Off the scent

25 05 2019

Perfume by Patrick Süskind


In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages. His name was Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, and if his name has been forgotten today, it is certainly not because Grenouille fell short of those more famous blackguards when it came to arrogance, misanthropy, immorality, or, more succinctly, wickedness, but because his gifts and his sole ambition were restricted to a domain that leaves no traces in history: to the fleeting realm of scent . . .

It’s an excellent premise for a grim tale as the merciless Grenouille, abandoned as a child, discovers he has an extraordinary talent, his amazing sense of smell. In making the most remarkable perfumes he nevertheless has to go further to achieve perfection. Which is where the trouble really starts. Smart and sharp but really very gruesome indeed.

No country for young men

18 05 2019

To Die in Spring by Ralf Rothmann

Walter Urban and Friedrich ‘Fiete’ Caroli work side by side as hands on a dairy farm in northern Germany. By 1945, it seems the War’s worst atrocities are over. When they are forced to ‘volunteer’ for the SS, they find themselves embroiled in a conflict which is drawing to a desperate, bloody close. Walter is put to work as a driver for a supply unit of the Waffen-SS, while Fiete is sent to the front. When the senseless bloodshed leads Fiete to desert, only to be captured and sentenced to death, the friends are reunited under catastrophic circumstances.

In a few days the war will be over, millions of innocents will be dead, and the survivors must find a way to live with its legacy.

It’s a brilliant evocation of what feels like the end of days. The war is almost over but anarchy reigns and the horror is palpable. A grim and gripping novel which really captures the nightmares for all of the final days of the war. Highly recommended.


four stars

Verbatim reporting

11 05 2019

Transcription by Kate Atkinson


In 1940, eighteen-year old Juliet Armstrong is reluctantly recruited into the world of espionage. Sent to an obscure department of MI5 tasked with monitoring the comings and goings of British Fascist sympathizers, she discovers the work to be by turns both tedious and terrifying. But after the war has ended, she presumes the events of those years have been relegated to the past for ever.

Ten years later, now a producer at the BBC, Juliet is unexpectedly confronted by figures from her past. A different war is being fought now, on a different battleground, but Juliet finds herself once more under threat. A bill of reckoning is due, and she finally begins to realize that there is no action without consequence.


It’s a great idea for a novel and Atkinson evokes the wartime home front and the post-war era extremely well. The plot is a smart one too and the tedium and detail of Juliet’s transcription work cleverly represented. Kate Atkinson writes exceptionally well and her books are always a pleasure to read. This one through doesn’t quite fly in the way some of her others have but still well worth a go.

Bend it like Nabokov

4 05 2019

Bend Sinister by Vladimir Nabokov



The state has been recently taken over and is being run by the tyrannical and philistine ‘Average Man’ party. Under the slogans of equality and happiness for all, it has done away with individualism and freedom of thought. Only John Krug, a brilliant philosopher, stands up to the regime. His antagonist, the leader of the new party, is his old school enemy, Paduk – known as the ‘Toad’. Grieving over his wife’s recent death, Krug is at first dismissive of Paduk’s activities and sees no threat in them. But the sinister machine which Paduk has set in motion may prove stronger than the individual, stronger even than the grotesque ‘Toad’ himself.

No, it’s not the (outstandingly good) album by The Fall, but a remarkable Nabokov novel which I only came across recently. Written just after the last war it nevertheless feels very topical and relevant. The philosopher Krug is far from a likeable hero but he nevertheless impresses through his resistance against the tyranny of his former school mate. It’s a powerful book and rather dark and troubling.


four stars

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