Anne Griffin, Author, Book review, Fiction, general, Ireland, Publisher, Sceptre, Setting

‘When All is Said’ by Anne Griffin

Fiction – paperback; Sceptre; 266 pages; 2019.

The cover of my edition of Anne Griffin’s When All is Said claims it is an international bestseller. I can see why.

This is a delightful and entertaining tale about an old man looking back on his life in rural Ireland, a man who came from nothing, struggled with dyslexia and reinvented himself as a farmer with an eye for property acquisition.

It shows how the course of his life was altered by a single act in his childhood involving a rare gold coin, an act that binds him to the owner forevermore.

An evening in the bar

The novel is set on a single evening, in the bar of a grand hotel, and is split into five parts. Each part is a toast dedicated to a person who played an important role, whether for good or bad, in 84-year-old Maurice Hannigan’s life.

First Toast: to Tony
Bottle of stout

Over the course of the evening, interspersed with wonderfully amusing details about the hotel and its young landlady owner, we learn about Maurice’s upbringing and the relationships he had with his older brother, his wife Sadie, his two children and his sister-in-law. It’s a typical life in the sense that it’s filled with births, deaths and marriages, ups and downs, tragedies and small triumphs.

But for all the charm and witticisms Maurice displays as he relays his life story, there’s an undercurrent of unease.  On more than one occasion I wondered if others actually liked him? Was he petty? Perhaps even sly and cruel? For throughout the tale Maurice holds a grudge, and a deeply felt one at that — and it’s largely about that aforementioned coin.

A lifelong grudge

This is how the grudge came about. When Maurice’s headmaster advised him to leave school, aged 10, because he struggled to read and write — thanks to what was clearly a case of undiagnosed dyslexia — he went to work for the Dollards, a Protestant family in a Big House, where his mother was already employed in the kitchen.

Maurice did odd jobs around the farm but was subjected to terrible beatings and bullying, mainly by the Dollards’ son, Thomas, who was of a similar age.

Quicker than I thought possible, Thomas was there at my back, a hunting crop in his hand. As I turned, he struck me with it, the metal slicing into my cheek. When I fell to the ground holding my face, he kicked my stomach again and again and again.

Maurice gets to avenge these ongoing cruel acts several months later when he scoops up a gold coin that Thomas has flung out an upstairs window as part of a fight with his father. No one sees Maurice take the coin which turns out to be an exceedingly rare gold sovereign produced when King Edward VIII was on the throne but removed from circulation upon his abdication in 1936. The coin is so rare that its loss costs Thomas his inheritance — and later his sanity.

(Side note: the coin, it turns out, isn’t fictionalised. Only six were produced, making them one of the rarest British coins in existence. Google tells me that the Royal Mint dubbed it the “coinage that never was” because it was pulled from production when King Edward VIII abdicated to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. One of these coins sold at auction in 2020 for £1 million. More about the coin here.)

Reading treat

When All is Said is a real treat to read. The author achieves a careful balancing act, preventing the narrative from heading into either sentimental or maudlin territory. It is tender, frank and endearing.

Maurice’s voice is brilliant — it’s intimate, moving, funny and all too human. You do feel like you are sitting at the bar with him, listening to him tell his tale. He’s a flawed character but he recognises his flaws. When he apologises to his son for not being a good father  — “I know, really I do, that I could’ve been better” — you know he means it.

I’m not sure you could describe When All is Said as a “feel good” book, but it’s certainly a warm and witty one, the kind of tale that makes you appreciate a life well lived. It is masterful storytelling.

Antarctica, Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Favel Parrett, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Sceptre, Setting

‘When the Night Comes’ by Favel Parrett

When the night comes

Fiction – paperback; Sceptre; 272 pages; 2014.

Favel Parrett’s When the Night Comes is one of those lovely, gentle stories that demands nothing of the reader — except to let the quiet, bare-boned prose wash over you.

Set in 1986, largely in Hobart, Tasmania and on the Antarctic ice-breaker Nella Dan, the story charts the friendship between two unlikely people: Isla, a young teenage girl, and Bo, the Danish crewman who boards with her family when he’s not at sea.

Told in short impressionistic chapters — sometimes from Isla’s point of view, sometimes from Bo’s — their intertwined stories slowly unfold. What emerges is an in-depth character study of two people trying to find their rightful places in the world after loss  — in Isla’s case, the loss of her father through divorce; in Bo’s case, through the death of his father and, later, a colleague.

