the closer they are bound by circumstance and sentiment. The srory weaves in and out of an intrigueing and convoluted plot. Nothing is ever quite as it seems. But Crouch's excellent sense of place is so immediate, and her characterisation so flawless that however unusual the surroundings and the behaviour of her caste, the reader is left in no doubt that he or she is at the scene. The dialogue is clever, if sometimes slyly beady, and there are some questions that almost any reader might ask, like what does a hotpants like Polly DO with Thai beads? But it rings true no matter what, and the wellbeing of the children is a constant worry.

So take CUCKOO on holiday, or a long journey, or on honeymoon, or to hospital, or wherever time can be made to stand still long enough for your disbelief to be at least dangled for a while. This book is one of those absolutely believable novels of which good fiction should always consist. Although, of course, the reader is left in no doubt that the book is clearly biographical, like many other good first novels, and that Julia Crouch is a damaged heroine with a chequered past of her own. Well, she has really earned it.

Monday, 31 Jan 2011

DEEP HANGING OUT

by

Richard Gwyn

Readers addicted to Hemingway will love this book. It's all there: the hot sun, the sand, the blood, the bells, the sea, the beautiful passionate women, the bulls, the peasants, the booze and the drugs, and the mens' men.

One of the mens' men is the highly intelligent and enigmatic Ruben; we are never quite sure what he is up to. He is a charismatic and witty Israeli, handsome, elegant, and irresistable to women. The other man, Cosmo, a talented painter, has romantic Irish good looks (although he is not Irish) and is almost an innocent. He has a sweet nature, and never quite understands the wiles and weirdness in other people. He is physically strong, even though he imbibes, from time to time, in every prohibited substance. Like the reader, he is never quite sure what is going to happen next.

Of course there is foul language, heavy smoking, and rather a lot of sex, both deviant and fairly straight, besides the consumption in quantity of almost every type of alcoholic drink, but it just adds colour to the story, which is set in Crete. There is a surprisingly romantic interlude where Cosmo takes Astya, his lover, trecking across the cool, rough Mountains of the Moon. They follow the faint, narrow tracks of mountain sheep, and sleep in deserted shepherds' huts and remote sandy beaches close to the sound of the sea. Cosmo is deeply in love with Astya; we are never quite sure about beautiful Astya's feelings until the tragic ending of the book.

The Cretan landscape is described as only a lover would see it: the sea is a deeper blue; the evening sun kisses the craggy mountains the colour of wild roses, and the dark blue night is full of stars; the sand and the dry grasses hold the heat of the day.

The dark mystery of espionage and counter-espionage sets off to perfection Gwyn's sharp, edgey humour and spry wit.

This clever, raunchy novel is very modern, especially in its pace and its punctuation. It never slows down, and Gwyn's economic and elegant prose gives it its beauty and its strength.

Monday, April 2, 2007

FAMILY ALBUM

by

Penelope Lively

Allersmead still stands, impressive in its early Edwardian elegance, its grounds undisturbed by modern gardening. The gravel in the drive has worn to grains, and muddy boots and paws have mellowed the black and white marble tiles in the hall; an imposing staircase could do with a dust; long windows in the drawing room open to a wide veranda overlooking a garden rich in stately trees. At the far end of the hall an unassuming door leads into an Edwardian kitchen dominated by a scrubbed wooden table big enough to seat all nine members of the family and whichever of their friends have happened by. In former days gargantuan meals would have been served by servants in the dining room of the house: roast haunches and sides, whole fish, shapes, savouries, bowls of home grown grapes, large round cheeses wrapped in crisp white linen, table centres of cyclamen from the glasshouse. But today it is fish fingers and baked beans served at the kitchen table by Alison to her husband Charles, her six children and the au pair. Alison is an excellent cook but limits the menu to child-friendly food. Her husband's mind remains in the book he is writing. To Charles the food is merely fuel with which to stoke his mind and body in order to finish his book. The children have happened to him, Alison happened to him, even the au pair. Which is fine by him. But his life is lived in his pannelled study with its bookcases loaded with Carlyle, Freud, Shelley, Stendhal, Manilowski. The study door has a small bolt on the inside.

Charles never asks to see the housekeeping accounts. He does not interfere in domestic dramas and crises. He remains aloof even when he is the crisis. He does not push the pram, nor does he want to drive the car (and hardly ever knows the way). Most of the children are born in the substancial matrimonial bed, when exasperating midwives would refer to him as Daddy. "Someone's ready to see thier Daddy now" would summon him, eventually, to the bedside where he would register delight in the new baby, while trying not to be reminded of the pig baby in Alice.

Alison is to remember those halcyon years for the rest of her life. She is never to lose her joy in being pivotal to her large family. There are ups and downs, and Alison is emotional and sometimes volatile, but she rides things out and the family survives.

The children grow up untrammelled by paternal admonition. No heart to heart chats, no benevolent advice, no patriarchal guidance clouds their day. Alison, though intensely maternal, is considered by the children to be lightweight (but they do avoid upsetting her). Only the au pair, Ingrid, is held in awe because she is taciturn and uncommunicative. She has an all-seeing eye, and she stays for forty years.

Such is the setting for a novel which intrigues, surprises, amuses and startles. Penelope Lively's wide and appreciative readership will be delighted with FAMILY ALBUM, especially if they loved OLEANDER JACARANDA, as I did.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

FAR TO GO

by

Alison Pick

When in 1938 Mr Chamberlain announced to the people of Britain that he had secured "Peace in Our Time" his words fell on ears pricked in apprehension: Britain had held its breath, waiting anxiously as the drama at Munich was played out. And not without reason, for Hitler and his accomplices had galvanised Germany into a formidable fighting machine, well armed with modern weapons, while Britain had been enjoying the twenty peaceful years since the nightmare of the Great War. There is no doubt that as Mr Chamberlain's words emanated from the wireless Britain breathed a sigh of relief. Sceptics there were, of course there were. But very few Britons wanted war with anyone, much less the arrogant and efficient Germans, with whom they felt they had no real quarrel. Few gave serious thought to the Czechoslovakians in the Sudetenland who had been surrendered to Hitler in return for "Peace in Our Time". It was thought that the majority of the people in that part of the world were of German origin, anyway. That the Czech President Benes had not been invited to the "peace talks" pricked only a few uneasy consciences. But what help could Britain have been in her unarmed condition? Peace was what Britain wanted, and found the German attitude exasperating. Had they learned nothing from the terrible Great War? And the French were not much better, still rattling old sabres. Oh, why did the Continent always have to be so complicated and quarrelsome?

But far away, in a land that Britain knew little about, there lived a community that had everything in their world to lose from that "Peace in Our Time": the Jews in the Sudetenland were utterly betrayed.

FAR TO GO begins in Czechoslovakia in 1938. The Jewish Bauer family are well-to-do and successful in business, but aware that many of their friends have already made their escape, alerted by talk on the wireless of Austria and the Anschluss, and the benefits the of the Nuremberg Laws. News had filtered in from Germany. But Pavel Bauer had his factory, inherited from his grandfather, and his workers to consider. What would happen to them, thrown out of work if he closed his factory? He loved his family, his house, his friends, and Czechoslovakia - his country. So he left it too late and paid the price that so many perfectly innocent Jews were made to pay. But the Bauers saved the life of their small son, Pepik, by sending him away to Scotland to live among strangers. FAR TO GO is set in the story of the Kindertransport. It is written as if by Pepik's adoring Nanny, and her daughter, who (you guessed it) is Pepik's half-sister, who goes in search for him after WWII.

Alison Pick, in writing this masterly novel, has drawn upon the journey her own grandparents made from their native Czechoslovakia to Canada during the Second World War.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

FEAR

by

Gabriel Chevallier

I happen to be writing the review of FEAR on the anniversary of two events, half a century apart, which are oddly relevant to the book: the death of Edith Cavell, who was shot as a spy in WWI, and the blowing up of Mrs Thatcher and her Cabinet at the Grand Hotel in Brighton. A great deal has been said and written of the bravery of these two women, and very little indeeed of the suffering of the relatives of those killed and that of Mrs Tebbitt (in contrast to the rise and rise of her near contemporary in Opposition, Mrs Kinnock). Even less attention is paid to the evil men and women to whose intention and interest we owe those events. FEAR was written specifically to refute the claim that war is edifying, purifying and redemptive. "We have all seen the repercussions of such twaddle" writes Gabriel Chevallier: "profiteers, arms dealers, the black market, denunciations, betrayals, firing squads, torture; as well as famine, tuberculosis, typhus, terror, sadism. And heroism, I agree. But the small, exceptional amount of heroism does not make up for the immensity of evil. Besides, few people are cut out for true heroism. Let those of us who came back have the honesty to admit it."

As a squaddie for the whole of the Great War, he was highly qualified to write this book, written as it was in opposition to all war, and in particular to the First World War and in the hope of helping to prevent WWII. Originally published in 1930, it had the misfortune to run into the second one, and in 1939 its author and publisher agreed freely and mutually to suspend sales. Written as a warning to the world against embarking upon WWII, it had come too late. It was published at great risk in the atmosphere prevalent around the time of the Wars; since then "some proud pens have avowed that shameful little word, fear."

The young Dartemont, the fictional narrator of this story, is typical of his time and his age. An aspiring intellectual, obliquely out of character with his elders, distrustful of authority and the accepted mores, he nevertheless joins up at the beginning of the war because it was expected of him, and because he didn't want to be left at home, a nonentity, missing the action, as it were. "Men are sheep," he says, "this fact makes armies and war posssible."

The narrative spans the five years of the war. It is quite simply a more or less day-to-day account of the terrible experiences of twenty million young men who were "led to the slaughterhouses to the sound of music."

Gabriel Chevallier (1895-1969) was a French novelist widely known as the author of CLOCHEMERLE, written in 1934., Translated into twenty-six languages it sold several million copies. He fought and was wounded in the Great War, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre and Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur.

FEAR is an anti-war classic, simply told but with some understandable bitterness and satire. "Candlelight reveals tense, hardened faces, reflecting the anger that is a reaction to weakness." Even to the last day of the war the horror continued: "Outside...whistles and screams of the bombardment we have started...into the colourless chill of dawn...We are all shivering, our faces green, mouths thick with that foul smell that bad awakenings belch up."

There is no love interest in the book; even the nurses at the hospital after he is wounded are unavailable; for squaddies, with little prospect of a happily married future, and no money for anything else, there is not much hope of romance or whatever. But the girl who took him home to her bed for for just one happy afternoon lives forever in gratitude between the pages of his book.

October 13, 2011

GILEAD

by

Marilynne Robinson

This novel takes the form of a letter, written in 1956, by a very old man, the Reverend John Ames, to the dearly loved son of his advancing years. It is a last testament of wisdom learned, of love lost and found, and the relationship forged and tested between fathers and sons.

The Rev. John Ames was born into the 19th century, when the midwest of the United States was being shorn of its forests, and its prairies, fertilised by game and bison for millenia, were being ploughed up for profit by greedy speculaters and entrepreneurs. Small towns in those days were hot property. But nature had been outraged, and predictably took revenge: the prairies became the world's widest dustbowl and began to blow away in the hot summer winds, and turn into a sea of impassable mud in midwinter The smart set went away, and only indigent communities were left, with nowhere to go and little to do. John Ames knew it all by heart, as intimately as knew his Bible and his hearth. He could have left: as a young man he had studied at university, but he was drawn back to his little town and his needy flock. His straitened circumstances were transformed when he married: life seemed unbelievably joyful, only to dim again when his young wife died giving birth to his first son, who lived only long enough to be christened; they were buried in the desolate churchyard.

It was years before John Ames married again, under strange circumstances, an accidental husband if ever there was one. But as he writes to the boy born of this late marriage, knowing that the letter must be laid away for many years until the boy becomes a man, who may have forgotten the face of his father, John Ames finds himself asking questions and finding at least a few answers. And, of course, he is finding himself, and remembering old friends and old jokes.

The bleak landscape had lent no comfort to the lonely years. When the dying held his hand and looked into his eyes and asked him what death would be like he used to say it was like going home. But then he would walk back up the road to his empty parsonage and listen to his radio in the dark. His neighbours loved him and brought him homemade pies and puddings, and introduced him to every unmarried female for miles around. He quite enjoyed that, but he never forgot for a single day for the rest of his life the young wife and tiny baby, taken so suddenly and terribly one awful night. The care of his congregation and his church and the preparation of his Sunday sermon filled his days; the seasons changed, and ha sleepwalked through the years. When a strange young woman made her appearance at his services he became aware of her. Gradually she broke down his reserve and eventually proposed marriage to him, and to his great astonishment he was delighted, and accepted. But when thier son was born he was very frightened, and as usual his anxiety went into his sermon. He preached about Hagar and Ishmael being sent into the wilderness and Abraham going off with Isaac to sacrifice him, as he believes. His point is that Abraham is in effect called upon by God to sacrifice both his sons. "Abraham's extreme old age is an important element in both stories, not only because he can hardly hope for more children, not only because the children of old age are unspeakably precious, but also...because any father, particularly an old father, must finally give his child up to the wilderness and trust to the providance of God". It is the narrative of all generations and is beautifully described in the old man's letter to his son

Marilynne Robinson's novel is original in form and perception. It is a thoughtful book written by a gifted writer and consummate storyteller whose penetrating and inimitable intelligence illuminates and enlivens every page of the book.

March 25, 2011

GONE WITH THE WINDSORS

by

Laurie Graham

Maybell Brumby is a rich, thirty-something widow from Baltimore who visits her sister, Lady Violet Melhuish, in London, at a time when marrying such as she was prevalent among impecunious English lords. Or even well to do lords, come to that.

The sisters could hardly have differed more from onanother. Maybell is happily and serenely rich, while Violet has become as English as Melhuish's grousemoors, or their close friend, Elizabeth (Bertie) York. Violet gives unstinted time to Fisherman's Orphans, Pit Ponies, Unmarried Mothers, Blood Banks, Consumptives, lepers and Fallen Women, while keeping her children at a healthy arms length. Maybell would rather write a cheque.

When Maybell is persuaded to accompany Violet's family to Drumcanna for August she finds herself lodged in a turret room reached by a narrow stone staircase; there is no en suite, in fact there is no bathroom, just night potties carried down in the morning and hot water carried up. Midges eat her alive and unless she joins the shooting lunch on the moors she will go hungry. The guns return in the evening, down large whiskies and then dash off and take all the hot water. They talk of nothing at dinner but the bag, gamekeepers and dogs. Then they play billiards or fall into bed. Gallantry is nonexistant if bags are good. And dinner is always salmon or grouse. By the time Maybell returns to London she is all too ready for a fillet mignon and gaeity, gossip and nightlife. She wastes no time in seeking out her liveliest friends, among whom is her old school friend Wallis Warfield.

This book is written as a very confidential diary, and bowls along at a great pace without any disorientating flashbacks. It records the sensational butterfly years between the wars. In it Maybell gives a revealing insider account of European and royal night life and summer holidays spent with HRH and Wally & Co., sailing round the Mediterranean. Some of Maybell's observations are understandably and amusingly bitchy, and some are kindness itself But unlike Wally, Maybell keeps her fhiends to the very end, and her maid, and all her diary entries are historically correct.

Laurie Graham's writing is exceptionally polished, and her work is immaculately researched and very sophisticated. This story is racy and funny and sad, but never for a single moment is it dull. Maybell is a fictional character, but many of the other people in the book were very much alive at that time. It is a fascinating historical story and should not be missed.

Friday, December 31, 2010

GREATER LOVE

by

Lucy Wadham

The story begins in a hamlet near Braganca, Portugal, with the conception of dizygotic twins, Aisha and Jose. It is so hot in 1980 that "the fish boiled alive in the river and floated, milky eyed, to the surface", and an olive tree died that had given shade to the Romans as they marched from the coast. As sometimes happens with such twins one is much the stronger: as they grow up it is Aisha who protects and speaks for her brother. She is articulate, intelligent and brave, with a fierce ambition to get away from their village. Jose lives in her shadow; he is a beautiful boy, gentle but fearless in his own way. He refuses to speak, and the superstitious and archaic villagers believe it is a retribution for the sin of his parents.

Aisha, clever at school, makes her way to Paris, unaware of the pain her abandonment causes her twin. In the excitement of Paris (which Wadham clearly loves), Aisha works as a chambermaid, then a nanny to spoilt French children whose father she seduces. She studies hard and makes her way to the Sorbonne. Hearing from her old schoolmistress that her brother is in steep decline, she sends Jose his bus fare to Paris, but is quite unprepared for the change in him. Lucy Wadham is uncannily perceptive about the widely differing characters in her book. She lets Aisha tell her own story clearly and dispassionately.

This novel is full of suspense, some tragedy, humour and compassion; it is well constructed, and the work of a natural and gifted storyteller. It travels from deepest rural Portugal to smart fashioable Paris, through the Sorbonne, to the bleak tower blocks of Blanville (reminiscent of THE ASBO SHOW only French) and on through life in California and Marrakesh. Lucy Wadham is worldly and sophisticated, and writes with the simplicity of the true professional. She holds a mirror up to us all and says "Take a good look at yourselves". But she tends not to judge other people, and lets nothing get in the way of her fast moving plot.

There are pages in the book to savour and reread, as when she is on the step of her California house, feeding her baby: "It is late September and the turkey buzzards are floating above the hills on the far side of the lagoon. On the sand bars, just out of view, seals will be lying like indolent eunuchs, catching the last warmth of the day and of the season. The sky and water are touched with gold and the dry grass on the hills is caramel, the colour of this baby's hair".

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

GOOD OFFICES

by

Evelio Rosero

Tancredo is probably about nineteen years old. He is tall, formidably intelligent and hunchbacked. Born in Bogota he was abandoned to the Church and is obliged to it for his life and his living. But the Church, in the person of Father Almira, demands that his life is one of service to the community and to God, which is why he is in charge of serving the ninety very old and extremely needy people of Bogota with their lunch on Thursday. It is one of Father Almida's charitable works for the poor. A two hour wait in all weathers for the side door to the dining room to open does not improve their tempers or their manners; they are fed potato slop (they have no teeth) mashed with bits of shredded pork, all prepared by the three ancient women who work in the kitchens. Tancredo feeds them all and then has the horrible task of driving them all back out onto the streets again, and scouring the walls, floors, chairs and tables after they have gone. If one of them has died he has to telephone the places where no one ever answers: the institutions and foundations who profess to support Father Almida. "we're on our way", they say, eventually, but Tancredo has to sit with the decrepit corpse for many hours. No wonder he is consumed with an awful fear of becoming an animal. He is deeply afraid that he might savagely attack someone, piss on someone's holy head, smash the furniture, or pull up the lay sister's heavy skirt and rip into the apparent innocence of her blouse, paw her breasts and pinch her buttocks. He longs to confess to the Father about his dreadful fear of becoming an animal.

If to so thoroughly enjoy this satire at the expense of the Roman Catholic Church at a time when it is already in receipt of a considerable amount of welly seems rather unsporting, so be it. GOOD OFFICES is such a joy to read, its humour is so gentle but so rapier sharp, and yet it is completely without contempt. The book must be read at least twice in order to appreciate the nuances and the metaphors, the grief for a people's tragedy and the author's hope for their ease and their redemption.

Friday, October 28, 2011

GUERNICA

by

Dave Boling

"From medieval times Guernica was a crossroads of the old Roman Way and the Fish and Wine Route that wound through the hills inland from the sea. Intersecting them both was the pilgrims' route to Santiago de Compostela. For centuries, representatives of the region met under the Guernica oak to shape laws that outlawed torture and unwarranted arrest and granted unprecedented privileges to women. Although aligned with the kingdom of Castile, they maintained their own legal system and demanded that the series of Castilian monarchs from the time of Ferdinand and Isabella come stand, in person, beneath the oak of Guernica and swear to protect the Basque laws. Because the economy of the region hadn't evolved under the fuedal system, the Basques owned their own land and were never divided into sovereigns and serfs, merely farmers, fishermen and craftsmen, free and independent of any overlord."

The farm, like its family name, was considered timeless if protected and maintained. An eldest son would claim his birthright and become the latest in a chain of stewards of the land that extended back to when his ancestors painted animals onto walls in the nearby Santimanine caves. He may never leave to take a holiday, or go to sea, or even visit the city of Bilbao. In 1936, on the afternoon of a market day, coming out of the sun in a clear sky, without any warning, squadrons of Luftwaffe bombed the little town for four hours. Farmers and their families had brought in their animals and poultry for sale or barter, jokes and gossip and neighbourly insults were being exchanged, women were selling their cookery, needlework, soap and vegetables from their stalls, and little boys were running about.

Piccaso's attempt to portray that unspeakably hideous and savage cruelty could give little more than a snapshot of what followed. The houses were made of wood. There were no fire-engines, no shelters, no sirens, and only a very small hospital where the nuns were as unprepared for the dying and the wounded as was the rest of the town. Little more than the ancient oak on the hill, and a few out-lying farms, and some terribly damaged and burned human beings and animals survived. What did the rest of Europe hear about all this? Very little. Most ordinary poeple knew only reproductions of Piccaso's painting. Alberto de Onaindia, Canon of Valladolid, who witnessed the bombing, was sent to Paris afterwards to tell the world about it. Baird was only then inventing television in his Brighton studio: there were no televised scenes of towering black smoke or torn and burned poeple: only the screaming horse and the bull on Piccaso's canvas were emblematic of the terror in a small market town where hardly anyone had ever seen a motorcar.

Some Basque orphans were evacuated to Britain. Dunkirk, the Blitz, the Battle of Britain, the hard Battle of the Atlantic and then El Alamein were desperately fought and won. World War II obliterated awareness of the Spanish Civil War and its tragedies and savageries; the casualty total may never be known, even by the Basques, so famously staunch in defence of their land. Had Britain bombed the Isle of Man for its patriarchial meetings of the ancient Tynwald, its refusal to pay English taxes, or to observe English laws, such a foul retribution would have lingered bitterly in Manx memories, and Manx grandchildren would never have been allowed to forget. Fortunately Westminster chose to file the problem and English families continued to enjoy their holidays on the Isle of Man.

Dave Boling's lively, compassionate and often humourous novel is about fictional characters. It is deeply researched, with sharp understanding of the atmosphere and political climate of the region at the time. It is a romantic novel, yet it is sensible of the poverty, oppression and instability caused by the complex and volatile politics of the time, an echo of which can still be heard in the streets of Guernica today.

Friday, March 25, 2011

HALF LIFE

by

Roopa Farooki

Singapore is the Lion City that wears many masks: Chinese, Malay, British. State, Town, and beautiful Island. Floating on the edge of the Straits that merge with the South Chins Sea it is in a unique position and has a unique history. Trim palm trees in pots line the road to the Airport, where Jazz Ahsan is driving to meet Aruna, the love of his life, who is arriving on a night flight from London. Even when they attended the International School together, the only Pakistanis in their year, they were inseperable. Later they became lovers, but secretly to spare their Muslim families' feelings. They would marry when they had come back from thier universities, they thought. But Aruna is flawed: having lost her mother at three years old, she was brought up by servants, and seldom saw her father. She began to have severe mood swings which were diagnosed as a bipolar disorder; she developed an addictive personality, which increased when she and Jazz went to their seperate colleges, she at university in England.

Once she leaves Singapore, where even chewing gum is not allowed, drugs are unthinkable, and punishable by death, she neglects to take her medication and finds the accessability of soft, then hard drugs, irresistable. She only realises she has a problem when she is mistaken for a prostitute as she waits for her dealer on a street corner late at night. She finds weaning herself off drugs extremely difficult, and she becomes dependent on cigarettes, vodka, and, later, sex This last suits her young, respectable English doctor lover, Patrick, very well, and Aruna finds herself married to him within a year. That the marriage to Aruna, undomesticated as she is, does not suit his family, especially his mother, bothers Patrick not in the least. But small things like that begin to bother Aruna and they find themselves bickering and even quarrelling. One morning, when Patrick is at the hospital, and Aruna is studying for her degree while eating her breakfast, she reads "It is time to stop fighting and go home", and without hesitation, without showering or brushing her teeth, she pulls on her jeans and a T-shirt and jacket, puts her passport and credit card in her bag and sets off in her flip-flops back home to Singapore, and, of course, to Jazz.

But after years of running away from herself Aruna discovers that that is the easy part. It is coming home that is hard.

Pakistan born Roopi Farooki was brought up in London and graduated from Oxford in 1995. HALF LIFE is her fourth novel. She is a gifted storyteller, managing to write with wit and compassion about a damaged girl and strained family ties. Her characters are flawed, yet they are enaging, and this unpredictable narrative about a rather dysfunctional family is lively and original. I found it impossible to put this book down, and read it in a day.

Friday, March 25, 2011

HALF OF A YELLOW SUN

by

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This masterly novel is so acomplished that one suspects Adichie of having been here before; the story is told as if in the tradition of the ancient storytellers, with hardly a nod to the modern novel.

Chimamanda Ngoni Adichie must also be a very attentive listener, perhaps to her elders: the desperate and savage war in which her people suffered such extremes of endurance, starvation, loss and countless and uncounted deaths, happened before she was born.

Adichie was born in Nigeria in 1977; she grew up in the university town of Nsukka. Educated at primary and secondary school, her writing won her early recognition. Her short stories were published in Granta and won the International/PEN/David Wong Award in 2003. Her first novel, PURPLE HIBISCUS, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, longlisted for the Booker Prize and was winner of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. She was a Hodder fellow at Princeton University. She lives in Nigeria.

She records the recent history of her country with great wisdom and sophistication; her understanding of the very complicated Nigerian politics is amazing, yet her prose reads like poetry. HALF OF A YELLOW SUN is balanced, highly professional, and despite its harrowing content, full of humour. She has peopled the pages of her book with characters that are endearing, surprising, exasperating and entirely original. In the three years of Biafran suffering their relationships with lovers, family and friends are severely tested, and some are lost. That anything at all survived is a miracle: some even flourished and were stronger than before, but nothing could be further from a cliche than this book, which is written as though in a spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation, but not without regret.

A rather Hugh Grant Englishman, devoted to the family (especially the sister), stays with them throughout. An Ibo general asks him to write to the English papers about the war.

'Why me?' he asks, 'you would not have asked me if I was not white'

'Of course I asked you because you are white' says the general. 'They will take what you write more seriously because you are white. Look, the truth is that this is not your war. This is not your cause.. If you really want to contribute this is the way you can. The world has to know the truth of what is happening - they simply cannot remain silent while we die...'

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

HUMAN CAPITAL

by

Stephen Amidon

Stephen Amidon writes too well for his own good: compelled by the seamless narrative of HUMAN CAPITAL one might easily miss all but the wit and pace of a book which is original and fresh throughout.

Amidon is well up to date on today's business and commerce, higher education and IT. The after effects of 9-11. His high-flyers know it all. Teachers, policemen (and woman), doctors, nurses and estate agents know their job. Students, servants, meter-maids, drug-pedlers, pizza-cooks and bar-staff are as alive and vital as the writer (Jon is surely Amidon?). So well understood are his women that were it not for his picture on the back-flap and that bat squeak of the Lady Chatterlys on page 255...? But no, it's a man alright! It is simply that his varied and conflicting characters are drawn with a line so perfect as to appear effortless. Only Ian is enigmatic - or is there a clue to him on the book cover?

While Amidon's beady eye spares us nothing of America's self-regarding wealth or Connecticuts suburban snobbery, one can but share his affection for his flawed characters and their families. One is led, fascinated, through intrigue and suspence, treachery and devotion, to the very last surprise on the very last page.

Paula

Sunday, April 9, 2006

HUMAN TRACES

by

Sebastian Faulks

One of the themes of HUMAN TRACES is about how we lock up the least of our lunatics, even the mildly eccentric, while seriously dangerous egomaniacs remain at libery, free to avail themselves of armies, police forces and WMDs and become a danger to thrir neighbours. With terrible simplicity Faulfs explains in HUMAN TRACES that we are still in the process of evolution. Our brains have come far from the primitive and we have learned some extremely clever tricks, but we are still childish, and sometimes credulous: useless bits of our prehistoric brain lingers on in wait to betray us, while the most recently developed part is the most vulnerable to mental illness. He thinks that the best thing we can do about that is to treat our locked-up lunatics with medicine, kindness and respect; listening to them may help us to learn what triggers the afflictions that affect the human brain. HUMAN TRACES is set in the late 19th century, perhaps to explain to us how far we have come, how we travelled and where we arrived. The veil between lunacy and sanity is as thin as a cigarette paper, according to Faulks.

