Living on an island

4 04 2020

Unseen by Roy Jacobsen



Nobody can leave an island. An island is a cosmos in a nutshell, where the stars slumber in the grass beneath the snow. But occasionally someone tries . . .

Ingrid Barrøy is born on an island that bears her name – a holdfast for a single family, their livestock, their crops, their hopes and dreams.

Her father dreams of building a quay that will connect them to the mainland, but closer ties to the wider world come at a price. Her mother has her own dreams – more children, a smaller island, a different life – and there is one question Ingrid must never ask her.

Island life is hard, a living scratched from the dirt or trawled from the sea, so when Ingrid comes of age, she is sent to the mainland to work for one of the wealthy families on the coast.

But Norway too is waking up to a wider world, a modern world that is capricious and can be cruel. Tragedy strikes, and Ingrid must fight to protect the home she thought she had left behind.

It’s fair to say this lovely novel starts slowly and continues very slowly indeed. The extraordinary trials and tensions of survival in a miniature wilderness are superbly exposed in all their harsh reality but without sentimentality. The translated dialogue reads strangely at first (Norwegian Yorkshire?) but soon becomes a natural accompaniment to the land and seascape. Poignant and moving it really is a very good read and highly recommended in these challenging times.

four stars

Spring loaded

28 03 2020

Spring by Ali Smith

From the bestselling author of Autumn and Winter, as well as the Baileys Prize-winning How to be both, comes the next installment in the remarkable, once-in-a-generation masterpiece, the Seasonal Quartet

What unites Katherine Mansfield, Charlie Chaplin, Shakespeare, Rilke, Beethoven, Brexit, the present, the past, the north, the south, the east, the west, a man mourning lost times, a woman trapped in modern times?

Spring. The great connective.

With an eye to the migrancy of story over time, and riffing on Pericles, one of Shakespeare’s most resistant and rollicking works, Ali Smith tells the impossible tale of an impossible time. In a time of walls and lockdown Smith opens the door.

The time we’re living in is changing nature. Will it change the nature of story?

Hope springs eternal.

The third in the Seasonal Quartet from Ali Smith, this one follows Autumn and Winter; of course it does. There are some brilliant passages in here but the Periclean riffing rather passed me by. Some splendid polemic and spiky contemporary commentary hits the target but will possibly date rather quickly. Still, Smith writes so well that it is all worth it in the end.



Far from plain Jane

21 03 2020

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë


Charlotte Brontë’s most beloved novel describes the passionate love between the courageous orphan Jane Eyre and the brilliant, brooding, and domineering Rochester. The loneliness and cruelty of Jane’s childhood strengthens her natural independence and spirit, which prove invaluable when she takes a position as a governess at Thornfield Hall. But after she falls in love with her sardonic employer, her discovery of his terrible secret forces her to make a heart-wrenching choice. Ever since its publication in 1847, Jane Eyre has enthralled every kind of reader, from the most critical and cultivated to the youngest and most unabashedly romantic. It lives as one of the great triumphs of storytelling and as a moving and unforgettable portrayal of a woman’s quest for self-respect.

It’s not really possible to do justice to this in a few lines but having read it again recently I was genuinely bowled over by the   brilliance of this wonderful novel. I clearly didn’t read it properly when I was younger as pretty much all of it seemed incredibly fresh and new. Anyway, just terrific. But you didn’t really need me to tell you that.

Out of the ruins

14 03 2020

The Ruins by Mat Osman


When Adam Kussgarten’s twin brother is found gunned down just yards from his flat, Adam is drawn out of his solitary, dream-like life into a neon-lit world of forgery, deceit and violence. The Ruins is the story of twin brothers – Adam and Brandon – who haven’t spoken for decades, When Brandon is found gunned down just streets from Adam’s flat, Brandon’s girlfriend enlists Adam to find out what he was doing there and who killed him. Shy, stuttering Adam finds himself caught up in his brother’s world of deception, violence and forgery. As things turn increasingly dark and his entanglements with his brother’s family grow, he’s faced with a choice of whether to dive deeper into Brandon’s world and risk losing himself, or turning his back on his future.

It’s the first novel from the famous Suede bassist and brother of arguably even more famous quizmaster Richard Osman and it is actually really rather good. The premise is a smart one, the musical context is very convincing and the plot is as winding as the streets in Adam’s model town. Overall an excellent and assured debut and an entertaining read from start to finish (although arguably not all the loose ends are tied up). A minor gripe is there are a few annoying typos, the most irritating is the use of ‘vociferously’ by one character for ‘voraciously’ which may have been an intentional error but very strange if so. Anyway, despite that tiny point, highly recommended.

four stars

Happy talk

7 03 2020

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris


Anyone who has heard David Sedaris speaking live or on the radio will tell you that a collection from him is cause for jubilation. A move to Paris from New York inspired these hilarious pieces, including ‘Me Talk Pretty One Day’, about his attempts to learn French from a sadistic teacher who declares that ‘every day spent with you is like having a caesarean section’.

