Tag Archives: Fiction

For the Joy of Reading: Black Robe

This is a story about a clash of cultures, about misunderstandings and incomprehension.   It is about French Jesuit missionaries coming into contact with Native Americans along the St. Laurence River in the seventeenth century.   The story is set in the early seventeenth century at the same time as the Three Musketeers.   Father Laforgue and D’Artagnan are contemporaries.   Cardinal Richelieu even makes a fleeting appearance in Black Robe.   But these are separate worlds.

A closer comparison would be to “The Last of the Mohicans” set a century later, and in the British colonies to the south.    But do not expect the noble savage, as envisioned by Rousseau.   Neehatin and Chomina are not Chingachgook and Uncas.   They are not even noble villains like Magua, someone you can hate but respect.   They are foul-mouthed, and can be quite cynical and vicious.

The world views however are quite different, and this is made very clear in the course of the telling of this story.   The Jesuits, obviously, and the French in general have a Christian worldview, a view of salvation gained through the sacrifice of the Cross and the miracle of the Resurrection.   They believe in the Sacraments, and especially that in the Eucharist or Communion the bread and wine is transformed into the body and blood of Christ.   Neehatin, Chomina and the others find this utterly incomprehensible.   For them, the world is sentient, filled with what we would call divinity.   They believe in the power of dreams, and they use dreams to guide the way in which to live their lives.   Basically, they believe that the Jesuits are sorcerers, and they are afraid of their power.

So when Father LaForgue sets off upriver to join a Jesuit settlement, he sets in motion a series of events over which he has no control.   The worst of this, for the Father, is the sexual relationship between his young assistant, Daniel, known as Iwanchou, and Chomina’s daughter, Annuka.   Chomina also does not believe that Iwanchou is a suitable husband for his daughter and does his best to finish the relationship.   This has deadly consequences.

There will be some passages which will shock you.   There is torture, there is murder, there is cannibalism.   This is a culture that is red in tooth and claw.   What hangs over this story, however, is the fear that one culture will destroy the other.   In this world, that makes this an important book to read.

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For the Joy of Reading: Hings

The problem with writing in Glaswegian is that you limit your audience.   The advantage is that you write in a vibrant, poetic, exciting language that gives you a feeling for the street, for the everyday speech of an extraordinary people.  There will be some people who will not make the effort to read these stories, and that will be their loss.   Chris McQueer is a genius at the writing.   He has lines like “Look pal, if ae wanted tae hear an arsehole talk…ah wid’vd farted”.  How can you not like something that reflects Glasgow pub patter so well.   And, if you don’t, take that as fair warning not to read this book.    Because the language is far worse than that, as is the everyday language of Glasgow.

These stories have a wonderful logic, of which Myles na Gopaleen and Gerard Hoffnung would have been proud.   [And if you don’t know who I am talking about, Google them because I can’t be bothered to explain.   Or as Chris McQueer would undoubtedly say “arsed”].   You can feel the characters on a trajectory to, not necessarily, disaster but to a sort of unavoidable future, whether it is Postman Pat, stoned out of his mind, Sammy having been given a samurai sword or Maureen, Annie and Daz ending up in Tokyo because they were filmed by Japanese tourists in Easterhouse.   Chris McQueer is Billy Connolly on speed, with a touch of the Sean Connery gravitas to make it believable.

Sammy is one of the characters who appears in three of these stories, and we follow him from his Da dying of food poisoning, through the funeral to his uncle’s Christmas present.   As Sammy says, it is mental.   Big Angie, the bowls player, is the one who dominated this collection of short stories for me.    This is partly because she is the main character in the longest of these short stories, and partly because she is not as hard as she seems.   She is a comic creation on a Falstaffian scale, and not just because they are both fat.

Anyway, if you have not got by now that this book is a treat, then you never will.   So I will “haud my wheesht”.   Just read it, unless you are a “prissy wan” offended by bad language.   Because this has bad language at Point 15 on the Richter Scale.

For the Joy of Reading: Fault Lines

Doug Johnstone requires you to believe two improbable things at the start of this book.   First, that a volcanic island has erupted in the Firth of Forth, turning Edinburgh into an earthquake zone.   And secondly, that Louise, a geologist going into labour at the time of the eruption, decides to call her daughter Surtsey.   This is the volcanic island that emerged to the south of Iceland during such an eruption in, if I remember correctly, the 1960s.   Personally, I find the former more likely than the latter, but then people from Edinburgh are capable of anything.

Surtsey is the central character of this story.   It begins with a murder on the said volcanic island, which is called The Inch, from the Gaelic, Inish, which means island.   The one thing that we know is that it is not Tom Lawrie, one of Surtsey’s two lovers, because he is the corpse.   We also know that Surtsey was going to meet him on the Inch, for a romantic tryst, and that when she finds the corpse she rows away as fast as she can.   That happens in the first five to ten pages.   The question is, who did it?   And why?

