The Emperor of Ocean Park: Stephen L. Carter

When Oliver Garland, a well-respected judge, dies—ostensibly of a heart attack—his daughter, Mariah, suspects foul play. Her brother, Tal, a professor of law at a university, is sceptical.

Oliver (whom Tal refers to as The Judge) was tipped to a Supreme Court judge, one of the two black judges. But at the hearings, he was repeatedly asked about his links with Jack Ziegler, a man who was involved in criminal activities (although nothing was proved). Jack is an old friend, and the Judge refuses to divulge the reasons for their meetings. He finally withdraws his candidature. The failure leaves him devastated.

At the funeral, Tal is approached by Jack, who keeps asking him about “the arrangements” that his father had made. Tal has no idea what Jack is talking about. Things get more complicated as Tal’s wife, Kimberly, is being considered for a vacancy on the federal court of appeals. She has worked very hard to get this far and is determined that Tal will not ruin her chances by stirring up any kind of controversy.

But then people around Oliver Garland start dying, and Tal has to put his career, marriage and life on the line to understand the cryptic message about chess that his father left him, knowing that of the three children, only Tal understood the game. He is helped—sort of—by Mariah, who has become obsessed with their father’s death, and as an ex-journalist, has a well-honed instinct on tracking down facts. But the more they explore, the more questions are raised.

Who is “Angela’s boyfriend”, the person who the Judge says has the answer? Who are the two men, purporting to be FBI agents, who interview Tal the day after his father dies? What is the oldest brother, Addison, not telling Mariah and Tal about the hit-and-run accident that killed their youngest sister? What on earth was Oliver Garland hiding?

This is a taut, beautifully written thriller and a glimpse into the lives of the privileged black community in the United States. It is lifts the lid on how Supreme Court judges are selected—the politics and manoeuvring behind the scenes. Stephen L. Carter can be scathing about the role of the Supreme Court: “it has been, for most of its history, a follower, not an agent, of change. … Like every other social institution, the Court has mainly been the ally of the insiders, a proposition that should come as no surprise, because only the insiders become the Presidents who nominate the Judges, the Senators who confirm them—or the candidates from whom the nominees are chosen in the first place.”

He also exposes the racism that permeates all layers of society. When Oliver Garland was being considered for the Supreme Court, someone remarked, “I hope Thurgood is keeping Oliver’s seat warm”, implying that there can be only one black judge on the Court at a time—not to mention the familiarity of using their first names to refer to both men. When Tal calls the police to report an attack on his on his campus, they almost arrest him, assuming that he was the assailant.

This is an intelligent, well-plotted thriller, and a delight to read. I would recommend it—I couldn’t put it down. And the best news? He’s written two more that form a loose trilogy!

Beauty is a Wound: Eka Kurniawan

Translated from Indonesian by Annie Tucker

“One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years. … She had passed away at fifty-two, rose again after being dead for twenty-one years, and from that point forward nobody knew exactly how to calculate her age.”

This novel tells the story of Dewi Ayu, a mixed-race prostitute living in Halimunda, a coastal town in Indonesia. Through her story and that of her family, Eka Kurniawan traces the history of the country, from the Dutch colonial period to post-independence. He weaves together history, legends, magic realism and humour to tell a compelling tale.

Dewi Ayu comes from a privileged family, born out of an incestuous relationship. She is left with her Dutch grandparents, who raise her. When the Japanese invade Indonesia during the Second World War, her grandparents leave for the Netherlands, but Dewi Ayu decides to stay. She, with other young girls, is taken from an internment camp to become comfort women for the Japanese soldiers. She quickly emerges as someone who is unflappable and is capable of taking care of herself.

When she goes back to Halimandu, she gains a reputation as the most beautiful and accomplished prostitute. Over the years, she gives birth to four daughters: three stunningly beautiful—Alamanda, Adinda and Maya Dewi—and Beauty, who is spectacularly ugly. Dewi Ayu dies soon after Beauty is born; it is to see her youngest daughter that Dewi Ayu rises from the grave.