HUMAN TRACES is about two boys, Jaques and Thomas, from widely different backgrounds, who discover while on holiday at Deauville with their families, that they share an intense though disparate fascination for the then infancy of what was to become the respectable science of psychiatry. Such is the haphazardness of life. They become lifelong friends, colleagues and brothers-in-law, yet they discover that they still have to tread with care in respect of one anothers' sensibilities, even to the end of their professional lives.

A loving and benign sister is central to the plot, as are Katherina, Daisy, and Mary, who are ex-patients. In fact there is quite a large cast of women, treated kindly by Faulks. The story is about the lifelong search for understanding of the mind, recognition of their work, and, of course, money. It takes them from a rural French village and an English country house to the high sophistication of Vienna and Paris, with stops at California and the plains of Africa. It is a challenging and thoughtful read, quite long, but very rewarding. Their search takes them through the advanced study of "madness", through turn-of -the-century medicine, pathology, neurology and hysteria. At one point they are compelled to a tragic revision of all they thought they knew, and their understanding of onanother.

The pages of this book are so evocative of place and time, and every character portrait is so well painted, that the reader thinks himself to be walking the beach at Saint Agnes, playing tennis at Torrington, diagnosing and prescribing at the schloss, or walking the foul wards of the Salpetriere Hospital in Paris. Of course there is name-dropping: a study of mental illness of the period must include Pinel, Charcot and many more. But this is not a historical novel; it is a brilliant tale of pure fiction, through and through. There is love, loyalty, betrayal, compromise - all the stuff of the human condition. It is Sebastian Faulks at his most scholarly and discerning, and perhaps his most ambitious; certainly he is unashamedly philosophical. In its grandeur and simplicity HUMAN TRACES calls to mind the best of the 19th century novels, but it is timely and relavent for us in our modern predicament of the present day.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

I HAVE WAITED AND YOU HAVE COME

by

Martine McDonagh

The post-apocalyptic ruin of civilisation affords Martine McDonagh the freedom to indulge her talent for the macabre. A decidedly original tale, I HAVE WAITED AND YOU HAVE COME is about the triumph of the inept, scruffy and dreamy over the fussily domesticated and the pragmatic. "I"m a stickler;" says the heroine, "this is how I do things" The novel unfolds, as though told through a story-board, in linear and economical detail; the reader is drawn hypnotically into a mysterious, primitive existence where visceral intuition informs expectations. Psychologically sophisticated, the book explores the sinister line between obsession and possession (in the metaphysical sense), the stalker and the stalked, the axe and the umberella. The subtext is a lesson in futurology within a sexual frame of reference. In a nightmare cosmos, between whirlwind and williwaw, sadism and taxidermy, and by the New Dawners out of the last tribes of Romany, a first novel has been born, innocent , bloody and reeking, but with its own inescapable demands on our attention. Ignore it, O Philistines, at your peril.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

IN THE COUNTRY OF MEN

by

Hisham Matar

As early as the 8th Millenium BC Farmers had domesticated Libya's coastal plain. They were displaced by the Berbers. Later came the Phoenicians, who established trading posts and exploited the raw materials. Later again, Greeks emigrated from the overcrowded island of Thera, commanded as they were by the oracle at Delphi to seek a new home in North Africa: in 631BC they founded the city of Cyrene. At some point the Romans marched in, headed by Septimus Severus, and founded Tripoli. Ironically the unification of Libya came about in 1934, when Mussolini bombed the helpless natives with biplanes, invaded their land, and established Libya as the official name of his Italian colony. (King Idris I, Emir of Cyrenaica, stoutly but hopelessly resisted the Italians). From 1943 until 1951 most of Libya was under British administration, in defence of the Suez Canal, so vital to our ships on the way to Australia, New Zealand and India, and all points south of the Equater. In 1947 King Idris returned from exile in Cairo, and Italy relinquished all claims to Libya. All might then have been well, had not oil been found there in 1959, and one of the world's poorest nations (Libya is mostly desert) become an extremely wealthy state. In no time at all King Idris had to go, his son's life was made impossible, and an army coup enabled Colonel Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gaddfi to become supreme leader and despot of an extremely secretive and wealthy state, consisting of about three million profoundly religious Muslims. They in their turn drew another veil of secrecy over their lives, namely the honour of the family. Within a Muslim family the men are held responsible. Women must defer to their husbands, brothers, sons and even grandfathers (whose lives are sometimes yet another closed book). The walls of the house and the marital bedroom door represent further layers of the utmost privacy, and to top it all strictly religious Muslim women wear the burkha or its equivalent. Nor may any man demand that the burkha be lifted under any circumstance whatever, on pain of Hell. Or worse.

If the above appears sencorious it is not meant to be. Islam is a source of greater strength and comfort to the faithful than the great majority of Christians ever know from Christianity. Perhaps Christians have a more cheerful time, what with saints days and Christmas and Easter. And alcohol should be just a simple pleasure, not an embarrassing binge.

IN THE COUNTRY OF MEN tells the story of a young boy, Suleiman. He is the only child born to a highly intelligent fifteen year old girl who had been given in marriage to a complete stranger at the age of fourteen. But she has discovered her own secret, which is uniformly kept in black bottles, which, she assures Suleiman, contain her medicine. She binds him to absolute and utter secrecy. Above all she instills into the very marrow of his bones that her husband (his adored father) must never, ever know.

From the earliest age Suleiman lives and breathes it all, clapped up in the house with Mom (Dad is away on business most of the time). The curtains are drawn against the outside world. He is terribly afraid his mother will die of her illness at any time, but hecan tell no one at all, not even his only friend, Kareem. Of course children take the circumstances of their early life for granted, and Hiram Matar writes coolly and sentimentally enough, almost as though the book is a biography, which he says it is not.

"If love starts somewhere," writes Suleiman later (when he is twenty four), "if it is a hidden force that is brought out by a person, like light off a mirror, for me that person was her. There was anger, there was pity, even the dark warm embrace of hate, but always love and always the joy that surrounds the beginning of love." She was a girl of eighteen when he first remembers the beginning of love. But this was no oedipus complex, nothing so banal. And it is not difficult even for cynical Christian readers to understand that, or to understand his frightening betrayal of poor Kareem.

But what of the man who grows out of it all after his parents manage to get him out of Libya to Cairo? Well, he meets his mother at the Central Bus Station at Alexandria many years later. "I can't remember her face," he panicks, "what if I don't recognise her?" She is coming to see what has become of her darling boy, her only son. She was the same age when he was sent away as he is now.

But that is not really the main theme of the book. IN THE COUNTRY OF MEN tells the extraordinary and heartbreaking story of a university professor, an idealistic business man, (Bedouin by birth), other intellectuals and hundreds of university students who dared to cry freedom in Gaddafi's Libya, and paid the hideous price. We hear the young mother's impotent cries of disbelief that they could be so foolish."Walk by the wall," she implores, look the other way." When she is silenced by scorn she says "O, my apology,...how foolish of me...I must be a good wife, loyal and unquestioning, support my man regardless." Loyal she remains. Her affections take a surprising turn. But she was right. Gaddafi, the Guide, the Leader of All, is still there, isn't he, and they are not.

Hisham Matar was born in New York to Libyan parents and spent his childhood first in Tripoli and then in Cairo. He has lived in London in London since 1986.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

INTUITION

by

Allegra Goodman

It is 1985. Harvard Yard is quiet with snow, and Cambridge (USA) schools are closed, but at the Mendelssohn-Glass cancer research laboratory, part of the renowned Philpot Institute, four postdocs and a couple of lab techs are absorbed in their work. Extracting DNA in solution, examining cells, washing cells with chemicals; bursting cells open, and changing cells forever by inserting new genetic material; moving and measuring solutions millimeter by millimeter with pipettes; preparing liquids, ices, gels. But peeling walls, crowded benches, out-of-date dials and needle indicators and a noisy centrifuge tell their own story: Mendelssohn-Glass is short of money. Marion Mendelssohn and Sandy Glass (aka Samuel Glazeroff), while presiding in unchallenged autocracy, are only too aware that it is the success of their labouring researchers on which the reputation of the lab depends. On the identification of a marker that would reveal a unifying syndrome underlying a mortal disease, or the discovery of a virus that could transform diseased cells into normal cells without relapse, rests a possible Nobel Prize, the probability of untold wealth, and more to the immediate point, a substancial grant. Scientific methods are precise and calibrated, thousands of hours are spent exhaustively proving or disproving a theory. But the lab grant proposal for the National Institute of Health is imminent, and it is Sandy's business to apply for it. So when more than half the mice in Cliff's experimental group are in remission Marion is reluctant to tell Sandy, although the ramifications could be breathtakingly significant. So eager is Sandy for results, and so impatient of the time needed to verify their merit, that he over-rides Marion's professionalism and caution and trumpets abroad what should have been treated as a bat-squeak, or, perhaps a mouse-squeak (except that the mice have been bred not to squeak, just as they had been bred to lack a thymus gland, and are consequently hairless, and without a normal immune system can accept xenografts and so harbour human cancer cells, enabling the study of tumours in vivo). Sandy articulates what every postdoc, lab tech, and even Marion herself knows perfectly well: talent and intelligence, brilliance, preparation and diligence, get lab scientists through the door, but - this is the dirty secret - you need luck. And Sandy means to make his own...

INTUITION is a fascinating, well informed and incredibly well researched insight into university life and politics, and a shrewd and razor-sharp observation of human relationships. It is also about how pivotal a few careless words can be. The plot turns on whether or not the discretion of any one human being can, or should be, absolutely trusted, and how journalists and politicians rush to be the first to manipulate what ought to be the truth. I would think this novel is a gift to bookgroups of almost any creed or colour, busy or with time to spare, brainy or not. It's just a shame about the mice, but characteristically, Allegra Goodman tells the fictional truth It is her first novel, but, let us hope, not her last by a long way.

Friday, September 3, 2010

LATE NIGHTS ON AIR

by

Elizabeth Hay

It is the long golden summer of June, 1975, and in the one-traffic-light town of Yellowknife, Canada, not far south of the Arctic Circle, the local radio station has two new announcers. The station itself has one broadcasting booth, no larger than an ordinary bathroom, a two desk newsroom, and a pantry sized record library. In the basement, next to the washroom, Eddy Fitzgerald takes care of the technical equipment. Eleanor Drew, the receptionist, sits at her desk in the front window, for the building was once a shop. Ralph Cody does the book and arts reviews; he is also a keen photographer. Harry Boyd is the temporary manager. A silver haired treaty Indian, trim and immaculate and quiet, reads the news in Dogrib.

Gwen Symon is new. She has driven her old Volvo and trailer caravan 3000 miles from Toronto to Yellowknife, and wants a job with the radio station. She speaks quietly, wears no jewelry, and dresses simply in soft earth colours. "Camouflage" thinks Eleanor. "I've wanted to come north for as long as I can remember" explains Gwen, and Harry, after a false start on the News, where she fluffs her lines, relegates her to the late night programme of music and general information. Gwen likes having the place to herself, and the feedback from the public gives her confidence. She prefers her audience to be small, and probably trying to sleep (in Yellowknife the sun sets around midnight).

Dido Paris is also new. Born and raised in the Netherlands, the daughter of a Latin teacher who listens to the BBC, she learnt English at school, but whet and honed her accent with the help of a recording of Margaret Leighton reading Noel Coward. She has come to Yellowknife in hidig from her marriage to a Canadian, whose father she had found irresistable. She rather hopes her father-in-law will "find" her in remote Yellowknife. Harry is in his little house on the edge of Back Bay when her voice comes over the radio for the first time. He can't wait to ask Eleanor about the new voice on air. "Hired off the street," she tells him, "the parting shot of our erstwhile manager." Dido is still broadcasting, lit by the red glow of the on-air light as he pushes through the studio door. Having been fascinated by her voice, he is now captivated by her looks Harry, in his late forties, balding,bespectacled, highly intelligent, indiscreet, worldly, and with an alcohol problem, falls in love as he never has before. The staff at Radio Yellowknife are impressed by Dido's style and sophistication, and both men and women appreciate her beauty, her clothes, her absolute confidence on air, but men fell in love with her. But Dido doesn't really know what she wants. She needs an edge, a hint of danger, a frisson. She is attracted to what her European sisters would, with a giggle, have called "her bit of rough." In truth she is a misfit, and it is a relief to all of them, in different ways, when she runs off to California.

Ralph, Harry, Gwen and Eleanor are all Canadian, and have arrived in Yellowknife by happenstance. All of them have read George Whalley's biography The Legend of John Hornby (Macmillan of Canada 1962).

Hornby, the English explorer, who, like T.E. Lawrence, thrived on overcoming extremes of hardship, loneliness and hunger, and drew others to admire and follow him, died with his friends from starvation near the Thelon River. Ralph often re-reads this book, and for different reasons he and Harry decide to canoe Lakes Artillery, Ptarmigan, Sifton, Harry, Burr, French, Kipling and Beverley, and the Thelon River, and to visit the spot where Hornby had built his cabin and died. Gwen and Eleanor, experienced canoeists, ask to join them. None of them is really aware of the hardship in what they are about to undertake, but all enjoy the excitement of preparation for what they think of as a very arduous and possibly dangerous adventure. None of them seriously considers it as life threatening. On the morning of June 17th, 1977, they load their canoes and packs into a float plane and are flown to the uninhabited end of Great Slave Lake. By July 26th they have canoed and portaged the enormous distace to their final destination on Beverley Lake, where they are to spend their last night on the Barrens. The float plane is to pick them up the following day. In all those punishing weeks they have been where few have ever been, and where no help could reach them. They discover how beautiful and how harsh this dynamic wilderness can be, and how fragile the existance of the toughest and most ancient flora and fauna on earth in Canada's vast hinterland, The Eighth Wonder of the World.

Background to the book is the long-running inquiry, under Judge Berger, concerning the huge natural gas pipeline which the federal government and corporate wealth plan to rip open the Yukon, in the path of which all forms of life in the virgin tundra could be threatrnrd with extinction, for none of it, either human or animal, will be spared the intrusion and the interference and evil that would inevitably come with such violation.

LATE NIGHT ON AIR is not just an exciting and deeply interesting new novel. It is an anthem to Canada, and Canadians, the Barren Lands, outposts like Yellowknife, and to radio.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

LIFE CLASS

by

Pat Barker

It is the spring of 1914. Paul Tarrant, with Pharaonic good looks and an ambition to be an artist, attends the famous Slade School of Art in London. The Slade is avant-garde in admitting young ladies as students, but the life class is segregated, of course.

Paul is technically accomplished but his work lacks depth. Professor Tonks, of Slade renown, is aware that Paul is very talented but that his work is mechanical, and that he is from a working class Middlesborough family. Paul's bid to become an artist, funded by a small legacy, is motivated by a wish to get away from the dark drama and colour of the mines and factories, the chimneys, the mills, the cobbled streets, and the pubs where knobbly hands shuffled dominoes.

No. Paul unashamedly delights in the glamour of the Cafe Royal, with its tall mirrors, and its chandeliers; sensually he enjoyed the sleek heads and bare shoulders of the women, and the laughter, the drinking, and the sense of witty things being said. But sooner rather than later he must succeed as a painter or go home and get a job. And, of course, he is in love. She is Elinor Brooke, a bright star of the Slade, and a loving, but platonic (and virginal) friend.But what would Elinor's Mummy and Daddy think of him as a prospective son-in-law?

Paul consoles himself in a rewarding infatuation with Teresa Halliday, whose beauty and local celebrity as an artists' model is undimmed by her dysfunctional family background.She calls Professor Tonks Henry and Augustus John Gus.

In September war breaks out. Young men, including Paul, enlist, as their patriotic rite of passage. Elinor lets Paul kiss her, and asks him for a Friday to Monday with her family in the country. Paul's weak chest precludes military service, so he volunteers as an ambulance driver, and finds himself in a field hospital attending to soldiers with horrific wounds.Later he drives ambulances to the front to collect the wounded and bring them back to the collection of miserable huts that serves as a hospital. Paul is traumatised by the suffering of the wounded, the dying men and horses, the terrible death roared uot by the guns, the shelling of civilians, including children, and the devastation of what must have been a quiet farming countryside. He sees the young men who march, whistling bravely, to the front, and he sees the broken wrecks who shamble back. He writes to Elinor, asking for news of life at the Slade and of their friends in London.

Elinor is totally committed to her Art, and hating the war, she mixes with the notoriously pacifist Bloomsberries. But she manages a brief visit to Paul, and touched by hid dreadful life, offers up her virginity. They eat at a small local cafe. 'What about your work?' she asks, ignoring what he did at the hospital. 'What do you draw?' 'Oh, poeple at the hospital. Patients...That's what I see. Though...nobody's going to hang that sort of thing in a gallery.' 'Why would you want them to?, she asks 'Because it's there. They're there, the people, the men. And it's not right their suffering should just be swept out of sight.' 'I'd have thought it was even less right to put it on the wall of a public gallery...An arty freak show...You can't use people like that.' 'I'm not using anybody.' Poor Paul.

Elinor goes back to London and tea with Lady Ottoline and the bright lights and the brave boys in uniform at the Cafe Royal. She feels ashamed to be all in one piece as she passes the wounded being wheeled out in their bath chairs.

Paul is wounded and invalided home. He has altered. Now he has something he passionately wants to paint, although his sombre, haunting and horrifying paintings will never find a gallery until after the end of the war.

Pat Barker was born in 1943. Her books include the highly acclaimed Regeneration trilogy which was made into a film (1991). The Eye in the Door (1993) which won the Gaurdian fiction prize, and The Ghost Road (1995) which won the Booker Prize, and three other novels. Her descriptive writing carries the reader wholley into the drama of the novel; and yet one is fully aware of the things unspoken. LIFE CLASS is a powerful story of young people growing up in extraordinary circumstances. It is an unforgettable book, incredibly well researched, and written with passion and wisdom.

Pat Barker lives in Durham.

Friday, June 29, 2007

LITTLE HUT OF LEAPING FISHES

by

Chiew-Siah Tei

Compare Chiew to a nightingale! Let us hope that as the dawn breaks over China after the dark night of the Cultural Revolution the lesser singers will join her and create a cacophony of joy in celebration. Chiew is a virtuoso, a coloratura, and, like the nightingale, a matchless master of her Art.

LITTLE HUT OF LEAPING FISHES is, in its nineteenth century setting, a deeply knowledgeable history of the China of its time. Her hero, Mingzhi, is the first grandson of an illiterate but formidably autocratic feudal landlord, Master Chai. The shared family manor house derives its privilege and its considerable wealth from its thousands of acres of opium poppies, obligingly farmed by several small villages of peasants, the more promising of whose children aspire to become Chai domestic servants.

Inevitably curruption seeps into the darker corners of the house, tainting it with treachery, rivalry and adultery.

But Mingzhi is taught to read by Old Scholar Yan, and is encouraged by his mother Da Niang, as she balances her lean body on her bound feet. Mingzhi teaches his sisters to read and to practice calligraphy with delicate brush strokes on rice paper. Together they read the poetry of Qingai, best loved of the ancient Chinese poets. Mingzhi's learning enables him to become a mandarin, and he escapes the high walls and closed courtyards of the Chai mansion. He establishes primitive village schools in his district and is fair in all his judgements at a time when mandarins lived on red envelopes of money from the plaintiffs on all sides. He brings prosperity to his district through the manufacture and marketing of porcelain.

By way of a Shanghai second-hand bookshop and help with his English from a Christian clergyman (although he never changes his own Buddhist religion) Mingzhi discovers China's place in relation to the other countries in the world. He meets another Englishman who ships and sells his porcelain in England, and greatly affects Mingzhi's own future, and his life. All this happens at the time of the Boxer Rebellion and the death of the old Empress. Japan invades Taiwan, and England, Russia and America fence areas of China off for their own use. But it is Mingzhi's first taste of freedom. His Taohua Yuan. At dusk he sits in the pavilion by his garden pond, listening to the tiny movements of the red carp stirring the water and blowing bubbles. Pop-pop-pop. His little hut of leaping fishes. And his thoughts are of a girl in a blue silk gown. Jasmine.

Today the Chinese government remains a dictatorship, but gone is the Gang of Four headed by Chairman Mao, and later by Madame Mao Jiang Qing, who denounced Deng Xiaoping and sang only in praise of the Cultural Revolution. The Beijing leadership is slowly learning the lessons of history; Wen Jiabao, the Prime Minister, has inverted the old image of Mao in showing his compassion for the victims of the recent earthquake and sending the Army to help them instead of sitting it on China's head.

Understanding of China will dawn slowly in the West. Pray our enlightenment is sweetened by Chiew's transcendent song of love.

Friday, March 25, 2011

LIZKA AND HER MEN

by

Alexander Ikonnikov

There is a photograph of Alexander Ikonnikov in his press release which is sadly missing from the paperback of LIZKA AND HER MEN. It shows a handsome head, innocent of cap and bells, and a wide intellectual brow, from which the hair has ebbed. Large, deepset eyes, high cheekbones, an arrogant nose, clean cut mouth and chin and prominent ears top a neck on which a collar and tie would look like fancy dress. He glances to one side, and is probably eyeing up the photographer's assistant, who may be pretending not to notice. If so she is wasting her time, because no one is more honed to the nuances of the female psyche and body language than this very modern novelist.

Alexander Ikonnikov, says the press release, is available for interview from Russia (in Russian) Oh, really? Whatever happened to the English teacher sent to the "snow covered wasteland of Bystritsa"? Ah, yes: he escaped after being ice-bound for two years. An escape for his students too, perhaps, as he spoke not a word of English. He only became an English teacher as the civilian option to doing his military service. For this he can hardly be blamed, since it would have been served in Afghanistan, fighting an unwinnable war with a Taliban grown fierce and fanatical in defence of their own. (The road to Kabul is still littered with abandoned Russian tanks and artillery).

Alexander Ikonnikov was born in Urshum near Kirov on Lake Viatka. After he had finished his German studies and served out his stint as an English teacher he returned to Kirov to work as a journalist; he now devotes himself to his writing. LIZKA AND HER MEN is his first full length novel, and the first to be translated into English (by a Mr. Bromfield). Pray let it not be the last.

LIZKA AND HER MEN is set in the chaos following Gorbachev's peristroika. The book captures the harshness, corruption, and cruel deprivation as well as the generosity and paradox that accompanied what must have been a catatonic upheaval after half a century of Soviet deepfreeze. In fact it was less a thaw than a total melt-down under Yeltsin. Chapter Six of LIZKA begins: "The country had gone insane yet again. Following an old habit with roots going back centuries, they were demolishing the old without the slightest idea of what the new world would be like. People climbed on to tanks and fell under them...", "..but the bright green trolley bus number seventeen was still trundling round the wide streets of the city..."

Lizka drives trolley bus number seventeen. She is not a metaphor for Russian girlhood and womanhood, although she does the best she can. The seige of Stalingrad (not in the book) spelled out for us all how good the Russian best can be: the Russian capacity for endurance is legendary. But Ikonnikov brings a widely varied cast of women to the very life. It is difficult to be shocked and quite possible to be deeply sympathetic to these unheroic heroines, especially when they collapse with helpless laughter at how remote are their chances of a secure family life and a happy-ever-after. Ikonnikov laughs with them for he is husband and lover as well. There is nothing of the victim in these women. "Shit happens, so what? Have a drink, have an affair, screw the world", they seem to say. And yet they are not coarse: if anything they are over sensitive if there is anything to be sensitive about. And they do fall in love - with drunks, poets, pary officials, spivs, crippled war veterans and trolley bus drivers. Ikonnikov lets them do as they like. Barbara Cartland he is not.

Ikonnikov takes a forgiving, if sardonic, view of Russian men."What can a bloke do", they seem to say, "in the presence of these amazing Russian women? We men are only human animals, after all." The paradox is, of course, that the men are also, as always, officially in charge.

Alexander Ikonnikov puts one in mind of Gogol. But he is a living, modern writer, breathing white fire on frosty air. Even today this could have an inclement effect on the weather in Kirov. But LIZKA AND HER MEN will be read and remembered with affection long after the Victor Mikhailoviches and their "friends" and all their works have crumbled into dust.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

LOVE LIFE

by

Ray Kluun

Ray van de Kluundert (Ray Kluun) was a marketing man living in Amsterdam until his life changed with the discovery that his thirty-six-year-old wife had terminal cancer. After she died he travelled Australia in a camper van with his three-year-old daughter, Eva, and wrote LOVE LIFE (which sold half a million copies in Europe), and later, THE WIDOWER, and the satyrical HELP,I'VE GOT MY WIFE PREGNANT.

It is easy to see that LOVE LIFE is basically autobiographical, describing the harrowing years 1999-20001 during which his wife slipped away. It should be noted that LOVE LIFE was first published in 2003, since when the knowledge and treatment of cancer has greatly advanced. Much has changed, but the devastation within a young family, however brave, where cancer strikes, is invariably cruel and life-altering for everyone.

LOVE LIFE, brilliantly translated from the Dutch by Shaun Whiteside, keeps its Dutch flavour, but is universal in its appeal. It is written as a work of fiction, and Ray Kluun is a highly professional writer. The story is of two young successful business people with a baby daughter whose lives are devastated by this horrible disease. It is at times very funny and often satyrical; inevitably it is also unbearably sad, but surprising and uplifting as well.

Cancer, the dreaded C word, the modern Black Death, strikes so randomly and is potentially so lethal that all mention of it is usually avoided in conversation. Unless a close member of a family has been struck down, very little is known about its treatment and effect. But this book, bravely and sincerely written, is a wonderful read and a testament of love.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND

by

Helen Simonson

When Mrs. Ali from the village shop calls for the paper money (the paper boy is off sick) Major Pettigrew is in the throes of his weekly house-cleaning, dressed in old trousers and his dead wife's floral house coat. A widower of six years, he likes his Sussex house and loves his country, his matching Churchill shotguns, and can even tolerate his neighbours, as long as he sees as little as possible of them. His happiest memories are of his wife, Nancy, and his childhood in India. He deplores the life of his successful son, whose spacious Docklands apartment and svelte American fiance fill him with misgivings.

In fact, Major Pettigrew is an unlikely hero. He is sixty-nine, clings to his military rank, is conservative to the soles of his feet, dislikes most children and pets, and wishes the well-meaning ladies of his village would go to hell. One of his favourite authors is Rudyard Kipling, who, like him, had spent his happiest years being cared for by devoted Indians in Lahore. It is perhaps with an unsuspected nostalgia that he finds himself increasingly attracted to Mrs. Ali, who, in fact, has never in her life set foot in India or Pakistan. Of course he would hate anyone to know it, but his affection for her deepens when their shared widowhood and unusual circumstances bring them together. So determined is he not to betray his feelings for Mrs. Ali to his friends and family that he betrays her, and in so doing makes himself miserable. Mrs. Ali, for her part, has troubles enough, what with rural racism and her hidebound relations; she had expected no more of the Major, anyway, and retreats with quiet dignity to the bosom of her family.

The Major, however, decides to propose marriage to a kindly, if dessicated, lady of his aquaintance, in the hope of lightening the loneliness of his declining years. But he reckons without her perceptive common sense, and comes away from her neat house with his ears metaphorically boxed. Go forth, she implies, and do your duty like a man. Well. It's not what he's used to, but then, neither is anything else these days.

The author of this very amusing novel, Helen Simonson, was born in Slough and spent some of her teenage years in a Sussex village. A graduate of the London School of Economics and a former advertising executive, who now lives with her American husband and two sons in Washington, she has an ex-pat's affection for the eccentricities and prejudices of Home. This is her first novel. It is highly accomplished and entertaining, and, notwithstanding its dry humour, it has serious undertones. Hers is a very exciting and promising new talent.

Friday, 28 Jan 2011

MICKA

by

Frances Kay

Her work with gypsies, prisoners and children in England and Ireland has informed Kay's narrative about two dissimilar young boys, each from a dysfunctional family, whose behaviour, thought and imagination are the theme of her novel. Her command of unintrusive dialect inspires her penetrating dialogue; her compassion for children deprived of even the most insouciant parental restraint is pragmatic. Her graphic descriptions of the abnormal life of the unwanted and the unwashed are a revelation, even to the well-informed, and would probably surprise the SS.

