Librarium 2015

 

Trespass by Rose Tremain 2010. Published by Vintage ISBN 9780099478454

51t2byvpifcl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Passions are running high in this quiet, rural valley in southern France. Happiness is in desperately short supply for most of the characters: Melodie is unhappy to have been brought here, away from the perfect life she led in Paris;  Aramon is wracked by guilt; Anthony’s life in London is a pale shadow of its former glory; Audrun is rightly bitter that her father and brother conspired to destroy her youth; Kitty is made to feel worthless when her lover’s brother turns up in her life………..

Into this once thriving community come the foreigners looking for second homes or the romance of nurturing their own vineyard; and into the mix comes Anthony Verel, once a successful antique dealer, looking for a new start and chance of happiness close to his older sister, Veronica. Falling for the picturesque farmhouse, Mas Lunel,  Verey is wholly ignorant of the deep-seated resentments stirred up by the prospective sale. What follows is a thriller of the first order. As we discover more about the pasts of each character, the peaceful community is shaken, first by a grisly discovery amongst the river weeds, then by a forest fire driven by the hot Mistral.

Rose Tremain has perfectly captured the feel of this community, somehow frozen in time. The first chapter of a seemingly idyllic school picnic is so evocative of a hot and sultry summer’s afternoon and at the same time sinister and full of suspense; somewhat reminiscent of The Cloud, a short story from John Fowles’ “The Ebony Tower” (see Librarium 2013).

Another excellent book to add to my collection of Tremains; all quite different, all equally brilliant.

Billie’s Kid by Steve Tucker 2015. Self-published ISBN 9780993428302

billie's kidA true story about adoption.

Steve Tucker was adopted as a tiny baby. He always knew this, but had never been told why his blood parents hadn’t kept him, or, indeed, who they were. It was soon after the birth of his eldest son that Steve was first inspired to look into his past; the baby looked so much like him that Steve began to realise that the comfort and security acquired through family resemblance was something he’d been missing all his life. A few years later at the funeral of his wife’s mother, Steve was struck by the shared features of virtually all his wife’s family; there was no doubt that they all came from the same tribe. And so began Steve’s intensive search for “someone who looks like me” at the age of fifty.

The book is a candid account of Steve’s often painful and confusing experiences from his first tentative steps within the local government adoption services to attending his first major gathering of a new-found extended family.

I’ve known Steve for many years: our children attended the same schools; we live a few hundred yards from each other; our sons played football together and collected conkers from the same chestnut tree each autumn. But it wasn’t until I read about the forthcoming publication of this book that I knew he was adopted. The initial announcement on Steve’s facebook page had me intrigued – Steve is well-known in this area as a jazz musician and band leader, so to read that he discovered music and the arts in the lives of both his blood parents was fascinating….I immediately put in an order.

When the book arrived a few weeks later, it went to the top of my to read pile, and then became a page-turner from the outset. Steve explains in great detail the decisions he had to make, his first exciting discoveries, his doubts and anxieties as well as those of his adopted family. He really lays his soul bare and is not afraid to let the reader in on his vulnerabilities. I really appreciated this honesty which made for an extremely gripping and emotive story. For any reader who is adopted, thinking of adopting or considering searching for blood relatives, there is plenty of food for thought and sensible advice within the pages of Billie’s Kid.

The Rights of Desire by André Brink 2000. Published by Vintage ISBN 9780099285731

Rights of desireI read half a dozen or so André Brink novels in my late teens and early twenties; all set in South Africa they were my introduction to the cruelty of apartheid and the struggle for black emancipation. I found this book for sale in my local library, having been withdrawn from service, and didn’t need to think twice about buying it.

Set in Cape Town at the turn of the twenty-first century, this is a story of extreme change and how a community deals with it. Ruben Olivier’s life is turned upside down when he meets Tessa, a prospective lodger in his house; a house left largely empty since the departure of his grown-up sons and the death of his wife. Having rattled around alone but for the daily ministrations of his lifelong housekeeper and occasional visitations from a headless ghost, Ruben quickly becomes obsessed with the beautiful and enigmatic Tessa and craves her company. Hoping that the presence in his house of a lively twenty-something-year-old will rejuvenate him, Ruben soon discovers that actually the opposite is true. He finds himself growing increasingly anxious about Tessa’s promiscuity and deceitfulness, but his paranoia leads him to re-evaluate his marriage and career, leaving him with surprising revelations.

Living through soaring highs  and crushing lows in his life with Tessa, and trying to deal with his sometimes out of control jealousy, Ruben also feels obliged to support his housekeeper, Magrieta, through turbulent times of her own. Finally, a shocking incident brings an end to Ruben’s destructive relationship with Tessa, but his life will never be the same again.

 

The Bolter by Frances Osborne 2008. Published by Virago ISBN 9781844084807

Bolter_300pxGrowing up in 1970s England, Frances Osborne heard very little about her great grandmother, Idina. Married five times and leaving her two young sons behind for a life of adventure,  Idina’s scandalous existence was a taboo subject. All the same, Frances was fascinated by this woman who had men falling at her feet well into her fifties,  and decided to find out more about her.

