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For the Joy of Reading: Midwinter Break

Bernard MacLaverty is one of those authors who you can imagine holding an audience around the fire absolutely spellbound.   You can imagine him, in the Great Hall of Brian Boru or some other Irish King, plucking his harp and letting the story pour out of him.   I would certainly be one of those sitting there entranced.

This is the story of Gerry and Stella Gilmore, an aging couple on a midwinter break in Amsterdam from their home in Glasgow.   They have been married for a very long time and it is Stella who has decided that they need to have a little holiday in Amsterdam.    She has a reason for this which becomes clear at the start of the story.   She is interested in visiting the Begijnhof, a community of women withdrawn from the world, but not nuns, and in finding out about membership.

Gerry is unaware of this, but he has his own little secret or, at least, he thinks it is a secret.    It is his liking for the bottle.   Gerry, drunk and lost in the hotel corridor, is a comic tour de force.   This is the kind of little touch at which Bernard MacLaverty excels.   It is very funny and very human at the same time.   This is one of the moments when the reader warms to Gerry.   It is impossible not to like him.   He is a man who likes music, and who like his comforts, such as a dram of Jameson’s.   [Paddy does not get mentioned but then Gerry and Stella are from Belfast.   I am sure that Gerry would like Paddy too].

Stella is the more spiritual of the two, a devout Catholic, seeking the solace of her faith.   This is why she is interested in the Begijnhof, and has been researching it.   She remembers someone telling her about it, many years ago, and that memory has been haunting her.   For Stella, it holds out the possibility of a change in her life.

I have let slip here that Gerry and Stella fled to Glasgow from Belfast because of the troubles.   Understandably, they did not feel that Belfast in the 1970s was a safe place to bring up their son, which is why they moved to Glasgow.   The whole story is about uncovering the reason for their fear.   The whole story is about how they became the people that they are because of one event, one major traumatic event in the lives of two, until then, ordinary people.

I am in many ways chary of that phrase “ordinary people” because I do not think that Bernard MacLaverty considers anyone to be ordinary.   He sees what is unique in all of us, and that is what he brings to the fore in his storytelling.   That is why he is an absolute master at the art of storytelling.   That is why you must read this book.


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”.

For the Joy of Reading: Hunting the Eagles

The problem for any author who writes about the Julio-Claudian Roman Emperors is that the Robert Graves novels, “I, Claudius” and “Claudius the God” are unforgettable.   And if they are not haunted by the books, then they are by the Derek Jacobi TV series of the books.   Or at least that is what I think until I remember that the TV series was some 30-40 years ago, and that hardly anyone has read the books nowadays.   So if this review leads a few people to the Robert Graves books, the this review will have done some good.

Ben Kane deals with the Robert Graves problem by concentrating on an event that is peripheral to Graves’ story, but which was pivotal in the history of the Roman Empire, and therefore of Europe.   The defeat and destruction of three Roman legions in the Teutoberger Forest determined the history of the continent.   The Roman border was fixed at the Rhine for the next four centuries, until it was overwhelmed by invading German tribes.

“Hunting the Eagles” is about the aftermath of the death of the Roman General, Varus, and his three legions.   The Roman Emperor, Augustus, wanted revenge.   But this required careful planning and there were other matters to be dealt with, such as a rebellion along the Danube frontier in Pannonia.   The Emperor’s heir apparent, Tiberius Caesar, put down this rebellion and came to Rome to celebrate his triumph.   That is the start of the book, and how we are introduced to the major characters, Tullus, Fenestela, Piso and Vitellius and later to Germanicus Caesar, who is to command the Roman war of vengeance, and his wife Agrippina and their baby son, Gaius Caligula.

The other major character is Arminius, the German leader who rallied the various tribes to oppose Varus, ambushed him and inflicted such a crushing defeat that only a few hundred legionaries survived, and Varus himself was killed.   Most of the German characters are Arminius’ family, and we know about them because they are mentioned by Tacitus in his accounts of the history of Imperial Rome.

