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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

 

 

The Silver Travel Book Club goes to Sardinia

The story of my trip to Sardinia, for the Silver Travel Book Club, following in the footsteps of an author, her characters and locations in Sardinia.

Silver Travellers may already be aware of the Silver Travel Book Club (“STBC”), set up recently as a result of our new partnership with TripFictionSilver Travel Advisor members can now access TripFiction’s database of location-based fiction and travel-related memoirs, set in thousands of alluring global destinations.

Debbie Marshall, MD and founder of Silver Travel Advisor: “The worlds of travel and books go hand in hand, and we know that our members will enjoy browsing the wide range of novels and memoirs on the TripFiction site, providing ideas and inspiration for their future travels“.

Rosanna Ley, the authorThe first STBC book of the month was The Little Theatre by the Sea, written by Rosanna Ley. Two lucky Silver Travellers received a free copy of the book, and have been reading it along with Andrew Morris, one of our regular writers and Literary Editor of the STBC.

The Little Theatre is firmly rooted in Sardinia, and Rosanna’s vivid prose transports you to the wild, unspoiled west coast of this intriguing island. Newly qualified interior designer Faye visits friends Charlotte and Fabio in charming Deriu, where she is employed – by brother and sister Alessandro and Maria Rinaldi – to draw up plans to restore the crumbling old theatre in the village.

Bosa StreetThis engaging romantic mystery is a classic destination novel. Close your eyes, and the author will have you walking through the narrow cobbled streets of Deriu’s centro storico, where pastel-coloured houses tumble down from the old castle to the Temo river, just a short distance from the sea and the marina. Or eating local speciality spaghetti con bottarga, washed down with a bottle of Cannonau wine.

But our intrepid Literary Editor wanted to get even closer to the author, her characters and locations…so we packed Andrew off to Sardinia to see if he could track down Deriu and solve the mystery of the Little Theatre by the Sea.

Over to Andrew

Before heading out to Sardinia, I contacted the author – Rosanna Ley – and she kindly answered a few questions, giving me an insight into her writing approach and a few clues about hunting down some of the places, characters, food and wine she included in Little Theatre. You can read the detailed Q&A session on the Book Club Forum thread here.

Bosa rooftops from near the castle, looking down to the snaking river TemoMy first port of call had to be Bosa. Rosanna: “I wanted somewhere that didn’t already have a theatre so that I could make it my own! I renamed it Deriu because it is easier then to “make it your own”, and hopefully none of the locals will be offended by anything I write about places & people which they might construe as being taken from real life.”

I wandered along the banks of the river Temo, spotting the converted houses on the river bank, where Faye stays with Charlotte and Fabio, and the ponte vecchio, where Faye gets closer to Alessandro.

But it is the centro storico that engaged Rosanna most, and which enchants Faye too: “the jumble of buildings lay mainly between the far riverbank and the hill beyond; Faye could see what looked like a castle on top of the hill, the other old buildings sheltered beneath. The cluttered houses were painted various shades of pastel, the river snaking from the cradle of the lush mountain valleys in the east through to the sea beyond.”

“That’s the centro storico, the old mediaeval town. It was originally founded by the Phoenicians – because of the fertility of the soil and the river.”

Malaspina CastleI too fell in love with beautiful Bosa/Deriu, home of the mythical Little Theatre. I ambled through the labyrinthine cobbled streets, craning my neck to see washing stretching from one pastel-coloured house to another. I climbed ever upwards towards the Malaspina castle, as Faye does when describing her quandary to her mother, and from where: “a prickly pear was outlined against the summer sky. From here she could see a jumble or orange roofs and flower-laden terraces; vines twisting around wooden pergolas, purple jasmine blossoming in a blue haze.” And I visited the Deriu Museum, from which Rosanna borrowed the name for her fictional town.

