A Little Blog of Books

I realise that is is probably a bit unusual to recommend another blog, but alittleblogofbooks.com is rather special. First of all, it is full of proper reviews, indeed the author gets review copies which confirms that. Furthermore, she follows a number of literature prizes that I don’t and also is on several Shadow Panels for well know book prizes. I am an ardent follower, and while I don’t want anyone to desert me, I do recommend you go there to check it out.

The reason I am telling you about it here is that my next book comes straight from her recommendation.

To read Judith Heneghan‘s novel, Snegurochka is to step into a labyrinth of suspicion, foreignness and misunderstandings which almost defy description. Basically, Rachel arrives in Kiev with her young baby of a few months, to join her husband, Lucas, who seems to be freelancing for the BBC Foreign Desk. As a new mother, Rachel is battling all the anxieties and unsteadiness of the unfamiliar, along with a poor or near non-existent grasp of the language, all she has with her are enough Pampers for a few months, a copy of Jurassic Park and breastmilk. She is beset by exterior anxieties as well as the normal interior doubts of a first-time mother, one of these being the danger of having a child on the thirteenth floor of a high rise block.

The reader can quickly see that Rachel is a complicated and probably OCD-stressed woman. If you worry about your baby falling from the balcony when he cannot walk you are beset by something deeper than the superficial fear of him falling; let alone your identification with the baby raptors who climb in through the window left open in a fantasy novel. The people she meets, especially the natives of Kiev: the caretaker Elena (the woman in Jurassic Park was called Elena, she left the window open), the strange roller-skating boy upstairs, Stepan, Zoya, Lucas’ driver and translator and the unusually helpful stranger, Mykola Sirko all of them increase her nervousness; then there are all the Europeans who she meets, colleagues or co-workers in the media business, kindly people who don’t understand her situation, or if they do, pity her.

Snegurochka translates approximately as “snow child” and is a famous trope in Russian fairy stories, it has many variations, but basically tells of an elderly couple who long for a baby, one winter they make a snow child…most of the variations end badly.

It is easy to see why this title comes attached to this novel. Rachel arrives in Kiev in the autumn of 1992, only six years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, geographically this is around eighty four miles away. Even though Lucas has a Geiger counter, Rachel is constantly worried about contamination, so breastfeeding for as long as possible is essential. The sense of impending doom, the imprint of past horrors, the shadow of even more distant horrors and the reputation for spying on one’s neighbours remains a constant drum beat throughout the book, and Rachel has no real friends. Her mother and English friends think she is insane to take her baby there, and clearly many of the women there also think she is crazy. So is she a bad mother? Or just a new mother with anxiety?

This is a gripping and fascinating peek into a world far removed from our own comfortable existence, Bosnia is where the trouble is in this book, who knew what was in store for Ukraine in 2014?

Other reading: I have been sent a book list by one of my readers which she says I can share with you, there is some crossover but also a lot of interesting titles that I shall be reading myself in due course.

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Grace Notes

Grace notes are normally used as part of musical notation, they are in addition to the principal melody without destroying the time scale of the rhythm. When they occur in groups, grace notes can be interpreted to indicate any of several different classes of ornamentation, depending on interpretation. 

What can I say? I loved every sentence of this inspired novel. Valerie Perrin is French and this is the first of her novels to be translated into English [Translator: Hildegarde Serle]. The narrative is exquisitely tonal, switching from the present day where Violette Toussaint is the cemetery keeper in Brancion-en-Chalon, a town in Burgundy to the journey that has brought her here. Interspersed with her story are the lives (and obviously deaths) of some of the people in her graveyard.

Significantly, a policeman called Julien Seul turns up with a conundrum. Why does his mother want to be buried in a grave of a man that he has never heard of? During the narrative, we learn why she has made this choice from the pages of her diary (always written in italic – which is literature’s answer to grace notes). Her entries go back several decades and explain things, carefully and privately while also knowing that eventually her son will read it and understand, and will meet the lady at the cemetery.