This is the second book in the “Eagles of Rome” trilogy so we will have met some of these characters before in “Eagles at War” and we will meet some of them again in “Eagles in the Storm” to be published next year.   This second book is set mainly in the barracks of the Roman imperial army along the banks of the Rhine and also in the German settlements on the east bank of the Rhine, or in the forests and bogs that were not farmed by the Germanic tribes.

Anyone who objects to barrack room language will not like this book.   It is however set in a barracks and Ben Kane has a deft touch in making his readers realise what it must have been like to be a legionary who survived the dreadful massacre, thirsting for revenge and hating Arminius with a visceral loathing.   Kane makes you understand the men that he puts before you as a reader.   He also makes you understand the German’s fury at the invasion of their lands, and their hatred of Roman imperial arrogance.    You could change the time and the location, and it does not take any imagination to grasp how invaded peoples feel about their invaders.

Kane marches you through the mud and the gloom of the German forests.   He terrifies you during the fighting.   He makes you feel the relief when the fighting is over.   You grasp the grievances and the anger.   You understand the political machinations, the tactics and the strategy of the commanders.   You learn that a good non-commissioned officer can make all the difference.   You march to war with the men, not the generals.   This is not a comfortable read, but it makes non-combatants like me have some understanding of the realities of close combat and wat.

For the Joy of Reading: Infinite Ground

Carlos has disappeared.   He got up from a restaurant table and went to the bathroom.   He did not come back.   That, I think, is all that you need to know about the plot.   What follows is a description of the investigation.   This is not a police procedural or any of the other classic crime formulae.   It is an investigation into the nature of reality.

So what do we know.   The setting is somewhere in South America along the valley of the river Parana.   This means that the country could be Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil or Argentina.   The names are no guide, because they could be either Spanish or Portuguese.   We know that there is a forest, and the description is that of a rain forest, but that is not much help.   That could be any of the four countries mentioned.   We know that the Inspector is nearing the end of his career.   This suggests that he could have been the cause of several disappearances during the military dictatorships in those countries.   There is however little reference to his early career as a policeman, and no suggestion of guilt or even regret.   What we have is a magic reality, and we as readers surely cannot be certain of anything.

I am not even sure what is the best way to describe what this book is about.   In a detective series such as Sherlock Holmes, he always began by eliminating the impossible and concluding that whatever was left, however improbable, must be the truth or, at least, the solution to the mystery.   The problem with Infinite Ground is that all the solutions are both improbable and impossible. It is not even clear that Carlos actually existed.   The Inspector sent to investigate the case has to embark upon a surreal search that does not appear to have any purpose, any possibility of solving the case.

He is hindered by witnesses, Carlos’ relatives, colleagues both of Carlos and himself, all of whom seem to put barriers and difficulties in the way of his investigation.   His thought processes, to me, do not seem to be logical, and they lead him into very strange places.   This is a Kafka novel written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.   I cannot think of higher praise than that.

So, let us turn to the writing.   It is beautiful.   The prose lures you into the story.   Each sentence is carefully written so that you do not want to stop reading.   You may not have the slightest idea about what is actually happening, but that is part of the surreal nature of the book.   You read on hoping for clarity, you get none, and yet you read on hoping for clarity.

Martin MacInnes is a writer of extraordinary ability.   He is clearly someone to follow.   Atlantic Books are to be commended for daring to publish this book, a first novel, and for taking a considerable amount of care with the production to enhance the beauty of the reading experience.

Be sure that you read this book.


For the Joy of Reading: Dirt

I first came across William Letford at a literary event in Glasgow called “Discombobulate”.   He was mesmerising.   The soft cadences of his voice matched perfectly with his poetry.   Then he published his first poetry collection “Bevel” which I took with me on a trip to South Africa, where I was cataloguing a library.   Now his second collection, Dirt, has been published and I have it with me in Bangladesh where I am cataloguing a library.  I seem fated to take Billy Letford’s poetry with me on long journeys to places where I am cataloguing a library, as something to do during my retirement.

