Category Archives: Book Reviews

Even In The Warmest Glow, How Cold The Shadow …………….. The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan

………………………………….. The dicimagetionary gives six different meanings of the verb to illuminate: to supply with light; to make lucid or clear; to decorate with lights; to enlighten; to make illustrious; and to decorate with colours. It’s no exaggeration to say that Andrew O’Hagan’s latest novel The Illuminations is so cleverly plotted and so wonderfully well written, it does all six!

At the centre of the story are Anne Quirk, now an 82 year old woman with early stage dementia, living in an Ayrshire care home, and her grandson Luke, a 29 year old Army Captain, taking extended leave after an incident involving his platoon in Afghanistan. Together, they embark on a journey to Blackpool for Anne to make one last connection with her past and for Luke to make sense of his future.

For Anne, a successful female photographer of the 1950’s, the past is her lover Harry Blake, who she met in a series of love trysts in Blackpool and which left her with a distorted and inflated opinion of Harry the photographer, a romanticised memory of Harry the man, and a daughter, Alice, who she’s never quite come to terms with. Luke on the other hand has already gone in search of that figure from his past when he goes from completing his University degree in English Liternature to the army, in a sort of search to understand his soldier father, who was killed in action in Northern Ireland. Now he’s retreated to his grandmother, with whom he’s always been close, in the wake of an ambush in Helmand which leads to the death of both British soldiers and Afghan civilians.

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It’s a book of contrasts, each one in a sense giving light and shadow. There’s the more typical light and shade of war, of memories, of family relationships, and of the past and present. Then there are the slightly less typical contrasts of Scotland and Afghanistan and of the ordinariness of Anne’s reality in the care home with the almost mythological status she has among fellow residents and staff. Perhaps the strongest contrast of all is between art and the shade which everyday life can cast over it, for there’s a real tension between the artistic nature of both characters and their subsequent lives. Anne’s pioneering art captures the raw power and rather stark beauty of everyday life with her ‘kitchen-sink images’, yet the everyday life she led away from Harry and their Blackpool trysts is anything but powerful or beautiful in her memories. For Luke, he swaps the language of poetry and literature for the sharp, crude, patois of the British Army, and swaps the education into creativity and imagination which his grandmother gave him, for the rigidity and rule book life of a soldier.

Similarly, the bond between both the main characters, which shows such a depth of love and trust between Luke and his grandmother contrasts with the relationship they both have with Alice, whose recollection of her father Harry, as a man who probably wouldn’t remember their names, is very much at odds with her mothers glowing memories of him. And in same way that Alice is excluded from her mothers re-cast memory of the past, she’s also frozen out of her son Luke’s life, in part by his feelings about his father and in part by his relationship with his grandmother – it’s as if the family bond simply skips a generation.

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This is a wonderfully layered book, which has such strong characters and such a gritty realistic feel from start to finish. And as I said at the start it illuminates in every sense of the word: from the descriptions of the way Anne uses light in her photographs; to the lure of those Blackpool lights; the way Anne’s love for Luke cuts through the fog of her dementia at times to illuminate her moods; the light it shines on those themes of family, relationships and the shadows cast by people’s pasts; it enlightens the reader on the unique atmosphere and cameraderie among soldiers more than in any novel I’ve ever read; and Andrew O’Hagan does it all with a prose which draws colour from the darkest events and the starkest of settings – whether it’s a Helmand I know only from TV news footage or the damp, grey streets of seaside Ayrshire towns that I know from personal experience!

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I have to admit I’ve long been a fan of Andrew O’Hagan since I read his book ‘Our Fathers’ some time ago. He’s a writer who seems to make use of real events or people to create his fiction, but equally he’s not afraid to tackle difficult subjects either – and The Illuminations is no exception. Since finishing the book I’ve read that the character of Anne is in part based on Margaret Watkins a Scottish-Canadian photographer and the character of Harry Blake is linked to another well known photographer, Bert Hardy, who chronicled working class life in Glasgow. Even the battle in which Luke’s platoon are ambushed, at Kajaki Dam, really did take place with horrendous consequences for the Agfghani civilians. But of course it’s one thing to research the lives of others or events in war and quite another to blend it all together in a novel which is as powerful and engrossing as The Illuminations is. August Sander, the celebrated German photographer once said ‘In photography there is no shadow that cannot be illuminated’. And the writing of Andrew O’Hagan is exactly the same! This is a great book!

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Book Info

The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan was published by Faber and Faber in 2015. I bought my copy with my own hard earned cash.
If you are interested in reading what others thought of the book, there are several in the press but if you want a more personalised opinion, I would recommend the reviews at Fuelled By Fiction and an interview with the author at the Scottish Review of Books.
Margaret Watkins, on whom the main character was based, was a Canadian photographer who ultimately became well known for her photographs of life in Scotland (Some of which are above). Her work is currently being shown at The Hidden Lane Gallery in Glasgow, where she lived for most of her life
Lastly, I took the title of my review from a poem by the Japanese poet Kobyashi Issa.

Book Ratings ( for info my book rating scale click here)

Nine

 

Where The Streets Have No Sane………………. Barcelona Shadows by Marc Pastor

………………………………………… Just occassionally you read a book that not only resonates with you as a story, but it resonates with the world around you. Reading Marc Pastors novel about a female serial killer butchering children from the most vulnerable and poorest streets of Barcelona in the early 1900’s would have been chilling in itself. The fact that it is based on the real life serial killer Enriqueta Marti, who procured poor children for use by rich paedophiles, before killing and dismembering them, gives it a whole new resonance when you think of the current scandals in the UK with ex-celebrities and ex-politicians alleged to have been engaging in the systematic abuse of young boys and young girls over many years. So as subjects go, this is certainly one of the more harroBarcelona Shadows by Marc Pastorwing and grisly books I’ve read in many years, but in spite of the horrors within the pages of this novel, it’s also a compelling read.

As the children of the poorjest families in the red light district of El Raval start to disappear, rumours grow on the streets of a monster who stalks the night and takes children away. The authorities, through a mix of apathy, trying to manage the city’s reputuation and self-interest from those who are paedophiles, are trying to quash these rumours rather than investigate (eerily resonant with today too!)

But two police inspectors, Corvo and Malsano, are spurred on by a sense of injustice and morals to investigate, helped by the fact that they are both bloody-minded enough to ignore orders from on high to do otherwise! They track the killer through some of the dingiest, poorest neighbourhoods and unravel a plot that leads up to some of the most powerful people in the city.