Underlying all this is a personal tragedy that Violette is recovering from,

In a way this is such a French novel, one cannot quite imagine an English novelist worrying about many of the details in this book. The shame of biting one’s fingernails, for example; the endless casual infidelities; long term affairs told with truthful delicacy and sweaty lust. Of course, all these things happen in other novels, but the French have a different way of dealing with them and it is apparent on every page.

There is also a lot of eating and drinking which is always a delight, and Violette has been taught the healing nature of gardening, so she often has dirt and soil on her hands and fingernails.

Fresh Water for Flowers is a book which will leave its traces on your heart for a long time after you have read the last page. It is everything that a good novel can be, it will make you feel, to the depth of your being, sympathy and love for its wonderful, flawed and complex characters.

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Love and Secrets

In every box of requested books that I am sent by Primrose Hill Books, I always ask for two more surprises chosen by my friends at the bookshop, Jessica and Marek. This novel by Ingrid Persaud is one of the titles. It is a scintillating novel told through the voices of the three main characters. They are Betty Ramdin, a Trinidadian of Indian extraction, her son Solo and her lodger, Mr Chetan.

Betty is a widow, her husband Sunil was a drunk, he was also her soulmate when not drunk. A happy marriage it was not, as he was excessively violent when drunk, pleasant and charming otherwise, which is how others saw him. So even though she was often bruised, or even with broken bones, nobody questioned whether or not these were accidents. Of course they were, she was just very clumsy.

But it was when Solo was most vulnerable that Betty was most afraid. If Sunil had turned violent towards Solo, she could not have borne it. But it no longer mattered, Sunil was dead.

In passing she mentioned to a colleague that she was thinking of looking for a tenant for her spare room, a single woman would be ideal. Some weeks passed and then Mr Chetan, to whom she had mentioned this, came himself asking for temporary accommodation because where he had been living was no longer available. She agreed that as a temporary measure this would be fine.

And it suited them all. She had company, he had a roof over his head and Solo had a father-figure to rely on. So it went on, year after year, and it was indeed fine. But both Betty and Mr Chetan had an explosive secret, so even though there was affection and even love between the three of them, there was also fear.

Love After Love is written in a patois that is not always easy to read, this narrative unfolds very slowly and, because the three voices are not entirely distinct one from the other, attention must be given to the chapter headings, but once the reader absorbs the different stories it becomes much clearer which character is speaking. This is a book about family ties, misunderstandings and denials; family breakdown and the bridges that are possible to build or not; it is about love and pain; about self harm and self disgust and it is the exposure of Betty’s secret that reveals itself to have been a time bomb simply waiting to go off.

The sense of time and place is brilliantly portrayed, you can feel the thirst inducing heat radiating from the Trinidadian earth, as the sweat pools beneath the clothes. There is the joy of sharing, drinks and food and friendship and much is made of cooking and sharing local dishes, which are a rare mixture of Indian influenced Caribbean, such a plethora of local fish, vegetables and spices. Hot chilli in everything!

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Tuscan holiday villas

This complex and delightful novel by Valerie Martin is about a novelist writing a novel. Ms Martin has written eleven novels and I need to catch up, this is the first one I have read and I cannot wait to read some more.

Jan, the narrator, stays in an annex of a beautiful Tuscan villa, Villa Chiara. She has found this place through an American colleague, who in turn has recommended her to the current owner of the villa, Beatrice Salviati. Over the passage of years, during which time Jan and Beatrice meet, and Jan stays several times in the limonaia of the Villa Chiara, Beatrice shares some of the stories of her family, of the times that they live in and of some of the more recent history.

The Salviati have owned the villa for several centuries, this house, and a palazzo in Florence, a factory and various other enterprises. The Second World War has altered their prospects and their fortune. In one generation, many of the properties and the factories have been sold or have failed, and when Marco dies, much retrenchment will be necessary to cover debts and his mishandling of their affairs. The task is undertaken by Maria, Beatrice’s mother.