Emotional truths

While I would hesitate to describe When the Night Comes as a portrait of grief, it is very much a story about emotional truths. For Isla it’s all about working out whom she can trust and discovering that not all grown men are violent or unpredictable as per her estranged father; for Bo it’s about reconnecting with the things that his papa loved so much — nature, the sea and the camaraderie to be found onboard ship.

My father turned to me and said, “The sea is alive and there is no beginning and there is no end. It moves with the moon and the spinning of this earth and it calls us when it wants us to come.”

Indeed, the book offers some beautiful descriptions of the Antarctic wilderness, of the endless ice and snow, and the birds that fly overhead, and it’s hard not to see it as a metaphor for the frozen emotional states of both characters, whose gentle friendship over the course of “two long summers” helps them readjust to new circumstances.

The Nella Dan
The Nella Dan, by Dr. Robert Ricker, via NOAA Photo Library and Wikipedia Commons

Central to the storyline is the role of food and the exquisite comfort it can bring at times of turmoil. Bo, a chef on the Nella Dan, tells Isla and her younger brother of the simple joy that an orange can bring when you are far out at sea — or trapped in ice, as the Nella Dan was for seven long weeks en route to Antarctica’s Casey research station. And when he’s at home preparing food he is at his most honest and forthright with Isla, sharing stories of the sea and infecting her with a lifelong interest in science and the natural world.

(The descriptions of food, by the way, are mouthwatering… and it pays not to read this book on an empty stomach. You have been warned.)

While there’s a melancholia at the heart of this novel, helped in part by a series of tragic events, it never feels claustrophobic or depressing. It deals with big issues — death, grief, divorce, among others —  so you might expect the narrative to feel weighted down, but it’s almost the opposite: the prose practically floats off the page it feels so light. Coupled with moments of quiet, unbridled joy, When the Night Comes is a truly captivating and unexpectedly moving story.

Last year it was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Australian Book Industry Awards, The Indie Books Awards, the ALS Gold Medal and the ABA’s Booksellers Choice Award.

It has been published in the UK and North America.

For another take on this novel, please read Susan’s review at A Life in Books.

This is my 42nd book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 28th for #AWW2016.

Australia, Author, Book review, Egypt, Fiction, France, historical fiction, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Sceptre, Setting, Thomas Keneally

‘The Daughters of Mars’ by Thomas Keneally

The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally

Fiction – paperback; Sceptre; 520 pages; 2012.

Australian writer Thomas Keneally is probably best known for his novel Schindler’s Ark, which won the Booker Prize in 1982 and was adapted into an Oscar-winning film (under the name Schindler’s List) by Steven Spielberg in 1994. But he has a vast backlist of novels (34 at last count!) and non-fiction books (18!) to his name, some of which have lingered in my TBR for years.

The Daughters of Mars, which was published in 2012, is a powerful novel about two sisters from rural NSW who are nurses during the Great War. I extracted it from my shelves to take with me on a recent trip to Abu Dhabi and found it the perfect holiday read. At more than 500 pages of densely packed prose, it kept me entertained for an entire week, which meant I really didn’t need to take any other reading material with me.

The book is one of those proper epics that traverses continents, hemispheres and world history, and tells the story, not only of sibling rivalries, family obligations and small-town jealousies, but of what it was like to go to the other side of the earth to nurse the men so horribly maimed and injured, first in the Dardanelles, then on the Western Front. Keneally brings to life so much of that brutal conflict, I found myself grimacing in places, wiping tears away at others. Yet this book is never soppy or sentimental.

Sister act

Initially, the two sisters, Naomi and Sally Durance, have quite a strained relationship. When the book opens, their mother, who has endured an agonising battle with cancer, has died at home, where the pair of them have taken it in turns to offer palliative care. But there are suspicions that Naomi euthanised her using an overdose of morphine that Sally stole from the local hospital in which she works. Yet this “crime” is never discussed openly between the sisters, and this guilty secret hangs over their relationship for the entire length of the book.

But thrown together in war-torn Europe, the Durances learn to depend upon one another in ways they would never have had to back home, and their  cool relationship thaws to one of friendship and love. If that makes The Daughters of Mars sound overly heart-warming, let me assure you that it never quite feels that way.