Outside Bosa, I went north – via a spectacular coast road – to Alghero, a fortified Catalan city jutting out into the sea. Faye eats “a delicious lunch of aragosta alla catalane, lobster with tomatoes and onions” with her father here. I had spaghetti con bottarga instead, another local speciality eaten by Faye back in Deriu, with Allesandro:Spaghetti con bottarga, local speciality with mullet roe “a type of caviar made from the roe of grey mullet. Faye’s bottarga was good; she loved the deceptive simplicity of Sardinian recipes and produce.” I also saw the restored Teatro Civico in Alghero, part of Rosanna’s inspiration for Faye’s redesign of the crumbling imagined old theatre in Deriu.

I found the marina at Bosa, where Alessandro works at a boatyard, but it was too large and on the wrong side of the estuary. Through the magic of social media, Rosanna pointed me in the right direction, teasing me perhaps in a game of literary cat-and-mouse.

Following Rosanna and Faye was a joy. I would love to have had more time to visit some of the other places seen by Faye, on different trips away from Deriu with Alessandro and with her visiting father, but I hope you’ve enjoyed sharing what literary stalking I did manage to achieve in Sardinia.

Where next, I wonder?

Book review – The Sound of Gravity

What would you say is your preferred environment….beach, forest, jungle, desert or mountain?

Margate town and seafront viewed from harbour wall.

My Mum & Dad have always been drawn to the sea, escaping from suburbia to buy a hotel in Margate in the 1960s, living on the south coast in later life and spending long winter holidays in Spain & Portugal, as close to the sea as they could find.

But my own addiction is definitely mountains. Climbing up or skiing down them, or just admiring from afar, I marvel at their infinite variety and the constant challenge they provide.

Fortunately, my adventurous wife Gill feels the same. We have been lucky to enjoy many holidays in the mountains – the Swiss and French Alps, Spanish Pyrenees, Italian Dolomites, the Majella in Abruzzo, and more. And still not sated, I summited the Big One – Kilimanjaro – for my 50th birthday.

But I’m definitely a walker, rather than a climber of mountains. Climbing is a vastly different technical skill and an altogether greater challenge. Just watch films like Everest or Touching the Void to begin to understand the sharp contrast.

Joe Simpson, a renowned mountaineer,  wrote the book Touching the Void, turned into a memorable docudrama film in 2003.

I have just finished reading his novel, The Sound of Gravity, published in 2011.

An unnamed man and his wife get caught in a terrible storm, high up a mountain, somewhere in the Alps. The man’s wife dies and he is haunted with guilt.

The first part of the book is told almost in real-time, describing with hypnotic detail events leading to her death, and how he ultimately survives the devastating storm.

The narrative is compelling, but even for mountain lovers the amount of climbing jargon and flowery language could prove as challenging as a difficult summit.

In the second part – 25 years later – the man – now known to be Patrick – spends summers in the hut, close to where his wife’s body fell.  The story becomes more human and readable, in my opinion, as other characters and story lines are introduced.

But the mountain remains the main protagonist, and despite some issues with the narrative, I enjoyed the book. How could a mountain-lover not, with descriptions like this:

The ice cliffs had changed in the waning shades of dusk. Where before they had been sharp-lit and bright-edged, they now glistened in faceted aquamarine. The colours had intensified, highlighting the dark, deep blue caverns yawning at their feet.

The encircling mountains threw up a snow-capped palisade to guard the glacier bay below him. Sinister layers of bruised purple veined the advancing storm front. In the shadowed valleys beyond he glimpsed the sheen of a distant lake, bright-sparkled by a flash of weak sunlight.

Book review – Tragic Shores – “A Memoir of Dark Travels”

One of the nice things about working with Tina & Tony at TripFiction is their access to publishers, and books I might not normally read.

Tina passed me a copy of Tragic Shores – A Memoir of Dark Travel – for review. Written by Thomas H Cook, this haunting collection of episodic travel stories is published by Quercus, and is the first work of non-fiction from this prolific crime writer.

Publisher’s “blurb”:

Thomas Cook has always been drawn to dark places, for the powerful emotions they evoke and for what we can learn from them. These lessons are often unexpected and sometimes profoundly intimate, but they are never straightforward.