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At the heart of the book is the wonderful character of Moises Corvo. On the one hand he’s driven by his sense of right and wrong and his need to protect children from whoever it is who is kidnapping and then killing them and on the other he’s got a depth and breadth of experience of the city’s brothels that tells you he’s far from a ‘holier than thou’, morally-pure detective in his search for the killer. There’s such a contrast in him, a man who really no longer seems to give a shit about his life and yet driven to the point of almost obsessive determination to protect the innocent. An early phrase in the book sums him up perfectly!

Moises Corvo is a dog: no-one pisses on his territory. And if that means stinking up the whole neighbourhood with the cloying stench of urine, he has no problem with that …………Corvo is an old dog, grim-faced and filled with vices, but he isn’t ready to give over these streets to anyone.

The story is told in the third person and it’s never clear exactly who the narrator actually is for at times they slip into the first person and enter the story – but as I read it I took it to be Death – and reading other blogs suggest that was how others interpreted it too. It’s a clever way of telling the parts of the story that sit outside the narrative, such as the back story to Corvo and what happened to turn him into that ‘grim-faced dog’. The other half-character is Barcelona itself, its streets, attitudes, struggles, dark corners and a collection of some pretty weird characters who flit in and out of the story. These are what defintely qualify as ‘mean streets’ and the sense of menace and danger is palpable.

Barcelona Shadows is a well written novel, with a great character in Inspector Corvo. The plot is driven along at a pace and as the horrors mount and the twists in the plot unravel you are increasingly drawn in to the murky world it describes. For me, it was only those horrors that I had a difficulty with, though that wasn’t actually the book’s fault! I’m just a bit squeamish I guess! Nevertheless, as it’s based on a bloody gruesome true story and because of that resonance to the awful things we’re finding out today, I’d say Barcelona Shadows is a really good book but a pretty harrowing read – as I used to do with Dr Who you might want to read bits of this peering out from behind the sofa!

Book Info
Barcelona Shadows by Marc Pastor was translated by Mara Faye Lethem and was published by Pushkin Press in 2014. I bought it with my own cash, based on an excerpt I heard on a Guardian Books podcast
Though Marc Pastor tweets as @DoctorMoriarty, it looks to me like he tweets mostly in Catalan so doubt you’d find out much from that (unless your Catalan is fluent!!). He is a crime scene investigator in Barcelona and interestingly was interviewed by the online magazine “This Is Horror“, where among their questions, they describe his work as ‘horror writing’. Ordinarily that’s not for me but perhaps explains why I found this a little disturbing to say the least!
Horror genre or not, there are a few reviews of Barcelona Shadows that you might want to check out if you’re thinking of going on to read it, and I’d recommend those at Crime Review and at BooksBonesBuffy ( who’s also got a Marc Pastor interview on her site. )
Book Rating
This is my rating for Barcelona Shadows out of 10 ( and you can find info on my rating scale here)

eight

 

“I Fear I Am Not In My Perfect Mind”………….. Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey

“Pray do not mock me

I am a very foolish fond old man

Fourscore and upward

Not an hour more or less

And to deal plainly

I fear I am not in my perfect mind

Methinks I should know you

And know this man”

King Lear Act 4 Scene 7

In his review of a recent London production of King Lear in The Independent, Boyd Tonkin wrote “If you can sit through a first-rate production of King Lear and come out even trying to make polite chat……then you may have grown a thicker skin than any human should.” And that equally applies to this book-if you can read “Elizabeth Is Missing” and come away without feeling desperate for the main character Maud and her immediate family, then you have an un-naturally deep epidermis in my view!

On one level Elizabeth Is Missing is a very clever and exceptionally imagewell told story of Maud, a woman in her eighties who is trying to solve two mysteries, both triggered by her finding a disused compact mirror.  – in the present she’s trying to unravel the clues and work out what happened to her friend Elizabeth and in her recollections of the past, she’s trying to work out what might have happened to her sister Sukey, who went missing when Maud was a teenager in the 1950’s.

The difficulty for Maud is that she has dementia which prevents her remembering why she’s entered a room 5 seconds after she gets there let alone let her remember the ‘clues’ she picks up in trying to work out what happened to her friend Elizabeth. She leaves herself notes in her bag and her pockets but they do little more than prompt her back to the same place – that she thinks something has happened to her friend Elizabeth but beyond that she can’t remember the context in which she wrote the note (although of course the reader can)

But the flip side of Maud’s almost complete loss of short term memory, is that her recollections of what happened when her married sister went missing after the war are sharp and clear. Through this part of the story we essentially follow Maud re-running in her head the circumstances of Sukey’s disappearance and the information that she, her mother and her father picked up in their search for her, including their varying suspicions of Sukey’s husband Frank, the family lodger Douglas and a woman who has gone mad and lives on the streets in the aftermath of being bombed from her home. Emma Healey’s writing in these flashbacks is very impressive, so richly detailed and yet with some beautiful descriptions, and it’s here that Maud’s memory is comprehensive and reliable.

Or is it?! For at the centre of the book Emma Healey has wonderfully drawn the character of Maud and placed her as the narrator of the book. It’s an exceptional plot device for it puts the reader into the same position as Maud, her family and everyone she meets – you’re at the mercy of her dementia and its impact on her memory in the same way the characters in the novel are – so even the reader can never quite be sure all is as it seems in Maud’s memories!

But for all the uncertainty and frustrations Maud brings you as a narrator, it’s a stunning portrayal of what it’s like to be 90 years old with no short term memory and yet enough understanding to instinctively know that you have no memory.

The depiction of what it might be like to suffer from dementia is really difficult to read in places and the experiences of Maud’s long suffering daughter Helen in caring for her would make you weep. It’s so well done that when Helen snaps and shows her frustrations you sympathise with her and forgive her because it makes you realise just what is really meant by someone who would “try the patience of a saint!”- even though Maud neither means to do it nor can she control it.

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One of the most striking things about the book is how the writing makes you react. The book is very funny in places, with a sort of understated, gentle sense of humour, and at times I laughed out loud, especially at some of Maud’s notes and the situations she gets into. And yet I also feel guilty in a way for that reaction because at the heart of the book is Maud’s dementia and it is simply an awful illness to contemplate. As Maud’s memory worsens rapidly some of the consequences are heartbreaking. (And if I’m honest they frightened me a bit, for if this is old age it’s not a pleasant prospect to look forward to)

Overall, while I enjoyed the story as a double mystery, what left the greatest impression was Emma Healey’s superb character study of what it feels like for Maud, and for those who love Maud, to live with the ravages of her dementia. It’s brilliantly done. So that’s why I’d suggest anybody reading this and not getting a gut wrenching-feeling might want to see that dermatologist and get their skin measured!

