Category Archives: Books

Books I have been reading recently

Lars Mytting

Last year, the must have book for English wood burners was called Norwegian Wood. This was quite simply an account of the way to stack, store and use wood in the home. The book was by Lars Mytting.

LarsThere is now a novel called The Sixteen Trees of the Somme, which is partly a mystery and partly an in-depth story about wood, its beauty and its value.

Edvard lives with his grandfather.  His parents have died, together, in an unexplained accident in France. Once his grandfather dies, Edvard is left with a lot of unexplained facts about his own life which he finds it imperative to uncover.

Who was his great uncle Einar, exactly?  And why was there such rabid dislike between Sverre (his grandfather) and Einar? The novel takes us on a splendid and amazing journey from its starting point in Norway, to the Shetlands and to France, along the way the reader picks up on the wonder of wood.

Einar was, in the end, a superb craftsman, who in the Shetlands was known for making coffins. He also had a workshop in Norway, near to Sverre’s potato farm; but although everything was beautifully organized, it was covered in dust, no one had been there for a long, long time.

Gradually, as he traces the journey that Einar made, Edvard discovers more and more about himself.

This is a moving and delicate story of self discovery, of love and sudden hate. And, not least, of wood.


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Reading between the screens/1

Obviously, as I wait for the next film to begin, sometimes a matter of minutes, sometimes hours, I will have with me one essential: a book.

Since the beginning of the Festival, I have read three rather extraordinary novels. Full of birds, as it happens – eyeless peacocks on the wallpaper in Bitter Orange; red spirit birds in the desert in Red Birds and birds of ill-omen, blue-eyed ravens in Melmoth.

Bitter OrangeBitter Orange is the third novel by Claire Fuller. Set in the English countryside of landscaped gardens and decaying houses, three people stumble together at the behest of an absent owner, to make an inventory of Lyntons, the house and garden.

The narrator is now elderly, mostly bedridden and incarcerated; she has a single visitor – the local vicar. Her confused rambling takes her back to 1969, a hot summer when she was engaged to document the gardens of this dilapidated house complete with box hedged beds, now overgrown, a lake with an interesting bridge (possibly) and with an orangery. Frances Jellico arrives, hot and nervous, and settles in the attic. There are two other people there, Peter and Cara, who are living downstairs and are listing the interiors.

The house has not been lived in fully since before the war, and was requisitioned and apparently damaged by the army during the conflict; or since then has been comprehensively vandalised. Fireplaces ripped out, bannisters smashed and virtually no furniture except iron bedsteads left by the army. And in one room, with wall paper of the sort that brings William Morris to mind, peacocks parade among the lush foliage – but each and every one has been blinded, the eye carefully cut out all the way up the walls, even to the ceiling.

Cara and Peter are friendly, but strange. Cara seems to want to become closer to Frances, in a slightly cloying confidential way, while Peter seems more reserved. There is a strange atmosphere in the house, things get moved and Frances has the feeling there is someone else upstairs. All very unnerving.

As well as all this going on, she has made a discovery which she has kept as a guilty secret. They all have secrets, from each other and eventually from the owner of the house.

This is a tense, heated and complicated novel. Gripping, unwieldy at times and ultimately shocking. Brilliantly conceived and delivered.

HanifI followed this novel with one by Mohammed Hanif, whose first novel A Case of Exploding Oranges was set in Pakistan at the time of the assassination of President Zia. This new novel, Red Birds, is very different. Set in a more or less unnamed country, beset by Middle Eastern problems caused by American bombing, followed by USAID, this is part fantasy, part tragedy and part comedy. How can a novel which has chapters narrated by poodle called Mutt, philosopher and ideologue, be anything but comic? Yet, it is not entirely without sadness.

Mutt’s family: Father Dear, Mother Dear, Bro Ali and Momo have been bombed out of their house, they are living in a camp under blue tarpaulin, with little to eat as the aid has stopped coming; along with the bombing. The American base, The Hangar seems deserted.

Out in the desert, a single downed pilot, Ellie, struggles to survive. He is on the point of no return when he finds Mutt. Mutt’s leg is broken and Ellie does what he can to calm down the animal, when out of the distance roars a Cherokee Jeep, driven by Momo who is out looking for his dog.

