Category Archives: Travel

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.


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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London Film Festival 2018/9

Penultimate day, penultimate film, how did it all go so fast?

Today my choice was from the Thrill section: “nerve-shredders that’ll get your adrenalin pumping and keep you on the edge of your seat”. El Angel is billed as having excessive violence, to the extent that there was even a warning at the entrance of the screening.

El Angel

So I was thinking that this would be way beyond my comfort zone. I was prepared for the worst but after several Scandi Noir series and the Netflix series Narcos, this was not the worst I have seen by far. But while this has a high body count, the amoral gangster with a cherubic face was not especially violent.

On a day when the torture and death of the journalist, Jamal Khashoggi is slowly leaking out into the media, the true life story of Carlos Robiedo Puch hardly touches the sides. Brilliantly portraying the angel faced Carlitos, Lorenzo Ferro bursts on to the screen as a sizzlingly sexual predator, more lynx than lion.

It is in Carlitos’ calm, dreamlike deniability of his crimes, that makes this such an extraordinary film. His robberies are excessive, and begin even before he leaves school, but to start with he is a cat burglar without a gun; once his hands are on a gun (or two things become ugly, but still casual.

However terrible the reality, it is the thoughtlessness of it that makes this film so watchable. In the jewellery store heist with his partner in crime, Ramon, he puts on a pair of pearl earrings and admires himself in a mirror and tells Ramon to slow down, the scene is so seductive, and even beguiling – because he is enjoying himself so much.

The denouement has the same careless rapture: Carlitos is mindlessly dancing to music, graceful and abandoned – it is the exterior view that dramatically alters this perspective.

Luis Ortega has achieved a masterpiece here, a stylish and fast-paced biopic. The choice of music is sensational.

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London Film Festival 2018/8

Three glorious films today: Olivia Coleman strutting her stuff as Queen Anne in The Favourite, Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant as a criminal pair in the true story of the forger, Lee Israel and John McEnroe as himself in an instructional sports documentary.


Whether entirely accurate historically, this was a lovely romp between three very different women and female actors. Rachel Weisz played Lady Malborough, the wife of the British warrior of Blenheim and the French Wars; Emma Stone played the wickedly scheming Abigail Hill, and Olivia Coleman the temperamental Queen.

Everything about this film was wonderful: gorgeous costumes, ridiculously extravagant hair – on the men especially – and lovely locations. Hampton Court for the kitchens and Hatfield House for much else.

The film was played for laughs, though there is a bitingly savage satire going on as one side plays off against the other, with a mixture of toadying, blackmailing and rampant sex.

Queen Anne, in history, was an unfortunate woman. She reigned over a newly unified country, Great Britain; her husband George of Denmark gave her many children all of whom died in infancy, then he himself died  in 1708.

The statue marking her visit to St Paul’s Cathedral on the creation of the Acts of Union between England, Scotland and Ireland still stands outside the cathedral, and is more often than not mistaken for Queen Victoria.

She presided over a two-party parliament, which was in its early manifestation and not entirely successful, since the Queen had controlling influence over finance and the cabinet. After her husband’s death she came increasingly under the influence of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough and as Sarah was of the same persuasion as her husband, that the war with France should continue until they sued for peace, this meant great increases in taxes.

Meanwhile Sarah’s cousin, the cunning little vixen, was conniving with the Opposition to have the taxes reduced, the Marlboroughs disgraced and Lord Godolphin’s Tory government deposed.

The occasional use of a fish-eye lens gives this film a strange sense of the surreal, which accentuates some of the more extremely scandalous behaviour of the Court, right up to the top levels.

My second film, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is another example of a good actor portraying, sympathetically, a seriously transgressive character. This film is the true story of a woman who forged and sold over 400 letters, purporting to be by celebrities like Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker and Emily Brice. When that activity came to grief, she began another career, replacing genuine letters in serious archives with copies. It is hard to know which of these two activities was the more reprehensible.


Cultural forgery, whether paintings or belles lettres is a very serious matter, and so it must have been challenging to make Lee Israel in any way tolerable, and yet the portrayal is one of empathy. She was clearly a lonely, unfulfilled woman and not without talent; she was a published author, but that source of income had dried up and her agent suggested she find some other way to make money.

An accidental find, while doing genuine research, leads to a highly successful source of income, with Jack Hock as her partner in crime.

Later on, Jack cooperates with the FBI investigation and Lee is caught  At her trial she admits to having had the time of her life. She shows no remorse, only fury when she sees one of her own Dorothy Parker forgeries, authenticated as genuine, for sale at five times the price she was paid for it. She notified the seller, with a caustic letter of suitably Parkian vitriol.

The sports documentary which followed these two was odd, but brilliant. Hard to describe, but infinitely worth catching if you can.


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