Book review – Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

I’m not sure I can remember reading as compelling and timely a book as Home Fire.

Image courtesy of Firstpost

Kamila Shamsie forces us to think about one of the most important issues of our times through complex but believable characters, a shocking plot and a searing insight into Muslim culture and faith,  colliding painfully with the Western world.

The story unfolds like a flower in spring, through the eyes of each protagonist in turn as the seasons pass, until the bleakest of winters and all hope of fresh green renewal has been extinguished.

Isma is free. After years spent raising her twin siblings in the wake of their mother’s premature death, she resumes a dream long deferred – studying in America. Here, she gets to know Eamonn, the privileged son of a powerful British Muslim politician.

Back in London, Eamonn meets – and falls in love with – Aneeka, Isma’s beautiful, young and headstrong sister. But is Eamonn’s love returned, or is Aneeka cruelly seeking political support through Eamonn’s father to help her beloved twin brother Parvaiz?

The central core of the novel tells of Parvaiz, a British-Pakistani Muslim who comes to understand how his father fought for the Taliban and died a glorious death en route to Guantanamo Bay. Parvaiz’s vulnerability is seized on by Farooq, a cynical recruiter for the ISIS cause in Syria.

Image result for islamic state flag

Karamat Lone, Eamonn’s father and Home Secretary, arrives late in the narrative, caught in the crossfire of an unwinnable conflict between faith, ideology, politics, family and love.

But these are only the bare bones of Home Fire. The author weaves layer upon layer of complexity into the story through deft dialogue, subtle shading and brilliant scene-shifting.

Home Fire educates as much as enthrals. It would be a worthy winner of the Man Booker prize for 2017.

 

Book review – Exquisite

Where does imagination stop and reality kick in? How blurred are the lines between fact and fiction? How closely does art sometimes imitate life…..?

I’m asking myself all these linked questions a few minutes after turning the final emotional page of Sarah Stovell‘s striking debut novel, the psychological thriller Exquisite, published by Orenda Books.

Bo Luxton has it all – a loving family, a beautiful home in the Lake District, and a clutch of bestselling books to her name.

Enter Alice Dark, an aspiring writer who is drifting through life, with a series of dead-end jobs and a freeloading boyfriend.

When they meet at a writers’ retreat, the chemistry is instant, and a sinister relationship develops…

Or does it?

Breathlessly pacey, taut and terrifying, Exquisite is a startlingly original and unbalancing psychological thriller that will keep you guessing until the very last page.

Bo and Alice embark on a passionate affair that threatens to undermine the outwardly stable family life Bo has established in idyllic Grasmere. But do they both have the same perceptions of their relationship…and is one more damaged and needy than the other?

Author Sarah Stovell lives in Northumberland, where successful author Bo leads the Creative Writing retreat and first meets  damaged and vulnerable Alice, herself an aspiring writer. Sarah is a lecturer in Creative Writing at Lincoln University. Bo was born in 1977, just like Sarah….

I enjoyed Exquisite. The juxtaposition between Alice’s chaotic life in bohemian Brighton and the calm family existence led by Bo in the beautiful Lake District is stark, but ultimately deceptive. The way the story is told separately through the eyes of both Bo and Sarah, from the initial mutual passion to eventual destruction, is skilful and deeply engaging.

Alice’s own debut novel was about her all-consuming relationship with Bo.

I wonder what Sarah’s next will be about….

 

Book review – The Talented Mr Ripley

Read the book first, then see the film is the usual advice, right?

Well, I saw the marvellous adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley soon after it was released back in 1999, but hadn’t read the book until now.  The film version was beautifully crafted by Anthony Minghella as both Screenwriter and Director, and perfectly acted by a stellar cast, including Matt Damon (Tom Ripley), Jude Law (Dickie Greenleaf), Gwyneth Paltrow (Marge Sherwood) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (Freddie Miles).

So how would Patricia Highsmith’s novel, a psychological thriller written in 1955, compare?

Tom is a feckless freeloader, struggling to make a living in New York City. He grabs the opportunity offered by wealthy shipbuilder Herbert Greenleaf to go to Italy and coax his spoiled son Dickie back to face his responsibilities in the US.