One other person can be ruled out, and that is Louise because she is terminally ill in a hospice overlooking the Firth.   But otherwise, there are plenty of suspects.   Is it Alice, Tom’s vengeful wife?   Is it Halima, who likes getting Surtsey doped to the eyeballs?   Is it Iona, Surtsey’s sister, who is not coping with Louise’s illness?   Is it Brendan, Surtsey’s other lover?  Is it Donna, the old school friend?   Is it Bastian, the leader of the New Age protesters, who want the Inch left in peace?   At one point, I thought it might even be either Yates or Flanagan, the Rebus-like policemen, but lacking his vivacity and charm.   This should give you a clue about how difficult it is to work out whodidit?   I did, but it took me quite some time.

There is also a logic to the way that the story progresses.   From the discovery of Tom’s corpse, being devoured by seagulls and crows, and Surtsey running away, the possible options for her become more and more limited.   She has fled from a crime scene.   There are questions that run through her head.   When will the body be discovered?   Was she seen on the Inch?   Can she cover her tracks?   And, of course, who killed him?   This is not the usual progression in a detective story.   We know that she has something to hide, and we know what it is.   But this is not a detective story: it is a thriller.   There are certainly are thrills – plenty of them.    Doug Johnstone knows how to keep you on tenterhooks.

But enough of the story line.   You will need to read the book to find out what happens.   I am not going to tell you.   What I will tell you is that Doug Johnstone writes very much in the tradition of Raymond Carver.   To describe the writing style as short and pithy does not do these sentences the justice that they deserve.   They are sharp and to the point.   There is not a word wasted.   There is no fat in them to be trimmed away.   Yet, they manage to be elegant, conveying precisely the trajectory of the story.

One final thing: I got this book at the launch event last night in Edinburgh and I finished it over breakfast this morning.   I did get some sleep last night, but it was not enough.   I blame you, Doug Johnstone.

For the Joy of Reading: The Darkness

Ragnar Jonasson is a find.   This is someone who knows how to write a detective thriller.   He knows how to build a character.   He knows how to paint the background details of his detective and of the plot.   He knows how to make you want to find out what is going on.   This possibly comes from the fact that he spent his early years, from 17 onwards, translating Agatha Christie into English.   I think, however, that it is more to do with innate talent and the ability to know how to construct a story.   You will have to judge for yourself.

Describing the plot is quite difficult, because I do not want to give away the twists and turns, and I certainly do not wish to give away the ending as that will spoil the story and probably the two subsequent novels, still to be published, in this trilogy.   Sufficient to say that you will be taken aback.

Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdottir is approaching retirement.   She has had a miserable life.   Both her husband and her daughter have died in separate but tragic incidents.   She was a child of a single parent in the 1950s  when these things were distinctly not approved of.   Her father was an American airman who left Iceland without even knowing that Hulda’s mother was pregnant.   Her mother did not even know his surname.   All of this emerges in the course of the book.

The only thing that Hulda enjoys is her job, and the story starts with her facing forcible early retirement to make room for a rising star,   She is given a choice of cold cases that she can solve as a consolation prize.   She chooses the case of Elena, a Russian asylum applicant, who was found dead on a beach near Reykjavik just after her asylum application had been granted.

Hulda smells a rat, and when she discovers that the case was only cursorily and incompetently investigated, she is off like a bloodhound scenting a trail.   That is all I am going to tell you.   Anything else could give away the plot

I suggest that you read this book yourselves.   This is another name to add to the stable of excellent Nordic noir writers.   Ragnar Jonasson is a name to watch.

For the Joy of Reading: The Mandelbaum Gate

There is a problem in reading this book some 53 years after it was published.   There have been events.   History has moved on.   Back then, Israel still benefitted from the wave of sympathy generated by the Holocaust.   That is no longer the case.   It ceased being the case during the 1970s, as Israel behaved with increasing brutality.   It ceased being the case with the massacres at Sabra and Chatila.   It ceased being the case during the Intifada.

But back in 1965, Israel was still regarded as a victim.   Certainly, the survivors of the Holocaust had been victims as was proved conclusively at the Eichmann Trial which is the event that gives this book its connection to history.   But I, at least, cannot re-read this book without the knowledge of hindsight.   That is part of the problem.

The other is a problem that I hope that I had at the time.   The central characters re not very likeable.   Freddy, in the unlikely circumstances that he was still alive today, would probably be a Faragista.   His view of the Common Market is summed up in one phrase: What is the point in living so close to foreigners, if we are going to allow them to put us out of business?   This comes from someone who has not done a stroke of productive work in his life.   Freddy also has a domineering mother in Harrogate who manages to interfere in his life although he is over a thousand miles away.   Barbara is the Muriel Spark figure.   She is a half-Jewish Catholic convert seeking permission from the Vatican to marry Harry Clegg, a divorced archaeologist, working on the Dead Sea Scrolls.   Her friend, Ricky, Miss Rickward, is seeking to thwart her in this for purely selfish reasons (he is working class and therefore below Barbara).   Then there are the Gardnors, Rupert and Ruth.   Rupert is a colleague of Freddy in the diplomatic service in Israel and Ruth is his virulently anti-Semitic wife.   Basically, what we have is a group of upper middle-class Englishmen and women, brought up before the war and appalled by the Welfare State.    They make Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells look moderate.