The whole story is based on misguided and misunderstood relationships: that between Momo and Mutt; between the parents Mother Dear and Father Dear; and between Ellie and one other character, Miss Flowerbody and then there is the Doctor, who isn’t a doctor at all but who assisted some of the time when the Americans were around, and is now the only person left with any claim to medical knowledge.

Bro Ali has disappeared along with the Americans. The red birds appear, seemingly only to Mutt and sometimes Ellie. It is all very mysterious but at the same time viscerally alarming, what is going on exactly, where are the Americans and why is there no salt?

This is a comical tragedy, with a furious and fantastical ending.

Following this with the gothic horror of Essex girl, Sarah Perry was something of a change of climate and I might not have done it had my choices been more about the size of the book rather than the content!

MelmothMelmoth is a synthesis of several colliding myths. Like the ogre in the fairy tale, the Golem in Jewish folklore and the 13th century myth of the Wandering Jew who taunted Jesus on his way to his crucifixion stories of threatening followers or witnesses abound in literature and memory. Something to keep the children quiet or something to explain the inexplicable. Melmoth is another Christ denier. The legends of Melmoth were that she was with Mary and her companions when they came to the Empty Tomb, but unlike them, Melmoth denied ever having seen the angels or Jesus, risen from the dead. For this, she was condemned to walk the earth as a witness to human wickedness. Whether this myth is entirely the creation of Sarah Perry, is unclear.

The novel is set in present day Prague.  Helen Franklin has left home and is working on translation of instruction manuals. She meets Karel Prazan in the library and they become friends, and with his partner Thea, an English barrister also living in Prague, they draw Helen into their lives. Such that eventually, she becomes embroiled in the manuscript that Karel has been given.

For reasons of his own, Karel hands the manuscript over to Helen and vanishes, by this time Thea is changed dramatically from a vibrant and witty person, into an invalid. But there is more to it than just abandoning a sick woman. Fear.

The manuscript contains, is varying order, tales told by people who have felt the influence of Melmoth in their lives. Something that they have done, has haunted them – Melmoth is their guilty conscience. Helen too, has a guilty secret which is weighing her down.

This is not a book to have on your bedside table. Disturbing, unsettling and yet much of it based in fact, the reader is drawn each time, into the painful confessions of different “sinners”. Josef Hoffman, who betrayed a Jewish family; Alice Benet who escaped burning at the stake by denying her faith; Nameless and Hassan who wrote the documents that led to the massacre of innocent Armenians. The times change but the betrayals are similar, and in each story there is the feeling that someone, Melmoth, is watching.

The dread is brilliantly evoked, a black wraithlike creature and the blue-eyed ravens who seem to be ever present, cawing and crying “why? why? how? why?” and then “who?”

All three of these books kept me company. Brilliant, different and absorbing.

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More journeys, but not mine

Two quite different and extraordinary books. The first a mixture of historical fact, myth and magic coupled with a searing currently relevant story of a family escaping from Syria. How might that work?

The contemporary heroine is a synaesthete (another – See Red Sparrow) and the book in partly set in Homs (See – Sea Prayer). Which considering this book was selected at random is slightly odd.

Salt and StarsIn The Map of Salt and Stars, the two stories are sectioned together in pairs. So in the historical-myth-magic section we follow the adventures of Rawiya, a young girl who leaves home to become apprentice (as a boy) to the twelfth century scholar and mapmaker Abu Abd Allah Muhammad al-Idrisi engaged by Roger II of Palermo to make a map of the known world and in the contemporary section we follow the story of Nour.

Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar has skillfully woven the historical strand with parts of the stories of Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights and also the stories of Sinbad the Sailor. These myths or fairytales are combined in a wonderfully starry tapestry following the actual known progress of al-Idrisi and his companions around the lands bordering the Mediterranean.

Rawiya’s partner in the contemporary world is Nour. She has grown up in New York, but on the death of her father, her mother and two older sisters return to Homs, and a quasi-uncle Abu Sayeed. The situation changes in Syria and the family are forced to flee, with devastating consequences. Nour, bolstered by her father’s wonderful story telling (as described above) treads courageously through the journey, in her head following in the footsteps of Rawiya.