But Tom is soon as much enamoured with the languid self-indulgence of life in Mongibello as Dickie. One fly in the Italian ointment is Marge, a fellow American who has clearly fallen for Dickie, though more than he for her.  And later there is also the irritating problem of Freddie Miles, a friend of Dickie’s, who is becoming suspicious of Tom’s motives.

The plot develops around exotic Italy, from Mongibello to San Remo, Rome and Venice, with the devious Tom using his many talents to ensure he can pursue as sybaritic a lifestyle as Dickie.

“Underneath he would be as calm and sure of himself as he had been after Freddie’s murder, because his story would be unassailable. Like the San Remo story. His stories were good because he imagined them intensely, so intensely that he came to believe them.”

Ms Highsmith’s writing style is as languid as a day on the beach at Mongibello. Her real strength lies in the ability to make the reader engage with Tom Ripley’s character, even though he is clearly deeply flawed and – based on any objective analysis – largely amoral.

Ambiguity is at the heart of this classic novel, including the sexual inclinations of the main protagonists….just as they were for the author.

I enjoyed reading about Tom’s undoubted talents, but is it literary sacrilege to admit that – on this occasion, at least – I preferred the adaptation on the big screen?

Film from Paramount Pictures. Image courtesy of Into Film.

 

 

Movie review – Dunkirk

Between 26th May and 4th June, 1940 almost 350,000 British soldiers were evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk, in northern France. They were what was left of the British Expedition Force after the disastrous first foray by the Allies in WWII.

Operation Dynamo – men wait in an orderly fashion for their turn to be rescued. Image courtesy of the Daily Mail..

Most of the evacuation – with German forces closing in and the Luftwaffe wreaking havoc from the air – was effected with the help of a hastily assembled flotilla of 800 small boats. Pleasure craft, fishing boats, yachts, lifeboats and merchant marine boats answered the call in our hour of need.

A failure, but a glorious one in terms of morale and future war efforts. As Churchill said at the time: “we must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.”

What a shame then, that such an infamous episode in our military history has been reduced to something of a Boy’s Own epic yarn of a film in the current Dunkirk movie.

Directed by Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception and Interstellar), the story is told from 3 different perspectives and over 3 different timescales.

  1. Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is the only one of his section to survive German gunfire as they retreat through the streets of Dunkirk. Over the next week, we follow his efforts to find safety as he suffers a series of terrible mishaps.
  2. During the course of a single day, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), together with son Peter and young helper George, joins the flotilla to help with the evacuation. On the way, he rescues a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy), clinging to the hull of a sunken British ship, and who is understandably reluctant to return to the fray.
  3. In cloudless blue skies, three Spitfire pilots try for an hour to stem the damage being wrought by the Luftwaffe on the helpless troops on the beach below. The Squadron leader is soon killed. One of the pilots is shot down, but is rescued by Peter, just as water fills his cockpit. The 3rd pilot lands on French soil, and is captured, but only after the Spitfires have helped with the evacuation.

Some of the set-pieces in the film are technically brilliant, but I’m afraid the acting and plot left me underwhelmed, rather than awe-inspired.

A real shame. Such a momentous episode from WWII deserves to be more gritty than glossy.

Image courtesy of History vs Hollywood

 

Sleep well, old friend

I lost a friend today. A good friend.

I only met him 20 years ago, and we probably only saw him two or three times each year, but for 15 years or so one of those occasions would be for a week’s skiing.

There were 8 of us in the gang. We stayed in catered chalets across Europe, and revelled in making the wish list as challenging as possible for whoever had the onerous task of finding somewhere that ticked all the boxes that year.

But once we all met up at the airport, something magical happened. It was as though we had just finished the previous year’s final run, and we all slipped effortlessly back into the same warm camaraderie as before. We knew a great week of snowy escapades, excessive food and drink consumption, banter, laughter and friendship would follow, as surely as an Alpine lunch is vastly overpriced.