While there is some romance (each of them meets potential life partners during their years abroad), this is not a saccharine read. Indeed, any leanings towards soppiness is tempered by the brutality they must confront on the hospital ship, where soldiers maimed during the failed campaign at Gallipoli are brought on board for treatment (or to die), and later in the emergency field hospitals and clearing stations near the Western Front, where the injuries treated are more horrific than anyone could ever imagine, thanks largely to the use of gas — tear gas, chloropicrin, phosgene and chlorine, for instance — which burned eyes and airways.

There was a new gas now — mustard gas. It did not cripple the membranes and crimp the alveoli. It burned all membranes instead. It burned the eyes, the face, the mucous membranes and the walls of the lung. The mustard victims arrived at the gas ward stripped naked by the orderlies in reception and carried on a clean stretcher in a clean blanket. For the oily vapours of the chemical which had entered their clothing could burn them through fabric. […] The nurses did what could be done to help the naked and blistered, grasping men to gargle out the poison, to wash it from their noses and eyes. But the bodies of the gassed themselves exuded the poison, and every quarter of an hour nurses must go outside and take the fresh air and cough their throats clear of the communicated venom.

Throughout the novel, medical procedures and treatments are described in exacting — and visceral — detail, which helps to make the carnage, the turmoil and the trauma so vivid. The fact that both sisters are constantly aware of their own mortality is also an important element of the story, for they survive the sinking of their hospital ship and later lose newly made friends and colleagues to all manner of illness and injury. It makes their own ongoing survival seem such a miracle: why are they spared when so many others have not been?

A Great War epic

The Daughters of Mars is a wide-ranging epic that spans the length of the Great War, but what makes it different to other war fiction is its focus on what it was like to be a volunteer nurse far from home during a conflict we only ever seem to read about from a man’s perspective. It’s warm and intimate, and the female voices ring true at every turn.  It’s definitely a worthy addition to that great canon of literature about the First World War.

Finally, I have to mention the ending, which seems to attract a rather mixed reaction from those I know who have read this book. Of course, I’m not going to outline what happens here, but let me say this: I liked it. It has lingered in my mind ever since, and I think that’s a  good sign that it has worked. Many others won’t agree.

For other takes, please see Lisa’s review on ANZ LitLovers and Karen’s review on Booker Talk.

This novel is published in the UK, US and Canada.

I chose it as my book of the month for Waterstones.

This is my 25th book for #ReadingAustralia2016

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Fiona McFarlane, literary fiction, Sceptre, Setting

‘The Night Guest’ by Fiona McFarlane


Fiction – hardcover; Sceptre; 276 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest is an extraordinarily accomplished novel, one that is hard to categorise but easy to enjoy. I’ve seen it described as a “psychological thriller” but I think that does the book a disservice. While it is suspenseful and brims with tension — making it a sure-fire page-turner — it’s also full of poignant moments and laugh-out-loud black humour. I hungrily ate it up in the space of a weekend and absolutely loved it.

Life alone

Ruth, an Australian woman in her 70s, is readjusting to life alone as a widow following the death of her husband. She lives in a secluded house by the beach and has lately come to believe there is a tiger living in her house: she has never seen it but hears it “panting and snorting” in the hallway outside her bedroom of a night.

When she rings her son, who lives in New Zealand, to tell him about it, he placates her by saying it is “either a cat, or a dream”.

His voice conveyed a serene weariness; Ruth suspected he was reassuring his wife with an eyes-closed shake of the head that everything was all right, that his mother was just having one of her moments. When he’d visited a few weeks ago, at Easter, Ruth has noticed a new watchful patience in him, and a tendency to purse his lips whenever she said something he considered unusual. So she knew, from the funny mirror of Jeffrey’s face, that she had reached the stage where her sons would be worried about her.

As if to allay her fears, one morning a woman dressed in white arrives on her doorstep. Her name is Frida and she is a carer “sent by the government”. But for all her good intentions, Frida is not quite what she seems.

A symbiotic relationship

It’s hard to write the rest of this review without giving away crucial plot spoilers, but it’s fair to say the central focus of this novel is the relationship between these two very different women, which develops and changes over time. Occasionally, it feels a bit like a marriage — they even have their little squabbles but quickly move on as if nothing has happened — but as it progresses, you begin to question the health of their partnership.

I found my allegiance swinging widely between the two: one minute thinking Ruth was just being kooky and forgetful, the other wondering if Frida’s intentions might be nefarious. This, I think, is testament to McFarlane’s skillful handling of her characters — never making Ruth a batty old woman, not turning Frida into an obvious villain — so that they always remain very human and believable.