All this, and much more, Beatrice has shared with Jan. Knowing at the same time that she is a novelist, she has often said “I give it to you”, clearly understanding that it is a good story and one that might make its way into a novel.

There is a distinct danger in knowing writers well. Especially novelists. So while absolutely not accusing them of stealing the lives of their friends, there are well known examples of occasions when this has happened. One knows about it, either because it reaches the pages of the press or because by word of mouth it becomes the latest dinner party titbit, and now, in the age of Instagram and Facebook, the latest stream or meme or Twitterstorm.

It can be deliberate. As with an acquaintance of mine, whose novel contained an acid portrait of his mother (names changed and all that) which he hesitated to publish on that account, as he was sure that someone would see what he had done and tell her. This must often be the dilemma of a novelist who writes fictional accounts of real people, fairly safe if they are historical, certainly if set in the sixteenth century; less secure if they are set any time from just before the First World War through to the present day, as there just might be someone, or someone’s relative still alive and alert enough to recognise a mistake or fictionalised account that does discredit to the family.

In I Give It to You, the fictional novelist understands that she has permission to use the family stories. What we the reader cannot know is how accurate her interpretation of this situation is. Was she given free access to family secrets or not? This subtle and beguiling story, both of the friendship between the two women and the history of the Salviati family explores that delicate line between exposure and betrayal. What did Beatrice think she was sharing? What did Jan do to the material she was given? We can read what she wrote, but we can never know whether or not what she made of the story was fair or inaccurate. It makes for a marvellous and entertaining narrative, with much modern Italian history (complex and dark as it is) thrown into the mix.

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Sorrows come, not singly…

Poor Nessa. In one week she has to deal with the possible misattribution of a sculpture that she is negotiating to buy for a Cork gallery; going with her husband, Philip, to dinner with an old flat-mate, only to be confronted with a man she has had an affair with long ago; going to another dinner party with one of her husband’s clients only to be faced with the husband of the woman, Cora, with whom her husband has been having an affair; being summoned by her daughter’s school class head to be told that Jennifer was bullying Cora’s daughter, Mandy, quite probably on account of the way Nessa and Philip are dealing with “the situation”.

In what rancid pit of infidelity does it make sense for the couple to choose the parent of one’s daughter’s best friend? Proximity seems the worst choice for maintaining secrecy – and apparently, in the narrative of Danielle McLaughlin‘s novel, the secret is out in the open: the school knows about it, the daughters know about it and the ‘unoffending’ partners know as well.

Nessa has been studying and writing about the works of Robert Locke since she was an art student, now as a curator of a gallery in Cork she is in a position to buy one of his most famous works, but it all goes horribly wrong, along with several other unravelling strands in her life.

In The Art of Falling the author has created a compelling and diverting account of Nessa’s struggles in the web of her own making; it may resolve in a tangled and poetic manner but there seems little chance that she will come out unscathed. Nessa is not the only one with secrets, as the novel slowly reveals. The author has captured the mind wriggling way in which past misdemeanors can suddenly become much larger burdens, youthful indiscretions and acts of unkindness can rise up out of the mists of the past, diary entries and letters long forgotten or hidden can reveal a less than saintly life. How much to tell and what to conceal? A perfect example of ‘Oh what a tangled web we weave/When first we practice to deceive’. Having started with a misquote from Shakespeare, it seems perfectly fitting to end with another quotation from The Bard.

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Reformation 2

So we come to the second part of Kate Mosse‘s trilogy about the Huguenots. In the previous novel, The Burning Chambers, we left the Joubert family gathered in Puivert in 1572.