Micka, "a no-good giorgio chavvy" even to the gypsies, has a mam (but no da that he knows of) and a varied collection of half-brothers and uncles. He's been to school, and he can read a little more than his mother, whose neglect of her children is that of an ill-starred and exigious trollop. Micka's refuge in need from hunger or bullying is Royts Lane, where the travellers settle from time to time. Here he can usually find his friend Bluey (short for Blue Eyes) who lives with his scarey old nan, Babs. Babs sits on an old bread box in front of a fire of smashed up doors; she makes tea from a large black kettle resting on the wood of the fire, into which she spits with unvarying accuracy; "the muskras give her gin when she's lelled for choring in the market"; her few remaining teeth are black, and when she craps it is discreetly by the hedge, using wet grass as paper. Bluey goes around with the men collecting scrap with the pony and cart. Micka knows Bluey is good at coaxing stuff from people, for all he's so young, and he can catch fish from the river and cook it.

Micka's other friend is Laurie. An only child, born in the street when his mother, who always liked to live dangerously, was knocked down by a motorbike, he has lived up to his unlikely start in life. His mother, Josie, wanted him to be called Shane after a cowboy in a film, but his father, Brian, a university lecturer, liked the name Laurence, and in the end he won, and he insisted that Laurence should go to a state school. But they were probably his last marital victories. Brian and Josie are now separated, and Brian's fatherly duties are curtailed, but Laurie and his education are still among the bones of their contention. Micka and Laurie usually prefer being at their primary school to being at home or hanging about outside McDonalds; they enjoy Miss Glennie reading about boy chimney sweeps. Bluey no longer goes to school at all.

Frances Kay is a childrens' playwright who was born in London and now lives in Ireland with her musician husband and their two daughters. Her writing is powerful and deeply effcting, and this unforgettable and very original first novel will haunt the reader for days.

Saturday, 21 Aug 2010

MIRAL

by

Rula Jebreal

"At dawn on September 13, 1994, a chill ran through the Arab Quarter of East Jerusalem, as word of Hind Husseini's death spread from house to house even before Radio Jerusalem broadcast the news."

The first paragraph of this novel describes the sadness felt throughout the Old City. So loved and respected was this woman that the souk and the narrow lanes and alleyways, usually so vibrant in the early morning, fell silent, and shopkeepers left their shutters down. As her coffin left Dar El-Tifen orphanage, to which she had devoted her whole life, that all haggling and bargaining ceased. Men, women and children stood in the street and wept for the woman who had become a symbal of hope for Palestine.

For many hundreds of children orphaned by war she had brought shelter, safety, a good education and real affection and interest in their lives.

Ever since the day in 1948, when, as violence erupted in Jerusalem, she found fifty-five small children, filthy and deeply traumatised, abandoned by a troop of Israeli soldiers in the Old City, and taken them home with her, she had deicated her life to saving them and hundreds more like them from destitution.

Born in the Holy City in 1916, when it was still part of the Ottoman Empire, she and her brothers,the children of a judge, had recieved an excellent education, in one of the most fascinating cities in the world. As Palestine made its transition from Turkish rule to its new status under the British Mandate, which lasted until the birth of the State of Israel in 1948, Jerusalem had been a happy place for children of middle class children to grow up. Her family lived in a house in the Armenian Quarter that had been in the possession of the Husseinis for centuries. Hind was on her way home when she found the group of children near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. When she brought them to her house her mother and their two housemaids were appalled, but they helped to wash and feed the children, calm them and brush their matted hair. Hind then took the children to a house left empty by the death of her grandfather, and managed to bed them all down. And so began Dar El-Tifel. Hind developed it into a school, mainly for girls, and it took up the whole of the rest of her life.

As the need for a refuge for children increased, the "Childrens' Home" offered every little Palestinian girl who had survived a massacre or been abandoned on the steps of a mosque safety and a good home. Many of these children were to go on to university (sometimes in the West) and many were to lead successful professional lives; others married and had families of their own, often abroad. But even if they never returned to Jerusalem they remembered their debt to Hind Husseini: contributions from former students allowed the school to carryy out improvements every year. So great was the need for Dar El-Tifel after 1967 that there would be more than two thousand children under its roof at any one time. Hind begged help from all the oil-rich Arab States and Emirates, especially Kuwait, and from friends in the USA. So sound was the education, health and discipline in the school that it attracted fee-paying students as well as orphans, and because this book is presented as a work of fiction (although it is clearly autobiographical) one of them is called Miral, and it is her story that the book is about.

Palestine had been a country of small farms, handed down through generations from fathers to sons, and largely worked by the collected family. More concerned with growing and harvesting their citrus fruit, almonds and olives and the breeding of their animals than the education of their children (and since when did any farmer rejoice to see his son with his nose in a book?) farm boys were often almost illiterate, and the girls even more so. But Hind placed great importance on the good education and upbringing of girls. As well as character and reputation, good manners, good health and good spirits, she encouraged them to be considerate of others, and above all, to stay away from politics.

Well, the headmistress of any large girls' school will tell you that whatever you do, and however careful you are, some of your girls, often the brightest and most promising, will go walk-about. And Miral was indeed one of the brightest and most promising, but, like any other high spirited girl, she had ideas of her own. Only too soon she is climbing over the back wall and running off to join political rallies and meet unsuitable boys. She reminded me so much of my own daughters that I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. But I could not put the book down till the very last page. Thankyou, Rula Jebreal.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

MORNINGS IN JENIN

by

Susan Abulhawa

Ein Hod was a small village east of Haifa, founded by a general of Saladin's army in II89 A.D. Forty generations of farmers had passed their land from father to son, growing and improving their olive groves, grape vines, figs, vegetables and orchards of citrus fruits. Palestine had survived invasion by Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, Ottomans and, lately, the British. Devoted to God, land and family, Palestinians clung to their homes. Material riches, like nationalism, were inconsequential to them. Life in Ein Hod, as in every Palestinian village, consisted of prayer, childbirth and funerals, weddings and dance, cooking and eating, neighbours and friends, the harvest of the olives and the pressing of the oil and the marketing of their produce at Haifa, Tulkarem and Jerusalem. Sunshine and rainfall, the safe delivery of women in childbirth, the freshness and fullness of the wells, the secrets and scandals as well as the good nature and generosity of the villagers, and time to drink tea and play backgammon of an evening, were, as the making of babies in one's own good clean bed, were all Godgiven blessings for which they gave thanks to Him every day of their lives.

In July 1948, as the hot winds of Naqab ripened the olives and children ran barefoot, Jewish foreigners using tanks and planes turned guns and bombs on the unarmed and unprepared villagers of Ein Hod, driving them for three parched days into the arrid hills as far as Jenin. Fathers of families died trying to resist; old people and small children died of thirst and exhaustion, and several women miscarried. At last they were allowed to stop, and they made a rough camp, hoping and expecting to return to their farms in time for the harvest and pressing of the olives. The Zionists announced to the world that Palestine was 'A land without a people', and changed its name to Israel. The old folks of Ein Hod would die refugees in the camp, bequeathing to their heirs the large iron keys and land registers and deeds of their ancestral homes. Although the children and grandchildren have lain for sixty years trapped beneath the subversion of thieves, they have never given up their longing to return to the only home their forbears ever knew, that they still have title to, and can never forgrt, or be allowed to forget.

In 1949 the five major powers, Britain, the Soviet Union, France, China and U.S.A., met and appointed a mediator to the conflict. Serving in his commission as UN Mediator, the Swedish Count Folke Bernadotte stated "It would be an offence against the principles of elemental justice if the innocent victims of the conflict were denied the right to reurn to their homes while Jewish immigrants flow into Palestine". But Count Bernadotte was murdered by Israeli assassins and Jews continued to loot Palestinian homes, singing and shouting slogans as they moved into the farms and onto the land, so the United Nations built crowded and stifling cement hovels for the 20,000 Palestinian refugees at Jenin.

One of the few Palestinian children who survive to be born full term to her refugee mother is Amal Hasan Yehya Mohammad Abulheya. As an orphan she is saved by the nuns, spends years in an orphanage, and wins a scholarship to study at University in U.S.A. Her story and that of her family is the theme of MORNINGS IN JENIN. The historical events and figures in the book are not fictitious.

Susan Abulhawa, author of this exceptional novel,was born to refugees when her family's land was seized and Israel captured what remained of Palestine, including Jerusalem, in 1967. She graduated in biomedical science in U.S.A. MORNINGS IN JENIN is her first novel. It took eight years to write and was published under THE SCAR OF DAVID by a small press which went out of business soon afterwards. It was through Marc Parent at Editions Buchet/Chastel and Anna Soler-Pont of Pontas Literary and Film Agency that the novel has been translated into twenty languages and Bloomsbury released it in English in 20I0. Susan Abulhawa writes with honesty and tenderess, and, notwithstanding her Arab love of poetry, entirely without sentimentality. She does not shy away from her home truths, and has fun with Arab crudeness of expression, especially in relation to a protagonist's immediate geneology, and with Arab cheerfulness, courage, diffidence, and generosity. It may help the reader to know that there is a glossary of Arab words at the back of the book, and that a woman is known as Um(mother-of) the name of her eldest son, rather than Mrs So-and-So. And that a nye is an ancient Middle Eastern flute. Readers should be careful to have a box of paper handkerchiefs to hand, as they will weep buckets over this book.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

NEVER LET ME GO

by

Kazuo Ishiguro

NEVER LET ME GO is an enchanting novel, superbly written, by a fine, sensitive man. It is original, scarey and thought provoking. (I admit to having read almost the whole book with great pleasure, under the impression that it was about a weird (1999?) co-ed prep. school for raj orphans, run by a female eunach who begrudged the children their charitable donations. Then a noun leapt at me from a page and I returned happily to Chapter 1). It is a book that should be read, both for its content and for pleasure. Dear Mr. Ishuguro, he does seem to have faith in British governance. But surely a programme of NEVER LET ME GO magnitude, although sponsored and approved of by bishops and VIPs because it purports to be for the benefit of mankind, will only ever be supported by corporations, foundations and MPs if it is for profit. And, dear Mr. Ishuguro, where in the British Isles could have been found the genes for all this docility? Genes that would never smoke or binge because they were utterly forbidden? Genes that, when let out at sixteen would tamely follow a prescribed future as if on tramlines? We all know that mad scientists are able to programme intellectually and athletically superior little snots, and very unpopular with their peers may they be. But polite, punctual, obedient, brainwashable British genes, that strain to do their essays and their art work, aim to please, yearn for praise, never say fuck, and put their toys away in their little chests under their beds? If genes can be modified to produce such paragons from such unlikely stuff, you can put me down for two of them. We shall all sit together playing Happy Families and watching the amazing aerobatics of our genetically modified pigs.

But NEVER LET ME GO is frighteningly believable. Ishuguro never slows the pace of his novel by using three syllables where one will do; tension builds imperceptably to a very elegant crescendo, and spares the reader nothing of pity or reproach. An important book, well worthy of your bookshelf, and as a gift very likely to be treasured. I believe it is a book that will be discussed in all quarters and for many years.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

NEVER NEVER

by

David Gaffney

"READ WITH CARE" should be attached by butterfly label to the jacket of NEVER NEVER. Because unless the reader accords this novel the respect with which he would read the menu in an expensive restaurant, he will miss the point. Each chapter arrives with as much variety as soup, fish, meat, pudding, etc.,, but, trust me, it all comes together in a deeply gratified digestive tract.

Appretiation of NEVER NEVER demands a sophisticated palette. To begin with, our hero, Eric McFarlane, is not at all heroic. He is in his late twenties, and not very prepossessing. He has drifted from education to the dole, back to education, and after more dole to the Cleator Moor Money Advice Shop, where he helps the poor to rob the rich. He is understanding, empathetic and non-judgemental. He keeps a box of Kleenex on the corner of his desk. In fact, he himself becomes rather clever at robbing (Nat-West, Barclays, Lloyds, West Newland Trust, Market Trust,, HTC, and even the Cleator Moor Money Advice Shop) in order to support a blonde of very little brain with whom he is no longer passionately in love,but from whose warm embrace he daily drives to his office in the St. Cuthbert's Centre, a converted church shared with the community samba band, the chittering of whose precision instruments pierce the walls of the old church. His desk stands below the stained glass windows of The Good Shepherd (repaired with Cellotape) and The Annunciation. Here he sits, responding to an endless queue of indigent clients who are stained a bilious blue green thanks to the robes of the Angel Gabriel, or printed over with Well Done Thou Good And Faithful Servant.

Eric dreams and fantasizes, of course he does, but to what purpose? But his fortunes take a sudden turn for the worse, and he gives up hope (rather too quickly) of saving himself. Only when he percieves his lover to be in great danger does his spirit take light, and, although he has lost everything, endured pain and humiliation, and is almost certain to lose his own life, he at last earns our unqualified admiration. Well, perhaps that is over-egging it a bit, but only a soupcon.

NEVER NEVER is a novel of today, for today's readers, with today's humour, and written with wit and compassion by one of today's most brilliant writers.

Friday, March 25, 2011

NO-ONE LOVES A POLICEMAN

by

Guillermi Orsi

This fast-moving, cynical, and witty novel is set in Argentina in December 2001, the crisis years. Chandlerian in its steamy narrative, the story is about a country and its people going nowhere very fast indeed.

The Detective pressed into service under pressure in a corrupt society is not exactly an original theme, but Guillermo Orsi does it with such verve and snap that it rattles along at a great pace. It is impossible to describe any part of the novel individually because it hangs tightly together and plunges right into the plot from page 1.

This detective, Pablo Martelli, has a black sense of humour and a dry way of expressing it. He has been unjustly thrown out of the elite branch of the police force (known as the "National Shame") and is scratching a living as a bathroom appliance salesman. His battles are with crooked policemen and corrupt politicians. He never asked for it, but that's life. When he tries to retire to a quiet life shared only with his cat and a cleaning lady life intrudes in the form of a telephone call for help from an old friend. But when he gets to his friend's house he is too late: the friend is lying dead in a pool of blood. Martelli has no wish at all to solve this murder, but his friend's delectable young mistress and his friend's rich and attractive wife absolutely insist, and he is drawn irrevocably into a frightening spiral typical of the noir thriller. Set against a backdrop of Argentina in meltdown, it is a strongly atmospheric novel.

Guillermo Orsi was born in Buenos Aires, where he still lives and works as a journalist. Of course, he writes like a journalist - immediate, living prose that reads as though it was written yesterday. He was awarded the 2007 Premio Internacional de Novel Negra Cuidad for NO-ONE LOVES A POLICEMAN.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

NOAH'S COMPASS

by

Anne Tyler

Those of us who read THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST, BREATHING LESSONS, SAINT MAYBE and many another superb novel by Anne Tyler with great pleasure and amusement will be delighted all over again with NOAH'S COMPASS. In her own inimitable style she has done it again.

In the sixty first year of his life, Liam Pennywell is made redundant from his post as fifth grade teacher at ST. Dyfrig's private school for boys. He prefers to think of it as being "down-sized", and is at pains to spare the headmaster and the staffroom any embarrassment they might feel on his behalf. In fact, he almost welcomes it as a nudge from fate to spur him towards doing somethg more accomplished and more satisfying to the soul of a philosophy graduate than teaching small boys ancient history. Even the need to economise interests him, and in no time at all he has moved from his big old-fashioned apartment to a one-bedroom-plus-den in a modern complex of several bland two-storey buildings placed at angles to each other under tall spindly pines. He throws away piles of old magazines, old letters and shoe boxes full of reference cards, and almost all his old furniture. On removal day he needs only a small U-Haul and the help of two of his friends to move his simple needs and his precious cartons of books to his new flat. By evening he has arranged books, chairs, pictures and kitchen stuff After a small supper he goes to his own bed gratefully...and wakes up in a hospital ward, having been attacked, they tell him, even as he slept.

But what bothers him more than anything else is his inability to remember this catastrophic event. He has stitches in his head and in his hand; he wakes up attached to a moniter, an IV and a catheter and with his head swathed in bandages, and his eldest daughter frowning at him from the end of his bed. But he is most intrigued to know how he has comported himself while the attack was in progress. How had he handled himself? Had he fought bravely? What had he said? Or had he shouted? His exasperation at his absolute amnesia leads him into an adventure almost as surprising as the attempted burglary.

In life's great race Liam has run well and honestly, and has faced his fences (growing up, getting educated, earning money, getting married, fathering and supporting his children). Even the rather ignominious unsaddling of his divorce and the loss of his job gave him no serious sense of failure. Admittedly he had run in blinkers: he had failed to understand his mother's and his first wife's struggle with the 7lb penalty of childbirth and their subsequent neediness. And his second wife had chafed at his resolute determination to take part in life to his own satisfaction rather than to strive to win. He had never really empathised with his daughters: they now see deference rather than diffidence in his good manners. All they see is a man who drives a Geo Prism and who doesn't have a television set or a computer. They call him Mr Magoo.

In her own honest, sophisticated and elegant way, Anne Tyler gently reproaches her American sisters for having eyes only for the winner, and mistaking a good also-ran for a loser. She applauds Liam's distaste for the roses and champagne and the sweaty triumph of winning, and admires him for fairly and bravely taking part And, in fact, where would the glamour of winning be without the heroic efforts of the rest of the field?

While talking to his ex-wife, Barbara, with whom he now gets along pretty well (considering), Liam is heard to say"... I haven't exactly covered myself in glory..." She gazed at him kindly.

"Do you remember", he went on, "a show on TV that Dean Martin used to host? ...I can't think now what it was called."

"The Dean Martin Show?" Barbara suggested.

"...he has this running joke about his drinking, remember?... And so one night one of his guests was reminiscing about a party they'd been to and Dean Martin asked 'Did I have a good time?'"

Barbara smiled faintly...

"Did I have a good time," Liam said. "Ha!"

"What's your point, Liam?"

"I might ask you the same question," he told her.

"You might ask what my point is?"

"I might ask if I'd had a good time."

Barbara wrinkled her forehead.

"Oh," Liam says, "never mind."

Sunday, November 22, 2009

NOURISHMENT

by

Gerard Woodward

NOURISHMENT is the story of Victoria Louise Pace (Tory), who lives with her mother at No. 17, Peter Street, in South East London. It is 1941, at the start of the blitz. Her three children have been evacuated to Lower Slaughter, a pretty village in the Cotswolds, and her husband is a prisoner of war somewhere in Germany. Tory works long hours at a gelatin factory, and her mother, known to all as Mrs. Head, cooks and cleans and queues for food. When Old Parade, their little shopping centre, is bombed, and the butcher's shop recieves a direct hit, Mrs. Head considers herself lucky to detect a dust covered leg of pork in the rubble. Never having seen a whole leg of pork for many months, she hurriedly pops it into her shopping bag, and, after washing it at the sink, she cooks it for their supper. Only as she carves the precious joint of meat does it occur to her that it may not have been pork, after all. But hunger wins out, and, in any case, it tastes very good indeed, and she mops up the last of the juices with some bread. A few days later Tory recieves the first letter from her husband. Stamped "Kriegsgefangenenpost", STALAG-VII-C, together with a red crown with the word "passed" underneath, its contents have been censored by both sides of the war, and have taken four months to reach her.

The letter begins:

My dearest darling sweetheart Tory,

I'm doing pretty well considering. Was captured near Libyan border, defending an airfield, and was shipped over the Med and transported north through Italy, don't know where the hell I am now though. Good crowd here, some Australians and Canadians. We play cards quite a lot. Food not so bad. Nothing else troubles me, apart from not being able to pull your knickers down and give you a good fuck. Instead, could you write me a dirty letter, by return of post? I mean really filthy, full of all the dirtiest words and deeds you can think of?

I require this most urgently.

Love to your Ma.

Donald.

Well! In the days when ordinary people like the Pace family seldom uttered a blasphemy and knew very few dirty words, and none that they would use, the last paragraph came as a stunning shock to Tory. What horrors of war, she wondered, could have changed her husband, with whom she had never discussed sex or exchanged dirty language, and with whom she had only ever had sex in their bed in the dark, into such a depraved monster? They had never even seen each other naked!

Frozen with shock, but concious of her wifely duty, Tory sets about finding pornography at the Public Library (they had none), bookshops, public lavatories and even manages a sly look in at the barber's. Her quest is answered unexpectedly, but when Donald returns home at the end of the war, she has some explaining to do...

What is the Man Booker Prize for if it is not awarded in appreciation of flawless and original writing that fully engages and captivates the reader? NOURISHMENT is nothing if not that.

Woodward's humour is satanic, but only if I find his footprint in the sand will I see the cloven hoof. His touch is so light that the bruise he leaves is in a hidden place, and I peep at it in private, for is it not more a badge of honour than a mark of shame? Where he leads I will follow, brimming with trepidation, only to meet him coming back. His prose is the music of pan pipes; he admires my wide straw hat, but he has visited my alter ego and has uncovered her and has known the dirty girl, and teases me the more for her, even as I deny her existance. And if my husband is a selfish brute, Woodward kisses me for observing my wifely duties, but not to the point of martyrdom. Never that.

Tomorrow I will find myself a buttercup: he loves me, he loves me not...but tonight let me hear the music of the satyr and breathe in the feral smell of him, and live again my waking dream. And the spectre in pyjama bottoms, dawn lit, bearing tea? Well, but there is nothing quite like a nice cup of tea, especially for a very dry mouth.

Friday, January 22, 2011

READING IN THE DARK

by

Seamus Deane

I have never cried over a book so much since I was ten. To think that a woman who bore seven children to a good man could allow such darkness to enter their life. How could a family that loved so well be so riven? Why should a boy, too bright to be decieved, too loving to tell, too young to be protected by doubt, lose his innocence and his childhood? Is it because revellers on St. Patrick's Night a world away pop small change into collecting boxes "for the auld people"?

What has an ignorant Dutchman, inauspiciously crowned English king not so very long ago to do with anything today? Or the Duchess of Sutherland who wanted sheep, not people, on her grouse moors in Scotland? What do uniforms and suits in Whitehall and Westminster (the daily cleaners employed to mop up) really understand about Northern Ireland?

READING IN THE DARK is about betrayal, a police double cross on a double cross, and, of course guilt and remorse. (Well, but even priests have to live).

This novel, if it is a novel, and not a biography, may seem irrevelant to us, busy about our daily lives. After all, what is Ulster to us? Only a woman dying of cancer felt deeply enough to throw her wig at it. The Irish Question has long been mired in speeches, propaganda, global economy, BBC photo-calls, conferences, more speeches, and, at last, indifference.

Who cares?

Well, but if the rulers and governors of the great nations of the earth could pause from pirouetting on their tippy-toes just long enough to consider a tiny scrap of history (nothing too demandin, mind) they might take note: do not steal from the poor for they cannot forget: and to the third and fourth generation their children are not allowed to forget.

READING IN THE DARK may help the spinning world to understand.

Monday, July 3, 2006

SELF HELP

by

Edward Docx

From New York and London, Paris and St. Petersburg, the members of a splintered family strive to adjust to their own bizarre history. Thirty-something twins, Gabriel and Isabella Glover, travel to St. Petersburg for the funeral of their mother, born Anastasiya Andreev, by marriage Maria Glover. The legacy of this fierce, generous and brilliant woman is an enigma. Gabriel and Isabella hardly know if they are dealing with a Russian doll or a Faberge Easter egg. In Paris their misanthropic father decides at last, and with ill grace, to concede the truth.

Edward Docz has extraordinary knowledge of European and Russian great cities, their streets, transport, moods, and vanities. Better still, he fully understands and appreciates their long and bitter old histories, their meanings, and what makes them so. He is unforgiving to all his characters but one (who dies young). They are sensitively drawn, but they are too well lit to evoke anything but our exasperation and our fascination, but Docx knows very well how to keep the reader's attention glued to the page. His knowledge of souls trapped in webs of their own spinning is uncanny; his temperamental and highly strung women are intrigueing, yet he has time for the heavy matron glanced briefly in an ascending lift, as she adjusts her bags and shoulder straps; his objective insight into the habits of both the dealers and victims of heroin addiction is incisive, well informed and very chilling; his depiction of the self-absorbtion of genius is unique. Docz loves the contradictions of human nature, and its paradox. There is a good deal of sturdy and well deserved hate in this book, which is dark and as bitter as aloes, but witty and alive with humour. Challenging and egregious, and full of surprises, this book is about love.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

SERVICE WASH

by

Rupert Smith

No decent, clean living, heterosexual man or woman should allow his or herself to be seen reading SERVICE WASH. A brown paper cover is recommended to those fallible or prurient enough to riffle its pages. So obscene and scatalogical is the humour of this novel that to be seen giggling at it is to wantonly shred one's reputation as if with a long and dirty fingernail.

Rupert Smith's vaunted genius for comic satire relies on the lustful weakness of human nature to snoop or peep at the seamy underside of life and then scream with laughter. Eileen Weathers, the 'heroine' of SERVICE WASH, if you could call 'her' that, is an ageless popular soap opera star. As Maggie Parrot, The Clean Queen, manageress of TV's most famous laundrette, she grips the affection of the menopausal millions. She embarks on her 'autobiography', a phoney romance worthy of the confessional. In doing so she decieves herself and her ghost-writer (and her public) into forgetting her (transexual) early life on the game or as showgirl Kiki Londres, travesty toast of Soho and Pigalle. So decieved is everyone in this novel that the reader doesn't know who or what to believe. Can the rumours possibly be true? The hero could hardly be less heroic: a balding, masochistic gay man in early middle age, Paul Mackrell's aspirations towards critical intellectual esteem are as flotsam on a flood tide of celebrity adrenalin. His misfortune is his predicament; his predilection for rough trade and his addiction to virtual excitement available on cyberspace, enjoyed in the bleak privacy Watford flatlet - are laid aside when he is hired to ghost write Eileen Weathers's autobiography. Suddenly he is whirling in the unfamiliar waters of riches and stardom and bobbing about on currents he cannot see or understand. But there be dragons, and he is prey to predators that lick and caress him before they gobble him up.

Rupert Smith is author of (?) previous novels and numerous TV tie-ins. He is a regular contributor to the Guardian, Radio Times, and lives in London. His website/e-mail address, for those wishing to complain is www.rupertsmith.org.uk

Saturday, August 11, 2007

SHADOWING THE SUN

by

Lily Dunn

Dunn's first novel is clearly autobiographical, and draws upon her own childhood experience of a commune in Italy. It is the story of a young girl, Sylvie, whose beauty and promise attracts the interest of the grown-ups, both men and women.

Women appreciate her intelligence and understand the difficulties that her flowering sex appeal will bring, too soon, into her life. Her brother loves her dearly, but is involuntarily privy to her dilemma. The men in the commune, such as they are, come to nascent life when they see her. Her egocentric father, in search of fame and riches through his book-to-be (ironically titled Alpha Child) makes a present of her to to the photographer who he imagines will ultimately help to sell his book worldwide. At once flattered and frightened, she is in awe of what she percieves as her power over men; it sets her apart from her more ordinary friends, who continue to love her. Lacking experience, Sylvie lacks judgement, and puts her trust in her traitors.

Dunn's characters are amusing, eccentric and drawn with affection and insight: these are people she knows only too well, and remembers with wry affection.

Lily Dunn writes with such elan, and her novel is so well written, that the reader is not immediately aware that the theme of the book is vicious child abuse. The damage done to the beautiful child emerges when she is in her twenties and is trying to establish her relationship with a devoted and long term partner. Because the story is partly autobiographical it is told almost humourously, as though the author is talking to a trusted friend whose sympathy will not embarrass them both; as though she is writing about somebody else. The account of the children taking drugs is laconic. For all its gentle comedy, this story is perhaps almost too painful for the author to tell.

Dunn's gift is apparent in her confident characterisation, and her narrative talent, her descriptions of Italy in all its moods, and the nice exchanges between her protagonists. Lily Dunn is thoughtful, perceptive, stylish and discriminating, and she is a born and bred-in-the-bone storyteller.