Book Info
Emma Healey’s “Elizabeth Is Missing” was published by Penguin Books. I bought my paperback copy.
The novel was apparently the subject of a publishing bidding war and I can see why! The book was shortlisted for the Costa debut novel prize for 2014. If you’re interested in finding out more about Emma Healey then you can find her website here, follow her on Twitter @ECHealey and there’s a short video about Elizabeth Is Missing made for its CostaBook Award.
As a much-lauded and best selling book there are a lot of reviews to choose from but if you’d like to do a bit more trying before you buy, then I’d recommend the reviews at BookerTalk and at Normal In London which are both great.
Book Rating
If you’d like to know more about my book rating scale for 2015 click here.

Nine

Return Of The Mac!………….Book Review of The Children Act by Ian McEwan

………………………………………Reading this was a bit like rediscovering an old shirt at the back of the wardrobe that I’d once loved, had stopped wearing as I’d put on weight and then eons later finding it AND finding it now fits again…..not only reuniting me with an ‘old campaigner’ (as all my single-man days clothes are known affectionately to me!) but at the same time also magically letting me know I’ve lost weight as well!The Children Act by Ian McEwan

Actually that might be straying too far into the realms of fantasy, but having been distinctly underwhelmed by Ian McEwan’s last two books Solar and Sweet Tooth, I didn’t have the highest of hopes for this book. But right from the first page I knew everything was going to be fine and while its not quite a return to the sheer wonderfulness of Atonement or Amsterdam, I still thoroughly enjoyed The Children Act.

Fiona Maye is a High Court judge in the Family Division and as the story begins she’s got two problems to come to terms with. At home her husband has announced that he plans to have one last fling and embark on an affair and at work she’s required to rule on a hugely complex case involving a young man with leukaemia who’s refusing treatment on the grounds of his religious beliefs….but as he’s just under the age of consent Fiona has to rule on what is in his best interests under the Children Act of 1989.

As the court case progresses Fiona becomes increasingly involved in the life of 17 year-old Adam as she tries to determine his competence to make the decision to refuse the treatment on offer and to ultimately determine whether or not he is making a decision based on his genuinely held beliefs or whether he’s actually taking a decision to meet the expectations of his parents beliefs. Meanwhile her husband Jack follows through on his decision to have the affair, leaving Fiona to decide whether to come to terms with the affair and continue their marriage or to decide that she won’t agree to Jack’s proposition that the marriage and the affair can, and should, co-exist.

The two parts of the narrative have enough in common and enough potential influence to sit alongside one another in the story and as you’d expect from such a great writer he handles it brilliantly. Both of the situations demand complex decisions from Fiona, balancing logic, interpretation and emotion, and I thought it was a great way to illustrate the complexity of family law and the fact that it has a subtlety beyond the usual definitive legal issues of guilty or innocent. Equally though Ian McEwan doesn’t overdo the linking up of the two parts of the narrative and so both develop and draw you in as a reader.

There’s a real attention to detail in the writing and so many little touches that lift this way above the majority of novels I read. Most of the time this just adds to the enjoyment of the book, whether it’s in the descriptions of Fiona and Jack’s home or in the debates between the circuit court judges on their tours of different parts of the country. Just occasionally though it slipped over for me into being either a bit too technical or into being a detail too many. In places the research into family law and particularly complex judgements runs the risk of seeming a bit ‘showy!’. In my work, the cases my staff manage will bring us into the realms of the law and the Family Court so for me, reading Fiona’s judgements or finding out about how precedents might be taken into account was irresistible – but I can see that for others this might get tedious and distracting.

The characters in the novel are mixed. I believed in the bohemian academic Jack, with his vanities and unintentional cruelties and found him strangely engaging – maybe I identified with him as a man who might also have ‘old campaigners’ at the back of his wardrobe! On the other hand, Adam, the 17-year-old with whom Fiona develops an obvious affinity and a mutual bond, was a lot less effective as a character. I thought when Ian McEwan let Adam move towards being a character who was on-the-surface calm and rational but underneath a maelstrom of emotions, he was much more real. But other parts of his character, like the viola-playing and the poetry that mesmerises the nurses who care for him, was just a bit too twee for me! But the strength of the book is the character of Fiona. There’s a cold, almost detached feel to her but underneath that logical brain she’s such a contrast. So I enjoyed his portrayal of the same character in two quite different contexts and the Fiona who emerges between the ordered, complex and intellectual world of the law is fundamentally different to the Fiona who emerges in the sad, unraveling world of her marriage, even though there are still huge consistencies in how she acts and reacts in both situations.

The Royal Courts of Justice - where decisions and made and where lawyers made a lot of money!
The Royal Courts of Justice – where decisions get made and where lawyers make money!!!!!!

Overall, I think you have to admire Ian McEwan’s willingness to take on such a potentially controversial subject as the conflicts between religious belief, religious freedom and the law, especially in the world of Family Law with its perennial focus on the debate about the ‘best interests of the child’, which is always a contentious one. Inevitably the story is slightly more weighted in places towards the respective arguments for each side of that debate as opposed to the narrative itself so just occasionally it can feel more like reading a legal discussion paper than a novel. But I found these sections fascinating so they certainly didn’t detract from the story for me. If you’re new to Ian McEwan I wouldn’t recommend you start here as he’s written better books than this. But he’s a wonderful writer and that’s very much on show here, so if you’re a McEwan fan like I am, and if like me you’d started to wonder about his books after the last two in particular then fear not – with The Children Act, one of the very best British authors is very much back where he belongs!

Book Info
The Children Act by Ian McEwan was published by Jonathan Cape. My copy was bought with my own hard-earned cash.
When literary giants like Ian McEwan publish a new novel, you’ve got half the world reviewing it. But if you want to read what others thought of it, I’d recommend you try Girl With Her Head In A Book or a Little Blog of Books – both are well worth a look and their blogs generally are great.
If you’re interested in getting a synopsis of The Children Act, the video below has Ian McEwan giving it an intro himself ( rather unsubtly surrounded by copies of the book!) – but if you ignore the brick-through-jewellery-shop window approach to marketing, it’s actually a short but really good introduction to the book.
Book Rating
Book Rating out of ten! ( You can find info on my book rating scale here)

Nine

These Boots Were Made For Walking…………….Book Review of Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

……………………………In the days since I finished reading Emma Hooper’s debut novel ‘Etta and Otto and Russell and James’, I’ve been wondering how to describe because it seems to sit somewhere in between a fairytale and a reality trip! What makes it difficult to describe overall is that there are too many little flights of fancy in the story, such as a talking and country-music singing coyote called James, for it to be utterly grounded in reality and yet there aren’t enough flights of fancy for it to be described as a fantasy or magical realism novel either! Then I decided that it didn’t really matter where it sat between reality and fantasy – who cares – because it’s a charming, beautifully written, wonderful novel.