Indeed, this is a very human and believable story. It covers many important themes — how we care for the elderly, how their vulnerabilities can be exploited and the ways in which our memories can play tricks or deteriorate through dementia or trauma — and yet it’s also a book full of surreal moments. While it never strays into magic realism territory, the roaming, unseen tiger serves to make the reader a little unsure of Ruth’s sanity.

Suspenseful read

Aside from the tiger, what makes The Night Guest a wonderfully suspenseful read is the way that McFarlane holds back information and then reveals little nuggets that make the reader reassess all that has gone before. It’s a novel full of what I call “oh-oh” moments — little bombshells that make you fearful on Ruth’s behalf — but it never feels as if you are being manipulated or taken for a ride.

It has a lovely back story, too, of Ruth’s childhood growing up in Fiji, the only child of Australian missionaries. Her unrequited love for Richard, a young doctor who worked with her parents, still haunts her and when she manages to track him down and invite him to visit, their fledgling romance is sweetly told.

My only quibble is the final chapter which ties up many of the loose endings so that the reader is no longer left wondering about the way events played out. I would have preferred to have figured it out myself, and I rather suspect it was probably added in to keep a publisher happy because it feels rather different in style and viewpoint to the rest of the novel.

All in all, The Night Guest is an enthralling read, one that is both deeply disturbing and yet full of comic moments and tender insight. It is wise and funny and heartfelt. And it reminded me very much of that great dame of Australian letters Elizabeth Jolley, because it so expertly weaves the slightly surreal with the very human.

And finally…

I was very fortunate to be asked to chair the UK launch of the book at Sceptre’s offices last week. I had been told the event would be “very informal and relaxed”, so imagine my surprise (or should I say shock?) when I turned up to find the event was ticketed and that there were more than 60 people in attendance! Thank goodness for the giant glass of “Dutch courage” I was given by Fiona’s publicist beforehand and the fact that Fiona herself was so delightful and charming.

You can read a write up about the launch on the website of the Australia & New Zealand Festival of Literature & Arts, which sponsored the event together with the Australian Women’s Club.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Iraq, Kevin Powers, literary fiction, Publisher, Sceptre, Setting, USA, war

‘The Yellow Birds’ by Kevin Powers


Fiction – hardcover; Sceptre; 240 pages; 2012.

You’ve probably heard a lot about this book already. It’s been reviewed here, there and everywhere. And just a couple of weeks ago it won the Guardian First Book Award. It is, quite frankly, an astonishingly good first novel. It is not only a devastating account of the Iraq war, it is a compelling exploration of the aftermath on those who return home shell-shocked and psychologically damaged.

A promise that can’t be kept

The author, Kevin Power, served in the US Army in 2004 and 2005, where he was deployed as a machine gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar in Iraq. The Yellow Birds might be fiction, but I expect quite a lot of it is rooted in fact.

The first person narrator is  John Bartle, 21, who befriends Daniel Murphy, 18, when the pair of them are in training at Fort Dix.  For no other reason than they are both from Richmond, Virginia, Bartle takes “Murph” under his wing, a bit like an older brother would, and then makes a promise to Murphy’s mother that will haunt him for the rest of his life.

“And you’re going to look out for him, right?” she asked.
“Um, yes, ma’am.”
“And Daniel, he’s doing a good job?”
“Yes, ma’am, very good.” How the hell should I know, lady? I wanted to say. I barely knew the guy. Stop. Stop asking me questions. I don’t want to be accountable. I don’t know anything about this.
“John, promise me that you’ll take care of him.”
“Of course.” Sure, sure, I thought. Now you reassure me and I’ll go back and go to bed.
“Nothing’s gonna happen to him, right? Promise that you’ll bring him home to me.”
“I promise,” I said. “I promise I’ll bring him home to you.”

Of course, it’s glaringly obvious that Murph is not going to return home from war, but the manner in which he dies and the events leading up to his death are far from straightforward.

I could say the same about the structure of this book, which swings backwards and forwards in time between Bartle’s pre-war life, his tour of duty and his repatriation. This fragmented and disorientating format serves to mirror Bartle’s mindset — it is an ingenious way to tell a story that is very much focused on the psychological fallout of war.

This means The Yellow Birds is not an easy read. If you like linear narratives, you may well find this one confusing, although it is broken into clearly signposted sections — “September 2004: Al Tafar, Nineveh Province, Iraq” and “November 2005: Richmond, Virginia”, for instance — to help guide your way.