What is surprising about a book set in Israel is that there are only two Israelis – Saul Ephraim and Mendel – in the book, and neither of them are really significant characters.   There are also Barbara’s fully Jewish relatives, the Aaronsons, but they are only there to establish that she is half-Jewish and therefore in danger if she goes to Jordan as a pilgrim, which of course, in her arrogance, she does.

There are considerably more Palestinians in the book – the Ramdez family, Alexandros and others.   There are also a number of priests and nuns, who make what can only be described as cameo appearances.

So, what is the book about?   It is about Barbara and her wish to visit the Christian shrines of the Holy Land, regardless of which side of the border they are on and regardless of the difficulties that this will cause because she is Jewish on her mother’s side.   The relationship between Israel and the Kingdom of Transjordan (now Jordan) was one of undeclared war.   The British, having suffered the ignominy of Suez, were paranoid about President Nasser and Egypt.   So Barbara disguising herself in a hijab and crossing the border at the Mandelbaum Gate causes a great deal of trouble to Freddy and his upper-crust colleagues.

This is also a spy story, but more in the John Le Carre than the Ian Fleming mould.   Various people are involved in various nefarious activities and it all begins to unfold because of Barbara and because Freddy tries to help her.   You expect someone to come to a sticky end, but it is not who you think nor where you expect it to happen.

This is a novel of its time.   It does not really deal with the Israel-Palestine situation, neither as it was then nor how it may have developed.   It is more about the British negotiating their way around the crafty natives   It is like George Orwell’s “Burmese Days” or Graham Greene’s “Our Man in Havana”

It is also an astonishing tour de force.

For the Joy of Reading: Reservoir 13

Jon McGregor never disappoints.   This is a masterpiece.   It is a lyrical prose poem of transfixing power.   It is a pastoral symphony, an Arcadia, set in an English village in the Peak District between Sheffield, Derby and Manchester.   It is the story of a village changing as the children grow up.   It is a village with a dark secret, except it is not a secret because everyone knows it happened, but no-one knows what happened.    A thirteen year old girl, Rebecca or Becky or Bex, disappeared.   That is all we know at the start of the book.

We then meet the villagers.   Of course, they all have their own lives to live, secrets to keep, relationships to consider.   And they have to deal with the unknown fate of this young girl.   They have to consider how she would have grown, how their lives became entwined within her disappearance, how it has changed their lives.

It is something that is always in the background of whatever is happening in the village.   It is something that affects how their village is known throughout the wider world.

The police have their questions.   Where was she last seen?   Who was the last person to see her?   Where was she going?   So do the villagers.   Did I see her?   Should I have said something?   Should I tell this?   Was it my fault?

And so the village grows through the annual events: the well-dressing, the annual cricket match against a rival village, Mischief Night, Guy Fawkes’ Night, Christmas.   People come and go, visiting parents at Christmas, leaving for university, hill walkers, rock climbers.   People grow old, people grow sick, people have children.   There are marriages, divorces, baptisms and funerals.   The vicar leaves for a parish in Manchester.   There are paths to maintain, footbridges to repair, a river to keep clean.   It is the life of a village described in loving and intimate detail.

There is also nature.   There is the tupping and the lambing, the fieldfares and the swallows, the foxes in the beech wood and the badgers in their setts.   We are guided through the seasons of the year as much by the activities of the birds and animals as we are by those of the people.

This is a lyric prose poem, and at its heart there is a mystery

For the Joy of Reading: Exit West

As is only to be expected, this book by Mohsin Hamid is worth reading..   It is a story about refugees and about survival.    The doors are a metaphor for the dark and difficult journeys that refugees must make in order to get to a place of safety.   It is a story about people fleeing from war, from bombings, from danger and destruction and how when they get to a place of safety they find that they are not safe, because they are not welcome.   It does not matter really whether people are fleeing from war, from famine, from flooding or from persecution.   They are fleeing and there are millions of them.   This story of Nadia and Saeed is but one story.   Mohsin Hamid uses their story to personalise the tale of refugees.

They are not symbols.   They are people that you will care about.   They are not exemplary.   They are deeply and ordinarily human.   Their home city is not named.   It could be Baghdad or Damascus or Mogadishu or Kabul.   We only know that it is a Moslem city..   We know that Saeed prays, and that Nadia wears some form of Islamic dress, but is otherwise not religious.   We know that they meet over coffee and without a chaperone.   And we know that, when the crisis comes, they flee together.   We know that they end up in Mykonos, which suggests that they are fleeing the war in Syria, but we are never told that.   We know that they move on to London.   We also know that they survive because when they are old (about my age) they return to their home city.

This book is about how they survive.   It has a very simple message: there, but for the grace of God, go I.   It is a story that tells you not to ask “for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee”.