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Some of my 2,000 books

All reviews in alphabetical order by title


"Act Of Oblivion" by Robert Harris

Over a period of three decades, British novelist Robert Harris has written 15 bestselling novels, mostly works of historical fiction, many set in Ancient Rome or around the Second World War. "Act Of Oblivion" is the eighth that I have read. It is classic Harris but set in a different time period: the two decades of the mid 17th century, after the epochal events of the English Civil War, the execution of King Charles I, and the restoration of King Charles II. The narrative switched between England and New England and all the named characters, except one, were real people. Unlike some of Harris's novels, we don't know how this will end.

The odd title comes from legislation in the English Parliament which, following the restoration, absolved all parties from prosecution, except those involved in the killing of the king. The focus is overwhelmingly on two of the regicides - Colonel Edward Whalley and his son-in-law Colonel William Goffe - who escaped to the new colonies and their intended nemesis, Richard Naylor, clerk to the Privy Council and regicide hunter-in-chief (the one invented character).

"Act Of Oblivion" is meticulously researched, wonderfully crafted, and a joy to read. We learn a good deal about how people of that time lived and died and about both the depth and the division of political thought and religious belief of that era. It is bound to be adapted for television or cinema.

"After Rain" by William Trevor

Trevor was born (in 1928) and brought up in rural Ireland but has lived in Devon, England since the 1950s. Although he has written novels, he is best known for his short stories and he is widely regarded as one of the greatest contemporary writers of short stories in the English language. "After Rain" is a collection of 12 stories published in 1996. Trevor has a quiet, understated style and often writes about rather domestic situations but frequently with an underlying air of menace.

"The Alchemist" by Paulo Coelho

Coelho is a Brazilian writer whose work has been translated into 55 languages and who has sold almost 43 million books world-wide (including over 21 million copies of "The Alchemist"), but this is the first material of his that I have read. I was looking for a short novel that I could read in a day off work and this fitted the bill. It is a simple tale - mystical, spiritual, almost religious - about a young Andalusian shepherd called Santiago who seeks an unidentified treasure on a journey that takes him to a crystal shop in Tangiers and an oasis in the Saharan desert. Leavened with uplifting aphorisms, the central message of the work is that, if you have the courage to seek your treasure, along the way you will discover many things, not least about yourself, and may come to discover that the treasure is in fact much closer to home than you thought.

"All Quiet On The Western Front" by Eric Maria Remarque

Having seen both the American (1930) and German (2022) film versions of this famous novel, I thought that it was time to read the original work (1929) in an excellent English translation (1994) by Brian Murdoch. The novel contains less narrative but more reflection than the films and has lost none of its power and punch. Also the book ends not with a bang but a whimper: "there was nothing new to report on the western front". Indeed the title that we all know came from an English translation in 1929 which Murdoch has chosen to keep because it has "justly become part of the English language", but he explains that a more literal translation of Remarque's German title would be ""Nothing new on the western front".

"All The King's Men" by Robert Penn Warren

This 660-page work, published in 1946, is a classic example of the great American novel. Indeed it won the Pulitzer Prize and is often rated as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. It has twice been made into a film: first in 1949 (winning the Academy Award for Best Picture) and much more recently in 2006. In fact, it was only after seeing both movies that I used the third lockdown of the global pandemic to tackle the novel, but I'm pleased that it did because it is a finely-written and cleverly constructed work - although of its time (so one has to overlook a few uses of the N-word).

It is set in the !920s and 1930s and written from the point of view of Jack Burden, a political reporter who covers the ascent to power of charismatic populist Willie Stark and then becomes the right-man man of the dynamic but corrupt governor of the unnamed southern state. It is widely believed that the story was inspired by the record of Huey Pierce Long (1893-1935) who was the radical populist governor of Louisiana (whom Warren was able to observe closely while teaching at Louisiana State University), a controversial character who was eventually assassinated.

Although the focus of the novel is initially Stark (usually called "the Boss"), it increasingly becomes about Burden who states: "the story of Willie Stark and the story of Jack Burden are, in one sense, one story".

"All The King's Men" presents a deeply cynical view of "poly-ticks". Willie Stark insists several times: "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something." The 'something' is the part of a man's record that permits him to be bullied into submission or bribed into compliance.

The novel reads like a Shakespearean tragedy with the unexpected consequences of various characters' actions leading to a succession of deaths. Indeed a major theme of the work is that life is all about consequences. As Stark puts it: "politics is always a matter of choices and a man doesn't set up the choices himself. And there is always a price to make a choice." As the final words of the book put it, we all have to accept "the awful responsibility of Time".

These days it is impossible to read the novel or view either of the film adaptations without thinking of Donald Trump.

Link: my reviews of the films click here

"The Almond" by Nedjma

"Nedjma", a pseudonym which means "star", is a Moroccan woman in her forties who is convinced that she has to remain anonymous, otherwise she would be stoned in the streets. This is because she has written an erotic novel about the sexual awakening of a Muslim woman that is apparently around 40% autobiographical and otherwise based on the experiences of dozens of Muslim women that she knows. It is a work that could not have been published in the Arab world and so it originally came out in France where it was a literary phenomenon. Rights have now been sold in 17 countries.

The title refers to a woman's sexual genitalia and this is a remarkably explicit and erotic work, but it is also one full of anger, as it tells the tale of Badra, a Moroccan girl from a small village who is forced into a marriage at the age of just 17 to a local notary of 40. Eventually fleeing to the city of Tangiers, she discovers passion and pain with a sophisticated doctor called Driss whom she describes as at once "my master and my torturer".

In the preface, the author writes: "Through these lines, in which sperm and prayer are joined ... my ambition is to give back to the women of my blood the power of speech confiscated by their fathers, brothers and husbands." Ultimately, therefore, this is a powerful political statement.

"Alone In Berlin" by Hans Fallada

This remarkable novel was first published in German in 1947 and I read an English translation by Michael Hofman published in 2009. It is a long work - almost 600 pages - but the translation is excellent, the narrative compelling, and the text is divided into 72 chapters, so that it is a compulsive read. It tells the story of a couple in their early 50s, living in Berlin during the Nazi era, who choose an idiosyncratic but immensely dangerous method of protest by leaving anonymous handwritten postcards around the city attacking the regime and the war. Otto and Anna Quangel commence this campaign in 1940 when they learn of the death of their son. But how long can they survive undetected and what impact can such a protest really have?

The story is populated by a series of generally unsavoury characters, led by the Gestapo detective determined to track down the Quangels: "Inspector Escherich was firmly convinced that he would find a knot of secrecy and deceit in well-nigh every German home. Almost no one had a clear conscience." Fallada - drawing no doubt on his own experience - describes a claustrophobic world in which: "The air was thick with betrayal. No one could trust anyone else." And yet the prisoner Dr Reichhardt can assert: "We live not for ourselves, but for others. What we make of ourselves we make not for ourselves, but for others."

Hans Fallada was the nom de plume of Rudolf Ditzen who took the name from two characters in Grimm fairey tales. He was a sad individual who suffered from alcoholism and morphine addiction. He remained in Germany throughout the Nazi period and had a a complicated relationship with the regime, neither an eager collaborator nor an active resistor. Shortly after the war, Fallada was encouraged to write this novel by an official in the post-war Soviet military administration who drew his attention to the real-life story of Otto and Elise Hampel who left handwritten missives around Berlin between 1940-1942 before being detected and executed. Amazingly Fallada drafted his novel in around a month and then died before it could be published.

There are many similarities, but significant differences, between the story of the Quangels and the reality of the Hampels, some of the changes literary licence by Fallada and others the result of Fallada not being shown all the Gestapo files. The Quangels are portrayed in ultimately heroic terms whereas sadly the Hampels were more flawed characters.

"Alone In Berlin" has been made into a film starring Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson.

"The Amber Spyglass" by Philip Pullman

First published in 2000, "The Amber Spyglass" is the third and final part of the "His Dark Materials" trilogy and, as the longest, it runs to almost 550 pages - making the trilogy as a whole a formidable 1,300 pages. This concluding volume is not simply the most extensive; it is the most complex, moving frequently between half a dozen different universes, several of them - notably the world of the dead - being new to the storyline. Lyra and Will are still central to the tale, many earlier characters return, and there are all kinds of new life forms, including the tiny Gallivespians and the wheeled mulefa. The alethiometer and the subtle knife are still very much in use, but now a third device - the eponymous spyglass - is deployed to see the strange phenomenon of dust which is defined as "only a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself".

As well as being the lengthiest and most complicated, "The Amber Spyglass" is the most ambitious of the three novels with huge themes and the most direct references to religion. At the beginning, we are told that the Authority or God is not the creator but 'simply' the first of the angels whose regent is the angel Metatron. Towards the end of the work, following a titanic battle, both God and Metatron are dead, but so are Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter - Lyra's unlikely parents who abandoned her as a child but died for her as an adolescent - and many other Lyra allies.

At one level, "His Dark Materials" is a thrillingly inventive adventure story which concludes in an achingly sad love between two young people, Lyra and Will, who are compelled to retreat to their separate universes, to be reunited in spirit only once a year when they sit on the same bench in Oxford's Botanic Garden. At another level, the trilogy is a savage satire on organised religion and the church, presenting an altogether more humanistic interpretation of life.

In the words of the former nun turned scientist Mary Malone: "I stopped believing there was a power of good and a power of evil that were outside us. And I came to believe that good and evil are names for what people do, not for what they are." For Pullman, there is no heaven 'up there' , but only the heaven we ourselves create in each of our universes. This reflects my own philosophy entirely and it is wonderful to see it expostulated in such outstanding literary style.

Link: Philip Pullman's site click here

"American Spy" by Lauren Wilkinson

Two things attracted me to this novel. First, it was a Barack Obama summer reading pick which is quite a recommendation. Second, it features the real-life West African revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara after whom my second granddaughter Kara is named.

The work is in the form of an extended account by black female FBI agent Marie Mitchell addressed to her two young sons. The story begins explosively with an attempted murder in Connecticut in 1992 and then goes back and forth in time, alternating between Marie's upbringing in New York in the 1960s, her career as an FBI agent in the 1980s, her assignment in Burkina Faso in 1987, and her retreat to Martinique in 1992.

This is the first novel by African-American writer Lauren Wilkinson and it is a remarkably assured spy thriller that tackles issues of politics, race and gender. It certainly will not be her last book and indeed the inconclusive ending of "American Spy" cries out for a sequel.

"The Anatomist" by Federico Andahazi

The subject matter of this Argentinian novel - translated from the original Spanish - is a most unusual one. Although it is fiction, it is said to be based on historic fact and concerns the 'discovery' of the 'amor veneris' or clitoris by an Italian anatomist Matea Renaldo Colombo in 1558, about the same time that another Italian called Colombo was coming across America. One would think that a man possessed of such useful information - sadly neglected by so many men even today - would have a fulfilled life, but this is a tragic tale. The woman with whom he makes the discovery (the noble Ines de Torremolinos) is burned at the stake, the woman on whom he wants to visit his discovery (the famed prostitute Mona Sofia) dies of syphilis, and he himself in despair commits suicide. There is probably a lesson here, but I am not sure what it is.

"Anatomy Of A Scandal" by Sarah Vaughan

James Whitehouse has led a charmed life defined by privilege and entitlement all the way from Oxford University, where he was a member of the wealthy and hard-drinking group called The Libertines, to his position as a Government Minister who is a favoured friend of the Prime Minister, a fellow student at Oxford and member of The Libertines. But then his political assistant accuses him of raping her in a lift in the Palace of Westminster. This is not just a scandal; it leads to a high-profile court case. Who will the jury believe? - the smooth-talking, well-connected rising politician or a younger, less empowered female aide?

Sarah Vaughan is the pseudonym of Sarah Hall who herself studied at Oxford and used to be a political correspondent on the "Guardian" newspaper. She has used her experience and imagination to craft a well-written novel with a number of twists that has become very resonant in the current climate where at last we are debating issues such as entitlement, consent and accountability. Indeed Netflix has now turned the story into a six-part television series.

"And The Mountains Echoed" by Khaled Hosseini

In 2007, I fell in love with the marvellous writing of the Afghan-American novelist Khaled Hosseini. On a recommendation, I read his first novel "The Kite Runner" (2003) and I was so impressed I immediately went on to devour his second novel "A Thousand Splendid Suns" (2007). Seven years later comes this, his third novel, which confirms Khaled as the consummate storyteller. I simply did not want to stop reading but equally I did not want it to end. Clearly I am not alone because his novels have now sold over 38 million copies in more than 70 countries and "The Kite Runner" was made into a film (which, of course, I have seen).

Whereas "The Kite Runner" was about the friendship between two Afghan men and "A Thousand Splendid Suns" was concerned with the relationship between two Afghan women, "And The Mountains Echoed" takes as its start and end points the love between an Aghan brother Abdullah and his younger sister Pari ('fairy" in Farsi). But this third work is much more open in terms of characters and location than the other two.

The point of view of the narrative changes with each long chapter - all nicely broken up into sections - so we see the world through the eyes of eight different characters (not all Afghan) who have interlocking stories and experiences and, as well as Afghanistan, we visit France, Greece and the United States over a period of six decades. Furthermore this is altogether a gentler novel: there is pain and loss but not the tyranny and brutality of the first two works. The main themes this time are those of separation and exile as the echoes of an early traumatic event are heard throughout the book.

Link: author's web site click here

"Angelica's Grotto" by Russell Hoban

Hoban is an American who was born in 1925 and moved to London in 1969. He has written more than 50 books for children and some complex fiction and the cover of this work describes it as "a novel about Internet sex". In fact, the "grotto" of the title is an adult web site that serves to bring together 72 year old American art historian Harold Klein and the very much younger British researcher Melissa Bottomley. Certainly they have sex of a kind, but something more fundamental is going on here, something to do with identity and control. Hoban's fables are noted for their allusions to classical mythology and, in this work, a recurring theme is the Ingres painting of "Angelica Saved By Ruggiero" [for picture click here] - the hero's name is, of course, Italian for Roger and I am half-Italian!

"The Angry Gods" by Wendy Brandmark

In the Autumn of 2009, I attended a weekly two-hour session in short story writing at central London's City Lit and my tutor was Wendy Brandmark. So it seems strange for me to be critiquing my own tutor, but what's sauce for the goose ..

On our course, one of the things we discussed was the point of view (POV) of the narrative. Usually there is one POV but, in this short novel of 160 pages, WB has adopted two, each with its own timeframe, who alternate from chapter to chapter. There is Sonia, a Jewish woman of 31 teaching in New York City in 1955, who embarks on her first relationship - one opposed by her family because it is with Caleb, a black poet about 20 years her senior. Then there is Helen - Sonia's daughter with Seth - aged 14 in 1972, who discovers her mother's untold earlier relationship and is just experiencing her own sexual awakening. Both characters appear unhappy and unsympathetic - to quote a line from the book: ""all just ants in the universe".

As I would expect, the novel is well-written (although I found the poem inaccessible) but, as with so many modern novels, very little happens and and what does happen seems so prosaic and inconsequential. Give me a compelling story and some colourful characters.

"Archangel" by Robert Harris

Many years ago, I read a biography of British politician Neil Kinnock by Robert Harris, but these days the author is known as a very successful writer of political thrillers. So far his novels have adopted the same formula: a single word title and a carefully constructed plot centred on a hypothetical situation arising from an aspect of the Second World War and its aftermath. I thoroughly enjoyed "Fatherland" (1992) and "Enigma" (1995) and now comes "Archangel" (1998) which is arguably his best work to date.

Supposing the Soviet dictator Stalin had locked a notebook in his office safe; supposing his security chief Beria had managed to steal this while Stalin was dying from a stroke; supposing the book was found in modern-day Russia. What secret would it contain and what would be the implications for the Fatherland? Harris is a consummate storyteller and colours his work with fascinating historical detail. He reminds us that, as well as leading the USSR ill-prepared into a war that killed 30 million Soviet citizens, Stalin created a terror of three decades that purged another 66 million citizens; yet millions of Russians still rever his memory. It is this brilliant combination of compelling fiction and important history that makes Harris such a welcome novelist.

"Asylum" by Patrick McGrath

Written from the perspective of Dr Peter Cleave, a psychiatrist at a remote hospital for the criminally insane, this is a tale of what he calls in the first sentence of the novel a "catastrophic love affair characterized by sexual obsession" and describes towards the end of the narrative as "one of the most florid and and dramatic examples of morbid obsessional sexual compulsion I had encountered in many years of practice". The destructive relationship in question is that which occurs between the beautiful Stella Raphael, the wife of the deputy superintendent at the prison, and the artistic Edgar Stark, an inmate convicted of murdering and mutilating his wife.

If this sounds like heavy stuff, then I guess it is, but McGrath - a British writer whose father was a medical superintendent at Broadmoor Hospital - provides a wonderfully written and completely absorbing story that pulls the reader along all the way to the final revealing sentences.

"Atonement" by Ian McEwan

The only previous work that I have read by McEwan was "The Comfort Of Strangers", a novella of just 125 pages published in 1981, following its appearance as a film. "Atonement" is a much longer work (372 pages) and comes after the author has won the 1998 Booker Prize (indeed this particular novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2001). Very little happens in "Atonement", but what happens is momentous for the individuals concerned and the whole work is beautifully crafted and written with McEwan showing himself an absolute master of prose.

The structure of this ambitious work is an unequal triptych: the first section (almost half the novel at 187 pages) is set in an English country house on just two hot days in the summer of 1935; the second section (168 pages) jumps to May 1940 and the retreat from Dunkirk; while a short third section (just 20 pages) brings us to London in 1999. In the first part, 13 year old aspiring writer Briony Tallis observes her 23 year old sister Cecilia in two incidents with Robbie Turner, the Cambridge-educated son of the char lady - one a tussle over an expensive vase by the side of the garden fountain and the other a more intimate encounter in the house's library. Briony's misunderstanding or misinterpretation or misrepresentation of these events sets the scene for tragic circumstances for which she spends a lifetime of atonement in the only form a novelist knows how.

"Observer" review click here
my review of the film click here

"Beautiful World, Where Are You" by Sally Rooney

I really enjoyed Rooney's first two novels "Conversations With Friends" and "Normal People", both of which have now been turned into a 12-episode television series, so I was keen to read this third work and it does not disappoint. As with her earlier works, the focus is on friendships and relationships between young people in contemporary Ireland. This time, we have successful writer Alice and warehouse worker Felix who meet via Tinder on the west coast, while editorial assistant Eileen and political activist Simon - who have known each other since childhood - hook up in Dublin, before all the characters stay together for a time in Alice's rented house.

What is different in this novel is the structure with chapters alternating between straight narrative and long and thoughtful emails between best friends Alice and Eileen. These emails do not just comment on their enduring friendship and latest relationship but on the wider world with erudite thoughts on subjects as wide-ranging as the Late Bronze Age collapse and the modern Western novel.

Through Alice's ruminations especially, Rooney explores the justification for novels like her own which deal with quotidian lives rather than grand issues such as world poverty or the climate crisis. So she writes: "The problem with the contemporary Euro-American novel is that it relies for its structural integrity on suppressing the lived realities of most human beings on earth" and "we can care once again, as we do in real life, whether people break up or stay together - if, and only if, we have successfully forgotten about all the things more important than that, i.e. everything".

Rooney identifies herself as a Marxist but even political idealists like her - and me - can and should care about our partners and friends. If reading Rooney is a guilty pleasure, then I admit to it.

"The Beekeeper Of Aleppo" by Christy Lefteri

There is a certain fashion for novels to have a title in the format "The [common noun of an occupation] Of [proper noun of a place of peril]" - think "The Bookseller Of Kabul", "The Tattooist Of Auschwitz" and "The Cellist Of Sarajevo". I was especially attracted to this particular work because I spent a few days in the city of Aleppo just a couple of weeks before the outbreak of the civil war in 2011.

For Lefteri who teaches creative writing at London's Brunel University, this is clearly a deeply personal and even polemical novel. Her own parents were refugees from Northern Cyprus after the Turks invaded the island and later she spent two summers in Athens working as a volunteer in a centre supporting refugees mainly from Syria and Afghanistan. So this is not storytelling merely for entertainment and, at the end of the book, the reader is invited to engage with the issues raised by the story through support for one of a number of relevant groups.

The narrator of the novel is the eponymous apiarist Nuri Ibrahim and the beginning of the work finds him with his artist wife Afra in a bed and breakfast in a seaside resort on the south England coast awaiting the outcome of their claim for asylum. As the story moves forward by weeks, there are a whole series of flashbacks to explain how, over a traumatic period of months, they fled the Syrian war and travelled via Turkey and Greece to the safety and security of a Britain which is not universally welcoming of refugees.

Lefteri's writing style is deceptively plain but, as the story unfolds, we learn the true scale of the suffering of Nuri and Afra (and other refugees) and we find that the writer deploys a number of stylistic devices. It is a tale about "the randomness of pain, how life can take everything from you all at once", but it is an immensely moving narrative that ultimately offers compassion and hope.

"Before I Go To Sleep" by S J Watson

A middle-aged woman wakes up in bed one morning. She has no idea who she is. She has no idea where she is. And she does not recognise the man in bed with her. This is the startling opening of this very accomplished criminal thriller.

I confess this is not the kind of novel I normally read, but I saw the film adaptation and wanted to read the book. Even though I knew what was going to happen, I still found the novel a classic page-turner, so I suggest that you don't start it unless you have time to stay with it. The pacing is excellent, picking up speed as it goes along with ever-more dramatic revelations, so that the finale will leave you breathless.

Astonishingly "Before I Go To Sleep" is the first novel by someone who wrote this nightmarish tale of anterograde amnesia while working in London hospitals as an audiologist. The work has achieved phenomenal international success and been translated into more than 40 languages all around the world.

The book is written in the first person - largely in the form of a journal - from the perspective of Christine Lucas, the eponymous 'I' who forgets everything once she goes to sleep. But the author is male, even though he uses initials in his name and a non-gender specific biography at the end of the work.

The narrator explains: "I know I'll go to sleep tonight and then tomorrow I will wake up and not know anything again, and the next day, and the day after that, for ever. I can't imagine it. I can't face it. It's not life, it's just an existence, jumping from one moment to the next with no idea of the past, and no plan for the future."

The novel is a compelling narrative that examines the role and fragility of memory and the nature and meaning of identity.

Link: my review of the film click here

"The Believers" by Zoë Heller

Heller's third novel concerns the secular Jewish, politically radical Litvinoff family of New York City: husband Joel, a distinguished lawyer who, very early in the eight-month narrative, suffers a serious stroke that puts him in a coma; his English wife Audrey, outrageously out-spoken and lacking in maternal instinct; elder daughter Rosa who, having spent four years in revolutionary Cuba, is now increasingly attracted to orthodox Judaism; younger daughter Karla, locked in a marriage that is sexually fraught and dangerously loveless; and adopted son Lenny who repeatedly lapses into drug abuse.

Each member of this dsyfunctional family has to find a way of living with herself and the rest of the family which involves - as it must - believing in something or somebody, but the choices are not easy or obvious. Most of the characters are women - representing very different approaches to life - but this is certainly not a feminist work.

Clearly Heller has here drawn from her own experiences of being brought up in a Left-wing, Jewish family in London and now living in NYC with her husband and two daughters and her writing is elegant and expressive with a wide vocabulary and acute observation.

"La Belle Sauvage" by Philip Pullman

Published in 2017, we have had to wait 17 years for the first part of the trilogy "The Book Of Dust" since the publication of "The Amber Spyglass", the final part of the trilogy "His Dark Materials". This novel is a prequel to the other three and "La Belle Sauvage" - the name of a canoe that is central to the plot - is set 10 years before "Northern Lights" in the same universe which, in the words of "Northern Lights", is like our own universe "but different in many ways".

The heroine of "His Dark Materials", Lyra, is here only six months old, but we have a new young hero, 11 year old Malcolm Polstead, and a new young heroine, 15 year old Alice Parslow, who are brought together in a desperate attempt to save baby Lyra from the clutches of the Consistorial Court of Disciple, while simultaneously being pursued by the secret service known as Oakley Street, in the other-worldly nature of a southern England overcome by a flood of Noah-like proportions.

We meet people (notably Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter), characters (such as daemons, gyptians and witches) and objects (the enigmatic alethiometer) that we know from the earlier trilogy but, at this stage in the new trilogy, we discover little more about the mysterious Dust, though we are told: "Since the discovery of the Rusakov field and the shocking but incontestable revelation that consciousness can no longer be regarded exclusively as a function of the human brain, the search for a particle associated with the field has been energetically pursued by a number of researchers and institutions without, so far, any indication of success."

Although not as brilliantly inventive as the other three novels, this is an enjoyable 540-page addition to the original canon of 1,300 pages.

Philip Pullman has described his second trilogy "The Book Of Dust" as not a sequel or a prequel but an "equal". Whereas "La Belle Sauvage" starts 10 years before "His Dark Materials", the next two books will move forward 10 years from "HDM" to when Lyra is an adult. Fortunately we won't have to wait another 17 years for them ...

Link: Philip Pullman's site click here

"Birdsong" by Sebastian Faulks

This was recommended to me by CWU colleague Jeannie Drake and in turn I would recommend it to any one. It is a moving and very well-written account of the squalor and death of the trenches in First World War France, set around the love between 20 year old Englishman Stephen Wraysford and 29 year old French woman Isabelle Azaire and the enquiries two generations later of their grand-daughter 38 year old Elizabeth Benson. The eroticism of the scenes of forbidden love and the harrowing recreation of life in the trenches make for a novel of rare power.

"The Book Of Strange New Things" by Michel Faber

It is not obvious what nationality to assign to Michel Faber. You could call him Dutch because he was born in the Netherlands; you could regard him as Australian since he lived there for a quarter of a century; but many think of him as a Scottish author as he emigrated there in 1993. Equally it is not obvious what kind of novel this is. It is classified as a work of science fiction and was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award. Certainly it is set on a distant planet in "a foreign solar system trillions of miles from home" (but the air is breathable if clammy) and involves aliens (but they speak English although with difficulty over sibilants); yet there is very little science in the text and one could easily view the novel as just as much about religious faith and its absurdity or about deep love and its fragility.

The central character is Peter Leigh, an English pastor with an unconventional background ("I went to the University of Hard Drinking and Drug Abuse") and a non-denominational approach to Christianity. He is selected by an opaque organisation called USIC to travel through "the physics-defying technology of the Jump" to a planet called Oasis and minister to the local Oasans known only as Jesus Lover One, Two, Three ... Peter leaves behind his wife Bea, with whom he communicates (poorly) through a device known as the Shoot, as she faces a world increasingly struck by disasters both natural and human, and he becomes increasingly close to the (female) USIC pharmacist Grainger who is very different from her emotionally-restrained colleagues.

The longer Peter moves between the USIC base and the Oasan community, the more he becomes quietly disoriented. And the further the reader works through the novel, the more one wonders what it is really about. The eponymous "Book" is in fact the Bible and, if that is strange, then so is this work. It is long (almost 600 pages) and the narrative proceeds languidly with very little actually happening, but it is an easy and rather seductive read. At the end of it, though, I'm left wondering if it really deserved the critical praise that it has received and whether it isn't too insubstantial. This is Faber's sixth novel and he has suggested it will be his last. I can live with that.

"The Book Thief" by Marcus Zusak

Zusak is the son of an Austrian father and a German mother but he was born and lives in Australia. He has said that writing this book was inspired by two real-life events related to him by his parents: the bombing of Munich and a teenage boy offering bread to an emaciated Jew being marched through the streets. Although American publisher Knopf has marketed the book set in Nazi Germany as a teenage novel, it was originally intended and published in Zusak's native Australia specifically for adults (in the UK, there are two editions). It is long (550 pages), but the large text, the frequent inset comments, the short chapters and the sheer narrative power of the work make it a real page-turner.

For me the title is almost oxymoronic: theft is bad but books are good, so how can taking books be wrong? In the case of the eponymous character Liesel Meeminger - nine years old when the novel opens in January 1939 - reading and writing are how she copes with the traumatic wartime events of the next four and a half years as she is fostered by Hans and Rosa Hubermann in the little town of Molching on the outskirts of the city of Munich. What gives the story a special edge is that the narrator is Death himself who has much work to do at this time and visits Liesel herself three times in the course of the novel. Ultimately this is a life-affirming tale to the extent that Death eventually admits "I am haunted by humans".

Link: my review of the film click here

"Brace" by by 15 authors

This is the sixth anthology of short stories that I've read in this year (2009) when I myself have commenced writing short stories. All 15 stories are written by British authors who are not established names but the quality is high. "The Doll Factory" by Heather Richardson is particularly clever and engaging. Set in 2093, it tells the tale of a soldier drugged to cope with the brutality of combat nevertheless suffering from "spontaneous rehumanisation" but, instead of a straightforward narrative, the experience is revealed through a varied set of documents.

"Brideshead Revisited" by Evelyn Waugh

I confess that I read few classic novels but viewing the 2008 film "Brideshead Revisited" prompted me at last to tackle this novel which was first published in 1945 and represents "the sacred and profane memories of Captain Charles Ryder" - to quote the sub-title - from 1923 to 1943. This is widely regarded as Waugh's best novel and certainly it is his most famous, but I found it a cold and unengaging exercise, although written with some style.

The novel is centred on the Flyte family which is very upper class and (mostly) very Catholic. As some one with a background which was both working class and Catholic but who has left both class and religion well behind, I found myself deeply antipathetic to the six members of the Flyte family and indeed most of the other characters in the tale. Ryder seems both attracted to and repelled from the family, like a moth to a flame, and in turn forms deep attachments to Sebastian and Julia both of whom fail him.

Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) had a middle class upbringing and became a Catholic in 1930. If his work is a nostalgic tribute to a fading upper class world or a critique of the guilt-ridden nature of Catholicism, it is neither nostaglic enough about the one or critical enough of the other.

"Bridget Jones's Diary" by Helen Fielding

As a diarist myself, I find anything in the form of a diary an easy, even compulsive, read. This novel captures the thirtysomething female angst revolving around work, men, dieting, smoking and something called "fuckwittage". Most young women seem to find it resonant of much of their own experience and immensely funny, but for me it was merely amusing, very light and ultimately sad. Do liberated young women really want to be swept off their feet - literally - by a wet character called Mark Darcy? Apparently enough do to justify a film of the book anyway.