Born into High Society at the end of the nineteenth century, Idina mixed with nobility and royalty, marrying (for the first time) shortly before the outbreak of the Great War. Two sons later, and a war during which her beloved husband was largely absent, Idina’s marriage began to fall apart after a prolonged humiliation; her husband was openly seeing other women while Idina was indisposed with ill-health or childbirth, and the only way out that she could see was to leave him and their two sons. Thus began the beginning of Idina’s new life in Kenya, at first with a near-penniless man, a life of glittering parties, drugs, alcohol, scandal, and all the extremes of white colonial privilege.

It would be fifteen years before she saw her eldest son again, and she never saw her youngest again.

This really was a good read; a fast-paced and candid account of a lost era. Idina suffered the worst kind of betrayal and loss in the patriarchal society of early twentieth century Britain, but refused to be downtrodden, pioneering her way through life, inspiring artists and writers along the way. It is said that she was the inspiration for Nancy Mitford’s “Bolter” in The Pursuit of Love, and the infamous seductress of the 1987 film, White Mischief. I read it in a single sitting, never finding the right time to put it down; it is a true page-turner and thoroughly recommended for anyone interested in social history.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak 2008. Published by Black Swan ISBN 978-0552773898

the-book-thiefThis highly acclaimed novel is a modern classic. Set in Germany during the second World War, it is narrated by Death, and concerns the remarkable life of Liesel Meminger. It seems that Liesel has somehow cheated Death several times in her short life, and this is how she has become known. As the story begins, Liesel is travelling to Munich on a train with her mother and younger brother; they are going to meet their new foster parents. The reasons for this re-settlement are not entirely clear at the start, but we know that the family is critically poverty-stricken and malnourished, if not starving. Later, we learn that Liesel’s parents are communists and therefore a target for Herr Hitler’s programme of social cleansing (along with Jews, gypsies and those with mental illness). Tragically, Liesel’s brother doesn’t make it to their destination, and is carried away by Death, who begins to take an interest in Liesel.

Liesel is taken to her new foster parents, and the rest of the book is a very touching tale of how she fared. From a scrap of a ten-year-old girl, she learns to read and find solace in books, she makes firm friendships, experiences love and great loyalty and eventually comes out of the war fairly intact. Unfortunately, Death has other ideas about many of her loved ones, and Liesel has many heartbreaks to bear.

This book has been widely hailed as a classic of war-time storytelling, worthy of a place alongside The Diary of Anne Frank, and one which will still be read in one hundred years time. Here in the UK, most of the fiction we read around this subject is from the perspective of the British; I think we forget that the German population also suffered great hardship during the war. With severe rationing, hunger and malnutrition were a real threat, as, of course, were bombing raids. I don’t think we should overlook the fact that many, many of the general populace were not in any way supporters of the Third Reich, and therefore victims of the horrors of war in the same way that the British/French/Polish/Russian/allies were. The Book Thief brings this misery to the forefront of our minds, as we see the brutality of the Hitler Youth and really feel Liesel’s anxiety about the huge secret concealed in the family’s basement.

I think this was published as a children’s book, and is on the booklist in the English Department of my local school, but please don’t let this put you off. It’s a beautifully written book, with a unique, quirky style and plenty to warm the heart.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler 2014. Kindle Edition (or Serpent’s Tail ISBN 978-1846689666)

besideTo say that Rosemary Cooke comes from a rather dysfunctional family is probably an understatement, but don’t we all have a few quirks and anomalies we don’t necessarily want to share with the world? We meet Rosemary as a rather introverted under-graduate, not totally without friends, but hardly the life and soul of the party. You see, Rosemary has learnt to keep quiet; not to open up; to strictly edit anything she might want to say; to be secretive. It’s not how she always was. As a pre-schooler, Rosemary talked nineteen-to-the-dozen and would have done so twenty four hours a day if she could. In those days, a group of dedicated graduate students of her Psychology Professor father, hung on her every word, delighted in her every action and indulged whatever behaviour she happened to display that day. Back in those days she also had a brother, Lowell, and a twin sister, Fern, both of whom she adored. Their disappearance is the main concern of this book, and we are taken back and forward again in time, several times, gradually piecing together the story of Rosemary’s devastating losses.

Somewhere around page 70, we learn that Fern is a chimp; brought into the family as an infant, she is to be brought up with the human infant Rosemary as her twin. Their every interaction is to be closely monitored as part of a Psychology experiment of Prof. Cooke’s – it will surely be a triumph……What actually happens is that the family is torn apart and breaks down as soon as Fern is removed from their home. What follows is a quite heart-breaking account of Rosemary’s struggle to be accepted as a normal human at the tender age of five, her lifelong preoccupation with figuring out the reason why her siblings left, and finally her own journey to try to put right some of the wrongs she has experienced or been involved in. Ultimately, Rosemary does manage to have a real and positive impact on Fern’s life.