The salt of the title are the tears that are shed along the way; but in all circumstances good people look to the stars hopefully, for stories and for comfort. No one who looks at the stars can be truly bad. This is what Nour/Rawiya firmly believes and it is borne out in her adventures.

But this is not all sweetness and light. There are passages in both sections that are unbearably tragic, and losses in one section are inevitably mirrored in the other, in much the same way as the exhibitions of tremendous courage and survival.

FrazierVarina is a book of a very different complexion. Charles Frazier has returned to Cold Mountain country; this time following the flight of Varina Davis away from the Federal troops and bounty hunters with a gaggle of children, not all of them her own. Accompanied by two faithful coloured retainers.

Varina is the wife of Jefferson Davis, upon whose head there is a bounty, and a suspicion that they are complicit in the death of Abraham Lincoln, and therefore guilty of murder and treason.

They are far away to the south before this small party hears about this; Jefferson has still not joined them and better it were by far that he had not.

This is historical fiction of the highest quality. A beautifully constructed story built upon the few details know about Varina and about her husband. Reconstructed over a period of weeks when one of the children, now grown up seeks her out to fill in the gaps in his own knowledge of himself, when he can only remember fragments of that terrible time.

So the sections switch from Saratoga Springs in 1906 to Varina’s youth in 1842, and the events of the American Civil War between about 1865 to 1879-93 as remembered by the two of them.

My knowledge of American history lags far behind that which it should, in spite of Gone with the Wind and other books. But Frazier brings it into focus in all its horror, messiness, mud and stink; the tragedy and betrayal of the African Americans; the brutality of the war itself and the unforgiving nature of the winners. It is all here and it is all pretty horrifying.

Read and learn.

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Books for the journey

I daresay most people now take e-books on journeys, but I have loaned my Kobe reader and also the journey was only to Scotland, so I took four books with me.

One by an American author that I have only just discovered, and cannot imagine why I haven’t read any of her previous novels, of which there are nine, plus eight non-fiction titles and two books for children. Oh joy, because Anna Quindlen is a find!

QuindlanAlternate Side is a particular sort of domestic novel, in line with novels by Barbara Pym, but even funnier and taut with bitchiness, gossip and neighbourhood squabbles and American. Which makes it sound horrible, but it isn’t.

Nora and Charlie Nolan live in a dead-end street in New York City. The neighbourhood is a close knit community of middle-income families, with one block only housing people of low or no incomes. Most of the people in this street have servants, housekeepers or domestics and most of these are coloured.

Although an urban setting, this block has a village atmosphere: a summer barbeque party hosted by different families each year and a Christmas party at the Fenstermacher’s house, coffee mornings for gossip and dog walking chatters.

And then there was Ricky, the handyman they all used for the small stuff: dripping taps, washing machines that refuse to drain, clothes dryers that were not functioning properly – that sort of thing, and then there was The Parking Lot.

At the opening stage of the novel, Charlie has finally achieved a parking space in the one lot on the street that was not built upon. Everyone who did not have a parking space on this lot were reduced to on-street parking and it concomitant problems. Problems that applied to Ricky every time he turned up in his van.

Life drifts on, seemingly happily, for all the people on the block until one day a sudden act of violence throws everything into confusion, and the cracks begin to appear on both sides of the street, with harrowing results.

There is a marvellous sense of humour bubbling along in this book. Nora has an acute eye and Anna Quindlen nails perfectly the way women gossip and speculate about each other, while still remaining friends. And it is the women who carry this story along, although they are most of them married.

I loved this book and will go back and find some of the others. I finished this on the train and then read the next book before getting to my final destination.

Ghost WallGhost Wall is the latest novel from Sarah Moss (Night Waking, The Tidal Zone and others – posted April 11, 2018and this novel is set in Northumberland, a wild and beautiful county, still largely unpopulated in its boggy moorland heights. Looking out of the window just as I started reading, I realised I was actually passing through the eastern end of the county.

This book is a chilling reminder that families are all unhappy in their own way.