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Etta is an 83 year old woman living in Saskatchewan Canada, who wakes up one morning and decides to walk to the sea because she’s never seen the water. And living in Sasketchewan, there’s no quick route to the sea – but as with every journey there’s a short way to get there, going several hundred miles West or there’s a long way to get there, a journey of more than two thousand miles East! Etta’s husband Otto meanwhile, gets out of bed to find a note telling him Etta’s gone for a walk to see the water and he knows from the ‘tightening of the skin on his chest’ that his wife will go the long way. And he’s right.

From above Saskatchewan looks like a bloody long walk!
From above Saskatchewan looks like a bloody long walk!

Otto is left with a pile of recipe cards and his neighbour and life-long friend Russell for company. Etta has a note in her pocket reminding her who she is and where she’s from so that if she ever does make it to the ocean, she might be able to then find her way back home. And from there the novel follows Etta’s journey across Canada picking up first James the coyote, then mild celebrity as her trek hits the media, and then a collection of random objects which people ask her to take along for them on her journey to the sea. Meanwhile, Otto stays home, learns to cook, adopts a guinea pig and waits. And interspersed with the present-day octogenarian journeys of Etta, Otto and Russell, the novel also journeys back over their lives, from near neighbour Russell’s more-or-less adoption into the family of Otto and his 14 siblings, to Etta’s arrival in their lives as the barely-older-than-the-students village schoolteacher. On the way there’s the most beautiful love triangle between Etta, Otto and Russell and there’s Otto’s time as a soldier in the Second World War which is pivotal in the second half of the novel.

It’s a novel of many parts and most of them were brilliant. It’s impossible not to read without physically wincing, the grittily real description of Etta’s bleeding, ravaged feet after three days of walking. Equally it’s very easy to go along with the beautifully woven flight of fancy in the French woman Giselle who seems to be in every town Otto’s platoon are billeted in and who whispers to him that he’s a favourite of hers. In between, each of the characters life stories are utterly engaging and so full of emotion that they add a richness to the already wonderful characters Emma Hooper has drawn. I also thought that the continually shifting narrative between Etta’s walk, Otto’s waiting for her, Russell’s searching for her and then back into the stories of their lives was what kept the novel a riveting read for me. If it had just been the story of Etta’s walk I’d probably have given up earlier than Etta’s first pair of boots! Instead I was hooked by these characters all the way. And even though I’m not a lover of books with talking animals, even James the talking coyote worked brilliantly throughout – if you are going to have a talking, singing coyote in a novel then why not give him the great comic timing and subtle wit that Emma Hooper has given to James!

In a book that flirts with magical realism, there was always the chance that some of it would be too much for me. And in places it was. The reappearance of his sister Winnie in the midst of the chaos of war and her interchanging with the mysterious French woman Giselle was one stretch too far for me. Equally Russell as a character got a bit lost for me in the middle of the novel. His search for Etta made perfect sense but for me it happened too soon and after it he faded from the present day parts of the novel.

But these are minor quibbles. Overall I loved this story. There’s an easy charm to it all the way through, and the story of Etta and Otto and Russell’s intertwining lives was just one of those tales that draw you in as a reader and keep you engrossed to the extent you really do believe in these characters so much, you start talking about them as if they are real!!! (I know my family think Etta and Otto and Russell and James have moved into our house, so much have I talked about them!).

It’s also a raw and tender novel in places and in some ways those were the bits of it I loved the most – Otto’s homecoming after the war was one of those ‘read-it-with-the-book-held-high’ moments, so that my fellow commuters didn’t see me crying again!

What struck me most in this book was the way the word ‘OK’ is used to such fantastic effect so frequently. I don’t think I’ve read a book which uses it so often, but it’s wonderful in this novel because it captures the mood of these characters and their attitude to life perfectly – a sort of gentle, drawn out drawl of an “Okay!” – those accepting, straight, uncomplicated ‘Okay’s’ which signal a lack of fuss, a simple power in emotions and relationships and a constant willingness to accept people as they are. So to conclude and paraphrase……..

“What did you think of Etta and Otto and Russell and James?” asked Etta and Otto and Russell and James in unison.

“I absolutely loved it!!!!!” I replied.

“O-kay” they said.

Book Info

Etta and Otto and Russell and James is Emma Hooper’s debut novel. It was published by Fig Press in the UK and I bought my copy.

I first heard about this book in a Guardian list of books to look out for in 2015 and then heard a short interview with the author and Mariella Frostrup on the BBC Radio 4 Books and Authors podcast.

Emma Hooper is a Canadian musician and academic as well as an author. She plays viola and is Senior Lecturer in Commercial Music at Bath Spa Uni here in the UK. ( I’ve got most of my family in Canada so I’ve given them a bit of kudos by categorising the book as Canadian Fiction – but as she’s based in Bath and has worked with Peter ‘God-Like-Genius’ Gabriel, I’ve unilaterally decided to adopt Emma Hooper as one of us and so have categorised it as British fiction as well!!!!!)

If you are interested in finding out more about Emma Hooper you can find her website here and she’s on Twitter as @waitress4thbees . In addition there’s an interview she did with the Bookseller and there are other reviews of the book that I’d recommend at both the blog for Leeds Library Service, Leeds Reads, and at Claire Thinking.

Lastly if you like a bit of music with your reading the Bookshop Band have written a couple of songs inspired by Etta and Otto and Russell and James, one of which is below. And if you’ve never listened to the Bookshop Band before ….well you should!

Book Rating

Book Rating Out of Ten (You can find info on my book rating scale here)

ten

Ryan’s Daughter!…………..Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma by Kerry Hudson

…………There’s a so-called award in Scotland for the most dismal town called the ‘Plook on a Plinth’ ( a ‘Plook’ is the delightful colloquial term we Scots give to a pimple!). The nominees for this award for the most

Every town should have one!
Every town should have one!

dismal, awful town in Scotland for 2014 pitted my home town of Greenock against Aberdeen. Which is the home town of that aforementioned ‘Ryan’s daughter’! For in this case it is Iris Ryan’s daughter, Janie, the central character in the wonderful Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma!!! So in some senses I was maybe destined to get on with this book for our home towns have much in common. But my praise for this wonderful novel is based on much more than just the affinity Janie Ryan and I both have with crap Scottish towns!

Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma - a great book and the best name given to anything since the emergence of the band Joe Lean and the Jing Jang Jong!
Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma – a great book and the best name given to anything since the emergence of the band Joe Lean and the Jing Jang Jong!