Our friend was the oldest in the group, but probably also the most fearless. He was the one who first embraced helmetdom, but his excellent value  protective head wear from Lidl didn’t prevent him seeing stars after a heavy fall on a packed piste. And in flat light in Zermatt one year, he failed to see the edge of the groomed piste and performed a spectacular somersault into fresh powder, leaving his skis way behind him. Blood still gushed from his nose as we boarded the funicular back into town, but he had a demonic look of quiet satisfaction etched on his craggy face.

Our snowy pilgrimages started off in middle age, and we were all sliding inexorably towards old age, when he became ill. Unable to ski, we spent a memorable autumnal week in Dorset instead, renting a house to try and replicate that ski chalet ambience for one last time. We enjoyed a lovely Sunday lunch at  River Cottage, a brilliant piece of theatre in Lyme Regis – he loved Nina Simone – and he even managed to play golf for the first time in a while.

He was fiercely intelligent, with a wit as dry as his glass after a long lunch. He was sociable, and yet intensely private. He was a special person. His only flaw was that he supported Manchester United and Wales.

We might all ski again, but it will never be the same.

You have left a big hole, old friend.

Sleep well. And when we all meet again, it’s your turn to find the chalet….

 

Dull, Bland and Boring

I am indebted to Burny, head gardener and Gill’s boss at beautiful Loseley Park, for passing me the Times’ article announcing the new alliance of Dull (Perthshire, Scotland), Bland (Australia) and Boring (Oregon, USA).

The road sign in Dull, Perthshire, has become something of a tourist hotspot

Dull and Boring have been twinned since 2012, but now Bland is getting in on the act in the interest of tourism. This new – and exciting – relationship will be celebrated soon, when Dull councillors will host a civic reception for the Mayor of Bland Shire and his New South Wales delegation.

But that got me thinking….which other places could form well suited and entertaining relationships?

I went to school in Sandwich, one of Kent’s cinque ports, and famously a neighbour with the tiny village of Ham.

RS 5129. Sign Post, Kent, England

Perhaps they could could also team up with Cheddar (Somerset) and Branston (Staffordshire) to make a tasty union. No prizes for guessing what they’d serve for lunch.

Less predictably, perhaps the makers of Durex should hold their annual meetings in Erect (North Carolina), Climax (Georgia, USA), Accident (Maryland, USA) and Come by Chance (New South Wales, Australia), and hope the locals show up.  Or just preach to the converted in Condom (France).

I’m not so sure the civic receptions in Bitter End (Tennessee, USA), Lake Disappointment (Western Australia) or Dismal (also Tennessee) would be a barrel of laughs.

But perhaps the most lucrative global tourism collaboration would be when the good folk of Jackpot (Nevada, USA),  Money (Mississippi, USA), and Poundsgate (Devon) sign on the dotted line. And then they should probably try to hold their meetings in Smug (Poland).

Thanks, Burny. Got any other suggestions…..?

 

Book review – Fierce Kingdom

Fierce Kingdom tells the story of a couple of alienated young sociopaths on a shooting spree in a zoo park, somewhere in gun-friendly USA.

But really this book is all about a whip-smart, feisty young mother’s relationship with her 4 year-old son, and what she’ll do to protect him when faced with every family’s worst nightmare.

Joan is cajoling Lincoln out of the zoo at closing time, when she realises that the balloon-popping noise nearby was deadly gunfire, leaving bloody corpses strewn around the park.

Do they run, or do they hide? How long will it be before help arrives? Can she trust any other survivors?

The action takes place in real time, from 4:55 pm until 8:05 pm but the author cleverly paints a vivid picture of the dynamics between mother and son in a deft series of flashbacks.

His crying always starts with words. He tries to talk through the weeping, and the words stretch into wails, and then the words evaporate and the tears come, and once they are falling down his cheeks he has passed into something monotone and rhythmic like the ocean, only more grating.”

Joan and Lincoln are forced to leave their first hiding place, introducing them to danger and to other desperate fugitives, talkative young Kailynn and older Mrs Powell, once a teacher of one of the shooters. But will this help, or hinder, their chances of survival?