A confronting and often disturbing read

The Yellow Birds is also confronting — as you would expect from a story about war. But even though I’ve read countless books of this nature (and grisly true crime), there were many scenes depicted here that I found particularly gruesome and disturbing (a booby-trapped body on a bridge, for example) and even throwaway lines — “The bodies were hidden in alleys, were found in bloating piles in the troughs of the hills outside the cities, the faces puffed and green, allergic now to life” — possessed the devastating power to shock.

But it was the detached, numb-with-grief voice of Bartle upon his return to the US that I found most chilling. This glimpse into a returned soldier’s mind, unable to deal with the future based on what had happened in his past, is what I will remember most about this harrowing, heartbreaking tale. His loneliness, his despair, his anger — and his embarrassment — resonates off the page.

The Yellow Birds has been compared to Erich Maria Remarque’s classic Great War tale All Quiet on the Western Front — and with good reason. This is not a book that glorifies war or makes heroes out of those who take part; instead it illuminates the futility (and predictability), and leaves you with the burning question, what is the point of so much loss of life?

Author, Book review, John Vaillant, nature, Non-fiction, Publisher, Russia, Sceptre, Setting, travel, true crime

‘The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival’ by John Vaillant


Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Sceptre; 353 pages; 2010.

John Vaillant’s The Tiger is a gripping account of the hunt to find a man-eating tiger in Russia’s Far East — a place known as Primorye, which was once considered part of Outer Manchuria, on the border with China.

The book takes one particular incident — the death of Vladimir Markov, a poacher killed by the tiger in 1997 — and spins it out into a fascinating account of the Siberian tiger (also known as the Amur tiger), its biology and behaviour, and the conservation efforts that have been made to protect the species, which is endangered, in Russia.

Part crime scene investigation, part natural history, part travelogue, it reads like a thriller with all the authority of a respected journal, and has earned Vaillant, a Vancouver-based journalist, a bevy of awards, including British Columbia’s National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction for 2010, and Globe and Mail Best Book for Science 2010.

Tiger-croppedAn Amur tiger, in captivity. Image via wikipedia reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

What makes the book so extraordinarily readable is that Vaillant turns a conservation issue into a human interest story in which good men and bad men do battle over a beautiful but enigmatic animal. He charts in painstaking detail the way in which Markov’s death was investigated by the authorities and reveals how it sparked terror in surrounding communities.

And while he shies away from demonising Markov — the man, after all, met a particularly cruel fate — he does turn Yuri Trush, the lead tracker and head of (Russian governmental anti-poaching body) Operation Tiger, into a bit of a hero for whom it is difficult not to admire.

A love letter to the tiger

But mostly Vaillant writes a kind of love letter to the tiger, peppering his adrenalin-fuelled narrative with so many tiger facts it is difficult to keep track of them all. For instance, did you know that “the tiger is, literally, tattooed: if you were to shave one bald, its stripes would still be visible, integral to its skin”? Or that a tiger’s claw is “needle-sharp at the end, and bladed along a portion of its inside length […] about as close to a surgical tool as one can find in nature”?

There are other, more surreal, aspects, including the belief that tigers are vengeful creatures and will hunt down those who do them wrong — and that includes poachers who mess with their territory or steal their kills. I thought this sounded a bit far-fetched, until Vaillant reveals evidence to suggest that the tiger who killed Markov went out of his way to track him down.

Amongst other issues, The Tiger shows how perestroika and the reopening of the border between Russia and China resulted in a surge in tiger poaching during the early 1990s.

A dangerous game

It also shows how the authorities which protect the tiger are caught up in a dangerous game — not just with the wild tigers but with the poachers who will resort to almost anything to catch their prey. Because Primorye is so remote it is true frontier country, a kind of wild west, where enforcing law and order is difficult if not impossible. And yet, Russia, the first country in the world to recognise the tiger as a protected species (it did this in 1947), has achieved some amazing results in tiger conservation.

The Amur tiger population has rebounded to a sustainable level over the past sixty years, a recovery unmatched by any other subspecies of tiger. Even with the upsurge in poaching over the past fifteen years, the Amur tiger has, for now, been able to hold its own.

I won’t lie and say this book kept me on the edge of my seat throughout: it does wane a little in places as Vaillant gets bogged down in facts and figures. The narrative works best when he concentrates on the cat-and-mouse game between the three characters that are central to the story — the tiger, the poacher and the law enforcer — although that is occasionally repetitive in places.