This was a feelgood book; interestingly constructed and narrated with the rather cynical style of a university student who knows it all. It looks at difficult subjects such as family relationships and primate research in an attempt to fathom out what it is to be human, not human, and also something in between.

Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon 1995. Published by Fourth Estate ISBN 9781857024050

wonderBoysThis is a pretty mad-cap story about the serial misfortunes of a middle-aged professor of creative writing who has been struggling for seven years to complete his novel, a follow-up to his highly praised debut. Grady Tripp, for it is he, has a wife who’s just walked out on him, a married mistress pregnant with his child, a sociopathic student to keep tabs on and a murdered dog in the boot of his car. And these are the least of his worries……

The action takes place over a few days in Pittsburgh, running concurrently with prestigious literary festival, WordFest, which event is being hosted by Grady’s college. Right from the start when Grady picks up his old friend and publisher from the airport, along with a copious amount of psychotropic drugs, a Russian transvestite and a tuba, we know we are in for a hell of a ride. Things go from bad to worse for Grady as he tries to salvage the remnants of his romantic relationship, while upholding some semblance of professional integrity.

I thought this book was well written, but the storyline was a little familiar. The book was made into a film in 2000, starring Michael Douglas, Robert Downey Jnr and Toby Maguire as the prof. Grady Tripp, his drug-fuelled publisher, and psycho student respectively.

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro 2001. Kindle edition (or Vintage ISBN 978-0099422747)

hateship-friendship-courtship-loveship-marriageA wonderful collection from one of the greatest living creators of the short story, Canadian author, Alice Munro. As you may have gathered from the collection’s title, these are stories about human relationships, but not necessarily the match-made-in-heaven-and-living-happily-ever-after type. The majority of the stories are told from the perspective of their female characters; often middle aged or older women who have survived what life has thrown at them through their own resourcefulness, resilience and forebearance. We all know that life is not a bed of roses, and every seemingly content woman will have memories, often painful, tucked away and sometimes never again brought to mind. Here, Alice Munro exposes some of those unpleasant aspects of human nature which we like to deny or overlook.

In the title story, Johanna, a somewhat plain and dowdy unmarried housekeeper, conducts a romance by correspondence with the errant son-in-law of her employer. But, unbeknownst to Johanna, her letters are being intercepted by two young, bored, teenage girls, and the letters Johanna receives in reply are actually penned by the hands of these two mischief-makers. One would not be surprised to learn that broken hearts and acute humiliation are the obvious outcome, but Munro would never inflict on us such a conventional tale. On the contrary, Johanna’s future turns out about as perfect as she had imagined it from the letters she received, to the bemusement of the two girls. A film based on this story was released in 2014, directed by Liza Johnson and starring Kristen Wiig.

In other stories: a wife feels bitterness that her husband takes his own life without leaving her a note; a husband who puts his wife in a nursing home has to deal with his own feelings when she seems to forget him and prefer the company of one of her co-residents; a woman recovering from chemotherapy treatment for her cancer endures the flirtatious behaviour of her husband towards other women. In these stories of ordinary folk, living ordinary lives, we are constantly surprised by the strangeness that is the human condition.

No typos!

Dangerous Love by Ben Okri 1996. Published by Orion Books ISBN 9781857998863

dangerous-loveAcclaimed novel from the Nigerian poet and author.

Set in the sprawling slums of Lagos, life is tough for everyone; for Omovo and his young friends, the struggle to pursue their dreams is almost overwhelming. Having found a job, Omovo is really up against it on a daily basis just to make it in to the office on time, with inadequate public transport provision and the sheer numbers of others also trying to get around. He finds solace in his art and has been blessed with a considerable talent, albeit one which is not always appreciated by those around him. Just to complicate things, he is in love with the beautiful and ethereal Ifeyiwa who also happens to be married.

Omovo is constantly pained by the miserable and unjust society he sees around him in the compounds; the frequent electricity failures; the barbarism of ritual sacrifice; the drunken violence. He escapes into a series of dream sequences, sometimes involving Ifeyiwa, sometimes not, peopled by frightening characters whose intentions he cannot understand. One would not expect a happy ending to come after so much pain and hardship, and it’s not what Okri has given us, although there is a feeling of hope and reconciliation at the end.

There is a poetic and lyrical beauty to Ben Okri’s writing here, something that I recall from his 1991 novel The Famished Road.

How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran 2011. Kindle edition (or Ebury Press ISBN 978-0091940744)

HowToBeWoman-pbMoran’s very, very funny but ultimately sensible look at feminism is an autobiographical journey from adolescence to motherhood. Dispelling the myths of femininity left, right and centre, Moran shows us that being a woman has little to do with shaving, handbags and high heels, and everything to do with owning our own bodies, being funny …. and being polite.

At the age of 13, Moran is overweight and overcrowded. Within a short space of time she discovers menstruation, erotic fiction and pubic hair, and thus begins her awakening to life as a woman. Like the rest of us, Moran doesn’t have a smooth transition into adulthood, but her strident feminism is a constant. Looking in-depth at such subjects as weddings, hair, pornography, fashion, childbirth and abortion, Moran’s no-nonsense approach to life is to have fun, style it out, but be well-mannered…..simple! There are many laugh-out-loud moments here, and a couple which actually brought me to sobbing tears.