Friday, March 25, 2011

SHE'S GONE

by

Kwame Dawes

Kofi would rather sit in a small room where it is warm and where the light is good and eat simple meals like fufu and groundnut soup with fish and beef, or some bread and bits of chicken, or slices of fruit, or chocolate, or drink something common like water or juice - simple juice - or laugh a laugh of nonsense at the sitcoms on television. He would rather take a bus and travel into the green embrace of St. Mary and walk that slow hot walk along the blindingly white limestone and crystalline pink marl path that cut through the cocoa trees. But he is in a black tour bus that smelled of chew stick, garlic, and marijuana, three weeks into a tour of U.S.A. , with his eight piece reggae band, on their way to the twelfth gig of a Tidewater tour. They could stick the words "Grammy Winner" beside their name, and although critical success did not pay the bills, the sweet marriage between hip-hop and reggae meant that anything could happen. Kofi writes their music and lyrics.

They arrive at a concert billed as "Island in the Sun". Men are wearing floral shirts and chino shorts from Banana Republic. As they take the stage to open the final set Kofi raises his arms to calm the crowd, points backward to the band, and begins to scratch a riff to suit his mood. The drummer begins to swish softly on the high hat until he finds the sweet spot, into which he punches a one-drop, driving the riddim, and the bass and keys and horns come in, dragging like a chain gang. A hush falls over the room when the keyboards find a voice and the Hammond organ begins to churchify the sound, calling forth the spirit of slaves and angels who have ascended from the ends of ropes, and the horns begin to bleat in lamentation.

Perhaps because she is one of the few black faces in the room, or it may be the way she moves, but she catches his eye like an old friend in a strange place...

SHE'S GONE is dark and rich and sweet, like meat close to the bone. Dawes writes from the heart, with tears and laughter, and his work reads like blank verse. He is an award winning Ghanain-born Jamaican author of several books of poetry, non-fiction aan fiction. He teaches at the University of South Carolina, where he is Distinguished Poet in Residence and director of the USC Arts Institute and the programmer for the annual Jamaican Calabash international Literary Festival. In his first novel, SHE'S GONE, he is scratching his riff to suit his mood.

Friday, August 22, 2008

SHORT GIRLS

by

Bich Minh Nguyen

Like a well designed chair, no matter the designer, there is something very human in scale about a novel. It is about us, whoever we are, as in the case of SHORT GIRLS. This book is ostensibly about the problems of a family caught up in one of the great migrations of our time. So broad is Bich Minh Nguyen's view of humanity and her understanding of our human predicament that the reader can sink back gratefully, as if in a favourite chair, and thoroughly enjoy reading the book.

The story is really about two young refugees from communist Viet Nam and their American-born daughters, all of whom are trying to make sense of the American way of love. But this book is universal in its appeal, in that it simply and elegantly answers some of the needs of us all: our need to understand one another, to live together as good neighbours, and to remember that the young are extremely vulnerable, no matter where they are born or how they are bred, to the pervasive influence of television.

Linny and Van, the two daughters, are pretty, highly intelligent, and about a foot shorter than the average American. Their parents were amongst the last to scramble aboard a ship leaving Saigon for the US.A in 1975, and Van was born in a refugee camp in California. White sponsors brought them to a dismal, cold apartment, and patronised them for years afterwards. All the trials, disappointments, bewilderment and downright poverty that followed drove the parents to squabble loudly and furiously in Vietnamese. The two little girls huddled together on the sofa and watched television. Sharing as much as they did in looks, genes and background, Linny and Van might have been expected to use similar methods of dealing with their metamorphisis from childhood into puberty and adulthood, but Bich Minh Nguyen's characters never quite do as one would expect The girls draw apart, almosy losing touch, as they deal with it all in absolutely different ways, but with all the determination, good humour and staying power that we have come to admire in the Vietnamese.. They both experience betrayal, and both cope with it in a very American way. Hard and unavoidable truths about themselves in relation to Americans, especially men, almost bring them to their knees (they are rather casual Buddhists, by the way).

SHORT GIRLS is funny and sad, and sharp and witty and scathing. It is a very good novel, beautifully written, and a joy to read.

Monday, April 27, 2009

SKELETONS AT THE FEAST

by

Chris Bohjalian

Our hero is Uri Singer, a young German Jew. After a dangerous escape from a train bound for Auschwitz, he begins to make his way through the frozen fields of Poland towards the American and the British forces known to have landed in Normandy. While hiding in a barn he is cornered by German soldiers, and, in a frenzy, he manages to kill them both. He takes one of the soldiers' uniform and identity and money, and continues on his way. Surprised once more, he kills again, and, bitter in the knowledge that his own parents and adored sister are probably dead or dying at the hands of the Germans, he feels no guilt at all, and even begins to enjoy his new role as a serial killer. Most of his victims, young German soldiers, mistake him for one of their own, and some he does not know at all, but needs either their food, identity papers and money. But word gets about, and during one of his disappearances, when he is in great danger, he falls in with the wife and children of a well-to-do German farmer; they are refugees who are trying to escape the advancing Russian army by making for the safety of farms in the south owned by friends or cousins (nobody realised then that the Russians would ever reach Berlin). They are accompanied by a British POW who had been allocated to them to help on the farm. The father and elder brother of the family stayed behind to help the Militia to turn the Russian tide as it rolled over Poland (they are never heard of again) and Uri is able to help the family keep their horse-drawn carts safe and moving along among the thousands and thousands of other refugees fleeing from the Russians. They think that Uri is a Wehrmacht corporal called Manfred who is heading back to his company, which is engaging the Allie armies in the south west. He is highly intelligent and recourceful, and fearless in their defence, and they all come to like him and trust him. And to his surprise he begins to truly like them, his enemies, including the British POW. Together they witness the horrors of a country ravaged by war, and something begins to warm the senses of the young Jew, who had so nearly become a clever and dangerous savage.

Chris Bohjalian's brilliant novel is deeply researched, and he acknowledges the inspiration he recieved from reading the diary of a Prussian grand-mother whose trek from her farm in Poland to escape the Russians was carefully chronicled from day to day, no matter how appalling their sufferings. Bohjalian does her proud. It is a fascinating book.

Tuesday, 9 Jun 2009

SMUT

by

Alan Bennett

I think it can be said without prejudice and without contradiction that Alan Bennett is a unique phenomenon in English literature. Only he can compare the predicament of the NHS, middle aged women and age versus youth with exactly the right amount of compassion and laughter in a few pages of incomparable dialogue, and a whole world of lighthearted wisdom. Not a moment of his recent illness (he has had cancer) and his exposure to hospital has been wasted. He writes with joy and sorrow about the diseases that man is heir to, and how doctors and patients and men and women cope with iThe stories in SMUT concern two women in middle life who are different from one another. How they deal with life's surprises and problems only Alan Bennett could write about with such honesty and fun.

The first story, The Greening of Mrs Donaldson, is about a fifty-five year old woman who has been recently widowed. She finds herself in limbo, at a loss to know what to do with herself now that she no longer has Mr Donaldson and his illness to attend to. Due to a muddle over her husband's pension she is less well provided for than had been forseen. The weeks of daily visits to her dying husband had made her feel almost at home in the hospital so she decides to put her name on the list of prospective landladies, and presently she has a couple of student lodgers. Also she slips easily and almost involutarily into the respectable and praiseworthy troupe of SPs, or Simulated Patients, who assist Dr Ballantyne as he seeks to familiarise his medical students with the symptoms and predicaments presented by patients. In this and in other ways she discovers qualities in her character that had previously been entrapped in her humdrum marriage. But apotheosis suddenly becomes transgression: lying on her suburban bed in utter mortification she grieves for the respectable woman she had once been thought to be, as she sees herself fallen into laughter and contempt. It is the thought of her work as an SP that consoles her. After all it was dignified with a faintly thespian aura, and she had succeeded in her complex roles as patients with both physical and mental illnesses. She was an actress, she told herself: in future boldness and courage would be her part to play as she lived through the daily sniggers and innuendo of her peers. And play it she does, with an aplomb that would have astonished Mr Donaldson, and would surely have enriched their married life.

The second story in SMUT is also about a woman of a certain age as they say, but in her case the metamorphis comes about in her husband. Each story is alive with irony and genle honed wit. Alan Bennett's consummate and matchless gift of astute perception. There is no author to compare with him. His readers vary in that they are either indiscriminate devotees of all Bennettiana or are discerning critics of his works and as analytical as connoisseurs ever are. Which is why my bookgroup is no longer on speakers: it is all the fault of Alan Bennnett and his brilliant and controversial book SMUT.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

SONGS OF BLUE AND GOLD

by

Deborah Lawrenson

Winter in England is the perfect place and time to read SONGS OF BLUE AND GOLD. It is not by accident that billionaires buy houses and keep their yachts at Corfu in order to impress and entertain their, er, rich and powerful friends. The climate and scenery, etc., is superb. But the island's special charm lies in its unspoiled corners, and with the Greek people and its fihing villages. SONGS OF BLUE AND GOLD is set in the horseshoe bay of Kalami, with its dark blue sea dotted with small sails, its vine-canopied taverna, and its headland rich in olive and cypress trees. In this craggy northern part of the island the dusty little road corkscrews down the side of Mount Pantocrator, to where the sea deepens to azure and cobalt.

This novel is a half-truth. It is infused with the spirit of Lawrence Durrell, and many of the biographical details are his, but Deborah Lawrence's hero, Julian Adie, is a seperate and fictional character.

The story begins in rose brick and weatherboarded Bell Cottage, near Tunbridge Wells, where Elizabeth Norden is being cared for by her daughter Melissa. Elizabeth is losing her memory, but she surprises Melissa with the gift of a book of poems by Julian Adie. Inscribed on the title page in longhand is: 'To Elizabeth, always remembering Corfu, what could have been and what we must both forget'. It is signed 'Julian Adie'. When asked, Elizabeth smiles vaguely, but, like so much else, it has slipped away and she cannot remember anything about it. But Melissa is intrigued, and after her mother dies, and partly to escape a failing marriage, she decides to explore the connection between her mother and this much married poet, novellist and hedonist, Julian Adie. The search takes her to Corfu, and there, with the help of Alexandros, her English speaking herbalist and historian Greek friend, she begins to piece together the clues to a part of her mother's life of which she knew nothing, and of which she would never have dreamed. And in the sun-drenched October days of Corfu, Melissa is led at last to a dramatic re-evaluation of her own life.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

SOUTH OF BROAD

by

Pat Conway

To readers of Pat Conway's several novels it will come as no surprise to learn that SOUTH of BROAD is a rich feast of a book. In it he writes about Charleston, South Carolina, a town "so pretty it makes your eyes ache with pleasure just to walk down its spellbinding, narrow streets". He writes of how its two rivers, the Ashley and the Cooper "have flooded and shaped my life on this storied peninsular". In Charleston's shadows you can find "metalwork as delicate as lace. In the secrecy of its gardens you can discover jasmine and camellias and hundreds of other plants that look embroidered and stolen from the Garden of Eden for the sheer love of richness and the joy of stealing from the gods." Charleston's appreciation of and respect for good food is legendary: Pat Conroy describes it all with good humour and with wit. But he is not without uneasiness at Charleston's dark history of racism and its snobbery. An important part of the story is concerned with that. The narrative unfolds along the rivers and in the narrow streets and secret gardens; his lifedrawing is sensitive, knowledgeable and sympathetic.

It is impossible to write about the book and to disregard the author, because it is clearly autobiographical in feeling. Essentially the "hero" is a damaged boy, Leo, whose adored elder brother's suicide destroys his life. Although his parents love one another and Leo well enough, there is something amiss in the relationship that Leo is aware of but cannot place. His lack of confidence makes him unattractive, and, as vicious circles go, his is particularly vicious. As he grows into manhood his attempts to break out of it seem pathetic, and he never really seems to get his life together. But along the way he makes friends that cost him and his parents very dear, and excite mayhem in Charleston society. But they are intrigueing to read about and unexpecred in their loyalty (and treachery). Religion, racism, predjudice and underage sex seem to flourish in that glorious but sultry climate. The book is architectural in scope and feeling. It is a huge novel, nearly 700 pages. It is extravagant in its light and shade, gothic in tone, and as precise and massive as a cathedral. But its airiness makes it incredibly easy to read, and it has to be shortlisted for my Best Holiday Read of the Year!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

STUART: A LIFE BACKWARDS

by

Alexander Masters

This faithful biography of Stuart Shorter, homeless psychopath, thief and jail-bird, is honest and funny, and occasionally very sad indeed.

The book is without cynicism, but not without irony: Masters' compassion is spiked with exasperation; he has caught Stuart's voice and meaning to perfection, and his drawings exactly complement Masters' witty and elegant prose. Harper Perennial have published an attractive edition of STUART a life backwards, and Fourth Estate is to be congratulated (as is Dexter Masters) on producing a very exciting new writer.

Monday, July 3, 2006

SWEEPING UP GLASS

by

Carolyn Wall

This powerful, unforgettable first novel from an excellent new writer is set in Aurora, a small town which sprawled at the foothills of mountains in rural Kentucky. It is the 1920s or 30s. The rich white speculaters and landowners are long gone, leaving the poor whites and the freed slaves to make out as they could.

Olivia Harker is born to white parents. Her mother, Ida, is a wannabe good-time girl with a taste for pretty clothes and much brighter lights than she could hope for, is so unhappy with her lot that, had she been a cat, she would have eaten her young. Ida's post natal depression took the form of religious fanaticism, hatred and fear of black and coloured people, and a thorough dislike of her own daughter. Ida's husband, Tate Harker, does his best for her, but once he has at last given up and left her in the care of the state institution for the mentally ill, he gets on with the task of surviving and rearing Olivia.

Their small grocery store serves their racially divided community: whites are served on Tuesday and Thursday, coloureds Monday, Wednesday and Friday. By six years old Olivia can take stock of the bins and shelves, and line up the last cans of lima beans. Tate earns a little extra, paid mostly in home grown fruit and veg or a setting hen, by helping with the delivery of breeched foals or calves and doctoring other sick animals. He has the gift of calming his patients and a good deal of skill at curing them. With the goats for milk and laying hens out back, Tate and Olivia get by. Olivia is bird happy and Tate is held in high regard everywhere in the neighbourhood. Their store is also the unofficial post office, and Olivia can sort the letter, knows all the names and addresses, sells penny stamps and can put the right money for their bills into an envelope, address it, and drop a penny from the ancient copper and brass register into the box for a stamp. Her Pap teaches her the mysteries of mange and footrot. On Fridays they hitch the old mule, braying and bellyaching, to the wagon and deliver groceries, or haul bales of hay from one field to another. Pap runs his distillery in the woods back of the shed and supplies the best local moonshine, which Olivia is never allowed to touch. If he and a few friends have a little party occasionally Olivia has to go to bed right after supper. From Sunday to Sunday Tate keeps the still fired up, and Olivia learns the value of a brown glass jug.

Junk Hanley, a huge negro, is an important part of their lives. His grad-daddy had been a newspaperman in the War Between the States. Olivia's mother, Ida, had said newspapering was a hite man's job, and it was a sin for him to be in possession of its paycheck. But Olivia likes to think that both coloured and whites sat on their porches reading his penny newspaper. Junk Hanley is one of the few men in the neighbourhood nowadays who can read and write. It is from Love Alice, Junk's thirteen-year-old wife, that Olivia learns about lovin' and birthin'. and it's by spying on the baptisms at Captain's Creek and going with Junk's mother to the African Methodist Episcopal Church, where the music filled the cracks in the floor and made the whole place throb with rapture, that she learns all about sin and redemption. Yessir. Yessir.

Olivia's mother comes home from the asylum as bitter as gaul. There is tragedy and mayhem in Pope County. A branch of the Klu Klux Klan rides the countryside. Olivia's happy and innocent life of under-age sex with the love of her life takes a savage turn for the worse.

Carolyn Wall has written an authoratetive and rivetting novel with fire in her belly, but with love and understanding for the characters in her book. Yessir. Yessir. Amen.

Friday, September 11, 2009

THAT THEY MAY FACE THE RISING SUN

by

John McGahern

THAT THEY MAY FACE THE RISING SUN is John McGahern's Last Will and Testament. His gift is in the serenity and wildness of a lake. His telling of its moods, its banks and hedges, and the people who live there make of the book a testament of love. Joe and Kate Ruttledge return to Eire from successful London jobs in advertising to a small farm by the lake. With mockery and delight and great skill McGahern chronicles their seasons through lambing, haymaking, marketing and visits to the pub. At Christmas, Easter and the funeral we enjoy the company of family, friends and Father Conroy; we hear the heavy wellingtons and the blackthorn of the orphan boy of sixty.

The meaning of the title of the novel is in the cemetry and the rose window of the ruined abbey at Shruhaun. "And who can tell, when all is said and done, and who can tell the man who wore the ragged jacket." The character of the Ruttledges' best neighbour, Jamsie Murphy, can best be appreciated through McGahern's own words: "An intense vividness and sweetness of nature showed in every quick, expressive movement." For him (as it was for Joe and Kate), "all forms of social intercourse were merely different kinds of play". According to his wife, Mary, Jamsie would disgrace a holy saint. We are vaguely aware of the tragedy of Irish history, of the underlying restlessness and threat, and the ironies of religion. Using as metaphors a pretty black lamb (accidentally trampled during the medicinal drenching of the flock) and the old heron which deserts the lake at the arrival of the telegraph poles, McGahern fears the silent loss of the ancient spirit of Ireland, the grace of which, a thousand years ago, enlightened the civilised world. Will the European Union, like the clumsy shepherd and the marching telegraph, extinguish even more than the brutality of the Norman, Scots and English invasions?

THAT THEY MAY FACE THE RISING SUN celebrates the beauty of the lake, the kindness of good neighbours, the freshness of original and surprising conversation and the del;icacy and toughness of the human spirit. It is John McGahern's last book. He died a few weeks ago: Ireland's grievous loss is ours, too.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

THE ASBO SHOW

by

Tony Saint

Roger Merrion joined the Council Housing Department in the 1980s. He is thirty seven, presentable, medium height, thin nose, full mouth; he is married to a good wife and has likable and undemanding teenage children. But he is an insomniac, and has a nagging ache in his shoulder. He could easily wangle a few days compassionate, but would rather just turn up at work. He regularly volunteers for newly set up sections of the council, such as Community Laiason, Poll Tax Defaulters and now the Antisocial Behaviour Unit, where there is little to do, less established red tape, and no previous example to outshine. The perception at the Town Hall is that Roger Merrion is, if nothing else, willing. 'Like I'm the only one,' muttered

Roger, when he is chaffed on the subject by his friend and colleague of twenty years, Spence. Spence (unmarried, dark and handsomish) wears a blue cotton shirt, navy blazer with silver buttons, well-pressed cream chinos and aftershave. He networks a thriving little business selling plant and equipment which is deemed (by him) to be surplus to council requirements. Roger, with the wife and kids to think of, looks the other way, out of the car window, vaguely aware as he drives through it, of the steady decline of the city. Late one afternoon, bored as usual and in no hurry to go home, Roger volunteers to investigate a break-in at a derelict tower block central to The Composers, a notorious council estate. As he enters the hideous, depressing and vandalised empty building he is relieved to find that the utilities have not yet been disconnected, and he can switch on the lights in the halls and stairways.

On the third floor Roger looks into a large room originally intended as a communal TV room and coffee bar. Now it is a communal tipping site, full of rubbish, discarded furniture, tumbler driers and supermarket trolleys. The outer wall comprises one giant sheet of reinforced glass, overlooking the area that a sanguine architect had designated as the piazza. The glass had been, at the time, a revolutionary design with a fibre matrix, inspired by anti-terrorist technology: Roger could peer out on the vistas beneath, but without being seen from below. Through it he idly watched the feral children bred of The Composers behaving badly. Amused, he sat down in an old armchair. As the evening darkens, older youths, whose rite of passage is an ASBO, come out to drink, fight, use drugs and fornicate, and set fire to rubbish, clothes and vehicles.

Unaccountably soothed and entertained, Roger falls asleep. Nine hours later he wakes refreshed and ready for the day ahead. He returns regularly, and soon brings along his toothebrush and a change of clothes. Reluctantly he invites Spence into his haven of peace and recreation. Spence, busy putting the finishing touches to the private sale of geraniums surplus to the City in Bloom stock, is at first sceptical, but is soon fired up by the commercial possibilities of the situation. He drives his old Mercedes into the piazza, rings up on his mobile to report it stolen, and gleefully watches through the third floor window as it is trashed and then torched by the residents of Elgar Close and Bax Villas From then on he enthusiastically applies his genius for business organisation to what was to become a very nice little earner indeed.

Saint has written a brilliant satire that spares no-one. Unspoken is his concern for the tenants of a council estate far gone in dissolution and debauchery. Knowing themselves friendless and referred to as scum and chavs and scum of the earth, they have arrogated to themselves the freedom and the savagery of the jungle. THE ASBO SHOW scythes through the smug pretentions of our dysfunctional welfare state. As the feral children of Bax Villas and Goossens grow up and aquire more sophisticated toys, our arsenists and terrorists will be homebred ASBOS from The Composers council estate.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

THE AUSCHWITZ VIOLIN

by

Maria Angels Anglada

Only a novelist of exceptional courage would include "Auschwitz" in the title of a romantic novel, and only a writer with a generous imagination could magic so poignant a tale set in so hateful a background. But Maria Angels Anglada (1930 - 1999), one of the most brilliant and celebrated Catalan writers, has, in this short, elegant piece, achieved a miracle. Although her readers are spared nothing of the horror and humiliation of perhaps the most notoriously brutal of all the Nazi death camps, this prestigious authors testament to the Jewish love of music and achievement will surely touch the hardest and most cynical reader, and haunt the gentle human heart for many a day.

THE AUSCHWITZ VIOLIN, set against history's greatest atrocity, is about Daniel, a Jewish luthier from Poland, whose life is slipping away in the degradation, hunger and grief of Auschwitz, when, by chance, he is ordered to repair a broken violin by the sadistic camp commander. Given a corner of the camp, and the delicate tools stolen from another (dead?) luthier's workplace, he begins a rather hopeless task. He lights the litle lamp to soften the wax, and warms the glue, and manages to repair the violin to such a high standard that he is ordered to make another violin. Parked away in his corner, candle-lit most of the time, with the familiar smell of glue and varnish and wax, and set an almost impossible task, Daniel slowly recaptures the pleasure in his craft, the violin's beauty and the skill he finds from somewhere he thought he had lost begins to to make him feel human again. The violin becomes an obsession, he rejoices in the care with which he measures and shaves the wood to perfection, its tone is particularly good, its colour and shape is all he thinks about, even as he shivers in the bitter wind for a bowl of turnip soup. or tries to sleep in the stench and misery of the shed. And with it returns Daniel's dignity and will to live.

Friday, January 7, 2011

THE BETRAYAL

by

Helen Dunmore

This novel bowls along at such a pace that a reader could easily overlook the highly architctural skill with which its foundations are established, and its depth and sensibility given light and shade, meaning and ornament. The setting is a hospital in Leningrad in June 1952. The siege of Leningrad is still recent history and a horrible memory: those terrible months in which the instinct to survive, to put food in ones mouth, and to sit near a lit stove for a while were all that kept one alive. In a city where dead hands had reached out from the snowdrifts in the streets, and the trams had been frozen to the tracks, ordinary people are at last trying to live a normal life. Helen Dunmore has written her incredibly well researched and historically correct novel about young professional men and women who now walk with the quick pace of people who eat three meals a day. But the months when relatives lay dead and frozen in the spare room, and life was governed by forays in search of a few sticks of firewood or hours queuing in the bitter cold for half a loaf of bread still brings an occasional clench of fear to the stomach. But the young, still hopeful Leningraders, with all their lives before them and their intense capacity for endurance and irony, indulge their love of music, poetry and the theatre as far as is possible under Stalin's hideous regime of cruelty and secrecy.

Doctor Andrei Mikhailovich Alekseyev is a paediatric physician with a special interest in juvenile arthritis. He is in his thirties, but had lived and worked at the hospital throughout the months of the seige, and the heavy shelling of the city and the hospital, and through Leningrad's heroism, when hundreds of thousands of people had starved or frozen to death. But the warm wind that now blows from the south-west after the long winter has broken and the Germans are gone, has failed in much of its promise.

Andrei thinks of himself as a good ordinary doctor, although he spends longer than is usual with his patients, and his expertise as a diagnostician is known and appreciated by his colleagues. He wants to live out a simple, valuable life with Anna, his wife, and her orphaned brother, Kolya, with whom he has an unusually tolerant and understanding relationship. He wants always to be able to smile as he passes his colleagues in the hospital corridors. He wants to be able to sit by an open window on the first day of spring and enjoy a glass of beer with Anna somewhere in the room behind him. He looks forward to their short holidays at their dacha, where Anna can sow the seeds she has saved in little brown envelopes, each labelled in her beautiful handwriting. He will do repairs to the dacha, and he and Kolya can go fishing and have a drink together.

But there is a child in a private room in the hospital who "carries a disease that destroys ordinary life as fast as the plague corrupts a living body. His father is high up in the Ministry for State Security, and he has one of those names that is spoken only in whispers: Volkov..."

Andrei's and Anna's efforts to avoid coming to the attention of the authorities, their private happiness together, and their care of sixteen-year-old Kolya, are gravely threatened. The Putinesque Volkov represents the violence, secrecy and terror of the Stalin years in the Soviet Union.

THE BETRAYAL is the sequel to THE SEIGE, which was short listed for the 2001 Whitbread Novel of the Year Award and for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2002. But THE BETRAYAL stands on its own as a beautifully written love story. It is a thoroughly absorbing and rewarding book to read, and will no doubt promote considerable reflection and discussion in many a thoughtful book-group.

Friday, 8 Oct 2010

THE BLOOD OF FLOWERS

by

Anita Amirrezvani

Set in seventeenth century Persia, this book is not a historical novel, nor is it in any way derivitive. It is a deeply researched, scholarly first novel by an acclaimed American writer who was born in Tehran and grew up in San Francisco. THE BLOOD OF FLOWERS is the tale of a young girl's farewell to innocence, and her determination to decide on her own future in a very unforgiving world.

Anita Amirrezvani worked for ten years as a journalist in U.S.A.; she recieved fellowships from the National Arts Journalism Program and Hedgebrook. She researched the material for THE BLOOD OF FLOWERS for nine years, which included making three journeys to Iran. She acknowledges the help of dedicated scholars who have devoted their lives to understanding Iran. Won in a hotly contested auction, THE BLOOD OF FLOWERS was the talk of the London Book Fair in 2006; it has already been sold in Israel, Germany, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Norway. Anyone with Persian friends might have been slightly mystified by their devoted interest in rugs and carpets.

In THE BLOOD OF FLOWERS Amirrezvani tells how Tamerlane, the Mogol conqueror, arrived at Isfahan more than six hundred years ago and ordered the city to surrender. There was a small rebellion, and in revenge Tamerlane ordered his soldiers to run their swords through fifty thousand citizens. Only one group was spared: the carpet makers whose value was too great for them to be destroyed. But even after this calamity the carpet makers never introduced death, destruction or chaos into the designs of their carpets; they created only elegant design and colour, which is the way that Persion carpet makers traditionally protest all evil. In response to cruelty, suffering and sorrow they recall to the world only the face of beauty "which can best restore man's tranquillity, cleanse his heart of evil, and lead him to the path of truth"...."Beauty is a tonic like no other". But Amirrezvani pulls no punches when she describes the cruel discrimination endured by Persion women through the ages. Their predicament, although bewildering to many in the western world, lends colour to Iranian poetry and legendary stories. May it be said, without giving offence to East or West, that it also adds considerable drama and significance to sex, which, by contrast, can seem a bit run-of-the-mill to many in the western world.

Why is THE BLOOD OF FLOWERS set in the 17th century? Well, Shah Abbas the Great, who came to power at the age of seventeen in 1588 (and within ten years built Isfahan) created a climate in which the arts, particularly carpet making, flourished. Persian carpets became coveted in Europe by kings, noblemen and wealthy merchants. Painters such as Velazquez, Van Dyke and Rubens included in their pictures carpets such as have been preserved ever since, in museums and private collections, and can be counted among the finest carpets ever produced. The ancient city of Isfahan, of course, is famous to this day. Thomas Herbert, a young aristocrat who visited Iran from 1627 -1629 with English ambassador Sir Dodmore Cotton, described the enormous square, the Image of the World, as "without doubt as spacious, as pleasant and as aromatic a market as any in the universe". Such is the setting for THE BLOOD OF FLOWERS. Eskander Monshi, Shah Abbas's official historian, produced a 1300 page chronicle of the most significant events of the Shah's forty-one-year reign. In it he described the comet so important to the first chapters of THE BLOOD OF FLOWERS, and some of the misfortunes attributed to it.