His family is another inspiration. ‘You Can’t Kill the Rooster’ is a portrait of his brother, who talks incessant hip-hop slang to his bewildered father. And no one hones a finer fury in response to such modern annoyances as restaurant meals presented in ludicrous towers of food and cashiers with six-inch fingernails.

Sedaris seems to have an endless supply of genuinely funny stories and observations about life. This compilation, in common with his previous works noted here –  Calypso  Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls and his Diaries – is full of great stories, many of them relating to the author’s doomed efforts to learning French. And his dysfunctional family continues to offer a rich vein of material.  Lovely stuff as ever.

four stars

Matches of the day

29 02 2020

Emma by Jane Austen



Beautiful, clever, rich – and single – Emma Woodhouse is perfectly content with her life and sees no need for either love or marriage. Nothing, however, delights her more than interfering in the romantic lives of others. But when she ignores the warnings of her good friend Mr Knightley and attempts to arrange a suitable match for her protegee Harriet Smith, her carefully laid plans soon unravel and have consequences that she never expected. With its imperfect but charming heroine and its witty and subtle exploration of relationships, Emma is often seen as Jane Austen’s most flawless work.

Not quite flawless perhaps but as good as. I hadn’t read this for a far too many years and it felt as fresh and bright and funny as the first time around. Beautifully poised and measured with every character perfectly drawn it remains an absolute joy. And of course perfect timing for the new movie too. Which I have to say is also very enjoyable indeed.


Anyone, one of the best ever, without a doubt.

Don’t bring Harry

22 02 2020

Knife by Jo Nesbo




Harry is in a bad place: Rakel has left him, he’s working cold cases and notorious murderer Svein Finne is back on the streets.


Harry is responsible for the many years Finne spent in prison but now he’s free and ready to pick up where he left off.


When Harry wakes up with blood on his hands, and no memory of what he did the night before, he knows everything is only going to get worse . . .

It’s a great crime thriller with all of the usual Nesbo ingredients and everyone’s favourite dysfunctional cop trying to solve a whole load of terrible crimes including one which seems to have him as suspect. As ever, things are not at all what they seem and there are plenty of twists and turns en route to a remarkable conclusion. Exciting stuff. Although how Harry keeps going goodness knows.


four stars

Confidentiality clauses

15 02 2020

The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene



In a small continental country civil war is raging. Once a lecturer in medieval French, now a government agent, D is a scarred stranger in England, sent on a mission to buy coal at any price. Initially, this seems to be a matter of straightforward negotiation, but soon, implicated in murder, accused of possessing false documents and theft, held responsible for the death of a young woman, D becomes a hunted man, tormented by allegiances, doubts and love.

It’s a bit of a rollercoaster ride for D, a stranger in a very strange post-war land, who is charged with buying coal for his side in his home country’s civil war. But he can trust no-one and finds himself continuing the civil war through other means as well as trying to escape the clutches of the long arm of the local law and cope with love and loss. Perhaps a little less entertaining and slightly grimmer than expected.



Dead, deader, deadest

8 02 2020

Dead Flowers by Nicola Monaghan


She doesn’t trust the police. She used to be one of them.

Hardened by ten years on the murder squad, DNA analyst Dr Sian Love has seen it all. So when she finds human remains in the basement of her new home, she knows the drill.

Except this time it’s different. This time, it’s personal…

There’s a lot going on in this entertaining thriller with plenty of twists and turns and uncovering of stories from the past. Set in Nottingham in an old pub which is now Sian’s home there is much local interest too but the plotting is clever and intricate making it a well-crafted novel and well worth a read.

Spy master

1 02 2020

Altai by Wu Ming



When Q was first published in 1999, it was an international sensation; returning to the same world of that extraordinary novel, Altai is a captivating story of betrayal, beliefs and the clash of civilizations. When a fire breaks out in the Arsenal of Venice in 1569, everyone suspects Joseph Nasi, number-one enemy of the republic. But it is the enigmatic Emmanuele De Zante, spy catcher and agent of the Venetian secret service, who finds himself in jail accused of treason, having been betrayed by his lover. When De Zante is offered the chance to escape, he embarks on an odyssey that takes him to Salonica, the Jerusalem of the Balkans, and from there, all the way to the Sultan’s palace in Constantinople. Spiraling through a series of deadly political games, De Zante’s voyage will test his loyalty and force him to question even his own identity. Together, De Zante and his companions head toward a conflict that threatens the very nature of civilization. A historical epic spanning a continent scarred by war, Altai went straight into the bestsellers list when first published in Italy. It is a coruscating portrait of the divided world – east meets west – in the sixteenth century, where the great empires of the Republic of Venice and the Ottomans are on the verge of an epoch-making conflict. In this dramatic landscape, the authors’ collective Wu Ming has created a powerful narrative of danger, identity, and adventure.

Perhaps not quite reaching the novelty and ambition of Q, the book to which this is the successor, it is nevertheless a gripping read and a worthy successor. The terrain covered, from Venice to Constantinople to Cyprus, is impressive and the political twists and turns are exhilarating. Strongly recommended

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