Janie Ryan is the next desendent in a line of Aberdonian fish wives, women who live on the sharpest edge of poverty……….. with the sharpest of tongues and the sharpest of attitudes to match. The story follows her from her birth to adolescence, through a succession of fresh starts, shitty houses and even shittier ‘new Dad’s’. Janie makes just about as inauspicious start to life as anybody can, with early flirtations with care and women’s refuges, and from that desperate start, things don’t get any better. Their early life is dominated by the spectre of Tony Hogan, an all-too-familiar blend of criminal ambitions and almost psychotic domestic violence. So begins the Ryan families ‘tour’ of the best that the North, South, East and West of the UK have to offer in the way of sink-housing-estates in dead-end towns, ranging from Aberdeen to Canterbury, Great Yarmouth to Coatbridge. And in each one its a succession of benefits offices, Social Security BandB’s, and diets shaped by corner shops and frozen food.

One of the things I loved most about this novel is the way poverty and the bloody hard life Janie and her family lead is almost a character in itself. It just pervades every bit of the novel, and it’s done without a hint of cliche or sentimentality – and as result it’s quite stark and very real but it doesn’t drag the novel down either – it’s certainly distressing to read but it doesn’t mean the novel turns into some grim-fest! Equally though, you can’t read this and not think about what it is actually like to be living in this kind of poverty, when the highlight for kids like Janie comes in the shape of pathetically ordinary treats like an ice-cream, or in the joy she finds in local libraries. And it’s not any different for her mother for hers is a world where you live on bread, margarine and tins of creamed rice all the way from Thursday to Monday waiting for the next weekly pittance of a dole cheque to turn up.

It’s also a novel that treads that fine balance between describing how desperate their lives are at times and giving out some hope for a better life for Janie – all without decending into the realms of schmaltz! Janie, her mother and her sister are such strong and believable characters you can’t help but root for them, overlook their faults, forgive them every time they fuck things up themselves and admire their ability to somehow get back up every time they are knocked down – and sometimes that’s literally by a nutter like Tony Hogan. So some of it is very uncomfortable, for these families don’t measure their luck in terms of whether or not there’s domestic violence but in terms of where it sits between the odd slap and grievous bodily harm. They live in worlds strewn with dog shit, used needles, loan sharks and handouts.

So it’s awful to read but for all the poverty, grime, violence and despair, it’s also incredibly uplifting in places for it’s as much a novel about family love and family loyalty. Those family bonds definitely waiver and at times they get stretched to breaking point but they never actually break. There’s a fierce determination to these characters, and though they are the first to recognise and brutally confront the flaws in one another, they are also the first to defend and support one another.

Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream isn’t a novel to read if you are offended by the odd swear word here and there – from the first sentence it’s there in what might be appropriately termed ‘shitloads!’ But I think it works and it fits so it never felt like it was done for effect. Of course that might be something else I have in common with Janie Ryan for I once heard someone describe Glaswegians as people who could deliver a meaningful sentence of 10 words even when nine of the 10 words is ‘fuck!”. While I can see how it might put some people off, rather than be shocking, I thought it was the dialogue that made this book so brilliantly realistic to me.

Overall I loved this book – absolutely f…ing loved it! In fact I loved it so much, as soon as I finished reading it I went off and got the audiobook and entertained myself all over again as I walked the dog, listening again to the life story of Janie Ryan. And I discovered the audiobook is just as raw, just as gripping and just as fantastic to listen to as the book is to read.

So even if you’ve never been to Aberdeen or Coatbridge or Greenock, I’d thoroughly recommend you try ‘Tony Hogan’. It will give you a view about life in a place that might be in line for a ‘Plook On A Plinth!” and introduce you to women who will make you smile, cry and cringe all at the same time. I’ve frequently heard the joke that the only good thing to come out of Scotland is the M74 motorway to England – Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma is a novel that shows just what a pile of shite that theory is!

Book Info

Kerry Hudson’s “Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma” was published by Chatto and Windus and I bought my copy. The subsequent audiobook I listened to was narrated by Jane McFarlane and was produced by Random House Audiobooks.

To put not too fine a point on it, it’s a book that’s won an absolute shitload of awards and well deserved it is too! Among it’s accolades were a nomination for the Guardian First Book Award, the Green Carnation Prize and the Saltire Scottish First Book Of The Year Award. If you’re interested in finding out more about Kerry Hudson, she tweets a lot (often about food and recently storms in Buenos Aires!) and you can follow her @KerrysWindow  – she also has her own site here which is well worth a look.

If you want to read other reviews of Tony Hogan they are plentiful – but as I’m a biased Jock, you might get a more impartial opinion, as well as a better class of review, at What Hannah Read and at UtterBiblio

Book Rating Out of 10! (You Can Find Info On My Rating Scale Here)

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Brothers In Harms………..Three Brothers by Peter Ackroyd

……………………Four nights a week millions of us in the UK sit down to watch the TV soap opera detailing the lives, loves and discovering-that-the-woman-you-thought-was-your-sister-is-actually-your-mother-making-the-creep-who’s-just-attacked-your-wife-your-brother revelations that make up the London kitchen-sink drama that is EastEnders. My family are among those millions……and it’s awful, mostly sounding like it’s been scripted by cut and pasing a years worth of tabloid headlines and then getting it polished up by a committee at the end of a night out doing the legendary Circle Line Pub Crawl (i.e. seriously pissed up!)

As they watched, I was reading a stylish, engaging London kitchen-sink drama, and who is better qualified to write that than Peter Ackroyd, author of among other innumerable things, biographies of The Thames and also of London itself! And he puts those qualifications to great use, for Three Brothers is a cracking book!

imageBorn a year apart on the exactly the same day and time in May, the brothers Harry, Daniel and Sam Hanway begin life in the humble surroundings of 1950’s Camden Town. Their father is a disappointed and soon to be disillusioned man of literary ambition and their mother mysteriously disappears when the boys are young. So they essentially bring up themselves and each other, shaped in part by their personalities, in part by the streets that surround them and in part by their respective roles within the family.

The story follows their lives in alternating chapters as they grow up and grow increasingly apart. Harry moves into the world of journalism, Daniel into Cambridge academia and Sam drifts onto the streets of London. Their life stories are driven by their very different characters, Harry’s naked ambition, Daniel’s inverted snobbery and Sam’s introversion, which on the one hand drives them down very separate roads from a relatively young age and yet their lives are still interwoven, as if the unseen hand of fate is continually threading their lives together. This weaving their fates together could have been trite and tenuous, but it isn’t. Peter Ackroyd connects up their lives in ways that the characters themselves rarely see, but for the reader, it’s done just often enough, and in just the right places, for it to be a very clever, and very effective plot device.

And it’s all encompassed by the almost sinister and very harsh character of London itself. But it’s less about the city as a place in this book and more about the characters it attracts. It’s a city of risk, of top dogs, underdogs, chancers, winners, losers, bullies and victims. There’s an unsavoury underbelly of racism……. corruption……. racketeering……. prostitution……. you name it, if it’s unpleasant, the London of ‘Three Brothers’ has someone doing it! And those ‘someone’s’ are a collection of great, but dark and unsavoury characters, such as Asher Ruppta the corrupt slum landlord, and Sir Martin Flaxman a newspaper proprietor vile enough to make you cringe ( though perhaps that’s par for the newspaper proprietor course!!)