The title of the novel is drawn from a poem called Ode to a Garden Carpet, from vol. 14 of Alexander Upham Pope and Phyllis Ackerman's monumental SURVEY OF PERSIAN ART (1939, Oxford University Press). The poem is attributed to an unknown Sufi poet c.1500, which portrays the garden carpet as a place of refuge that stimulates visions of the Divine. Anita Amirrezvani has bloomed in the freer air of Northern California into the highly competent and imaginitive author of THE BLOOD OF FLOWERS. She has written an unforgettable book, full of fascinating detail about a world still mysterious to most outsiders. The scenery, architecture and the way of life, the brilliant colour and variety of the bazaars, is brought vividly to the page. The essential kindness, politeness and generosity of Amirrezvani's characters animate the story and breathe light and zest ito a tale touched by darkness, superstition and tragedy.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

THE BOOK CLUB

by

Marjolijn Februari

Marjolijn Februari studied Art History, Philosophy and Law. She was awarded a doctorate for a thesis on the clash of economics and ethics. So it is no surprise that THE BOOK CLUB, her second novel, is the the thinking book group's book. In fact, it should be the thinking book groups' Book of the Year. And the well read book group will probably appreciate the literary allusions and quotations with which it is peppered. This book cleverly illustrates one essential value of fiction: reference to international rogues and hypocrites would, in any non-fiction piece, get the author crucified. But fictional characters can think and say what they will, and in her enigmatic and cryptic account of human trial and error, of the European predicament and good old love and marriage Februari takes full advantage of that. I think she is the most accomplished and effective European author of today. With honed wit and masterly dialogue she rages against that most endearing of Dutch characteristics, the Protestant work ethic, when it is manipulated and abused by international, globalised, hypocritical wheelers and dealers.

The caste of THE BOOK CLUB is fascinating. The juvenile lead, Victor Herwig, is foreign correspondent to a national Dutch newspaper. Back from Africa, with sunbleached hair and green trousers with fourteen pockets, he has a thirtysomething moment when his interest is caught by an ecstatic review of a new novel which in three months has run through fifteen editions and has been sold in umpteen different languages. It is an autobiographical tragicomedy about a young girl's experiences in a mental hospital. Victor is intrigued to realise that the author is a mouse-quiet girl, Ruth Ackermann, with whom he had shared a class room for six years. Out of mild interest, he drives out to his childhood village, and there he accidentally meets another co-pupil, Teresa Pellikaan, who still lives in this middle class, charming, enlightened Dutch village. Everyone here knows at least an MEP or a lady-in-waiting, and the most characteristic aspect of the area is the ingenious interplay of virtue, as the aquired inclination to do good, and a talent for business; with the advent of the very latest technology, this can be carried on anywhere in the world, at any moment of the day, or the night. Teresa is more beautiful than ever. From her teeth, her hair, her bag, her watch, her shoes and even her pen it is clear that she is either very successful or very married. She remembers Victor as the boy at the front of the class who used to make a fuss about the injustice in the world. She cannot remember Ruth Ackermann at all. She and Victor lunch together in the restaurant in the park of the nineteenth century castle at the edge of the village. It is a warm early summer day, and under the chestnut trees in the park, a peacock crosses the grass with small, indignant steps.

There are so many unexpected and interesting characters in this novel, and they are portrayed with such skill, that this reviewer could go on and on. But, writes Februari, a novelists job is to entertain, and THE BOOK CLUB is nothing if not entertaining. It is an excellent novel, essential reading for the eclectic and erudite book group. Best discussed over a glass of good wine, I should think.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

THE BREAKERS

by

Claudie Gallay

La Hague is a desolate, storm swept village almost surrounded by sea on the most northerly tip of Normandy's Cotentin coastline. This book is a story about the village, and it is of today, but set in ancient and timeless surroundings. The story begins as the sky over the village darkens with storm clouds. A lonely woman in her late thirties sits at a table in the auberge with her coffee. She has sought shelter after her walk along the cliffs: she is employed by the Centre ornithologique at Caen to study the behaviour and habits of migratory and nesting sea birds. As the storm rolls across the sea towards La Hague, a stranger comes to sit at another table, and she sees him again during the following days. The villagers become suspicious; they have secrets and hatreds and resent a visitor, especially as he seems to have secrets of his own. A madwoman thinks she recognises him, and touches his face with an almost biblical gesture, and the old lighthouse keeper is obviously nervous about him. Diffidently, and with many false starts, the villagers discover more about him: he owns the house, empty for many years, which stands opposite Lili's place, where the seamen like to gather together; and he himself is looking for answers. At sight of him the old men stop their talk and their card game, and Lili's ancient mother, deaf and almost blind, wants to know what's going on. No one can tell her, and it is the taciturn woman birdwatcher who tries to unravel the mystery. There are questions about a lost family, a lost child, an old love affair, and an accident at sea. Soon she realises that there is a tragedy that lies at the heart of the community, and with an unforgotten feud.

The story does not bowl along but keeps pace with the seagoing and reticent people of La Hague. The narrative is compelling and evocative of its time and place, and it holds its readers attention like a magnet. It is a tale of loss and love and atonement, but also about human warmth and family affection. In fact the storm is the harbinger of unexpected kindness and constancy. There is predestination and also redemption, and above all the story is original. It will not let you go.

Claudie Gallay is a teacher who lives in Provence. THE BREAKERS is a best seller in France.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

THE CLOTHS OF HEAVEN

by

Sue Eckstein

This fascinating novel about an expatriate community in West Africa is clearly the work of a very professional author, who brings to it a knowing, beady eye and an acute understanding of the use of irony. THE CLOTHS OF HEAVEN is entertaining and rewarding. Sue Eckstein has written a well-observed, satirical account of what one must suppose is a fairly typical collection of ex-pats: clinging together but quarrelling amongst themselves; drinking too much; barely noticing 'the natives'; rolling in and out of bed with one another while at the same time slagging one another off: these are all habits which are quite commonly prevalent among a group of British people thrown together, far from home, and with too little to do. Of course there are exceptions: Daniel Maddison is a young diplomat on his first posting abroad, and is already tired of the endless round of cocktail parties and golf. He is beginning to stray into the commercial centre of the city where he thinks he recognizes a young woman, Rachel, working in a large cloth warehouse owned by a wealthy Lebanese man.

Among the other less conventional ex-pats, Isabel Redmond is tiring of her husband's hobby of photographing naked black women, but she is wedded to the idea that, for better or worse, they are together till death they do part. The High Commissioner and his wife are both having affairs – with unexpected consequences; Father Seamus and Sister Mary Philomena are doing good work and being discreet about their unconventional relationship; an English judge, long in the tooth and prey to dementia, is loose in the bush; and an unattractive man selling timeshares is getting on everyone's nerves. Somehow all these characters relate to each other in surprising, and often very funny or tragic ways. THE CLOTHS OF HEAVEN is written with an assured touch. It is rich in dialogue and her characters are finely and sensitively drawn. Sue Eckstein is to be congratulated on an excellent debut. If you like Armistead Maupin, Graham Greene or Barbara Trapido, you will love this.

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THE EXTRA LARGE MEDIUM

by

Helen Slavin

Once upon a time there was a very great storyteller. His tales were simple and original: he used no padding, flummery or "style". And yet his stories have never been forgotten. But he was under no illusion: he likened his narrative to the mustard seed, the success or failure of which relies upon the ground on which it falls. Only if the earth is fertile and alive, open to the sun and the rain, will the seed eventually bring its flavour to the potboiler that is everyday life. And so it has always been and will always be. With every story that was ever told, its success has depended as much upon the listener, or, more often nowadays, the reader, as it has upon the storyteller.

Judging from her novel, Helen Slavin would be the last person to presume to be considered either holy or a genius, but the success of her book depends more than usually upon her readers.

THE EXTRA LARGE MEDIUM is highly imaginitive. It is about a child (Annie) born with the "gift" of being able to "hear dead people whingeing on", usually about some unfinished business such as a squabble over a will or some unresolved family riddle: the whereabouts of a missing cat or spouse, or who should have the Crown Derby. "If your Aunt Mildred was a sour old bat when she was alive the addition of harp lessons and being allocated a cloud is not going to turn her into a philosopher". And once they have found Annie the dead use her mercilessly as their messenger to friends and family members still alive. In her own words, "I exist as a kind of customer service department, running a stream of errands just to keep these people quiet". And try as she might to be very ordinary indeed herself, her own life becomes hopelessly and rather sadly complicated.

The story is, of course, about how she lives with it, and how other people react to her. But the success of the book, that is how much flavour it will bring to ones life, will depend on its reader's fertile imagination, empathy and humour. This novel is a gift to each reader, a greetings card, a very personal message from Helen Slavin: a commentary on life and death and how each of us deals with it. It is an invitation to a rather disreputable party, where, however uncertain one feels about the company, one cannot help but laugh.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

THE GHOSTS OF EDEN

by

Andrew J.H. Sharp

In the regions of the Great Rift Valley the Bahima tribe have roamed the rich grasslands of Kaaro Karungi for countless centuries. Calenders and clocks, books, baths and shoes were, until recently, completely unknown. The passing of time was measured by the passage of events and the occasions of the day. The crowing of the cocks, the herding of the cattle, the return of the men to their mats and the waterers from the wells, and the milking of the cows. The end of the day was when neighbours shared the fire beneath the dark, brilliant sky and listened intently to the formal recitations about the magnificence of the cattle and the greatness of the deeds of the ancesters, whose ghosts had never left, but listened in the shadows. The evening was the time of the storytellers, speaking in parable, each distinguishing himself in his own way. In such a world Zacheye and Stanley (named for a strange visitor to the kraal a generation ago and an almost mythical part of the local history) would normally have spent their whole lives, from birth on the mat in their mother's hut until they died on their calf-skin under their own thatch and were buried with terrible but short lived grief in the dung heap. But they had been born into an age when the meaning of time itself would change.

Zacheye and Stanley blended naturally with the land and the cattle. Naked but for a scrap of red barkcloth below their bellies, they were matted with ingrained dust. They learned as children how to treat sickness in cattle, and the ways of wild animals, birds and snakes. But their father's family was still comparatively and shamefully poor following an outbreak of rinderpest which had decimated the herds a generation ago, in the dreadful days when hoes had been the only available brideprice. Zacheye, born to be warrior and protector, and Stanley, 'the puny one', were inseperable brothers. Neither boy had ever tasted nourishment other than blood or milk. Only cattle drank water and ate greenstuff.

The Bahima knew that a tribe from far away with skin so red, blue and white that they appeared to have been flayed, had come by the sea and invaded part of the land. They had mapped the valleys, hills and rivers, cut roads from outpost to outpost, created hill stations with fired-brick buildings 'set by rule and plumb line in a land that, in all the ages, had never seen a perfect perpendicular.' It was known to the elders that buildings with sheeted metal steeples glinted in the African sun as signs of a new order. And so Zacheye and Stanley are selected, as if by a throw of the diviners bones and seeds, to get the 'Education'. They are to observe the ways of the white men and to discover how to read and write. Zacheye comforts them both with his calculations of how many cattle they will be able to buy, and how they will herd them in their old age, and how they will tell of all the things that they have seen and done. Their recitations will enchant their listeners and still the night sounds with amazement.

It is, in fact, the story of their lives and that of a white boy born to Christian missionaries in Uganda that is the theme of THE GHOSTS OF EDEN. There are particularly beautiful and often very funny passages in the book. The third chapter ('Rusoro Town 1957) describes a church service: 'Hundreds of miles from Africa's Eastern shore, the cathedral lay like a bleached driftwood crate.' Two white schoolboys, Michael and Simon, opposites in every way excpt in their colour, sit on the cement floor during a service in the cathedral 'pressed by soft flesh and marinated in the scents of another race.' The great drums that had summoned the faithful are bound tightly to a stake lest the old legends be true and they break free and go looking for their wives and cattle. The bishop hauls his ecclisiastical authority up to the pulpit with the help of the bannister rail, while below him an acolyte, slim and black and straight as a skittle, translates the sermon into Rukiga, for the understanding of the congregation. After the Benediction all rise as one, so tightly packed are they. 'A lone voice rose high and wavering... a plaintive cry drifting out and away into the hills, sliding into a melody that had been composed in Victorian Britain, translated by the worshippers into their own musical dialect...' They sing of redemption through blood. The congregation knows all about blood: chicken blood, goat blood, cattle blood, blood from the gash of a panga, blood from childbirth, the blood of sinners, for sin was serious unto death, for which only a life was sufficient atonement. Michael feels rinsed of his sins. Simon is absorbed in plans of his own.

Andrew J.S.Sharp has written a novel of great distinction, founded on his wide knowledge and appreciation of Africa. This is his first novel. His delight in and love for Uganda and all her peoples is as fresh and pure as tears.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

THE GIFT OF RAIN

by

Tan Twan Eng

Philip Hutton is sixteen when his family makes its five yearly visit 'home' to England and he refuses to go. To him, England is cold and dull and he is aware of his family's slight embarrassment at having to explain him to their friends. Because of his mixed parentage he is never completely accepted by either the Chinese or the English in Penang. The boys at the English school taunt him: too Chinese to laugh, he is too English to show his distress. Philip is the youngest of one of the oldest families in Penang. His great-grandfather, Graham Hutton, had sailed to the East Indies to make his fortune in 1780. The Malay Peninsula had been partially colonised since the sixteenth century, first by the Portuguese, then the Dutch and, finally, the British. The discovery of tin and the suitability of the soil and the climate for the planting of rubber trees – when both materials were of vital importance to the Industrial Revolution – convinced Graham Hutton to found Hutton & Sons in Penang. He built a Palladian mansion on a cliff overlooking the sea. Its doors, floors, window frames and furniture were of Burmese teak and Hutton imported stonemasons from Kent, ironmongers from Glasgow, marble from Italy and coolie labour from India for the construction of its 25 rooms.

When Philip Hutton's father, Noel, inherited the house, a swimming pool and two tennis courts were added. Noel, left a widower at thirty two with three small children, met and married a pretty young Chinese woman, Yu Lian, and Philip was born Sadly, when Philip was just seven, Yu Lian died of malaria caught while out hunting butterflies with her husband. Had she lived, Philip might not have become the intensely lonely boy who lived alone for several months while the English part of his family went 'home'. It was thus that the lonely boy became deeply attached to his Japanese martial arts teacher. Philip did not feel English, he didn't even feel Anglo-Asian and he found his days with Endo-San to be magical. Under the influence of the older man, he soon learned Japanese. But far away the threads that bound the world were becoming unravelled. Europe was going to war and Japan was setting up its puppet regime in Manchuria as a launching pad into China. Dark days were coming, but for the moment the sun still shone on Malaya and Philip was happier than he had known possible.

The storm breaks upon Malaya while his family is away in England. The Japanese follow the path through the forest and take over the only home he has ever known. Philip has to choose whether to save the family firm by serving the Japanese as an interpreter (and spy) or being sent to a Japanese prison camp. Initially, he joins the Japanese, but disgusted with the atrocities perpetrated on the Malays, he becomes a double agent, and in the process betrays his friends, his family, servants and neighbours. THE GIFT OF RAIN is a deeply rewarding book. Tan Twan Eng describes the beauty of Penang with affection and there is much about Aikido, Martial Arts and Buddhism. It is beautifully written, worrying at times, but always exciting, interesting and evocative. It was long-listed for the Mann Booker Prize, 2007.

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THE GOOD FATHER

by

Marion Husband

1959 was for Britain a year in limbo. London had not yet begun to swing; women were more at ease since The New Look and National Health, but deprivation of all sorts haunted the memory, and abundance was slightly tinged with guilt. Only now did the world fully realise how dearly peace had been achieved. No one comes back untouched from any war, and in 1959 ex-servicemen still felt their scars. THE GOOD FATHER is set in these tender years, and Marion Husband's protagonists are not spared. When Peter Wright returns from long years as a Japanese prisoner of war he is not expected to live. Released at last to return to his home he finds his father (a widower for most of Peter's life) more drunken and hateful than ever, and his girlfriend married to his best friend. The father is near the end of his life, and to Peter's relief he does not need to be looked after for very long, but little does Peter suspect what havoc the sadistic old brute can wreak from beyond his grave: his malevolence is reflected in the clues he leaves in his strange will to heartbreaking family secrets which should have died with him. The nature of love, sex and fatherhood is deeply explored in this powerful and spellbinding novel about three families recovering from World War II. In this story of young men trying their best to put back together the broken pieces of family life lies much authenticity which is still relevant today.

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THE GOOD PLAIN COOK

by

Bethan Roberts

Bethan Roberts new novel, THE GOOD PLAIN COOK (from the winner of the Jerwood/Arven Young writers' Prize for her first novel, THE POOLS), is in good time to be thoroughly enjoyed during the holidays. THE POOLS was a BBC RADIO 5 LIVE Book Panel Book of the Month; THE GOOD PLAIN COOK is a brilliant second novel. It is 1936, and Kate Allen, eastwhile kitchen maid,, answers an advertisement in the Hants & Sussex Herald for a good plain cook. Kate is a far better needlewoman than a cook, but rural England offers little for unmarried country girls in those days, as the country struggled with the aftermath of World War I, blithely unaware of the threat of Word War II. She becomes involved in the household of a highly unconventional American millionairess, Ellen Steinberg, who is playing at living in the country.

Also part of this menage are Ellen's lover, George Crane (an obsessive Marxist 'poet'), Ellen's daughter, Regina (Geenie, aged ten), the dog, Blotto, and the gardener, Arthur. Kate (Kitty) finds herself , at nineteen, out of her depths and at first quite out of sympathy with her new employer. But she feels sorry for the needy little daughter, and intrigued, in spite of herself , by the goings-on, and to her own surpride and mystification, she is fascinated by Ellen's lover. Finding her feet in this rarified atmosphere is both alarming and at times irresistably funny: she hardly knows whether to laugh or cry.

The novel was inspired by Bethan Roberts's visit to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, housed in the Palazzo Vernier dei Leoni, Venice, which is not only a museum but the house where Peggy Guggenheim lived. In 1936 the Guggenheim household, playing at being bohemian communists, moved into a cottage in Harting, Sussex, and the story amused and interested Roberts, who has very successfully based her second novel on this unusual tale. THE GOOD PLAIN COOK is written from the point of view of the good plain cook.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

THE HELP

by

Kathryn Stockett

Set in the late 1960s, "THE HELP is fiction, by and large," says Kathryn Stockett. Her characters are authentic and alive, and Jackson, Mississipi, is undeniably Jackson, Mississipi, as ever was.

The story is about the relationship between white people in the deep South of the USA and their African-American servants. It is a difficult subject, particularly for a writer born and bred in the South, and Stockett is honest about a situation that was founded on dishonesty. She writes with compassion, but without sentimentality, about what has always been the tragic plight of a people whose ancestors were brought as slaves to America, and who were denied good education and every chance to improve their lot until the 1960s, when Martin Luther King, JFK and Rosa Park made a stand against discrimination and injustice. TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD, GONE WITH THE WIND and other good stories are all very well, but they are written from a white point of view. Stockett will have incurred the greatest displeasure in many a white Southern breast for writing almost all her book from a black viewpoint. But only a writer cared for by black maids could have written this book. Only a child's ears are privy to the constant dialogue between servants in any community, and in Stockett's case she spent longer than usual in the company of black servants who loved her. The wonderful dialogue in THE HELP rings true as a bell, and despite the sadness and humiliation and downright fear felt by the black maids, it is, at times, the funniest I have ever read.

Stockett's main character, Aibileen, means more to the children she cares for than their own mothers. But a fatal accident to her own only child, and the indifference of the white people there at the time, embitters her, even against her will and her strong Chridtian faith. But still she sees black and white people as chesspieces on a chess board. To her, people have different positions in life, most people work for somebody else anyway, and most relationships are largely symbiotic.

In contrast to to Aibileen, her best friend, Minny, has absolutely no illusions. She cooks for white people in order to feed her own family. She bad-mouths and infuriates her employers, and frequently gets the sack. Minny is every white Southern woman's nightmare: a wonderful black servant and superb cook who cow tows to nobody and speaks her mind.

Skeeter, a 23 year old white girl with a degree from Alabama University, wants a career in journalism, especially in New York, but has to cut her teeth on the women's page of the Jackson local paper brfore she will be seriously considered for a job on any National newspaper. But white girls in Jackson, Mississipi are required to marry, help their husbands to climb the cocial ladder, get their hair done, go shopping, and know who's who, and even more importantly, know who is not who at all. In fact, the only reason they were sent to University in the first place was in order to meet the "right" men.

I listened to this book on Radio 4, and thought it lost greatly in translation to the air, although it was very well done. It is so beautifully written and so true to life that it reminds us dramatically of a very old problem, never to be spoken of, except by Barak Obama (and he's allowed): that racism, nasty as it is in any form, is still very much alive.

Thursday, 30 Jul 2009

THE HUNTER

by

Julia Leigh

Martin David, or so he calls himself, is a qualified naturalist, but first and last he is a hunter. The bluestone farmhouse at the end of a dirt road, where he is to lodge, turns its back to a great plateau, created thirty million years ago by some catastrophic earth movement, which is the possible last refuge of the fabled thylacine, the Tasmanian tiger. Hunted to extinction half a century ago, it is now Martin David's prey. For who was of more value to a multi-national biotech company than this hunter: sampler and ensurer of exclusivity.

M looks at the ragwort pushing up through the abandoned wrecks of cars in the paddocks of the farm. As he sets off up the escarpment he wonders briefly what happened to the father of the farm children. Posted missing up on the plateau a year ago, why was there no mention of him from the company? The neglected children and their zonked-out mother bring a strange unbidden comfort to the chosen bleakness of M's life. But the hunt, (the novel), is a maze of mystery and paradox. M is secretly hunting the most secretive animal on earth. The scientists, the bio-chemists, are after a sample of the thylacine DNA, for good or evil. M, the hunter, the loner, is their man.

A childish drawing of the Tasmanian tiger on the frig door in the chaotic farm kitchen warms an unsuspected corner of M's psyche. The boy says his father, the missing-believed-dead Jarrah, saw the tiger last summer, up on the plateau. Mistrusting himself and his feelings, M returns to the plateau to share the bitterly inhospitable refuge of his prey. He fixes his bearings on his high resolution, satellite-generated physiographic map. He sets his snares, and waits in trance induced patience under the stars, "...not God's little peepholes; no, science has long since squeezed all the gods from the firmament and replaced them with bilious clouds of rock and gas." By day he studies tracks and droppings across the plateau. "He wonders how long it had taken the National Parks researchers to finally come across the print which had led them to the sighting, which, in its own turn, had been passed, or rather leaked, secretly sold... thereon to him, M." From studying the hairs of a museum's stuffed pup, the developers of biological weapons were able to model a genetic picture of the thylacine, and there is no doubt in M's mind that the race is on to harvest the beast's DNA. But doubts plague him Was it possible that the company no longer wanted him and this genetic material? He had already earned them hundreds of millions, probably billions. But was he even now sleepwalking into a trap?

The black nights on the plateau are intensely cold, but still he waits and checks his snares. His only nod to comfort are his pup tent and sleeping bag; his only tool is his knife. He has a rifle and even a small primus stove, but their use would give his presence away to animals and Park Ranger alike. A night vision helmet provided by the company turns the dark into a yellow-green negative; the occasional passing wallaby becomes a ghostly image. And so it goes on: twelve days on the plateau, two days at the farm house. The woman begins to cook supper and the children are started back to school The hunter is indefatigable. Then one day he comes upon the fresh and bloody mess of a wallaby, bearing all the reported characteristics of a tiger kill. He refuses to be excited, and it is the day on which he has to return to the farm or his absence will be noted and an alarm raised - the very last thing he wants to happen. But as he takes a bearing and heads back down the mountain his blood is up and singing.

At supper he notices changes in the woman and toys with the thought of a few extra glasses of wine; he wonders what she might look like as she undoes her bra. He feels sure that she is perfectly fuckable. But he turns away. It must wait.

THE HUNTER is Julia Leigh's first novel. She is the quintessential story teller. Her unconventional, attenuated prose powerfully evokes time and place, atmosphere and character, tensions and release. She breathes the confidence of absolute conviction as she describes this complex, inscrutable man, his hardness, and his nescience of any family life. His nervous reliance on the discretion of this jinxed little family in the cheerless outback is palpable. This is a novel to remember, by a novelist of great promise. Amid the flock of first-novelists she is recognisably the albatross, and with this novel she is safely fledged.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

THE JANUS STONE

by

Elly Griffiths

Readers familiar with Norfolk, particularly North Norfolk, will recognise Elly Griffiths' bleak salt marshes and wide skies and beaches in THE JANUS STONE. This is a book to read with lazy enjoyment after Christmas, and to live with and relax with and to appreciate. Elly Griffiths is a very accomplished storyteller, and her well plotted and extremely interesting novel is a compulsive read.

The heroine, Ruth Galloway, will be no stranger to readers of Elly Griffiths. She is a forensic archeologist, and in this new novel she is called in to help solve a difficult case: the identity and age of a child whose skeleton is discovered beneath the doorway of an old house during its demolition. Two children are known to have disappeared from a childrens' home on the site forty years before this discovery and DCI Harry Nelson doesn't like the sound of it at all. The mystery deepens when carbon dating proves that the childs' bones predate the childrens' home and relate to a time when the big Victorian house was privately owned. But as Ruth is drawn more deeply into the case it becomes clear that someone is determined to put a stop to her work, and perhaps even her life...

Elly Griffiths has two children and lives near Brighton. THE JANUS STONE is her second crime novel.

Friday, December 10, 2010

THE LOST ART OF KEEPING SECRETS

by

Eva Rice

THE LOST ART OF KEEPING SECRETS, set in 1954-1955 is more than a fluent and very enjoyable love story. Although Eva Rice fails to resuscitate a war ravaged country house, she describes an evolving generation to a T. Gleefully, but with compassion, she makes light work of the heavier-than-air predicament of the young. Given a good editor and a modern setting, her next book could be a classic. She has no need of dead poets: pray she forgets her Enid Blyton and her Nancy Mitford, and all her helpful friends and relations.

Today is her time, her style and her joy. We need her now, with her breath of genius, we really do.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

THE MAN IN THE WOODEN HAT

by

Jane Gardam

Disciples of Old Filth (Failed In London Try Hong Kong) will be delighted to read THE MAN IN THE WOODEN HAT, Jane Gardam's brilliant sequel to OLD FILTH: it is written as an intrigueing portrait of Filth's wife, Elisabeth. They are married in Hong Kong at the end of World War II, he a successful lawyer, distinguished and reserved, she with a psychological wanderlust, brought up as she was in the Japanese Internment Camps, which claimed the lives of her parents. They both love the Far East, and take an eventful three months honeymoon in Delhi, Bhutan, Dacca, Darjeeling, Rome and Malta, after which Old Filth's unappealing small flat in Ebury Street is an almost disastrous let-down.

Another threat to their connubial bliss is the less-than-endearing Veneering, Filth's hated rival at the Bar, and feared and loathed rival in love, to whose son, Harry, Elisabeth is devoted. But Elisabeth becomes Betty, the quintessential QC's wife: she takes over the church, joins a Book Club, finds DVDs of glorious old films, has her finger-and toenails and her hair done expensively, dresses immaculately and joins the University Womens Club. Her garden is an exaltation and her servants never give notice. She enjoys their life together, takes good care of Filth, and appreciates the deference in which they are held. But Veneering is her constant admirer, Harry is the invisible but indissoluble link, and Elisabeth knows very well that she still looks sexy...