Religious Wars had riven France and Europe for decades. Now, finally in an attempt to calm troubled waters, King Henry of Navarre was to marry Marguerite, sister of the King of France, Charles IX. Charles had been a minor for most of his reign and it was well known that the real power behind the throne was his mother, Catherine de Medici. It is widely believed that she had engineered this marriage, but to what ends remains something of a mystery. Marguerite had been having a notorious affair with Henri I, Duke de Guise, head of the Catholic League. Henry of Navarre was a noted member of the Reformed Church, the head of his faction was Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, who had been responsible for the assassination or accidental killing of Guise’s father.

The City of Tears opens as the Joubert family travel to Paris for the celebration of the wedding. While there, they see at a distance their arch rival, Vidal, one-time friend and companion of Piet de Reydon, now an implacable enemy. After three days of wedding festivities, we reach the 24th and 25th August. An attempt on the life of Gaspard de Coligny fails to light the tinder box as the Huguenots wait, but it is not enough and a spread of Catholic violence, on a day that remains infamous to the present time, causes untold misery and bloodshed as Catholics rampage throughout Paris killing relentlessly, in an event known as the St Bartholemew’s Day Massacre.

The violence spread throughout France, especially in the South and caused a massive exodus of Huguenots, many fled to Holland and Belgium as countries known for religious tolerance; a few others to South Africa, Canada and America. Anywhere that would take them

Our family escape through the charity and courage of a Dutch woman and the action of the novel moves to Amsterdam, the city of tears.

Part 3 is still in the making, let us hope we do not have to wait eight years…

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And again!

There are two sorts of Australian novel, both of them admirable in their own ways. Jane Harper belongs in one category and Tara June Winch in another. In her latest novel, she sets a scene which could be almost any actual beachside town in Tasmania, the long strand, some cliffs and deep caves, sand dunes with a small township nestling behind. This could be Sandy Bay or Seven Mile Beach, it isn’t Evelyn Bay is a fictional place on the north coast of Tasmania. After a terrible storm has torn its way through the town, several families have been damaged. Liam has lost his father and Kieran, his brother. Both families were related, as Kieran’s father was Liam’s uncle.

Also lost at the same time was a young girl, Gabby Birch who quite simply disappeared. Her backpack was found drenched in seawater several days later, but her body never. Off the coast there is a famous wreck, which is a notable diving site and standing in the water on the strand is a bronze statue of three people called The Survivors. It was not cast as a memorial, but the town bought the right to change the name, and the three stand there sentinel and washed with the tide.

By now, these wounds have closed over, if not healed. Kieran and his wife, Mia with their baby, Audrey, have returned to help his mother move to a flat, while his father Bernard, who is suffering from dementia is taken into a care home. A local restaurant, The Surf and Turf, is a café-bar still open even though it is out of season and they go there on their first evening to meet friends. It does not turn out well.

Evelyn Bay is a place where tourists flock during the summer, and the town and its inhabitants settle down to wait for the next influx. The Survivors is set during a quiet spell, until suddenly there is another death. Jane Harper has a brilliant way of setting up a story which loops back to something that happened a while before. She did this in her previous novel, The Lost Man and here, though the setting is wetter and different, the slow reveal is just as devastating.

The reason why this is so different from The Yield is that the people in this novel, while probably several generations from arriving, are basically of European extraction, with one exception, Mia who is half South Korean. There are no native Indigenous People here. There are so many novels that fall into this category, The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas which tells of a Greek family, some of Peter Carey’s books and some of Thomas Keneally’s books have no main characters that are not from settler families, unless they are farm hands or domestic servants and this might be the reality, no doubt it is, but it is regrettable and it is a relief that more and more novels are being published that present the other side of the picture. Until recently, the only novels that I read about Australis which had an Indigenous character as the lead were the detective fictions of Arthur Upfield and his main character, Napoleon Bonaparte an Indigenous tracker turned detective.

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And Australiana again

I was intending to post on two novels in one post today, but they are so very different that I am doing them separately. You will see why.

The history of the landmass that we call Australia is a blot on the escutcheon of humanity. For many thousands of years before the nineteenth century the country was populated by a number of nomadic tribes or mobs. It is probable that not all of these were peaceable, friendly people, they probably had fights with each other over good land, good fishing and good hunting. We have no idea. Why?