Sulevia, more commonly called Sylvie (and wouldn’t you be?) is a teenage girl on holiday with her parents, her father has a passion for historical reconstruction and they have joined with a group of university students in ‘experiental archaeology’ led by Professor Slade. I have no idea whether such a discipline actually exists, but the aim is to live for a short time as if you were part of (in this case) an Iron Age settlement.

So poor Sylvie and her mother are dressed in coarse tunics, Sylvie and the other students are sent foraging on the moor or beach for berries and food. Her mother is left behind to tend to the cooking over an open fire, with an iron pot to cook an assortment of grains and roots, with the occasional rabbit. The students are two young men, Dan and Pete plus one young woman, Molly who refuses to take the whole thing seriously.

Not taking it seriously is a luxury Sylvie is unable to entertain, her father is adamant that she sleeps in the roundhouse, a construction of withies and deerskins on a mattress of straw and sacking without any accommodation for modernity (except for toothbrushes and tampons) or for the fact that there is a convenient shop a short distance away.

Hanging over the whole experiment is the haunting story of a human sacrifice, a bog girl found preserved in the peat.

This is a very short book, 160 pages only, but it rises to an unbearable and disturbing conclusion; there are plenty of hints in the build up to give you a sense of direction, but it is still shockingly chilling once the momentum builds up.

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a whole pile of books

I have been reading a lot since the bad weather started and three books were literally un-put-downable, such that I was still reading at 3AM. Which is fine, but I realise rather indulgent.

The Collector

So for the serious one first. The Collector is a translated recollection (in a very real sense) of the life and collections of a Russian family called Shchukin, but particularly Sergei Shchukin, by Natalya Semenova and André Delocque, translated by Antony Roberts.

The Shchukin family were immensely wealthy Russians, they had a near monopoly on fabric manufacture, and interior fabric items such as curtains, bed linen and bed covers and other designer accoutrements of the bourgeoisie.

There were several brothers who collected: Petr whose interest was mainly in Russian artefacts of all sorts, a John Soane of Russia you could say; Ivan, who collected paintings and Sergei who collected specifically French Impressionists.

André Delocque is Sergei’s grandson and helped with the material and research. Sergei was a man of extraordinary vision, buying paintings by Matisse, Picasso, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Whistler, Puvis de Chavannes, Cottet, and a great many more. Sergei went regularly to Paris and met most of these painters, particularly Matisse and Picasso, whose pictures he bought long before either of them were famous.

Even before the Revolution in Russia, this outstanding collection was willed to the people of Russia together with the impressive Trubetskoy Palace, Moscow, for which many of the paintings by Matisse were commissioned and in which they were housed.

This I followed with a wonderful new historical novel by Victoria Glendinning about a group of nuns in Shaftesbury Abbey in 1535, at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The Abbess was confident that such an Abbey would not be targeted, she was Dame Elizabeth Zouche and had influence in high places. How wrong can one be?

The main character, Agnes Peppin, has been sent to the Abbey by her parents because she fell pregnant. Obviously, unmarried and now spoiled, her only recourse was to take holy vows. Actually, this never was fulfilled as the Abbey was destroyed, stone by stone before her novitiate was completed.

So she was out in the world again. But her life, and her observations, since this is a first person narrative, give us a very complete insight into the gentle, and not so gentle life of a community, followed by its exceedingly painful exodus. More painful for the elderly nuns and for the Abbess herself.


It is both a gripping look at the times and an affecting story of the strong and the weak, and the powerless. Agnes lives to see Thomas Cromwell executed, Henry VIII dead and her own lover, Thomas Wyatt (son of the poet) imprisoned and executed.

This reminded me very strongly of HMF Prescott’s A Man on a Donkey, but The Butcher’s Daughter is much more concentrated than this older novel, though the earlier book remains one of my favorite historical novels of all time.

The other three by Simon Mawer, AN Wilson and Louis de Bernières were all of a completely different sort. And these were the ones that I read through at one sitting each.

So Much Life Left Over has characters that appeared in a previous novel, The Dust That Falls from Dreams; though cleverly it is a stand-alone novel and not having read the previous book would not detract in any way from this emotionally taxing story. In fact, my tears streamed through the first three chapters and then the last three, but that says more about me than maybe anything about the book.