Jane Gardam is no stranger to us. Apart from sixteen other novels, and five non-fiction books, she was shortlisted for the Orange Prize (for OLD FILTH in 2005) and for the Booker Prize (for GOD ON THE ROCKS) and is the only writer to have been twice awarded the prize for Whitbread Novel of the Year (for THE HOLLOW LAND and QUEEN OF THE TAMBOURINE). She also holds a Heywood Hill Literary Prize for a lifetime's contribution to the enjoyment of literature. Famed for her wit and sophistication, she was awarded the OBE in the 2009 Honours List for services to literature.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

THE MATHEMATICS OF LOVE

by

Emma Darwin

This is an excellent first novel. It is beautifully written: Emma Darwin is a natural writer and story teller who is also a highly professional author who never forgets her novelist's instincts. Although she has thoroughly researched the background of her work and the plot is original and, at times, almost elusive, Emma Darwin's touch has the deceptive simplicity of a master. Her sense of time and place is faultless, even though the story ranges from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day, and from the Battle of Waterloo and the Peninsular Wars, and from San Sebastion to Suffolk, the pace and tension does not falter. The cast is varied, wide, and very interesting.

The action begins in 1892 when Stephen Fairhurst, veteran of Waterloo, inherits Kersley Hall in Suffolk and retires from soldiering in search of a peaceful farmer's life. But he is haunted by the loss of his adored mistress, and decides that he must seek a wife. Instead he forms an unconventional friendship with Lucy Durward, a historical painter who is avid for description of battles, details of uniforms, and that sort of thing. Through their correspondence Lucy delicately draws out the secrets of Stephen's life and helps him to lay his ghosts. In the summer of 1967 a fatherless fifteen year old girl, Anna, who is uneducateed, bored and neglected by her promiscuous mother, is dumped at a failing school at Kersley Hall. She is supposed to be in the care of the headmaster (her uncle), and her disagreeable grandmother. She gives them the slip and becomes involved with a sophisticated couple who are war photographers. Their friend gives her copies of the correspondence between Stephen and Lucy, which he has unearthed from the Kersley Hall archives. Anna's own love affair becomes more and more associated in her mind with that of Stephen, and there is a hint of the paranormal in Anna's fascination with Stephen and Lucy: in the end it helps her to bear the pain of her own crossed love. She is very young and there are tears, humour, and surprisingly satisfactory sex as the story unfolds.

This is a book that demands to be reread. It is erudite, unusual, and intriguing to the last page.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

THE MOON OPERA

by

Bi Feiyu

When Qiao Bingzhang, renowned director of the Peking Opera, meets the Factory Boss (whose name we never learn, he is just Feiyu's metaphor for new Chinese money) he can hardly believe his luck: the Factory Boss seeks to aquire distinction for himself, in order to justify his enormous wealth.(His business has prospered through the manufacture of cheap cigarettes that are sold singly to the coolies). He offers to finance a revival of the Moon Goddess with the once celebrated Xiao Yanqiu in the lead role of Change, with all the publicity that his influence can promote. When he is introduced to Xiao and offers her a cigarette he deplores the fact that she is a non-smoker, as it renders her unsuitable for his TV advertisements. He is not a bad man, he just has no idea what is really involved in reviving the Opera in which Xiao had achieved her greatest success and popularity. But old Qiao Bingzhang, ruthless in his excitement, acclaims the Factory Boss fulsomely as a true bodhisattva (angel), but he is in agony until the costume money has arrived. Only then dare the old fox entice Xiao Yanqiu from her perch in the academy, where she had taught for twenty years; her understudy is to be, of her own choice, her exquisite but inexperienced pupil, Chunlai.

Peking Opera is the height of stylised sophistication: an aria, a recitation or a gesture expresses anger, happiness, pain or melancholy. A smile, a glance, the flinging of the water sleeves atomizes the narrative. The orchestra, consisting of drums, gongs, wind and strings, is peculiar to the art. There are two distinct female roles: Haudain, the bold and seductive, and Quingli, the chaste and faithful. Each role has its own logic and beauty, its own measure of decorum. Costume, wig and make-up, although heavy and uncomfortable, help to create in Quingli "an abstract concept, a profound form, an approach, a method, a significant natural gift;" (to use Bi Feiyu's own words) "Quingi is a woman among women, the ultimate woman, and a touchstone for all others". She is never an actor, but she must have a superb voice, a beautiful figure, and a consuming ambition to excel.

Feiyu's heroine, the once famous and adored Xiao Yanqiu, has found, in all her twenty years of teaching, only one girl, Chunlai, who grasps the essence of Quingli; it is as though she was born to follow in Xiao's footsteps. But the Peking Opera has fallen on hard times due to lack of sophistication in the audience, and Chunlai has accepted a job on TV as a presenter.

Feiyu's prose is economical to the point of baldness (the book is 123 pages), his humour is anything but lofty, and his novel falls short of satire but is long on irony. In fact, this drama is worthy of the mythical Jade Emperor, or his nephew, Erlang, he with the third, true-seeing eye.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

THE OLD SPRING

by

Richard Francis

The Old Spring is a pub. It has a wooden bar, backed by polished bottles, optics, an advert for Guinness, a calendar provided by the brewery, and a clean quarry tiled floor. There is a public, a snug, and a back room. A fire burns in an iron grate. There is no juke box, music, vending machine or one-arm-bandit. A small door leads down to a cellar, lit by a single 150 watt. bulb: big humped barrels are cradled on a long wooden bench, intercepted by a Belfast sink. Boxes of wine, mixers, crisps, nuts, glasses, box upon box, are stacked against the wall opposite the barrels, and beer lines hang from the cieling like tackle on a yacht. Poor Darren, who comes in to clean (six quid an hour twelve hours a week) keeps his mop and bucket down there and has seen a ghost. Frank and Dawn who run the pub are not exactly married, but have been together ( -?) years. Frank spent his time in the navy dreaming of running a thatched pub with hollyhocks and a bit of a lake. When he described it to Dawn she gave him short shrift. 'You won't get me living in a tumbledown place like that in the middle of nowhere'. Dawn was born to the trade, in a flat above a pub. She keeps her eye on every penny and every customer: it is Frank's job to be popular. Dawn keeps her account books, reciepts and invoices and notes to the till, and enters the day's takings meticulously. Which is just as well, what with no smoking, the credit crunch and Health & Safety. She is presently in the kitchen of their flat, hands scrubbed, hair tied back and covered with a scarf, as she slices and fills three dozen baps, wraps each seperately in cling film and attaches their computer-printed labels: chicken and mayo, cheese and ham, cheese and chumpney. Health and Safety would have plenty to say about that (what, food prepared on the premises?!!) but thirty six filled rolls from the baker would have cost and sold for, profit . But thirty six unfilled baps delivered daily costs, filling bought from Morrisons twice weekly costs about, total, sold for, profit in the region of . So much for Health and Safety. Frank carries them in their shallow basket to the shelf behind the bar, then he lights the fire and unlocks the front door, letting in a few early customers, flips the hatch and goes behind the bar. The regulars are usually men, come in to have a pint, read the paper, grumble or laugh, gossip, joke and banter. Some drop in while they take the dog for a walk. There is always a bowl of fresh water for a dog.

Richard Francis is a fine writer with a good ear for dialect, and its nuance and irony. His characters are crisply drawn: THE OLD SPRING is a character-driven novel, ambitious, dramatic, sharp edged, funny, but touched with sadness. Pubs like The Old Spring seem to be going the way of the Royal Yacht, the Royal Show, the Royal Mail. Bistros, wine bars, and binging have arrived with the rest of Europe. This is Francis's ninth novel, and perhaps his best. It is a joy to read.

Monday, July 5, 2010

THE ROAD HOME

by

Rose Tremain

Here is a novel that ends too soon, into which the reader has become involved with characters that no longer seem fictional, but exist within the reader's immediate experience.

Rose Tremain has always shown a remarkable talent for bringing historical figures to life but in THE ROAD HOME her characters are of today. We know the people in this book: we are the people in the book.

Tremain writes with dry percipience of England's uneasiness with regard to what it sees as a wholesale landing on its turf (no longer green and pleasant) of Eastern Europeans, its impoverished but very close relations. And Tremain has not the slightest hesitation in depicting the English, warts and all, from an Eastern European's point of view! But never mind all that. The book is a vilification of human neediness, and its market price, and the strength and folly of fierce independence.

This novel is about values, violence and tenderness, and sex, gender, familial love, and the surprising shapes and shades of friendship. Human relationships are in transition as, perhaps, they have never been before today. The certainties were never very certain, after all.

Rose Tremain has won many prizes, including Whitbread Novel of the Year, The James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Prix Femina Etranger, the Dylan Thomas Prize, the Angel Literary Award and The Sunday Express Book of the Year. She has been short listed for the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize, and at least three of her books will appear as films. But in THE ROAD HOME she has excelled herself.

Friday, May 2, 2008

THE SEA

by

John Banville

THE SEA is not a likely story: there is this hypochondriacal, slightly sodden, aesthetically fastidious art historian, supposedly engaged in a scholarly monograph on Bonnard, who totters off down a memory lane which is "rutted as always was". Well, but his wife of thirty years has died, as she said, of an illness quite inappropriate to their style of living. So, forlorn and bewildered, Morden has this vivid dream, and, waking, feels drawn to revisit the scene of a youthful seaside holiday.

He is not drawn to revisit the chalet with its smelly little wooden outhouse where he and his lardwhite father and resentful mother went for their holidays, but to the Cedars in Station Road.

The Grace family holidays at the Cedars; their motor car stands in the drive; Mr. Grace, Carlo, deeply suntanned, drinks ice blue gin with a slice of lemon; they have a picnic basket, folding canvas chairs, bathing dresses and a travelling rug. Mrs. Grace, Constance, Connie, wears sun glasses with white plastic rims, smokes cigarettes, and regards her husband with tolerant amusement. There are the twins, a boy and a girl, Morden's age, and a young, unhappy governess.

THE SEA is a book to be savoured, remembered, and reread: when the Grace's motor car sweeps by "Tall grasses in the ditch, blond like the woman's hair, shivered briefly and returned to their former dreaming stillness."

As Morden tells his story with a shrug and silent laughter (and sometimes with tears) he keeps company with composers, poets, Greek gods, artists and philosophers. But Mrs. Grace, the twins and the hapless governess prevail. And always The Waves. Max Morden has come amongst us, and will remain with us, probably, for ever and ever. Amen.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

THE SEPTEMBERS OF SHIRAZ

by

Dalia Sofer

More overtly alert to the changing political and economic climate in Tehran than her husband, Isaac Amin, Farnaz wears her hair covered, drives her Volkswagon Beetle with care, and enjoys her comforting tot of brandy in secret these days. Her house, once known for its hospitality, is now guarded, in speech and in thought as well as against marauders. Born Jewish, but non-observant, she envies the comparative freedom of her servant, Habibeh, who, happy in her chador, believes every word of her Koran. The articles Farnaz once wrote for a travel magazine, describing Limoges porcelain, the Sanga at Seville, or her wanderings through the medieaval towns of Umbria, are now banned by the mullahs as touting the virtues of, alcahol, cathedrals and the indecent life.

Isaac is more pragmatic. But since the collapse of the Shah, and later during the riots, he has worked long hours at his desk, buying, selling and valueing rare jewels, while quietly amassing as much portable wealth as will support his family in a new life. He is well aware that their safety depends on his ability to prosper in a strange land. He will have to speak a language foreign to him, and try to re-establish the respect in which he is held in Tehran. Jews have lived in Persia since a thousand years before Cyrus, and Iran has been home to Isaac and the generations before him. But he was born into a difficult time for Jews, when they were banished to the poorest part of the city. Ironically, it was the Shah's weakness for jewelry and outward show of wealth that bore fruit for the jewellers as the court followed suit. Isaac had prospered, of course he had. He likes London tailoring, and Italian shoes, and he appreciates the integrity and cool uncorruptibility of good jewels. He adores his wife and his two children, and he deeply enjoys the company of relations and extended family in his comfortable home. On holiday he awakes to the sound of the sea, and, with Farnaz beside him, Isaac asks no more from life than that.

Had the Shah of Persia been brave and strong and just, or just healthy, the Peacock throne would probably have endured. But, timid and paranoid, he fears his people and trusts no one. He gives his police, the Savac, powers to arrest, torture and destroy anyone even remotely suspected of opposing his rule, and in so doing he breeds such resentment, fear and hatred that his subjects dance in the streets as he waits at the airport for the plane to carry him to a sanctuary even more rickety than his throne.

But the dancing stops and the music dies as the Ayatollahs take charge in Iran. As insecure, and every bit as cruel as the Shah, they persecute the people even as they lash themselves and the devout until they bleed. Isaac knows, to his bitter regret, that the time for the dangerous journey has come. But even as he works at his desk, two scruffy men with rifles walk into his office...

Dalia Sofer's beautiful novel, her first, follows Isaac and his little family through imprisonment, hardship and betrayal. Despair and suffering are lit by sudden kindnesses and strokes of good luck; there are many days of fear and loss before Isaac at last plays his joker, the least amusing card in the pack.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

THE STORYTELLER (THE HAKAWATI)

by

Rabih Alameddine

Al-Mutanabbi, the greatest of all poets, wrote all his poems down on large rolls of papyrus and set out for Baghdad. He knew he was a genius and was obsessed with his immortality. Few put anything down on paper in those days. All poems were memorised, all stories, even the Koran... 'The sight of eight laden camels crossing the desert attracted the attention of brigands, who killed the poet and his son. "What happened to the manuscripts?" asked my mother. "Funny you should ask. Al-Mutanabbi was of course a penniless poet." "Is there any other kind?" My mother clapped her hands once and laughed. "They unloaded the camels and discarded the valueless poetry, but, as it happened, one of the nasty brigands had an unexplored sensitive nature." "And he just happened to be able to read?" "Of course. He read and was entranced and bewitched. He repacked all the poems and kept them for years, had them copied and distributed. One would hope he was able to repack all the poems without losing any to the harsh desert winds." "But what if he wasn't able to," my mother said, "and some of the papyrus blew away?" "Imagine. Poetry still hovering over the skies of Baghdad." "Or buried under the desert sands," my mother said. "Someone drills a well in Iraq, and out gushes poetry instead of oil." "But will the discoverers understand Arabic, or appreciate poetry, for that matter?" "Al-Mutanabbi's problem to begin with."'

This novel is, for me, the book of the year. For lovers of myth and legend it is a treat beyond compare and for hardnosed historians it holds immeasurable interest as a chronicle of modern times. Rabih Alameddine describes the Lebanon that he knew as a child in his uniquely beautiful prose. He is the storyteller, the hakawati. Lebanon was a country at peace with its wide ethnic mix of Africans, Uzbeckis, Jews, Christians, Arabs, Druze, Turks, Kurds, Greeks, Persians, Palestinians, French, British and other Europeans all living as neighbours in streets vivid and fragrant with flowers and shrubs. When war and destruction came it was as if at the hand of a capricious child. The story is about a lively, affectionate and sophisticated Lebanese family, and it is interleaved with myths and legends which, with poetry, was the very life of Beirut. In 1975 the war, or 'skirmishes' as everyone called it then, began. The Lebanese foolishly assumed that the trouble wouldn't last long and, as the narcissi, roses, hyacinths, violets and thyme flowered, no one realized how quickly all would be lost - house, home and business, and the family scattered all over the world. Only marriages and death would reunite them, for no Lebanese is allowed to marry or die unless he is surrounded by his entire extended family, all his in-laws, his friends, and most of his acquaintances.

It is possible that poetry still hovers over the skies of Baghdad or is buried under the desert sands. Someone drills a well in Iraq and out gushes poetry instead of oil. But will the discoverers understand Arabic, or appreciate poetry, for that matter?Al-Mutanabbi's problem to begin with.

Friday, May 22, 2009

THE STORYTELLER'S TALE

by

Omair Ahmad

The story of forbidden fruit is as old as Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. It is told in English, Indian, Quranic, Biblical and many more tales. THE STORYTELLER'S TALE is a novella of 119 pages, and Omair Ahmad makes no secret of his debt to his childhood storytellers. But his telling of it is evocative and exquisite.

Twelve centuries after the prophet, and seventeen centuries after Christ, Delhi was destroyed by raiders with no understanding of the music and dance, poetry and literature that they devastated. They looted everywhere and brutalised everyone, and all who could leave were driven away, carrying what little they could. And so the greatest poet of the age found himself perched uncomfortably on a stolen horse too decrepit to be missed, with many hungry days' ride until he reached Awadh, where he would be obliged to accept the charity of a patron. For the fame of his poetry had rewarded him only meagrely, and his servants, too old to leave the city, had earned the pittance he was able to leave them. He was a poor horseman, and after riding all day, tired and thirsty, he rested his horse. He was surprised to see, in the valley below him, a haveli, or small estate, spread out peacefully in the afternoon sun. The poet was aware, however, that it probably belonged to a robber baron, a descendant of Turks or Rajputs or even Pathans, who was even now laying the poet's house and his city to waste. The poet remounted and would have urged his horse on, had not a rumble in his stomach and the sight of a beautiful woman in the grounds of the haveli not weakened his resolve. By the time her guards, her servants and her fierce maid had rushed out to protect her from this unprepossessing intruder, the beautiful woman was well aware of his presence, and she was intrigued. She was also extremely bored by her idle life as the wife of the robber baron. Custom forbade her to speak to him directly, and it would have been folly on his part to look directly at her. But the guards were obliged to challenge him.

'Declare yourself. Who are you to enter unannounced, the property of Mirza Azeem Jalal-ud-din Khan?'

'A storyteller', he answered.

Well, she couldn't resist and he was invited (through her maid) to stay the night and tell them a story. And after he had bathed and eaten, the story began, and the lamps had burned low and his audience (of the Begum and her retinue) was in tears as his voice fell silent at the last of his tragic story of love cruelly misunderstood.

The maid spoke for the Begum. 'My lady says you know betrayal very well, storyteller'. But the Begum wishes to tell a tale of her own, and so begins a storytelling duel that secretly reveals that they have fallen in love with onanother.

Although THE STORYTELLER'S TALE is set in the time of the twilight of the Moguls and wrapped in the folklore tradition of A Thousand and One Nights, the reader is reminded of the bitter sweetness of stories such as Brief Encounter.

Omair Ahmad studied at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and Syracuse University, New York, and is author of one previous novel, ENCOUNTERS. This novella is a joy to read, and has much delicate humour to lighten the poignancy of the story.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

THE TAXI DRIVER'S DAUGHTER

by

Julia Darling

'What's wrong with being a taxi driver?' asks Degna, in the TAXI DRIVER'S DAUGHTER.

Well, exactly. Admit it, there would be shere pleasure in being coccooned and soundproofed in the back of Mac's taxi, breathing in his air-freshener and Extra Strong mints, and noticing, for the first time, city churches, pubs, undertakers and pavements piled high with basketware from Botswana.

'It's not a career, is it?' says Mac sadly.

But surely a taxi driver is generally more beneficial, day to day, than a brain surgeon, a rocket scientist or the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Mac's wife, Louise, is jailed for three months for assaulting a policeman with the stiletto heel of a shoe she has shoplifted from Fenwicks. Mac's teenage daughters, Stella and Caris ('I might pierce my clitoris,too'), are adrift without her; Mac's sherry-and-nicotine-pickled mother-in-law moves herself into the box room 'to help'. A family visit to Louise in jail? Don't ask.

While Stella, with 'A's in all her subjects, begins to clean obsessively, Caris sees in a strange feral boy (with a gold credit card) a prince who will take her away from it all. Why they are so dissatisfied with a house that must be worth a couple of hundred thousand even in Newcastle is a mystery. But the whole of Julia Darling's novel is rather surprising.

Caris is forthright, brave, unaffected and her bedroom and clothes are a mess; she has the energy and honesty to dominate the story. Stella tries hard to stop everything going to pot. Stella and Caris would gladden and frighten the heart of any father.

All Mac's family and his fares are so sharply defined and the dialogue so relentless (readers should probably wear flak-jackets) that it is rather surprising that Darling has kept all those friends that she has so generously acknowledged - her writing companions on various retreats. Or are they the Islington women who howl with the laughter at Degna's debacle? If so, let it be remembered that for years after 1917 Paris taxis were driven by close relations of the Czar of all the Russias, used as they were to far grander and more worldly ladies than they!

Julia Darling is as gifted a storyteller as anyone around in this third millenium. She is subtle, fascinating and modern without the gimmick of eccentric punctuation. She makes a very fine art of being easy to read, while giving one pause to understand the deeper meaning in her book. There is, of course, the folly and the bitter cruelty in sending the mother of a family to jail for shoplifting. But I think THE TAXI DRIVER'S DAUGHTER is about today, our predicament, and our isolation brought on to some extent by television, better housing, and the difficulty of finding time to stand back and see the whole picture.

THE TAXI DRIVER'S DAUGHTER's unpredictable ending left me wondering uneasily what would happen next, and very anxious to know.

Darling's metaphors:

A bronze of a large banana (paid for, no doubt, with a staggering Lottery grant) is transported inch by inch through Newcastle's rush hour, escorted by policemen on motorbikes. 'More bloody art!' shouts Steady Eddy, seething in the tail-back.

And:

In the park Maurice and Ned are told to take ladders and remove the collection of shoes hanging in the tree. Maurice grumbles to Ned. 'They wouldn't take it down if someone from fucking London had done it', he says waspishly. Ned doesn't answer. He likes his job...

Oh, I do love you, Julia Darling.

Saturday, August 5, 2006

THE TRUE DECEIVER

by

Tove Jansson

Katri sets out to walk through the village in her wolfskin coat, her great hound stalking at her side. Snow is still falling, and no window in the village shows a light She walks proudly on the hardfrozen snow, and would give ground to no one, for Katri has been extremely poor and fiercely independent since she was left, in her sixteenth year, to bring up and care for herdelf and her little brother, Mats. She is fortunate in having an honest and meticulous understanding of numbers and money, and earns the grudging but absolute respect of the villagers. She knows they do not love her, but it leaves her free to love none but her brother. The dark northern sky sparkles with frost, and she knows that the sea is solid shelf of ice until the spring. As she walks, Katri looks up the hill to the lighted windows of a grand house, where old Anna Aemelin lives alone with her money. A winter queen, Katri makes plans for her young prince...

Anna Aemelin's small water-colours are of the forest floor, as it warms in the spring, moist and dark and ready to burst and to grow. In small, naturalistic and minute detail she depicts mosses and delicate plants that a person out walking would seldom notice. She then spoils her pictures by putting rabbits in them: Mama, Papa and Baby Bunny. They had to be there for the sake of the children and the publisher, for Anna's childrens' books are famous the world over, although the publisher writes the text. Anna has lived for years within the secure, warm and happy memory of her parents, and within walls that have sheltered her family for generations. She has always been able to afford to be charming, and no one in the village can ever remember her uttering a spiteful word, nor do they hesitate to cheat her of a few pennies here and there, over the years. She corresponds kindly with hundreds of children, although her letters lie higgledy piggledy, stuffed into the drawers of her bureau with her bills and reciepts, and letters from plastics companies who want to make dolly rabbits.

When Edward Liljeberg brings the mail from town his back hurt from ski-ing, and Katri offers to take miss Aemelin's mail up to the house, as she was walking out that way with the dog, anyway. Very soon Anna is inviting Katri, with Mats and the dog, to come and live with her. She is glad of the company, especially Mats', who enjoys reading adventure sea stories as much as she does. As the northern winter fastens on them all, roads become impassable, and the great clean silence of the snow deepens into winter. Katri sets her accounting and housekeeping skills to work. Evening after evening after she has finished the housework, she sorts through Anna's chaotic bureau, looking for savings like a hound on the trail. Anna shrugs. Her parents had taught her to scorn money as proper topic of conversation. "Really," snorts Katri..."without money a person's thinking gets narrow. It shrivels!" But the bunnies, the work of Anna's feckless mind, is the real source of their modest wealth. Katri's business letters demanding better percentages and royalties instead of flat payments produces less return than might have been expected. Katri dismisses Anna's unwillingness to say No to childrens' letters as sentimental social concience. Anna goes to bed and pulls the coverlet over her head.

But Jove Jansson was a writer's writer, and could no more tolerate a cliche than she could have drawn flowers on bunnies (although she did spend a third of her life writing and illustrating childrens' books). THE TRUE DECIEVER almost eludes the reader, and, in fact, it almost eluded Tove Jansson. She admitted finding the book extremely difficult to write, perhaps because it may bear a close somparison with her own life.

Katri has the dour honesty and determination of the home-grown economist, but Anna has "the great, persuasive power of monomania, of being able to see and embrace a single idea, of being interested in one thing only..." They are rude to onanother. Mats and the dog become as bones to quarrel over, and yet neither of the women is quite sensitive enough to see it. But who could not pity the peeler of another's concience?

This beautifully written novel, with its elegantly economical prose, its gentle humour, its wonderful descriptions of the Nordic winter, and its many Nordic characters, is worth any literary prize, and is worthy of any proud bookshelf. As Ruth Rendell says on the dust jacket, "the characters still haunt me." It has a very interesting ten page Introduction by Ali Smith. But I think the book stands on its own as a classic.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

THE VANISHING ACT OF ESME LENNOX

by

Maggie O'Farrell

Let the faint-hearted be aware: this novel is not for them. Readers with a nervous disposition will be hyperventilating long before the last paragraph of THE VANISHING ACT OF ESME LENNOX. Stout and stalwart readers, on the other hand, will enjoy a delicious treat. Maggie O'Farrel has excelled even herself. She is the highly acclaimed author of three previous novels: AFTER YOU'VE GONE, MY LOVER'S LOVER and THE DISTANCE BETWEEN US, winner of the Somerset Maugham Award. She writes with economy, power, subtlety and compassion. True story-tellers are born, not made, and O'Farrel is indiginous to that high territory, the wonderland of pure fiction. Euphemia Esme Lennox is born in India of Scottish parents; her father's mysterious antipathy to her is just below the surface; she differs from her sister in almost every way. The novel opens near the end of her stolen life, and into her story is woven that of her sister, Kitty, her great-niece Iris, and Iris's step-brother, Alex. It covers the ground from India to Edinburgh, through three generations and from British raj. to the here and now, with O'Farrels swift and deadly pen at it's very best. THE VANISHING ACT OF ESME LENNOX is a book to remember, to treasure and to re-read at leisure for it's beauty and depth - that is, when you have caught your breath and stopped shaking from your first absorbed and frightened read!

Friday, October 27, 2006

THE VINTAGE AND THE GLEANING

by

Jeremy Chambers

Smihty's childhood is spent in an orphanage in the outback not far from Melbourne, Australia. One day the nuns (robes flapping, hands holding down their wimples) line up the Aborigonal children at the orphanage (white shirted, washed and ironed), to welcome the wife of the Propector of Aboriginals. When she arrives, chauffeur driven and immaculately dressed, the nuns persaude her to stay safe and clean in the back of her big black car because the swirling red dust would ruin her clothes. So the window of the car is wound down and Smithy stands with the piccanins as Sister Bernard conducts them singing God Save the Queen, Land of Hope and Glory and For She's a Jolly Good Fellow. Then Sister Bernard stands Smithy at the open window of the car and he sings to this vision of beauty within. She is dressed in white, a satin sash round her waist, an embroidered blouse sewn with tiny beads of mother of pearl; her golden hair is softly waved; her hat, swathed in tulle, and a filigreed ivory fan lay beside her on the seat. Smithy had a voice of which Sister Bernard was extremely proud, and when he had sung to her the beauriful woman kissed his forehead and her lace gloves lingered on his cheeks as she looked into his eyes.

You're an angel, she said. A true angel.

But her uniformed chauffeur pointed to the lowering sky, "the disc of sun dangerous, a smouldering, seething ember...the wind heaving and twisting plumes borne from the earth and towering", and the car rolls away, kicking up sand over the line of children, who cough and rub their eyes and wave their little crayoned Empire flags in farewell.

Smithy grew up illiterate but earned good wages as a sheep shearer. There is nothing hotter than a shearing shed in Saltbush country. Lanolin, daggy fleece and sheep shit. Iodine, ammonia and diesel. That's how the plants were run in those days. Smithy spent half his life working, the other half drinking. He was young and strong and arrogant, but he never got coarse and bloated. He could shear a hundred sheep in a day with scarcely ever a nick, dripping with sweat and aching in every muscle, the older men shaking their heads and saying you'll never last boy. Spurring him on. And afterwards they drank together and laughed and fought and got legless. They talked about gunshearers they had known and women they had known and big cities and cockies and unions and their homes. For Smithy it was the good life, for, unknown to himself he was institutionalised, at home in the herd, answering to his mates. He liked women and the company of women, and he married (Florence), bought a house and sired a son, but all his time away from work he spent at the pub. He'd go home and have his tea and go to bed, and get up in the morning and go to work and to the pub. He was on a bender when Florence died of cancer, and he hardly knew his son.