Link: my review of the film click here

"Bring Up The Bodies" by Hilary Mantel

Although I do not normally read historical fiction, I make an exception for Mantel who is a brilliantly accomplished writer with a superb vocabulary and marvellous turn of phrase. I am finding her Thomas Cromwell trilogy excellent for long journeys. I read "Wolf Hall" - which received the Man Booker Prize in 2009 - on a holiday in China and I took in "Bring Up The Bodies" - which won the Man Booker Prize in 2012 - on a tour of Australia and New Zealand.

I found the second work easier to read, either because I am now familiar with Mantel's device of simply referring to Cromwell as "he" or - and I might be imagining this - because she makes more frequent use of the phrase "he Cromwell". It is a shorter novel - 400 pages instead of 650 - and it covers a much shorter period - the year from September 1535 to summer 1536 compared to the nine years 1527-1535 - than the first. Henry VIII has tired of his second wife Anne Boleyn, not least because she has failed to deliver him the desired son and heir, and Cromwell has to contrive her removal to make way for Jane Seymour - something he accomplishes with a cunning mixture of subtlety and terror.

Any man who showed familiarity towards the Queen can become an instrument of these Machiavellian forces: "The order goes to the Tower, 'Bring up the bodies.' Deliver, that is, the accused men, by name Weston, Brereton, Smeaton and Norris, to Westminster for trial." Of course: "They will not hear the charges till they hear them in court and, as is usual in treason trials, they will have no legal representation."

"Captain Corelli's Mandolin" by Louis de Bernières

This novel was published in 1994, but it took me years to read it. I think that what put me off was the length - it is over 400 pages of close text. So I waited for a Christmas/New Year break and I found that, having at last started it, I didn't want it to finish, even though it is difficult at first to come to terms with the changing vistas and styles. It is quite simply a marvellous work, full of tragedy, romance and humour, with beautifully crafted language and an amazing vocabulary which had me reaching regularly for my dictionary. Former soldier and teacher de Bernières has produced a triumph of literature.

Essentially it is a story of love between the unlikely couple of Italian soldier and musician Antonio Corelli and Greek doctor's daughter Pelagia Iannis, set on the island of Cephallonia, a backwater of the maelstrom that was the Second World War. However, there is much about the horror of war and the betrayal of politics and, while de Bernières is gentle towards the Italian soldiers, the British military and the Greek villagers, he is savage in his portrayal of Mussolini and his blackshirts, the German army of occupation, and the brutal communism of the Greek communists in ELAS.

Since publication of the novel, de Bernières' critique of the Greek resistance has come in for much criticism - and rightly so - but the book does make clear that ultimately war is about politics and politics, especially Greek politics, is complicated. Also, the key historical facts have been vindicated by new testimony. Some 9,500 men of the 11,500-strong Italian force on the island were killed by the Germans, many of them after surrendering.

Link: my review of the film click here

"The Casual Vacancy" by J. K. Rowling

I have not read a word of any of the seven mega-selling "Harry Potter" books written by Rowling, but I was intrigued to check out "The Casual Vacancy", her first novel for adults, and I was pleased that I did. It needs a while to read (it is 568 pages in paperback), takes a while to build, and offers characters that are sometimes veering on caricatures, but this is a novel with something to say that says it in an accessible, unfussy, way.

The title refers to the need for an election to the parish council of the well-heeled West Country town of Pagford where a a bitter dispute is taking place over proposals to reassign responsibility for The Fields, a local estate, to the larger next door twon of Yarvil. In fact, the election - occasioned by the death of a popular councillor who wanted to keep responsibility for The Fields - is contested by three candidates and brings out prejudice and bitterness not just between the candidates but within their families so that, for Rowling, the contest is merely the catalyst for examining the dynamics between some 20 or so diverse characters.

The novel appears to start as something of a black comedy but then becomes more sharply satirical and finally transmutes into a tragedy. This is not a tale in which everyone lives happily ever after: not everyone lives and there is much unhappiness along the way. The language is certainly adult with plenty of aggressive and sexual tirades. The themes are certainly adult too: an exposition of class (and, to a lesser extent, racial) prejudice with references to poverty, prostitution, teenage sex, and drug-taking and instances of bullying, self-harm, child abuse, and rape.

Although Rowling has clearly moved away from children's fiction here, unusually in an adult novel there are as many children's characters and viewpoints as adult ones. Hardly any character though is blameless and the novel can be seen as an examination of different forms of responsibility. Rowling writes well and has a way of capturing some complex feelings such as: "How awful it was, thought Tessa, remembering Fats the toddler, the way tiny ghosts of your living children haunted your heart; they could never know, and would hate it if they did, how their growing was a constant bereavement".

"Catching Fire" by Suzanne Collins

Like "His Dark Materials" by Philip Pullman (which I have read), "The Hunger Games" is a trilogy written for young adults which has crossed over into popularity with a general readership and become a major bestseller as well as the subject of cinema. By the time the first movie was released, the trilogy of books had sold some 50 million copies. Like the other trilogy, this is set in a world related to ours, but profoundly different, and features a resourceful female protagonist. Collins does not write as well as Pullman and the themes she explores are not so large, but she is an excellent storyteller and the book is a real page-turner.

This second part of the trilogy - published in 2009 - initially takes us on six months to Katniss and Peeta living in the Victor's Village in their District 12 and touring the other Districts on the Victory Tour, during which it becomes clear that rebellion is in the air, and then on 12 months to the 75th Hunger Games which, as every 25 years, is a Quarter Quell when something special and cruel is imposed by the Capitol on the Districts to remind them that any resistance is futile.

In "The Hunger Games", we are only two-fifths of the way into the novel before we are in the arena of that year's Games but, in "Catching Fire", we are two-thirds into the book before we enter the very different arena. Once again, Katniss - now 17 - has to battle both the dangers in the arena and the other tributes while balancing her love for Gale and affection for Peeta. This time she is even less aware of what is going on and even less able to control events or emotions. However, she is now not simply a survivor but a heroine who, whether she likes it or not, is becoming the inspiration for a rebellion whose fate is unpredictable.

Possibly even more than in the first novel, there is plenty of violence but, as before, it is presented quickly without too much detail. Again as before, Collins ensures that the narrative moves along briskly and that each chapter ends on a note of anticipation or at least anxiety, so that the reader simply has to keep going. Like "The Empire Strikes Back" - the middle segment of the original "Star Wars" trilogy - "Catching Fire" ends with the rebels in a fraught and vulnerable situation. One just has to rush on to the final part of the trilogy "Mockingjay".

my review of the film click here
Wikipedia page on the Hunger Games trilogy click here
Wikipedia page on the Hunger Games universe click here

"The Cellist Of Sarajevo" by Steven Galloway

This wonderfully-crafted novel by Canadian author Steven Galloway was inspired before he ever went to Sarajevo by an appalling incident on 27 May 1992 when 22 people were killed by mortar shells while queuing for bread in the Bosnian capital during the siege that eventually lasted almost four years and claimed approximately 10,000 lives. For the next 22 days, a renowned local cellist called Vedran Smajlovic played Albinoni's Adagio at the site of the outrage in honour of the dead. A decade after the siege, I visited Sarajevo and saw many of the locations mentioned in the novel, while Albinoni's Adagio was music used at my first wedding many years before we could conceive of ethnic cleansing in modern Europe.

In fact, Galloway hardly mentions the unnamed musician of his novel. Instead the narrative - mainly focused on a single day - revolves around the experiences of three Sarajevans who do not know each other but who are loosely connected to the cellist. Kenan, 39, risks his life every four days or so to collect water for his wife and three children and an ungrateful neighbour. Dragan is 64 with a wife and son away in Italy, he works at a bakery, and he is trying to get there for a meal of bread. Then there is Arrow - her code name - a 28 year old woman who became a crack rifle shot at university and now acts as a sniper for the defending forces.

Surprising, Galloway never mentions the ethnicity of the characters or the forces in his novel and instead constantly uses the phrase "the men on the hills" to describe the besieging Serbs. He describes graphically the deprivation, the fear and the bravery of the Sarajevans but also alludes to divisions in the defenders' ranks and the criminal profiteering of a shameful minority. Above all, though, this is a tale of redemption and hope as each of his three characters seeks to retain their humanity at a time of death, destruction and even betrayal: "He will behave now as he hopes everyone will someday behave. Because civilisation isn't a thing that you build and then there it is, you have it forever. It needs to be built constantly, recreated daily."

Link: the real cellist of Sarajevo click here

"The Cement Garden" Ian McEwan

This is the fifth novel that I've read by McEwan, one of the finest British writers of his generation and it is his earliest (1978) and one of his shortest (130 pages). I suppose one would have to call it a horror story, but it is a gentle kind of horror, depicting the slow disintegration of a family of four children, and all the more beguiling by being seen through the eyes of a teenage boy. In effect, it is a study of anomie, the gradual dissolution of social norms.

The narrator is Jack (15), who has two sisters, Julie (17) and Sue (13), and one brother, Tom (6) and the Gothic tale narrates their experience together when first one and then another parent dies. Jack tells Julie (and us) of the dream-like nature of his existence: "Except for the times I go down into the cellar I feel like I'm asleep. Whole weeks go by without me noticing, and if you asked me what happened three days ago I wouldn't be able to tell you".

"China Dream" by Ma Jian

Ma Jian was born in the Chinese city of Qingdao in 1953, the same year as Xi Jinping who is now President of China without term limits. Both men were caught up in the horrific events of Mao's Cultural Revolution which killed anything up to three miliion and ruined the lives of many millions more. Since 2012, Xi Jinping has used the phrase "the Chinese Dream" to describe "the great rejuvenation" of the nation. However, following the publication of his first book in 1987, Ma Jian has had all his work banned in China, where consequently he is unknown, and he now lives in exile in London.

The protagonist of this short and disturbing novel is Ma Daode, the director of the newly-created China Dream Bureau, dedicated to ensuring that the Chinese Dream enters the brain of every resident of Ziyang City. Like so many Chinese officials, he is corrupt and a philanderer but working hard to reconcile his personal memories with the contemporary dominant political ideology. He would dearly like to forget the Cultural Revolution which caused the suicide of his parents but is hardly discussed in China today.

His brainwave is to develop the China Dream Device, a microchip to be implanted into the brain of every citizen so that painful memories can be replaced by the thoughts of the political leadership. Since this is clearly going to take some time to design and his personality is already falling apart with ever-more frequent memories of the Cultural Revolution, he attempts to concoct something called Old Lady's Dream Broth, a substance with revolting ingredients and dubious efficacy.

This Chinese version of "Brave New World" or "1984" is not going to end well for Ma Jian. But what about for Xi Jinping's China? I've visited the country four times and travelled extensively within it and the simultaneous growth of both the economy and the repressive regime makes one wonder whether the dream might one day become something of a nightmare.

"Chocolat" by Joanne Harris

On a Shrove Tuesday in February, 25 year old single mother Vianne Rocher, together with her six year old daughter Anouk, arrive at the small French town of Lansquenet-sans-Tannes. They decide to stay and Vianne opens a chocolaterie called "La Céleste Praline", directly opposite the church of Saint Jérome officiated over by the Curé Francis Reynaud. By Easter Monday seven weeks later, secrets will have been revealed, lives will have been changed, and a great feast and a chocolate festival will have been held. Out of such seemingly prosaic material, Harris weaves a wonderfully magical tale replete with mouth-watering descriptions of every conceivable kind of chocolate confection. She is sharply critical of the prejudices of small-town French life and of the hypocrisy of the Catholic priest, yet it is all done in an amusing, even affectionate, manner in a novel which is beautifully written and immensely readable.

Links: my review of the film click here

"The Circle" by Dave Eggers

I wasn't sure about reading this novel because - at least in my paperback version - it is almost 500 pages of smallish print with no chapters. But it was recommended to me by Jim Knight who chairs the Tinder Foundation - an organisation promoting digital inclusion - on whose Board I sit. In fact, it proved to be an easy and enjoyable read: it is a very dialogue-driven narrative with regular gaps in the text that makes it something of a page-turner. Unusually for a modern novel, it is remarkably focused in character (24 year old Mae Holland) and place (the California campus of the eponymous company).

What George Orwell's "1984" was to the second half of the 20th century, Dave Eggers's "The Circle" is to the early 21st century: a stark exposition of the dangers of ubiquitous surveillance and a defence of the notion of personal privacy.

What makes "The Circle" so chillingly credible - although it is clearly a parody and a satire - is that the company it describes seems to be something of a combination and extension of the existing corporate behemoths that already astride the Internet and the Web - the likes of Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft. And the services that it illustrates seem to be a natural extension of currently evolving technologies - miniature cameras that can be installed in any place, tiny drones that can fly anywhere, and wearable technologies that will be with us all the time. In a post-Snowden world, "The Circle" does not appear so much preposterous as almost prescient.

In the course of the novel, the Circle - "the most influential company in the world" - develops one service after another that increasingly links and exposes information in all its forms, always presenting its innovations as offering a social good (no more child abductions, no more neighbourhood crime, no more political corruption) while step by step stripping away personal freedom and political accountability. The idea is that "All that happens must be known". So will the Circle be completed - a kind of technological equivalent to the evangelical rapture? If you've read "1984", you won't be too surprised - although the ending is rather sudden and simple.

There is nothing subtle about the message from Eggers. He is offering us, not a prediction but, a warning and inviting us really to think of the consequences of the new technologies that enable us to capture, store, connect and access such ever-increasing volumes of public and personal data. It's bound to be made into a film.

Link: my review of the film click here

"City Of Thieves" by David Benioff

The siege of Leningrad lasted from August 1941 to January 1944 and resulted in an unknown death toll which included around one million citizens. It was Hitler who apparently referred to "that city of thieves and maggots" while the novel talks of "a city of ghosts and cannibals". Benioff sets his tale in the first winter of the siege in January 1942 and powerfully evokes the bitter cold and constant hunger that gnawed insidiously at both body and spirit.

An unlikely pair - 17 year old Jewish Lev, his poet father taken off long ago, his mother and sister now in the country, an accomplished chess player, and technically a looter, and 20 year old Kolya, descended from Cossacks, an inveterate womaniser, by turns nonchalant and ebullient, and an accidental deserter from the Red Army - are given an even more unlikely mission: to acquire a dozen eggs for the wedding cake of the daughter of an NKVD officer who has confiscated the duo's ration cards.

Benioff is a screenwriter who wrote "The Kite Runner" and "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" and here he has crafted a masterful piece of storytelling that is so visual that it is bound to be made into a film. Although there are scenes of violence and horror, there is a certain levity to the narrative, thanks to Kolya's humour, and a profound sense of humanity, as a result of Lev's innocence and vulnerability. Truly, a compulsive read.

"Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell

It is not surprising that this fascinating and enjoyable novel - Mitchell's third - was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize because it is a tour de force representing six stories in one artfully-constructed work, each written in a different format, each constituting a different genre, each set in a different time (past, present, and future). Each tale is around 80 pages or so, making the whole novel a formidable 529 pages, but all except the sixth one are split in two in a neat symmetry that ends as it begins. Like an 11-armed candelabra, each branch sheds light on the other. Along the way, there are all kinds of cross references between the stories, the underlining suggestion being that we are all spirits that float in time as clouds around the sky: "Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies."

We begin with a journal by American notary Adam Ewing narrating a sea adventure set in the Pacific in 1849; we move forward in time to a set of letters from Robert Frobisher, the composer of a work called "Cloud Atlas Sextet", written from Belgium in 1931; next stop is a pulp fiction thriller set in California in 1975 and involving investigative journalist Luisa Rey; then we have a black comedy in modern day Britain when unfortunate publisher Timothy Cavendish finds himself incarcerated in an old folks' home; jumping forward to a not too distant future, there is a science fiction story in the form of a recorded interrogation of an "ascended fabricant" called Sonmi 4561 in a corporatist nightmare that used to be known as Korea; moving even further forward in time to a post-apocalyptic time after "The Fall", we have the folksy reminisences of a superstitious and barely literate survivor called Zackry Bailey; and then the pattern is repeated but in reverse.

One link is a recurring birthmark shaped like a comet, suggesting that the same soul or spirit is involved, while another frequent reference is to boats of various kinds. A major link involves the formats used - so Adam Ewing's diary is read by Robert Frobisher whose letters are to a Rufus Sixsmith who features in the Luisa Rey story which is read by Timothy Cavendish and so on. The overall message is one of opposition to avarice and consumerism: "In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction."

Link: my review of the film click here

"The Coincidence Authority" by J.W. Ironmonger

This is an unusual novel: mainly a kind of popular philosophical discourse about free will versus determinism, partly a political exposure of the atrocities committed by the Lords Resistance Army in Uganda, and incidentally a love story between the applied philosophy lecturer Thomas Post - the authority of the title - and the English literature lecturer Azalea Lewis who find themselves sprawled over each other in an accident at the foot of a London Underground escalator (what are the chances?). If it sounds odd, let me assure you that this is compelling storytelling and an easy read.

As Thomas puts it in the novel: "There are three fundamental theories of existence. The first is that everything is controlled by an all-knowing creator. This creator can tinker with the laws of physics and bend the future in any way that he - or she - wishes. The second theory is that everything is predetermined from the instant of the Big Bang, and that no one can change the way that the universe will unravel - not even a supreme being. And the third theory is that everything happens more or less randomly and that we human beings have tapped into a clever mechanism that allows us to introduce free will into the equation."

Which do you believe and what is your evidence? Then read this novel and think again.

Link: official web site click here

"Come Together" by Josie Lloyd & Emlyn Rees

This is the story of a modern-day, but somewhat old-fashioned, romance between Jack Rossiter, a 27 year old artist, and Amy Crosbie, a 25 year old temp. Alternate chapters are written from the male and female point of view by authors Emlyn Rees and Josie Lloyd respectively in a clever marketing device which apparently has resulted in their coupling in real life. The sex is realistic and the style very easy, but it is all too predictable and superficial.

"A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers" by Xiaolu Guo

As a student of all things Chinese, I was easily persuaded by a friend's recommendation to read this novel with an unusual structure and style as well as title. The structure borrows from the dictionary that is the stalwart of the narrator, with most chapters beginning with a definition of a word which is at the heart of the subject matter of that chapter. The style cleverly reflects the passage of time as the Chinese narrator - attending an English language school in London - becomes slowly more proficient in the use of the language.

Told in the first person and present tense, this is a year in the life of a 23 year old Chinese woman - known simply as 'Z' because, in the case of her real name, "they have no idea how saying it" - who befriends an unnamed 44 year old British man and immediately becomes his lover. The story - which must have some autobiographical elements - contrasts (sometimes quite amusingly) the differences between the Mandarin and English languages and (often quiet poignantly) the differences between Chinese and British approaches to family, sex, privacy, humour, time. In the end, this exploration of identity and sexuality is an illuminating but rather melancholic tale.

Link: author's web site click here

"Conversations With Friends" by Sally Rooney

I so admired Rooney's second novel "Normal People" (and the television adaptation) that I later went on to read her first novel "Conversations With Friends" (which is itself to be adapted for television).

This initial work was written while Rooney was still studying for her Masters in Dublin and the point of view is that of Frances, a 21 year old nearing the end of her literature degree in the same city. Her best friend Bobbi is a fellow student and fellow poet and, while at school together, they had a relationship. In the first sentence of the novel, the two young students meet Melissa who is 37 and a photographer. Later they meet Melissa's 32 year old husband Nick, an actor with mental health issues. The narrative spans less than a year and is overwhelmingly about the inter-relationships between these four characters.

The events are pretty commonplace - friendships, relationships, illness, nobody dies - and Rooney's style of writing is sparse, without flamboyance, but I really enjoyed the novel. And Frances herself is an interesting, not always likeable, character: "I thought of myself as an independent person, so independent that the opinions of others were irrelevant to me", "I felt that I was a damaged person who deserved nothing", and "The world was like a crumpled ball of newspaper to me, something to kick around".

"The Couple Next Door" by Shari Lapena

This novel by Canadian writer Lapena is a domestic suspense drama in the vein of "Gone Girl" and "The Girl On The Train" and indeed some have dubbed it "Gone Baby". It has been a major best-seller but, in spite of a strong opening and a racy style, it is not as satisfactory as the other two works and sadly becomes weaker as the plotting unfolds.

Anne and Marco Conti are a couple in their early 30s living in upstate New York with seemingly a lot going for them: a six month old daughter Cora, Anne's rich parents, Marco's successful business, and friendly next door neighbours. But one night they suffer every parent's worst nightmare: the abduction of their child. Inspector Rasback suspects one or both of them and he find evidence to support these suspicions, but what parent would kill or kidnap their own child? Then again, as one character ruminates: "The whole world is built on lies and deceit".

Written in the present tense, this is a dialogue-heavy tale; when the limited cast of rather wooden characters is not conversing with each other, they are 'talking' to themselves. So this is not great writing, but it is gripping enough at first before increasingly going downhill to a weak conclusion and an odd coda.

"The Course Of Love" by Alain de Botton

The author de Botton is known mainly for his philosophical works and this book purports to be a rare venture into fiction, but it hardly qualifies. It has a fair degree of characterisation, being all about Rabin Khan and Kristen McLelland who marry, have children, and struggle to keep their relationship alive and respectful, but there is no real plot and minimal dialogue plus interventions from the author every few pages commenting from a psychological point of view on what is going on and what the principals are feeling.

The novel - if we can call it that - seeks to provide an antidote to romanticism. It argues that "there is no one more likely to destroy us than the person we marry" and the theme of the work is that "love is a skill, not just an enthusiasm" suggesting that therapy is in some ways "the greatest invention of the age".

"The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time" by Mark Haddon

This is a marvellous novel, originally written for children but becoming a massive best-seller with adult readers. What makes the novel so remarkable is the perspective from which it is is written, that of Christopher, a 15 year-old boy living in Swindon with Asperger's Syndrome. He is fascinated by numbers and science and time, but does not like yellow or brown things or meeting new people or being in small spaces or even being touched.

One night he discovers that his neighbour's dog, a poodle called Wellington, has been speared with a garden fork and his determination to discover who killed the animal has profound implications for his life and our understanding of autism. The author has worked with children and adults with mental and physical disabilities and his knowledge and humanism shine through a work which is both funny and moving.

Link: profile of author click here

"The Da Vinci Code" by Dan Brown

This 600-page novel has been a publishing phenomenon - by the time I read it, it had sold 10 million copies worldwide and been translated into 40 languages. Does it deserve this success? Well, it is certainly not great fiction, reading much like a Jeffrey Archer novel with a rather plain and predictable style and poor characterisation. However, it is a compelling read with cliff-hanging chapter endings and playful deceptions of the reader that make it a real page-turner. Since the whole thing takes place over 24 hours, it is like a written version of the television series "24" with almost as many plot twists.

It is probably the subject matter that has made the work so popular. Brown cleverly weaves together 2,000 years of religious history and cultural symbolism with ingenious use of mathematical and linguistic codes to present an alternative view of the status of Christ, the position of the Catholic Church, and the role of the Knights Templar, as well as offering a take on the nature and location of the mythic Holy Grail. The opening is cracking; the subsequent pace unrelenting; but the conclusion lame and limp.

Link: author's web site click here

"The Dark Forest" by Cixin Liu

Following "The Three-Body Problem", this is the second novel in the 'Remembrance of Earth's Past' trilogy by the noted Chinese science fiction writer. It was first published in Chinese in 2008 and then in English in 2015.

While most of the first novel was set in the near future and concerned the threat of an invasion of Earth by a Trisolar civilisation in four centuries time, most of the first two-thirds of "The Dark Forest" is set in the first 20 years of the so-called Crisis Era and focuses on the Wallfacer programme, which is intended to devise a method of combating this invasion, while the last third is set some two centuries on and describes an encounter between Earth's new, massive star fleet and an advance probe from the Trisolarians.

It is a wonderful read, characterised by a rapidly-shifting narrative with plenty of surprises. The story is illuminated by lots of Liu's innovative thinking on radically different strategies for reacting to an invasion by more technologically advanced aliens and on what Earth in 200+ years might look like technologically, socially and politically. A dazzling array of ideas stretches from new forms of clothing, housing, transport and information displays to a plan for the destruction of the entire solar system.

The 'forest' of the title is based on the theory that, in the vastness of the universe, there are countless other civilisations. The 'dark' of the title rests on the notion that no advanced civilisation would want to reveal itself for fear of invasion and annihilation. It is one way of responding to the Fermi Paradox: that is, why - after long and hard searching - have we not found any evidence for any other life in the infinite space that we call the universe?

"The Three-Body Problem" is long (424 pages); "The Dark Forest" is is even longer (550 pages); and the third novel in the trilogy, "Death's End", is longer still (721 pages) - so I'm going to pause my reading for a while.

"Demon Copperhead" by Barbara Kingsolver

Kingsolver writes at great length but her writing is wonderful. I have previously read "The Poisonwood Bible" (543 pages) and "The Lacuna" (670 pages), while "Demon Copperhead" comes in at 546 pages. It is a modern-day version of "David Copperfield" by Charles Dickens. This means that most of the characters in the 2022 book are analogues of personages in the 1850 work. It is not necessary to have read Dickens' text to savour that of Kingsolver, but those familiar with the earlier work will enjoy the connections.

Whereas the original work was set in Britain in the mid 19th century, the new novel is located in contemporary United States. Whereas the Dickens work reflected many of the circumstances of his own life, Kingsolver's story is in no sense autobiographical, but it is situated in a part of her country where she herself lives. Both books are narrated by the eponymous characters. The means that the vernacular language of the new work uses terms - notably words and acronyms about education, sport and social security - that will be unfamiliar to readers outside the United States such as myself. It is not difficult to infer the meaning of these terms from the context, but I chose to look them up which enhanced my understanding.

Damon Fields is born in Lee County in the south-western corner of Virgina, what in pejorative terms is known as red-neck or hillbilly country. Many in this deprived community are dirt poor and his beginning are especially disadvantageous, born to a single mother living in a small trailer and drinking to excess. He notes: "the born of this world are marked from the get-out, win or lose".

His first name is turned against him and into Demon, while the red-haired nature of his dead father quickly leads to him being dubbed Copperhead. The novel records the first 18 years of his life with one set-back after another after another, leavened by the occasional kindness or good fortune. All of Kingslover's novels are deeply political and this one is a brutal representation of the failures of the fostering, education and social security systems of one of the wealthiest countries in the world and the ravages of an opioid epidemic occasioned by a lack of regulation and an obsession with profit.

Demon rapidly comes to the conclusion that "life sucks and them you die!". At one foster home, he notes: "I was hungry at all the hours, but nights were worse." He struggles at school and records: "Loser is a cliff. Once you've gone over, you're over." He refers to "the real world where nobody and nothing gets better". As the years pass, he records that "the same black cloud had followed me all my life".

He is eventually driven to conclude: "Live long enough, and all things you have ever loved can turn around to scorch you blind. The wonder is that you could start life with nothing, end with nothing, and lose so much in between." But a friend tries to counsel him: "life is a wild, impetuous ride. There could be good shit up ahead, don't rule it out."

Kingsolver has been criticised in some quarters for writing a misery novel but, heck, for millions of of America's poor, life is truly miserable and she is right to hold a mirror to this appalling situation. It is a heart-breaking tale, but eventually a story of redemption told with great eloquence. In 2023, "Demon Copperhead" was a winner of the Pulitzer Price for Fiction and the winner of the Women's Prize for Fiction.

"Dominion" by C J Sansom

British writer Christopher John Sansom's 2011 novel "Dominion" can be compared to fellow British writer Robert Harris's 1992 work "Fatherland" and indeed, in an end note, Sansom describes "Fatherland" as "the best alternate history novel ever written". Both are set in a world in which the outcome of the Second World War is very different from real history with an undefeated Germany and a compliant Britain and both are thrillers involving a great mystery but, whereas "Fatherland" is set in Germany in April 1964, "Dominion" is located in Britain in November-December 1952. Sansom makes constant reference to the weather and eventually we realise why he set his novel when he did: it is the time of the Great Smog when for almost a week London effectively came to a halt, making any search or rescue mission especially complicated.

For all its length (almost 700 pages), "Dominion" is tightly focused in time (a few weeks), place (southern England) and main characters (a scientist with a secret, a few members of the Resistance, and a couple of SS and Special Branch pursuers). It is not great literature, some of the dialogue is leaden and expository, and it takes a while for the pace to pick up, but it is highly readable, indeed something of a page-turner.

What makes "Dominion" particularly interesting is the assumptions Sansom makes about how all sorts of real characters would have behaved had Britain signed a peace treaty with Germany in 1940 instead of continuing the war. So he places Lord Beaverbrook as head of a collaborationist British government with a Cabinet including Oswald Mosley and Enoch Powell. Winston Churchill - for whom Sansom clearly has great admiration - is the aged leader of the Resistance supported by Labour leader Clement Attlee. Sansom. who was born in Scotland of a Scottish mother, is fiercely anti-nationalist and represents the Scottish National Party as supporters of the increasingly authoritarian British Government. At the end of the novel, the author devotes no less than 18 pages to an historical note justifying his characterisations of various politicians and parties.

If there is a moral to the book, it is expressed by a Slovak member of the British Resistance: " .. you thought fascism would never come to Britain, you had been a democracy so long, and you felt ... special. But you were wrong; given the right circumstances fascism can infest any country, feeding off the hatreds and and nationalisms that already exist. Nobody is safe."

Link: author's web site click here

"Dream Story" by Arthur Schnitzler

Strange that a novella of less than 100 pages, first published in German in 1926, could inspire an English-language film of almost three hours in 1999. Yet this is the erotic and enigmatic story on which Stanley Kubrick based his controversial film "Eyes Wide Shut". Like the author himself, the main character Fridolin is a doctor in Vienna in the early part of the century. He experiences a series of unconsummated female encounters as he attempts to come to terms with the revelations of his wife Albertine's sexual fantasies. At the end of it all, she insists that "..neither the reality of a single night nor even of a person's entire life can be equated with the full truth of his innermost being", while he observes that ".. no dream is altogether a dream".

"e" by Matt Beaumont

This is a British novel written in 2000 entirely in the form of e-mail communications. Set in an advertising agency called Miller Shanks, it depicts a frenetic two and a half weeks in which the agency bids for the prestigious Coca-Cola account. It is bitingly satirical about the industry, one message complaining about the "Sun" newspaper: "They've made us all look shallow, conniving and driven by lust - in short, like we work in advertising". And the language is cruder than would be allowed in any organisation I know, the first sentence reading: "Take that fucking Walkman off, get your arse in here and show me how I do an all-staff e-mail". But it's a racy read and at times genuinely funny.

"Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine" by Gail Honeyman

In my experience, if one genuinely enquires, very few people are "completely fine" - and Eleanor Oliphant, a finance clerk in Glasgow, is far from this state of bliss. Indeed she is a deeply troubled woman of 30, although only gradually do we discover exactly why in this accomplished first novel by Honeyman. The story is told by Eleanor herself in very literate terms (she has a degree in classics) which by turns are amusing and moving. This is a woman of very limited social experience and inter-personal skills who is trying to lead a self-contained life that ultimately is a profoundly lonely one.

At the beginning of her tale, she declares: "I'm Eleanor Oliphant. I don't need anyone else - there's no big hole in my life, no missing part of my own particular puzzle. I am a self-contained entity." But later she admits: "These days, loneliness is the new cancer - a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don't want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate."

"Elizabeth Is Missing" by Emma Healey

Maud Horsham is 82 and suffering from progressive dementia. She is convinced that her dear elderly friend Elizabeth Markham is missing and, in her confused mind, constantly relates this current case to the mysterious disappeance of her older sister Susan (or Sukey) in 1947. She tries to order her life by writing notes on bits of coloured paper, but she is not always sure when the notes were written or what they mean.

Written in the first person present tense with constant flashbacks to the post-war period, the contemporary situation becomes more and more disjointed and rambling, while the historic narrative remains clear and fluent, and the connections between them are only gradually revealed. In this poignant tale, we really feel for Maud's bewilderment: "I have a nagging feeling that there's somewhere I'm supposed to be. I put on my coat and walk out. I can't think where I'm going, but that doesn't matter. I'm sure I'm suppose to be somewhere and I must come to it eventually."

"Elizabeth Is Missing" does for dementia what "The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time" by Mark Haddon (2003) did for Asperger's Syndrome and "The Shock Of The Fall" by Nathan Filer (2013) did for schizophrenia. In each of the three novels, we see a form of mental illness through the perspective of the sufferer. In fact, during the time I was reading Healey's novel, I saw the newly released film "Mr Holmes" in which the 93 year old retired detective - like Maud - struggles with dementia while trying to recollect an earlier trauma.

This is a remarkable first work from Emma Healey and won the Costa First Novel Award 2014. She had the idea when her grandmother, who was in the early stages of dementia, declared that her friend was missing. In an interview with the "Observer" newspaper, Healey said: "I wrote the book thinking it might be cathartic - that, with so many members of my family affected, it's something I might end up with. I thought, if I could face it through fiction, I'd be less scared and that didn't happen at all - it's still absolutely terrifying."

"Ella Minnow Pea" by Mark Dunn

The eponymous Ella is an 18 year old living on the fictional island nation of Nollop off the coast of the USA, named after the alleged creator of the pangram "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog". The statue dedicated to Nollop features this sentence in a set of 35 tiles which, in the course of the novel, progressively drop from their pedestal. The problem is that the island authorities see these fallings as a sign that each letter in turn should be prohibited from use in spoken or written form and the same restriction is applied by Dunn in his increasingly conflated lexicon and bizarre text. The entire narrative takes the forms of letters - hence the sub-title of the novel "A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable".

Best read in a day, this short but original work is a clever and cautionary satire in the traditions of "Gulliver's Travels" or "Animal Farm" which makes plain the absurdity and injustice created by faith and fundamentalism and the need to recognise that liberty can be lost in seemingly innocuous increments. As Ella puts it: "Nollop is not God. Nollop is silent. We must respect that silence and make our decisions and judgements based upon science and fact and simple old-fashioned common sense".

Mark Dunn is an American playright who has here crafted an artful and original first novel but, talented though he is with language, he is politically naïve. Many of the aggrieved citizens of Nollop simply leave the island for the 'enlightened' United States - this is not an option for the persecuted of China or Iran. The island authorities are defeated by an intellectual exercise that contradicts Nollop's assumed supreme powers - if only creationists and conspiracy theorists could so easily be convinced by evidence.

"E-mail: A Love Story" by Stephanie D Fletcher

This is an American novel written in 1996 entirely in the form of bulletin board messages and e-mail communications which makes it compulsive reading for any PC user. It is an erotic but thoughtful examination of the delights and the dangers of cybersex as experienced particularly by Katherine Simmonds, a 44 year old married woman from North Carolina. She has relationships - can you be adulterous over the Internet? - with Buck Brazemore and John Kelly with interesting consequences for her marriage to Tom.

"Embers" by Sándor Márai

Márai was an Hungarian who was born in what was then (1900) the Slovak part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but left the Communist Hungary to live and die (1989) in the United States. This novel was given to me by a Slovak friend who was brought up in an Hungarian-speaking town in what was then Czechoslovakia before moving to Britain around the time of the Warsaw Pact crushing of the 'Prague Spring'. "Embers" originally appeared in Hungarian in 1942 but was only published in English in 2001 as part of a major 'discovery' of the author outside his native Hungary.

The structure of the book is most unusual: only two real characters, minimal plot, and most of the final two-thirds essentially a monologue by one character to a largely taciturn other. One waits for the secondary character to respond, but he does not; one waits for a final plot twist, but it never comes. Henrik and Konrad meet at a military academy in Vienna aged only 10 and become inseparable companions but, in the course of a hunt in 1899, something profound happens and, as a result, they do see each other again until a meal in 1940, an amazing 41 years later, by which time they are aged 75.

The word which most comes to mind about this strange and rather depressing novel is elegiac. The principal character - Henrik, the retired general - longs for an age which has passed, a friendship which has fractured, and an explanation that ultimately he himself provides.

"Enigma" by Robert Harris

I thoroughly enjoyed Harris's previous novel "Fatherland" and this one has been an even bigger seller. The style is similar: a thriller set around one man, with the aid of a woman, solving a mystery centred around mass murder in a Nazi wartime context. Last time, it was evidence of the Holocaust which was the shock; this time, it is knowledge of the Katýn massacre of Polish officers. The unlikely hero is Tom Jericho, a brilliant cryptanalyst at Bletchley Park in early 1943, whom we first meet when he is suffering from a month-long collapse from nervous exhaustion. The novel is well-researched, well-structured, and very readable.

"Everything Is Illuminated" by Jonathan Safran Foer

This was the author's amazingly ambitious first novel (2002) - drafted while he was still an undergraduate - but I actually read it after tackling Foer's second novel "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" (2005). The text often uses different typefaces and layouts and it takes some time to come to terms with the writing because it oscillates in voice, period and tone.

The voices are mainly those of a 21 year old Ukrainian named Alex Perchov, sometimes in ltters of uncorrected broken English and other times in chapters of partially corrected broken English, but there is additionally the voice of an American Jew of the same age as Alex with the same three names as the author (although this is not a work of autobiography or non-fiction). The periods are variously the early days of the Ukrainian shtetl or village of Tachimbrod (loosely based on a real village) in what was then Eastern Poland in the late 1790s and early 1800s, the experience of the villagers during the Second World War when German troops annihilated the Jewish population, and 1997 when the Foer character (whom Alex calls "the hero") goes to Ukraine to seek a woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis and obtains the support of Alex in his quest. The tone is often amusing, because of the odd use of English by Alex and the accompaniment on the journey of his aged grandfather and a dog called Sammy Davies Junior, Junior, but at other times it is profoundably sad because of accident, disability, suicide and massacre.

Apparently the real Jonathan Safran Foer did go to the Ukraine to seek the rescuer of his grandfather, found nothing of special interest, and instead invented this story of what he might have discovered. The characters in the story play fast and lose with the truth and it seems that so does Foer because he has been criticised for misrepresenting the experiences of the village on which Tachimbrod is based (notably omitting mention the mass execution of Ukrainian villagers in retaliation for having helped their Jewish neighbors). Alex insists "we will illuminate everything" but much remains unclear or unexplained and there are elements of pure fantasy. There is moral ambiguity here too and the grandfather character captures this when he pleads that "I am a good person who has lived in a bad time".

Foer is an imaginative and inventive author, but I cannot help finding his style too ostentatious. He tries too hard and is just too meandering.

study guide for the novel click here
criticism of Foer's representation of history click here

"Exit West" by Mohsin Hamid

I was impressed by "The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Hamid's early novel which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2007, and so I was attracted to "Exit West", another of his novels which was shortlisted for the Man Booker (in 2017). It tells the story of two refugees, the Islamic adherent Saeed and the covered but non-practising Nadia, who flee the militant takeover of their unnamed country which could be Syria or Afghanistan or part of Hamid's Pakistan.

It is an odd work with minimal dialogue and a deceptively plain style and some really long sentences (one covers a page and a half). The use of magical realism enables instant travel through a black door to an unknown destination somewhere else in the world. The couple move from their homeland to the Greek island of Mykonos to the capital city of London to the Marin county of California, while the narrative offers the reader glimpses of half-a-dozen or so different locations around the globe.

Through the prism of migration, Hamid examines the divided world in which we live: "The news in those days was full of war and migrants and nativists, and it was full of fracturing too, of regions pulling away from nations, and cities pulling away from hinterlands, and it seemed that as everyone was coming together everyone was also moving apart". As he states: "We are all migrants through time".

"Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" by Jonathan Safran Foer

After I had seen the 2011 film and given it a mixed review, I was encouraged by a good American friend to read the 2005 novel. The book was well worth reading but, in rather different ways, still a less than wholly satisfactory experience.

The novel tells two parallel stories of immense trauma from the points of view of the those affected. Oskar Schell is a nine year old New Yorker, precociously bright but seriously autistic, who lost his father in the horror of 9/11 ("the worst day") and most of the book is written in his conversational voice although no boy of his young age would be so fluent. A year after his father died, the youngster discovers a key in a packet labelled simply 'Black' and proceeds on an eight-month trail to visit every New Yorker called Black that he can, along the way having many occasions of what he calls "heavy boots" but also encountering others with complicated lives and sad stories, including a 103 year old man who has not left his apartment for 24 years.

The other story revolves around the Allied bombing of the German city of Dresden in February 1945 and is told through the form of letters from Oskar's grandparents. The second theme is totally absent from the film although the grandparents feature in Oskar's cinematic narrative. The book also brings in an account of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, the implication being that there are moral connections between the bombing of civilians whether as a government act during a total war or a terrorist act in a jihadist campaign. This is sensitive territory which is not properly explored.

Foer's novel is often achingly poignant and sad and one of the narrators explains "I'm so afraid of losing something I love that I refuse to love anything". It is visually distinctive with different layouts of texts and a number of illustrations. And it is hugely ambitious in the themes of love, loss and war that it explores. But ultimately I found it too discursive and felt that it needed a clearer structure and narrative. At least the ending in the novel is not as contrived as in the film but instead downbeat if not depressing.

"Falling Angels" by Tracy Chevalier

Chevalier is an American who has lived in Britain since 1984. Her first novel, "Virgin Blue", won praise, but it was her second work, "Girl With A Pearl Earring" [reviewed on this page] that won her a mass readership and "Falling Angels" is now her third novel. There are some similarities with "Girl .." - it is an historical novel told from a woman's perspective but, whereas "Girl .." was about the process of creating art in 17th century Holland, "Falling Angels" is about the rituals surrounding death in early 20th century London. It is not morbid, but it is serious.

The novel opens and closes with the death of a monarch and with scenes in a cemetery inspired by Highgate Cemetery in north London (which I have visited). In the intervening a period of almost a decade, we share the fortunes of two families: Richard and Kitty Coleman and their daughter Maude and Albert and Gertrude Waterhouse and their daughters Lavinia and Ivy May. In an immensely readable format, the tale is told through very short chapters representing the 'voices' of the characters, usually the women.

The title can be taken two ways: an angel above one of the graves does indeed tumble over, but also more than one of the women falls morally. Yet ultimately this is a liberating story about personal and political self-discovery.

Link: web site for book click here

"Far To Go" by Alison Pick

Canadian author Alison Pick has set her novel in a very particular and traumatic historical time and place which draws upon the experience of her own grandparents on the eve of the Second World War: the German annexation of the Sudetenland part of Czechoslovakia, the Nazi occupation of Bohemia and Moravia, and the kindertransport which enabled 669 Czech Jewish children to escape to Britain. In writing classes, one is taught to adopt a clear and single point of view, but this is a narrative with three perspectives: mostly it is the story of Marta, the maid of a wealthy Jewish family comprising Pavel and Anneliese Bauer and their six year old son Pepik, but one chapter is presented from the viewpoint of the little boy, while at short but regular intervals and in the final couple of chapters there is a third voice whose identity is only revealed at the conclusion of the tale. At the same writing courses, one learns of the notion of the unreliable narrator and Pick uses a classic case of this approach for reasons which only become apparent at the very end.

A great deal of research has gone into this work with many historic events and actual people being referenced, but the focus is resolutely on a limited range of characters, mostly the Bauer family but also Marta as the 'good' Czech and Ernst as the (undeniably) bad Czech (actually a real person). Since my wife is half Czech and most of my closest friends are Jewish, I am very familiar with the period and with the kindertransport organised by the redoutable Nicholas Winton (aged 102 as I read the novel), so I found the book gripping and moving, but anyone with a heart would find this account of both political and personal betrayal at so many levels utterly compelling.

The ultimate narrator asks: "What would it be like to know nothing of your origins, to spend decades craving and wondering, and then, at the end of your life, to be delivered an answer? To realise that all your misery was for nothing, that you'd been wanted after all." To learn who is being referred to and the nature of the answer, read "Far To Go".

"Fear Of Dying" by Erica Jong

American author Erica Jong wrote the mega best-selling novel "Fear Of Flying" in 1973 and the non-fiction "Fear Of Fifty" in 1994 and now she comes up with her 11th novel "Fear Of Dying" which was published in 2015. Although a novel, it is clearly inspired by the author's loss of her two aged parents and the experience of her fourth marriage.

The narrator - like Jong, a New Yorker and Jewish - is Vanessa Wonderman, a television actor who is now aged 60 and married to a rich man of 80 for 15 years. In the course of the year described in the story, there is much going on in her life: both her elderly parents are close to death, even her dog has a terminal condition, her husband is about to suffer a near-death experience, and her daughter is pregnant. This elegantly written and witty work explains how she navigates such challenges, in doing so addressing some major issues of life and death.

In spite of everything else that is going on in her life, Vanessa signs up to a sex site on the Internet. Why? "I was too edgy, too curious, too afraid of dying" and "I am in a rage against age". On life, she insists: "There is no substitute for touch. To be alive is to crave it." On illness, she observes: "You can go from the country of the well to the country of the sick in a split second." On death, she opines: "We all secretly believe in our own immortality. Since we cannot imagine the loss of individual consciousness, we cannot possibly imagine death."

"The Five People You Meet In Heaven" by Mitch Albom

"There are five people you meet in heaven. Each of us was in your life for a reason. You may not have known the reason at the time, and that is what heaven is for. For undertsanding your life on earth". So explains the first of the persons met by 83 year old Eddie, a maintenance man at a fairground, following his death when trying to save the life of a young girl during an accident involving one of the rides. Each of the individuals gives Eddie an insight into his life that he never had and a lesson that he (and we) can learn. This short, but engaging, narrative does not require a literal belief in heaven (I have none) for one to take away a life-affirming message: we touch, and our touched by, so many in our life without always understanding or even knowing the consequences.

"Five Years From Now" by Paige Toon

After reading a long, heavy work of non-fiction, I needed something light and this chick lit novel met the bill. It is the latest (12th) work by the wonderfully named British writer Paige Toon and the voice is that of Nell whose father's new partner has a son Vian of the same age. When the children first meet, they are both five years old and, for the next five years, they and their parents have an idyllic life in Cornwall. However, the novel tells the story of their relationship over a period of almost 40 years, the narrative jumping every five years as inevitably their lives, locations and emotions change. The writing style is very straighforward but the story is engaging and often moving.

The structure of the book reminded me of a novel published almost a decade earlier,"One Day" by David Nicholls, which told of a male/female friendship over 20 years in jumps of a year at a time. Toon's novel covers a period of twice as long and in leaps five times as leghthy which works well for this story, especially as the timeline reflects the author's own life.

"The Friends Of Harry Perkins" by Chris Mullin

Mullin - then a political journalist - wrote the best-selling novel "A Very British Coup" which was published in 1982. It told the story of a Left-winger who became Prime Minister but was countered by the nefarious forces of the establishment. I found it very readable, but I thought the the characters were caricatures and the action limited. It worked better when it was subsequently turned into a television series.

Mullin went on to be a Member of Parliament from 1987 until 2010 which included three ministerial positions. In 2019, he published this sequel to "A Very British Coup" in a work whose title evoked the memory of the heroic failure of the radical premier. The new story centres on Frederick Thompson who had served as Perkins' Press Secretary. His politics are much more pragmatic than those of his mentor, so does he stand a better chance of forming a reformist Labour Government?

Although the sequel is set a mere 10 years after the original, the context is the near future in a post-Brexit Britain and, in a preface, Mullin acknowledges that "a slight leap of imagination is required". It is a bleak environment in which "there has been no great Armageddon, just a slow decline into insularity and irrelevance" and a continuing focus on immigration and a rise in nasty nationalism, while abroad America has just declared war on China. Again the novel is readable but hardly impressive.

I call it a novel, but really it is a novella, since it only runs to 180 pages, and it is followed by two short stories (which are rather good).

"The Girl From Venice" by Martin Cruz Smith

This is the third novel that I have read by prolific American author MCS, folowing "Gorky Park" and "Havana Bay". I guess that the title has been chosen to encourage sales because the feminine noun seems to everywhere. The trend was probably started by the spectatular success of the English-language translations of the three Millennium novels of Swedish crime writer Stieg Larsson starting with "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" but, in the last few years, I've read "Girl With A Pearl Earring" (Tracy Chevalier), "Gone Girl" (Gillian Flynn), "The Girl On The Train" (Paula Hawkins) and "The Girl Who Fell From The Sky" (Simon Mawer).

In the case of the Smith novel, the title is a bit of a come-on because the central character is actually an uneducated fisherman called Cenzo rather than the sophisticated Jewish teenager Guila and indeed, in the middle third of this 300-page work, the girl is totally missing from the narrative. Even the use of Venice in the title is a bit of a misnomer since a good deal of the action is not in Venice and, when it is, the locale is not the parts of the city familiar to tourists but the little-known lagoon island of Pellestrina.

What makes the novel distinctive and interesting though is the setting in the last weeks of the Second World War, the location of much of the story in Salo (the rump state ostensibly led by Mussolini from late 1943 to early 1945), and the detail about fish and fishing. Although Cruz is essentially a mystery novelist, this latest work by him can be taken as a romance between an unlikely couple. Cenzo muses: 'Yet only one woman would do. And not just any one, but the most obstinate, impossible woman he had ever met."

"The Girl On The Train" by Paula Hawkins

Most novels are written from a single point of view and in the third person; this one has three voices, all in the first person: the eponymous Rachel, a 33 year old alcoholic who travels on the 8.04 train to London each morning and one day sees something which is revisited some 300 exciting pages later, Megan who is one of the people in the scene that is witnessed, and Anna who is married to Rachel's former's husband. I found the constant alternation of voices a little discordant at first but, as the 400-page narrative unfolds and the pace picks up, it works very well.

Hawkins ensures that short chapters and teasing final sentences propel the reader ever onwards. In the storyline, there are echoes here of two other best-selling thrillers: "Gone Girl" (a woman disappears) and "Before I Go To Sleep" (a woman cannot remember the details of a traumatic incident), but this is an immensely readable story that stands on its own merits and, like the two other novels, has been made into a film.

"The Girl Who Fell From The Sky" by Simon Mawer

Mawer's previous novel, "The Glass Room", was an outstanding work which I admired enormously and almost won the Man Booker Prize. This following piece - his ninth novel - is not quite in the same class, but it is meticulously researched, beautifully written, and - as a thriller - satisfyingly taunt. While "The Glass Room" was set before, during and after the Second World War, this story is largely located in a narrow period of the war between the fall and the liberation of France.

The eponymous young woman - barely 20 years old - is Marian Sutro, a fluent French speaker who is persuaded to leave the WRAF and join an organisation which is never named but is clearly the Special Operations Executive (SOE). The first two-fifths of the novel detail her oblique recruitment and thorough training in Britain, while the remainder describes her operations in central France and then the capital city of Paris. The story is very much one of awakening: the personal and sexual kindling of a woman starting to live her own life on her own terms. So she learns how to kill - and does so - but she also finds a kind of love in the arms of two very different French men.

Marian's most important mission is to persuade a distinguished French scientist to leave his post in Paris and join the British wartime effort to develop a nuclear bomb. What he decides and whether she survives hold the reader in suspense until the final page in this accomplished work where the reader really shares the heroine's fear: "She feels the slow churn of nausea. French police? Abwehr? Gestapo? The city is as riddled with spies as a Roquefort cheese with mould." The ending is sudden and shocking.

"Girl With A Pearl Earring" by Tracy Chevalier

This novel is named after a famous portrait by the Dutch 17th century painter Johannes Vermeer which is displayed in the Mauritshuis gallery in The Hague. I have seen the original several times and my wife and I so admire the work that we have a framed copy hanging in our bedroom. But who is the girl in the painting? How did a young maid like this attract the attentions of such a distinguished artist? Why is she wearing those strange blue and yellow cloths on her head? And how could such a lowly individual be wearing a pearl earring? Of course, in truth, we will never know, but Chevalier - brought up in the United States but now resident in Britain - has done such a marvellous work of research of the period and crafted such a delightful tale that her imaginative account makes for a compelling read.

Link: web site for book click here

"Girl, Woman, Other" by Bernardine Evaristo

As a white, straight male, I might not be considered as an obvious reader for a polyphonic novel in which almost all the 12 voices are women of colour, several are lesbian, and one is trans gender. But this work by a Nigerian-British female author was (joint) winner of the Booker Prize in 2019 and it was clear to me that this was an important book.

I found it a wonderful read that presented a multilayered account of the black experience in Britain today. The women are of different ages (from 19 to 93) and occupations with a variety of ethnic composition, occupational achievement, and sexual history over a period of decades and every story has its own fascination and illumination.

The style is interesting: there is limited capitalisation and, except for minimal use of commas, there is no punctuation, but instead a layout that isolates sentences, phrases, and even words and works very well. The dozen voices are grouped into four chapters, each of three characters who are connected, with looser links between all the women brought together in a fifth chapter featuring the after-party of a radical play by the first of the characters, with a striking epilogue which binds two of the personages. It might sound complicated but it is splendidly executed and enables a richly textured exposition of black (female) lives (that) matter.

In such an ambitious novel, there are many messages, but one powerful conclusion is: "we should celebrate that many more women are reconfiguring feminism and that grassroots activism is spreading like wildfire and millions of women are waking up to the possibility of taking ownership of our world as fully-entitled human beings". But: 'feminism needs tectonic plates to shift, not a trendy make-over".

"The Glass Room" by Simon Mawer

Shortly before reading this novel, I read another work - "Guernica" by Dave Boling - which is a tale of love and war told through the prism of a place and featuring in cameo roles some actual historical characters. While "Guernica" was accomplished, however, "The Glass Room" - which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2009 - is consummate. The writing is finer and the characterisation more skilled.

Most of the narrative is set in what was then Czechoslovakia before and during the Second World War, althought there are short sections dated 1968 and 1990, and this is a country whose history and language I know well (my wife is half Czech), making the work all the more resonant. Many relationships are explored, but the pivotal one is that between the owners of the modern house which gives the novel its name, the Jewish businessman Viktor Landauer and his gentile wife Liesel, who have two children before fleeing the Nazi occupation of their country to live in Switzerland, then Cuba and the finally the United States.

This is Mawer's eighth novel and it is a most impressive work, demonstrating considerable knowledge not just of Czechoslovakia but of subjects ranging from ballet to biology. The writing is beautiful, capturing the interplays between very different characters and constantly returning to the luminosity of Das Landauer Haus and the room itself and the events that take place there. There is much history and politics here but also plenty of sex and sexuality in a narrative which is quite compelling.

The book cries out to be made into a film where the room can be made truly visible.

Note: Although "The Glass Room" is a work of fiction, the house and the city are not fictional but not identified in the novel. The actual place is the Villa Tugendhat in the city of Brno.

author's web site click here
Wikipedia page on the Villa Tugendhat click here

"Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn

I love the title: short, punchy, alliterative. But I don't normally read crime fiction. Then I saw the film of the novel with the screenplay by the author and I knew that I had to read the book. Obviously I already knew the surprises - and there are some great surprises in this narrative - but the twists and turns and clues came so thick and fast in the movie that I really enjoyed spotting and savouring them in the novel.

To enjoy the film or the book - whichever you access first - the less you know about the storyline the better. Let's just say that the plot revolves around the fifth wedding anniversary of an American middle class couple: Nick (34) and Amy (38) Dunne, both writers who have lost their jobs in New York City and moved to Nick's hometown in North Carthage, Missouri. A great deal has changed in their marriage and neither is the person the other once loved so much

In analysing novels, one usually identifies the point of view or narrator and sometimes finds that one has an unreliable narrator. Here we have two narrators and both - in very different ways - are exceptionally unreliable. At one point, one of them assures the reader: "Don't fret, we'll sort this out: the true and the not true and the might as well be true." This never really proves to be the case - I told you they were both unreliable.

The alternating voices of Nick and Amy are presented in different formats with different timescales but gradually converge both time-wise and plot-wise to a dramatic finale that is far from being a traditional conclusion. Flynn has artfully constructed a really clever narrative with a richness of interlocking elements and the work is all the smarter for being part crime thriller, part examination of the modern marriage, part expose of the impact of austerity.

It is one of the best novels that I have read for sheer pulling power, as Flynn breaks the near 500-page text into bite-sized sections that one wishes to devour at pace, contriving to end many of the sections with a teasing line that urges you to press on.

Link: my review of the film click here

"Guernica" by Dave Boling

Everyone has heard of Guernica, the Basque town that was savagely bombed by the Luftwaffe on 26 April 1937, and most are aware of the famous painting by Picasso which, since the fall of fascism, has been on display in Madrid. Conveying the horror of that incident is not easy and this novel does it through the lives of two families related by marriage: the Ansotegui family - headed by the hard-working farmer Justo, married to Mariangeles, and father to the dancer Miren - and the Navarro family - centred on brothers Dodo, a fisherman, and Miguel, a carpenter. Miren and Miguel marry and have a beautiful daughter Catalina and befriend a blind soapmaker Alaia. In this story, some will live, some will die and some will be maimed both physically and psychologically. There are 'guest' appearances by some actual historic personages.

In many respects, this is an impressive work. For American journalist Dave Bowling, this is a formidable first novel - wonderfully researched, carefully structured, and immensely readable. His narrative of 370 pages starts in 1893 and ends in 1940 with the actual bombing - a very moving account - occuring almost exactly half way through. However, the publishers promote the novel as comparable to "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" and, while both deal with love and war, "Guernica" is simply not in the same class as Louis de Bernières' work. Here all the leading characters are one-dimensional (noble and/or heroic), the dialogue is stilted and undifferentiated between the characters, and the portrayal of the Basque cause is overly simplistic (in a Author's Note at the end, Boling states: "I tried not to tax the reader with elaborations on the complex and volatile politics at work at the time" - something that Bernières was willing to do).

author's web site click here
Wikipedia page on the bombing of guernica click here
Guernica Peace Museum click here

"The Guy Next Door" by Meggin Cabot

I only read this because it is written entirely in the form of e-mails and I wanted something light for a flight. It isn't even the first novel in this format - see "E-mail" [click here] and "e" [click here] - and there's light and then there's totally fluffy. Cabot normally writes for children (a series called "The Princess Diaries") and she should stay with this genre because her novel for older readers is simply an up-date of the fairy tale of Cindrella and Prince Charming. In this case, Cinders is 27 year old, red-headed columnist Melissa Fuller, while her Prince is 35 year old John Trent who is heir to $20M - but, of course, any such prince originally appears in 'disguise'...

"The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood

"The Handmaid's Tale" was published in 1985 and I eventually read it in 1994. When the sequel "The Testaments" was published in 2019, I was keen to read it, but I wanted to reread the original work first. The first book is a record made by a Handmaid called Offred who serves a senior Commander in what used to be the city of Bangor, Maine, USA before, in the near future and after a violent insurrection, the country became the closed, totalitarian state of Gilead in which the role of women is subjugated entirely to the aim of restoring a declining birthrate caused by a variety of environmental problems. As Offred explains: "We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices".

There is not a lot of plot, since not that much happens over the short period of the story and the ending is inconclusive, but there is a great deal of exposition as Offred constantly recalls and records the creation and organisation of Gilead in all its macabre, ritualistic detail. This is a terrible world of typecasting through colour of clothing, such as Handmaids themselves in red, Wives in blue, Marthas in green, and Commanders in black. It is a nightmare vision with places like The Red Centre, The Wall, and Soul Scrolls and horrific events called Prayvaganzas, Salvagings, and Particicutions.

At the black heart of it all is The Ceremony when the Handmaid has to have sex with her Commander while the Commander's Wife holds the Handmaid in place. Births themselves are semi-public affairs and less than perfect babies simply disappear. Offred slowly strikes up forbidden relationships with key actors, but will this lead to her escape and freedom? Canadian author Atwood presents a compelling story that seems sadly prescient now that we have a United States in which women's rights, especially in relation to their own bodies, are under such challenge.

"Harry, Revised" by Mark Sarvas

Sarvas lives in Los Angeles and this is his first novel which is set in the city. Presented throughout in the present tense, this is fine writing with comedy but more than a little pathos.

Harry Rent - described ironically in each chapter heading as "our hero" - is a 45 year old X-ray doctor who has just lost his wife of eight years. He is a man "of perpetual indirection", "having .. no strong preferences", who "has embraced the consolation of routine", and "never possessed anything that might be confused with grace". He occupies the world of "Harry-land, this multiplicity of voices, of endless options infinitely contemplated, never acted upon, always deferred".

Can Harry be revised? Can such a man change, really change, become someone entirely new? What would it take and how would he do it? It won't be easy and it won't be painless.

Link: author's web site click here

"Havana Bay" by Martin Cruz Smith

Arkady Renko is a Moscow investigator who was first introduced to us in 1981 in the best-selling "Gorky Park" (which I enjoyed at the time). Since then, Renko has become a recurrent character of Cruz's novels and this is the fourth outing for the intrepid and inquisitive Russian.