Rosie and Daniel have moved to Ceylon with their daughter Esther to start a new life after the horrors of World War I, in which Rosie had been a VAD and Daniel a fighter pilot. Daniel loves everything about the life they lead there, but Rosie finds herself increasingly bored and dissatisfied, a personal loss which has affected them both drives a wedge between them, and eventually Rosie insists that they return to England.

This is a love story as much as anything, but also has humour and beauty; the characters of Rosie’s family in particular are uniquely individual and unusual; her mad mother and strangely peripatetic, golf-loving father; her sisters and their wonderful partners and then Daniel and his friends. It is all captivating and brutally sad, as the end comes as World War II starts in all its forbidding darkness.

Prague Spring has one of those giveaway titles that tells you where you are and when. Two rather feckless university students decide to hitch-hike around Europe together in the long vac of 1968; but lacking a definite destination and due to a lot of arguing and finally, decisions made at the toss of a coin, they end up in Dubček’s Prague.

Having got through the Czechoslovakian border, they are trudging along the road hoping for a lift, when the diplomatic car of the First Secretary to the British Embassy draws up. Simon Wareham, with his girlfriend Lenka, have returned from a visit to Munich and thus accommodated they all arrive in Prague.

Lenka is living, unofficially, with Simon in his embassy flat so Ellie and James go to live in her apartment. And so there they all are, with the nemesis of the Czechoslovakian dream hovering on the borders…

Aftershocks was a very strange novel for me to read.  In a preface, AN Wilson writes very firmly that this is not a book about the earthquakes in New Zealand. Now, I have been to Christchurch both before and after the earthquakes, and so although this novel is set in an imaginary island in the Pacific, I could not but read it as if, in spite of what Mr Wilson said, it was about New Zealand.

His discretion lies in the knowledge that he was only a visitor to Christchurch, that therefore he could not possibly know what is was  like to live through such a traumatic experience – but at the same time, he fills the novel to the brim with what amounts to an hour by hour description of those events.

All that said, the novel is seen with a perceptive and kindly eye upon a number of characters who for one reason or another will turn out to be closely related. It has a first person narrative of a slightly different complexion, since much of the time this “voice” is more that of the Chorus in a Greek tragedy, rather than the straightforward narrator.

To the extent that I accept his disavowal with a pinch of salt, this novel touched me deeply and was read in a single day. It is a beautiful story, not least because it captures something of the distance that there is, emotionally, between families that are left behind in England when, say, a beloved daughter takes up a job, in this case Dean of Aberdeen Cathedral in the far-off Pacific Island.


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A Book for Giving

It is not Christmas yet, but you might get copies of Sea Prayer ready for anyone with a heart. It is a short book, the best prayers are. It is not too expensive at about £13. It is exquisitely beautiful and painfully relevant.A Sea Prayer

Khaled Hosseini shot to fame with his first novel The Kite Runner, about a young boy who let his friend down in a crisis, and never really recovered. Hosseini’s later books also dealt with loss, family crisis, pragmatic choices and all of them dealt with emotional pain.

Inspired by the images of Alan Kurdi, a three-year old, whose little body was found on an Italian beach, this book sends up a prayer to the indifferent sea, for Marwan. His father stands on the edge of a moonlit sea, praying for a safe passage to a better life.

The sadness, as the father recalls his home, is palpable. He wishes that his little son was older, would remember the beautiful things about his homeland, rather than the mortal difference between dark blood and bright red blood; that he would remember the olive and fig trees and his grandmother’s cooking rather than the dark cellars with too little to eat or drink; that he could remember the sound of bleating goats rather than the scream of dropping bombs; but above all the father’s prayer is:

Pray God steers the vessel true,

when the shores slip out of eyeshot

and we are a flyspeck

in the heaving waters, pitching and tilting.

easily swallowed.

Because you,

you are precious cargo, Marwan,

the most precious there ever was.

I pray the sea knows this.