The only negative for me was that much as I loved the narrative and the characters, at times I found the style of the novel slightly cold. In those biographies of the Thames and of the City, Peter Ackroyd’s style of mixing an almost forensic, scientific approach to facts, with prose which was descriptive and imaginative really brought the river, and the streets to life. Yet in Three Brothers, that same style at times seemed to have the opposite effect, and for me it lacked a little bit of feeling and emotion and occasionally it drained the book of a sense of the feeling behind the menace or the helplessness or the despair. But it’s a relatively minor quibble, for the narrative fairly sweeps you along and for all the unpleasant characters and odd characteristics of the Hanway brothers, I was still riveted by the story of their lives.

Throughout the book there’s an air of loneliness and detachment. Even in the midst of a crowded city like London, the book creates a rather sad, lost in a sea of faces feeling for each of the Three Brothers. It’s that as much as anything that gives it such a gritty realistic feel, and combined with the fact that the story of each brothers life is rich and varied enough to keep you engrossed from start to finish, overall it makes ‘Three Brothers’ a terrific novel.

And while it might be damning it with the faintest of praise, Peter Ackroyd delivers a story here that the scriptwriters of East Enders can only dream of! If only my family were watching stuff as good as this it would be a much better use of their four hours a week!

Book Info

Peter Ackroyd’s ‘Three Brothers’ was published by Vintage and my copy was bought with my own cash!

I can’t remember where I originally read about Three Brothers and then added it to my list of books to try, but on looking again now I think it was prompted by either this review at A Life In Books or from reading Alan Massie’s review in The Scotsman. Either way, if you are interested to find out more about Three Brothers, I’d recommend both reviews.

Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)

 

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Mastering The Art Of Going Inside To Look Outside………Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

……………I read a phrase in a book once which went something like

“From the outside looking in, it’s hard to understand……..from the inside looking out it’s hard to explain”

It’s a challenge taken on, and mastered by Colm Toibin’s new novel ‘Nora Webster’, as it takes us into the head and heart of a woman looking out at her family, her life and her world.

imageNora Webster is in her mid forties and is living in Enniscorthy in County Wexford in Ireland. It’s the late 1960’s and Ireland is on the cusp of the political change and strife which will shape it for years to come. But Nora’s change is a much more deeply personal one – recently widowed she has to come to terms with her grief, the growing up of her two young sons, Donal and Connor, and her two older daughters, the expectations of her neighbours and her extended family about “the widow’s role”, the need to earn money to keep her and her children, and the constant memories of her husband Maurice, who’s died at fairly young age of TB.

In terms of a plot there’s not much to it in a sense – the most exciting, edgy things which happen in it are Nora joining the union and her giving a “piece of her mind’ to the woman who terrorises the female office staff in the place where Nora works. But there’s no big bang plot here. The growing problems in Northern Ireland are there as part of the story – but they are in the background, on TV, in the conversations, or in her daughters emerging political and social views. But they are not central to the story which is instead very much focused on the minutiae of Nora’s life and her thoughts – she gets her hair dyed…….she joins a choir……..she goes into Dublin to shop. But it works because it’s beautifully written and it’s kept realistic and simple.

But that doesn’t mean it meanders. Nora is struggling to come to terms with Maurice’s death, fighting for control of her reactions and other people’s reactions to her as ‘newly widowed’. She’s having to juggle that effort to keep going with trying to manage the impact on her family, especially on her two young sons, one of whom has begun to wet the bed and the other has developed a stammer. And yet, even in these struggles, there is a gentle, almost lilting, dreamy quality to the writing that makes you want to cheer every step forward Nora makes, forgive every mistake she makes. She’s a character who brought out the alpha-male in me – she’s like a mid-twentieth century Tess of the D’Urbervilles!

It’s a novel which I found captivating, because the characters seem to be so real and alive. It’s also a novel that will no doubt resonate for many readers because it’s so sharply observed I think anyone would find references to their own childhood, family or home. I loved the speech patterns and rhythms in the dialogue, for it reminded me of my Gran….I grew up in a world awash with phrases like those in the book – full of “Och, now Nora!” and “Well!!!!! You should see that Peggy Gibney!”. It also perfectly captures the feel of community, good and bad, in a place like Enniscorthy – it’s rich in memories, a place where everyone knows (or at least thinks they know) everybody else and their business, and it’s a place where everybody has opinions about everything!

Colm Toibin - he writes better than me but my desk is tidier than his!
Colm Toibin – he writes better than me but my desk is tidier than his!

I’ve read a few of Colm Toibin’s novels and always enjoyed them. In some ways Nora Webster reminded me of Eilis Lacey in his novel Brooklyn in the way that both women have an underlying steel about them which belies the perceptions others have of them. There was also the obvious connections with his last novel ‘The Testament of Mary’ (which I LOVED!) not just in the fact that both characters were coming to terms with grief but also in the fact that they were having to adjust as much to the feelings of others as to themselves. And while I’m hardly qualified to make the judgement, he seems to me to be brilliant at capturing the heart and mind of a woman and I haven’t read any male author do it better than he does with Nora Webster.

In an age when much of our popular culture seems obsessed with histrionics and exaggerated expressions of emotion, this is a book that makes you realise there is every bit as much, if not more real drama, in everyday life itself. Nora Webster is a beautifully written, but nevertheless very ordinary story, about a very ordinary woman – and that’s what makes it, and her, so extraordinary. For my first book of 2015, it absolutely got my year off to a wonderful, magical start!

Book Info

“Nora Webster” by Colm Toibin was published by Viking. My copy was bought with my own hard-earned cash.

At the same time I also listened to an unabridged audiobook version of the novel which was produced by Penguin. It is magnificently narrated by the actress Fiona Shaw……

Fiona Shaw - great actress, wonderful narrator.....and a bloody good cloakroom attendant too apparently!
Fiona Shaw – great actress, wonderful narrator…..and a bloody good cloakroom attendant too apparently!

…….and her wonderful voicing of the characters added something extra special to this very special story. Again I bought that audiobook version from Audible.

