Category Archives: Books and reading

For the Joy of Reading: Under the Almond Tree

This is a very strange book.   To describe it as surreal is something of an understatement.   It is the story of a journey, certainly of a spiritual journey, and possibly of an actual journey.   It is the story of how Samar, a young Afghan girl, survives in her flight from Kabul to Moscow and there is also the question about whether or not she actually does survive.   You will have to decide that.

The story is told from a train on the Trans-Siberian Railway, with flashbacks to a yellow house in Kabul, where Samar’s family lived, with an almond tree in its garden.   Slowly, the tale of how Samar became a refugee begins to unfold.   During the telling of the tale, you will meet her parents and grandparents, her brothers and sisters, her friends and the friends of her family, and several really nasty and unpleasant people.   You will also discover that Samar has a really powerful imagination, and that this is one of the things that helps her to survive.

You will also discover that she is immersed in books, and that “Anna Karenina” has a very special attraction for her.   The passionate love between Anna and Vronsky appeals to her, as does the throwing of all caution to the winds.    Partly, it is because her family have to do exactly that in order to escape from the Taliban, and partly it is because she thinks, from the beginning of the book, that her mother may have had an affair.   The evidence for this is circumstantial, and you will have to decide what actually happened between Madar and Arsalan.

That is both the problem with the book and also its great strength.   You have to decide what is true and what is a product of Samar’s imagination, and, as you will discover, she certainly has an imagination.   Therefore each reader will come to a different conclusion, as they decide what did happen, and what did not happen, and therefore what is true and what is not.   Samar is, I suppose, an unreliable narrator.

Laura McVeigh says that she did not choose to write this book.   The story chose her and she had to write it.   That is true of every story and every book, in its own particular way.   You will have to decide whether or not you believe this story.


For the Joy of Reading: A Necessary Evil

Sam Wyndham and Surrender-Not Banerjee are back.   For the readers of “A Rising Man” this will be enough for you to know that this is a “must read” book.   The rest of you need to discover the joy that is Abir Mukherjee’s writing.   It is a discovery that is worth making.

The story begins with the assassination of the Yuvraj, Crown Prince Adhir Singh Sai, heir to the princely state of Sambalpore at the start of the festival of the Lord Jagannath.   [This is the festival that gave English the word juggernaut because of the size of the chariot, bearing the image of the god, being pulled by thousands of devotees through the streets.]   Sam Wyndham and Surrender-Not have the misfortune of being in the car with the Prince when he is shot by a devotee of the god Vishnu.   I should also explain, and this point is as good a place as any, that Surrender-Not is not Sergeant Banerjee’s real name.   It is Surendranath, but Surrender-Not is the closest that the officers of the Raj can get to pronouncing a Bengali name.   So the book is off to a rip-roaring start, and Sam and Surrender-Not inevitably get dragged into the investigation.

From this moment, the pace does not slacken at all.   This is a Sherlock Holmes murder mystery set in Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills, but with a fine understanding of the inherent and racist politics of the British Raj.   The relationship between Sam Wyndham and Annie Grant has echoes of John Masters’ “Bhowani Junction”.

We enter the world of the princely state of Sambalpore, where the intrigues of the court are Byzantine in their complexity, with a dying Maharaja, a scheming Prime Minister, a revolutionary teacher, squabbling princes and, looming over it all, a Viceroy who needs the assistance of Sambalpore in his scheme to ensure the continuation of British rule in India. The murder of the Crown Prince throws all this into confusion.   Suddenly there is everything to play for, and Sam Wyndham and Surrender-Not take it upon themselves to find out who was behind the assassination of the Crown Prince.

And this is one of the strengths of the book.   The characters are well-drawn.   Sam Wyndham was traumatized by his experiences in the trenches during the First World War.   He has developed his own strategy for dealing with this, and it is more than a little unorthodox for someone working as a police officer for the British Raj.   Even more unorthodox is his relationship with Annie Grant, an Anglo-Indian.   Nowadays, of course, we would not bat an eyelid, but this is British India in the 1920s.   Then, there is the fact that he shares his accommodation with Surrender-Not.   So Sam Wyndham is a truly unusual man for his time.   All you have to do is think of Paul Scott’s “The Raj Quartet” to realise just how unusual he is.