A frightening read

But for something a little different, it’s a terrific — and often frightening — read. And while it’s a sad and sobering thought that there are less than 400 Siberian tigers left in the wild, it’s pleasing to know that “a portion of the proceeds from the book are being donated to several organizations working on the front lines of the tiger pro­tection effort in Primorye”. Such organizations will need all the help they can get…

Finally, if you read this book in Kindle format there are a lot of rogue hyphens littering the text. These tend to appear in the middle of lines, rather than at the end, which is quite distracting. And fiddling around with the text size makes absolutely no difference.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, China, crime/thriller, Fiction, Publisher, Qui Xiaolong, Sceptre, Setting

‘The Mao Case’ by Qui Xiaolong


Fiction – hardcover; Sceptre; 304 pages; 2009.

The Mao Case by Qui Xiaolong is the sixth and latest book in the Inspector Chen series, which is set in modern day China. But the author, who writes in English, actually lives in the US.

I’ve not read the previous five novels, but I did not find this a hindrance to what proved to be an enjoyable if somewhat unconventional detective story.

Chief Inspector Chen Cao is not your average run-of-the-mill police officer. He is young, idealistic and takes pride in his work. He loves literature and poetry and does a nice sideline in translation. But his personal life is complicated: his girlfriend, Ling, lives hundreds of miles away in Beijing and their relationship is a tumultuous one. In fact, in the opening chapter of The Mao Case Chen is informed by telephone that Ling has dumped him and married a man more appropriate to her social standing (she’s known as a HCC — a high cadre’s child — because her father is a top-ranking Party official).

But this is merely a sub-plot. The main story involves Chen going undercover to investigate a rather delicate matter involving Chairman Mao. He must take a softly softly approach, not least because “any slander against Mao, the founder of the Chinese Communist Party, will affect the legitimacy of the Party”.

The Party believe that Mao may have given some unspecified material to Shang Yunguan, a 1950s movie star he is said to have had an affair with. The Party want the material back, even though they don’t know what it is and whether it even exists. It’s not something that can be discussed openly, because that would confirm the rumours about Mao’s illicit private life, something which must be avoided at all costs.

A party official, Minister Huang, enlists Chen to undertake this highly secret investigation after Internal Security fail to turn anything up.

“She [Shang] could have taken — or been given — something from him. There were many opportunities.”
“Something from Mao?” Chen was instantly alert, though hardly able to smother the sarcasm is his voice. “What could that possibly be?”
“We don’t know.”

The minister believes the material may have been passed to Shang’s daughter, Qian — who died in an accident at the end of the Cultural Revolution — which was then inherited by her granddaughter Jiao. The Party is suspicious of Jiao, because she quit her job a year ago and moved into a luxurious apartment. Since then she has frequently been seen at parties — attended by Westerners — that are being hosted by a mysterious elderly art teacher and 1930s expert called Mr Xie, “who bears a deep grudge against Mao”.

As part of the investigation, which swings between Shanghai and Beijing, Chen reinvents himself as a businessman and writer researching Shanghai’s 1930s glory days in order to infiltrate Mr Xie’s glamorous parties. Along the way he meets strange businessmen, Triads, beautiful women, Chairman Mao himself and all sorts of writerly types.

The plot is occasionally confusing — and preposterous. But Xiaolong’s descriptions of China — where the cities of Beijing and Shanghai are being seemingly transformed overnight and where the gap between rich and poor is ever widening — more than makes up for these minor flaws. As do the descriptions of food, particularly Chen’s visit to the Fangshan Restaurant, which specialises in imperial cuisine. Here, he dines on genuine Beijing duck and experiences…

the celebrated five ways of eating a duck: crisp duck skin slices wrapped in pancake, duck meat slices fried with green garlic, duck feet immersed in wine, duck gizzard stir-fried with green vegetables, and duck soup.

Mind you, the constant references to Chinese poetry, literature and sayings, which give the narrative a peculiar charm, begin to feel tiresome and heavy-handed by the half-way point. We know the book is set in China; we don’t need to be constantly reminded of it in such an obivous way.

That said, the narrative is well paced and builds plenty of momentum, culminating in a suitably heart-hammering and dramatic, if somewhat ambiguous, ending. It’s safe to say this was my first Inspector Chen novel and it’s unlikely to be my last.