The novel is set entirely in Cuba's capital of Havana, shortly after the Russians have abandoned their erstwhile Communist allies following the collapse of the Soviet Union - extremely difficult years known as "the special period". I read the book during a holiday in Cuba, starting and finishing in Havana, and I have to say that the author has captured very effectively so many features of the city and of aspects of life under Castro.

The story starts with the discovery of a body - presumed to be that of a Russian friend of Arkady - but, as the plot develops and quickens, there are a range of Cuban, Russian and American characters, much intrigue, some sex, more deaths and and a good political joke: "What are the three achievements of the Revolution? Health, education and sports. What are the three failures? Breakfast, lunch and dinner."

"Heat And Dust" by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

For a long time, I assumed that the author was of Indian ethnicity because of her name and her long association with film director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant. In fact, her parents were Polish Jews, she was born in German, and she came to England at the age of 12 when in 1939 her family fled the Nazi regime. Following her marriage to an Indian Parsi, she moved to India where she spent 24 years before relocating to New York City for the rest of her life.

So she brings a very special eye to this story which is largely set in India and utilises two timelines to compare and contrast the lives and the decisions of two loosely related English women with a fascination for India: Olivia, the new and young wife of a member of the British administration in the India of the 1923, and her modern-day, slightly older, step-granddaughter Anne who, some 50 years later, comes across Olivia's letters to her sister and decides to visit the locations mentioned and try to understand better what happened.

The novel was published in 1975 and won the Booker prize. It was then filmed with a script by Jhabvala and Ivory as director and Merchant as producer. I saw the film in 1988 and so enjoyed it that I bought the novel but never read it. I viewed the film again in 2006, resolved again to read the book, and again never did. Then, in 2023, I caught the film for a third time and finally read the original work.

I found that the film follows the novel's narrative very closely and even uses some of the book's dialogue, but there is more literary detail and colour, so I was delighted to have read it at last.

"HHhH" by Laurent Binet

On 27 May 1942, at a tight street corner in Prague, two resistance parachutists - the Czech Jan Kubiš and the Slovak Jozef Gabčík - stopped an open top car carrying the leading Nazi in the so-called Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, in a bold attempt to assassinate him. This is an event that resonates powerfully with me because it took place at the height of the wartime exploits of my Czech father-in-law, so that I included a couple of paragraphs about it in my biography of him, and the church in which Kubiš and Gabčík died in a massive shoot-out with the SS is literally at the end of the street in which my closest Czech friends live, so that I have visited it several times.

The story has been told a number of times both in books and films, but "HHhH" is simultaneously one of the most bizarre and one of the most moving accounts that I have encountered. Let's start with the strange title. Binet wanted to call his work Operation Anthropoid, which was the military code name for the mission, but his editor feared that this would make it sound too much like a piece of science fiction and suggested instead "HHhH" - an abbreviation of the German phrase attributed to the SS which purported to describe Heydrich's relationship with his boss: "Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich" ("Himmler's brain is called Heydrich"). Now let's consider the structure of the work. There are no page numbers but the 300+ pages are broken up into no less than 257 untitled 'chapters'. Binet is so keen to provide background to his story that he goes all the way back to the 13th century reign of Premysl Ottokar II who encouraged Germans to emigrate to Bohemia and work in the mines.

Oddest of all is the style adopted by the French writer Laurent Binet who is well-served by his translator into English Sam Taylor. The book is marketed as a novel and much of it has a novelistic style, even though it is dealing with historic figures and events, but Binet is obsessively concerned with the challenges of fictionalising a real life narrative and constantly writes about his anguish over whether he should or should not include information and his passionate desire to use documented sources even when he is seemingly in the heads of his characters. I do understand Binet's dilemma because I faced similar challenges in crafting the aforementioned biography. I wrote a conventional non-fiction work but laced it with some novelistic style while ensuring that every fact could be substantiated. Binet has chosen to write a kind of novel but regularly introduces non-fiction material about himself and his thoughts.

Indeed he calls his book an "infranovel" - whatever that is. He has clearly carried out a prodigous volume of research and finds it impossible to exclude information which, while fascinating, is not strictly relevant to the assassination. So regularly he will make observations like "theorectically it has no place in my novel" or "this subject has no direct link with Heydrich" or "these two men ... do not really have a role to play in my story" and even "This scene is not really useful and on top of that I practically made it up. I don't think I'm going to keep it." (really?).

More perhaps than any other single Nazi other than Adolf Hitler himself, Heydrich was responsible for the Holocaust since in January 1942 he chaired the infamous Wannsee Conference that planned the so-called Final Solution. One can understand why Binet - the son of a Jewish mother and a Communist father - feels strongly about his subject, but he is almost overwhelmed by his awe of the parachutists, calling them "the authors of one of the greatest acts of resistance in human history, and without doubt the greatest of the Second World War" and rather carried away with his judgement when he writes of "one of the greatest scenes in the great tragedy of the universe". Certainly the planning, execution, and aftermath of the assassination are gripping events and Binet - largely using the present tense - makes his 'novel' a tense read.

"The Hours" by Michael Cunningham

This compelling novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999, but I only read it after I had seen the film in early 2003. It is not essential to have read previously Virginia Woolf's work "Mrs Dalloway" [for review, click here], but I think that it helps, because Cunningham borrows both the essential structure of the 1925 work and makes so many allusions to it. "Mrs Dalloway" is an account of one day in the life of a woman preparing for a social gathering and "The Hours" tells the interlinking stories of three women in different ages all going through one day centred on a social event and all connected to the earlier novel: Virginia Woolf is writing the book in 1923, Laura Brown is reading it in 1949, and Clarissa Vaughan is a modern day woman who is affectionately nicknamed Mrs Dalloway. In fact, "The Hours" was a working title for the Woolf novel and the phrase is used by one of Cunningham's characters.

All three days - four, if we include the original Woolf novel - encompass similar events: flowers are bought, food is prepared, women kiss each other, suicide is contemplated (and, in some cases, realised).

Above all, however, all the women experience the same essential feelings of waste and want. Virginia is convinced that "She herself has failed. She is not a writer at all, really; she is merely a gifted eccentric" and "She thinks of Vanessa, of the children, of Vita and Ethel: so many. They have all failed, haven't they?"; Laura "is humiliated by herself" and has "the nowhere feeling", believes that "The world is already, subtly, beginning to leave her behind" and concludes that "She has failed"; Clarissa thinks "She is superficial" and "I am trivial, endlessly trivial", feels that "there is this sense of missed opportunity", and asserts that "I'm far less than I could have been". Almost the last words of the narrative are: "we hope, more than anything, for more".

Cunningham has produced a beautifully written and artfully crafted work that is impressive in being a male insight into the female condition.

"How To Be Good" by Nick Hornby

I resisted the Hornby phenomenon for a long time, so I didn't read "Fever Pitch", ""High Fidelity" or "About A Boy" - all of which have been made into films - but the captivating title and number one best-seller status of "How To Be Good" was too much to resist. The story is told from the perspective of north Londoner Katie Carr, married with two children and a doctor - self-evidently a good person, but someone who wants more from her marriage and her life.

The very first sentence grabs the reader: "I am in a car park in Leeds when I tell my husband I don't want to be married to him anymore". What follows is sharp and insightful writing full of lines like: "Phone calls like ours only happen when you've spent several years hurting and being hurt, until every word you utter or hear becomes coded and loaded, as complicated and full of subtext as a bleak and brilliant play". Much faith healing and do-gooding later, there are no answers or solutions, but Katie concludes "I can do this. I can live this life". She should get out more.

Link: web site for author click here

"The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins

Like "His Dark Materials" by Philip Pullman (which I have read), "The Hunger Games" is a trilogy written for young adults which has crossed over into popularity with a general readership and become a major bestseller as well as the subject of a film. By the time the movie was released, the trilogy of books had sold some 50 million copies. Like the other trilogy, this is set in a world related to ours, but profoundly different, and features a resourceful female protagonist. Collins does not write as well as Pullman and the themes she explores are not so large, but she is an excellent storyteller and the book is a real page-turner.

This first part of the trilogy - published in 2008 - introduces us to a post-apocalyptic North America now known as Panem where an affluent and powerful Capitol rules over 12 subservient Districts with different production specialisms. The Hunger Games of the title take place each year and require each District, in a public event called the reaping, to supply a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18, chosen by lottery, who are then compelled to fight to the death in an outdoor arena while the whole thing is televised to both the Capitol and the Districts. There are a few rules in the Games, but the main one is that only one of the so-called tributes can survive.

The novel is structured in a classic three-act format. It is written in the present tense in the first person from the viewpoint of 16 year old fatherless Katniss Everdeen who is named after an edible plant and represents the coal-mining District 12 in the latest Games. Katniss has to leave behind Gale, her hunting companion and platonic friend, and team up with Peeta, the other District 12 tribute, with whom she has a complicated and evolving emotional relationship. Given the nature of the Games, there are frequent deaths, but Collins understates these for her young adult readership, each being quick and matter of fact. Much more detailed are the physical tribulations and injuries encountered by the brave and resourceful Katniss as she struggles to survive in this surreal but deadly world.

my review of the film click here
Wikipedia page on the Hunger Games trilogy click here
Wikipedia page on the Hunger Games universe click here

"I Am Pilgrim" by Terry Hayes

This may be the longest novel that I've ever read - almost 900 pages in my paperback version - but I simply raced through it because this cracking work is the archetypal page-turner. It is so excitingly written that the reader inevitably wants to keep going and the writer encourages the process by dividing his lengthy text into 189 short chapters, most of which end with a teasing sentence that compel the reader to push on.

Pilgrim is simply the latest in a long list of false names deployed by the central character in this thriller written (largely) in the first person. He describes himself as "a member of our country's most secret intelligence organization which worked so deep in shadow that only a handfulof people even knew our our existence" and admits that "I had always been a loner and I was damaged deep in my soul" and "despite my many affairs with other substances, intelligence has always been my real drug".

The action ranges through New York, Moscow, Paris, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Syria, Germany, Saudi Arabia and - most notably - the tourist seaside town of Bodgrum in Turkey with its unique historic architectural features. There are plenty of deaths along the way and some gruesome scenes, but overshadowing it all is the threat of a bio-terror attack on the United States that in scale and severity would turn 9/11 into almost a footnote.

The brilliant young terrorist that Pilgrim is pursuing is, for most of the narrative, known only as 'The Saracen'. He is a 'clean skin' who operates alone, totally outside any network, and a man of outstanding bravery and great medical knowledge who is prepared to take many years to plan and execute an operation that would ensure that "America - the great infidel - would be ground zero, the kill-rate astronomical". There are many strands to this long narrative but they all come together by the end.

"I Am Pilgrim" is the first novel to be written by Terry Hayes, but the author is a former journalist and screenwriter, so he is no newcomer to crafting stories and his background on cinema and television movies explains why his book is so visual in conception. In fact, MGM has acquired the movie rights for the book and are set to target a series of films, similar to the Bourne franchise, with British director Matthew Vaughn in charge.

"Identity" by Milan Kundera

The only other work that I've read by this Czech novelist - who now writes in French - was "The Unbearable Lightness Of Being". But that was over 30 years ago and I confess that I did not understand much of the imagery in that work. Three lockdowns into the covid crisis of 2020, I was looking for something short and "Identity" is only 150 pages, so i gave Kundera another chance. Narratively the novella is simple: a short period of time in the relationship between a middle-aged French couple called Chantal and Jean-Marc. But things are never straightforward with Kundera. There is a lot of dreaming here, some of it signalled, but most of it uncertain. There are some interesting ideas but overall I found the opaqueness irritating.

"In Search Of An Impotent Man" by Gaby Hauptmann

This was originally written in German, but it has now been translated into English and become an international best-seller. It tells the entertaining story of Carmen Legg, a 35 year old, red-haired professional woman who seeks a man who is not ruled by his penis. She thinks that this means means finding an impotent man and that architect David Franck is such a man, but she discovers that she is mistaken on both counts. This is a feminist tract in the form of a light, amusing novel, but - for this male reader anyway - it begs the question of whether modern women really know what they want from a man.

"Intimacy" by Hanif Kureishi

Recommended to me by my Communication Workers Union colleague Beth Lamont, this novel taught me a new word: lucubration which means nocturnal meditation. It is only a short work of 153 pages and can be read in one sitting, but the subject matter is hardly light. Essentially it is a lucubration - now you know what the word means - by a middle-aged writer about to abandon his partner of six years and sons of five and three. It is sexually explicit and emotionally searing and particularly resonant for me since my first wife left me and and our son when he was five.

"The Killer Angels" by Michael Shaara

I had not heard of this historical novel until it was recommended to, and then bought for, me by my good American friend Michael Grace when, together with our wives, we visited the battlefield of the American Civil War conflict at Gettysburg in the summer of 2012. The novel - a fictional account of the battle - was published in 1974 and won the Pulitzer Prize the following year and it has since become a classic and been turned into a film.

The oxymoronic title comes from the Shakespeare quote which observes of man "in action how like an angel" and then notes the observation of an old man that "he's sure a murderin' angel". The number of killed, wounded, captured and missing in the three-day battle of Gettysburg was around 46,000 - roughly 23,000 on each side - making it the bloodiest engagement of the entire war, so the title of the novel is more than justified.

But this is a commander's view rather than a soldier's perspective of the engagement so that, within a strict chronological narrative, Shaara constantly alternates the viewpoint between different leaders on both the Union and (more especially) the Confederate sides. The actual fighting takes up a relatively small part of the 350 pages with most of the writing focusing on the characters, motivations and thoughts of the various leaders as they ponder the immense responsibility and the awful consequences of their decisions.

There are no villains here. Both sides are represented as fightly bravely for a cause that they hold dear and each commander makes what he believes to be the best deployments. But two characters in particular are represented in especially honourable terms: first, Lieutenant General James Longstreet, second in command on the Confederate side, who wished to pursue totally different tactics (his memoir was a major source for Shaara) and second, Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the Union leader who displayed outstanding skill and bravery in holding Little Round Top.

This is a marvellous book, expertly researched and superbly-written with 17 helpful maps.

"The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini

Recommended to me by my Postwatch colleague Sheila Button, this was a wonderful discovery that I savoured from first page to last. The narrator is Amir, aged 12 when we first meet him in Kabul and 38 when he is a long term resident of San Francisco who receives that call that will take him back to a very different Afghanistan. His childhood friend is Hassan, the runner of the title, someone who never denied Amir anything. But they come from different worlds: the former Pashtun, Sunni and wealthy; the latter Hazara, Shia and poor. Yet what they have in common - and one particular traumatic incident - defines this rivetting narrative which frequently aches with pathos but is ultimately a tale of redemption.

The work is a triumph for first time author Hosseini who was born in Afghanistan and whose family received political asylum in the USA in 1980. In the course of its 300+ pages, we learn much about the history, politics and culture of a country in and over which so much blood has been spilt. The novel spent over two years on the "New York Times" bestseller list and has now been published in 42 languages and made into a film.

Link: author's web site click here

"The Lacuna" by Barbara Kingsolver

I was enormously impressed with Kingsolver's 1998 novel "The Poisonwood Bible" and this 2009 work - her seventh novel - is arguably an even more accomplished work. It is a huge project in several respects, not least the length (670 pages), but above all for the important historical themes it explores. Certainly it is audaciously ambitious, dealing with real-life historic figures and implicitly at least challenging contemporary American values, and it clearly involved a prodigious amount of research on subjects ranging from Aztec and Mayan life to Mexican artists and food to the early days of McCarthyism in the USA.

The novel takes the form of notebooks and letters written by the tall, private, homosexual Harrison Shepherd - born of an American father and a Mexican mother - between 1929 and 1950, interspersed with real and fictional newspaper articles, all put together eight years after his presumed death by his stenographer Violet Black and then deliberately locked away for 50 years. Shepherd is an acute observer who writes little, and often uses the third person, about himself. Thanks initially to his cooking (and therefore plastering) skills, he finds himself in the employ of the Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and then the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky (a remarkably sympathetic portrait) before he returns to the United States to become first a very successful novelist and then a vilified communist sympathiser investigated by the FBI.

Kingsolver told one interviewer: "I don't understand how any good art could fail to be political" and "The Lacuna" both explores the relationship between art and politics and is itself a markedly political work of a decidedly liberal orientation. In one of his letters, Shepherd writes: "The power of words is awful".

Kingsolver provides a compelling critique of America's excessive reaction to the (real) communist threat of the late 1940s and early 1950s and of the nation's inability to see itself as a work in progress rather than a finished product beyond criticism or challenge. There are obvious parallels here with the over-reaction to the (again real) threat from Islamic fundamentalism in contemporary America in the fevered post 9/11 environment. There is a sense in which the story is auto-biographical because, like Shepherd, Kingsolver has been the subject of bitter attacks for attempting to offer a more insightful and nuanced view of political events.

The title is well-chosen and there are many lacunae in the novel, most obviously the underwater cave discovered by Shepherd early in the narrative and the missing notebook that blocks his attempt to write up his story, but also the elimination of Trotsky from much of the history of communism and the gap between the reality of people's lives and the fiction created by the "howlers" in the media. The notion occurs again when one of the characters opines: "The most important thing about a person is always the thing you don't know".

In the UK, "The Lacuna" received the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2010.

"Larry's Party" by Carol Shields

I originally bought this book as a birthday present for my very good friend Larry Cohen of the USA, but then decided to read it myself. It is two decades (aged 26-46) in the life of Canadian Larry Weller who has the unusual, and symbolic, occupation of mazemaker. At the end (the titular party), he is reunited with his first ex-wife wife Dorrie. It is wonderfully written, but - like so many modern novels - seemingly so inconsequential. If I knew what post-modern meant, I would probably so describe it.

"Leo The African" by Amin Maalouf

I had never heard of Maalouf until I visited Beirut and his work was recommended to me, so I started with his novel "The Rock Of Tanios". I enjoyed it so much that I decided to read this earlier (his first) and longer (360 pages) work. Although he is Lebanese and his native language is Arabic, Maalouf writes in French and, since the start of the Lebanese civil war in 1975, has resided in Paris. Even in an English translation, his writing is delightfully engaging. Within the central narrative, he manages to weave so many smaller stories and, alongside the main character, he introduces so many other colourful personages (including a number of historical individuals).

The novel is a fictionalised account of the life of the real-life traveller, the 16th century Moor whose proper name was al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi. The work is organised into four 'books' - set respectively in Granada, Fez, Cairo and Rome (all cities that I have visited) - covering a 40-year period starting in 1494. There is much fascinating historical detail, while the main theme is the conflict between Islam and Christianity - a subject of great relevance today five centuries later.

Link: Wikipedia pages on Leo Africanus click here

"Life & Times Of Michael K" by J.M. Coetzee

This novel was published in 1983 and won the Booker Prize for that year. Since then, Coetzee has won the Booker Prize a second time and in 2003 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. But it was not until a visit to his native South Africa - including the Karoo area which features so much in the work - two decades after this novel was written that I read it and it is the first novel that I have tackled by this author.

The title reminds me - deliberately I am sure - of "The Castle" by Franz Kafka where the lead character is known simply as Joseph K, but the tone of the work recalled more "The Stranger" by Albert Camus because the person at the centre of the tale - a hare-lipped, somewhat dull-minded, black gardener in apartheid South Africa - is so alienated from everyone and everything and only achieves a kind of control and a sort of peace by starving himself almost to death. This is a shortish work of less than 200 pages, but most of it consists of one long chapter, and the writing style is quite sparse, but powerful and compelling.

"Life Of Pi" by Yann Martel

The strange title might suggest that this is some kind of mathematical treatise, but it is in fact a novel about survival at sea for seven months. The title is not a reference to the arithmetic constant, but to a young Indian boy of 16 called Piscine Molitor Patel, named after the favourite swimming baths of a friend of his father, the father being a zookeeper in the French-occupied town of Pondicherry.

When the ship carrying Pi's family and the zoo's contents sinks in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the only company for the boy is a 450lb Royal Bengal tiger called Richard Parker, a female orang-utan called Orange Juice, a zebra with a broken leg, and a hyena. What would it take to survive in such circumstances and what account could one possibly give of it afterwards?

As Pi explains to the representatives of the owners of the lost ship when he has survived his ordeal: "The world isn't just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn't that make life a story?"

This is the third work by Yann Martel who was born in Spain but now lives in Canada and it won him the Man Booker Prize for 2002. Structured in a neat 100 chapters, this is a compelling and seductive piece of storytelling. It is now being turned into a film but I have no idea how such a work can be translated to the screen.

"Lord Of The Flies" by William Golding

This famous novel was published in 1954 after initially being rejected by several publishers. I first saw the film adaptation in 1968 but it took me until 2017 to read the actual novel, by which time Golding had won the Nobel Prize for Literature (1983) and died (1993). It is an incredibly compelling story which is known by most educated people whether or not they have seen the film or read the book: a group of British schoolboys are stranded on an island and either will or will not abide by the values of the civilised society from which they are estranged.

I always felt a particular attraction to the work because of some of the characters: there is the unstrustworthy Roger (my own name), the sensible Ralph (my brother's name) and the wise Piggy (who, like me as a child, needs glasses to see anything). Other memorable characters are Jack, who rivals Ralph for leadership of the children, Simon, who comes closest to the Lord of the Flies, and the inseparable twins Sam and Eric. It is a narrative for all times and, since I read the book in the week of the inauguration of a new American president, I could not help seeing Ralph as Barack Obama and Jack as Donald Trump.

The wonderfully-crafted story is a warning about how thin is the veener of civilisation and how easily we can be turned away from its values. Jack originally claims: "We've got to have rules and obey them. After all, we're not savages." but all too soon he is the leader of children doing savage things to each other. Leadership is hard and Ralph finds: "The trouble was, if you were a chief, you had to think, you had to be wise." Piggy is well aware of the fundamental choice: "Which is better - to have rules and agree, or to hunt and kill?" Each of the children makes a choice; each of us has to make one.

"The Lost Daughter" by Elena Ferrante

Although I had previously read four novels by Ferrante (the Neapolitan Quartet), I did not read this earlier and shorter work until after I saw the film version.

Told in the first person, this is the story of Leda, an Italian teacher of English literature who is a middle-aged divorcée and mother of two grown daughters. When she takes a seaside holiday in southern Italy, she meets young mother Nina and her daughter Elena and her interactions with them trigger painful recollections of her own experience of womanhood and motherhood.

The novel explores an immensely sensitive subject: the rarely acknowledged truth that many women find parenthood hard, sometimes so crushingly hard that they have to escape from it in order to find their own identity and fulfil their own aspirations. The consequences of such maternal ambivalence casts a shadow that lasts a lifetime. But, in Leda's words: "Sometimes you have to escape in order not to die".

Link: my review of the film click here

"Love In The Time Of Cholera" by Gabriel García Márquez

Márquez was born in Colombia in 1927 and died in 2014. This work - one his most famous - was published in 1981 and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. I finally read the work after seeing the film and visiting Colombia, including Cartagena, the Caribbean city where the novel is located (although this is not specifically stated in the text).

I suppose that initially I was put off somewhat by the Penguin English translation which uses small print and by the formatting which is long paragraphs and a mere six (untitled) chapters for the 348 pages. But once one starts to read the novel, it is just such a delight since Márquez has a wonderfully fluid and engaging style. There is no dialogue as such, just occasional quotes from conversations, but the rich narrative sweeps the reader along.

The three main characters are Forentino Ariza and Fermina Daza who are childhood sweethearts and Dr Juvenal Urbino whom she marries after she suddenly rejects her young suitor. When the novel opens Ariza is 76 and Daza is 72, while Urbino is 81 and the subject of a fatal accident. So, having waited for 51 years 9 months and 4 days for Daza to become widowed, Ariza seeks to revive the seemingly doomed love affair, having in the meanwhile never married and never used prostitutes but had an endless number of lovers.

Although few precise dates are given, the long story covers the last half of the 19th century and the first three decades or so of the 20th and Márquez has a magnificent evocation of time and place. This is a novel full of sensuality and sex and of love and loss plus obsessions with fornication, cholera and social etiquette and it is a moving account of the impact of ageing on bodies and minds. So, a really unusual tale but truly a triumph.

"The Love Letter" by Cathleen Schine

"How do you fall in love?" asks a mysterious letter that happens to fall out of a book. We find out one answer to this eternal question in this slight but romantic tale of unconventional, yet irresistible, love between 42 year old bookstore owner Helen MacFarquhar and 20 year old student helper John Howell. The story is framed by the letter, eventually revealed to be from a novel by the lover of a relative of one of the principal characters. As with so many modern stories on relationships, little actually happens, but it is an enjoyable read and well-written by American author Schine. Indeed the 'love across the generations' novel has now been turned into a film.

"Loving Roger" by Tim Parks

I can't resist reading novel with my name in the title (see also "Roger's Version") and this one was first published in 1986. The story is told by Anna, a 20 year old typist, in an almost childishly simple yet appealing style. Her lover is Roger, an intelligent and "terribly, terribly earnest" office worker who wants to be a writer. He is not willing to return her love and, pregnant with his second child, she stabs him to death. Like several modern novels that I have read, it is not about events but about relationships, not ending in a conclusion but in a stage, not hopeful but fatalistic.

"Lyra's Oxford" by Philip Pullman

First, there was "Northern Lights" in 1995; next there was "The Subtle Knife" in 1997; and then there was "The Amber Spyglass" in 2000 - together making up the hugely successful "His Dark Materials" trilogy by Philip Pullman. However, in 2003, Pullman wrote "Lyra's Oxford", a short story of less than 50 pages titled "Lyra And The Birds" plus a map of the city and various other ephemera. The tale may be brief, but the subject matter - an attempt on Lyra's life two years after Lord Asriel's war and the parting with Will - is dramatic and tantalisingly brief. Pullman has written on his web site: "This is a sort of stepping-stone between the trilogy and the book that's coming next" - which is "The Book Of Dust".

Link: Philip Pullman's site click here

"The Man In The High Castle" by Philip K Dick

I decided to read this 1962 novel after the success of the Amazon television series of the same name broadcast in 40 parts between 2015-2019 even though I never viewed the series. It was immediately apparent to me that Dick's books are generally better on the screen that on the page - think of "Total Recall", "Minority Report" and especially "Blade Runner".

The central proposition of the novel is intriguing and imaginative: the Second World War was won by the Axis powers of Germany, Japan and Italy and, after the war, the USA is divided up between the Germans and the Japanese with a buffer region in between. The eponymous male lives in the neutral buffer zone and has written a novel, called "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy", which postulates a world in which the Allies won the war but not quite as we know our history.

The problem with Dick's novel lies in his execution: it is very slow with only a couple of action sequences, it is full of extraneous detail about the making and sale of metalworks, it imbues mystical powers to an ancient text called called "I Ching" and one of the metal pieces, and the conclusion is anti-climatic and leaves important loose ends. At various points - and especially in a nine-page interlude towards the end - I felt that the author was under the influence of drugs.

Although Dick died young (he had a stroke at the age of 53), he was a prolific writer producing 44 published novels and approximately 121 short stories. The recurrent themes in his work included alternate realities and drug abuse. He won the Hugo Award for "The Man In The High Castle" and he was hailed as a genius in the science fiction world, but he was a flawed genius and this novel is not one that I could recommend.

"The Man Who Died Twice" by Richard Osman

I know that crime is an immensely popular literary genre but I generally avoid it. However, I made an exception for Osman's first book "The Thursday Murder Club" because it was such an incredible success and I wanted to be part of the zeitgeist. Later I couldn't resist reading "The Man Who Died Twice" which is the second in what we now know will be a series of four novels and has had even more success than the first.

The Club consists of four characters in their mid or late 70s (only a little older than me!) who are all residents of an upmarket retirement village called Coopers Chase: Elizabeth, a brilliant ex-intelligence officer whose past experience is central to this particular story; Ron who was once a trade union leader; Joyce, a former nurse who acts as a regular commentator; and Ibrahim who used to be a psychiatrist. Again there are a number of murders and carefully contrived plotting before a neat ending.

I think that reading Osman must be regarded as a guilty pleasure. He has very limited literary skills, his plots are so unlikely, and his resolutions just so tidy. But his main characters are endearing and his novels are just so readable, facilitated in this case by the 420 pages being divided into no less than 84 short chapters. And the whole thing is enlivened by his dry wit.

"A Married Man" by Catherine Alliott

Catherine Alliott is a best-selling British author of six novels who has just been introduced into the American market, but this is the first work of hers that I've read. Most of my reading is quite serious and at Easter I fancied something light; in fact the book is so insubstantial it kept threatening to float away. Over a readable but unchallenging 567 pages, widowed mother of two 31 year old Lucy Fellowes endeavours to find a new love. The title of the novel suggests that a passionate affair is on the cards, but Alliott is obviously a conservatively moral character because the central relationship has its share of humorous encounters but is little more sexual than the average teenage party. There are some plot twists at the end but, like "Bridget Jones' Diary", the final coupling is very predictable.

"The Martian" by Andy Weir

Like the hero of his novel, Weir has succeeded against the odds. Originally his work was self-published on his web site chapter by chapter before being picked up by a publisher and enjoying great success. The eponymous Martian is of course a human, Mark Watney, originally one of a crew of six visiting the red planet on NASA's Ares 3 mission. When he finds himself alone in immensely challenging circumstances, he shows amazing resilience and inventiveness and, in a regular and detailed log, considerable wry and dry humour: "Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped".

The scientific detail of the writing is astonishing and Weir, the son of a physicist, has described himself as "a space nerd my whole life" and acknowledged that he did "a ton of research for the book as well as lots of thought-experiment science". At first, I wondered how much I could take of the single-person narrative and all the science - which, while making for a convincing tale, is rather heavy - but, after almost 50 pages, the style changes and the format opens out, so that it becomes a real page-turner and the 370 pages rush by.

This is not great literature, but it is grand storytelling. It is not character-driven - indeed we learn little about Watney or anyone else in the account - but it is action-driven. Things keep happening to make Watney's survival seem hopeless, only for other developments to come along that make rescue a possibility once more. As I read the novel, I kept thinking what a terrific film it would make - especially with less of the science and more character development - and, once I finished the work and checked out the web, I learned that indeed it is to be a movie with Matt Damon in the lead role. It's going to be up there with "Apollo 13" and "Gravity".

me "Men Without Women" by Haruki Murakami

Murakami is a Japanese writer whose work has been translated into some 50 languages. By 2020, when I read "Men Without Women" (my first work by him), he had written 14 novels and 5 collections of short stories. This particular book is a 2014 compilation of seven short stories about men who have lost women in their lives, usually to other men or to death. Clearly Murakami has been influenced by the writing of Frank Kafka: there is a similar sense of alienation and, in this collection, the story I appreciated most, "Samsa In Love", is a kind of reverse version of Kafka's famous story "Metamorphosis".