Surrender-Not is also unusual.   He comes from a Brahmin family wealthy enough to have him educated at Harrow.   This is how he came to know Prince Adhir, who was a few years above him at the school.   As you may imagine, his family are not too happy about him working as a police sergeant and it is a sort of running joke between him and Sam Wyndham that his mother is searching for a potential bride.   This would be a sort of Holmes and Watson pairing, except that it is Surrender-Not who has the eye for detail.

Annie Grant is not the caricature love interest either.   She is a woman of ambition, with a mind of her own, and knowing perfectly well what she wants from life and how she is going to achieve it.   She is quite aware that Sam is infatuated with her, and she is quite capable of exploiting that.

So you have strong characters and a fast-moving plot.   What else could you require from a thriller?   Oh yes, a motive for the murder that explains the title “A Necessary Evil”.   You get that as well, but telling you what it is would involve giving away the plot, and that would spoil it.

So give yourself a real treat and read this book.

For the Joy of Reading: Gull

For anyone who remembers the De Lorean fiasco, this is an essential read.   It is a novel, not a historical account of what happened, and that does mean that at least some of the story is invented because some of the characters are the products of the author’s imagination.   I do not even know if there was someone called Edmund Randall, who is the protagonist.   I have not bothered to check, because it would not add anything to the novel to find out if he is real or not.   In the novel, it is Edmund Randall, a motor journalist, who sets John Z. De Lorean to thinking about a truly innovative car simply by asking a question about the car that De Lorean was trying to sell to the American public.   Whether this is true or not, I do not know and I can think of even less reason to care.   That is part of the joy of this book.   It carries you along with the story that the author wishes to tell.   It is, of course, a true story but it is told as Glenn Patterson wishes to tell it, and that is as an historical romp with consequences.

There are a hell of a lot of egos at play in this book.   The first is that of John Z De Lorean himself, a visionary, and a charlatan.   The second is Margaret Thatcher, convinced that she was right and that there was no alternative.   Then there is Bobby Sands, convinced to the point of death in the Irish Republican cause.   The only one of these three that is an actual character in the book is De Lorean himself.   Thatcher is once on the end of a telephone and Bobby Sands is a brooding presence in prison.   The three of them, however, dominate the book because it is their actions that determine the fate of the De Lorean car and therefore the Belfast factory.   Everyone else is by comparison a pawn in a game that is driven by ideology, finance and sheer bloody stubbornness.

There are some nasty characters in this book.   Of course, there are the gunman, everywhere, but lurking in the shadows.   We never get to meet them, but we know they are there because we do get to meet the armoured police, the security guards and we feel the fear.   And then there is the Conservative MP, Nicholas Winterton, who makes a damaging comment, because of his ideological opposition to state intervention.   [I admit that I have always had a particular dislike of this man because of his vehement opposition to imposing sanctions against apartheid South Africa, and his intervention in the De Lorean case only confirms me in my opinion of the man].

Amidst all this politicking there are ordinary people, like Liz and Robert and their two boys, trying to make lives for themselves in such a difficult situation.   There is TC, who wants to become s supervisor and who is taking his City and Guilds exams.   There is Anto, who is a good solid trade unionist, and June, who is having an affair or two, while her fiance is on the rigs.   These are ordinary people, working at or connected to the De Lorean factory, and whose lives are dependent upon the successful manufacture of a new, revolutionary car.   These are the people who you feel for.   These are the victims of the machinations of the financiers, of the government and of their own history.

Glenn Patterson leads his readers through all the complexities of this plot with great skill.  He makes sure that you are aware of the historical developments while concentrating on the lives of his protagonists, particularly Edmund Randall and Liz.   He tells his tale with a skill and compassion, and even manages to make us feel sorry for De Lorean himself.   That, in itself, is an achievement.

This is not a history of the De Lorean company.   It is not a history of Northern Ireland during the troubles.   But it gives you a feel for the time and for a lost opportunity.   For that reason alone, this book is worth reading.

For the Joy of Reading: The Fatal Tree

Welcome to Romeville – where mort or cove, if you would not be a cull, you should be peery of jades and prigs and especially of the prig-napper.