Author Gin Phillips has written a compelling psychological thriller, pulling the reader through the narrative as breathlessly as if trapped in a tiger’s cage. But it is the mother’s feral instincts to protect her son that will linger after the last page has been turned.

“Make yourself disappear”, she says, already standing, taking an extra second to put her hand on his head – the precious curve of it – as she lets the branches fall. He disappears except for his feet, so she reaches under and bends his legs slightly.

Fierce Kingdom is not without its flaws – would Joan really have thrown her phone away? Why don’t the police arrive earlier? Would a 4 year-old really be so damned clever? – but Ms Phillips has crafted a well-written, high-octane novel, which is also a warm tribute to her own son:

“To Eli, who has entire worlds inside him.”

A Tale of Two Cities – Copenhagen & Stockholm

We went to Norway a few years ago with good friends Sam & Annie, but that had been my only Scandinavian adventure in a lifetime of travel.

Until now.

Secret Escapes deal to Copenhagen and Stockholm – travelling by train between the two, via The Oresund Bridge-Tunnel – was too tempting to pass up.

Oresund Bridge-Tunnel –
Image courtesy of TwistedSifter

But with just 2 nights in each capital city, would we be able to do justice to them? Which would we prefer? And would the Swedish Krona travel any further than the Danish Krone?

Copenhagen:

We stayed at the perfectly located Absalon Hotel, a few short steps from the Central Station and in the regenerated Vesterbro neighbourhood. Once the seedy red-light district, it now aches with the hipster vibe of cool designer shops, cafés, bars and restaurants. We especially loved the Meatpacking District, and enjoyed a spectacular meal, propped up at the bar in popular Paté Paté.

Other highlights:

  • the brightly coloured and renovated old houses of Nyhavn, lining the canal which was once a busy commercial port. Buzzing with energy – and waterside restaurants – but a little too touristy for our liking 
  • cross the new walk-and-bike Inderhavnsbroen bridge from Nyhavn to Christianshavn, but turn north to explore quieter Holmen, where old naval buildings have been carefully converted into waterfront homes and offices
  • walk south from here to turn back the clock and escape to the remarkable Free State of Christiania. Once an abandoned  military site, it was occupied by a group of free-spirited young people at the end of the 1970s, and remains a haven for a hippy lifestyles and culture. Soft drugs are sold openly – but illegally – and you are encouraged to respect this alternative community, rather than gawp at it 
  • back in the centre of the city, we loved the Rundetaarn. Completed in 1642, the Round Tower was built by King Christian IV. Its original purpose was as an astronomical observatory, but the most striking aspect is the unique spiral ramp, 209 metres long and  twisting 7.5 times around the hollow core until you reach the tower’s platform. Here – at 34.8 metres high – you have a spectacular view of Copenhagen’s rooftops, both ancient and modern

Stockholm:

Hats off again to Secret Escapes. We stayed at the Elite Hotel Adlon, perfectly located for arrival at the Central Station, return to the airport via the Arlanda Express train and a pavement-pounding exploration of all corners of this beautiful city. And with funky decor, friendly service and a superb Scandi breakfast buffet, it’s hard to imagine anywhere better in Stockholm, at a reasonable price.

Other highlights:

  • I guess you have to explore Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s beautifully preserved Old City. Stroll through its cobbled alleyways, poke your nose into the many churches and museums….but don’t eat or drink here, unless you want to make your eyes water
  • go further south instead, to Södermalm and especially to SoFo – south of Folkungagatan – for a cool enclave of shops, bars and restaurants where the locals hang out. We shared a beer and an interesting conversation with a couple of friendly Swedish guys, in the lively Nytorget Square area
  • you must get onto the water during your stay in Stockholm. We opted for a 1/2 day trip out to one of the 32,000 islands making up the city and its wider archipelago. Take the Stromma tour out to idyllic Vaxholm, and explore this quaint community for a few hours before heading back to the city

  • and back in the city, allow a few hours to wander around the peaceful oasis of Djurgården, a separate verdant island which was once the royal hunting ground. Today, you’ll find plenty to do here, including walking and cycling trails, the Gröna Lund amusement park, the Vasa Museum and – get those sequins out – the ABBA Museum 

These are just a few personal off-the-beaten-track highlights from our whistle-stop tour of these two wonderful Scandi cities.

