Category Archives: Travel

Chiller thriller

Another series, another country, another time. Luke McCallin‘s debut novels about the activities of Gregor Reinhardt are gripping. Not simply because they are suspenseful, entirely believable and tortuously convoluted but for the background.

We find ourselves, with Gregor in Sarajevo towards the end of the second world war. The city is surrounded by The Partisans who hold territory to the East, from where also the Russians will be coming. To the west there are other dangers and into this dangerous situation there is suddenly a gruesome murder.

There are two victims, a Serbo Croat woman and a German officer. Gregor Reinhardt is called in, but there are those that wish him to fail. However, in a past life, Reinhardt has been both a veteran of battle and a policeman. His current role is as a member of the armed forces, but his commanding officer has asked him to set aside those duties and to investigate this crime.

The first novel, The Man from Berlin, is a fascinating investigation which brings up several vexed issues pertaining to the status of an admired General. It gradually dawns on Reinhardt, after at least one colleague suffers a fatal accident, that this is going to be difficult. Not least because he, himself, has a growing repugnance for activities which he suspects are part and parcel of army policy. Not necessarily his unit, but his compatriots.

Quite aside from the vivid descriptions of Sarajevo and its surrounding countryside, there is the added interest of the historical background to the current situation of the novel. There are so many tribal groups, each with its own agenda and thanks to the detailed and informative outlines, this brings very much into focus the much more recent Balkan debacle.

Even someone with the most sketchy knowledge probably knows that after World War II, a Communist state under Tito was created as Yugoslavia, but that this fragmented after the death of Tito and the fall of the USSR. This novel gives the reader the added historic context for the Balkan crisis of the 21st Century.

In the second novel, The Pale House, the war is over but Reinhardt is back in Sarajevo trying to solve the displaced persons crisis. But the strange disappearance of German soldiers from the penal battalions and the discovery of a massacre in the forest, leads Reinhardt again into dangerous territory, where his investigation seems destined to aggravate several important people.

In the last available volume, The Ashes of Berlin, Reinhardt is in a fairly lowly position in the Berlin police force, in the Occupied Zone, where not only competing factions, but competing nations are endeavouring to control the destroyed city, to help survivors and to find any recalcitrant Nazis. And, on cue, there begins a spate of gruesome and curious murders…step forward Gregor Reinhardt…

There is still another volume to look out for. And in all of them, there is a wealth of historical detail which cannot help but expand one’s limited knowledge of the period. What is so crucially fascinating is the way in which Luke McCallin has got into the mind and character of a German. One is so unused to seeing the war and its aftermath from that point of view, even if in this case it is fiction.

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Filed under Books, crime, espionage, Modern History, Travel, Uncategorized

The best laid plans…

Two books, very different but with strong similarities.

Dark Water, the second novel by Elizabeth Lowry (and I will definitely be looking for her first) is a quasi-Gothic tale with two principal characters, a young newly qualified doctor – Hiram Carver and a national hero, William Borden.

Their first encounters are at sea, both literally and metaphorically. Hiram hates the sea, hates the ship he is on, hates the hierarchy and the endless repetition of orders from the top brass, through the ranks and down to the hand that has to “lay aft to the braces”; the repetition of swabbing, polishing, cleaning, scrubbing; the tedium, the mood of stasis and torpor.

Meanwhile, William Borden seems above all this, untouched, untarnished, bronzed and almost godlike; the reason for this comes later in the tale.

The story and the telling lie just south of Moby Dick and possibly The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but this is not to denigrate the novel which is a page-turner and turns the whole thing inside out to boot. So that once we leave the ocean, we think we may be following Hiram’s story.

The reason Hiram went to sea had to do with the society into which he had been born, demi-mondaine Bostoniana. As he found he could not impress his father, was jealous of his sister, Caro and found his mother distant, having trained as a doctor, he went to sea.

On his return, sick and sickened, he languishes for several months, until he finally gets to his feet again, only to find that his father has manoeuvered a job for him as Assistant Medical Officer in the local insane asylum.

So far, so good. Then a new patient is admitted and it is William Borden…

The second book, The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason, is set in Poland and Hungary during the First World War. A young, barely qualified doctor, Lucius enlists, only to find himself on the front line of a very mobile and disjointed theatre of war.

He ends up in a makeshift military hospital in a church in an out of the way village, Lemnowice. There, having never wielded a scalpel on a living creature in his life, he has to do amputations, stitch up shrapnel wounds, treat gonorrhea and then the shell-shocked patients begin to arrive.

His inexperience is masked by Margarete, a wimpled but beautiful woman, professing to be a nun. She has been there a long time and has seen at least three other doctors pack up and leave, for various reasons. She sees immediately that Lucius is inexperienced, but she guides him through the processes which she has watched the other doctors perform time and time again.

But shell shock is a new phenomenon, and treating it is guesswork as much as anything.