But "the drink buggered up me insides. The drink. The grog" And now he is only strong enough to work in the vineyards, a holiday compared to shearing, sheep, and he can no longer drink any alcohol at all. But he still joins his mates in the pub and drinks lemonade. His son has lived his own life since Florence died, is a married man and in difficulties, running with a bad crowd. Now that Smithy has more time to think about his life; he thinks about the convent, and the day the wife of the Protector of the Aboriginals came in her big black car What happened to his beautiful singing voice? What things he might have done differently; what places might he have seen? But he still does a good days work at the vines, clutching his illness to himself, still enjoying the company and the respect of his mates, and still has plenty of hair.

But one day a young woman arrives at his door needing protection from her husband who is suspected of murdering a man and has beaten her up. Smithy might regret his act of kindness...

Jeremy Chambers was born in 1974 and lives in Melbourne. THE VINTAGE AND THE GLEANING was inspired by summers spent working as a vineyard labourer whilst at school and university.

Friday, July 8, 2011

THE WHITE WOMAN ON THE GREEN BICYCLE

by

Monique Roffey

'The carpet-bagging mediocrity' is perhaps a hardly fair description of the post WWII Europeans who arrived at Port of Spain, Trinidad, in the 1950s, to plant and build and to aspire (and some to die), for it was the Island that took possession of many of the immigrants They became as 'blood and bone and roots and loam' as the Creoles, Caribs, and the freed slaves, the long established Jews, and all the mixed up races that had been 'nourished on its sap and milk' for generations. And so it is with George Harker, who falls in love with Trinidad even as his foot falls on her soil, and never waveres in his love until the day he dies and is buried there. Not so his wife, Sabine. Trinidad, to her, is always whorish: her climate is always humid, and far too hot. She finds the heat exhausting. When George creates his dream house, built for parties, on what had been overgrown bush and savannah, she resents and fears the wild things that refuse to leave the garden and grounds of the house. Mosquitos, scorpions, cockroaches, outsize spiders and wasps, and ants both red and black, some with a bite so fierce that the Amerindians had used them as surgical stitches. Pipstrellas swoop through the house, and, to Sabine, even the tropical birds and extravagantly flowering shrubs and trees seem foreign, threatening; there is just far too much of everything. Even the parties and the hedonistic social life, which George enjoys to the full, seems jaded to Sabine. Her only reality, her anchor, is her family (she still adores George, and they are both delighted when their children arrive), and her only real friends are her cook, Lucy, and the childrens' nanny, Venus, both of whom are descended, not too long ago, from slaves. Sabine, of French origin, makes herself accept the fact that George sleeps with other women.

With the 1950s comes Independence, and, of course, a hero of sorts in the form of Eric Williams. He is of mixed race, Oxford educated, and an orator of ancient Greek proportions. Black and coloured Trinidadians worship him; they congregate in their thousands to listen and to adore him. George talks cricket to him, and gets on with enjoying his own life, but Sabine hopes that Eric Williams will deliver better housing (with running water and electricity), schools and hospitals for the families of Lucy and Venus. But Eric Williams surrounds himself with cronies and is often to be seen in the Country Club (previously a shrine to the colour bar), and makes a great many visits to foreign countries, where he is photographed with heads of state. Sabine writes unposted letters of reproach to him, and speaks her mind when she meets him, much to George's embarrassment. After six years of this, the patient and trusting black people of Trinidad, betrayed by their own leaders, and poor as ever, blame the white people. Black Power becomes a call to arms. Guards and gates are defied, buildings and cars burned, dogs poisoned and schools closed. Even George has to admit that the time has come for them to go. And down at the harbour, beside Queen's Wharf, rides the Southern Cross, her white sides spotless, her tiers of decks towering above the docks, the glittering windows of her bridge like a tiara nestling on her brow...

Thursday, August 27, 2009

THE WISH MAKER

by

Ali Sethi

It is the 1980s. Sami Shirazi is a pilot in the Pakistani Air Force. His wife, Zakia, is expecting their first child. They are discussing a name for the baby as they drive back from a dinner party. She says Your mother's already decided. If it's a girl she wants to call it Samia.'

'What if it's a boy?'

'I don't know,' says Zakia 'I like Imran. I like Iraad. I like names that begin with I. But your mother wants Moazzan.'

'We'll name after you...Zaki, it's a nice name. It means "pure"...I looked it up in a book...'

Two months before Zaki is born Sami is killed flying. It falls to Zakia, crushed with her own grief, to tell her recently widowed mother-in-law, Daadi, that her only son is dead. Daadi's tears never stop until Zakia places the tiny wrapped Zaki in Daadi's arms. Allah had given back, even as he had taken away. And Zaki grows up in the household of grandmother, mother, two aunts and a girl cousin, Samar Api. Naseem, maidservant and dogsbody, is as pivotal to the household as Daadi herself.

THE WISH MAKER begins with the return of Zaki to Lahore from college in the USA, in time to celebrate the marriage of his dearly loved cousin, Samar Api, to her 'Amitabh', the stand-in for her dreamed of 'lover'. She and Zaki have grown up together watching American television and Bollywood movies. When they were fourteen Zaki had found himself drawn into Samar's romantic schemes for which they both suffered the consequences.

As the preparations for the weddding gather pace ( for Pakistani weddings, like funerals, require staging to an audience), Zaki notes the changes in his male cousins. Isa, twenty three, has joined one of the international banks on Main Boulevard. He wears full sleeved shirts rolled to the elbows; his tight jeans bulge at the back with his wallet. Most of his ideas are picked up from one of the new business channels on TV. His car was a red Honda City that he had aquired with a loan from the bank. Moosa, twenty one, wears a baseball cap and sweatshirt and hasn't shaved in weeks. 'Mullah' cries Zaki in greeting ( for Moosa had had religious leanings). 'Nah, man,' say...

[I think the text is corrupt here - Editor]

Moosa, twenty one, wears a baseball cap and a sweatshirt and hasn't shaved in weeks. 'Mullah', crias Zaki in greeting (for Moosa had had religious leanings). 'Nah, man,' says Moosa, 'bro's a hippie now...' 'Basically it's all changed,' says Isa, 'it's all up for grabs.' Naseen has recently been to perform the Hajj in Saudi Arabia. 'No place like it in the world,' she says, 'everything they have: KFC, McDonalds, anything at all, you name it and they have it.' 'Really?' 'Oh yes. And the house of God - it opens up your eyes. Everyone is there: black, white, this, that...Over here I am a servant, but over there no one is a servant. It has such a feeling of peace that your heart fills up with tears. I kissed the Black Stone with my own lips.' 'How does it feel?' 'Like a stone,' she said eventually, with a note of surprise.

This novel is about love, family ties and the growing self-awareness of modern Pakistan and the young of Pakistan. It is a deeply thoughtful book and is so full of paradox and irony that it takes one's breath away. Ali Sethi is still quite young ( twenry five?), and there is no doubt that he loves the human race, but he can't help laughing (and crying). Quite whether or not poor Pakistan deserves such a beady eye is not for me to say. But to make fun of one's own now and then is in the best tradition of Jane Austen and Evelyn Waugh.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

THE ZOOKEEPER'S WAR

by

Steven Conte

It is 1943, Berlin is a city near collapse. Allied bombing attacks are frequent and intense and the Russian army is advancing from the east. Zoo directors Alex and Vera Frey struggle to protect their charges from starvation and destruction; the only staff available is a handful of forced labourers. Their house is bombed beyond repair and they are allotted a miserable little flat in a damaged builing. Their neighbours are other homeless victims of the war. Vera is Australian, and is regarded with suspicion, and, as tensions rise in the closing stages of the war, a neighbour maliciously informs against them: no one is to be trusted.

As the Third Reich buckles, and the Allied armies advance from the west, the Freys can hear Russian artillery in the east. A friend is imprisoned by the SS, and Axel visits Gestapo headquarters in a naive attempt to help her.

THE ZOOKEEPERS WAR describes the destruction of the streets and morale in Berlin, and the terrible sufferings of Berliners when Russian troops storm the city and exact revenge for Stalingrad. The story is of a marriage, and a harlot who copes with it all in her own way, the dark world of informers, the predicament of forced labourers, and the devotion of the zoo keepers to their charges, even though their own lives are in danger. It is a very well-informed and beady look at the Berliners of that time, under great stress. Conte writes with the conviction of a well researched knowledge of his subject and the insight of a natural storyteller.

The ZOOKEEPER,S WAR reader feels compelled to turn the page as Alex and Vera realise that, amidst it all, their marriage is in crisis. Steven Conte has written a fine, interesting and absorbing book.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

THERE'S NO HOME

by

Alexander Baron

Catania in Sicily is not exactly a throbbing metropolis at the best of times, and in 1943, bombed out, hungry and tired, it sweltering in the hottest summer in living memory. Every able bodied man between sixteen and sixty had gone to the war. Married women struggled to support their children and old relatives, with hardly any food and absolutely no medicine. Unmarried girls were sick of it all: no clothes, no fun, no one to walk out with, get engaged to or even flirt with. This story evolves around one little street in Catania, where boredom and tears had long replaced the sparkling eyes and laughter so natural to Sicilian young women. No one knew where their men were, and the war was clearly not going well for Italy. Letters were delayed or did not arrive at all, and it was months since any money had been paid. As they stood in their doorways in the narrow street, the news reached them that thousands of Italian soldiers had been killed or taken prisoner in North Africa.

It was into this vacuum that a rather battle weary British battalion marched. They had fought hard, and lost so many of their men that they were sidelined for a while until they could be brought up to strength. They were tired, and feeling particularly far from home. Like soldiers everywhere, after a hard fight, with horrific sights and sounds still marching through their sleep, they were in great need of some semblance of home life: a clean bed, a pair of soft arms, the sound of children. They needed the company of women, kind, decent women, not brothel women. They knew there was more hard fighting to be done in Italy, probably harder than the battles they had already fought. Many of them had loving wives at home, and everyone knew they would soon be moving on. But in this brief interlude they found it impossible not to respond to these lonely, homely, needy families. Women and children and old men greeted them warmly and were happy to let them fill the roles left by absent husbands and fathers. Perhaps the families were predatory and in some cases the soldiers' relations with them were exploitative, but everyone was a great deal happier for the time being. In the story a real love developes between Graziella, a pretty young woman in despair of ever hearing from her husband again, and Sergeant Craddock, whose rough manner masks a deep sympathy for her and for women like her, so often left in misery and need because of war.

This bitter sweet story is almost certainly biographical, like all three of the highly successful novels Alexander Baron wrote which he set in his years on service with the Eighth Army, where, as a sapper, he experienced heavy fighting both in Sicily and the D-day landings.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

TINY SONGBIRDS FAR AWAY

by

Christie Watson

Born storyteller that she is, Christie Watson steps directly into her narrative, and, taking her reader by the hand, casts a spell that lies unbroken until the last page of her book, and her reader, bewitched, is transported into another world.

TINY SONGBIRDS FAR AWAY tells the story of Blessing, the Lagos born daughter of a rich Yoruba father and an Ijam mother (which almost amounts to being of mixed race in the hidebound taboos and tribalism of Nigeria). From her window on the fourth floor of a gated apartment block called Better Life Executive Homes she watches traders in the street below carry brightly coloured baskets balanced on their heads selling flip-flops, batteries, Schnapps, shoe horns, St. Michaels underwear, imported copies of Hello!, oranges, bush meat, alarm clocks and Gucci handbags. Blessing and her asthmatic older brother Ezikiel, aged twelve and fourteen, attend the International School for Future Leaders, with its air-conditioning, polished floors and wide games field; a fountain plays in the courtyard, and the lavatories are well appointed, marble floored and spotless. Ezikiel belongs to the Chess Society, the Latin Club and the Science Club. He is determined on becoming a doctor. They both adore their indulgent father whose loud voice can sometimes be heard singing when he returns from the Everlasting Open Arms of Salvation Church. His driver and Pastor King Junior usually have to carry him to the apartment because he is too drunk to walk by himself.

But one bright day Mama discovers Father in bed with another woman, for whom he subsequently leaves Mama. Unable to afford to live in the city without Father, she takes them to live with her parents in her home village of Warra in the Niger Delta. Here the river is thickly polluted with oil spills, water has to be carried from a stand pipe in the next village, and there is no electricity or street lighting. The family compound is shared with Grandfather's driver, whose four wives and seventeen children are regarded almost as family, a more or less adopted orphan, Grandma, and later Grandfather's junior wife, and, later, her twin boys. The lavatories are a row of soakaways coated with bluebottles. Blessing and Ezikiel are sent to school a few miles away. Outside is a rusty sign: "Holy Ghost Secondary School: Strive For Excellence".It has earth floors, no chairs or desks, no air=conditioning, no water, and the lavatories make those in the compound seem luxurious by comparison.

Yet the Niger Delta is really a very beautiful land, with extraordinary flowers and trees and wildlife which are dying from air and water pollution and environmental devastation. Its people are very proud and resilient It is a place of laughter and music and passionate family affection. But most people in the Delta live on less than a dollar a day and enjoy nothing of the enormous wealth generated by the oil wells. Many villagers have no access to schools, health care or clean water. Asthma, cancer and birth deformities caused by heavy oil spills, and gas flaring and are common. Villagers live with the threat of violence, rape and death, the mobile police service is constantly open to bribery, is extremely brutal and is known locally as "Kill and Go". Ethnic and religious groups are covertly armed by the oil companies and provoked into conflict; tribal quarrels flourish unresolved. Due to lack of education family planning is unknown and female circumcision is still carried out on fifty per cent of girls in rural areas.

Blessing and Ezekiel, city born and bred, respond quite differently from one another to surroundings which are as foreign to them as it would be to most Westerners.

Christie Watson tells their story, sometimes with laughter and at times with bitter tears, but always with honesty It is a fascinating, fast moving story that captivates the reader to the very last page.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

TRAVELLING LIGHT

by

Tove Jansson

In her delightful collection of short stories, Tove Jansson pierces the humdrum and coruscates the mean and commonplace. Yet, while debunking social preconceptions and pretension, she reveals, through skilful changes of meaning and emphasis, her essential philanthropy and her affection for the huggermugger and the humbug. And it is exactly that which makes her reader laugh out loud. Tove Jansson, although very widely travelled, lived and breathed her existential Scandinavia. She knew and appreciated the warmth of the sun in the brief summers, and the long winter dark that is never quite dark. The forests, the sea and the islands are psychologically and vitally intrinsic to her thought and her work. But her respect for this eternal life force is connected with rather than ignored by her concern for the human race. It is people, their relationships and societies that really interest her and exhilerate her short stories. It is their crises and their distress, their power-plays with one another and their possessiveness; their gaeity, malice and eccentricities colour the pages of her book.

Translated into English for the first time, TRAVELLING LIGHT was first published in 1987, but it is only now that Tove Jansson's novels and short stories are being made available in English. She is also the writer and illustrator of the well loved stories for children of the Finn Family Moomintroll.

Tove Jansson deplores the homogenous and desolate landscape of soulless and featureless high-rise concrete buildings "without character, monotonous as polite conversation." With the lightest of touch and a stroke of her quill she demolishes them and all they stand for. There is absolutely nothing fey or sentimental in Tove's writing, but with her deft sleight of hand and her exceptional imagination her reader finds himself free floating in her lively, sad, funny world of storytelling.

Friday, 23 Jul 2010

TWENTY-ONE LOCKS

by

Laura Barton

In Laura Barton we have a very exceptional new writer. In her first novel she demolishes old chestnuts such as"You can't create drama without conflict" and "You can't write successfully these days without sex and violence".

TWENTY-ONE LOCKS is a hard, prognostic look at a town which is dying on its feet. The chimneys no longer belch smoke, the cotton factories have stopped their clatter, and miners no longer emerge black faced from the pits. Almost all the houses now have hot and cold running water and an indoor lavatory and bathroom, and a television. More people have motor cars, and at least a minimum wage, and access to the Mobile Library, public transport, and an ambulance and fire service. They can visit their GP and have their operations and their babies on the National Health, and there are charities and free advice for almost everything. The want of sunlight is met with hair bleach and bronzer. But when the industries died, the mills fell silent and the pits wound down it was left tired and irritable: it was just"a railway station on route to the Lake District,an exit on the M58...And yet there still remains a pride, tethered mostly to football and rugby and drinking, and in the park they still plant out the county seal in petunias, but they boarded up the bandstand and the tea room sits empty...The canal is the preserve of pleasure cruisers, Sunday walkers, glue-sniffers. It is where people drown puppies, and where gangs of teenagers come to throw stones and drink beer...men come to sit mutely on its banks and fish...In the summer months, school children make trips to the canal to spot coots and sticklebacks, and to trace their fingers along the smooth, deep scars on the stone bridges, grooves worn by the strong thick ropes with which the horses dragged along the coal barges." There are eighty-six pubs, four night clubs, six kebab shops, and a busy casualty department at the local hospital.

Jeannie works at the perfume counter at Pembertons department store. Pembertons had opened its doors in 1928, specialising in fine furniture, porcelain woollens and rainware, when people had money, and bought hats just for Sunday. Its pale grey stone is much grimier now, and it has access to the new shopping complex. But "the old facade still looks out onto the main street, all brass and plate glass"... a metaphor perhaps for the ironclad women, doing the best they can with what they've got.

Jeannie is mousy and plain, and only came as a temp.,but has been there now for two years.She is twenty, lives with her boy-ftiend, Jim, who she has known since infant school, and their wedding is in two months time. It is a matter for great rejoicing, backslapping and planning on the part of both Jeannie's and Jim's families. The dress is already hanging in its plastic bag, the Catholic Church and the caterers are booked, the invitations have been sent out, and the Social Club is already preparing for the Big Day.

But although Jim is goodhearted, loves his job as a motor mechanic, and has sausage and mash ready to go on the table when she gets in from work, Jeannie often wonders vagurly if it were ever acceptable to leave someone because of their table manners. Jim eats with as much enthusiasm as he gets up in the morning to go to work - noisily and with gusto. He slurps his cereal as he does his tea and his soup, and when he goeds down on her in bed she has the feeling of being nothing more than a bowl of Shredded Wheat...

Every character in TWENTY-ONE LOCKS is drawn sharply and with an unforgiving pen. From Pembertons with its plush and gilt powder-room to the railway station where the "Ladies" has broken locks, no toilet-seats and the paper towels float in urine, to the canal with its dank smell and dying light, and its twenty-one locks, Barton's pen flows with professional ease, purpose and wit. She writes with acuity, courage and a finished elegance. Her lightness of touch hides a deep compassion: "This is how love works in a small town; the sky and the walls and the familiarity of those streets holding these young hearts like a still". TWENTY-ONE LOCKS is a beautiful, sensitive first novel, and I loved it.

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VILLA SERENA

by

Domenica de Rosa

Emily Robinson sits on her vine-shaded terrace composing her newspaper column 'Thoughts from Tuscany'. It is a weekly column describing her idyllic life in Italy: her Tuscan farmhouse (faithfully restored to its primitive dignity), her breakfast of expresso coffee, melon and homegrown ripe figs; her successful and loving husband, Paul, and amusing children; she describes the early morning cockcrow, and, of course, the superb climate. 'And when I think of rush hour' she writes, 'I smile'. She presses 'Send', and another 'Thoughrs from Tuscany' is dispatched.

Within the Villa Serena, in the dark, cool kitchen, her teenage daughterd, Siena and Paris, and litle Charlie eat their Coco Pops and Marmite toast, except for Paris, who nibbles a Mars Bar. There is a text message from her husband who is presently in London: 'sorry darling. not coming home. am leaving you. p.' And the water is off again because p. has not paid the water bill, which means a long, hot drive in her Fiat punto through the beautiful Alpr de Luna to thg marble palazio of the Idraulica (water company).

When Emily and her husband first fell in love with the Villa Serena such a drive would have delighted Emily, who would have exclaimed at ever crumbling archway or lapis blue Madonna, until Siena and Paris began to mimic her: 'Oh look! A dustbin. How charming! Oh look, a typical Italian drug addict. Che carina!' So admiring the scenery in Tuscany has become just another daily duty: make beds, cook lunch, sweep floors, admire view. And the nearest thing to a cockcrow is the mosquito whine of Giancarlo (thin and almost frighteningly dark) on his Vespa as he grins at Paris before he calls loudly for Siena.

Domenica de Rosa writes so well that it is impossible to convey the spirit of VILLA SERENA without quoting her. She writes blithely and wittily, and her novel bowls along as though, like Nancy Mitford, she is a clever woman talking on the telephone to a friend. But beneath the lively, brilliant novelist lives a perceptive, talented and astute historian. She writes with concern and serious understanding of her subjects, whether they are ancient Etruscans or modern Italians. She passes off with a light word what must be significant knowledge and insight. The trauma for Italy of WWII, the paradox of the priests and the pro-lifers versus the stress and demands of modern life, the Mafia, and the dark chill beneath the warmth of the day. Visitors to Italy appreciate the cheerfulness, the great art, the stylishness and good manners to be found in Italy; Domeneca de Rosa gently reminds us that her fictional village of Monte Albano torn apart between 1939 and 1945 between the murderous Nazi SS, supposed to be allies, and their Fascist supporters, and supporters of Mussolini (not the same thing. Il Duce defeated the Mafia, drained the malarial marshes, built roads, schools and hospitals, established a dodgy Italian colony in Africa, and in so doing restored Italy's self-esteem). In fierce opposition were the partisans, the communists, the traitors and informers, the partigiani, the profoundly religious, the priests and nuns, and all the other bitter, revengeful factions.Most of us have no experience or understanding of life in a proud country under occupation by a foreign power. Domenica de Rosa never allows this deeper side to impinge on the sheer pleasure and delight of reading VILLA SERENA. We meet intellectual Monica and her smart, sophisticated women friends. We also meet archeologist Raffaello, born in Monte Albano, who has spent years and fathered a child in the U.S.A. We meet the next-door farmers (they have wide screen TV, statuettes of Mary and the saints, and a plush three piece suite). And we get to know the dog and the daily help quite well, for both are innmportant to the plot. Perhaps most important to Emily herself is her lifelong friend, Petra, who lives in Brighton, which is vividly described in the book. Petra reminds Emily of her great love, her first love, Michael.

Domeneca de Rosa was born in London. She is the author of two previous novels, THE ITALIAN QUARTER (which was short listed for the Pendleton May First Novel Award), and THE ETERNAL CITY. She lives in Brighton with her husband and two children.

She is one of the many exciting new novelists who live in Brighton. Given a few peaceful years, which Bloomsbury was denied, they may achieve the literaty renaissance that Bloomsbury began. All Brighton lacks is Garsington.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

WHEN TO WALK

by

Rebecca Gowers

It is clear from Chapter One, when her husband, Con (short for Constantine), walks out on Ramble that, as a married couple, they are mismatched. By the way, Ramble is about 50% disabled in her legs and she is partially deaf. Con orchestrates film scores. He is impulsive: he propsed to her on both knees after they had known onanother only a fortnight. He is eloquent, lucid, congenial and gregarious. When they were first married he talked to her, a lot, about music, while illustrating his points on his keyboard. But they don't talk like that any more: he has taken to composing his screen music wearing earplugs wired into his keyboard (they can't afford a piano). Because her father had been a professional pianist, Con had presumed that Ramble, as an insider, would understand his dream of composing great works. The irony is that Con understood and appreciated her father much more than Ramble did: her partial deafness distorted the sound of music. Only good sex has kept Con and Ramble together for three years.

Ramble is a writer. At present she is marking time writing copy for a travel magazine. She is not talkative, she is a thinker. Her thoughts are periphrastic, witty, cryptic. She is punctilious in her use of words, and she loves jokes, especially literary jokes. She is distressed and shocked when Con walks out on her. WHEN TO WALK is written as though it is pages in Ramble's journal. The supporting cast is quite small, but effectual, and every word is important to the intriguing plot.

Rebecca Gowers is a sensitive and discerning author; she is dispassionate but well informed about the plight of the disabled. Her humour is a snuffle rather than a roar, but is no less funny for that. The drawing of her characters is exquisite, the dialogue flawless. Gowers understands perfectly how Ramble felt when Con 'delivered his speech, murmured his regrets and disappeared'. Ramble's thoughts are her own, and inimitable, but anyone is entitled to expostulate and even become introspective at such a time. gowers is deserving of a large and empathetic readership.

'If I were a man,' says Ramble to herself, ' I would say I've been unmanned'... Well, yes.

Monday, May 12, 2008

WINTERING

by

Derek Johns

Postwar Britain took more than a decade to recover from WWII. There was the Battle of Britain, when so many young brothers and friends were killed, and the terrible losses at sea in the Battle of the Atlantic and the dreadful Murmansk convoys could not be shrugged off or dispelled by a few gung-ho films. The burning tanks and thousands of lives lost in the Battle of Alamein, the betrayal at Dunkirk in 1940 and the long hard fighting in Italy, the Balkans and Burma. The loss of Singapore, Ceylon and Hong Kong. The bombing and severe shortages. Britain was still in shock; Russia had broken Hitler's back, but was now squaring up to capitalism, and another, even nastier war seemed a possibility. Britain was drained, depleted and short of cash. In fact Britain was broke, as were many of her small businesses. And so was Jim Palmer.

Jim's business as a handsome and engaging Jaguar car salesman in Bath had crashed. He was lucky to get any sort of job in the post-war economic climate, even as assistant in his wife's uncle's gents outfitters in the cathedral town of Wells. As he peddled his bike through the rain to work, past the dripping nettles and dockleaves, with only the sales of a few flat caps to farmers to look forward to, his mug of misery and boredom was slopping over.

Jim measured himself and his worth in the eyes of his beholders, especially women. Addicted as he was to the buzz at the beginning of an affair, his heart sank even lower: without a car there were limits to which he could pursue even the waitress at the local cafe. Of course he loved his wife, Margaret, and his two kids, Billy and Sarah. But Margaret seemed to have become more ordinary, even workaday, since they moved to the cottage. And she'd made friends with a smelly old woman in the village (some weird ex-dancer with dozens of cats), and she had taken to helping to milk the cows for an even less prepossessing farmer next door. (Margaret had been a landgirl during the war). And Jim's son, Billy, was getting hold of stupid ideas about King Arthur from the elderly women who ran the village school: now he wanted to go up Glastonbury Tor even though they had no car. Altogether, Jim Palmer was a deeply unhappy man. Although he was above doing anything shifty, he would cheerfully welcome twenty quid, no questions asked.

Jim Palmer and his family are well known to us, and we all know and like the waitress at the tea room, filling in time before she goes to uni. We know the farmer and the retired dancing girl with the cats.

WINTERING is written by a consummate storyteller who writes with wit and humour, but with compassion. There is a nod to Isadora Duncan and to Noel Coward. In fact, a bright moment for Jim was selling a natty suit to Elyot Chase from the amateur dramatic production of Private Lives (it was his stage costume).

'If winter comes, can spring be far behind?' Let us hope that Derek Johns will write again soon about our green and pleasant land. There is more of Dickens than Waugh or Rupert Brooke to this novel. Derek Johns does see the point of us, and his writing is as serene and powerful as the River Avon.

Monday, April 23, 2007

BEER IN THE SNOOKER CLUB

by

Waguih Ghali

Ghali's hero, Ram, is born a Copt in cosmopolitan Cairo some time in the 1940s. A great battle was raging in the desert, but Cairo was never bombed. It was a city of cultural confusion: British, French, Greek, Syrian, Armenian, Lebanese, Turkish, even a smattering of German and American Church of England, Muslim, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Copt. But Copts are mysterious, special and elite. The Coptic community is the most ancient of Christian sects. Mary and Joseph took refuge with them during their flight. Respect was accorded to the Coptic community into Egypt, when Jesus was a baby, and Herod had ordered all the Jewish boys under two years old to be killed. The Copts are the only surviving element of pre-Islamic Egypt, the oldest Egyptians of all, the descendants of the Egypt of Rome, of Greece, of the Pharoahs: they are accorded the sanctity of ancestry. Copts marry Copts, although they mix freely with Muslims (who marry Muslims) at the Gezira Sporting Club and at Groppi's.