With his wife and daughter, Cook travels across the globe in search of darkness – from Lourdes to Ghana, from San Francisco to Verdun, from the monumental, mechanised horror of Auschwitz to the intimate personal grief of a shrine to dead infants in Kamukura, Japan. Along the way he reflects on what these sites may teach us, not only about human history, but about our own personal histories.

During the course of a lifetime of travelling to some of earth’s most tragic shores, from the leper colony on Molokai to ground zero at Hiroshima, he finds not darkness alone, but a light that can illuminate the darkness within each of us. Written in vivid prose, this is at once a personal memoir of exploration (both external and internal), and a strangely heartening look at the radiance that may be found at the very heart of darkness.

Cook’s writing is profound in its content, and almost poetic in style. His use of tone and language force you to think deeply about these dark places he has visited over the years. It is no surprise to learn that he studied philosophy at Columbia University, before teaching English and History.

The way he links some of the Tragic Shores with others in the book, or with parallel events in life, is never contrived but clearly contemplated with gravitas and empathy.

Excerpt from The Forest and The Bridge:

But there are also public areas that attract private suicides, and two of these, the Aokigahara forest at the base of Mount Fuji and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, have been officially designated as the second and first most “popular” suicide sites on earth.

True, many suicides are rash reactions to some moment of grief and anguish or disappointment, one that might well have passed, and its passing, opened to a fuller, or at least more endurable life, and these we must do everything we can to prevent. But others are the product of a protracted ordeal, and it is these, if we cannot prevent them, that we must judge more tenderly, as I found myself doing that morning.

For it seemed to me that here, on this bridge, a final evaluation had been made, and a final judgement rendered, one that utterly rejected my long, trivial list of why a given human being should fine reason to live. For what is food when one no longer cares to taste? What is music when one no longer cares to hear? What is work when one no longer sees its purpose? What is the value of your life if it has grown so torturous that neither the fear of pain nor the fear of death can hinder you from taking it?

But from the writer’s experiences and thoughts on his own travels to dark places through history comes light, and hope. And he weaves his deeply personal – and touching – narrative thread from the same loom as others sowed fear, hatred, war and torture.

On literary location in Sardinia….

I read The Little Theatre by the Sea recently, written by Rosanna Ley and chosen as the first read for both the TripFiction Book Club and the Silver Travel Advisor Book Club.

Thanks to Silver Travel Advisor, their partner Sardatur Holidays and Is Benas Country Lodge, I shall soon be following in the literary footsteps of Faye, Rosanna’s lead character in the novel, to explore the blurred world of fiction and reality on the unspoiled west coast of Sardinia.

In anticipation, Rosanna kindly answered some questions I posed about the places she had used in the book, the characters, food, wine, culture and history of this intriguing island that had influenced her research…..

Rosanna

Your latest novel, The Little Theatre by the Seawas published by Quercus in March 2017 (hardback) and on 1st June (paperback). 

The intriguing romantic mystery – can I call it that? – takes place mainly in Sardinia. As you know, Little Theatre was chosen as the first read for both the TripFiction Book Club and for the Silver Travel Book Club.

And thanks to Silver Travel Advisor partner Sardatur Holidays and Is Benas Country Lodge, I will be travelling to Sardinia in June to follow in the footsteps of your principal character, Faye.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions about The Little Theatre by the Sea, Rosanna, and about your writing approach.

I’m delighted. This is so exciting! I can’t wait to hear how you get on – and yes ‘intriguing romantic mystery’ sounds good to me.

Q. Your previous novels have been based in Cuba, Marrakech, Burma, the Canary Islands, Sicily, and now Sardinia. How do you decide where to base your stories, and how important a role does location play in the novels?

A. It’s different for each book. With Return to Mandalay, for example, my husband’s family had a fascinating story and a wealth of sources concerning the country and my late father-in-law’s life there. While the book is in no way a biography, it did inspire me to visit and use much of the material in my story.