The other novels in the series are: Death of a Red Heroine (2000), A Loyal Character Dancer (2002), When Red Is Black (2004), A Case of Two Cities (2006) and Red Mandarin Dress (2007). The seventh novel, Don’t Cry Tai Lake, is due for publication in September 2012.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, general, Natasha Solomons, Publisher, Sceptre, Setting

‘The Novel in the Viola’ by Natasha Solomons


Fiction – paperback; Sceptre; 416 pages; 2011.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and admit that I don’t understand the fuss about this novel. It seems to have garnered very good reviews, but I found it hard to like.

Perhaps it says more about me than the writer, but I found the story — about a well-to-do Viennese Jewess who moves to England as a refugee in 1938 — rather dull and I never quite engaged with any of the characters. And the prose style, full of overblown descriptions, wore thin very quickly.

But for those looking for a light, gentle read — perhaps to take away on holiday while you’re lying by the pool or on the beach — then it will probably fit the bill perfectly. And if you enjoy romance stories, there’s plenty to appeal in this one.

Because, when all is said and done, that is essentially what The Novel in the Viola is about: it’s an old-fashioned romance set during the Second World War.

Elise Landau, 19, is the youngest daughter of Anna and Julian Landau, an opera singer and novelist respectively, whom are in the process of acquiring a visa to move to New York. For some unexplained reason they cannot take Elise with them, so she is forced to place a refugee advertisement in the London Times, offering her services as a parlour maid.

Not long later she regretfully bids her family, including her married sister, Margot, goodbye and heads for Tyneford, a great house on the Dorset Coast, owned by Daniel Rivers and his son Kit. But before she leaves, her father presents her with a viola, in which he has smuggled a manuscript of the last novel he has written — hence the book’s title.

Once in Tyneford, Elise suffers crippling bouts of homesickness and finds it difficult to adjust to her new position at the bottom of the pecking order.

I won’t spoil the plot, but, rather predictably, Elise falls in love with Kit, and the romance that follows scandalises the local community. But when war is declared against Germany and Kit signs up to the Navy, there’s a very real threat he may never return…

The story is told in first person from the perspective of Elise looking back on her life, and every now and then she drops in little clues which suggest that things never panned out the way she might have expected. This lends some intrigue to the storyline, but sadly Solomons has a tendency to play games with her readers — on at least two occasions Elise describes situations which never happened, they are merely fantasies inside her head. This has the effect of weakening the narrative as a whole, because you suddenly begin to doubt anything that Elise tells you.

While The Novel in the Viola is certainly pleasant enough reading — Solomon’s strength is in her depiction of the inner workings of a big house and the class divide between the servants and the owners — the plot is not terribly gripping, and it’s at least 100 pages too long.

However, given all the glowing five-star reviews on Amazon, perhaps I’m just completely out of sync with the rest of the book-buying public. I rather suspect I might be put straight in the comments below.

Africa, Author, Book review, Chris Cleave, England, Fiction, Publisher, Sceptre, Setting

‘The Other Hand’ by Chris Cleave


Fiction – paperback; Sceptre; 378 pages; 2009.

Chris Cleave’s The Other Hand was shortlisted for the 2008 Costa Novel Award. It is one of those books I kept picking up in bookstores and then putting down. I was intrigued but also skeptical. The blurb, surely, was a marketing ploy?

This is what the blurb on my edition says:

“We don’t want to tell you what happens in this story. It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it. Nevertheless, you need to know enough to buy it so we will just say this: This is the story of two women. Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice. Two years later, they meet again — the story starts there… Once you have read it, you’ll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don’t tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it unfolds.”

And then Valerie, who reads my blog emailed me, to suggest I might like it. “I expected to see it listed as one of the books you have reviewed,” she wrote. “And when I didn’t, I decided to email you.  It is one of those books you want to tell a friend about…”

I relented and bought myself a copy the next day. I’ll admit I still wasn’t convinced, and the letter from the editor, on the very first page, only raised my hackles. “Dear Reader,” it began. “You don’t know me. I’m Chris Cleave’s editor, and I’m writing to tell you how extraordinary The Other Hand is. As publishers, naturally we only publish  books that we love, but every now and then something comes along that is so special it gives us goosebumps.”

She then compares the novel to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark. By this stage the phrase “she doth protest to much” was running through my head.

Still, I was prepared to banish my preconceptions and give the book a fair go, and I raced through it in a matter of days.

Obviously, I can’t tell you much about the plot, but I can tell you what I thought of the story.

Quite frankly, I didn’t think it lived up to the hype. It’s an interesting story and it moves along at a fair old pace. There are scenes that are truly shocking and others that are good for a giggle. The characterisation is good, although not entirely believable, and there’s enough social commentary to give the illusion that you’re reading something deep and meaningful.