The answer lies in the expansion of British territory to include Australia. It is not perhaps widely known that until the American War of Independence (1775-1783) Britain used America as the dumping bin for undesirable criminals, but once America was no longer available there was a hiatus. Several different places were considered, Africa being one of them, but the conditions were not favourable. Then suddenly a new horizon appeared, far, far away.

In 1770, Captain Cook was voyaging in the Pacific with a view to trade and because he also had on board, Joseph Banks there was also quite a bit of plant hunting. They visited Tahiti and New Zealand, and on the way home looked in at the East Coast of the land we now call Australia.

You will know, if you also read my post about Joseph Banks, [A Rose by Any Other Name 1 September 2020] that it was he who recommended Botany Bay, Australia as a suitable alternative site to ship criminals. His influence was paramount in the process, and so in May 1787 a flotilla of eleven vessels left for the Pacific, they arrived in Australia on 27th January 1788. The penal colony in New South Wales, though not sited at Botany Bay but in Sydney Cove, was only the beginning.

The new novel by Tara June Winch is set in the present day. Prosperous Mission is a fictional place, but it represents a reality. By the 18 & 1900s, Europeans, mostly British, had settled and accommodated themselves in Australia, mostly along the coasts and along the rivers, for much of Australia is uninhabitable for any length of time, which may explain why so many of the Indigenous People were nomadic. They went from place to place following the food supply; sometimes plentiful in the rivers, sometimes on the coast, sometimes in the roots and grains, almost never in the same place all the time. What chance did a people armed with spear sticks, boomerang, bows and arrows have against a determinedly rapacious people armed with guns?

Among the incomers were German missionaries, and in this book one of them a minister, Ferdinand Greenleaf, has set up a mission house, with chapel, school and dormitory blocks for families of the black community aiming to protect them from the ill treatment meted by other white settlers. Well meaning, but as he came to see in the end, wrong-headed. By the time we arrive at the novel’s present an Indigenous family has been living there for several generations, next to another larger property, Southerly House owned by a white family, the Falstaffs.

The patriarch, Albert Gondiwindi has died and his surviving granddaughter, August has returned home for the funeral rites. She arrives from England, only to discover that while she has been away (about ten years) the land has been granted mining rights by the Australia Government and her surviving family is to be turned out. Unlike many other countries, the Australian Government claims the right to all mineral deposits, and what has been found in Massacre Plains is tin.

Shocked and surprised by the events, August sets out to restore the family history and to find the dictionary that her grandfather was compiling. So along with protestors and activists, she seeks the roots of her belonging, and the cultural heritage that has been forgotten or lost.

The loss of a common language is the beginning of the degradation of a people. White settlers, when they were not killing the Indigenous People, which they did in large numbers, had a habit of taking away their children and bringing them up to speak and learn European ways, thereby eradicating their collective memory and identity. And while this may been deemed more humane than slaughter, in the long run it is simply a slower death.

Attitudes and practices are slowly changing, a new dawn is ever so slowly breaking for the Indigenous People, those for whom it is not already too late. Tara June Winch is part of the change and this novel, which includes chapters of Albert Gondiwindi’s notes about the language and what he remembers, while fictional, does actually list the Wiradjuri language. In recapturing language you can rebuild a tribe or mob.

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Reformation

The Burning Chambers is the first in a series of novels about the history of the Huguenots in France, the Low Countries and South Africa. Kate Mosse begins the novel in the Inquisitional Prison in Toulouse at the start of 1562, we then move to Carcassonne in the winter of the same year.

The Joubert family consist of the father, Bernard, who since his travels in January has been strangely withdrawn and unwell, Marguerite an older daughter, Aimeric and Alis, they have a maid Rixende. Bernard is a bookseller with a wide and open minded collection of books, including treatise on religion. For a while now, Marguerite has been minding the shop. But times are changing, there is a quiet and sustained threat in the air and it comes to Carcassonne that winter.