Ram, and his inseparable friend, Font, become close friends with Edna, whose Jewish family are the Egyptian equivalent of Woolworths. She is amused by their longing to visit Europe, to see Piccadilly and Speakers Corner and the intellectuals and the underground...The world of students who had rooms and typists for girlfriends, where miners were communists and policemen fascists; there was something called the 'bourgoisie' and someone called the landlady, where there was bullfighting and indoor swimming pools... In the end Edna paid for them to go to England. They sailed in the early 1960s from Port Said to Tilbury, and Edna met them at Euston station. She took them to a hotel near Hyde Park Corner, and gave them the New Statesman and the Guardian to read. They went with her to listen to speeches about South Africa, to rallies in Trafalgar Square; they listened to Bevan and Russell and Soper and Collins and heard Paul Robeson records. They felt passionately about the cruelty and injustices in the world (even the fellaheen, about which they knew very little).

Edna takes Ram into her bed from time to time, but he is careful not to let her know he is in love with her. He feels too dependent on her for that: a woman, he thinks, will never fall in love with a man who does not dominate her, however slightly. He never thinks she has more than a genuine affection for him. While they are in London another Coptic Egyptian girl comes to stay with them, a friend of Edna's, called Didi. She is very rich in her own right and extremely pretty. Ram sleeps with her quite often while they are in England, and she is very loving in return, although he practically has to force himself upon her at first. He hopes they have managed to keep their secret from Edna.

Font remained Font, but Ram underwent a metamorphosis. The mental sophistication of Europe killed something innocent and natural in him. He lost the gift of his birth, 'something solid and hidden, and, most of all, natural'. Those who know what it is cannot possess it, says Ram.

Waguih Ghali has created a hero whose typical Egyptian redeems the tragedy that so many displaced people and refugees must feel. For him Europe bore no resemblance to the nirvana conjured up in Egypt. Even London dirt did not compare with the aromatic organic dirt of Egypt.

Back again in Cairo Ram wakes to the call to the faithful. Beyond his shutters there is the secret rustle of palms, and the sun is already drying the scent of flowers. He dresses, has delicious coffee and croissants, kisses his mother and heads off to Groppi's to meet his friends (Egypt has hundreds of young professionals, out of a job unless some relative can get them something in the government, where they will sit at a desk doing nothing all day for 320 a month - this is in the early 60s) and watch the world go by, with a whisky and peanuts. His friends Omar, Jameel, Yehia, Fawzi and Ismail come in, have a few drinks and laugh about this and that. He decides to go to the Snooker Club which Font is minding for Jameel, who owns it. Young Egyptians (and even older ones) drown their sexual longing and frustration in alcohol and gambling. In fact Egyptians are only truly serious when they are gambling.

Ram takes down from behind the bar the two silver pint mugs with his and Fonts name engraved on them, from which they drank their Bass when they were in London. But there is no Bass in Nasser's Egypt, so Ram mixes pints of Egyptian beer with vodka and whiskey, which he thinks is near enough. Their argumentative Armenian friends arrive for a game (at a point) and Ram thinks there are few things to compare with time spent with his friends joking, gambling and drinking. But he knows that in the end he must marry. But who will it be?

Waguih Ghali committed suicide in 1969. His loss is irrevocable.

Sunday, February 25, 2012

ROCKS in the BELLY

by

Jon Bauer

The Freudian slip of forgetting to take his luggage with him as he gets off the bus outside his old home is telling: that suitcase he trundles on little plastic wheels - it is all flyweight compared to the baggage he is hauling in his soul. If only he could leave THAT on a rack somewhere! But his guilt has survived seven years of self-imposed exile. He even checks the marker pen graffitti with which he vandalised the back of the bus shelter so long ago as he sniffed thinners from his blazer sleeve. Of course it is still there. No one in Snoresville is likely to clean it off.

He has come home to care for his lonely widowed mother as she lives out whatever remains of her life that brain cancer will allow. He is her only child, but he grew up surrounded in his private jealousy and resentment by foster children, who seemed to take up all his mother's time and attention. One particularly hated boy called Robert engages his mother's affection in a way he never could. "My childhood haunting me in much the same way my fists haunt my hands". He tells this story in the first person.

This novel is not only disturbing, it is truly frightening, so graphic and immediate are the scenes in the book and so compelling is the narrative and the dialogue. The menace is not an evil thing: it is in its innocence that it is so shocking. His dependence on alcohol, marijuana and casual sex are probably to be expected in a man so damaged as a young boy; he harbours the shame of a broken child. At twenty-eight he still craves her love but she is hardly there any more. Now she is the needy one. She is also exasperating, severely disabled and vulnerable. He is far from grown-up, bored and friendless, and impatient. When he is shakey and overhung, he is still the eight-year-old boy who put his cat in the washing machine. Only now he is a strong young man with film-star good looks, sex appeal in spades, and a lying tongue. And he feels guilt, real guilt, for what he did to all of them. But she still doesn't know it was him. Or does she?

Try to put this novel down from time to time when you are reading it. Stay in touch with your friends and the book-group. Ring the kids. Take the dog out. This book is nervous-breakdown material. But forget the valium or the Prozac, because you need to be wide awake to appreciate the book.

Jon Bauer's sympathy for the sick woman, his understanding of her son, and his affection for old age and most of the human race animates the urgency to find out what happens to the protagonists in this tale. (His social worker checks her lipstick in her rear-view mirror, undoes her top button and then does it up again. His hero gets drunk in a restaurant and tries to click his fingers for the waiter, but has to lick them and try again - the waiter ignores him. He picks up an excitin\g strange girl in a bar and tells her a pack of lies about himself, only to realise she had been at his school, and her mother had been a friend of his mother). But even the humour in this book is precarious.

Bauer's insight into the mind of a child, or a man, or a young woman is uncanny. His beady eye misses nothing in the behaviour of bar staff, an angry aunt, a photographer, or a drunk. It could hinder the narrative were it not for the feather lightness of Bauer's touch. Now you see it, now you don't. But what you do see is incisive and will perhaps be not forgotten. The telling of the story of the hurt child, the parents, the wreck of four lives and what happens next is unforgettable.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

THE FOLDED EARTH

by

Anuradha Roy

It is a great many years since I was so carried away on the pages of a book. This novel takes the reader to the foothills of the Himalaya, to a village called Rhamaket, and spins a wonderful story about the people who live there. In fact THE FOLDED EARTH resembles a cobweb sparkling in the hedgerow at sun-up: it is spun as if overnight and with apparent ease, but in fact it is created with exquisite skill. Anuradha Roy is, I think, the most formidable novelist of today. Reading her elegiac but comic narrative lifts the spirit and brightens the day.

The story, though poignant, is sympathetic. It is about love, and loss, and powerful revenge. A young woman is tragically widowed: when her husband, an experienced mountaineer, is lost while climbing in the Himalaya, devastated by his death, she tries to find out what happened to him, without success, and in desperation, goes to live as near as she can to where he was last seen alive. She takes a job teaching in the village school and rents a primitive cottage. She is alone in the world, without family, an unenviable position in that part of the world. So beautiful is the landscape that some very sophisticated people are drawn to it, usually as tourists in the summer months, but sometimes to visit an eminent resident who has retired to the area. She becomes friendly with him, and she grows to love her neighbours, who are poor and illiterate, and sometimes eccentric.

Her characters are vividly drawn with her featherlight touch, and her humour will surely bring a smile to the most leathery old face. I shall always treasure this book, and I shall buy copies as gifts for my very best beloveds.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A SMALL FORTUNE

by

Rosie Dastgir

Harris Anwar, a slight, elegant man of five foot five, a graduate of the Punjab College of Engineering and Technology, was born and brought up in a village just a meandering train and bus journey from Lahore. After his arrival in England in the 1970s Harris bought himself Crockett and Jones shoes, Gieves and Hawkes shirts, a suit and several ties from Austin Reed, an Aquascutum overcoat and a cap from the Scotch House on Piccadilly that he felt sure resembled a cap worn by Prince Philip as seen on TV.

After being rejected for every single job he applied for in England he joined the RAF as a maintenance engineer, checking the components of aircraft as they ran test operations. Thus Harris and his English wife, Gillian, lived the itinerant RAF life from posting to posting. Gillian appreciated the agreeable camaraderie and the parties enjoyed as an officer's wife, and their small daughter, Alia, rememberd Christmas and Santa Claus arriving by helicopter.

But, more and more, Harris missed the call to prayer and the comfort of his daily prayers. There was also the absence of his own kind in the officer's mess, in fact there were very few brown faces of any kind in the RAF at that time. He felt a temporary sense of relief when he was discharged on medical grounds related to a heart problem. But Gillian, who had never sincerely converted to Islam, and who now looked on with consternation and boredom as her husband penned innumerable job applications, quite soon took up with a doctor she had met and arranged for a divorce.

Harris, shocked and cast adrift, gravitated, to the delight of the male cousins in his extended family, to the dreary, rainsoaked northern town that many of his relations had almost made their own. There he gathered together a downpayment and managed to get a mortgage on a very small terraced house which was going cheap, and, with the enthusiastic help of his cousins and advice from the Readers Digest Complete DIY Manual, he attempted to master the complexities of refurbishing a rather dilapidated Victorian house.

His most helpful cousin persuaded him to take over the lease of a Spar corner shop from yet another cousin who had got into difficulties with the rent. Surrounded by such friendly relations and their families and their many hot meals, Harris enjoyed a brief spell of optimism. But it was with relief that he handed over the running of the shop to his nearest kin and left for a brief visit with his daughter to the village in Pakistan from which he had so eagerly managed his escape.

It was when Harris tackled the accumulated post on his doormat after that visit that he recieved a letter from his solicitor advising him that the divided assets from his marriage amounted to 53,294.00. And only then did his real problems begin...

Rosie Dastgir is clearly privileged to have so much gentle fun at the expense of her many relations. It makes wonderfully entertaining reading. She lives in New York with her husband and two daughters.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

LORD OF MISRULE

by

Jaimy Gordon

Indian Mound Downs is a small run down race track in Virginia, U.S.A.. It survives exclusively on a programme of claiming races. When the owner enters his horse in a claiming race the animal can be claimed by any other owner or trainer for the value of the race. If he has entered a superior horse for a cheap claiming race he will collect any winnings and perhaps a large bet (at very short odds) but he will lose his horse for less than its true value. Indian Mound Downs is often the last stop for used up old stakes hoses, or common sprinters, more like cow ponies, that don't get more than four furlongs.

It is also the last stop for Medicine Ed, who will be 73 on Labour Day, whose father was born a slave. He lives on tins of mushroom soup in his crumpled old trailer home that a tree fell on last fall. He has known no other life than the race track since he was eight years old. If he knows little else (and he can hardly read) he knows all there is to know about the needs and the moods of racehorses, and even at this cheap racetrack he been ended up at, he would be hard pressed to imagine any other life. He and his old friend Deucey Gifford, with her crew cut and her saggy old breasts barging around in her man's white tanktop undershirt, live for nothing other than to keep a few horses sound and sweet enough to win or place in a cheap claimer every week or two. They scorn the no-good trainers whose horses plod in the red dust of the going-nowhere hot-walking machine that creaks endlessly round and round at the end of the shedrow.

One morning as they walk their horses after their early morning exercize, they are intrigued by a girl with her hair in sticking-out plaits and blind-man sun glasses: she is driving a ten year old white Pontiac Grand Prix and is demanding five stalls of Suitcase Smithers, the stalls man, for Tommy Hansel's horses.

Green as grass, mutters Deucey, and Ed feels her falling in love already. Doing it all for some handsome deadbeat horseman who works her to death while he rolls high. I seen a million like her, Deucey says.

And sure enough, here comes Tommy Hansel, the frizzy-haired girl's boss, the young god with the filmstar looks, the education,and the ambition and background to go with it. His scheme, and his plan is to get in, get rich, and get out. Older, smarter, more influential trainers and owners admire him, and help him, of course, but usually with their own plan up their sleeve.

And so begins the story of four horses, a few races, and a handful of disparate people, excersizing their horses when the moon aint set and the infield looks like a shriner's ring for fear a clocker will get an idea of a horse's potential. Alice the excersize girl with limbs like baling wire, who is the living expert on the pokeweed and poison ivy racecourses, and wins on horses that shouldn't be walking, nemmind runnin'; the frizzy-haired girl; Medicine Ed and Deucey; and their help in need, natty old Two-Tie, who occasionally packs a .38, but has the aging loanshark's strong disinclination to die in jail, and has only ever used it with the greatest discretion. But the stars of this tale are the horses. No account claimers they might be, or bone-sore old stakes horses nerved in the feet, but worthy heroes nonetheless.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

A VIEW OF THE HARBOUR

by

Elizabeth Taylor

It was in her beady delight at human behaviour that Elizabeth Taylor found her most intriguing inspiration, but she was also painterly in her use of light and shade, colour, atmosphere and composition. Light falls from doorways into the night, framing her characters and their doings; the changing light from the sea as it reflects the sky, and the sound of the waves in constantly changing weather is always present in this book; the beam from the lighthouse evokes the depths and the mysteries of the sea. 'Here the light shone from downstairs rooms, printing upon blinds a pot of geraniums or a birdcage'.

The story is set in 1947, in the fishing village and tripper resort of Newby. Everything there is small, dingy and out of date: the most recent acquisitions in the Wax Work Emporium are the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (admission 3d.). The fishing fleet is dirty, tough and seaworthy, like its crews; it sets sail each evening in all weathers, and lands the catch at dawn. If the catch is good, a man or woman in an apron will write in white paint 'Nice Fried Fillets', or, perhaps 'Frying Cod Tonight' on the inside of the fish shop window. If the catch is poor the announcement is more likely to be 'Egg and Chips and Tea 1/3'

Elizabeth Taylor's great joy is in the people who occupy the peeling houses and the shops, cafe and pub. Her narrative moves among them, silent and watchful, timeless and dispassionate as a ghost.

Near the lighthouse stands Bertram, a quietly dressed retired seaman, an ex-Merchant Navy officer, perhaps, and would-be artist. He has rented a room at the pub. He is sketching the fish shop, the second-hand clothes shop, the Seamen's Mission, the closed-down Fun Fair, the waxworks, some cottages, the doctor's house, and the lifeboat house; behind them all he carefully draws in the church tower. In his imagination he is 'Bertram Hemingway, that delightful painter of marine and plage subjects'. But his watercolours are muddy, his birds wooden, and in his pictures it could be any time of day. He is ready, after many years at sea, to settle down with some attractive woman, and has recently decided that Tory, whose tidy little house stands next door to the doctor's, would probably do very well. She and Teddy, her husband, had evacuated from the London blitz to their seaside cottage, and, because Teddy loved sailing, had never moved back. But Tory hated everything to do with sailing and the sea, and in due course Teddy ran away with a jolly, sporty girl who thrived on that sort of thing.

Bertram appreciates Tory's one-liners and her smart appearance. Her house smells of hyacinths and furniture polish. He knows she is still half in love with Teddy, and probably more than half in love with the doctor, whose novelist wife is her dearest friend, so he hopes to be spared too much passionate neediness on her part. As for the doctor, besotted with her though he is, there never had been any chance of him leaving his wife.

The light is going and Bertram puts his sketchbook in his pocket and returns to the fuggy warmth of the pub. He greets the domino players and Eddie, a fisherman, and Iris, the attracive barmaid, whose mother, Mrs Bracey, keeps the second-hand clothes shop. Along the bar, in respectable apartheid, is Lily Wilson, widowed proprietress of the waxworks, a possible second string for Bertram should his suit for Tory fail. But he is truly a kindly man, and gallant, and rather afraid of yearning and frustration in a woman.

When Mrs Bracey is taken very ill and is dying, it is Bertram who relieves poor Maisie, her other daughter, by sitting with Mrs Bracey, talking to her and telling her stories of his adventures, which he, fresh from the silent service, related with relish. He rather imagines he is addressing a much wider audience than the semi-comatose Mrs Bracey. 'I've heard worse than that on the wireless' he marvels to himself, as he gives her a little talk on mangroves, as winding as the Amazon itself. A little later he is describing how cantaloups are fed with arak until a slice will intoxicate a man, and how sucking pigs are stuffed with truffles, and melon-flowers crystalised with burnt cream, when Maisie comes in with a jug of cocoa and a plate of Marie biscuits.

Bertram admires Maisie and is extremely sorry for her. But the glimpse of imagined comfort and companionship in Tory's neat house, with a wellpreserved Tory in her smart clothes at his side has fascinated him more than he knows.

The lighthouse-keeper, looking out to sea, sees the trawlers wide across the horizon, smudging the sky with their smoke. He notices, too, the white sails of a yacht approaching the harbour...

Elizabeth Taylor is sincerely admired by many of our most distinguished modern novelists. She died in 1975. I greatly enjoyed reading A VIEW OF THE HARBOUR and will certainly read it again and again.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

ALONE IN THE CLASSROOM

by

Elizabeth Hay

When, as a schoolgirl in the late 1940s, I drove my pony and trap eight miles to the five-sail mill to get our sack of Canadian wheat ground into coarse flour to make wholemeal bread, I never dreamed that seventy years later I would read a novel about the death of two girls, at the time my near contemporaries. The book is the work of a brilliant Canadian novelist. Her pages, written in 2012, would blur in my tears.

ALONE IN THE CLASSROOM is essentially concerned with the mysterious deaths of two schoolgirls in 1929 and 1937. The story is set in Saskatchewan and Ottawa; it brings to life the children, their fate, their families, the extraordinary vastness of Canada (almost as wide, it seems, as the sea that separates us) and the enigma of Parley Burns, principal of both the childrens' schools.

Central to the story is nineteen year old Constance Flood, (Connie), who is teaching in the little prairie school at Jewel, Saskatchewan. She is fond of a dyslexic boy, Michael Graves, whom she helps to learn to read. Their lives are darkened and broken when Michael's sister is sexually assaulted by Parley Burns. The tragedy that follows drives a disgusted Connie to abandon teaching. She travels abroad, and later becomes a newspaper reporter, and as such finds herself, thousands of miles form Jewel, Saskatchewan, writing about a second girl's death. It is nearly ten years later than the first heart-rending event. The victim is an unusual child, different from the other children. The young man accused of her murder and sentenced to hang is a lame youth. The principal of their school is the neatly gray-suited, gray haired, highly esteemed Parley Burns.

This is no who-done-it. The novel explores family relations and principal-student-teacher predicaments and tensions, the devotion of lonely women to a father figure, and the temptation, driven by envy, that two lovers pose to an outsider.

The tale is told by Connie's niece, Anne, who admires and loves her aunt, but discovers herself to be obsessively in love with Connie's lover. The narrative crosses the generations and should really be read carefully and twice in order to appreciate its richness and its author's genius as a storyteller.

Elizabeth Hay's previous novels are the Giller Prize-winning LATE NIGHTS ON AIR (so highly praised in a previous Bookgroup.info review), A STUDENT OF WEATHER (a Giller Prize finalist), and GARBO LAUGHS, winner of the Ottawa Book Award and finalist for the Governor General's Award. Her books have been highly praise internationally and she is Canada's number one best seller.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

COME TO THE EDGE

by

Joanna Kavenna

The author of INGLORIOUS, THE BIRTH OF LOVE, and THE ICE MUSEUM has excelled herself.

The book is satirical and as such it might have had a limited readership. But satire, like fiction, is only as good as it is believable. COME TO THE EDGE solicits and engages the reader: "it could happen, in fact it should happen, perhaps it did happen, or perhaps it is happening right now, away in the depths of the Home Counties, far from the notice of the Media", (which in any case, is so given up to its B List celebrities, its deep-carpeted halls, and its gameshows that it would barely lift a microscope to anything so unusual). Kavenna's prose is original and powerful enough to convince a cynic. It is superb, divine storytelling.

This is a tale of two women, with a scattering of men. Cassandra White (to whom the book is dedicated), reigns, a queen in her castle, which is really a stinking old farmhouse. It is freezing cold and damp, a happy home to mice and unattractive insects. She is a beautiful young widow, six feet tall, and has a shock of orange hair, "blood orange, setting-sun orange". She is owner and country house hostess of a very large dump. Room upon mouldering room full of heirlooms, antique furniture and frowning full length portraits of her ancestors give on to tall windows which look out on miles of fields and woods. She owns one remaining cow, two goats, some ducks and chickens, and an excellent kitchen garden. All that is left of her family china is three chipped cups and a stained teapot. Her kitchen is a barn of detritus and mould. A double-barrelled shotgun and some very sharp knives lay on the kitchen table; daylight creeps in through deep and dirty windows. Outside across the yard is the thunderbox, the only lavatory on the place.

Cassandra does not eat bread: "grain" she says, "is a hoarder's commodity. An appalling thing. You hoard it and then you create armies to protect you and your grain. You create big surveillance towers to watch the grain. Those ancient grain cities thousands of years before Christ, that's what happened to them. A big tower, full of soldiers, with an eye on the top, watching everyone." She feels much the same about things like oil (she burns only wood that she has hacked from the forest), mains water (don't ask), electricity (oil lamps and candles) and supermarkets. She eats what her garden and her pens and ponds provide, or what poachers have gathered on the hill.

It is to this regime that our narrator comes as guest, or unpaid help. She is a young woman, gently reared and educated, devoted to her Magimix and her microwave. Her spotless suburban house, her matching sheets and towels, her whirlpool bath, her dinner parties, her oversized wine glasses and her tasteful ranks of white crockery are her daily life. She loves her husband, her car and her job. But she is escaping from a crisis (infertility) in her marriage. She Needs to Get Away. She Needs Her Space. Like so many city folk, she thinks the countryside is what she needs. Peace and Quiet. Well, no, that is hardly fair. In fact her husband has run off with another woman.

She answers an advert she reads one day:

Wanted, companion in rural life. Can be male or female preferably not completely young, but not decrepit either. Widow living alone on farm, needs help with sprawling property and various plans for improvement. Ample room for lodging. No stipend but no expenses -- food included, bills paid.

Idyllic setting, but hard work required. Apply to Cassandra White.

Joanna Kavenna has a gift for storytelling. The dialogue in her book is vivid, brisk and telling. The violence is unusual and very imaginative. The sex, though regrettably blasphemous, would probably have made Jesus laugh. The story is absorbing: your cup of tea will grow cold as you turn page after page.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

SAVING CARAVAGGIO

by

Neil Griffiths

Mary hands her new baby to Joseph: her right arm is clearly the arm of a young man. The painting is Michelangelo's Doni Tondo, which hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Before it stands Daniel Wright, one of the most successful policemen in the art world, retriever, at great risk to himself, of famous and priceless stolen paintings. He is supposed to be writing a series of monographs on the world's hundred most influential paintings. His cover has been arranged by a curator friend at the National Gallery. In fact his commission is to detect a possible art theft at the Uffizi. He has a Ph.D. in art from Newcastle University, and is genuinely appreciative of Michelangelo's nativity: the handing over of the child depicts for Daniel the parents as a married couple, who have eaten and drunk together, walked and talked and argued together. They are not a holy family, but two people sharing the birth of their first-born. To Daniel this is what makes this painting the work of a genius. If he is moved by one detail, one indefinable artistic decision, it is the attitude of Mary's right arm.

Daniel Wright is the son of successful street traders. Through grammar school and Newcastle University he had hoped, as a graduate, to earn his living working for the most prestigious art galleries and businesses in London. But instead he falls victim to an old cliche - the glass ceiling. The jobs he wants, and is well qualified to do, are reserved for the "elite" in background and education. Humiliated, he falls victim to another cliche: the trophy wife. To complete his trio of misadventures, he falls deeply in love with her. If only his story could have ended with the wedding bells, as any self-respecting novelette would have done, and earned its author a fortune as a best-seller! But Neil Griffiths is no Barbara Cartland, and his hero has a self defeating awkward streak. Daniel's wife, Sarah, who is beautiful, intelligent and rich, enjoys her influential job with an exclusive firm of auctioneers, dealing in fine art and the great treasures of the world. She moves in the circle from which Daniel has been so firmly excluded. Although his eminent success as an art cop precludes much of his resentment, and he and Sarah have a particularly enjoyable sex life, his marriage is threatened because he cannot forgive her friends their super-irony and their social and artistic snobbery. They regard any subject of conversation, especially art, as a vehicle for their wit and erudition. His irritation boils over during a discussion about a Caravaggio exhibition.

During one of his retrieval commissions in Calabria Daniel had come across the Caravaggio Nativity, perhaps the most famous stolen painting in the world. He determines to rescue it from the ignorant and destructive hands of the murderous Italian mafia. Is he doing it for love of Caravaggio, or to save his marriage? I very much enjoyed finding out!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

THE COLLECTOR OF LOST THINGS

by

Jeremy Page

Jeremy Page writes with a passionate and lively generic understanding of his subject, and with admiration and respect for the wild creatures that have the wit and intelligence to survive the harshest of climates. His masterly descriptions of the Arctic are inspired by the cruel beauty of the place. His reader must rejoice and endure at his demand. A powerful and compelling storyteller, he is unsparing of our tears, but finish the book we surely will.

It w as an April morning in 1845 when twenty-nine year old Eliot Saxby found himself sitting on his bunk in his rabbit hutch of a cabin aboard the Amethyst. She was a three-hundred ton barque bound for the Arctic Circle. Saxby has come aboard with some trepidation, wishing he were a braver man, and a man without secrets.

His quest is in search of a possible sighting of a bird, the great awk, generally believed to be extinct. It is in settlement of a wager between four rich men in a club in St. James St., London. They had argued about the extinction or otherwise of this flightless bird said to be the size of a goose, and taken a bet on it, as gentlemen will. In order to settle the bet they engaged Saxby, who is known to work closely with museums and private enthusiasts in the task of collecting natural wildlife.and recording their habits, and have paid for his passage aboard the Amethyst to carry him to the areas in which the bird might have survived...There had once been flourishing great awk colonies across the North Atlantic and Arctic seas, but due to man's predation, they had become extinct within a few decades.

Eliot Saxby has little hope of finding the birds but enjoys sketching and observing all natural wild life. But beneath his reserved and gentlemanly manner he is haunted by the memory of a misadventure in his youth. A fatal misjudgement has preyed on him for more than a decade. He is plagued by agonising doubt in connection with the fate of a girl, Celene, whom he thinks he failed.

As the ship gets under weigh he finds amusement in observing his fellow passenger, Edward Bletchley, who wears loud checks, bright colours and riding boots (aboard a ship!) and brags of his success with his expensive sporting guns. The first mate, Mr French, has a funereal sense of humour, and the round bellied captain is very rude about his wife, who is safely ashore. The crew amaze him with the courage and skill with which they scurry among the ratlines and the yards unfurling the sails, and they have a salacious humour of their own. He delights in watching the flocks of birds migrating along routes they have used for thousands of years. He sketches everything he sees.

One sleepless night he is alone on deck admiring the starlit world about him when he notices a heavily cloaked and hooded figure standing by the ship's rail, which, turning towards him, he discovers to be Celeste!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

SHINE SHINE SHINE

by

Lydia Netzer

A book written for the joy of life and love, of pity for the dying and understanding of the "different" must surely be read with insouciance tempered with mercy. Lydia Netzer's exceptionally fine storytelling ensures a measure of empathy and should be read by discerning readers.

Of course all the money spent on rocketing off to the Moon should be spent on educating every little girl on Earth to earn her very own money, drive her own car and choose her own man; above all, she should learn how to plan any family she feels she cannot forego. She might even enjoy life with another woman and a dog. But as long as men enjoy being accomodated and pleasured by fond and devoted slaves such a Utopia will not exist, and to hell with goodhousekeeping on Earth. But we know all that.

So enjoy SHINE SHINE SHINE for Netzer's splendid first novel, and for the scholarly wit that will draw her readers inexorably into her orbit. She is authentic and original, and the story is told with so much fun and wizardry that even NASA sceptics will be intrigued by her strange little family. Stargazers, mathematicians and lunatics should beware of addiction.

Sunday, June 23, 2013