This should be a compulsory text for young adults, although the many references to drugs and alcohol along with a lot of swearing may offend some (probably parents, not teenagers). I found it highly readable, poignant, down-to-earth and full of good sense.

Again, I have come across a few typos. This seems to be a common problem in e books; apparently the technique known as OCR (optical character recognition) is not failsafe. The software used in this process sometimes wrongly reads some letters (for instance ‘c’ instead of ‘e’), and if the subsequent copy editing is skimped on, a lot of errors will make their way into the finished text. I find this quite annoying. I can understand that an older book converted to digital may be more likely to contain errors, but “How to be a Woman” is pretty recent and I would have expected the printed and digital versions to have come from the same original text and therefore be exactly the same (I suppose the printed version might have the same typos, but in my experience, that is an extremely rare phenomenon). Kindle really must do better.

Saville by David Storey 1976. Kindle edition  (or Vintage ISBN 978-0099274087)

savilleSet in a small village in late 1930s Yorkshire, Saville is something of a coming of age novel, but also a social commentary on rural poverty and industrialisation. Saville senior is a coal miner and the story begins as he (Harry) and his wife and small child take up residence in a miner’s cottage in the village of Saxton. In due course, three more children arrive, but there is tragedy too, when 7 year old Andrew succumbs to pneumonia and dies. The rest of the book is mainly concerned with second son, Colin, and his efforts to avoid the life his parents have had. We accompany Colin getting up to boyhood mischief, working on farms during his school holidays, taking and passing his entrance exams for the grammar school, and  getting close to girls.

As Colin leaves education and starts teaching in order to support his family, resentments about the responsibilities which have been forced on him by his parents surface and cause discord in the household. This is a serious book about a somewhat dour and serious boy; however, I felt I was living each moment with him, and am rather missing him now that I’ve finished the book. With very little joy in evidence during his boyhood, Colin’s existence is mainly concerned with schoolwork, travelling to school and caring for his younger brothers. He earnestly woos two girls in his teenage years, then, as a new teacher, becomes involved with a married woman. There seems to be little love in evidence here, rather a series of rather critical psychological exposés on both sides – I couldn’t really see what the attraction was for either of them.

Eventually Colin sees that although his education has given him an escape route from the pit (coal mine), as long as he stays in the village he’ll never escape the rather mean and puritanical nature of his community. He realises that the boys who stayed have ended up in prison or destitute. The last chapter sees him board a train for London and beyond. This book is a modern classic of working class life in the north of England. With a fair amount of Yorkshire dialect, non-native speakers may find some passages hard to understand.

I think this is the first book I’ve ever read which contains several typographical errors; perhaps this is an e-book thing. I will investigate.

How to be both by Ali Smith 2014. Published by Penguin ISBN 9780141025209

be bothMulti award-winning novel from this master storyteller.

I must admit, I didn’t really enjoy this book. Some of that may be because my Dad died when I was part way through and I wasn’t in a good frame of mind to concentrate. Perhaps this makes it an excellent candidate for a re-read; after all, Helen Macdonald of The Irish Times read it four times (and loved it). The book takes the form of two parts, set centuries apart, which can be read in any order. I stuck to the order in which they were presented. Part 1 is about a Renaissance artist in 15th century Italy who is probably a woman passing as a man, although I can’t be sure. I was very confused with this first half of the book, found it hard to connect with any character, and ended up just muddling through in order to get to part 2.

Fast forward five hundred plus years, and we find George (a teenage girl) whose mother has recently died, and who is trying to piece together mysteries from her mother’s life. Some intertwining of the two stories happens, as George recalls a visit to Italy with her mother and their discovery of some ancient frescoes painted by a virtually unknown artist – yes, you guessed it. Also peopling George’s life are a hopeless drunk of a father and a mysterious schoolfriend, H, also known as Helena. A French singer from the sixties also gets a few mentions, though I can’t even recall her name; she must be someone significant though, as her photograph is on the front cover.

I had high hopes for this novel, and was left disappointed. Maybe next year I will be able to pick it up again.

The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer 2014. Kindle Edition  (or Borough Press 978-0007491452)

shockI read this in a day, finding it near impossible to put down. Narrated by Matt Holmes, a nineteen year old schizophrenic, this is the story of his early childhood experiences and of how everything began to unravel for him. The author, Nathan Filer, is a psychiatric nurse, and the voice of Matt is as authentic as it could be; specially impressive since much of the book is told through the eyes of a nine year old. Witnessing a tragedy on a family holiday in a Dorset caravan park, Matt is sure that it is all his fault. He is also severely affected by his mother’s overwhelming grief which follows. The narrative swings back and forth in time across the decade, until in an uncanny coincidence, Matt meets up again with someone who effectively rescues him from his past. Finally Matt is able to reconcile himself to his illness and his loss, although he is fully aware that there will be many more cycles in his life to come where he won’t always be so stable or in control.