For ‘The Saffron Trail’ the original seeds for me were saffron and the ‘hippie trail’ – I formed a story around these and Morocco was the obvious choice of setting. ‘Bay of Secrets’ came from the plot (based on a true story) and Last Dance in Havana I chose because I wanted to write about dance and because the history and politics of Cuba fascinated me. With ‘The Villa’ however I visited Sicily for a holiday and was simply inspired to use it as a setting. When it came to Sardinia for ‘Little Theatre by the Sea’ I wanted to write about transformation and I immediately imagined my crumbling theatre to be in Italy. It seemed the perfect setting for the story.

Location is a big part of a book for me – they have been called ‘destination novels’!

Q. Once you’ve decided on a location for a novel, how do you approach your research on “place”? And do you then write while you’re in the location, or can that creative process take place back at home in Dorset?

A. I read about the place both in fiction and non-fiction – anything I can get hold of really, and research it thoroughly using the Internet and libraries. I may also watch films or documentaries. I go there to get the flavour and travel around with my husband taking photographs and me making notes. I find the places I imagine the characters to live, work and play and the journeys that they might travel in various scenes. I generally write a few scenes while I am away but much of the work will be done when I am back at home using my notes and the photos to remind me.

Q. Your Little Theatre lead character Faye, a newly qualified interior designer, is invited by old friends to restore a crumbling old theatre in the Sardinian village of Deriu. Can you please describe where the inspiration for that fictional village came from?

A. I chose Bosa before I went there, just through research really. I wanted somewhere that didn’t already have a theatre so that I could make it my own! When I got there I realised that Bosa was perfect for the needs of the story. I re-named it Deriu because it is easier then to ‘make it your own’ and hopefully none of the locals will then be offended by anything I write about places and people which they might construe as being taken from real life! The truth is that all the people I wrote about were fictional but a few of the real places crept in, sometimes disguised…

QBosa sounds like a charming, traditional Sardinian town on the north-west coast, in the province of Oristano. What should I do and look out for there, to feel that I really am following in the footsteps of Faye and her creator? And how much do you think history has shaped the town today?

A. History has definitely shaped the town into what it is today. I think you can find the converted houses on the river bank (where Faye stays in Charlotte and Fabio’s house) including the museum. You can cross the bridge where Alessandro and Faye have a few ‘moments’ and admire the colourful houses on the other side. You can visit the Castle by walking up the steps through the olive grove as Faye did when talking to her mother on the phone about relationships and the mistakes we make and see the stunning frescoes in the chapel at the top and also the view of the town Faye reflects on. Casa Deriu is also worth visiting because although it does not feature in the book, I took the name for the town and you will see why when you visit this charming museum. At the marina you can see where Alessandro’s boatyard might have been and walk round the bay as they did. Best of all, just wander the old mediaeval quarter of Bosa to explore the area, the pretty piazzas, the artisan markets, the narrow cobblestone alleys that make up the old town. With a bit of luck you will find a building in a piazza which is actually an old chapel but has a rose window and could very well have been used as the basis for the Little Theatre itself.

Q. Where did the inspiration for the old theatre come from, if not from Bosa

A. Partly the old chapel (see above) but I also used the theatre at Sassari and other old Italian theatres that I found images of online. But basically, it was a madeup building, a fusion of all these parts.

Q. Food and wine play an important role in Little Theatre, as they do in Sarda cultureWhat local cuisine can you and Faye recommend…and what is your favourite wine from that part of Sardinia? 

A. Oh yes, lovely food! Some of my favourites were: burrida (a spicy fish soup), spaghetti con bottarga (with mullet roe) and malloreddus (a gnocchi style pasta cooked with saffron in tomato sauce). I also loved fregola – an unusual pasta similar to cous-cous, often served with clams. The seafood pasta was always good. And as for the lobster… Take me back there – now!

A lovely wine to try is the golden dry Vernacia di Oristano DOC.

Q. Whilst in Sardinia, most of the plot develops in Deriu. But Faye also discovers other parts of this intoxicating island, with theatre owner Alessandro and also with her father. Where should I go beyond beautiful Bosa, to see and feel what Faye experienced? Have you explored many other parts of Sardinia…and how would you say that this western coastal area differs from the rest of the island?

