Snap, crackle and a bit of pop

17 11 2018

Snap by Belinda Bauer


On a stifling summer’s day, eleven-year-old Jack and his two sisters sit in their broken-down car, waiting for their mother to come back and rescue them. Jack’s in charge, she’d said. I won’t be long.

But she doesn’t come back. She never comes back. And life as the children know it is changed for ever.

Three years later, Jack is still in charge – of his sisters, of supporting them all, of making sure nobody knows they’re alone in the house, and – quite suddenly – of finding out the truth about what happened to his mother. . .

The Val McDermid endorsement together with all of the other quotes full of praise drew me to wanting to give this a go. It’s a really good premise with a couple of great characters at the heart of it and the plot fairly rattles along. I must admit to feeling a wee bit let down with the ending but perhaps that’s a little harsh. Still an entertaining read.



So many books, so little time

27 10 2018

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald


In a small East Anglian town, Florence Green decides, against polite but ruthless local opposition, to open a bookshop.

Hardborough becomes a battleground. Florence has tried to change the way things have always been done, and as a result, she has to take on not only the people who have made themselves important, but natural and even supernatural forces too. Her fate will strike a chord with anyone who knows that life has treated them with less than justice.

It’s a battlefield in microcosm. Having opened her dream shop Florence comes under sustained assault, polite of course, from the many locals who want it to fail. It’s a beautifully written, precise and compact novel which captures perfectly the petty and mean aspects of village life. Everyone seems to be against Florence and the odds really are stacked against her and her shop. It doesn’t end well.

This has recently been made into movie but I suspect it will struggle to capture the low key impact of this very good story.


She bangs the drums

14 10 2018

Little Drummer Girl by John le Carre


Charlie, a jobbing young English actress, is accustomed to playing different roles. But when the mysterious, battle-scarred Joseph recruits her into the Israeli secret services, she enters the dangerous ‘theatre of the real’.

Set in the tragic arena of the Middle East conflict, this compelling story of love and torn loyalties plays out against the backdrop of an unwinnable war.

What feels like a very long build up eventually delivers on its promise with a pretty gripping thriller. Charlie is a strange choice for a spy but plays a convincing part in an complicated and high-stakes plot to trap and kill a Palestinian. Le Carre provides what feels like an accurate picture of the Middle East at the time and uses it well as the backdrop to a not wholly uplifting tale.

We’ll have to see what the new TV series is like.

The patience of a patient

30 09 2018

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje


The final curtain is closing on the Second World War and in an abandoned Italian village. Hana, a nurse, tends to her sole remaining patient. Rescued from a burning plane, the anonymous Englishman is damaged beyond recognition and haunted by painful memories.

The only clue Hana has to unlocking his past is the one thing he clung on to through the fire – a copy of The Histories by Herodotus, covered with hand-written notes detailing a tragic love affair.

I didn’t read it when it won the Booker originally and decided to read it recently despite the Golden Booker award.  It really is a terrific novel, brilliantly written and quite captivating. The second world war detail is outstanding and the characters are all superbly drawn.

I wish I had read it earlier. Highly recommended.


Florentine follies

22 09 2018

Up at the Villa by Somerset Maugham


Mary Panton walls up her desires in a beautiful villa high up in the hills above Florence, as she calmly contemplates her disastrous marriage. But a single act of compassion begins a nightmare of violence that shatters her serenity. She turns for help to the notorious Rowley Flint, and through him comes to realise that to deny love, with all its passions and risks, is to deny life itself.

A short novel of two parts, the first evocative, languid and contemplative as Mary reflects on her life as she looks out over Florence, and the second a roller coaster of events which changes the course of her life for good. Really well-paced, perfectly pitched and crafted, it’s a classic Maugham and well worth a read.


four stars

Small town boys

15 09 2018

The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles by Giorgio Bassani


Into the insular town of 1930s Ferrara, a new doctor arrives. Fadigati is hopeful and modern, and more than anything wants to fit into his new home. But his fresh, appealing appearance soon crumbles when the townsfolk discover his homosexuality, and the young man he pays to be his lover humiliates him publicly.

As anti-Semitism spreads across Italy, the Jewish narrator of the tale begins to feel pity for the ostracized doctor, as the fickle nature of a community changing under political forces becomes clear.The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles is a gripping and tragic study of how lives can be destroyed by those we consider our neighbours.

A quite outstanding book, set in the same place and time as the equally marvellous The Garden of the Finzi-Continis which I inexplicably have failed to review here previously. It’s a beautifully written and translated tale which is perfectly paced and judged. Painful and thoroughly compelling it really is a thoroughly recommended read.



The end of the world as we know it

8 09 2018

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel


What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.

One snowy night in Toronto famous actor Arthur Leander dies on stage whilst performing the role of a lifetime. That same evening a deadly virus touches down in North America. The world will never be the same again.

Twenty years later Kirsten, an actress in the Travelling Symphony, performs Shakespeare in the settlements that have grown up since the collapse. But then her newly hopeful world is threatened.

If civilization was lost, what would you preserve? And how far would you go to protect it?

An outstanding novel covering the beginning of the end as a deadly virus rapidly brings the world to its knees and then the years afterwards as the few remaining try to survive and rebuild society in whatever way they can. Some great characters, switching of the narrative between the crisis and two decades later and a throughly convincing backdrop means that Mandel offers a quite compelling dystopia which feels complementary to the post-virus British survival trilogy conjured up by Louise Welsh.

Recommended (with thanks to @BlatherwickIain who recommended it to me).

four stars

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