Colm Toibin is of course a literary heavyweight these days so there are reviews in the press in abundance. However if you are interested in reading a bit more about the book, I’d recommend a few blogs instead of the broadsheets. There are again a lot of blog reviews of the book to choose from but I’d recommend those at Hair Past A Freckle (surely one of the best blog names ever!), Plastic Rosaries, and at Lady Fancifull

The novel had been some years in the writing, in some ways reflecting Toibin’s own mother’s life after the death of his father. Here he is being interviewed about the background to the novel in a video at The Guardian

http://www.theguardian.com/books/video/2014/sep/25/colm-toibin-loss-father-nora-webster-video

Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)

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Hail Mary, Full of Grace…and Mary…………………..Book Review of Grace and Mary by Melvyn Bragg

………………………..Like the Cumbrian landscape in which it takes place, this is a book which overcomes its rather serious and bleak subject matter about a son’s last attempts to head off the full onset of his mother’s crippling dementia, with a narrative that rises way above any grim clouds and that inevitable fading of the light to become quite simply, a beautiful love story. There’s something very special, and very soothing about the way in which the book seems to summon up some of our darkest fears about growing old, lay them out starkly before us and then seems to say ‘don’t worry, – however difficult it might be, you’ll be with peopole who love you…..so it’ll be alright’.

Dawn over Coniston Water
Dawn over Coniston Water

John is a 71 year old, retired businessman making regular visits from his home in London to visit Mary, his mother, who is in a care home in Wigton in his native Cumbria. Despite his mothers increasing dementia and the distance, these visits become John’s lifeline to his mother and eventually to his own past. Mary’s recognition and awareness of John varies as the dementia takes hold and so after she calls out in distress one evening for her mother, Grace, John tries to help his mothers failing memory by reaching back to the past, recreating the story of her childhood and that of her mother Grace. His account of Mary and Grace’s history is lovingly reconstructed to try and engage Mary. But it’s almost entirely imagined, for alternating with the present day story of John and Mary, is Grace’s real story of the past, a woman who neither John nor Mary really knew. What unfolds is the heartbreaking contrast between the real and the imagined, for Mary was an illegitimate child born to Grace at a time when a single unmarried woman bringing up a child outside of marriage was simply unthinkable. Grace and Mary never have that mother-daughter relationship in the way John later describes it and yet the real and the imagined stories of Grace and Mary do have something in common – Grace’s love for her daughter which is unquenchable and unbreakable. The tragic difference is that in real life it was a love from afar, as a visiting family friend rather than the mother Grace longs to be at the time and which Mary craves decades later.

Grace and Mary by Melvyn Bragg
Grace and Mary by Melvyn Bragg

As John makes frequent trips to his mother’s bedside, the book unfolds John’s love for his mother as an only child, his reflections on his life now, in the past and to come, and the story he weaves as he tries to imagine what Grace and Mary’s relationship would have been. Grace’s story is of her own mother who she barely knew and her child, lost to the narrow moral values of the time in which she lived. As the book progresses John charts more and more of his mother’s illness, her surroundings and their history together. The present is there of course but it’s as much for it to be a trigger for a special memory or as a reference point to their past more than anything else – it’s noticeable that throughout the book you learn much about John’s thoughts and feelings about his past but his present and his immediate family are scarcely mentioned.

Melvyn Bragg has managed to take the fairly heavy storyline and turn it into something which has a continually light and gentle feel – almost tender. It’s a wonderful achievement when you think about the main character being a woman living out her final years in a care home, suffering the rapid onset of dementia. And of course, for me and no doubt for many others, that fear of dementia is an increasingly common and increasingly real fear too. But as dark and grim as the subject sometimes is, the book is anything but, because it’s just so beautifully balanced. So for example the awfulness of that dementia for Mary and John is balanced with the care in the home, the engagement of the care staff, and John’s patient recreation of the childhood Mary never actually had. Equally there’s a lovely balance between the story of Grace’s past and Mary’s present. For all that there is such tragedy and lost potential in Grace’s actual life story, with such a feel of ‘what might have been’, the sheer depth of the love between John and his mother in a sense actually makes up for it – as if ‘what might have been’ between Grace and Mary, is somehow compensated for in part by the ‘what it became’ between Mary and John.

It’s a book that has at its core that very unique relationship between a mother and her child. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with such a strong feel for that mother-child bond. Grace’s love for Mary is all-consuming and years later, John’s care of his mother is exactly the same. And yet it avoids becoming all a bit too ‘nice’ by giving the contrast of John’s relationships with his own family – they’re pretty much bit-part players throughout the novel. And as an almost two-fingered gesture to that monster dementia, it’s a novel which perversely seems to celebrate the power of simple everyday memories. I loved John’s recollections of his father, of their childhood home, of the way old photographs sparked reminiscing, of the way hearing snippets of music set John and Mary off remebering dancing, or singing much loved songs ( at one point John and Mary literally perform an all-action Hokey Cokey – and as ludicrous as it sounds it’s actually very moving!). So much of the book reminded me of the beautiful Elbow song ‘Scattered Black and Whites”.

In some ways Grace and Mary is about coming to terms with ageing, dying and our pasts. As I read it I kept thinking about Dylan Thomas’ ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ – it’s as if the novel says that Dylan is partly right and we ought not to go too gently and meekly, but that he’s also partly wrong, for there’s no need to ‘rage against the dying of the light’ either! Instead it seems to suggest we take up a position somewhere between the two!

And even though Grace and Mary is a very quiet, gentle read, it’s neither lightweight nor predictable. Far from it. It’s painful to read in some places for there’s a harsh, almost raw feel to the way that John reflects on his life now and as it was when he was a child, and of course if you do consider that spectre of dementia as I know I do, then it’s effect on Mary, and on her relationship with John and with everything else around her is both distressing and frightening. But ultimately it’s just so beautifully written. The characters are wonderfully drawn, engaging, interesting and real – and even their flaws have something gorgeously real-life about them. It’s also one of those rare books where the setting is almost a character in itself – Wigton might be dark, cold and bleak at times, but there’s a real sense of affection in the way Melvyn Bragg has also given beauty to both its scenery and its inhabitants – for this is a Northern England of big hearts and open arms.

I’ve long been a fan of Melvyn Bragg, ever since I stumbled across his novel Crystal Rooms many years ago. Now of course he’s a Lord, much heralded critic and broadcaster and what a work colleague once described for me as the most perfect combination of sex appeal and intellect. (………..I won’t comment on that beyond the fact that I didn’t share her opinion then and I don’t now – I think it’s me rather than Melvyn who is that perfect combination but that’s a debate for another day!) But setting all that to one side he is, amidst all his other talents,  a great writer. At the time of publication for Grace and Mary some reviews compared it to Thomas Hardy – and its a comparison that for me Grace and Mary thoroughly deserves. I loved it so much that for me, this is the best Melvyn Bragg novel I’ve read….and a very last minute contender for the best book I’ve read in 2014!

Melvyn trying harder to look more handsome and more intellectual than me - get in line old boy!
Melvyn trying hard to look more handsome and more intellectual than me – get in line old boy!