"The Metamorphosis And Other Stories" by Franz Kafka

In my early 20s, I read all three of Kafka's novels - "America", "The Trial" and "The Castle" - as well as some of his short stories including "The Metamorphosis". I had thought that this would be the end of my Kafka phase but, some 50 years later, a Czech friend bought me a handsomely-bound collection of a new translation of no less than 38 short stories, so I was back in the world of the Czech Jew who wrote in German and created an inimitable vision somewhere between dream and nightmare.

Kafka spent almost all of his life in his native city of Prague but, as a member of the small German-speaking Jewish community, he was doubly isolated from the Czech/Christian majority and in addition had a contentious relationship with his father. All these factors profoundly influenced his writing.

The most striking works in this anthology are "The Metamorphosis", "In The Penal Colony" and "A Hunger Artist" which are among the few longer narratives. Most of the other stories are really short - often a page, a paragraph, even a sentence, but always intriguing and usually unsettling. The stories are opaque and open to many interpretations but common themes are a lack of control and justice, a sense of anguish and menace, and a illusionary search for meaning. Not for nothing has the word "Kafkaesque" gone into so many languages.

"The Midnight Library" by Matt Haig

As we know from Matt Haig's non-fiction work "Reasons To Stay Alive", at the age of just 24 he had a major depressive breakdown in which he contemplated suicide. It took him many years to recover and writing was one of the things that helped him cope. He has now become a best-selling author of both non-fiction and fiction for adults and children and this novel is clearly influenced substantially by his personal experience.

Nora Seed is a 35 year old woman living in Bedford who managed to obtain a first class degree in philosophy (Henry David Thoreau was her favourite thinker), but suffers from serious depression and feels that her life has been a series of failures. She attempts suicide - but then she finds herself in a strange kind of huge library where she is given the opportunity to visit other versions of her life based on different decisions that she has made in her so-called root life - a version of the multiple universes theory of quantum physics. She explores many other lives, eight of which are described in some detail, but which does she choose and why?

Nora is told by the librarian" "you can choose choices but not outcomes". Of course, when we make our choices, we don't know the outcomes which can lead to a life of regrets. This novel is hardly a work of great literature but it is very readable storytelling with insightful observations on life and an uplifting message. It has been a major bestseller and it is bound to be made into a film.

"Midnight's Children" by Salman Rushdie

Rushdie's second novel was published in 1981. It won the Booker Prize and in 1993 it was adjudged the 'Booker of Bookers' (the best novel to have won the Booker prize in its first 25 years). However, it was not until a holiday to India in 2003 that I felt sufficiently motivated to read it. I was put off by its length - 463 pages of densely-packed text. Also I was aware that Rushdie's style is difficult - he breaks many of the conventions of punctuation, person and tense and uses a dream-like form known as "magic realism". But the work is most certainly worth the effort and, once one has grown used to the unusual style, one is carried along by Rushdie's consummate story telling.

In one sense, this is the account of a life - that of the narrator Saleem Sinai as he pours out his soul to his wife Padma. But, in another sense, this is the history of a nation, as 63 years of 20th century India is witnessed through the prism of one Kashmiri family. The children of the title are the 1,001 babies born in the first 24 hours of the independence of India on 15 August 1947, each with miraculous powers, the nearer the birth to midnight the greater the power - and therefore none more so that Saleem himself who arrived on the dot of midnight and has the ability to enter people's minds and connect up all the midnight children.

This is an immensely rich work, replete with historical and cultural allusions - many of which I am sure I missed - and full of connections (or, as the narrator puts it, "correspondences"). Nothing is what it seems - Saleem himself was switched at birth with a child of a different class and religion and his fantastical powers ultimately prove illusory. There is considerable scope for debate about what the novel is telling us, but I interpret it as a long lament by Rushdie for the dashed hopes of a new nation as the wonderful talents of its half a billion citizens are reduced to little more than the farce of a Bollywood movie.

Footnote: A couple of weeks after finishing the book, I went to see a Royal Shakespeare Company stage version at the Barbican Theatre in London. The dramatisation by Salman Rushdie, Simon Reade and Tim Supple does a remarkable job of compressing into just over three hours all the essential events of the lengthy novel, faithfully reflects some of its dialogue and captures much of its wry humour, but inevitably it cannot do justice to the richness of the text and the complexity of the structure of the original work.

"The Mirror And The Light" by Hilary Mantel

I owe a special debt of gratitude to award-winning author Hilary Mantel for her superb trilogy of novels providing a fictional account of the life of Thomas Cromwell, chief counsellor to England's 16th century King Henry VIII. I read the first part, the 650 page "Wolf Hall", during a trip to China; I consumed the second section, the 400 page "Bring Up The Bodies", on a holiday in Australia & New Zealand; and I devoured the third and final component, all 900 pages of "The Mirror And The Light", during the lockdown period of the 2020 coronavirus crisis.

"Wolf Hall" covered the period 1527-1534 when Henry failed to acquire a male heir with Catherine of Aragon; "Bring Up The Bodies" accounted for just a year in 1535-1536 when the King's second wife Anne Boleyn proved even less pleasing to him; while "The Mirror And The Light" has a four-year span (May 1536-July 1540) during which Henry's third wife Jane Seymour finally gives him the son he covets but at the expense of her life and fourth wife Anne of Cleves is such a royal disappointment that Cromwell finally falls from power and loses his head (the title of the last work is a description of the capricious King).

In some ways, none of the three novels is an easy read. Each has a cast list of more than 100 characters, many with the same first name and many referred to by title and nick-name as well as proper name, while Cromwell himself is frequently identified only as 'he'. But each work has a cast of characters and royal and claimants' family trees before the text. Also Mantel's writing style is elaborate and her vocabulary extensive, but she is a wonderful novelist and, for this trilogy, exhibits a formidable knowledge of the history, politics, personalities, clothing, food, traditions and beliefs of the period.

Mantel's three novels present a sympathetic portrait of Thomas Cromwell, a poor, originally uneducated, boy from Putney who rises to be Henry's VIII's Lord Privy Seal and eventually Earl of Essex, while managing the departure of England from the Church of Rome. His talent can be summarised in his advice to two colleagues: "I urge you both, undertake no course without deep thought: but learn to think very fast." But the author does not present him as an innocent, ascribing to him the thought: "My list of sins is so extensive that the recording angel has run out of tablets, and sits in the corner with his quill blunted, wailing and ripping out his curls."

Mantel's near 2,000 page trilogy is a literary tour de force. The first two segments won the Man Booker Prize, but it was too much to hope that "The Mirror And The Light" would make it a hat trick, although the work would have been a worthy winner.

"Mockingjay" by Suzanne Collins

Like "His Dark Materials" by Philip Pullman (which I have read), "The Hunger Games" is a trilogy written for young adults which has crossed over into popularity with a general readership and become a major bestseller as well as the subject of a film. By the time the first movie was released, the trilogy of books had sold some 50 million copies. Like the other trilogy, this is set in a world related to ours, but profoundly different, and features a resourceful female protagonist. Collins does not write as well as Pullman and the themes she explores are not so large, but she is an excellent storyteller and the book is a real page-turner.

This third and final part of the trilogy - published in 2010 - follows on immediately from "Catching Fire" when Katniss Everdeen was rescued from the clock arena. In the rebel base in District 13, she is persuaded by rebel leader President Alma Coin to become the symbol of the rebellion - the Mockingjay of the title. After battles in District 8 and then District 2, she is part of the assault on the Capitol itself and determined to assassinate the leader President Coriolanus Snow. So this time there are no Games as such but, in effect, the whole of Panem has become an arena with a whole range of physical and psychological threats to 17 year old Katniss. And finally she makes a choice between Gale and Peeta.

A distinguishing feature of these novels by Collins is that so many of the characters - not least Katniss herself - are deceptive and morally ambiguous. While experiencing an incredible series of incidents involving both great pain and injury and enormous mental anguish, the unconventional Katniss shows distain for all authority and exhibits distrust, dismay, sullenness, selfishness, hatred and frequent anger plus an ability and readiness to kill. The death toll in "Mockingjay" exceeds even that in "The Hunger Games" and "Catching Fire", but Collins ensures that her teenage audience does not have to dwell on the gore.

All well as Katniss herself, there are many strong female characters in the story which can be seen as feminist inspiration to young readers. The three novels are exceptionally well constructed with so much detail being used later in the narrative to embellish or propel the plot. As a television writer, Collins unsurprisingly produces incredibly visual writing so that the translation from the books to the movies - with her as principal scriptwriter - is just so right.

The trilogy as a whole runs to almost 1,400 pages, but it is so intensely readable that I found that I covered each book faster than the previous one and did not want the story to end. Thank goodness for the films ...

my review of the film click here
Wikipedia page on the Hunger Games trilogy click here
Wikipedia page on the Hunger Games universe click here

"Montana 1948" by Larry Watson

I confess that this is a novel - actually almost a novella (175 short pages) - of which I had never heard (it was published in 1993) until my friend Howard Webber, a fan of American literature, gave it to me as a 60th birthday present (I was born in 1948). Well-written and traditionally structured, it is set in 1988 and narrated by 12 year old David Hayden. whose father Wes is the sheriff of the fictional small town of Bentrock, whose uncle Frank is a war hero and local doctor, and whose housekeeper Marie Little Soldier is a Hunkpapa Sioux. What happens between these adults in a matter of just a few days will act as a child's hard lesson in the relationship between loyalty and justice and serve as metaphor for America's taming of the West.

"Moonstone" by Sjón

This novella - it runs to a mere 100 pages of actual text - is the product of Icelandic writer Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson (Sjón is his pen name). The setting (the Icelandic capital Reykjavík) and the period (October-December 1918) are unusual and the central character - 16 year old Máni Steinn or the titular Moonstone (an Anglicised version of his name) - has some unconventional habits. Sjón tells three interwoven stories: a young man's discovery of self, the devastation of so-called Spanish flu on a community, and the impact of the early years of cinema. It is not a tale that will be to everyone's taste and, if I'm honest, it wasn't really to mine, but the novel has won prizes and was recommended to me by very close friends.

"The Motion Of The Body Through Space" by Lionel Shriver

Lionel Shriver is actually a female American novelist who, as a tomboy aged 15, informally changed her name from Margaret Ann to Lionel. She is best known for her eighth novel "We Need To Talk About Kevin" but the only previous novel of hers that I've read is "The Post-Birthday World" (which was I was given). "..Motion.." is her 16th novel and again I only read the work because I was given it (by the same person).

The point of view is that of Serenata Terpsichore, a 60 year old American voiceover artist, who is married to Remington Alabaster, a transport planner, who is four years her senior. Their children are called Valeria (a born-again Christian) and Deacon (a drug dealer). There is a personal trainer called Bambi Buffer. My first problem with the book was getting over these weird names.

Serenata has been a lifelong serious exerciser who now has to give up her regimes because of osteoarthritis but, following the loss of his job, Remington - who has previously done no exercise - decides that he is going to run a marathon which is just the start of a series of outlandish physical endeavours. The novel is partially autobiographical because Shriver herself is in her 60s and follows an obsessive exercise regime and she seems to have the self-contained, somewhat anti-social, even selfish, character of her protagonist.

"..Motion.." has three themes: the adjustments that a married couple has to make as they grow older; the futility and indeed damage of extreme exercise; and the excesses of what Shriver would consider political correctness (although she never uses this term).

As a man of a certain age who has never really exercised beyond daily walks, I warm to the first two themes but, as a political liberal, I found the third theme deeply problematic. There is a section of almost 20 pages chronicling Remington's disciplinary hearing that cynically misrepresents efforts to increase diversity in the workplace. It does not add to the narrative but simply betrays the author's publicly-expressed illiberal views.

In an Afterword, she writes The very best thing about getting old was basking in this great big not-giving-a-shit" and records that "Serenata was not obliged to give a flying fig about climate change, species extinction, or nuclear proliferation". In fact, although I too am getting old, I do very much give a shit and a flying fig about these and many other issues.

Having said all this, Shriver is a fine writer with a sharp sense of wit and much of the novel is a pleasure to read if rather over-burdened with the detail of running and cycling and swimming and all three in the same event. I guess than eventually I concur with a review in the "Guardian" newspaper: "Certainly it's problematic - but few authors can be as entertainingly problematic as Shriver".

"Mrs Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf

I was moved to read this novel by seeing the film "The Hours" which is based on a modern book which in turn was inspired by this 1925 novel. I have never previously read a word by Virginia Woolf and now I know why.

The work - an account of one June 1923 day in the life of an upper middle class woman in London preparing for an evening party - is meandering and mournful. Clarissa Dalloway may be "the perfect hostess", but "half the time she did things not simply, not for themselves; but to make people think this and that". She thinks of herself as "nothing at all" and a man she almost married believes that "there was always something cold in Clarissa". One of the characters in the novel jumps out of a window and I was almost tempted to follow him.

"Munich" by Robert Harris

This is the latest and twelfth historical novel from this acclaimed master storyteller and the sixth that I have enjoyed. Whereas the first, "Fatherland", presented a counterfactual view of the end of the Second World War - Germany and Britain sign a peace treaty and Hitler lives to be 75 - "Munich" is an essentially factual account of the negotiation of the Munich Agreement which 'postponed' the outbreak of that war by a year.

The story occupies a mere four days in September 1938 and it is told from the points of view of two fictional characters: Hugh Legat, a member of the British Diplomatic Service, and Paul von Hartmann, an official in the German Foreign Ministry, who studied together at Oxford University in 1930-1933 but have not been in contact between then and the negotiations at Munich. For just over half the novel, the chapters oscillate between Legat and Hartmann, between London and Berlin. As the pace of events accelerates and the tension rises, each chapter flips regularly between the two officials as they interact with the negotiators of Munich.

At the heart of the narrative is the notion that maybe something could have persuaded British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain not to sign an agreement which savagely dismembered democratic Czechoslovakia that was not even represented at the negotiations. Even though we know how things will work out, Harris creates a wonderful sense of time and place and tells a compelling story.

In fact, the seeds of the Munich Agreement were set over many years before the conference and Chamberlain had given up on the major issues long before flying to the German city. While Harris's work is very well-researched, I feel that it is overly sympathetic to Chamberlain and rather harsh on French Prime Minister Daladier. While Chamberlain was no doubt well-intentioned and certainly energetic in seeking peace, in the years running up to the conference he and his government were guilty of much duplicity and deceit, not least to our French allies who had far more at stake.

Note: Although Legat and Hartmann are fictional, Harris has confirmed that they are partially inspired by the scholar A L Rowse and the diplomat Adam von Trott zu Solz. The vital document in the novel is based on the Hossbach Protocol - named after Hitler's military adjutant, Colonel Friedrich Hossbach - which was a secret decree from the Führer to his generals for the creation of the Lebensraum (Vital Space) of Germany.

"My Brilliant Friend" by Elena Ferrante

This is Book One - the shortest - in the English translation of the four 'Neapolitan Novels' written by the pseudonymous Italian novelist whose true identity is not publicly known but believed to be Anita Raja. The 330 pages are structured into a mere two chapters - titled Childhood and Adolescence - but the text is broken up into 80 numbered sections which, together with the excellent writing, makes it an easy read. Before the narrative, there is a helpful list of over 40 characters who will be making appearances, but essentially this is the story of two girls: the narrator Elena Greco, known as Lenu, whose father is a porter and Raffaella Cerullo, known as Lila, whose father is a shoemaker. The setting is a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples where conversation is in dialect. My mother was born in Naples and lived there from 1920-1946, while I visited the city twice as a child, so I felt a special attraction to Ferrante's material.

The two girls meet at school in first grade and establish a special bond, even though they have different characters and pursue different lives and the period covered runs from the birth of the girls in 1944 to the marriage of Lila, aged just 16, in 1960. So which is the 'brilliant friend' of the title? For almost the whole novel, it would seem to be Lila: after all, Lenu is the narrator and many of her observations of Lila suggest a sense of inferiority: "I was second in everything", "I believed everything she told me", "I was used to feeling second in everything" and "there was no contest, Lila seemed inaccessible, a dazzling figurine against the light". And yet, it is Lenu rather than Lila who stays on at school and passes her examinations and, in the very last pages of the book, Lila tells Lenu: "you're my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls". Several references to experiences by Lila which she characterises as "dissolving margins", when the perception of her surroundings appears to melt away, hint at inner turmoil.

Ferrante describes with quiet power a world of grinding poverty, casual violence, narrow insularity, suffocating tradition, and behind it all - so far only mentioned casually - the corruption of the Camorra. In such a neighbourhood, the short-term aspiration of most boys and girls is to find a girlfriend or boyfriend and the inevitable lifestyle is one of early marriage, lots of children, and continued poverty. But not in Lenu's case; for her, education is a liberation ...

"Never Let Me Go" by Kazuo Ishiguru

This is the sixth novel from Japanese-born British writer Ishiguru - whose most famous work is "Remains Of The Day" - and it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2005 and made into a film in 2010. Plot-wise it is a slow-burning work with matters coming to a head only after many years and style-wise it is understated with simple language conveying complex emotions. The opaque storyline explains that, in relation to what was revealed to the children by the guardians, they were "told and not told" and the same could be said of what is revealed to the reader by the novelist for much of the deeply moving narrative.

In two different respects, this is a novel of three parts. First, we have a five-year childhood period at an odd and isolated school called Hailsham where we meet Madame and learn about the Gallery; then we have a young adult section of two years at a converted farmhouse called the Cottages featuring the veterans, possibles and deferrals; and finally, over an interval of 11 years, we enter the world of the carers, the donors, and completion. Three characters are involved: the narrator Kathy, a natural and thoughtful observer, her best friend Ruth, a more extrovert but insecure leader, and Tommy, initially angry and uncreative and for varying reasons attractive to both girls.

"Normal People" by Sally Rooney

I recently read "Ordinary People" by Diana Evans and now I have consumed "Normal People", which was long-listed for the Booker Prize, the second novel by Irish writer Sally Rooney. Of course, in a sense, nobody is ordinary or normal, but both these works deal with people who are living quotidian lives with which one can easily relate.

Rooney's beautifully written work tells the story of two young people from the West coast of Ireland who, over a narrative spanning four years, repeatedly become friends or lovers. Marianne is middle class and a loner with low self-esteem, while Connell is working class and has better social skills, but each is clever and goes to university and their repeated interactions lead to the conclusion of the penultimate sentence that: "People can really change one another".

"Northern Lights" by Philip Pullman

First published in 1995, "Northern Lights" (or "The Golden Compass" as it is called in the USA) is the first part of the "His Dark Materials" trilogy and runs to almost 400 pages. This opening volume is "set in a universe like ours, but different in many ways". It is a well-written, cleverly plotted and utterly compelling narrative which is enormously inventive in both characters and themes. The story may have been written for children, but the multi-layered nature of the work makes it fascinating for adults too.

From the opening four words ("Lyra and her dæmon .."), we know that this is a very different novel. Lyra Belacqua is the 12 year old heroine at the heart of the story, a curious and spirited youngster with some special powers. Like all humans in this universe, she has a dæmon (hers is called Pantalaimon), an animal that is never parted from her and can change shape constantly until she reaches puberty when it will assume its permanent form.

The work is populated with many other fascinating characters: gyptians like John Faa, witches like Serafina Pekkala, armoured bears like Iorek Brynison, and Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter who have close, but changing relationships, with Lyra. Besides the idea of dæmons (a mixture of mortal soul, animalised personality and guardian angel), there is the alethiometer, which can answer any question in the hands of a skilled enquirer (like Lyra), and dust, the full meaning of which awaits the further novels in the trilogy ...

Link: Philip Pullman's site click here

"Nutshell" by Ian McEwan

"Nutshell" (2016) is McEwan's latest and 14th novel in a distinguished writing career and it is the sixth that I have read ("Atonement" was the most impressive). The word of the title never appears in the text but only in a preliminary quote from Shakespeare's "Hamlet" which makes it clear that this story is a kind of reworking of that of the Prince of Denmark. While Hamlet's mother was called Gertrude and his uncle was Claudius, the narrator of "Nutshell" has a mother called Trudy and an uncle Claude, so the allusions are obvious.

The big difference between Hamlet and this narrator is that the latter is a male foetus in third trimester. This might seem rather limiting for the point of view of a novel, but Ewan enables his unborn child to hear everything his mother hears including a lot of radio and an extensive range of podcasts. Now this is a device I have myself used for a short story, but McEwan takes the notion much further by enabling his foetus not only to understand and remember all he hears but to talk about it with literary style and vocabulary that would exceed the talents of a university graduate in any subject except English Literature (phrases like "his banality as finely wrought as the arabesques of the Blue Mosque" and "a poem of four stanzas of trochaic tetrameters catalectic" and words such as "aubade" and exequy"). Most notably, the author shows off his erudition regarding wine and poetry.

If one can forgive McEwan this literary conceit and accept the limited confines of the narrator (always in the womb of a mother who is always in a £ 8M north London house), this is a beautifully-written and entertaining read with not just the outline of a crime but expositions on the state of the modern world. The narrator may inhabit a "nutshell' but,as Shakespeare would put it, he is "king of infinite space".

Link: my own short story using the same kind of narrator click here

"NW" by Zadie Smith

"NW" (2012) is the fourth novel by the mixed race British writer Zadie Smith and we have waited seven years for it. I have read her first "White Teeth" (2000) and third "On Beauty" (2005) - enjoying her debut work much more than her third effort - but have never been tempted by the second "The Autograph Man" (2002). "NW", like "White Teeth", is set in the north-west London borough of Brent where Smith grew up and I have lived for the last 30 years - specifically Kilburn which has the postal code NW6.

The novel tells the interrelated stories of four characters who grew up on the same (fictional) housing estate of Caldwell and, by the end of the narrative, are all in their early/mid 30s.

The first section is about Leah Hanwell: white of Irish Protestant descent and married to Michel, a Frenchman of Algerian descent. She succeeds in obtaining a philosophy degree, yet is utterly naive when it comes to being scammed by a local woman knocking on the door for help. For reasons which are never explained, she continually aborts the children that her husband craves. Her best friend is Natalie Blake who once saved her life.

The second section is someone of Jamaican decent. Former drug addict Felix Cooper has found love with half Jamaican/half Nigerian Grace who is a decade younger, but he has two children from a former relationship and wants closure with former, free-spirited lover Annie. He is the only protagonist whose story has a clear ending but it not one anyone would wish.

The third section is the life of Caribbean-descent Natalie Blake who was called Keisha as a child. Her life seems to be the most successful: she manages to obtain a law degree and become an accomplished lawyer, marries the beautiful half Italian/half Trinidadian Frank, and has two children. But she spends too much time in dark corners of the Internet which is ultimately her undoing. In some respects, her voice seems to be closest to Zadie Smith herself, although this is not an autobiographical character.

Fourth and finally, we have the black Nathan Bogle, although this section is the briefest and as much about Natalie as Nathan. In the final line of text, the last connection between characters is made.

"NW" is an ambitious and experimental novel. The point of view and the person of speech keeps changing; at times, the author dispenses with the use of inverted commas in speech; sometimes the text has non-linear layout; and there are cultural allusions - for instance to singers and television programmes - that are deliberately not spelt out. In a sense, nothing much happens. The characters are more multi-ethnic than the usual British novel and live their urban lives with more deprivation and drug-taking than most readers will have experienced, but there are no big events or large thoughts.

So this is not a work that all readers will enjoy but I admired it. Smith is an acute observer of the human condition. knows these types of character so well, and captures the different ethnic styles of speech so cleverly.

"Of Mice And Men" by John Steinbeck

This novella was first published in 1937 and Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, but it was not until 2017 that I actually read it as a result of my niece studying the work at school. The title is taken from Robert Burns' poem "To A Mouse": "The best laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry." It also alludes to one of the character's love of soft, furry things - something so innocent but with such consequences.

It is a story of two migrant field workers in California during the Great Depression: George Milton, a caring and intelligent if uneducated man, and Lennie Small, his mentally challenged but physically very strong companion. On the one hand, George often tells Lennie that he is "a crazy bastard" but, on the other hand, he inists to a fellow farm hand "He's dumb as hell, but he ain't crazy". These are poor men with a rich dream that seems impossible at the beginning, but then appears to be within tantalising reach, before tragedy and death intervene. A profoundly moving tale.

"An Officer And A Spy" by Robert Harris

Harris is one of Britain's bestselling thriller writers and this is his ninth novel. I read his first four - "Fatherland", "Enigma", "Archangel" and "Pompeii" - but then left him alone. The reviews for "An Officer And A Spy" were so favourable that I returned to the fold and I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the work.

Harris usually sets his stories in a specific historical period and Ancient Rome and the Second World War are his favourited epocs. This time, he has chosen late 19th century/early 20th century France to tell in fiction form the true infamous story of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army officer who was wrongly convicted of treason in 1894 and only finally exonerated in 1906 - what Harris calls in an Author's Note "perhaps the greatest political scandal and miscarriage of justice in history".

The novel is written in the present tense through the first person perspective of Colonel Georges Picquart, the chief of the army's Statistical Section who played a major part in the exposure of the scandal. It is a lengthy narrative of just over 600 pages, but it covers 12 years (Harris concentrates on the first five) with a host of characters (Harris has a list of almost 50 'dramatis personae' at the beginning). Yet it is a compelling read because Harris is a master storyteller.

It is such a fantastical tale that, if one did not know that it was history, one would find it literally incredible. But the author assures the reader: "None of the characters in the pages that follow, not even the most minor, is wholly fictional, and almost all of what occurs, at least in some form, actually happened in real life." Much of the milieu of the story is the byzantine universe of military intelligence and Picquart refers to "the cabalistic world of 'secret intelligence': two words that can make otherwise sane men abandon their reason and cavort like idiots".

Robert Harris was inspired to write this novel by the longtime interest in the Dreyfus affair of his close friend French film director Roman Polanski. The two men collaborated together to produce the film "The Ghost Writer" and now Harris has written a screenplay based on the Dreyfus novel which Polanski is set to direct. There are many dramatic courtroom encounters in the story which should make for powerful cinema.

Link: Wikipedia page on the Dreyfus affair click here

"On Beauty" by Zadie Smith

I really enjoyed Smith's first novel "White Teeth", although I decided not to bother with her second offering "The Autograph Man". This third novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Orange Prize for Fiction, but I've clearly missed the plot because it failed to move me. In fact, the problem is that there really is no plot; like so many contemporary novels, so little actually happens.

It is very well written and displays some erudition (especially on the art of Rembrandt) and Smith has an acute sense of observation and a fine ear for dialogue and dialect. But I simply failed to see the point of the work.

For Smith, "On Beauty" is an homage to E M Forster's "Howard's End" - a work I have not read (although I have seen the film). The story is up-dated to the present day, reset to the USA, and features a largely black cast, especially the members of two families led by distinguished academics: the Kippses who are right-wing Christians and the Belseys who are secular liberals. After 443 pages of exposition, I wouldn't particularly want to meet any of them, although the two mothers are decent folk.

"On Chesil Beach" by Ian McEwan

This is McEwan's 10th novel - actually it is more a novella with little over than 150 pages of text - and the fourth that I have read. All the action - although the word is something of a misnomer here - takes place in a single night, except for extensive scene-setting over the previous year and some final pages that flash through 40 years. It is the honeymoon night of Edward and Florence in July 1962, both new graduates, both 22, both virgins, he anxious about climaxing too soon, her facing the whole ordeal with "a visceral dread".

McEwan is a fine, expressive writer who captures the misunderstandings between the young couple and expresses the nervousness of the new husband and the repression of his new bride in aching terms. As he puts it so sparsely "Between Edward and Florence, nothing happened quickly", concluding the simple but tragic story with the observation that "This is how the entire course of a life can be changed - by doing nothing".

"Once Upon A Time In The North" by Philip Pullman

Following "Lyra's Oxford" (2003), this is the second novella spin-off (2008) from the world of "His Dark Materials". It is set 35 years before Pullman's original trilogy and narrates in just about 100 pages - including a few pictures and documents - the first meeting of two of the most beloved characters of those books: the Texan balloonist Lee Scoresby and the armoured bear Iorek Byrnison. We also learn how Scoresby acquired the Winchester rifle which was in his hands when he died in "The Subtle Knife". All exciting stuff for fans of the world of "His Dark Materials"

Link: Philip Pullman's site click here

"One Day" by David Nicholls

This is a humorous tale of modern romance and, since the genre is so plentiful, sometimes authors attempt a structural device to introduce some originality. In the case of "Come Together" by Josie Lloyd & Emlyn Rees, alternate chapters are written from the male and female point of view by the respective authors. In the case of "One Day", David Nicholls has chosen to devote successive chapters to the same day of the year (15 July) for a period of 20 years (1988-2007). The weakness of the device for a novel is that it makes the narrative inescapably episodic, but the great strength is that it enables the story to cover a lot of ground and evoke a sense of different periods.

The focus is resolutely on the two principals so that that the reader comes to know them like friends: Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew, aged 22 and 23 respectively when we first meet them the day after graduation in Edinburgh when they have just enjoyed their first sex. The self-deprecating, working-class Northerner with her First in English & History and the brash, middle-class Southerner who only manages a 2:2 in Anthropology are very different but very attracted to each other on the eve of lives that will go in very different directions but with regular contact of variegated nature. The work is immensely readable so that the 435 pages flash by and, in the last 50 pages, the structure and tone alter in a manner which leaves the reader genuinely moved.

Nicholls trained as an actor and writes for television and film as well as being a novelist. "One Day" would make a wonderful film where the episodic structure would work brilliantly.

Link: my review of the film click here

"One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich" by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn was arrested in an East Prussian village in early 1945 and charged with making derogatory remarks about Stalin. For the next eight years, he was in labour camps, at first in 'general' labour camps along with common criminals in the Arctic and later in Beria's 'special' camps for long term prisoners. In this novel, first published in in 1962, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov - prisoner S 854 in the 104th work team - was sentenced to high treason in 1943 and has now served eight years in 'general' and 'special' camps. It does not get more autobiographical than this.

