Off Work Pt.2

Historical fiction varies just as widely in quality as any other genre. It swings from the brilliance of Hilary Mantel or Patrick O’Brian to the most banal of romances. At their best they offer a view into another world but even the straightforward ones give a glimpse into the past. Devil is the first in a projected series by David Churchill called The Leopards of Normandy. It tells the story of the Duchy and how it came to change England so dramatically. Churchill is the pseudonym for journalist David Thomas and he writes a decent yarn in solid prose. Writing about a period of which not much is written means that there are quite a few gaps to fill, and he manages to drive the story along with gusto.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is set in the years preceding and during the Second World War. Written in very short chapters (usually only a page or two) it alternates between the story of orphan Werner, a teenage genius at radios, and Marie –Laure, the blind daughter of a museum locksmith. It’s a gripping page turner and despite at times rather overripe prose it is moving without too much sentimentality. My favourite was Dictator by Robert Harris. This is the concluding part of the trilogy that begins with Imperium which charts the political life of Cicero. Though set over 2000 years ago we actually have far better sources than 11th century Normandy and Harris uses the device of Tiro, his slave secretary, to tell the story. It is a story that every aspiring politician should read and anyone interested in the Roman Republic – both hugely illuminating and entertaining.

Off Work Part 1..

Being off work is a great excuse to catch up with the reading.  Unfortunately hospital is not a brilliant place for concentrating on serious fiction but it is a good test for thrillers – can they distract and entertain?

The new Lee Child, Make Me, is some way off his best.  Jack Reacher is as tough and clever as ever but it may be that now in his twentieth outing the plots have got a bit threadbare.  The much lauded I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes is at nearly 900 pages something of a heavyweight.  While some of its plot twists are (a little) preposterous, the narrative drive is good, and the inside view of the Saudi state is pretty shocking.  Tim Weaver is an author much lauded by his publisher (Penguin) who has yet to make it big.  His latest, What Remains is a long complex London crime novel with plenty of twists and much violence.  The best of the lot was a by a new writer, Jason Matthews called Palace of Treason.  It’s a tense tightly plotted spy thriller – fiercely anti-Putin and his kleptocratic oligarchy.  It is published in January and is definitely one to look forward to.

Next week  historical fiction (and other easy convalescent reads….)


A journalist rang the other day to ask what everybody was reading this summer.  There are always trends going on in publishing but because of the time lag between writing and the finished copy arriving in bookshops, an avalanche of copycats arrive just too late to sell in the quantities the optimistic publisher desires.

There seem to be a number of novels around at the moment with unreliable female narrators.  Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson was published back in 2011, about a woman who experiences total amnesia every morning when she wakes up.  This was followed by a number of books by women with mental illness (such as How to Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman), and with dementia (Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey).  The bestseller of 2015 so far has been The Girl on The Train by Paula Hawkins.  It is about a woman who witnesses something suspicious from a train but whose alcoholism and blackouts make her testimony highly unreliable.  The genre is not new (cf  Jean Rhys’  Wide Sargasso Sea) but seems to have gathered fresh impetus – expect many more over the next year…..

Another fictional trend is the “older person’s quest”.  It started with the ultimate OAP, The Hundred Year Old Man by the Swede Jonas Jonasson, continued with the equally successful  The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, and has now spread outside Europe.  Australia has produced Lost and Found by Brooke Davis and likewise from Canada the charming Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper.  The latter has the advantage in combining both trends in that Etta who is travelling across the country to the sea is also struggling with dementia.


The Baileys Women’s prize for Fiction is one of those strange beasts – a competition open to only half the population. With good cause, it might be argued, as recent research has shown that the Booker prize – that pre-eminent and most prestigious of awards –  has produced an overwhelming number of male authors on its shortlists and even more of its winners.  However in recent years things have changed pretty dramatically.  The Booker has been going since 1969 and the Orange Prize (the precursor to the Bailey’s) started in 1996.  In the intervening 27 years, the prize was won only 10 times by women.  For the 10 years after, only twice.  So far, so bad.  However in the years since (nine) it has been won by men only four times.  So case made – we do not need a Women’s prize anymore. Not so say some, because the subject viewpoint of two of those women’s Bookers was male – step forward Hilary Mantel and Thomas Cromwell.

Whatever you think, book prizes get people talking about books and that has to be good news (for bookshops at least).

Just out in paperback this week is The History of Loneliness by John Boyne (author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas).  It is written from the perspective of an Irish catholic priest and is very well done indeed.

Making Lists

Making lists is always fun.  I recently gave myself the challenge of picking one book from each of the last twenty-one years for a special person’s birthday.  It meant a highly pleasurable trawl through bookshelves and a less entertaining search of endless websites.  I wanted to include some meaty non-fiction – Long Walk to Freedom, Lean In, Dreams From My Father, The Memory Chalet; a book about old age – Somewhere Towards the End; something humorous – The Uncommon Reader;  some Booker winners and some plain good reads. The fiction side was much more difficult – which books to leave out because two good ones came out in the same year etc. though publication in different parts of the world and different formats allowed for a little cheating…. I wanted it not to be all British (9 are not from this country) and reasonably gender balanced (10 women and 11 men). – books that I knew would be enjoyed and not just my favourites…. full list at the bottom.

In the meantime some good books have made their paperback appearance. John Boyne (author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) has written a very powerful novel, A History of Loneliness, told from the perspective of an Irish priest, a good man compromised by the choices he makes.

The Storied Life of AJ Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin is not autobiographical though it is about a grumpy bookseller.  It is a warm-hearted tale of books that manages to be not too sentimental.