A. We travelled around the island in our motorhome to explore and research and spent three weeks drinking it all in. We didn’t get the whole way round, but focused mainly on the west of the island and the South, rather than the more touristy but stunning Costa Smeralda in the east. I would say that the west is more rugged and dramatic and is much less touristy and developed, which suited my purposes for the story.

We began by driving through the cork forests of the interior to the West coast from Olbia. We started at the National Park of Asinara in the north and basically drove down the coast. Some other high points were: Capo Falcone, the white beaches at Stintino, the ‘ghost’ mining town of Argentiera, Alghero (see below) the stunning coves on the magnificent Costa del Sud from Teulada to Chia which were also inspirations for the beach scenes, Nora (see below) and Cagliari.

In particular, Cala Domestica leads to the secret beach where Alessandro takes Faye. In the novel, this is near Deriu but it is actually a lot further down the west coast from Bosa and near the old mining town of Buggerru.

Nora is the site of the ancient village Faye visits with Ade. It is south of the island near Cagliari and is where she sees the ancient amphitheatre. This is a very interesting historical site.

Alghero is in north west Sardinia and Faye visits with Ade. It is a fascinating Catalan city which is a fusion of Italian and Catalan in food, history and architecture. It is also home to Teatro Civico.

The capital of Cagliari doesn’t feature in the book but is well worth a visit if you get the chance!

Q. There are some other lovely characters living in Deriu in Little Theatre. Are any of them based on real people you met while researching the story? Who should I try to meet while I’m in Bosa?

A. No, sadly none of the characters are based on real people! However, you will see women sitting outside their houses lace-making and men playing dominoes outside or in cafés. Down at the Marina you will also hopefully see fishermen – perhaps even mending their nets as we did!

Q. Do you know yet where your next novel will be based, and when we can expect to read another romantic mystery in an exotic location from you? I may have to follow you and our characters there too….

A. The next novel is entitled ‘Her Mother’s Secret’ and is set in Belle-Ile-en Mer, a small island just off the southern coast of Brittany.

Grazie mille, Rosanna, for giving us some insight into your latest novel The Little Theatre by the Sea and into the location that inspired your characters and plot. Good luck with promoting Little Theatre and see you at the location of your next novel!

An absolute pleasure. Thank you so much, Andrew and I hope you have a wonderful trip to Sardinia.

Books – why do you read them?

Why do you read novels?

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To escape? Emotionally? Physically? Do you enjoy being transported to another destination, to a magical locale, whether real or imagined?

Or is a devious, head-scratching plot more important for you? Or perhaps you’re driven more by a story’s characters, who need to be more layered than a one-dimensional thug, or an untarnished saint?

I wrote a while ago about TripFiction, an intriguing and inspiring website recognising that books set in a location offer great holiday reading. They help us get under the skin of a place in a way that is quite different to a conventional travel guide.

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(image courtesy of TripFiction)

I am honoured and excited to be helping the lovely people at TripFiction with their new #TFBookClub. The first selection has been The Little Theatre by the Sea. Written by Rosanna Ley, it transports the reader from Dorset to Sardinia.

The Little Theatre by the Sea by [Ley, Rosanna]

Rosanna has clearly carried out a huge amount of research into Sardinia, and I loved the evocative descriptions of local sights, smells and tastes, with Italian words picked out and italicised for added authenticity.  Buonissimo! It certainly brought back happy memories of our own trip there a few years ago, and I was close to booking a flight to Olbia before turning the final page.

But – and I hope Rosanna forgives me for this personal observation – I found the locations of the story more inspiring than either the plot, or the characters populating this otherwise enjoyably escapist novel.

But that’s fine. I was entertained for many hours and given a vicarious holiday, all for the price of a book. And I will really enjoy hearing the thoughts of other TF readers, and finding out what their priorities are in any book they read.

Why do you read a novel? How perfect does it have to be, to give you enjoyment on some level…..?

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Book review – The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien

Love. Hope, Passion. Evil. Loss. Loneliness. Isolation. Displacement. Genocide. Survival.