This is an excellent book which brought tears to my eyes several times, but also left me with some hope for Matt’s future and the futures of others whose lives are variously intertwined with mental health services. If only the government can be persuaded to stop whittling them away.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Sarah Waters 2014. Kindle Edition (or Virago 978-0349004365)

paying_guests_3019701aI have acquired a Kindle! My father passed away on Father’s Day after a long illness, and it was bequeathed to me as the avid reader in the family. To my dad, the Kindle provided one of the few pleasures in his last months, so I wanted to become just as fond of it as he was. I’m happy to report that I am! The Paying Guests was my first download, and I started reading it on the plane after the first of my dad’s two wakes (in Spain). In the cramped EasyJet seat, the small, light Kindle was so much easier to manipulate than a paperback, and I was immediately hooked.

The Paying Guests is the second book I’ve read by Sarah Waters, the other being the excellent Fingersmith (2002). I’ve also seen the BBC adaptation of her 1998 novel Tipping the Velvet, which was brilliantly daring and risqué. Like her other novels, this one is set in the twentieth century, this time the 1920s.

Following the death of her father, Frances and her mother discover that the family finances have been badly managed; to put it bluntly, they are broke. To save them from having to move house, they take the last resort, acquiring tenants. After some minor upheaval and rearranging of accommodations, a young couple, the Barbers, arrive to take up residence in part of the house. At first, Frances almost resents their presence, but forces herself to put up with the intrusion for necessity’s sake.

This is a true post-Victorian melodrama, full of angst, impeccable manners and barely-concealed passions. With numerous references to the social injustices of the day, we have been gifted a heroine with a conscience, a heart and also a rebellious streak. As Frances’ respectable world starts to crumble and she is caught in a maelstrom of chaos she has little control over, she starts to lose faith in the love she thought would be her salvation. With a massive effort to stabilise her emotional and physical self, Frances somehow manages to pull through the greatest tragedy of her life, more intact than she ever believed she would be. The Little Stranger is in my To Read pile.

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín 2014. Published by Penguin ISBN 9780141041759

nora websterSuddenly finding herself widowed in her early forties and with four dependent children, Nora has to find new ways to cope with life, emotionally and financially. Going back into work could be one way. Whatever life throws at her, Nora resolves never to succumb to others’ expectations. Set in Ireland in the late 1960s, the fairly plain prose and unhurried rhythm of the writing seem to perfectly fit that simpler time before technology made such an impact on all our lives.

Maurice was the love of her life, the one who changed her and made her human in the eyes of her family. After a short illness, Maurice dies, leaving Nora with a small widow’s pension and a lifetime of cherished but painful memories. She is lucky to have unwavering support from her sisters and other family members, but no-one with whom she can share her most intimate fears and hopes. Slowly Nora begins to get some sort of balance back in her life and discovers the healing powers of music.

Set in the small town of Enniscorthy, County Wexford, incidentally the hometown of the author, the gentle way of life is threatened by political upheaval and anti-British demonstrations in the north and in Dublin itself. This is a beautiful novel; vivid yet delicate, forthright yet well-mannered. Nora is determined to do the best for her children and for herself without bowing to expectations of others who feel they have a right to dictate. Her strength and determination seem intensified by the dignity she brings to bear; she is an inspiration for all women.

Grasshopper by Barbara Vine 2000. Published by Penguin ISBN 9780140293029

grasshopperRuth Rendell, one of Britain’s finest crime writers, died two days ago (2nd May 2015). She also wrote mysteries/thrillers under the pen name Barbara Vine. This book has been on my bedside table for some time; today seems the right time to pick it up.

Interestingly, the blurb on the back cover tells me that there are roof-dwellers here too (see The Colour of a Dog…. below)

The book is narrated by Clodagh Brown, a self-employed electrician in her early thirties, as she looks back over a year in her life when she was 19-20. After recovering from a traumatic accident when she was 17, Clodagh enrols at Polytechnic in London and is offered free lodgings with a second cousin, but the strict routines of college life soon become too much for her, and it’s not long before she is thrown off her course. Not discouraged by this hiccup, Clodagh meets a neighbour, moves into his flat and falls in love; now starts the next installment of her life – one where the rooftops of London play a large part, and one inhabited by a seemingly implausible  set of characters the likes of whom she never came across during her quiet upbringing in Suffolk. Liv, the Swedish au pair, is in hiding after absconding with £2,000 of her employers’ cash; Wim, the estranged son of a circus acrobat, lives mainly on the roofs, eats chocolate and has no discernible source of income; Jonny is a petty thief with an abusive past which he is re-enacting with his “girlfriend” as victim; Silver lives on unearned income left to him by his grandmother, owns the flat where all the above live/hangout, and is Clodagh’s love interest. While sounding a little far-fetched, this was, so far, a credible scenario, and actually reminded me somewhat of my twenties when I spent several years living with and hanging out with a variety of colourful characters.