1994   Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil   John Berendt

1995   Long walk to Freedom                                 Nelson Mandela

1996   A Fine Balance                                               Rohinton Mistry

1997   The God of Small Things                              Arundhati Roy

1998   Poisonwood Bible                                         Barbara Kingsolver

1999   Dreams From My Father                             Barack Obama

2000   White Teeth                                                   Zadie Smith

2001   Bad Blood                                                      Lorna Sage

2002   Fingersmith                                                   Sarah Waters

2003   The Kite Runner                                            Khaled Hosseini

2004   Old Filth                                                          Jane Gardam

2005   Saturday                                                         Ian McEwan

2006   The Road                                                       Cormac McCarthy

2007   The Uncommon Reader                               Alan Bennett

2008   Somewhere Towards The End                    Diana Athill

2009   Wolf Hall                                                        Hilary Mantel

2010   The Memory Chalet                                      Tony Judt

2011   The Sense of an Ending                                Julian Barnes

2012   Lean In                                                           Sheryl Sandberg

2013   Harvest                                                           Jim Crace

2014   Life After Life                                                            Kate Atkinson


comments welcome……

Ian McEwan

The wonderfully divisive Ian McEwan was back in the literary press this week with the release in paperback of The Children Act.  He is one of the most popular serious novelists writing today and a new title is certain to receive the lead review and be followed by a flurry of interviews and profiles.  But there are quite a lot who disagree – vehemently – and they are mostly female.  This is perhaps because of the perceived deficiencies of his women characters and partly because of his preference for big set pieces at the expense of character development – a trait he shares with some of the other big beasts. Perhaps however it is perhaps because some of his leading men are flawed and morally unattractive and some readers identify this (falsely) as McEwen himself.

For my money The Children Act is one of the best things he has written and the central voice (female) is as brilliant (and morally ambiguous) as ever.

Also new in paperback and worthy of mention is Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes.  It is a thought-provoking satirical allegory of the return of Adolf Hitler who wakes up in modern Germany and makes a new career as a media celebrity.  Uncomfortable and at times very funny.

All That is Solid Melts into Air by Darragh McKeon is a big Russian first novel written by an Irishman who we are going to be hearing a lot more of.  Set around the events of the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 it is moving and beautiful.

The Petersfield Book

A book launch is always fun but it is particularly special when the book is exceptional.  A Celebration of Petersfield is a real labour of love and like a lot of successes has many fathers, but particular mention should go to the design work of Neil Pafford. The book is not a history but a picture of a thriving living town – a cracking piece of publishing.

Just out in paperback is The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan.  It is part love story, part meditation on heroism and part picture of the horrors of the death railway.  It was a popular choice as winner of the Booker and is well worth a read.

For those interested in military memoirs , An Englishman at War,  the World War ll diary of Stanley Christopherson is a particular delight.  He was a stockbroker who joined up in 1939 and ended the war as the colonel of a crack regiment of Tanks – a better description of what it must have been like would be hard to find.

Noreen Riols

It is often the case that artists of one kind or another are not very nice people.  The obsessional devotion they give to their art and that they in return sometimes receive from their fans often comes with poor behaviour particularly away from the public gaze.  Artists of the written word are no exception, although it has to be said that most writers do not lay claim to the description of “Artist”.  Anyhow it is always a pleasure to meet writers who are manifestly not self obsessed.

Noreen Riols is an incredibly impressive lady.  She is the last survivor of the women of SOE (F section) who took the war into German occupied France during WWII.  She came over from France where she now lives to give a series of talks to packed audiences who listened spellbound to her stories of the bravery and sacrifice of the agents, most of whom met horrible ends.  Her book is called The Secret Ministry of Ag and Fish,  as this is where her family were told she was working.  In fact it was not until this century that her story became known to the astonishment of her friends and family who had no idea.

World Book Day

It seems to have become an integral part of World Book Day in Primary schools for all children to come dressed as their favourite book character. This sometimes leads to some odd costumes, particularly this year when a boy came in to one school dressed as Christian Grey (from 50 Shades) in a suit with some cable ties. At Hollycombe School in Milland they opted to do something different and to some eyes old-fashioned this year – a poetry reading competition. The rules were simple, no props and all poems to be learnt by heart. It was a close call for the expert judging panel but 1st prize was won in the end by an excellent performance of The Jabberwocky by a year 3 boy.

WBD at Lord Wandsworth College was celebrated differently with the school creating their own book prize to be voted on by all the pupils. Froxfield School made a visit to their local bookshop.
Added to all this we held a book club in the shop on The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. A good turnout decided that it was by and large a good first novel, full of atmosphere, and with some great set pieces, but with a few flaws.
So we had a busy few days.

The return of Poldark to the small screen has seen the novels by Winston Graham start to move again and the adaptation of The Casual Vacancy (with JK herself involved in the production) has been well received.

I have been enjoying Shop Girl by Mary Portas. It is not about her years as a TV person but about her childhood in an Irish catholic working class family in Watford. Surprisingly moving and well written.

Bubbling Under

It is a sign of a special book when weeks after publication it appears at the top of the bestseller list.  Once the fanfare of publicity has died down and the newspaper reviews have been carefully recycled it is the reader who must carry on the publicity and so Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healy has done well.  It is the ultimate unreliable narrator novel.  Its key protagonist is suffering from dementia, and manages to retain suspense throughout.  H is for Hawk came out in paperback this week and also went to number one – hopefully it will stay there a while.

Anne Tyler’s twenty-second novel A Spool of Blue Thread has just been published.  Set in Baltimore (as usual) it tells the story of three generations of a family with extraordinary precision – she just seems to get better with each one.

There is good news for those who loved Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (and I am one of those).  A God In Ruins, her new book coming out in May, takes one of the characters, the bomber pilot Teddy, and tells his story (without the rebirths).  Having given us a brilliant description of the Blitz in Life after Life, She tells us the story from the other side just as poignantly.


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