A sudden flurry of activity, secret meetings and a row in the street when some men insist upon searching a neighbour’s premises, looking for a young man with red hair, a murder…

When Martin Luther tacked his ninety five theses upon the door of a cathedral in 1517, he opened the floodgates of a dispute that raged across continents, cost thousands of lives and ruined relationships, set mother against son, son against father and neighbour against neighbour.

The Protestant revolution that he began, became the dividing line between Roman Catholicism and its alternative practices as set out by Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and others. It caused untold material, economic and personal misery to many families. And while we may wonder at the bloodshed that ensued, it is not hard to find many modern examples of an idea that suddenly splits a country into factions. Religious differences have caused more harm than good stretching back throughout the ages.

Why a tweak that decried practices that were venial and egregious, such as indulgences, the worship of holy relics, idolatry and similar details should so split the world, remains troubling. But unsurprising. Not much has changed.

This trilogy has a promising beginning. The Burning Chambers ends ten years later in May 1572. France is about to celebrate the marriage between the French King’s (Charles IX) sister, Margaret to Henry of Navarre, who would become Henry IV of France in 1589. Henry was a Protestant. The second volume is already published and waits on my TBR pile.

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Occupation

Occupation: such a benign word, denoting lifestyle – tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, or even on the National Census, housewife, spinster, fishwife, wh***. Not so benign when applied to countries. We have all heard of the German occupation of various countries in wartime, but what about the less well known countries occupied after the peace?

This is not Madame Butterfly, for that opera was written in 1904 and was based on a short story written even earlier in 1898, and the semi-biographical book Madame Chrysanthème. Ana Johns novel is also based on real life stories.

Set between the present day and the 1950s, this novel tells one story to represent many, it is a long synedoche. In America, Tori Kovač is struggling with the impending death of her father. He has been the teller of tales, and now, dying of cancer, it seems that he is trying to tell the most important story of all, but he runs out of time, leaving Tori bereft and puzzled. She has in her hand a letter from Japan, but it seems to have been from her father to an unknown recipient, only the first symbols are legible, the latter part too smudged to read, it has been returned unopened.

Tori has known that her father, James, served in the American navy signing up as a seventeen year-old. He was based in Japan in the 1950s after the post-war American Occupation which lasted from 1945 to 1952. The stated aims were to demilitarize the country and to introduce democracy, but underlying all that was a need to turn an enemy into a friend, so that even after the signing of the Treaty of San Francisco, the Americans could keep a military base on the island.

The other part of The Woman in the White Kimono is set in 1957/58 and covers the life of a respectable Japanese girl, Naoko Nakamura. She meets James Kovač, they love each other but Naoko’s family wish her to marry the son of a business partner. Hoping to change their minds, Naoko introduces them to Hajime. But her hopes are dashed and the failure is catastrophic.

The upshot of the occupation and subsequent American military presence in Japan was at least ten thousand (known) mixed race children. Shunned by the Japanese families and unwelcome in America. This novel is the narrative of one woman and her mixed-race daughter. The research behind this book was both personal and general, in pursuing her own background, Ana Johns met and talked to many other people whose tales were similar or worse than her own.

Pride and shame combine to make inter-racial relationships difficult, and in many cases impossible. America did not want Japanese child-brides arriving in their masses and made legal marriage between men in the American Forces and their Japanese partners exceedingly difficult, men were not allowed to marry without their Commanding Officer’s permission whether in the Army or Navy. At the end of your term of service you were obliged to return to America for demobilisation, and for many (even well-meaning) men this made return to Japan impossible.

What happened to Naoko was the inevitable clash between family honour and love. The Woman in the White Kimono is both a love story and a tragedy. It belongs in the highest canon of such literature and is a lesson in humility. To have and to lose so much, but to remain with your head held high, it is inspiring. A beautiful and sad narrative, well told.

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