Solzhenitsyn - who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970 - wrote a short novel (only 143 pages in my translation by Ralph Parker) without any chapters or divisions (like his sentence) describing a single January day in 1951 when the temperature is 'officially' minus 27.5C, all the way from the freezing reveille at 5 am through to work at a bleak building site to sleep around 10 pm. It is a compelling read that chills the soul as well as the body. Yet Shukhov regards it as "almost a happy day" and the last paragraph notes that it was just one of his 3,653 such days.

Link: Wikipedia page click here

"One Hundred Years Of Solitude" by Gabriel García Márquez

Márquez was born in Colombia in 1927 and died in 2014. This work - perhaps his most famous - was published in 1967 and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. I finally read the work after visiting Colombia and reading his later novel "Love In The Time Of Cholera".

It is not that easy a read and I know friends who have started it but not finished it. It is over 400 pages of long chapters with no titles and long paragraphs that often cover several pages. Also it is a densely-plotted novel with minimal dialogue and a good many characters, many of whom have the same or similar names. But it is beautifully written with captivating imagery and deploys the magic realism style favoured by a number of Latin American authors.

As the title suggests, the timescale is an unusually long one. In fact, it is the story of the men and women - all of them unconventional if not actually mad - in seven generations of the Buendía family in the fictional town of Macondo in an unnamed South America country that is clearly the author's own Colombia.

Márquez is a master storyteller with tale after tale. In this strange world, we have one character who fights 32 civil wars, while another lives for a century and a half, and many retreat into worlds closed by space or silence. The town suffers from insomnia sickness and then has five years of constant rain followed by 10 years of no rain. There are flying carpets, lots of ghosts, and obsessive efforts to translate mysterious manuscripts. There is a lot of solitude and plenty of sex and many deaths - and ultimately nothing at all.

"Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit" by Jeanette Winterson

In 1985, "Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit" was Winterson's acclaimed and award-winning first novel written at the age of 24 and widely assumed to be semi-autobiographical. In 2011, "Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?" was published: a (partial) memoir written by Winterson in a semi-novelistic style. It is no surprise therefore that the second work is described by the author as the first's "silent twin". The trouble is that I read them in the 'wrong' order, although I doubt that Winterson herself would mind because she herself is not keen on linear narratives.

"Oranges ..." is written in the first person about a teenage girl called Jeanette growing up in an unnamed Northern English town with adoptive parents who are fiercely evangelical and tells how she discovers her sexuality through two lesbian relationships. "Why Be Happy ..." describes Winterson's upbringing in Accrington with adoptive parents who were strict Pentecostal evangelical Christians and narrates her growing confidence as a lesbian. So it is tempting to see these two works as two versions of the same story.

In a 1991 Introduction to the novel, Winterson writes: "Is Oranges an autobiographical novel? No not at all and yes of course." More recently, on her web site, she insists: "Is it autobiographical? Yes and no. All writers draw on their experience but experience isn't what makes a good book. As the stand-up comics say, 'It's the way you tell 'em'. Oranges is written in the first person, it's direct and uninhibited, but it isn't autobiography in the real sense. I have noticed that when women writers put themselves into their fiction, it's called autobiography. When men do it, such as Paul Auster or Milan Kundera it's called meta-fiction."

Winterson is a fine writer with a wry sense of humour and a sharp use of words. Who else would write: "If there's such a thing as spiritual adultery, my mother was a whore."? Much of the novel adopts a deceptively simple style but, towards the end, there are growing references to an Arthurian fable about a quest for the Holy Grail that is clearly intended to parallel the author's own search for her sexual identity. The title of the book - a quote from Nell Gwynn - presages repeated references (a total of eight) to oranges as a fruit but one can infer that this is also a metaphor for conventional heterosexuality.

"Ordinary People" by Diana Evans

In the United States in 1976, there was the publication of a novel called "Ordinary People" by Judith Guest which four years later was made into a film of the same title that won four Academy Awards. I saw the film before then reading the book. In Britain in 2018, there was the publication of another novel called "Ordinary People" but this time the author is Diana Evans and the locale and characters are very different and the title borrows from a 2005 track by the singer John Legend.

The first novel involved an affluent white American family dealing with two traumatic events. The more recent novel revolves around two black British families facing the more 'ordinary' challenges of relationships and childrearing. Both novels are set over a year and, in the later case, the chronology is bookended by the election of Barack Obama and the death of Michael Jackson in 2008/09.

Melissa and Michael have been together 13 years, have two children, and live in the Bell Green part of south London. Damian and Stephanie are married with three children and live on the outskirts of Dorking. Both couples are in their late 30s. The issues that they face might seem quotidian but Evans has a wonderful writing style that makes this an enjoyable read even if there is no easy resolution on offer.

Evans is the daughter of a Nigerian mother and an English father and grew up in Neasden, north-west London. Her knowledge of the capital imbues the narrative as she writes of "one of those Londoners who perceived the south as another state" and comments that "London does not know what to do with snow", while she captures well the struggles of modern urban life - especially for a woman - as she refers to "the strangulating domesticity" of a relationship and opines that "motherhood is an obliteration of the self".

"Orlando" by Virginia Woolf

Having seen the 1992 film version with Tilda Swinton in the titular role and the 2022 theatre adaptation starring Emma Corrin, I thought that I would tackle the original 1928 novel. The eponymous hero is a male noble man and poet in the early 17th century who lives a until the time of Woolf, about half way through this period of more than three centuries changing gender from a man to a woman, along the way meeting a succession of poets, writers and critics.

I confess that I did not find it an easy read. There is minimal plot, only six (untitled chapters), and lots of long sentences and really long paragraphs (the lengthiest paragraph is almost three pages). The writing is impressive but the language is flowery, even flamboyant. The novel is inspired by, and dedicated to, Woolf's lover Vita Sackville-West and there are multitudinous references to literary characters and works plus Sackville-West's life and family. The Penguin Classics version of the book that I read had over 30 pages of notes.

The work is presented as a biography, complete with eight photographs, but the elongation of a lifetime and the gender transformation of this life make it a most unusual and unreliable biography. The whole work is a satire and there are some humorous characterisations. However, Orlando has two periods when he falls asleep for a week and has "his moods of melancholy", while Woolf herself was subject to breakdowns throughout her life and eventually drowned herself in the River Ouse. I know that the novel is a classic, but there were times when I almost fell asleep or contemplated throwing myself in the River Thames.

"Ox-Tales: Air" by 9 authors

This is one of four original collections of short stories by British- and Irish-based authors, each of which is very losely based around one element highlighting a key area of Oxfam's work. Here air represents Oxfam's action on climate change. The nine stories are by Alexander McCall Smith ("The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series), Helen Simpson, DBC Pierre ("Vernon God Little"), AL Kennedy, Kamila Shamsie, Beryl Bainbridge, Louise Welsh, Diran Adebayo and Helen Fielding ("Bridget Jones's Diary"). The one I enjoyed most was "Goodnight Children, Everywhere" by Bainbridge, a tale which manages to turn an ancient radio into a thing of mystery.

"Ox-Tales: Earth" by 9 authors

This is one of four original collections of short stories by British- and Irish-based authors, each of which is very losely based around one element highlighting a key area of Oxfam's work. Here earth represents Oxfam's action on agricultural development. The nine stories are by Rose Tremain, Jonathan Coe, Marti Leimbach, Kate Atkinson ("Behind The Scenes At The Museum"), Ian Rankin (the Rebus novels), Marina Lewycka ("A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian"), Hanif Kureishi, Jonathan Buckley and Nicholas Shakespeare. Especially impressive is a longer than average work by Shakespeare which cleverly tells the tale of two female assassins: one at the time of the French revolution and the other hailing from contemporary Africa.

"Ox-Tales: Fire" by 10 authors

This is one of four original collections of short stories by British- and Irish-based authors, each of which is very losely based around one element highlighting a key area of Oxfam's work. Here fire represents Oxfam's aid for conflict areas. The ten stories are by Mark Haddon ("The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time"), Geoff Dyer, Victoria Hislop, Sebastian Faulks ("Birdsong"), John le Carré ("The Spy Who Came In From The Cold"), Xiaolu Guo, William Sutcliffe, Ali Smith, Lionel Shriver and Jeanette Winterson. "The Island" by Haddon is particularly imaginative and moving.

"Ox-Tales: Water" by 9 authors

This is one of four original collections of short stories by British- and Irish-based authors, each of which is very loosely based around one element highlighting a key area of Oxfam's work. Here water represents Oxfam's action on water projects. The nine stories are by Esther Freud, David Park, Hari Kunzru, Zoë Heller ("Notes On A Scandel"), William Boyd, Michel Faber, Joanna Trollope ("Other People's Children"), Giles Foden ("The Last King Of Scotland") and Michael Morpurgo. "Crossing The River" by Park is a haunting tale narrated by the boatman who meets the dead.

"The Plot Against America" by Philip Roth

This work of fiction essentially poses two questions: could America become fascist? if it did, would it do so through a popular non-politician becoming president with the secret manipulation of a foreign power? When this novel was first published in 2004, these questions must have seemed fantastical. When I eventually read the work after a four-year term in the White House by Donald Trump, these questions seemed not merely very much less theoretical but almost prophetic.

The narrative is located in the period June 1940 to October 1942 in a Jewish suburb of Newark in New Jersey and the viewpoint is that of Philip Roth himself as a child of between seven and nine. The central proposition of this counterfactual history is that in November 1940 Franklin D Roosevelt failed to secure a third term when he was roundly defeated by Charles A Lindbergh, the famous aviator and noted Nazi sympathiser. Almost all the characters mentioned in the 360-page story were real-life individuals and, extraordinarily for a work of fiction, the novel concludes with 28 pages of historic notes consisting mainly of pen portraits of 39 personages.

At one point, the narrator's father states of Lindberg supporters: "They live in a dream and we live in a nightmare". At another point, FDR is made to refer to "a plot being hatched by anti-democratic forces here at home harboring a Quisling blueprint for a fascist America or by foreign nations greedy for power and supremacy". Roth - who died during Trump's occupation of the White House - could have been writing about Trump's fanatical supporters and Putin's nefarious interference.

Roth's focus is very much on one Jewish family - ostensibly his family - but his sweep of characters and events is considerable. In spite of repeated use of very long (but perfectly formed) sentences, this is an easy - if unsettling - read, although the ending does seem rather sudden and somewhat contrived.

"The Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver

First published in 1998, this is a novel of which I had never heard and which I would probably have never read had it not been for an American woman blogger whom I have never met (we are simply e-mail buddies) who both recommended the book and sent me a copy (many thanks to Dana Huff). I am a slow and deliberate reader and this is a work of 543 pages but, at the end, I didn't want it to finish.

The story begins in 1959 when a family of six leave Georgia, USA to travel to the village of Kilanga in the Belgian colony of the Congo. The head of the family Nathan Price is a southern Baptist missionary with firm and fixed views on what Christianity and the Bible can give to the natives, but the tale is told through five separate female voices: Nathan's wife Oleanna who 'speaks' rarely and in retrospect; Rachel (15), the most reluctant to be there and a mangler of words; the 'strong' twin Leah (14), originally devoted to her father and his mission; the other twin Adah who suffers from hemiplegia (paralysis of half of the body) and has a fascination for words, especially palindromes; and Ruth May (5), young and wilful.

Kingsolver uses these different voices to present a variety of reactions to the encounter with the social, religious and political dimensions of post-colonial Africa. Each is changed and damaged by the experience, one becoming paralysed by it, one trying to disconnect from it, one becoming energised and politicised by it, and the others being destroyed by it. The British - and indeed other western European nations - have long experience of practising and reflecting on the motives and the outcomes of their colonial history, but Americans do not think of themselves as colonisers and appreciate little of their country's secretive political interference in Africa (and many other places), so "The Poisonwood Bible" will open some eyes and (hopefully) minds.

The first 400 pages of this illuminating story cover 17 months in Kilanga during which the Congo acquires its independence under Patrice Lumumba, while the remaining 140 pages move more quickly through the next 35 years, bringing us to the mid 1990s. Along the way, there is much hardship (both physical and mental), several marriages, several births, and many deaths (two of them in the Price family) in "this cradle of rewarded evils and murdered goodness" where "everything you thought you knew means something different in Africa".

Kingsolver's writing is of the highest order, she is a wordsmith of great skill, and the narrative is quite simply compelling, so that this is a novel destined to become a literary classic. The author spent a brief portion of her childhood, as a seven-year old in 1963, in a small village in central Congo, but the rest of the rich texture of this work draws on a massive amount of research and empathy. In the United States, "The Poisonwood Bible" was finalist for the Pulitzer and PEN/Faulkner awards and was an Oprah's Book Club selection, while in South Africa it won the National Book Prize.

"Pompeii" by Robert Harris

This is the author's fourth best-selling novel and I have read and enjoyed them all. The earlier ones were "Fatherland" (1992), "Enigma" (1995) and "Archangel" (1998). Like all the others, "Pompeii" has a single-word title and uses actual historical events in a well-researched and carefully-characterised plot. However, whereas the first three novels took events from the 20th century, this time Harris has gone right back to AD 79 when the volcano Vesuvius exploded with unprecedented and deadly force. In fact, we are 300 pages into a 400-page narrative before the volcano rips, so most of the novel is setting up the four main characters: the honest and talented 27 year old aquarius Attilius, the elderly soldier, philosopher and scientist Pliny, the unscrupulous former slave Ampliatus, and his spirited 18 year old daughter Corelia. Sadly the whole thing is rather formulaic so that who lives and who dies is no surprise, although it is portrayed with some style.

"The Post-Birthday World" by Lionel Shriver

Lionel Shriver is actually a female American novelist who, as a tomboy aged 15, informally changed her name from Margaret Ann to Lionel. She is best known for her eighth novel "We Need To Talk About Kevin" and "The Post-Birthday World" (2007) is her follow-up work but the first that I have read (my sister bought it for me). It is quite a long novel - almost 500 pages of small type in my paperback edition - but it is an easy and enjoyable read because Shriver is a fine writer, even if given to some flamboyancy of style, and there are essentially only three characters: American illustrator Irina McGovern, her American policy wonk partner Lawrence Trainer, and their British snooker champion friend Ramsey Acton.

"The Post-Birthday World" has an unusual structure. At the end of the first chapter, while Lawrence is on a business trip to Sarajevo, Irina has a dinner with Ramsey to celebrate his birthday and now stands at "the most consequential crossroads of her life". Does she kiss Ramsey and go in one direction or does she show restraint and travel another path? In fact, Shriver enables us to follow both trajectories as, after that scene-setting opening chapter, we have pairs of chapters traversing parallel lives (like the 1998 film "Sliding Doors") over a five-year period (1997-2002). It is artfully done, although rather contrived with one story essentially being the mirror opposite of the other in very detailed particulars. No children are involved which makes the choice facing Irina more open than might otherwise be the case. Inevitably sex is involved and, as a female writer, Shriver has a different take on this with one whole page devoted to the mystery that is the clitoris.

In an author's interview included in my edition of the novel, Shriver describes her novel as "participatory fiction" and asks: "Fully informed of the consequences, you're Irina at the end of that first chapter. Do you kiss the guy or not?" So do you go for "Lawrence's discipline, intellect and self-control" or for "Ramsey's eroticism, spontaneity, and abandon". Irina describes the former as "a fine man" and the latter as "a lovely man". Mr Reliable versus Mr Exciting. Perhaps the characterisations rather verge on caricatures for the sake of clarity, but I know which kind of man I am and I know which kind of woman I have chosen. Many women and most men (I would venture) beyond a certain age will have faced something like this choice and find the novel very telling in its description and dilemma.

So what is the lesson that Shriver wants us to take from the novel? In one of the parallel narratives, Irina writes a children's storybook in which the same character has two life stories and, when Ramsey asks her what it means, she explains: "The idea is that you don't have only one destiny ... whichever direction you go, there are going to be upsides and downsides ... There are varying advantages and disadvantages to each competing future".

It is not difficult - and indeed inevitable - to see "The Post-Birthday World" as having autobiographical features. The protagonist Irina is the daughter of Russian immigrants in New York and Shriver studied Russian in the city and uses the language in the novel. Lawrence is a think tank expert on the Northern Ireland conflict and the author lived in Belfast for 12 years. All three main characters live in London where Shriver is now resident. In one scenario, Irina abandons a long-term partner and marries someone who makes a living with his hands as a snooker player and Shriver gave up a partner of many years and married a jazz drummer. But the novel presents two storylines. In a short biography in my edition of the novel, the writer states: "I'm a sucker for ambivalence".

"Prague" by Arthur Phillips

My dear American friend Suzan Cole sent me this novel because she knows how much I love the Czech capital and, in the United States, this has been a national bestseller. It looks promising: after all, it is titled "Prague" and the cover is a picture of the Charles Bridge. I knew, from the promotional text, that much of the material would be about the experience of five young Americans in post-Communist Budapest, but I never expected that the 'action' would only shift to Prague in the final paragraph of 367 pages of small text. In an interview at the end of the book, Phillips states; "The novel is named not for a city, but for an emotional disorder". So, now I know...

"Prague" is set overwhelmingly in Budapest, largely in the twelve months beginning in May 1990. In fact, I spent a week in the city in August 1991, so the locations and colour of the work were of some personal interest to me and I particularly enjoyed the 75-page historical 'diversion' that makes up the second of the four sections of the novel. However, none of the five American characters is appealing and, given that Phillips says he was "hopelessly in love" with Budapest, the whole tone is melancholic, even depressing. But "Prague" is brilliantly written and Phillips displays - in his first novel - an electic range of knowledge and a virtuoso style of writing.

"Prague Fatale" by Philip Kerr

Kerr - who died in March 2018 - was a writer of both adult fiction and non-fiction who is known for the Bernie Gunther series of historical thrillers set in Germany and elsewhere during the 1930s, the Second World War and the Cold War. "Prague Fatale" is the eighth novel in the Gunther series and the 14th will be published posthumously next year (2019).

I don't normally read thrillers but someone bought me this one as a birthday present, presumably because of my interest in all things Czech for family reasons. The action takes place in the Autumn of 1941 and is located, partly in Berlin and mainly in Prague. The narrator is Bernhard Gunther, a 43 year old widower who is an officer in the SD, the intelligence wing of the SS, in Nazi Germany. In classic Agatha Christie style, he is summoned to a stately home on the outskirts of the Czech capital to investigate a strange murder for which there are many plausible suspects.

What makes this very readable, dialogue-heavy, carefully-plotted story so compelling is that so many of the characters were actually historical figures and there are allusions to many historical events. The leading real-life character is Reinhard Heydrich who, some months later, was assassinated by Czech and Slovak parachutists. At times, I felt that Gunther's conversations with men like Heydrich almost humanised them but, if one can overlook this conceit, this is a splendid read.

"Prague Spring" by Simon Mawer

In some ways, Mawer is an unlikely fiction writer. He took a degree in Zoology at Oxford University and has worked as a biology teacher in Rome for most of his life and he only published his first novel at the comparatively late age of 41. I discovered him through his eighth novel, the wonderful "The Glass Room" which is largely set in what was then Czechoslovakia before and during the Second World War. I subsequently read his next two novels which feature the same leading character in the Second World War and early Cold War respectively: "The Girl Who Fell From The Sky" and "Tightrope".

So "Prague Spring" is his tenth novel and I have learned to really enjoy his style. Like "The Glass Room", his latest work is set in Czechsolvakia but in a different and very narrow period: the few weeks running up to the Warsaw Pact invasion of August 1968 and the occupation itself. Like "The Girl Who Fell From The Sky", it has an abrupt and incomplete ending and so I hope that, as with "Tightrope", we will have a sequel.

The narrative involves two couples with their stories only converging two-thirds of the way through the novel. James and Ellie are Oxford University students who decide to use the summer to hitchhike in Europe and, almost by accident, find themselves in the Czechoslovak capital at the fateful time, along the way developing a kind of relationship. Sam is a diplomat at the British Embassy in Prague and Lenka is a Czech student protestor and they quickly make an unlikely, but passionate, couple. Very soon after the four meet, all of their lives are shaken by the sudden occupation of the country.

Mawer was a student at Oxford at the time of the Warsaw Pact invasion and it will have made an impact on him as it did on me at the time (we are the same age). As he revealed in "The Glass Room" and as is again evident in "Prague Spring", he has a deep knowledge of Czech history, country and language (I know a bit too having visited 28 times and studied the language) and I appreciated the manner in which he weaves so much knowledge and insight into a novel which is about relationships as well as history, politics and culture.

"The President Is Missing" by Bill Clinton and James Patterson

Billed as "With details only a president could know and the kind of suspense only James Patterson can deliver", this political thriller has been a best-seller and is set to to be turned into an ongoing drama series for television. So does it justify the hype? Of course, not.

On the plus side, it is immensely readable. Using the present tense and the first person perspective of US President Jonathan Duncan, the 500 pages are divided into no less than 128 short chapters (several only a page or less) with most chapters ending with a teasing sentence inviting the reader to keep going. There is lots of dialogue and some (not enough) exciting action. And there are a few political homilies, notabably in a concluding address to a joint session of Congress.

But the plotting - a devastating cyber attack on America foiled by an heroic president - is weak and the writing (for all its military and intelligence references and regular plot twists) is simple as the writers play with the reader's expectations. The leading personages are cardboard characters and, in the case of the prime villain especially, very much under-written.

"The Prophet" by Kahlil Gibran

Lebanese-born writer Gibran produced his best-known work "The Prophet" in 1923, but it was only during a visit to Lebanon in 2011 that I was encouraged to read it. The very short novel is one of the best-selling books of all time, having sold over 100 million copies, but it is hard to see why. The 26 poetic essays offer guidance on a range of issues from friendship to love and from beauty to death, but what Gibran is saying is expressed so opaquely that one could read anything or nothing into his lyrical words.

"Ralph's Party" by Lisa Jewell

Since my brother is called Ralph and I live in London, I was inevitably attracted by a novel called "Ralph's Party" set in the capital. All the six main characters - like the author - are 30ish but, whereas Jewell lives in north London, her cast abide in Battersea in the same three-storey Edwardian house. In the course of 350+ pages, each resident has a relationship with at least one other and it's all resolved - in a fashion - at a party to launch Ralph's paintings. This first novel is not Booker Prize literature but, if you're suffering from a heavy cold over a grey weekend (as I was), it's an easy and entertaining read.

"The Reader" by Bernhard Schlink

When I saw the film of "The Reader", I admired the brilliant acting by Kate Winslet but was disturbed by the moral confusion of the story by German law professor Berhard Schlink. I decided ro read the best-selling book to see if the moral issue became any clearer. This is a Holocaust work that attempts to explore the hugely sensitive issue of the guilt of the following German generation. It is a quick read since it is not a long work and the chapters are all unusually short - but does it make the moral question any clearer?

The first two-fifths of the story - located in 1958 - is about the relationship between 36 year old tram conductor Hanna Schmitz and 15 year old schoolboy Michael Berg; the second two-fifths - set seven years later - revolves around the trial of Hanna witnessed by Michael; and the final fifth or so concerns the time of Hanna's 18 year prison sentence.

What I found was that the movie is a faithful adaptation of the novel. Schlink's relatively sparse but moving writing is perhaps more revealing of Michael's thoughts about Hanna (frequent references to him feeling "nothing" and his "numbness") but no less illuminating about Hanna's motivations and feelings (twice she cries "What would you have done?" and seems to exhibit emotional autism).

The reader of the title is, at different times, Michael, Hanna and we ourselves. For me, the key sentence of the book is Michael's dilemma: "I wanted to pose myself both tasks - understanding and condemnation. But it was impossible to do both." Arguably most Holocaust literature has been more about condemnation than understanding, but Schlink runs the risk of showing more understanding than condemnation. Surely one has to do both, however difficult, and it is immensely difficult.

"The Reluctant Fundamentalist" by Mohsin Hamid

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2007, this is an easy read in the sense that it is short, well-written and compelling; but it is less comfortable in that it enters the mind of a man who wishes evil on America and it has an ambiguous ending. The author has acknowledged in an interview that the narrator of this monologue Changez has some things in common with him: "I have done much of what Changez has done: I have worked in New York and in Lahore, and I have spent time in Chile and in the Philippines. His story is not my story, but I certainly have inhabited the geography of his world." However, Hamid - who now lives in London - presumably does not share his character's pleasure at the attack on the Twin Towers, but does attempt to show how a Pakistani - even an educated and Americanised one - can be drawn into despising the Western style of life.

Changez states of the US reaction to 9/11: "It seemed to me then - and to be honest, sir, it seems to me still - that America was engaged only in posturing. As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums, not least my family, now facing war thousands of miles away. Such an America had to be stopped in the interests not only of the rest of humanity, but also in your own."

author's web site click here
web site for book click here

"The Remains Of The Day" by Kazuo Ishiguro

Although it won the Man Booker Prize in 1989 and I saw the film version in 1994, it was not until I selected the novel as a 'giver' for World Book Night 2012 that I finally read the book - encouraged by the number of people who jokingly called me Lord Darlington in whose stately home much the action takes place (my surname is Darlington).

The tale is told in the first person singular from the point of view of the hall's butler Stevens who is, in the language of writing classes, an unreliable narrator - he frequently questions or revises his recollections and he is excessively loyal to his politically misguided employer. In the course of a car journey of several days in the summer of 1956, Stevens tells us of his experiences at Darlington Hall in the 1920s and 1930s, notably his role in the conduct of an appeasement conference and his complicated relationship with the housekeeper Miss Kenton.

The novel is beatifully written in the formal, contemplative and restrained style of Stevens himself who admits "I have a reluctance to change too much of the old ways" and admires "the emotional restraint which only the English race is capable of" - a man who addresses his own father in the third person, who is neurotically private and seriously lacking in empathy, who highlights his brilliance with silver while acknowledging his inability to construct witty retorts. This proud servant is so emotionally constrained that in the end he is forced to question his whole life and, in the poignant moment of epiphanic realisation of his loss, admits that "my heart was breaking".

Although Ishiguro came to Britain from Japan when he was five, he sees the British differently from those native-born and provides here a knowing, gentle but incisive critique of the price to be paid by the English reserve as exemplified and perhaps caricatured by Stevens.

"The Rising Tide" by Prashant Vaze

These days, some young adult fiction is so good it should be read by adults themselves and I've thoroughly enjoyed the the "His Dark Materials" trilogy by Philip Pullman and "The Hunger Games" trilogy by Suzanne Collins. "The Rising Tide" too will appeal to adults as well as youngsters. Like the previously mentioned trilogies, this novel has as its protagonist a young girl with some special skills and indeed the point of view is that of 15 year old Aria Lovelace, a schoolgirl in a Britain of some half a century hence when global warming is wreaking worldwide devastation as mammoth chunks of Greenland ice break off to cause tsunamis and rising sea levels.

Although the themes of the novel are huge - an environmental catastrophe, a growing refugee crisis and the interface between humans and technology - the focus of the narrative is very tight in terms of time (just a few weeks), place (a village in Norfolk), and characters (essentially Aria's family). As the story unfolds, it is increasingly clear that Aria is special but, when it comes, the great reveal is a genuine surprise. Vaze - a Londoner currently based in Hong Kong - is a self-confessed policy wonk with a passion for the environment and he has written an impressive first work of fiction with intriguing thoughts on the future of education and energy supply and the roles of connected devices and artificial intelligence.

"The Road" by Cormac McCarthy

"They went on." This is the recurring word triplet in a narrative that has no chapters but breaks every few paragraphs about a journey by foot that has no real beginning and no real end and no obvious purpose. It is an ordeal undergone by a nameless man and his nameless son in an anonymous land in a world suffering from an unexplained holocaust that has already destroyed most of the biosphere and threatens to do the same to the few remaining scavengers that represent humankind.

If this sounds bleak, it is - by turns haunted, harrowing, horrible. And yet it manages to be humanistic in its moving portrayal of the man's protection of his son and their joint belief that they are "the good guys" who are "carrying the fire". This remarkable novel by American author McCarthy is dedicated to his son and won the the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It has now been made into a film.

"The Rock Of Tanios" by Amin Maalouf

I had never heard of Maalouf until I visited Beirut and his work was recommended to me, with this particular novel said to be perhaps the best of his writing (it was awarded the Prix Goncourt in 1993). Although he is Lebanese and his native language is Arabic, Maalouf writes in French and, since the start of the Lebanese civil war in 1975, has resided in Paris. Even in an English translation, his writing is delightful and engrossing. Although the narrative becomes ever more conflictual and violent, the style is always gentle and insightful.

The novel is largely set in a particular location - the fictional village of Kfaryabda in the "the Mountains" which is present-day Lebanon - at a particular time in history - the early 19th century when Egypt temporarily took control of this part of the Ottoman Empire. The eponymous Tanios - the name is a local version on Antoine - is born in 1821 of the most beautiful woman in the village and one of the most powerful men of the castle. In 1840, he disappears. Through his story, we explore both the petty personal conflicts of the village and the Mountains and the geo-political interference of the Great Powers in the region - both forces which are still at destructive work today.

"Roger's Version" by John Updike

This novel was originally published in 1986 and written by an author well-known for his clever writing. At one level, it is a narrative about three relationships: the marriage between 52 year old Divinity professor Roger and his younger second wife Esther (like me, they have a son called Richard), Esther's sexually active affair with a student called Dale, and Roger's one-off act of intercourse with his half-niece Verna. On another level, it is a debate about God versus science. Updike gives frequent exhibitions of astonishing knowledge of religious history, physics, biology, mathematics, computing, and even Latin and his style is both erudite and exotic - often excessively so - with long, complex, clever sentences. Neither level seems to have any genuine conclusion or even discernible purpose, but then this is the case with so many contemporary novels.

"Room" by Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoughue is an Irish writer now living in Canada who is both a parent and a lesbian. I was surprised at how moved I was by the film version of this novel that was scripted by Donoghue herself and determined to read the original source material. This wonderful book is narrated wholly through the point of view of the boy Jack who is five in the opening sentence.

For the first half, his entire physical world is contained in Room where his companion and protector is Ma (never named in the novel as opposed to the film). She was abducted by a character dubbed Old Nick seven years ago and until now she has created a special space for her son which involves pretending that Outside is not real, preventing any contact between Old Nick and Jack, and regularly breastfeeding her charge. Although this story is told from Jack's perspective, it is as much - if not more - about Ma. While he finds Room safe and secure, she is living a nightmare; while he adjusts relatively quickly to the real world - with the help of some sensitive adults - she struggles profoundly to come to terms with her new life.