And you probably did not understand very much of that because, like this book, it is written in cant, the language of London’s 18th century underworld.   You will need to make the effort, because this book is too good for you to miss.   It is, of course, much easier to understand if you were brought up in the East End of London, where some of the words are still in use.   And some of the words – gob, jabber, phiz – have entered the common language.   There is also a useful glossary at the back of the book, which is very helpful when you are getting lost.

So why should you read this book.   Well, the tale of Jack Sheppard and Edgworth Bess is one of the great love stories of London, far more exciting that Victoria and Albert or even Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy.   And that is because it is true.   Jack Sheppard and Edgworth Bess were the Bonnie and Clyde of their time, although they did not kill anyone.  They went on a burgling and gaol-breaking spree that held London enthralled at the time.  They attracted the literary talent of Daniel Defoe to describe their crimes.   They gave a glamour to the criminal underworld in London that was exploited by the Krays and the Great Train Robbers in my own lifetime.   Jack Sheppard was the original Jack the Lad, and Edgworth Bess was possibly the model for Moll Flanders.

Then you have Jonathan Wild.   He was a true life villain to rival Fagin, but he played both sides of the law to his own advantage and profit.   Jonathan Wild, of course, was notorious as the infamous Thief-taker General, the man who had the occasional underling in his gang hanged, to encourage the others.   And one of the central characters is Romeville, London itself, with its whores and thieves and pickpockets, its taverns, theatres and mollyhouses.   I, as a graduate of the LSE, particularly liked the fact that Jack Sheppard’s mother lived in Clare Market.

If this all sounds to you like “The Beggar’s Opera” that is because John Gay based his play on the lives of Jack Sheppard, Edgworth Bess and Jonathan Wild.   Gay is one of the characters in this book, taking us by the hand and walking us through the streets of London.   It really has not changed that much.

Jake Arnott gives us a rollicking yarn, told from the point of view of Edgworth Bess.   All the historical accounts have blamed her for seducing Jack Sheppard into a life of crime, making her the femme fatale.   Arnott gives us a story that is not as simple as that.   The fates of Jack Sheppard and Jonathan Wild are a matter of historical record, but I am not going to spoil the book by telling you what happened.   Edgworth Bess disappeared from the historical record.   You must decide if Arnott’s reason for that works for you.   It does for me.   I will say no more.

For the Joy of Reading: The Automobile Club of Egypt

Make no mistake about it.   This is a book about the Arab Spring.   It may be set in the Egypt of King Farouk (who is never named in the book).   It may be about a petty tyrant exerting his power over the servants at the Club.   But it is about the Arab Spring.   It is about an ordinary family caught up in the politics of the time, and how their ordinary lives have a transformative power.   It is about resilience, it is about dignity, it is about hope.

The heart of this story is the Gaafar family.   Abd-el-Aziz Gaafar had been a rich landowner who took his religious duty to assist the poor seriously to the point of getting himself into financial difficulties which led to him selling his land and moving his family to Cairo.   He takes a menial post at the Automobile Club of Egypt where he comes into conflict with Alku, the tyrannous Royal Chamberlain, who is responsible for staff affairs at the Club.   It is from this clash that the rest of the story grows.

Each member of the family finds his or her own way to deal with their situation.   Said, the eldest son, marries and seeks to build a life for his new family regardless of the others, Kamel becomes a nationalist and political activist, Mahmud sells his body to old ladies for easy money, Ruqayyah seeks the quiet dignity of being a homemaker for her three sons and her daughter Saleha who wants to complete her education at university.   Each one of them will play a role in the developing history of Egypt.   This is a story of how ordinary people can shape events simply by being themselves, and doing those things that they have to do.

Even Alku, for all his viciousness, is trying to serve his country by doing what he can to ensure the safety of the King, and to maintain the monarchy.   It is not his fault that the King is dissolute – well, perhaps it is, but that is an integral part of the story and you will have to decide for yourselves.   And lurking behind all this are the British, occupying the country and using the King and the Egyptian nobility as a cover for their exploitation of the country which, of course, is the fuel for the nationalism of Kamel and the others.