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Edna O’Brien’s latest novel weaves all these disparate themes, and emotional extremes, into a story that will leave you gasping for air by the time you turn the final page. And shaking your head in disbelief at the evil man can perpetrate.

This is masterful prose from a gifted story-teller at the peak of her considerable powers, honed in 19 novels and much other garlanded literary output throughout her 86 years.

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The first part of The Little Red Chairs takes place in a small village in rural Ireland. A stranger arrives in this peaceful community. He is an enigmatic presence but a poet and a healer, who soon becomes an increasingly popular figure.

His name is on everybody’s lips, Dr Vlad this and Dr Vlad that. He has done wonders for people, women claiming to be rejuvenated, just after two treatments. It is tantamount to a miracle, what he has done for Hamish’s wife. 

Jack McBride is a good man, but much older than his wife. Fidelma longs for a child, to become a mother before that option is no longer available to her. She comes to know Vlad, but the consequences are a scene as shocking as I can remember reading in any work of fiction.

The second part of the story is told on a broader canvas, both geographically and in its themes. War. Genocide. The asylum process. Immigration. Revenge. These are communicated effectively by the writer, but I preferred the subtlety of quiet, brooding, parochial scenes in rural Ireland – and the difficult to endure, heart-piercing shock of the pivotal scene – to the more sweeping story that develops afterwards.

This book has been called Edna O’Brien’s masterpiece. I’m not sure about that, I’ll have to read some of her other work to compare. But it is a fine novel, memorable and haunting.

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Book review – Terrorist by John Updike

John Updike is lauded as one of America’s greatest writers. He was a prolific creator of novels, short story collections, essays and literary criticism. He is one of only three people to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction more than once.

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And I’m almost ashamed to say that Terrorist, written in 2006 and one of the last works before his death in 2009, is the first Updike novel I have read. But it won’t be the last.

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Terrorist is eerily prophetic. It takes place a few years after the 9/11 atrocities invaded the minds of previously complacent Americans, but its characters and plot foretell with uncanny accuracy the constant jihadi threat facing Trump’s USA and the wider western world 10 years later.

Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy is a US-born teenager, whose Irish-American Catholic mother Teresa had a brief relationship with an Egyptian, Ahmad’s now long-gone father.

They live in the ironically named town of New Prospect, the New Jersey equivalent of Trump’s mid-West rust-belt, where once vibrant businesses decay, people struggle to find work and neighbourhoods have become increasingly multicultural.

Ahmad is in his last year of High School. He is bright but has no immediate ambition, other than to drive a truck. He knows that his God – Allah –  will show him the right way forward. And, thanks to instruction of the Qur’an since he was 10, by Imam Shaikh Rashid at the local mosque, he knows not to succumb to the siren call of Joryleen, a sexually aware black girl in his class at school. As much as he is tempted.

Jack Levy is a world-weary careers advisor, who sees the potential in Ahmad. Jack’s wife Beth is fat and has become lazy, and he embarks on an ill-fated affair with Ahmad’s promiscuous mother.

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There is almost an overload of religious education in the first third of the book. We read swathes of the Qur’an with Ahmad and see how Shaikh Rashid begins to foment Ahmad’s radicalisation; Jack is a Jew, but struggles with his own faith and guilt; Teresa is clearly a somewhat lapsed Catholic.

At the age of forty, she has parted from a number of men, and how many would she want back? With each break, it seems to her in retrospect, she returned to her single life with a fresh forthrightness and energy, like facing a blank, taut, primed canvas after some days away from the easel.

As the plot develops and the characters’ lives intertwine, Updike’s powerful prose entraps you, like a fly in an arachnid’s web.

“What is freedom?”, Shaikh Rashid asks, his eyes opening and breaking the skin of his trance, “As long as we are in our bodies, we are slaves to our bodies and our necessities. How I envy you, dear boy. Compared with you, I am old, and it is to the young that the greatest glory of battle belongs. To sacrifice one’s life,” he continues, as his eyelids half shut, so just a wet gray glitter shows, “before it becomes a tattered, exhausted thing. What an endless joy that would be.”