Later Clodagh and Silver become involved in a rather bizarre case of child abduction which almost completely takes over their lives. There follows much risk-taking, trepidation, law-breaking and life-endangering, which although seemed ridiculous to me, nevertheless made a readable and memorable book. I’m sure this is wholly down to the excellent writing of Ruth Rendall and the expert way she keeps the reader involved by dropping a tantalising glimpse of the future into the text now and again to keep you interested. She cleverly kept the identity of the narrator’s husband obscured until the last pages, although he is often referred to throughout the book.

Described on the cover as “one of her very best” by Craig Brown of The Mail on Sunday, I think I prefer The House of Stairs and A Dark-Adapted Eye.

The Colour of a Dog Running Away by Richard Gwyn 2005. Published by Parthian ISBN 9781902638720

Dog

The title of this book is an idiom in the Catalan language, meaning something vague or indeterminate of shadowy appearance.

Rhys Lucas lives in Barcelona and makes his living as a translator. The first thing that struck me about him is the large quantities of alcohol he consumes; a beer with breakfast, a bottle of cava with lunch, a few brandies before siesta, then more wine with dinner is a fairly normal intake on a daily basis. All that coupled with some recreational drugs. And this is way before he gets onto his nihilistic binge fest.

Anyway, Lucas somehow manages to hold things together well enough for a while, or seems to, until a series of strange meetings appear to him to be a portent. Lucas, it turns out, is right to sense danger in these signs, and there follows a rather hair-raising period where he actually fears for his life. After he is abducted and held captive by a medieval religious sect, the reader starts to wonder whether all this is real or something happening in Lucas’ imagination.

So, as well as the reincarnated Cathars, Lucas’ world is peopled by a strange and eccentric cast including inebriated ex-pats, teenage roof-dwellers, a fire-breathing dragon and a mute acrobatic angel. After a second brush with death, Lucas makes some necessary changes in his life and seems to land on his feet on the threshold of a rose-coloured future.

This is fast paced novel which certainly keeps the reader interested. I read most of it in a single sitting as I was getting used to my new varifocal specs, and the time just flew by. Dark, funny and informative, The Bookseller magazine called it “The best novel of the year” when it was published. I found it most enjoyable.

Bad Dirt by Annie Proulx 2004. Published by Fourth Estate ISBN 9780007196913

BadDirtShort stories set in Wyoming, the emptiest state in the USA, by the Pulitzer prizewinning author of The Shipping News.

The landscape of Wyoming is brought vividly to life in these stories. From ranching to poaching, trailer parks to homemade hot-tubs, talking badgers to flaming hay bales, all manner of lifestyles are portrayed in these brilliant stories with a sprinkling of magical realism here and there. Many stories are set in and around the town of Elk Tooth where there is a choice of three bars, but you have to drive forty four miles to the grocery store. There is plenty of humour in these tales too – overall I enjoyed the writing, but didn’t find the characters particularly memorable.

Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton 1948. Published by Vintage ISBN 9780099766810 My top Pick of 2015

cryCompleted just before Apartheid became law in South Africa, this is Alan Paton’s classic novel about racism, racial hatred and race relations in that country.

The Reverend Stephen Kumalo takes care of the spiritual welfare of a small rural community in a small wood and iron church. When he receives word from Johannesburg that his missing sister is in fact alive but in a bad situation, he reluctantly uses his life savings to travel to her aid. Once in Jo’burg, he quickly finds his sister and engineers a solution to the problem, only to face a much worse scenario concerning his son, Absolom. Despite his best efforts, Kumalo is powerless to fix things for Absolom, but in the process, discovers an incredible love for humanity growing from the most desperate grief.

This book is profoundly moving and I immediately wanted to make everyone I know read it. Perhaps I can do it some justice on this page and persuade someone to search it out and read it. Paton uses such a beautiful, poetic turn of phrase to tell the story of two fathers thrown together by the accidental meeting of their two sons. One a relatively wealthy white landowner; one a poor rural pastor; both struck down by unimaginable grief; both working together to right some of the wrongs so evident in their country.

At the time of writing, the population of South Africa was about 11 million, 2,500,000 of whom were white (60:40 Afrikaans speaking:English speaking). The rest, apart from about 1 million “coloured” or of mixed race, were black people of the African tribes.. The new city of Johannesburg with its many gold mines (owned, of course, by whites) had become home to many thousands of black workers, employed for a pittance in the highly dangerous mining industry. Lured by the promise of employment and wealth, the men came without their families; the women and children were usually left behind in the tribal homelands where the land was often eroded and barren to the point where crops were hardly growing. The tribal traditions had been destroyed by the whites, to be replaced by ………….well, nothing. In 1948, the same year that this book was published, apartheid became law and was not repealed until 1991.

With the publication of this book and its subsequent film in 1951, the world was awoken to the conditions that South Africans lived in. Incredibly, the apartheid system managed to survive for another 40 years; a shameful piece of history indeed.

As well as being an education into the history of exploitation in South Africa, Cry, the Beloved Country has a powerful message about the power of love and reconciliation. It is unforgettable, and really should be required reading in every school in the land.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel 2014. Published by Picador ISBN 9781447268970

station-eleven-978144726897001Critically acclaimed fourth novel from the Canadian author. Concerning civilisation, art and beauty in a post-apocalyptic North America.