You can only just see it on the far left of this part of the double-spread illustration, but there is a tiny overloaded speck of a boat, on the surface of this wild, swaying, indifferent sea.

sea prayer illus

The exquisite watercolour illustrations by Dan Williams, move from glorious, painterly, golden hues of vibrant wild flowers, olive trees and busy markets through a dread-filled palette of greys, browns and blacks into this sweeping, moonlit, green sea.

Nothing could be more impactful.

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Souvenir de temps perdu

Two very different novels, both revisiting France in World War II.

Manda ScottA Treachery of Spies is a thriller, as well as a police procedural that starts in March 2018 with a ritualized killing. Manda Scott has revived her detective Captain Picaut, last seen in an extreme trauma unit having suffered burns to the right hand side of her body. [Into the Fire]

Picaut has reported back fit for duty just as a new crime scene emerges in an Orléans car park. In a stolen, or borrowed, Citroën BX there is a hideously mutilated, but still obviously beautiful, elderly woman of about ninety five; killed by three shots, one to the head and two to the chest, and with her tongue cut out.

She has identification papers, elegant (but not French) clothes and apart from the grotesque manner of her death, there seems to be no reason why she is where she is, or indeed who attacked her.

The thriller switches between present day Orléans and the search for answers to this and other killings and 1940-44 in Occupied France and the activities of the Résistance and SOE As one might expect from this talented writer the plots, double crossings, red herrings and altered identities are numerous. The team on the ground in 2018 have to follow leads that reach right back to a period in France even before some of them were born.

The chapter headings make it quite clear which period we are in, but the many different identities that were taken up by members of the Résistance and SOE makes it important to keep a firm grasp of who everyone is, at which point in time – for all is not what it seems.

Captain Picaut is struggling to see the direction that this investigation is taking, and one of the hazards lies in the very people who seemed to be helping.

The second novel by Sebastian Faulks is in familiar territory for him, though a very different and blistering novel, quite unlike Birdsong and Charlotte Grey.

FaulksTwo characters descend on modern day Paris. Tariq from Morocco, in pursuit of his mother’s family, and Hannah, an American, who is doing some post doctoral research into the lives of women in Paris during the Occupation.

We meet Tariq first, just at the point at which he makes the decision to go to Paris, he has no money and therefore goes under the radar; his first encounter once in France is with Sandrine and together they hitch-hike to Paris, and find somewhere fairly insalubrious to doss down.

Next we meet Hannah, just arrived and with an address to find, a small flat which she is renting for a few months. She later finds Sandrine, weakened and feverish, who she takes in temporarily out of sheer kindness.

Once Sandrine is better, she goes back to where she thinks Tariq is, finds him and brings him back to Hannah’s flat. Thus far, so simple.

But Paris Echo is about re-membering (literally putting flesh upon ghosts). Hannah uses the audio recordings of women who lived in Paris during the Occupation, two in particular –  Mathilde Masson and Juliette Lemaire. Juliette died in 2001, so the record says but it appears that Mathilde might still be alive, though now about eighty five. Hannah listens to their accounts of what life was like for them and goes for a revealing interview with the old lady.

Meanwhile, Tariq keeps looking at women, and for people who might be able to fill in the gaps in his knowledge of his mother’s family. He does discover something, from a man who claims he is Victor Hugo, though it is not quite what he was expecting.

With two first-person narrators, it can sometimes takes a few words to work out who is speaking, but it quickly becomes apparent, for both Tariq and Hannah have very different pursuits and voices.

There are many and wonderful characters in this novel: friends (or ghosts) that Tariq makes and follows; lines of enquiry that Hannah follows and her friends in Paris and beyond. This is also a poignant love story, a journey of self-knowledge and an exploration of a period in France which was temporarily buried in shame and is slowly rising again to the surface.

There is one character, though, who is not fiction. One of the best and bravest SOE women of the betrayed Prosper circuit, Andrée Borrel. Caught, tortured and executed in the only concentration camp in France, the terrible and notorious Natzweiler-Struthof. Hannah takes the train from Gare de l’Est to Strasbourg, very probably the very train that took Andrée and her three companions, to the camp. There she has a very out-of-body experience and from which she returns, changed and aware of something she has missed.

It is also, in passing, a salute to the Paris Metro, very decidedly one of the more interesting characters in this sublime novel.

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