Terrorist eases into being a conventional, taut thriller, but thanks to the author’s mastery of language and storytelling, it is so much more.

And it has also made me fear that there is no obvious solution to the threat of constant attack by so-called radical Islamists, who see death and destruction of Western infidels as the only Straight Path to follow in life.

Book review – Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith burst onto the literary scene, like a dazzling meteor, with the publication of White Teeth in 2000, written while studying English literature at Cambridge.

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That debut novel captures perfectly the complicated relationships between the English and migrants, particularly those from the old colonial countries. Based in her native north-west London, as most of Smith’s novels are, friends Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal are beautifully drawn characters, with depth and warmth. Their story and the writing linger long in the memory.

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Swing Time also has its roots in north London. Two young brown girls (mixed race, like Smith herself) meet at a community dance class. Tracey is talented and wild. The never-named narrator is smarter, but not such a great dancer.

The novel tracks their stories and relationship over the next 25 years of adolescence and young adult life.

Tracey has some brief but minor stage success, but descends into council estate poverty, with bitterness and with several children from different fathers.

The narrator finds that a weird globetrotting existence, as PA for a Madonna-like superstar, suits her aimless ambition. With no life of her own, she is glued to Aimee’s whims and changing directions. Based mainly in London and New York, as the writer herself is, the story takes on a different dimension when Aimee decides to fund a girls’ school in West Africa.

The lesser characters in Swing Time are subtly drawn. Aimee is besotted with much younger Lamin, from the African village, and wants him to become part of her inner circle. Beautiful young Hawa, also from the village, chooses a different escape route. Intellectual philanthropic facilitator Fernando from Brazil falls in love with the narrator.

The novel has been well received, but I’m afraid it falls short of the lasting impression I had after turning the final page of White Teeth. Zadie Smith’s novels have won prizes, she is often included in most influential people lists, and she lives a gilded life spanning New York and London. But somehow Swing Time feels a little too much like a hook for her personal concerns and political beliefs, than a well-formed story with wholly believable characters.

Maybe I’m being excessively critical, but you set the bar very high with White Teeth, Ms Smith. Can you please find another meteor?

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Book review – H is for Hawk

I love all the different elements you’ve put on the plate, it’s beautifully presented and you’re demonstrating some real cooking skills. But for me, the dish just doesn’t come together as a whole.

This is but one of many oft repeated comments from expert judges on MasterChef, as they skewer the culinary hopes of another competitor. But I’m afraid the same thoughts began to run through my head as I got deeper into Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk.

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Winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction and the Costa Book Award in 2014, it is an accomplished piece of thoughtful – and thought-provoking – literature.

The author is a writer, a naturalist and an academic. And, after the death of her father, she spent an intense year training a hawk. Not just any hawk…a goshawk. Which she named Mabel.

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The book is multi-layered. At its core, it is a moving autobiography as the mental and physical energy required to train Mabel distracts Helen from the searing grief of losing her beloved father.

There was nothing that was such a salve to my grieving heart as the hawk returning. 

I felt incomplete unless the hawk was sitting on my hand: we were parts of each other. Grief and the hawk had conspired to this strangeness. 

A biographical thread also runs through the entire book, with the author recounting the parallel story of T. H. White’s own, less successful, hawk-training efforts, as told in his 1951 book The Goshawk.

And of course Helen’s own narrative includes some dazzling prose about the natural environment into which Mabel is gradually introduced. And in which the beautiful hawk is eventually flying free, rather than tethered to its trainer.

The hawk left the fist with a recoil of a .303 rifle. I stepped out to watch. Saw a chain of events so fast they snapped into a comic strip: frame, frame, frame. Frame one: goshawk spluttering from the fist in bars and pinions and talons. Frame two: goshawk low to the ground, grass streaking along under her. Chocolate wings, beating strongly, hump-backed. Frame three: rabbits running. Frame four: the pheasant, too, crouching and running into the wood’s safe margin.

Each element of the book is presented with consummate literary skill, but for me, the story just didn’t come together as a whole.

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