It is here that the similarity between the two novels becomes most apparent, for the well meaning treatment of the mentally unstable patients, the ones in the Boston asylum and the ones off the battlefield, by the two inexperienced and untrained doctors leads both of them, through hubris or hopefulness to make a wrong decision which leads inexorably on to some dreadful climax, and scenes of an inhumane and distressing nature.

But reader beware, for leaning back in judgement upon these two young men, you may slip into an unwarranted complacency. Psychoanalysis was in its infancy in the second novel, but existed not at all in the 1830s, and in both cases it was a step into ‘dark water’ which is what the deepest psychosis seems to be to Hiram Carver, while Lucius has not read The Interpretation of Dreams, though he has clearly heard of it and of Sigmund Freud.

Both books contain actions and language which we would not countenance now. But both novels are illuminating and exciting to read and come highly recommended.

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A log jam of books

Several new novels have been piling up in the “having read waiting to post” pile. The new Barbara Kingsolver, the new Andrew Miller and the new Philip Teir.

 

These are each in their own way, brilliant. I regard Barbara Kingsolver as one of the best women writers from America in the last 25 years. She is, to my mind the Rachel Carson of the fiction world. Each of her many books has behind it a message for the planet. Whether it is the changing habits of Monarch butterflies (Flight Behaviour) or changing attitudes to evolution, there is behind each novel a scintilla of historical truth. But as with the butterflies, the changes are mirrored in the lives of the characters.

In Unsheltered, the reader is drawn into the nature of houses themselves, what does an old house tell us, if anything, about the people who lived in it before? In the present day, Willa is being given the horrific news that the house she and her family live in is no longer stable and should be pulled down.  Several rooms are already no longer inhabitable.

This leads back to the same block in the same town, but to a historic period when a teacher at the town school finds himself in difficulties with the strict Creationist beliefs of the founding patriarch of the new development, Vineland – Mr Charles Landis. Thatcher Greenwood, a biologist interested in the works of Charles Darwin, also lives in a house that is crumbling and he has not the means to pay for repairs, not least because the very building design – his father-in-law’s – was flawed from the start.

His neighbour, a botanist, is another “real-life” character in this novel. Mary Treat is a distinguished but mostly forgotten botanist who corresponded with such luminaries as Charles Darwin, Charles Riley and Asa Gray, and whose contribution to the understanding of environment to the life of plants such as the Venus fly-trap were singular and admired by these (unjustly) more famous men. Charles Landis is also a true character, as is one of the more startling events in the book. 1868 was a rather turbulent time in America, it seems.

There are many layered meanings in the title, not only the shelter of the roof over our heads but the discoveries and obfuscations that often follow any new idea, when the certainties of old belief system are uncovered by the discoveries of new science.

This is a marvellous blend of fact and fiction, a seamless combination of past and present as exemplified by the houses, slowly sinking back into their foundations. If someone famous lived there, can the house be saved? There is much to savour in this wonderful book.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is also an historical novel, set at the time of the Peninsula War.  Captain John Lacroix arrives home from the setback at Corunna. It is a love story, a murder story and a study of the human will to survive against all the odds. In modern parlance, Lacroix is suffering from PTSD, once he is back on his feet physically, he is expected to return to his regiment and the war with France. Instead, he turns North.

But all is not absolutely as it seems, grief and remorse are deeply lodged in his heart, and while he is fleeing from these emotions, there are other men who are in deadly pursuit. Merciless to himself, Lacroix is being pursued by an enemy even more desperate and implacable towards him.

Miller gets into the mind of his characters in a combined skill of both observation and description, so that the landscape and the weather are principals in the drama, as much as the human characters themselves.

The ending…it is sublime.

The Summer House is translated from the Swedish by Tiina Nunally, she also translated his debut novel The Winter War.

Several families have left the city for their summer houses, near water and the sea. For Erik and Julia, it begins as a perfectly normal family holiday in her parents’ summer house, they have with them their two children, Alice and Anton. In a neighbouring house there seems to be a single woman, Kati, she does not make contact and seems to shun society.

Further away, but in a house that Julia knows well from her childhood and which she has included in her first novel, is a disparate group of neo-environmentalists. Led by Chris, they are of the view that climate change and its eventual outcomes are now inevitable, therefore peddling hope that we may find a solution in time to stem the catastrophe is pointless, so we should aim to live to the best of our abilities in the knowledge that we can change nothing, but to live with despair in a pre-industrial wilderness as hunter-gatherers with internet connection.

Among this group, is her childhood friend Marika. Summer progresses and things will never be the same again, for any of them.

This is not a plot driven novel, it is more a meditation upon the secrets and lies that every family has, little lies and big secrets – Erik has lost his job and not told Julia; she is still trying to decide whether their relationship is still worth keeping; Marika and Chris have a whole different set of problems, most of which they are trying to keep secret. It is about the barriers we put up to protect our masks, and the little things or events that happen that may eventually reveal the truth.