Book Info

My copy of ‘Grace and Mary’ by Melvyn Bragg was published by Sceptre in 2013. I bought it with my own hard-earned cash and well worth every penny it was too!

Surprisingly there aren’t a huge number of other blog reviews of Grace and Mary out there that I could find, but if you want to read what someone else thought of it, I liked this one at Dove Grey Reader.

After finishing the book I found out that Melvyn Bragg wrote the novel in the wake of his own mothers death from dementia. There’s an interesting article from May 2013 at Bryan Appleyard and an interview he did with the Guardian back in 2013

And if you don’t already know it, here’s a snippet of that Elbow track ‘Scattered Black and Whites’ in case you’re interested enough to give it a listen – you should – it’s wonderful!

Book Rating Out of Ten (You can find info on my book rating scale here)

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I’ll Do My Crying In The Train!…………..And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

……………………………………..I never learn!!!

I read Khaled Hosseini’s ‘The Kite Runner’ and wept a bucket-load at the end. I read his next novel ‘A Thousand Setting Suns’ and wept TWO bucket-loads at the end. So with about thirty pages to go of his most recent book, And The Mountains Echoed, you’d think I’d have been savvy enough not to finish it while on the Central Line on the way to work. But no……….. throwing caution to the tear-stained wind I decided to finish it on the train………….cue more bucket-loads!!! So to my fellow-commuters who watched me weep my way into Oxford Circus my apologies for breaking the unspoken rule that the commute to London will always be silent and solemn – and my particular apologies to the bloke who gruffly asked ‘all right mate?’ only to recoil in disgust when I stammered ‘…….it’s…….it’s………it’s…………’ and pointed speechless to my book!!!! In my defence I couldn’t help it, for if ever a writer seemed to know how to pluck at my heartstrings ( and then twist, pull, contort, bend and tear them asunder!), then it’s definitely Khaled Hoimagesseini!

However it’s not just moving me to barely controlled sobs that And The Mountains Echoed has in common with the previous books. What it also has in common is that I loved it every bit as much as I did The Kite Runner and Thousand Setting Suns!! In my eyes this is simply a marvellous storyteller at work, drawing you in as reader so that you are identifying so closely with the characters you really do feel every twist and turn in their lives and relationships.

The story begins with Abdullah and his younger sister Pari, setting out on a journey with their father, who has recently remarried after their mother’s death. They are on their way to visit Kabul from their village home in Afghanistan. Their lives are little more than a daily struggle for existence against desperate poverty and a hard unforgiving landscape. But Pari and her brother have created their own brand of happiness in their childhood, and the bond between them is as strong as it could be.

After their first day of walking to the capital their father helps them settle for the night with a story about a man forced to offer one of his children as a sacrifice to a djinn visiting their village. The man has a favourite – his youngest child, but he leaves the choice of which child to sacrifice to fate – and fate chooses that favourite. Distraught thereafter the man eventually sets out on a journey to face the djinn who killed his child – but when he finally tracks him down the djinn shows him the child alive and happy, living with other children in an Elysian paradise. And so the man faces a choice – take his child and return it to the life of abject poverty from which it came or leave it behind in the paradise in which it now lives. And of course Abdullah and Pari’s father has a motive for the story, for on reaching Kabul he will give away his daughter Pari to be looked after by a wealthy Kabul family and to be raised as their child. In doing so he will tear Abdullah away from his young sister Pari, who is by far the thing he loves most in the world. So begins their new and very different, very separate journeys through life.

But from what you might call a relatively standardised approach to introducing the story, the book very cleverly and very effectively chooses not to simply follow the separate lives of Pari and her brother as a straightforward, chronological narrative. Instead he weaves the story of their lives through that of others, who in some way are involved in the fate of the brother and sister. The story also shifts back and forward in time. So for example there’s the story of Nabi, the housekeeper to the wealthy family in Kabul who adopt Pari and who is also the step-brother of Pari and Abdullah’s father, half-French, emotionally tortured and broken Nila Wahdati who becomes Pari’s adopted mother ( and who was my favourite character in the book because perhaps she stood out for the damage being as much self-inflicted as anything) and the story of Markos, a Greek surgeon performing plastic surgery reconstructions on Afghan civilians caught up in the terror which comes in the wake of the US and British Invasion of Afghanistan, who comes to live in the Kabul house once occupied by Pari, Nila and Nabi. As you’d expect with a storyteller as good as Khaled Hosseini, each of these individual stories are great in their own right, but the sum of their parts is something much more wonderful!

Steve McCurry's iconic image of an Afghan child for National Geographic Magazine in the mid 80's
Steve McCurry’s iconic image of an Afghan child for National Geographic Magazine in the mid 80’s

You could I guess make a case that the three books having a lot in common runs the risk that his books have become a bit formulaic. There are certainly common themes here such as the effect of change, politics and religion on the people of Afghanistan, the tragic and difficult lives of some people, the awful impact of the wars, the way old Afghanistan almost seems to reach out and pull back at attempts to create a newer Afghanistan, or the influence of outside Western culture and politics. But he’s such a wonderful storyteller that his books never feel formulaic in the least to me. Instead they are populated by characters who are engaging, powerful and utterly believable. One of the strengths in this book is that there are so many rich and varied characters, and unusually for a book of such variety, I found myself liking and believing in every single one of them.

The effects of war, the British-US invasion and ongoing war of terror between the Taliban and the West cast a shadow over this book as they do the others. Khaled Hosseini makes his points though in a subtle, almost understated way – it’s more that the politics and his view of it is nuanced into the story rather than tackled head-on.

And perhaps ultimately it was a good thing that I got to have a good cry on the Central Line last week for that’s a testimony to just how good this book is. When his characters are in despair, you feel it, when they have moments of optimism and hope you feel it, and of course you feel it when they search and long for reunion between the brother and sister who’ve been scattered far apart by fates. I couldn’t recommend this book highly enough…..at the beginning of the book the father says to Abdullah and Pari ‘So you want me to tell you a story?……..then I’ll tell you one!”…………..so to borrow that phrase, if you want someone to tell you a story………………….. go buy a big box of tissues and let Khaled Hosseini tell you the story of ‘And The Mountains Echoed’!

Book Info

My copy of Khaled Hosseini’s ‘And The Mountains Echoed’ was published by Bloomsbury and bought with my own hard earned cash!

Having sold 38 million with his first two books, Mr Hosseini’s work is popular! So as you’d expect there’s a vast array of blog posts about it out there but if you wanted to as a bit more about what others had to say about it I’d recommend The Book Musings because…..I liked it!

If you want to hear what Khaled Hosseini has to say about his books, Afghanistan and America among other things then he recently did this interview with Al Jazeera America.

Book Rating Out Of Ten ( you can find info on my rating scale here)

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