It is quite obvious to me, however, that although the story is set in the late 1940s and early 1950s, it is about any tyranny.   It is about the fear of the ruling class, and the methods that they use to maintain control.   It is about petty officials trying to exert their authority and to pursue their own interests in a colonial regime.   But most of all, it is about people asserting their dignity.   Alku is very like the villain of George Orwell’s “Burmese Days” and Abd-el-Aziz Gaafar is like Cavaradossi in Tosca.

And now I hope I have said enough to persuade you to read the book.   Any more, and I will give away the plot, and especially the denouement.

For the Joy of Reading: Hauling-Out

I have known Samuel Tongue over part of the period that he has been putting this collection of poetry together.   I have known him as thoughtful and intelligent.and more than capable of using language to express his ideas clearly and succinctly.   That is just in conversation.   It is not until now that I have read one of his poetry collections.   This is because “Hauling-Out” is his first.   It is extraordinary, truly a joy to read.

Whales play a significant part in this collection, especially the Leviathan that God reveals to Job.   One poem, The International Whaling Commission Answers Back, begins with “Canst thou draw out Leviathan with an hook?   Or let his tongue with a cord, which thou lettest down?”   And there are other references, to a painting of the whale that was beached at Scheveningen in The Netherlands, or about why the whale was hunted.   The one whale that hangs over this collection, but which is not mentioned, is the white whale, Moby Dick.

My favourite poem though is Capel-y-Ffin.   Samuel Tongue translates the Welsh name as Chapel at the end, but it could equally be Chapel at the edge or Chapel on the boundary.   Capel-y-Ffin is in the Honddu valley.   The next valley, going east, is the Dore Valley or Golden Valley, which is in England.   [Dwr pronounced Dore is the Welsh word for water]. Capel-y-Ffin is at the end, the edge, the boundary of Wales.   And Samuel tongue describes it accurately.   There is a window inscribed with the opening lines of Psalm 121: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills” and when you do, the mountains around the chapel are frequently black with rain.   You see mountainous clouds “from whence cometh the black rain”.   You see the sheep “rotting in their fleeces”.   The hills truly do keep us together giving us something to believe in, and the buzzard does mew in flight.   Samuel Tongue captures the essence of the place, and that is truly remarkable.

One complaint: I do not wish to wait another ten years before I read Samuel Tongue’s next collection of poetry.   So, Sam, can you please get on with it?


For the Joy of Reading: Crash Land

I love Doug Johnstone’s books.   They do not end happily ever after.   He recognises that life is messy, that people make mistakes and that there are consequences.   And there is no question that Finn makes a mistake.   It is not so much that he lets an older woman chat him up at Orkney Airport, when it is obvious that she is only doing it to get away from an oil worker who is sexually harassing her.   It is the fact that he gets involved in a fight with the oil worker on a plane when all he had to do was call one of the stewards for help.   This fight leads to the crash landing of the title and, this being a Doug Johnstone novel, mayhem follows.

Doug Johnstone obviously thinks that the Scottish Islands are places of dark passion and extreme violence.   If you don’t believe me, read Smokeheads.   There are enough bodies in Crash Land to make the Midsomer Murders look restrained.   This book, however, is much more interesting than that because Doug Johnstone does not shy away from the ethical issues.   To my mind, ethical issues lie at the heart of Johnstone’s writing, and his main characters do not always make the right choices.   And Finn, as I have already said, does not necessarily make the right choices.   He certainly does not make the sensible ones.

I cannot explain this conclusion because that would involve giving away the plot of the book.   So what can I tell you about?   I will start with the style.   Johnstone is a master storyteller.   He knows how to spin a yarn.   He leads the reader on from cliffhanger to cliffhanger.   Have no doubt about that.   You will really want to know what happens next, and what will happen to Finn and Maddie.   You may think that Finn is insane to get himself involved with Maddie, but you will certainly understand why he does.   She is the classic femme fatale, prepared to use a young man for her own convenience, but you will wonder if she actually falls for Finn.   If you think of D’Artagnan and Milady de Winter, you will get the idea.   Or of Ava Gardner’s character in Showboat singing “Can’t help loving that man of mine”.   Maddie is that kind of dangerous woman.

Doug Johnstone is superb at writing thrillers.   He writes with verve and urgency.   The motivations of his characters are plausible.   You will not want to put this book down and at the ending you will think “Please God, no”.