 

 

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Filed under Books, crime, Environment, History, Travel, Uncategorized

London Film Festival 2018/extra

4This is one film I wanted to see but could not get tickets for, Wildlife, the directorial debut of Paul Dano with his real life partner Zoe Kazan.

Based on the novel by Richard Ford, this is part domestic drama, part coming-of-age. Seen, even in the film, almost entirely through the eyes of 14 year old Joe, played immaculately by Ed Oxenbough, this film shows that parents have flaws and also that parents had lives before they were parents.

Using both the dramatic Montana landscape and the claustrophobic 1960s interiors to create a world which we have long left behind, this film shows to an extended degree, the smallness of a woman’s life. Jeanette (a scintillating Carey Mulligan) has no job, she has given up a teaching position to join her husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Montana, where, at the start of the film, he has a job as a golf course groundsman/caddy.

There is a suggestion that Jeanette has given up her job to look after Joe, but I have a feeling that in the 1950s (which by deduction would have been when she married and started the family) women had to leave the teaching profession when they married. Maybe not in America?

The slow unravelling in this film is brilliantly conveyed, very few examples of this type of camera work still exist. There is no artifice – what you see is what you get.

Emotionally tense, this shows people on the edge of a nervous break-down. The ending is different from the novel, but works in the context of film, to perfection.

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More Shardlake, please

I have been hanging back on writing about the latest Shardlake novel from C J Sansom because some of my followers were also reading it and I didn’t want to crowd their pitch.

If you haven’t already discovered C J Sansom, or his novels about the barrister in law – Matthew Shardlake – then you have a treat in store. If you are already a passionate follower of the story, then you too have a wonderful treat in store because Tombland, the latest in the series of seven, is a truly remarkable and interesting book.

shardlakeMatthew Shardlake has to go to Norfolk on a small (and highly secret) business for Master Parry, the Comptroller of the Household for Lady Elizabeth (presently the bastardised daughter of Henry VIII). While there, the Kett rebellion begins and Shardlake is inadvertently caught up in is embroils.

The truly wondrous thing about these novels is that the telling draws the reader completely and absolutely into that period. The narrow streets, dirty and often smelly; the noisome and busy markets, where butchers bloody trays dripped gore and offal on to the open streets, beside bakers, candlestick makers and ladies selling lace; the noise of destruction as the dissolution of the cathedral buildings carried on apace and all that, with a busy, lively population of interesting characters.

This time Norwich, but we have also been there at the sinking of the Mary Rose, the royal pageant to the city of York, the horrible executions of Anne Boleyn and also of Thomas Cromwell; all these viscerally and vividly seen and heard and much more, as Matthew gets sent on one project or another by masters who have complete control of his body and soul (insofar as he allows it).

We are part of his domestic life also, his friend and servant Barak, his great friend and apothecary Guy, an ex-monk that he met in his first adventure in the Kent/Sussex marshes. And in this book we meet again his old housekeeper and her husband, who moved to other employment in Norfolk in a previous volume.

If you are just beginning this adventure and want to read the whole series, then most of them are in paperback; the early novels are also brilliantly told on audiobooks by Anton Lesser. If you simply want to read one book, then each one is also a stand-alone volume, there is no need to engage in the whole journey. But this is not a course that I would recommend. The slow absorption of the complete series is definitively more rewarding.

I am sure C J Sansom would not lay claim to have begun the great rush of historical ‘detective’ novels, but he is certainly a leader of the pack. I imagine Josephine Tey and Umberto Eco would say they had got there first, but whatever the different routes, the genre is the same. A wonderful story of investigation set in an historical and different time. Sheer genius.

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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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London Film Festival 2018/10

One last film. Celeste set in the Queensland rainforest, so obviously it would be on my list.

Celeste

This turned out to be rather a low key film, beautiful settings, rather twisted storyline with a lot of added back-story to make it sensible. In the back-story, Jack (Thomas Cocquerel) is a mixed up junior, very much fascinated by his new, beautiful and talented step-mother. After his father’s sudden death he makes off.

Ten years later, same place, step mother Celeste (Radha Mitchell) is making a comeback concert urged on by her agent Grace (Odessa Young). For reasons unknown at the time, she writes to Jack begging him to come back.

The tormented threesome sweat it out under the rainforest canopy, with a lot of misunderstanding and complex undercurrents swirling around.

The setting was stunning, as only rainforest can be, the strange Paronella Park actually exists and is mostly the setting for the film, green and tropically hot. Everything about it feels steamed up: the lush foliage to the ever spinning air-cooling fans and three people trying to work out a long relationship in a short time. You can go to stay at Paronella yourselves, for a price.

Then there are the six films I could not get tickets for – all sold out within 45 minutes of Membership Priority booking opening. This is possibly because, like so many art houses, theatres and memberships new levels are created, they all do it and they all have to do it; unless like say The Donmar Warehouse, they close their membership lists from time to time and wait for natural events to loosen the blockage.

These are all films I will look out for if they get UK distribution – not a given even for a highly commended film in the London Film Festival of any given year.

 

 

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