The material is loosely inspired by some real-life abduction cases, notably in Austria, and it could have been horrendous, but the magic of Donoughue is that she makes this very particular situation and partnership both universal and life-affirming. In essence, it is a paean to parenthood with a nod in the direction of grandparenting. There are lessons for us all here, such as Jack's comment near the end: "Ma and me have a deal, we're going to try everything one time so we know what we like".

The ending is not neat; the journey has just begun. As Jack puts: "When I was four I didn't know about the world, or I thought it was only stories. Then Ma told me about it for real and I thought I knowed everything. But now I'm in the world all the time, I actually don't know much, I'm always confused."

author's web site click here
my review of the film click here

"Runaway" by Alice Munro

This collection of eight short stories first appeared together in 2004 (although five were previously published in "The New Yorker"), but I only read it shortly after Canadian author Alice Munro was awarded the Man Booker International Prize in 2009. All eight stories have one word titles and the one giving the book its title appears first, while (unusually for such collections) three of the stories feature the same central character.

Munro is a wonderful writer but, like much contemporary fiction, her meanings are opaque. Essentially her tales are a celebration of womanhood in the face of challenge and loss and her female leads are emotionally resourceful - as one character puts it: "... women have always got something, haven't they, to keep them going? That men haven't got."

If Munro has a message, it could be the one she imputes to a male character here: "The thing about life ... was to live in the world with interest. To keep your eyes open and see the possibilities - see the humanity - in everybody you meet. To be aware."

"Salmon Fishing In The Yemen" by Paul Torday

I confess that I would never have read this first novel if my sister had not bought it for me and I found it a light, if not exactly a lightweight, read. The unusual format of the work - each chapter is a collection of e-mails, diary entries, or personal letters or extracts from interviews or reports - makes it a quick read with multiple voices, the main one being the staid fisheries scientist Dr Alfred Jones. At one level, it is a mildly amusing account of an attempt to introduce, well, salmon fishing, in, err, the Yemen. At another level, it is both a satire on the political spin of the Blairite government and a paean to belief: "belief in something was the first step away from believing in nothing, the first step away from a world which only recognised what it could count, measure, sell or buy".

"Saturday" by Ian McEwan

McEwan is now regarded by many as the finest British writer of his generation, such is the consistent brilliance of his work. This is his tenth novel and, having previously read "The Comfort Of Stangers" and "Atonement", the third that I have savoured. Once again, he displays his acute powers of observation and forensic analysis of the seemingly mundane routines of an individual's life but, this time, he demonstrates an astonishingly detailed knowledge of neuroscience and explores the fear of and reaction to the threat of terror in the post 9/11 world.

Set in a location I know intimately (my home city of London) on a day I remember well (Saturday, 15 February 2003 when huge numbers of marchers protested against the proposed invasion of Iraq), this is a tale of one man - successful neurosurgeon Henry Perowne - looking forward to a family reunion over a dinner that he himself will cook. It explores both the fragility and the complexity of our lives. Fragile in that a momentary and minor scraping of two cars can result in such trauma for both the Perowne family and the other motorist. Complex in that all our lives are threatened in new ways by terrorism and yet the forthcoming overthrow of Saddam Hussein is so uncertain in its morality and its consequences.

As Perowne contemplates the meaning of his life as a surgeon, he thinks that "There has to be more to life than merely saving lives". On the wider issue of the terrorist threat, he feels that "It isn't rationalism that will overcome the religious zealots, but ordinary shopping and all that it entails". And yet he does save a life and he does it with remarkable rationality.

"The Secret Commonwealth" by Philip Pullman

Published in 2019, this is the second part of the trilogy "The Book Of Dust", following the original trilogy of "His Dark Materials". This novel is a sequel to the first three, set some 10 or so years after them and therefore some 20 or so years after "La Belle Sauvage" which was the first part of "The Book Of Dust". The whole of the narrative is set in the same universe as "La Belle Sauvage" which, in the words of "Northern Lights", is like our own universe "but different in many ways".

We already knew from the first trilogy that there were people (witches) and places (the world of the dead) when humans and their daemons could be separated, but the shocking revelation of this novel is that Lyra Belacqua/Silvertongue (now an Oxford University student in her early 20s) and her pine-marten daemon Pantalaimon are not just separated but estranged, so that they are apart both physically and temperamentally. Even more troubling, we learn that there is trouble in the Far East with men from the mountains (aka The Brotherhood of This Holy Purpose) attacking both a research institute and rose growers because apparently a type of rose oil has some special characteristics in some way connected with the powerful instrument the alethiometer and the strange phenomenon of Dust.

This means that much of the narrative is a constant switching between journeys on the way out to this Far East by Lyra herself, her separated daemon Pan, and the resourceful Malcolm Polstead (who as a boy rescued Lyra in "La Belle Sauvage" and is now an Oxford scholar). At the same time, they are being tracked by a part of the Magisterium known as the Consistorial Court of Discipline which has an alethiometer and someone who can read it - as can Lyra - with the new method (Olivier Bonneville, son the man who tried to kidnap Lyra some 20 years earlier).

Meanwhile what is the secret commonwealth of the title? We are told little, but advised that it is a "world of half-seen things and half-heard whispers" including "fairies, spirits, hauntings, things of the night". And we learn no more about Dust itself. As Lyra asks herself: "And Dust? Where did that come in? Was it a metaphor? Was it part of the secret commonwealth?" We are told that" "We need to imagine as well as measure".

This immensely readable work of some 800 pages finishes with nothing resolved, so that the reader can barely wait for the third and final element in "The Book Of Dust" when hopefully all our questions will be answered.

Link: Philip Pullman's site click here

"The Sense Of An Ending" by Julian Barnes

This is the 11th novel by English writer Julian Barnes but the first that I've read and I was drawn to it both because it won the Man Booker Prize (2011) and because it is short (150 pages). That year, the Booker was hit by controversy over the judges wish to select books with "readability" and the novel certainly has that but the writing is also elegant and poignant.

It is narrated by retired and divorced Tony Webster and composed of two parts: his time at school and university and the present day coming to terms with revelations of that earlier period, notably the failure of his relationship with Veronica and the suicide of his close friend Adrian who had become Veronica's boyfriend. As someone of the same sort of age as Webster (and Barnes), I can relate to his comment: "But wasn't his the Sixties? Yes, but only for some people, only in certain parts of the country."

He writes about "how time first grounds us and then confounds us"" and evokes a sense of under-achievement: "But then you begin to understand that the reward of merit is not life's business" and "life isn't all it's cracked up to be". This is a novel about history, about memory, about consequences.

Link: my review of the film click here

"Serpentine" by Philip Pullman

Following "Lyra's Oxford" (2003) and "Once Upon A Time In The North" (2008), this is the third novella spin-off (2020) from the world of "His Dark Materials". It is set a year after the incident described in "Lyra's Oxford", which in turn comes two years after the conclusion of "The Amber Spyglass", which means that Lyra is 16 years old. It involves a trip back to the Arctic island of Trollesund which featured in "Northern Lights" and relates discussions about the relationship between humans and their daemons. Therefore it prefigures the changed situation between Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon which is central to the narrative in "The Secret Commonwealth", the second segment of the trilogy titled "The Book Of Dust". In fact this novella is hardly even that because it comprises barely 35 pages of actual text with the rest being illustrations and a note from the author. But fans of "His Dark Materials" & "The Book Of Dust" will not want to miss out on any further information about this world.

Link: Philip Pullman's site click here

"The Shock Of The Fall" by Nathan Filer

This remarkable and moving first novel won the Costa Book of the Year for 2013. Inevitably it invites comparison with "The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time" by Mark Haddon published in 2003. In both cases, the story is told in the first person by a teenage boy with mental health issues and a death is a pivotal event. In the case of Filer's novel, the point of view is that of Matthew Homes, a 19 year from Bristol suffering from schizophrenia and haunted by the death some years earlier of his older brother who had Downs Syndrome.

Filer - a native of Bristol - trained as a psychiatric nurse, gaining a degree in Mental Health Nursing, and writes very perceptively about the experiences and thoughts of his subject. This is a darker work than "Night-Time" and a distinctive feature of the novel is the varied fonts and layouts of the text as Matt pulls together fragments of his far from linear narrative.

Like so much mental illness, here the issue of control is critical. As Matt puts it: "Everything I do is decided for me. There is a plan ... It tells me exactly what I have to do with my days, like coming in for therapy groups here at Hope Road Day Centre, and what tablets I should take, and the injections, and who is responsible for what. This is all written down for me. Then there is another plan that comes into play if I don't stick to the first one."

"A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian" by Marina Lewycka

This novel has been a publishing phenomenon. It was rejected 36 times before Lewycka found a publisher at the age of 58. Since then, it has sold some 800,000 copies in the UK alone and been translated into 29 languages. The wonderful title certainly attracts attention to a first novel; yet it would not have become such a bestseller on the strength of the title alone.

Its success and popularity comes from its gently comic style and strong sense of narrative, as Lewycka - who was born of Ukrainian parents - tells the tale of 84 year old Nikolai, a one-time draughtsman in a Ukrainian tractor factory, a British resident since the end of the war, and a widower for the last two years. Three women are struggling over his welfare and wealth: 36 year old blonde, busty Ukrainian Valentina who wants to marry him and his daughters Naezhda and Vera who want to protect him.

Most of the time amusing and always very readable, regularly the novel gives a stark reminder of the tribulations of those caught between rival historical forces in the complex 20th century history of Ukraine. There are suggestions of a dark secret to be revealed, but there is no twist in the conclusion which is somewhat lame and unsatisfactory.

"Slumdog Millionaire" by Vikas Swarup

Originally published as "Q&A" in 2005, this novel was reissued as "Slumdog Millionaire" in 2009 following the worldwide success of the film adaptation which used the revised title. Already published in 25 languages, the book is set to appear in more with the boost given it by the movie which I saw before actually reading the novel. Not bad at all for the début work of a member of the Indian Foreign Service.

But then this is a thoroughly enjoyable read. It tells the story of the appearance on an Indian television programme "Who Will Win A Billion?" - modelled on the real-life "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" - of an 18 year old orphan, waiter and Mumbai slum dweller called Ram Mohammad Thomas. This is narrated in the form of 12 engaging stories - each a flashback to a part of Ram's life and each the background to a question in the quiz show.

If the film was criticised (unfairly) as being too improbable and romantic and presenting too harsh a view of India's poverty, then the novel is even more fantastical but less romantic and it is unsparing in its depiction of the privations of the poor with an even darker look at Indian life involving suicide, murder and other deaths in almost every episode. Yet the whole tale is told with a certain levity and even humour and the ending is both neat and up-lifting.

Link: author's web site click here

"The Sorrow Of War" by Bao Ninh

The Vietnam war has given rise to many novels, usually inspired by an American point of view. This is different: originally published in Vietnam in 1991, the author was a member of the North Vietnamese Army, serving in the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade whose 500 members went to war in 1969 only to see only ten survive. The novel is the story of the scout Kien who is 18 at the start of the war in 1965 and 28 at the fall of Saigon in 1975. Before the war, he falls in love with his childhood sweetheart Phuong. After the war, he is responsible for retrieving and burying the bodies of his dead comrades lost in the Jungle of Souls, scene of one of the bloodiest battles of the war.

Constantly shifting to before, during and after the war, one is presented with a series of stories and images which are by turns shocking, moving, cynical and sorrowful. He writes: "The sorrow of war inside a soldier's head was in a strange way similar to the sorrow of love. It was a kind of nostalgia, like the immense sadness of a world at dusk".

I read the book on a holiday in Indochina [click here].

"Sophie's World" by Jostein Gaarder

This is an original and impressive book recommended to me and bought for me by my son Richard. It is written by a Norwegian teacher of philosophy and is a fascinating and lucid history of Western philosophy in the form of an unusual novel. The story is told to 15 year old Sophie by a strange character called Alberto Knox. Only after more than 200 pages do we learn that Sophie and Alberto are 'only' characters in a book written for 15 year old Hilde by her absent father Albert and some 400 pages into the novel, Sophie and Alberto actually manage to 'jump' into the 'real world' of Hilde and Albert. It is a long work (427 pages) that can only be read so much at a time and the ending is limp, but the concept is clever and it is a painless - even entertaining - way to review the main philosophical ideas from Socrates to Sartre.

"A Spanish Lover"by Joanna Trollope

I first read this novel in 1994 on a holiday to Barcelona and the references to the Moorish architecture of Seville and Granada made me want to go there. Eight years later, I did manage to visit these wonderful cities [for account click here] and this encouraged me to reread the book. In truth, there is not so much about Andalucía in the novel which is in fact a story about two very English women, twins Lizzie and Francis (37 when we first meet them at the start of the two-year narrative). This relationship has its own fascination for me because I am married to one of a pair of female twins and know how powerful and personal is this bond.

At the start of the story, Lizzie is the traditional and stable one, married with children and living in a splendid home in the country, while Francis is the London-based, free-spirited one who has had a number of unsatisfactory relationships with men and no interest in starting a family (guess which one I married?). But the Spanish lover of the title arrives at a time of change and himself promotes great change and - like life itself - the conclusion is not a particularly neat one. Joanna Trollope - a relative of the famous Anthony Trollope - writes in an incredibly easy style that makes one want to just keep reading, but her references to sex are so amazingly brief and so remarkably demure that the title is almost a come-on.

"A Spot Of Bother" by Mark Haddon

Haddon had huge success with "The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time" and his second novel is enjoying similar success. It is a long work - just over 500 pages - but it is an immensely easy read, partly because it is split into no less than 144 chapters, partly because the style is so seemingly simple - essentially chronological narrative with no diversions or ruminations. However, underneath this apparent simplicity is a perceptive and moving story centred on 57 year old George Hall who has recently retired and the relationships between George and his wife Jean, their daughter Katie and her husband-to-be Ray, and their gay son Jamie and his on/off partner Tony.

This is a very domestic (and often amusing) drama, but the real skill of the work is Haddon's ability (as in his first novel) to capture and communicate what it is like to suffer from a mental disability. George experiences acute anxiety and panic attacks - something so much more common than we recognise and so much more incapacitating than we appreciate. He may try to dismiss it as merely "a spot of bother", but it causes him terrible physical and mental anguish and threatens both the future of his marriage and his attendance at his daughter's wedding.

"Starting Over" by Tony Parsons

You're a policeman with a gun to your nose. What do you do? George Baily, aged 47, promptly has a massive heart attack, followed almost immediately by the transplant of a new heart from a 19 year old donor. This proves to be a life-changing experience for George, but not necessarily in the way one might expect, and for his family in ways which he certainly does not expect. This is the sixth novel by British writer Tony Parsons and the first that I've read. While an enjoyable enough piece of writing, it has nothing very special to say.

"Stoner" by John Williams

The story of this American novel is a remarkable one. It was first published in 1965 when it enjoyed modest success but half a century later it was rediscovered to become a bestseller at least in Europe. I had never heard of the work until my sister bought it for me to read on a holiday. One of my co-travellers was an American PhD in English Literature and she had not heard of it either (although she immediately downloaded a copy to her iPad).

John Williams (1922-1994) was a teacher of literature at the University of Denver for 30 years. The protagonist of his novel is William Stoner (1891-1956) who is an assistant professor at the University of Missouri where Williams obtained his PhD. So the ambience of the novel clearly draws much from Williams' career but he makes a point of asserting that the characters and events are fictional.

Unlike so many contemporary novels, the work is chronologically linear and involves few characters. Besides Stoner himself, there is Edith, a wife of cruel passions, Katherine Driscoll, a young lover who provides his greatest happiness, and Hollis Lomax, a colleague who becomes his nemesis. Circumstances conspire to ensure that Stoner has limited achievements in both his personal and professional life and yet he exhibits a remarkable stoicism through it all. For him, the university is his haven, his teaching is his core, and literature a matter of "knowing something through words that could not be put into words".

Williams' writing is crisp and eloquent and, in his descriptions of Stoner's tribulations (most notably the end of his affair), it is achingly sad. One can understand why this writing might appeal more to Europeans than Americans. While Stoner is not exactly fatalistic, he is the antithesis of triumphalist: "He took a grim and ironic pleasure from the possibility that what little learning he had managed to acquire had led him to this knowledge: that in the long run all things, even the learning that let him know this, were futile and empty, and at last diminished into a nothingness they did not alter." "Steppenwolf" by Hermann Hesse

German-Swiss Hermann Hesse won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946 and "Steppenwolf" - one of his most famous works - was published in 1927. In an Author's Note of 1961, Hesse wrote that "of all my books 'Steppenwolf' is the one that was more often and more violently misunderstood than any other". He had only himself to blame because this novel is decidedly opaque.

The work consists of three 'documents': two short ones of about 20 pages each and then a main one called a treatise of some 200 pages with no chapter breaks at all. Hesse wrote the novel when he was 50 years old and suffering a spiritual crisis and its narrator Harry Haller is approaching 50 and immensely confused by his identity, so this is clearly a semi-autobiographical exposition. There is a lot of sex, a lot of drugs, savage criticism of the bourgeois life style, and much talk of self-loathing and suicide.

Haller sees people with his personality as enduring a war between two souls: "There is God and the devil in them; the mother's blood and the father's; the capacity for happiness and the capacity for suffering; and in just such a state of enmity and entanglement were the wolf and the man in Harry". But he comes to realise that "Harry consists of a hundred or a thousand selves, not of two. His life oscillates, as everyone's does, not merely between two poles, such as the body and the spirit, the saint and thew sinner, but between thousands, between innumerable poles."

I've always felt that, while each of us has a basic personality, there is no essential persona waiting to be discovered. Instead I believe that our personality is shaped by the time and place in which we find ourself and powerfully by the person with whom we are interacting at the time.

"The Story Of A New Name" by Elena Ferrante

This is Book Two - quite a bit longer than the first - in the English translation of the four 'Neapolitan Novels' written by the pseudonymous Italian novelist whose true identity is not publicly known but believed to be Anita Raja. The 470 pages represent one long segment entitled Youth but the text is broken up into 125 numbered sections which, together with the excellent writing, makes it an easy read. Before the narrative, there is a helpful five pages reminding us of all the characters and summarising what happened to them in Book One. Again the narrator is Elena Greco, known as Lenu, but the largest part of the story is devoted to her friend Raffaella Cerullo, known as Lila. Indeed it is Lila who has the new name of the title since she is now married to Stefano Caracci. Again the central setting is a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples, but in this novel there is a major section of over 120 pages where the two girls are on holiday on the nearby island of Ischia and then later Lenu escapes the city to study at university in Pisa.

The period covered is 1960-1968 when Lenu and Lila go from aged 16 to 24 and Book Two starts exactly where Book One ended, at the wedding party of Lila and Stefano. On her wedding night, Lila is raped by Stefano and the casual but brutal violence of fathers, brothers and husbands towards women in the neighbourhood is a recurrent theme in the story. Lila finds love with Nino, with whom she apparently conceives a child, and escapes from Stefano with Enzo, while Lenu hides her love for Nino and starts her own sexual adventures, but neither of the young women discover true happiness and what Lenu describes as "our long sisterhood" is deeply fractured by these events. While Lila ends her formal education at fifth grade with her abusive marriage and is forced to work in a sausage factory, her 'brilliant friend' - as termed in the title of the first novel - goes on to obtain a university degree and write a book and yet the two women remain bound by a complex psychological web.

As the narrator Lenu puts it: "My life forces me to imagine what hers would have been if what happened to me had happened to her, what use she would have made of my luck. And her life continuously appears in mine, in the words that I've uttered, in which there's often an echo of hers, in a particular gesture that is an adaptation of a gesture of hers, in my less which is such because of her more, in my more which is the yielding to the force of her less." This is a complicated relationship and the story is far from over.

"The Story Of The Lost Child" by Elena Ferrante

This is Book Four - the last and, together with Book Two, the longest - in the English translation of the 'Neapolitan Novels' written by the pseudonymous Italian novelist whose true identity is not publicly known but believed to be Anita Raja. The 470 pages are structured into a mere two chapters - titled Maturity and Old Age - but the text is broken up into 165 numbered sections which, together with the excellent writing, makes it an easy read. Before the narrative, there is a helpful five pages reminding us of all the characters and summarising what happened to them in Books One, Two and Three. Again the narrator is Elena Greco, known as Lenu, and the story is her on/off relationship with her friend Raffaella Cerullo, known as Lila. Once again the central setting is a poor neigbourhood on the outskirts of Naples, which Lila never ever leaves and to which Lenu returns in spite of her academic and literary success.

Book Four covers the longest period of time: from 1976 to 2010 by which time the two women are aged 66 and their friendship has run through six turbulent - for them and for the country - decades. Through Lenu's life, we explore feminism and politics and, through Lila's life, we experience information technology and the local version of the mafia. Over the years, so many of the characters that we have come to know over the four novels of the chronicle either die (often violently) or are imprisoned or - in two cases including the eponymous child - simply disappear. Through it all, Lenu survives in spite of leaving her husband for Nino, having a child by Nino, being betrayed by Nino, and losing all three of her daughters to other countries. The story ends not with a bang but with a whimper, not with reconciliation but with alienation and then elimination.

Lenu writes about Lila "she always knows how to complicate my existence" and "I told her almost everything about myself, she said almost nothing about herself". In sombre assessments, she refers to "how splendid and shadowy our friendship was" and claims that for Lila "eliminating herself was a sort of aesthetic project" while, for Italy itself, she concludes that "the dream of unlimited progress is in reality a nightmare of savagery and death".

It took me around three months to read all 1,700 pages of the Neapolitan Novels and, in spite of the length of the narrative, I felt that I wanted the story to continue. Could there possibly be a Book Five one day?

"The Subtle Knife" by Philip Pullman

First published in 1997, "The Subtle Knife" is the second part of the "His Dark Materials" trilogy and runs to some 340 pages. This middle volume "moves between three universes: the universe of 'Northern Lights' [the first novel], which is like ours, but different in many ways; the universe we know; and a third universe, which differs from ours in many ways again". It is story-telling of the very highest order with effective characterisation, amazing people, exciting action, and above all a simply wonderful narrative.

Moving on from the the first novel, we are introduced to a new leading character, a new special instrument and a new universe. Joining 12 year old Lyra from the world of "Northern Lights", we meet Will from our own world; he is the same age and, like her, has been parted from his father and must travel across universes to find him. Where Lyra has found and mastered the truth-telling alethiometer, Will comes across and conquers the subtle knife which can cut anything, including an entrance from one universe to another. The new universe is called Cittàgazze which is largely inhabited by children since Spectres have consumed the spirit of most of the adults.

The narrative leads inexorably to the setting for the final novel in the trilogy: "Every advance in human life, every scrap of knowledge and wisdom and decency we have, has been torn by one side from the teeth of the other. Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit. And now those two powers are lining up for battle."

Link: Philip Pullman's site click here

"A Tale Of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens

As a summer project, I decided to read a couple of English classic novels (the other "Wuthering Heights") as, since I left school, I have barely touched the classics. This 45-chapter novel was first published in 31 weekly instalments in 1859 and is now one of the most famous works in the history of fiction. The two cities are, of course, London and Paris and the action is set in the late 18th century before and during the French Revolution.

It is a marvellous story of love and redemption with classic opening and closing lines and memorable characters and scenes. The dualities are many: the order of London and the mania of Paris; the honourable Charles Darnay against the dissolute Sydney Carton; the purity of Lucie Manette contrasted with the unforgiving vengeance of Therese Defarge; the loyal Miss Pross but her scheming brother John Barsad. This is a taut and tense novel with none of the humour that usually characterises works by this illustrious author.

Dickens is rightly noted for his social conscience and his exposure of the economic and social ills of 19th century Britain. Here though his biting social critique is focused on the excess of a French aristocracy ignorant of or oblious to the grinding poor of the French working class. While obviously supportive of the objectives of the revolution which is described in rather simplistic terms, he is critical of the consequences of a mob mentality which devours violently and indiscriminately.

The writing style of classic literature is so different though from contemporary fiction. Dickens' sentences can be long and flowery, his characters here - although colourful - are essentially one-dimensional, and descriptions are of external detail compared to the more introspective nature of modern literature.

Now I'm going to view the 1958 film with Dirk Bogarde ...

"Tarantula" by Thierry Jonquet

I only read this English translation of the 1995 French novel after seeing the 2011 Spanish movie version entitled "The Skin I Live In". While film director Pedro Almodóvar wanted - as his alternative title makes clear - to explore the notion of a new skin for his narrative, Thierry Jonquet uses the metaphor of the spider as is evident from the French title ("Mygale" - an exotic form of spider) which was retained for the American version of the novel but changed to the more-commonly known "Tarantula" for the British version.

There are three viewpoints in this work: eminent plastic surgeon Richard, fugitive criminal Alex, and a third character who is both Alex's friend Vincent and Richard's creation Eve and who is strangely addressed in the text as 'you'. It is not difficlut early on to guess the relationship between the trio but, unlike the film, all is not made totally clear until the very end. It is a bizarre and impausible story but engagely told with a conclusion that is more gentle than that of the film version.

"The Testaments" by Margaret Atwood

"The Handmaid's Tale" was published in 1985 and the sequel "The Testaments" came out a full 34 years later in 2019 when it was that year's joint winner of the Booker Prize. I reread the original novel before I went on immediately to read the sequel - such a wonderful pair of well-written and cleverly-constructed works. "The Testaments" is set principally around a decade after "The Handmaid's Tale" and, as well as the totalitarian and deeply misogynist state of Gilead in which all the events of the first novel occur, there are scenes in neighbouring Canada where, thanks to the Mayday organisation, some Handmaids manage to escape and a famous offspring of one of the Handmaids - Baby Nicole - is living. There are three interesting differences between the two novels.

First, instead of one voice - the eponymous Handmaid of the "Tale" - there are three testaments: the writings of Aunt Lydia who was a stern instructress in the first novel and is now the 53 year old head of Ardua Hall, the headquarters of the powerful Aunts in Gilead; the recollections from Agnes of her life in Gilead from aged 13 to 23 during which time she leaves the home of a Commander to become an Aunt and missionary Pearl Girl; and the memories of Daisy, a 16 year old Canadian whose parents are murdered in a car explosion leading to a succession of revelations which turn her world upside down. Second, whereas "Tale" was largely expository with little actual plot, "Testaments is full of action as the stories of the three voices converge in ways which are crucial to the future of Gilead. Third, whereas the first novel had a sudden and inconclusive ending, the sequel works its way to a clear and satisfying conclusion.

Atwood has written that an axiom of both the novels - and indeed the television adaptation of the first - is that no event in them does not have a precedent in human history and clearly the timing of publication of "The Testaments" owes something to the hostility towards women of current President Donald Trump and his administration. The novels are not a forecast but they are indubitably a warning.

"Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay" by Elena Ferrante

This is Book Three - a bit shorter than the second but longer than the first - in the English translation of the four 'Neapolitan Novels' written by the pseudonymous Italian novelist whose true identity is not publicly known but believed to be Anita Raja. The 420 pages represent one long segment entitled Middle Time but the text is broken up into 123 numbered sections which, together with the excellent writing, makes it an easy read. Before the narrative, there is a helpful seven pages reminding us of all the characters and summarising what happened to them in Books One and Two. Once more the narrator is Elena Greco, known as Lenu, and the story is her life, that of her friend Raffaella Cerullo, known as Lila, and the periodic connections between the two women. It is Lenu who is the character who leaves and Naples is the place that she departs, living now in Florence, while it is Lila who stays in the southern Italian city, working and living in some of the poorest neighbourhoods.

The period covered is 1968-1976 when Lenu and Lila go from aged 24 to 32 and Book Three starts exactly where Book Two ended, at the launch of Lenu's first book with the sudden appearance of old schoolfriend Nino. These are turbulent times in Italy with labour agitation, student revolutionaries and political violence between Fascists and Communists and, in different ways and in different places, both women are caught up in such events. Acquaintances are raped, beaten, and even murdered. Meanwhile the personal lives of the two young women continue to take very different paths: Lila, who left her abusive husband Stefano with her small son to live with schoolfriend Enzo, grows closer to him and both acquire valuable skills in the new world of computing, while Lenu marries distinguished academic Pietro and has two girls with him before becoming increasingly feminist in outlook and writing a second book that examines gender roles. Whereas in the previous book Lila as a teenager has a passionate affair with schoolfriend Nino, in this book it is Lenu who in later life becomes so involved with Nino that both abandon their marriage to seek new love together.

At times in their lives, Lenu and Lila are not in touch; at other times, they are regularly on the telephone to one another; their actual meetings are infrequent; but always the friendship is a complicated one. Lenu declares of Lila: "With her, there was no way to feel that things were settled; every fixed point of our relationship sooner or later turned out to be provisional; something shifted in her head that unbalanced her and unbalanced me". Lila declares to Lenu: "who am I if you aren't great, who am I?" and, turn, Lenu tells Lila: "without you I'm not capable of anything". How will this friendship work out? The reader cannot wait to move on to the fourth and final work in the saga.

"A Thousand Splendid Suns" by Khaled Hosseini

No sooner had I finished Hosseini's first novel "The Kite Runner" than I had to read this his second. It is every bit as impressive and marks Hosseini as a master storyteller. Whereas his first work was about the friendship between two Afghani boys, this is about the relationship between two Afghani women: the illegitimate and ill-educated Mariam from Herat and the much younger, prettier and more cultured Laila from Kabul. What they suffer separately and together tells us a good deal about the plight of women in backward, war-torn and Taliban-ruled Afghanistan over a timeframe of almost three decades.

There are many similarities in both style and plotting between the two novels - each imbued with the traditions, language, religion and political history of the country, each providing intimate characterisation over long periods of time, each containing a shock towards the end of the narrative. This new work, however, is set exclusively in Afghanistan and is ultimately more hopeful and up-lifting.

Link: author's web site click here

"Three Stories" by Alan Bennett

These are not so much stories as novellas, since each runs to between 60-80 pages. They were first published separately in the "London Review Of Books" between 1996-2001 and then published as a collection in book form in 2003. Respectively, "The Laying On Of Hands" is an account of a memorial service for a young man who was sexually very busy in his short life; "The Clothes They Stood Up In" reveals how a strange burglary leads to a middle-aged couple re-evaluating their sex life or lack of it; and - the best of the three - "Father! Father! Burning Bright" narrates the experience of a middle-aged teacher waiting for his father to die.

Bennet is a national treasure who has written voluminously. These stories display his characteristic wit but are rather inconsequential.