On the day that a global pandemic of swine flu arrives in New York, Arthur Leander collapses on stage while playing King Lear. Leander, sadly, doesn’t make it; the flu goes from strength to strength, wiping out an estimated 99% of the population.

Twenty years on, we join Kirsten, who had been a child actor in the King Lear production, and her fellow actors and musicians of The Symphony, a travelling troupe which tours around the Lake Michigan area, bringing Shakespeare to the sparsely populated settlements that survived the collapse and its aftermath. After a scary, tense encounter with a menacing band of brigands and their leader, The Prophet, the peace and security that Kirsten has begun to enjoy appears to be under threat.

As the action switches back and forth between Hollywood, Toronto and the Lakes area, and encompasses several decades, fragments of the puzzle start to fall into place and the reader begins to see the network connecting many of the characters.

This was certainly compulsive reading – I finished the book in a single sitting on this wet and blustery Sunday and never once felt able to put it aside for another day. My experience is echoed several times in the comments from reviewers inside the front cover. This is a highly original and thought-provoking book, and I already have a few friends in mind to lend it to.

The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen Published by Anchor Books (Random House) ISBN 9780385721004

nellaThe novellas, Quicksand (1928), Passing (1929) and three stories: The Wrong Man, Freedom and Sanctuary brought together in one volume with an introduction by Charles R. Larson and a foreword by Marita Golden. These writings are by the Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen, a gifted albeit rather mysterious writer who explored the lives of middle class educated African Americans, especially women.

In Quicksand we meet the slightly abrasive Helga Crane, a woman of mixed race, working in a school in the southern states. Increasingly dissatisfied with the self-righteous intolerance of school life, Helga decides to leave its employment and her fiancé, and travel north to Chicago. Here she finds frustrations aplenty with the realisation that those of her race are only ever offered the most menial domestic work. A chance meeting with a wealthy widow gives Helga the opportunity to travel to New York. There she finds happiness and fulfillment, for a while at least, among the wealthier black community. But Helga’s eternal loneliness and insecurity force her once again to up sticks and relocate, this time across the ocean to northern Europe. In  her mother’s native Denmark, Helga achieves a kind of fame and notoriety for her exotic otherness, but, as before, she begins to long for something different and realises that she is missing America and those of her own race.

This was rather a sad story of a woman who struggles to fit in, never feeling completely comfortable in both the black and white communities. Narrated in a rather dated-sounding, clipped style, this is not always the easiest of reads; I felt at times that there was almost too much frothy language, too many adjectives, and over-long sentences where fewer words would have sufficed. I was also a little disappointed in Helga’s decision to marry; she had barely met the man, he was obviously not her type and she seemed to just submit to something totally alien to her natural self. It was a rather bizarre ending to an otherwise interesting story, but perhaps inevitable considering her lifelong feeling of being an outsider.

Passing is about the ability and desire of some black women to “pass” as white; in the case of Clare Kendry, her fairness has enabled her to live quite separately from others of her race and even marry a racist white man who believes her to be white. When she meets up with a friend from her childhood, Clare begins to crave the excitement and vibrancy of life in Harlem. So starts an illicit new life whenever her husband is out of town. On the whole, I thought this was a better written story than Quicksand, though I was a little uncomfortable near the end with the opening of the window on a cold snowy night – a rather too obvious device to enable the tragic accident that followed.

I remember Nella Larsen’s Quicksand and Passing being on the shelf of the bookshop I worked in in the late 80s, part of the American Women Writers series. I didn’t read it then, but thankfully it came onto my radar again recently via the excellent book blog Asylum which I would heartily recommend.

“Discovering The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen is like finding lost money with no name on it. One can enjoy it with delight and share it without guilt” – Maya Angelou.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan 2014. Published by Chatto and Windus ISBN 9780701189051

Deep NorthAnother Man Booker Prizewinner, this time 2014. Not that it’s a criteria for my book choices or anything, but pretty much always a good indicator of a quality read. My daughter gave me this book for Christmas, so I’d like to be able to tell her soon how I enjoyed it.

Like The Railwayman, which appears on my Librarium 2014 page, this book is concerned with the second World War, specifically the enforced labour of Australian servicemen on the Thai-Burma railway.

Enlisting in the army as a young doctor in 1940, Dorrigo Evans spends his final training in Adelaide, far from his boyhood home in Tasmania, and the girl he left behind in Melbourne. Whilst waiting for orders, he meets and falls in love with Amy, the young wife of an uncle he has only ever heard of in family stories. They enjoy an intense affair until their forced separation when Dorrigo is sent to Singapore. Through the horrors of the war, the Japanese occupation and enforced labour on the Thai-Burma railway, Dorrigo’s love for Amy is ever-present, somehow sustaining him when so many were succumbing to disease, torture and starvation. The graphic descriptions of life at the camps are horrific and heart-breaking; it’s almost beyond belief that some men survived the terrible ordeal and returned to Australia to live out their lives, a few into old age, albeit so mentally scarred that they were forever beset by demons of one kind or another. In fact the father of Richard Flanagan, the author, was a survivor of the railway camps.