This book is enchanting, but not in the insipid sense of the word.   Letford makes you listen to what he is saying in his verse, and requires you to think deeply.   He makes no compromises with his language, requiring you to make the effort when it comes to understanding Scots.   He also writes in a Standard English that is truly breath-taking, capturing the moment with a word or a phrase.   In one poem he describes a couple not wanting to get out of bed, and fantasising about the reasons for not doing it until reality kicks in, and the woman recognises that she has to get ready for work.    In another, he describes a confrontation with some wild dogs in Pushkar and how it is a local who knows what to do who drives the dogs away.  [I suppose this resonates with me because I am in Bangladesh, and there are plenty of dogs on the streets.]

Letford always chooses the right word, captures the moment, and brings you as the reader to an understanding of what is happening, of his thoughts about the things that he is describing.   In this he is truly remarkable.   He is particularly brilliant in describing people coping with uncomfortable situations, such as an interview being conducted by a “middle management centaur, half man, half desk” or a visit to his granny who he finds smoking a joint, not really to his surprise.

He also writes about the sublime, the inevitable, how two people come together, not necessarily for ever, but for long enough for them to influence each other.   His poem, “Young Rambo” is a glorious example of how a few words can change someone.   In “Marriage” someone, presumably the best man, is wishing that the couple experience “the incidental, the ordinary”, knowing someone by the way they move their fork.   In “The North” he describes the birth of two people who are to become a couple, and how they will eventually meet.

This is a remarkable collection of poems.   You will give yourself a huge treat if you decide to read it.

For the Joy of Reading: Last Bus to Coffeeville


If you are looking for a book that is the love-child of “On the Road” and “Huckleberry Finn” with a smidgeon of euthanasia thrown in, look no further.   This is the book for you.

It is a road trip, in which a motley band of fugitives head down the Mississippi Valley towards Coffeeville for a tryst with destiny.   It is also a story about the last 60 years of US history.   There are brief encounters with Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.   There are glimpses of the icons of the period – Elvis Presley, Martin Luther King and Hershey bars.   There is that glorious moment when the Freedom Riders get on buses to desegregate the South.   And we are given a hint of what awaits baby boomers as they get old.

The story begins with the reader meeting three ex-students from Duke University.   There…

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For the Joy of Reading: Sexy Haiku

As a rule, I do not like Haiku.   There is nothing wrong with the form.   It is more the way that it has been latched onto by people who want to demonstrate how clever they are.   And that, of course, is very unfair of me.   Because there are a lot of people out there who write haiku because it is the form that suits what they want to say.

Nick Brooks is one of those people.   He wants to tell a story and he has chosen haiku as his form because it is precise, it demands discipline in the writing, it is lyrical and the reader has to concentrate in order not to miss important details.   This is a story about a sexual relationship told in graphic detail, sparing no blushes at all.   If you are embarrassed about describing the activity which placed us all on this planet, you will not get beyond the first ten pages.   If, on the other hand, you are aware of how ridiculous sex can be, and  can laugh about it, then you will admire the skill, dexterity and downright honesty which Nick Brooks uses to describe this most popular of human pastimes.

Any author who can write this haiku, definitely has a sense of humour.

“What arouses you?

Just the usual     a really hot curry

ten pints of lager.”

A haiku for Glasgow, or anywhere, on a Saturday night.   And that really is my point.   Nick Brooks uses the haiku form to create an image in your mind.   And he goes from haiku to haiku linking these images, introducing characters and creating a story for his readers to think about.   Given that the haiku form is very precise and contained, this is a remarkable achievement.

And now for an admission.   Nick Brooks was one of the users of the library service where I worked.    I do not know if we did anything to nurture his talent, although I hope that we did.   I hope that we played our small part in the development of this astonishing writer.   Because that is what he is – a writer to be savoured and enjoyed.