But on the whole this is a book that feels manipulative. The “reveals” — almost one per chapter — are cheap tricks designed to give you a fright or challenge your assumptions. While they might add some excitement to the novel, they end up trivialising quite important subject matter — illegal immigration, suicide and violence, to name but a few.

Perhaps Cleave didn’t want to write a hard-hitting novel and that’s fine, but as soon as your editor starts comparing you to Schindler’s Ark, one of the most hard-hitting novels of the past 40 years, it creates a pretty monumental and, dare I say it, unrealistic expectation in the average reader’s mind.

I suspect The Other Hand, which has been published in the USA and Canada under the title Little Bee, will resonate with readers who like quick, accessible reads about unfamiliar subjects, but for me it was too superficial, too cartoonish and too calculating to deliver on its promises. If you’ve read it I’d be interested in knowing what you thought. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion I may well be the only person in the world who didn’t love it to bits…

1001 books, 1001 Books to read before you die, Author, Book review, David Mitchell, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Sceptre

‘Cloud Atlas’ by David Mitchell


Fiction – paperback; Sceptre; 544 pages; 2005.

Out of all the recommendations I have received from fellow book bloggers over the past few years, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas gets mentioned more than any other book. It has been lauded by so many people I was almost too scared to read it, which is why it languished in my ever-growing to-be-read pile for more than three years.

When I finally worked up the courage to read it, I have to be brutally honest and say I could not work out what all the fuss was about.

Six stories in one

For those of you who haven’t read Cloud Atlas, it’s essentially six novellas following the lives of six characters (all vaguely related or linked to one another in some way) and moves forward in time so that pretty much the whole scope of human history is covered, from the 19th century to some post-apocalyptic future we are yet to reach. It then works backwards, so that you reach the end via all the previous stories so you end up with 12 chapters all told. These stories are as follows:

  • The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing
    A 19th-century seafaring novella very much in the vein of Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers and Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish, right down to the use of ampersands throughout.
  • Letters from Zedelghem
    Set in the 1930s, this tells the story of an English con artist who moves to Belgium and ingratiates himself with a reclusive composer and his family. It reads like a pre-war novel and has some raunchy romance thrown in for good measure.
  • Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery
    A fast-moving industrial espionage-type thriller set in 1970s America, it reminded me a little of John Grisham’s The Firm.
  • The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish
    Set in England in the late 20th century, it throws a nod to P.G. Wodehouse, because it is essentially a comedy of manners in which a 60-something editor gets mistakenly locked up in an old people’s home from which he cannot escape.
  • An Orison of Sonmi
    An eerie science fiction thriller about clones, I found this bit the most intriguing (and moving) story in the entire novel, reminding me a little of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.
  • Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After
    This is set in the future after science and technology is long gone, leaving behind a world in which even the language is corrupted and humankind must eke out a very primitive existence.

By its very nature, the diverse range of genres presented here means that the reader will find some chapters more enjoyable than others. I definitely preferred the two thrillers — the espionage one and the science fiction one — which is generally indicative of my reading tastes, while I struggled with the futuristic one written in a kind of pidgin English that bored me and confused me in equal measure.

And that, I guess, is my major gripe with this novel. It works in parts but not as a whole.

Literary showmanship

I was left with the impression that Cloud Atlas is a writer’s book, not a reader’s one because it felt like a succession of literary stunts — for the sake of it.

If Mitchell was a pastry chef, I imagine he wouldn’t be happy just creating the dessert: he’d want to create Michelin-star four-course meals as well if only to prove he could do it.

Not that there is any doubt that Mitchell can write — the six interlinked stories here are quite extraordinary examples of his ability to switch genres and time periods with relative ease. However, it feels like he is showing off.

As much as I pride myself on seeking out different genres to read and trying books set in vastly different times and places, I don’t necessarily want to experience these all in one novel. If I want to read a seafaring story, I’ll read one. Ditto for a thriller.

I devoted two days to Cloud Atlas while on a recent holiday in the sun, time that I will never get back. I’m not saying that I hated the book. I simply found it hard work, and perhaps it was not best suited for a lazy beach read, something to bear in mind if you’re considering packing it in your suitcase any time soon.

A worthy read, yes, an enjoyable one, so-so.

‘Cloud Atlas’ by David Mitchell, first published in 2004, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as a “glittering compendium of interlacing parables”.