As well as seeing life from the perspective of the Australian prisoners, the Japanese and Korean members of the Japanese Imperial Army who brutalised the PoWs are also in the spotlight. The reader learns the story of the camp commander, Nakamura, lice-ridden and addicted to methamphetamine in the jungle, as he returns to post-war Japan and struggles to make a new life for himself. Refusing to see himself as other than a good man who was only following orders, and a prisoner of sorts himself, Nakamura finally succumbs to cancer, leaving behind a wife wholly ignorant of his past.

When Dorrigo Evans finally returns to Australia, it’s as if he has no control over his destiny. Ending up in a loveless marriage while partaking in a seemingly endless  stream of affairs, Dorrigo can seemingly do no wrong in the eye of the public and is hailed as a war hero, much to his own bemusement.

As for the Line, it was dismantled after the war, pulled up and sold off by the tribespeople of Northern Thailand. Cuttings and embankments returned to their natural states and the jungle took back everything into its humid, green embrace. I cannot begin to imagine how many thousands of skeletons remain buried within; as well as Australian, U.S., Dutch and British PoWs, natives of Thailand, Burma, Malaya, Indonesia, Singapore and Sri Lanka died in their droves under the inhuman conditions.

This is an incredibly beautiful novel, even though it is concerned with so much horror. It’s the kind of book that will ever spring to mind when one encounters love or death. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton 2013. Published by Granta ISBN 9781847084316

luminariesThe winner of the Man Booker Prize 2013, this hefty tome of 832 pages is set in New Zealand in the second half of the 19th Century.

When Walter Moody disembarks from the ship that has brought him to Hokitika, he looks as though he has seen a ghost. His plan to make his fortune prospecting for gold on the new frontier of New Zealand’s west coast has got off to a shaky start, and things get a whole lot weirder as he encounters a clandestine meeting of twelve local men in the hotel bar that same evening. It transpires that several strange happenings have been puzzling the locals and they are all keen to get to the bottom of the matter whilst keeping from implicating themselves in any shady dealings. As we learn more about each man’s story, it transpires that the web they weave is very tangled indeed. A dead body, an unexpected fortune, an apparent suicide attempt, a missing entrepreneur, a hidden stash, a misfiring pistol, a merry widow and a ship aground; all these phenomena combine to make an intriguing mystery to be unravelled. Will Walter Moody be the one to shed light on the problem?

The first 400 or so pages are concerned with misinformation and hearsay, followed by much head-scratching and getting hold of the wrong end of the stick. Finally, by way of a series of flashbacks, the truth begins to reveal itself, but not before at least one unnecessary death. This was a most enjoyable read, if rather long-winded. The story is complex and convoluted, and I was left with a few unanswered questions of my own, but overall a satisfactory conclusion was reached and true love conquered all as is fitting ; I have finished the book today, St. Valentine’s Day.

From a slow-burner of a start, the character development is very cleverly done, ensuring that our sympathies lie with the most deserving of the Hokitika set. Eleanor Catton has written one previous novel, The Rehearsal, which was also highly acclaimed and was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and won the Betty Trask Award in 2009. This is an author to look out for in the future.

The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd 2004. Published by Vintage ISBN 9780099472094

lambsAt the very beginning of the nineteenth century we meet Mary Lamb, barely able to breathe in the stifling atmosphere of her family home, and her brother, Charles, who gets blind drunk after work on a regular basis before having to join his sister in the Lamb household. Father Lamb is sinking into early dementia and mother Lamb seems rather controlling, but, nonetheless, I feel the siblings are slightly overreacting to the only marginally less-than-great hand life has dealt them. Then into both their lives comes the teenaged bookseller, William Ireland, with his discovery of books and manuscripts bearing the name of William Shakespeare. The Lambs and seemingly half of London’s literary acadaemia are at once drawn into the excitement and wonder of new Shakespeare material surfacing 200 years or so after the bard’s death. In particular, Mary is sorely smitten by both the writings and Master Ireland himself, in one instance ending up in the Thames after a particularly ill-timed swoon in his company.

William and his father become minor celebrities as proprietors of their very own Shakespeare museum and dream of theatrical fame, as Mary starts to lose touch with the realities of her life. As both her and William’s lives begin to unravel in tandem, Charles and his colleagues begin to rehearse the Mechanicals’ Tale from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

This is a work of fiction which features some real people and incidents. Cleverly woven into a drama of parental expectation and disappointment is a detective story, a sprinkling of unrequited love and just a hint of West End glamour. It was a thoroughly enjoyable read and I’m now feeling inclined to look for more of Peter Ackroyd’s writings on London. One of these, the brilliant Hawksmoor, appears on my Librarium 2013 page.

*   *   *

On my To Read pile (just the tip of the iceberg)

  • Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • The Little Stanger by Sarah Waters
  • A Million Little Pieces by James Frey
  • The Missing Piece by Antoine Bello
  • Trespass by Rose Tremain

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