We walked a blistering 83 kilometres in the 5 days of the trip, which I think is always the best way to see a city properly.

We found the Marco Polo guides to both Copenhagen and Stockholm perfect for these short breaks.

Both Gill and I preferred Stockholm slightly to Copenhagen, perhaps only because it felt slightly more alive and edgier than its cool, calm, compact Scandi cousin.

But whether you’re spending Danish Krone (roughly 8 DKK = £1) or Swedish Krona (10 SEK = £1), neither will travel as far as you have.

Book review – Into the Water

The Girl on the Train was a stellar chart-topping publishing success for Paula Hawkins, the psychological thriller selling over 18 million copies worldwide and being adapted into a big-budget Hollywood movie, starring Emily Blunt.

So how does a writer follow that?

With Into the Water, another psychological murder mystery, but told this time from the viewpoint of multiple characters, and across seemingly disparate narrative threads.

In the last days before her death, Nel called her sister. Jules didn’t pick up the phone, ignoring her plea for help.

Now Nel is dead. They say she jumped. And Jules has been dragged back to the one place she hoped she had escaped for good, to care for the teenage girl her sister left behind.

But Jules is afraid. So afraid. Of her long-buried memories, of the old Mill House, of knowing that Nel would never have jumped.

And most of all she’s afraid of the water, and the place they call the Drowning Pool . . .

One of the central characters is the fictional Northumberland town of Beckford, where Jules is forced to return for her sister’s funeral, and where she also has her own demons.

I struggled a little in the first part of this book. There seemed to me to be too many narrators, too many “inconvenient women” dying in the Drowning Pool, spanning too many years.

But like a dexterous seamstress, the author pulls together all the frayed ends and disparate threads in a nerve-jangling finale. My friend and colleague Tina, from TripFiction, observes in her own  review that: the book is constructed like a circular eddy, reflecting the motion of the water in the Drowning Pool – the characters, too, go round in circles. 

Exactly.

But – ultimately – I found this an engaging, well written and cleverly constructed novel, that will no doubt also end up on the big screen.

Thank you, Ms Hawkins…..where next, I wonder?

Paula Hawkins – image courtesy of the BBC

 

 

Theatre review – The Two Gentlemen of Verona

I have never read Master Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona,  nor seen it performed. Until last night, when the always excellent Guildford Shakespeare Company brought the comedy to vibrant life, in the beautiful gardens of the University of Law and transported to glitzy Italy in the 1950s.

(images from GSC website)

The Two Gentlemen was Shakespeare’s first published play. It is considered to be weaker than the many classics that followed, but it does introduce common themes that he returns to time and time again – love and friendship; infidelity and betrayal; dominating fathers and recalcitrant children; and a girl dressing as a boy.

The two young Veronese gentlemen are best friends Valentine and Proteus. Proteus falls in love with Julia. Valentine leaves for Milan, where he falls in love with Silvia, the Duke’s daughter. Proteus is told by his father to travel to Milan too, where he falls instantly in love with Silvia.

Poor, weak Proteus is completely undone by the urge to obtain the new object of his desire, whatever the cost. Friendship is put aside, betrayal ensues, but contrasted by steadfast loyalty and – ultimately – forgiveness.

This innovative production, directed by Charlotte Conquest, never flags. Comedy quickly overcomes the play’s darker themes, and GSC co-founder Matt Pinches lets rip with his usual array of comic voices – as a slow, West Country station announcer before the curtain comes up, and then as Launce, Proteus’s servant, played with a Welsh accent as broad that of the Pontypool  front row,

But the undoubted star of this production of The Two Gentlemen is Launce’s canine companion Crab. Played by three separate actors throughout the 16 night run, Tiba had Launce – and the entire audience – eating out of his paw last night.

Another triumph for the exuberant Guildford Shakespeare Company. Like Master Will, they just get better and better.

 

 

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