"3001: The Final Odyssey" by Arthur C Clarke

Over the past three decades, I have read all four novels in this series, the others being "2001", "2010"and "2061". Once again we are back to the four monoliths with their 1:4:9 dimensions: TMA Zero on Earth, TMA One on the moon, Big Brother at Jupiter, and the Great Wall on Jupiter's moon Europa. This time astronaut Frank Poole - revived after a thousand years in space - manages to 'contact' Halman - a symbiosis of fellow astronaut Dave Bowman and computer HAL 9000 - on Europa, learns that the powers are about to weed out mankind, and manages to destroy the monoliths with computer viruses (cf. the movie "Independence Day"). An imaginative and well-written work.

"The Three-Body Problem" by Cixin Liu

This is the first novel in the 'Remembrance of Earth's Past' trilogy by the noted Chinese science fiction writer. It was first published as a book in 2008 and, when translated into English, won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, the first work by an Asian writer to win this award. It achieved even more widespread fame as the inspiration for the 2024 Netflix series of the same name.

As a sci-fi novel, this work has two very distinctive features. First, reflecting its authorship, it includes lots of references to Chinese characters and history, stretching from the First Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who was born in 259 BC, to the Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 60 1976. Many Western scientists and thinkers also make appearances in a fantastical online virtual reality game called Three-Body. Second, the narrative raises a huge range of scientific issues, starting with the three-body problem in orbital mechanics and running through the development of atomic-level nano-materials and the eleven dimensional space-time of fundamental particles. One chapter has the wonderful title 'Three Body: Newton, Von Neumann, The First Emperor And The Tri-Solar Syzygy'.

Fundamentally this enormously inventive work is asking some existential questions: If there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, how would we know? Should we communicate with such an alien civilisation? If we did, what would be the consequences? A major problem for writers addressing such questions is the almost infinitesimal distances that would be involved. How could one communication, still less travel, across such vastness of space? Cixin Liu has some inventive solutions which means that, by the end of the novel, the very existence of humankind is threatened - but apparently not for some 450 years.

This first novel in the trilogy runs to 424 pages, but I devoured them, and now I need to move on the next book.

"The Thursday Murder Club" by Richard Osman

I know that crime is an immensely popular literary genre but I generally avoid it. However, I made an exception for Osman's first book because it has been such an incredible success and I wanted to be part of the zeitgeist. By the time I read the novel, it had achieved sales of over a million, been the subject of a film deal, and announced to be the first of a series of four.

The eponymous organisation consists of four characters in their mid or late 70s (only a little older than me!): Elizabeth an ex-intelligence officer (apparently); Ron who was once a trade union leader; Joyce, a former nurse; and Ibrahim who used to be a psychiatrist. They are all residents of an upmarket retirement village called Coopers Chase and they meet each Thursday in the Jigsaw Room to review cold murder cases until one day they encounter a new murder in their locality.

It has to be said that this is a very readable work, facilitated by the 377 pages being divided into no less than 115 short chapters. The language is plain, the characterisation is weak, and the plotting is very contrived but, unlike other crime novels, the approach is gentle and the style is humorous (is this how crime novels are supposed to be?). I don't want to spoil it for you (well, why not?) but, by the end, the bodies are piling up - some murders, some suicides, some historical, some recent - so fast that I found it all rather ridiculous.

"Thursdays In The Park" by Hilary Boyd

This novel has been a publishing phenomenon. It first came out as a paperback in 2011 when it received one good review and sold less than 1,000 copies. When it was reissued the next year, the publishers Quercus decided to make it available as an e-book as well. It jumped up the Amazon charts, apparently spurred on simply by word of mouth, so that sales soon went into six figures, translations were agreed, and Charles Dance wants to make it into a film.

In many ways, this is an old-fashioned romance, even if everything that happens in the north London location is entirely credible, but what makes the work different is that the main characters are 60 or so and have been round the tracks in terms of marriage at least once before. Jeanie has been married to George for 32 years - the later years sexless if not exactly loveless - when she meets Ray in the local park as each looks after a grandchild. Hilary Boyd dares to suggest that life does not end at 60 and neither does sex, although she portrays the actual sex briefly and tastefully.

My favourite line in the novel is Jeannie speaking to Ray about her feelings for her two-year old granddaughter Ellie: It's a bit like a drug. If I don't see her for a couple of days I get withdrawal symptoms." As someone with a granddaughter of two (who happens to live in north London), I can relate to that and and Boyd's perceptive characterisation is typical of her understated but very convincing style of writing. Love - especially at first - for any one at any age is a kind of addiction.

The media have dubbed "Thursdays In The Park" as "gran-lit" which is an over-simplistic label, but there is little doubt that Boyd's work has tapped into the same sort of market as secured the success of the film "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" which came out the same year. Baby boomers rock!

Link: author's web site click here

"Tightrope" by Simon Mawer

British writer Simon Mawer - who has lived in Italy for over 30 years - produced a stunning work in "The Glass Room" (2009) which impressed me enormously. His next two novels, published in 2012 & 2015, were a duo with the same central character, the young, idealistic French-speaking Marian Sutro who is a wartime agent and a post-war spy. The first of the novels was titled "The Girl Who Fell From The Sky" to reflect her role as a parachutist with the Special Operations Executive but, in the United States, there was another work with the same title so Mawer's offering was renamed "Trapeze". The second of the novels "Tightrope" has a title with a pleasing symmetry to that of "Trapeze" and picks up Sutro's story two years later, following her harrowing experience in a French prison and the Ravensbrück concentration camp.

The two novels have a linking theme as well as the same central character: the atomic bomb. In "Trapeze", Sutro was tasked with persuading a French atomic scientist to escape German-occupied France so that he could support the Allies in the research to produce the bomb. "Tightrope" is largely set in the fascinating few post-war years when the Americans have - and have used - the bomb but the Soviet Union is struggling to acquire the same super-weapon. Some want the USA to press its advanatage by using the bomb in a pre-emptive attack on the USSR, while others believe that world peace would be best secured through enabling the Russians to have their own bomb as quickly as possible.

Mawer is a fine writer with the ability to keep the reader gripped, even though most of the narrative is about period, atmosphere and character with little dramatic action. In Marian Sustro, he has crafted a complex, multifacted character who is a harder, more worldly, more political, more sexual woman than in the first novel. What to make of her and her actions? Marian herself ruminates that "life has no exact meanings, only shades of meaning, hints, versions and contradictions, a confusion of loves and hates, of motives and desires". Or, as the narrator puts it: "The whole damn story is riddled with clichés, heroine being one of them. Traitor being another."

"To Kill A Mockingbird" by Harper Lee

Lee was born in an Alabamba village in 1926 and her novel is set in an Alabamba town in 1935 seen through the eyes of an eight old girl, so clearly the atmospheric detail is at least partially autobiographical. The girl is called Jean Louise, but she is known to the family as Scout, and she has a protective brother Jem who is four years older. Their father is Atticus Finch, a single parent, local lawyer and elected politician who brings an immense sense of tolerance and decency to his family and his town, even when he is required to defend a black man falsely accused of the rape of a white woman, so putting his own life in danger.

This was Lee's first novel (it was published in 1960) and won her the Pulitzer Prize. She tells a compelling story - reeking with hypocrisy and simmering with prejudice - in a deceptively calm, almost childlike, manner that extolls a philosophy as noble as it is simple. Atticus declares: " .. before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience". As Scout puts it: "Naw, Jem, I think there's just one kind of folks. Folks".

"To Kill The President" by Sam Bourne

Although I read the "Guardian" newspaper every day, I hadn't realised that its political columnist Jonathan Freedland wrote political thrillers under the pseudonym Sam Bourne but, as I browsed in a bookshop, I read the blurb on the back of this novel and was seized by the 'torn from the news headlines' nature of the plot: a volatile demagogue who has just been elected to the Oval Office has ordered a nuclear strike on North Korea. Of course, Bourne's president is nameless but the 'fictional' commander-in-chief is so scarily recognisable that Donald Trump could probably sue for libel in a British court if he was not so busy up-ending every convention in the political playbook - including warning Pyongyang of American "fire and fury".

Following this cracking opening scenario, the rest of the novel does not have quite the same sense of acute drama and the plot gradually becomes less credible, but it is a fast-paced story with some well-researched political, geographical and technological detail and the book is a genuine page-turner with teasing lines at the end of each of the short chapters. And, instead of a male protagonist shooting his way through every obstacle, we have a female White House counsel, Irish-born Maggie Costello, who uses her intellect and insight to discover the awful truth.

"Tomorrow, And Tomorrow, And Tomorrow" by Gabrielle Zevin

I was attracted to this novel by its intriguing title, its wonderful cover, and the awareness that it has become a global bestseller. The title is a reference both to the possibility of infinite rebirth offered by video games and to the soliloquy about the meaninglessness of life in Shakespeare's "Macbeth". Spanning two and a half decades, the narrative is about the working and personal relationships between three young pioneers of the American video gaming industry and alludes to many real and imagined games.

Now I have never played a video game in my life, the story begins slowly and the text runs to almost 500 pages, so at first I was not sure how I was going to get along with it, but I found that I really enjoyed the novel and did not want it to end. The author knows her gaming, having two parents who worked in computers and being a lifelong gamer, but the novel is as much about love and friendship as it is about the gaming industry and there are some astute observations about ethnicity and disability, so it has wide appeal.

One of the leading characters, comparing his troubled life with that of the gaming character Ichigo that he created, laments: "He wanted Ichigo's life, a lifetime of endless, immaculate tomorrows, free of mistakes and the evidence of having lived." When he gives a TED Talk, he insists: "What I believe to my very core is that virtual worlds can be better than the actual world. They can be more moral, more just, more progressive, more empathetic, and more accommodating of difference."

"Tomorrow, And Tomorrow, And Tomorrow" is going to be a film and I look forward to seeing it.

"Too Much Happiness" by Alice Munro

This collection of ten short stories first appeared together in 2009, the year that Canadian author Alice Munro was awarded the Man Booker International Prize and the year in which she became 78. All the stories have one or two word titles except the one giving the book its title (apparently the final words of the real life protagonist) which was first published in "Harper's" magazine and here appears last, is the longest, and is unusual for Munro in not being set in Canada and in fact based on the life of an historic figure, Sophia Kovalevski, the first female Russian mathematician.

As usual, most of the main characters in these beautifully-written tales are Canadian women. Typically Munro's stories are quite domestic but here there is some darkness and (background) death. She is - as so frequently - opaque in her meanings and the endings often seem sharp, even arbitrary.

In the title story, Munro has a sentence which could be taken as applying to many of her subjects: "They submit themselves to manly behaviour with all its risks and cruelties, its complicated burdens and deliberate frauds" and, in the same tale, she attributes to her heroine the thought: "She was learning, quite late, what many people around her appeared to have known since childhood - that life can be perfectly satisfying without major achievement." This seems to be how Munro sees the lives of many of her characters but it is hardly true of herself.

"Under The Hawthorne Tree" by Ai Mi

This Chinese novel has become a global publishing phenomenon. It was orginally serialised in 2007 on a blog that was blocked by the Chinese authorities but somehow it managed to be produced as a book by one of China's state-affiliated publishers and has now sold more than a million copies in China. The famed director Zhang Yimou directed a popular film version in 2010. Now publishers in 15 countries have bought the rights to translations and I read the English translation by Anna Holmwood. All this success has been achieved by someone anonymous since Ai Mi is simply a pseudonym and all that is known about her is that she now lives in the United States.

Why did the Chinese authorities originally try to block the work and then subsequently embrace it? Why should the author wish to remain unknown rather enjoy her celebrity and take the opportunity to promote the novel? I have no idea.

"Under The Hawthorne Tree" is a love story set in the years 1974-1976, towards the end of the Cultural Revolution, in a part of China that I have visited, in and around Yichang in Hubei province. It is told from the point of view of Jingqiu, a girl in her late teens who comes from a family with "bad class status" and is sexually innocent, even naive. She is pursued romantically by a young man in his mid 20s who is known by most as Old Third and is the soldier son a a senior cadre. Said to be a true story, while very readable and at the end quite moving, it is a simple tale, simply told, and it is difficult to understand all the excitement around the novel.

Unlike earlier so-called "scar literature", this is not really a political work and the Cultural Revolution is simply an austere backdrop rather than something to be examined and analysed. Of course, at that time, the very notion of the sort of romantic, even child-like, love represented here was politically unacceptable and, in the first pages, we are told "the idea of 'love' was considered the bad influence and the putrid remains of the capitalist class". As Jingqui's mother always tells her: "One slip leads down a road of hardship". It can only end in tears.

"Unexpected Lessons In Love" by Bernadine Bishop

Bishop wrote two novels in her early 20s but did not return to her first love fiction until 50 years later, after a career as a teacher and a psychotherapist, during which she married twice and had two chidlren from her first marriage. After her retirement in 2010 because of cancer, she went back to novel writing the day after she was told that her cancer was gone and subsequently penned three works - this being the first. She explained: "I remember the delight at being in control of my own story again". "Unexpected Lessons In Love" was published in January 2013 and Bishop died - the cancer had returned - in July 2013.

Unusually - but obviously shaped by the author's life experiences - two of the main characters in the novel are elderly women, one a former psychotherapist and the other a novelist, who have a colostomy (or stoma) and the work describes frankly the physical and psychological nature of this challenge. Both women find love but in unexpected places - hence the title - but other forms of love are explored as well. There is a telling line in the novel: "... love falls where it falls and, like other rare and precious commodities, it must be appreciated and cherished wherever it is found". As a grandparent of a young child, I especially related to the descriptions of the chief character with her grandchildren: "the most important and sustaining joy of her life"

Bishop writes well. Not all the characters are fully delineated, not everything is explained, and the conclusion is open-ended, but this is the nauture of the modern novel.

"Unless" by Carol Shields

This was Carol Shields' tenth and last novel, written during her time in Britain in the short period between her apparently successful treatment for breast cancer and the return of the disease which killed her in July 2003. It tells of a Canadian woman writer Reta Winters whose quiet domesticity is shattered by her 19 year old daughter inexplicably dropping out of her studies and sitting on a Toronto sidewalk holding a sign with the single word "Goodness". In a sense, this is similar territory to Nick Hornby's novel "How To Be Good" [for review, click here] and certainly Shields explores different concepts of 'goodness'; but she does more than that. As she herself put it in an interview: "I wanted the book to be about four things: men and women; writers and readers; goodness; mothers and children".

The 39 chapters of "Unless" are all titled with adverbs or prepositions ("little chips of grammar"), such as "So" or "Yet" or the title word itself ("Unless is the worry word of the English language"). Shields' characters are like these words - seemingly small and inconsequential, but in truth as valid and interconnected as any others. Shields' love of language is evident from her extensive vocabulary and marvellous fluidity, while her perceptive insights and wry humour make her a joy to read.

"V2" by Robert Harris

This is my seventh novel by Harris (he has written 14). He is never going to win the Booker or the Pulitzer, but he is a consummate storyteller whose forte is to set a fictional personal tale against a backdrop of actual historical events. In this case, the story takes place over five days at the end of November 1944 and alternate chapters provide the contrasting viewpoints of Kay Caton-Walsh, an officer with Britain's Women's Auxiliary Air Force who joins a task force in Belgium attempting to track the launch points of the V2 rockets, and of Rudi Graf, an engineer who has worked on the development of the V2 from the very beginning and is now playing a key role in the launching of these rockets from The Netherlands on to London and Antwerp.

There is a lot of fascinating detail about the development and launching of this vengeance weapon and the techniques for trying to track its trajectory. The absurdity is that this technological marvel - a development of which would one day take man to the moon - was a military nonsense. It cost the Nazi regime more than the US spent on the Manhattan Project and, while it was unstoppable, it had no effect on the war's development and four times as many people (some 20,000) died in the manufacture of the weapon than were killed by it.

Like all Harris's work, this is an immensely readable novel and it is entirely credible, excluding an absurd final paragraph. But there are two problems - one the responsibility of Harris and the other unavoidable. The first issue is that, with the exception of those nasty boys in the SS, the Germans are presented as decent souls who just happen to be caught up in the greatest assault on civilisation in the history of humankind. The second is that inevitably the conclusion is anti-climatic: we know that no V2 was stopped and no launch site was hit.

"A Visit From The Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan

The odd title is simply the forerunner to an even odder structure for this audaciously ambitious novel that won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2011. The title is only explained at the very end when one character says to another: "Time's a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?". So I guess the work is an examination of how time reshapes our lives and upsets our plans.

It has been famously stated that a story should have a beginning, a middle and an end - but not necessarily in that order. Egan has certainly taken this injunction to heart and her 13 chapters constantly jump back and forward in time with the earliest being set in the late 1960s and the latest in the near future. If one goes to a fiction writing class (as I have done to help me with my short story writing), one is told to select a particular point of view and then stay with it, but Egan has a different POV for each of her chapters. Even her narrative form changes: usually it is the traditional third person (albeit a differenr person each time), but she also adopts the less conventional first person and even outrageously the second person.

As well as different time-frames, there are different locations. Mostly it is positioned in New York City but there are chapters in California and ones in Africa and Naples. Finally her use of language is sometimes different. Parts of her last chapter in the near future use a kind of text-speak and one whole chapter breathtakingly takes the form of a PowerPoint presentation.

One could see the book as a series of standalone stories of frequently self-destructive characters - and many were published separately in "The New Yorker" and "Harper's" magazines - but the author clearly intends them to be taken as a series of interlocking tales because many of the individuals relate to one another and reoccur in different chapters, the whole fractured narrative connected by the milieu of the American rock and roll industry. The only novel with which I could compare "Goon Squad" is "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell, but at least Mitchell has a narrative structure - however fragmented - that one can understand.

Egan is a fine writer and has a truly elegant use of language. One has to admire her bravado but, for me, this post-modern attempt to redefine the nature of the novel is just too contrived.

"The War Of The Worlds" by H G Wells

In my teenage years, I read quite a lot of Wells and studied "The History Of Mr Polly" at school. However, while over the years I saw film and television versions and even listened to a musical interpretation of "The War Of The Worlds", I was 72 before I eventually read the novel which was first published as long ago as 1897. I was prompted finally to read this classic work by a chance visit to Horsell Common in Surrey where, in the narrative, the first Martians landed (at the time he wrote the novel, Wells lived in nearby Woking).

From the opening words, the reader is gripped:"No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that human affairs were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own". From then on, we are introduced to the cylinders from Mars, the Martians themselves, their towering tripods, the Heat-Ray, the Black Smoke, and the Red Weed. There is a wonderful chapter, entitled 'What We Saw From The Ruined House' which provides graphic details of the Martian anatomy including the practice of taking blood from living creatures - preferably humans - and injecting it into their veins.

The imaginative and exhilerating story of this fateful month is told in the first person by an unnamed "professed and recognized writer on philosophical themes" (clearly a stand-in for Wells himself) and, at times, there are some existential musings in the text. I read the novel during the global pandemic occasioned by the coronavirus and it is a neat irony that - spoiler alert - the Martians were finally felled by Earth's tiny and invisible bacteria.

"The Wasted Vigil" by Nadeem Aslam

Aslam was born in Pakistan but now lives in Britain and this remarkable novel - his third - is largely located around a house in a part of Afghanistan quite close to the Pakistan border and it is set in the period covering the Soviet invasion, Taliban rule, and the American occupation of this deeply troubled country. The home has its surreal elements: walls with paintings covered with mud, ceilings with books nailed to them, and outside an underground former perfume factory built around a huge, ancient head of Buddha lying on its side. The five characters who live in the house or visit it over a period of a few weeks are very varied but their lives intersect and each is looking for something - the vigil of the title.

Marcus is the owner of the house. He is English and aged 70; his left hand has been amputated as a punishment; his wife Qatrina and daughter Zameen are both dead, but his grandson Bihzad might be out there somewhere. Lara is a middle-aged Russian woman trying to find out how her brother Benedikt - a soldier with the occupying Soviet army - was killed after raping Zameen and fathering Bihzad. David is a middle-aged American, a hard-bitten CIA agent who once knew and loved Zameen. Casa is an Afghan youngster who has been trained as a terrorist but finds himself befriended by the others who are unaware of his intentions. James is a family friend of David, now serving as a member of the US special forces in the country, who is suspicious of Casa.

The narrative unfolds slowly and non-linearly in a long (over 400 pages) and beautifully-written work, exhibiting deep knowledge of local history and culture and passages of great lyricism and great brutality.

"Where My Heart Used To Beat" by Sebastian Faulks

This is the 13th novel by accomplished British author Sebastian Faulks, but only the second that I have actually read. The other novel was "Birdsong", a tale of love and loss set largely in the First World War. "Where My Heart Used To Beat" revisits some of the earlier themes, being a story of love and loss (what did you expect from the title?) set predominately in the Second World War but with a major sub-theme located in the once-called Great War. Whereas much of "Birdsong" takes place in Northern France, the principal location this time is Southern Italy, more specifically the battle at Anzio and recuperation outside Naples. My mother was from Naples and met my father there just after the war, so this novel had a special resonance for me.

The narrator is lonely Dr Robert Hendricks, a practising psychiatrist in his early 60s. The novel opens in 1980 and is structured around three visits to a tiny island off the French coast where he gives an account of his life to 93 year old neurologist Alexander Pereira who knew his father before he was killed in 1918.

A major theme is the inhumanity of the slaughterhouse that was the first half of the 20th century and Hendricks asserts: I'm bitter because I belong to a failed species. A disastrous mutation." Another important theme is that of memory and Pereira declares that "A man's life is not made up of the things that happened, but by his memory of them and the way in which he remembers." Other recurrent themes are the nature of mental illness and the destructiveness of love, with Hendricks suggesting at one point that being in love was "a kind of madness".

In short, this is an achingly sad story with a heart-rending conclusion, but it is wonderfully written, cleverly constructed and full of interesting thoughts.

"White Teeth" by Zadie Smith

How could a woman of just 24 write such an ambitious and assured first novel? Although Smith studied English Literature at Cambridge University, she never attended a creative writing class and she has insisted "none of my family appear in White Teeth in any obvious way". She has explained that: "The novel began as a short story which expanded". In fact, it runs to some 540 pages and covers the experiences of three families over three generations, focusing particularly on the Joneses (English/Jamaican) and the Iqbals (Bangladeshi) between 1975 and 1999.

Along the way, Smith manages to place her novel in locations as varied as a British tank in Romania at the end of the Second World War and a multi-cultural playground in north London in 1992 and weave in references to such eclectic topics as the Indian mutiny of 1857, the Jamaican earthquake of 1907, horticulture, genetic engineering and much else besides. She has said: "I wasn't trying to write about race", but problems of ethnicity and assimilation run in and out of this multi-layered work with its colourful - in several senses of the word - cast of characters and cultures.

Yet the whole thing is written in an immensely lively and humorous style that makes the novel a compelling read. It is set in the London Borough of Brent, where I have lived for the last decade and a half, and the author is only one year older than my son, so I can identify with many of the themes and loved Smith's ability to capture and mimic different ethnic accents. But this is a work than can be savoured by anyone interested in the contribution of diversity to contemporary society.

"Winter" by Len Deighton

Sometimes a book sits on the shelf for such a long time before it is read. This novel was bought for me in 1988 but it took me until 2023 before I actually read it. The Winter of the title is not a season of the year but the name of a German family and this epic novel - it runs to 536 pages - tells the story of that family from 1899 to 1945. Harald Winer is a Berlin businessman who invests in Zeppelin airships. He marries an American and they have two sons, Peter and Pauli who respond in different ways to the political turmoil of the new Germany. This family history is a prism for examining the First World War, then the rise of Nazism, and finally the Second World War. Leighton was a prolific author and did a formidable amount of research, so this novel is very readable and illuminating, but it follows so many characters over such a long period of time that one could really have done with a dramatis personae at the beginning.

"Winter In Madrid" by C J Sansom

Christopher John Sansom is a British writer of historical crime novels best-known for his Matthew Shardlake series set in Tudor England. He has written two standalone novels: "Dominion" (2012) which I read first and "Winter In Madrid" (2006) which I read rather later. While "Dominion" is set in a fictional Britain of winter 1952 when Britain has made peace with Nazi Germany, "Winter In Madrid" is largely set in 1940 just after the conclusion of the Spanish Civil War when Britain was concerned that Franco might take take his country into the Second World War on the side of Hitler and Mussolini who had assisted him during the civil war.

There are a limited number of characters, primarily three former students of Rookwood boarding school: Harry Brett who is recruited by the British secret service to establish the details of a suspected source of gold in Franco's Spain, Sandy Forsyth who is believed to be a key player in the development of a gold mine in the country, and Bernie Piper who was a member of the International Brigades in the civil war and long missing presumed dead. The devastated city of Madrid, with its appalling poverty and blatant corruption, is almost a character in itself and there is much mention of cigarette smoking and coffee drinking. As with "Dominion", Sansom does not hide his political stance which, in this case, is anti-fascist and pro-republican but critical of the revolutionary Left.

It has to be said that the historical portrayal of post-civil war Spain in this novel is more convincing than the plot which is very slow-burning with a rather downbeat ending. Sansom - who has both a BA and PhD in history - really does his research but his literary style is quite plain and his narrative is too thin. However, at over 500 pages, it was a satisfying enough read for the second lockdown of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.

Link: author's web site click here

"Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel

I don't read historical fiction, but this work won the Man Booker Prize in 2009 and I needed a long novel (this is 650 pages) for a trip to China.

The narrative covers nine years (1527-1535) that changed the course of English history as Henry VIII tired of his first wife Katherine of Aragon, who could not give him a male heir, and sought to take Anne Boleyn as his new wife, even if that meant breaking his nation away from the Church of Rome. There is an extensive cast of characters, with almost 100 helpfully listed before the text, and so many of the men are called Thomas and the women Mary. The central character though is Thomas Cromwell, a man of lowly upbringing who increasingly becomes an influential adviser to the monarch and we see events through his eyes which is an unconventional approach that offers a very much more sympathetic perspective on Cromwell than most historical accounts and new insights on personages such as Thomas More who is presented as cruel and stubborn.

In order to make Cromwell's perspective sharp to the reader, Mantel adopts two stylistic devices. First she uses the present tense throughout which is no problem. Additionally she very rarely uses Cromwell's name as the subject of a sentence but instead simply adopts the pronoun 'he' which is frequently quite confusing. Nevertheless this is a very readable and accomplished work, full of period detail, including gruesome reminders of how precarious life was with plague suddenly taking lives and how so-called heretics - such as those who read the 'wrong' Bible - were tortured before being hanged and disembowelled or simply burnt alive.

"A Woman In Jerusalem" by A.B. Yehoshua

At the end of a visit to Israel which included time in Jerusalem, I bought this novel - translated from Hebrew and shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2005 - at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport. The woman of the title is dead before the story begins - killed by a suicide bomber in a Jerusalem market - but we earn that Yulia Ragayev was a migrant worker, a mechanical engineer who finished up as a cleaner at a bakery in the city. In discovering her story, we also learn that of the bakery's human resources manager - never named - who explores why the bomb victim lay unclaimed in a morgue and proposes a way in which his company can atone for this apparent oversight. The writing is elegant, the narrative engaging, and the conclusion unexpected.

"The Word Is Murder" by Anthony Horowitz

Let's be clear: I don't read crime novels. But ... over the last year, I've been writing a book which consists of profiles of residents of the block of flats where I live by the River Thames in central London and one of my interviewees told me that our building features in a crime series. I learned that there are already five novels in the best-selling ‘Hawthorne and Horowitz’ series in which the first-named is the fictional ex-Detective Inspector Daniel Hawthorne, a resident of River Court, and the second-named is real-life author Anthony Horowitz. So I decided to read the first novel in the series and, sure enough, the final chapter contains a description of the building.

The plot is standard crime fiction fare: a woman is strangled six hours after organising her own funeral, a host of characters is placed under suspicion, before finally the murderer is revealed to be the least likely candidate and all the information about each of the characters is neatly tied together in the concluding sequence. It is an easy and enjoyable read but confirmed that this is not a genre for me.

"A World Of Difference" by 15 authors

This is the fifth anthology of short stories that I've read in this year (2009) when I myself have commenced writing short stories. All 15 stories are by different authors (drawn from all five continents), but they have in common that they were written in English in the last 50 years and that they deal with cultural encounters. I read the book on holiday in Iran and one of the authors, Rohinton Misty, was born in India in a community of Persian descent - his story is entitled simply "Squatter". A particularly enjoyable story - and the longest in the collection - is "One Out Of Many" by Nobel Laureate V S Naipaul who narrates the tale of a Bombay servant who finds himself living and working in the utterly different Washington DC.

"Wuthering Heights" by Emily Brontë

As a summer project, I decided to read a couple of English classic novels (the other "A Tale Of Two Cities") as, since I left school, I have barely touched the classics. This remarkable work was the only novel by this one of the three famous Brontë sisters and it was published in 1847, a year before she died aged just 30. I had always thought of it as a tragic romance between two lovers, but I found that it was much more complex and enigmatic than I had imagined.

There is not one relationship at the heart of the novel but at least two and possibly four. Even those unfamiliar with the work know that there is a great love between the beautiful but wilful Catherine Earnshaw and the rough-mannered, single-named Heathcliff. But this is only half the novel. The other half concerns the almost equally odd relationship between Catherine's daughter young Cathy and Heathcliff's son Linton. The other two lesser partnerships are between Catherine and the man she marries instead of Heathcliff, Edgar Linton, which is intense in its own way, and between young Cathy and Heathcliff's nephew Hareton.

These different loves are not pure and romantic but full of friction and fracture. All the characters - but most especially Catherine and Heathcliff - are mentally unstable and the physical and emotional violence exhibited by the psychotic Heathcliff makes this a dark and uncomfortable tale. This is a tiny, claustrophobic and incestuous world in which all the narrative takes place at Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, two homes only a long walk apart on the Yorkshire dales, and in which almost all the characters are related by blood or marriage. It is a sick world, both physically and mentally, with lots of fevers and madness and nobody dying - and many die - quietly of old age.

Unusually there is not a single narrator or point of view but several. The principal one is the servant first in Wuthering Heights, then in Thrushcross Grange, and finally back at the Heights, Nelly Dean. She seems to be loyal to the two Catherines but she is far from uncritical of them. How reliable her testimony is must be one of many enigmas in this black and opaque work.

Now I'm going to view the 1992 film with Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche ...

Link: Reader's Guide click here


Last modified on 22 May 2024

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