The fortunes of the family are intertwined with the story of Indonesia: the men the three older girls marry all play a role in the country’s independence. Alamanda falls in love with Comrade Kliwon, a Communist, but makes a mistake when she toys with the older regional military commander, Shodancho, and has to marry him. Her sister Adinda eventually marries Kliwon. And Maya Dewi is married to Maman Gedong, a thug who used to be a revolutionary.

The book is rich and full of twists—and what a cast of characters! Kurniawan gives them all breathing room so you get to know them (even though you won’t like all of them). But Dewi Ayu dominates them all. She is so alive, she practically leaps off the page. There are some stomach-churning moments (bestiality, incest) but also times where I found myself chuckling.

I thoroughly enjoyed Beauty is a Wound—it is original, absorbing, funny and moving.

On a personal note: I bought this English translation of an Indonesian novel in a little bookshop in Venice, proving that literature does travel!

A Man Called Ove: Fredrick Backman

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Translated from Swedish by Henning Koch

“Ove is fifty-nine. He drives a Saab. He’s the kind of man who points at people he doesn’t like the look of, as if they were burglars and his finger a policeman’s flashlight.”

When we meet him, Ove is trying to buy an iPad and driving the salesman crazy. (He often has that effect on people.) He is a stickler for rules, especially the ones he makes, and finds most people a waste of time.  

But his world is about to change. A new family moves in next door: Parvaneh, an Iranian woman, her husband Patrick and their two young daughters. In spite of himself, the family—especially Parvaneh—become an important part of Ove’s life. As does the mangy cat who haunts his doorstep, and Jimmy, his next-door neighbour (when Jimmy was a child, Ove got rid of the boy’s abusive father). There is also Mirsad, a young gay man who Ove takes in when his father throws him out.

The grumpy man we meet at the beginning of the book is fleshed out little by little, both through his interactions with his neighbours, and through his memories, especially of his adored wife Sonja. She brings light into his life and understands him in a way no one else does. When she dies, Ove can’t see the point of continuing to live.

He sets his affairs in order and tries to kill himself. He is stymied every time, often by his neighbours, who just won’t leave him alone, much to his annoyance: “Considering how they are constantly preventing him from dying, these neighbours of his are certainly not shy when it comes to driving a man to the brink of madness and suicide. That’s for sure”, he grumbles.

I loved the way Fredrick Backman writes about deeply moving events without losing sight of the humour (see the quote above). It is a beautiful portrait of a marriage, a relationship between two people who care deeply for each other but are completely different. Backman brings it alive through little details: “She had a way of folding her index finger into his palm, hiding it inside. And he always felt that nothing in the world was impossible when she did that.” Ove’s pain over the loss of his wife is heart-breaking.

I also loved the relationship between him and Parvaneh. She is a wonderful character—strong, feisty and full of compassion. From being what he sees as an annoying neighbour, she becomes his closest friend and the person he trusts to take care of his affairs after his death.

This book had me laughing and crying and most of all, believing in these people. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

A Haunted House and Other Stories: Virginia Woolf

I haven’t read Virginia Woolf for decades, and I had forgotten just how well she writes. I had bought this collection of her short stories in the 1980s, and it was one of the many books I had left behind in my parents’ house when I moved. It has now found its place on my bookshelves again after all these years.

Woolf is better known for her novels—To the Lighthouse, Orlando—but these short stories are gems of observation and character study. It was a delight to rediscover her writing.

Woolf picks up on something mundane and builds a quiet, shattering event from it. A woman sees a black mark on the wall as she looks up from her book and the mark leads to a train of thought about the things she has lost, archaeology and how men make the rules everyone has to live by. In a train, a woman makes up a story about the woman sitting across from her; a new dress meant to give a woman confidence makes her feel even more insecure; a marriage falls apart when the man turns away from the secret game the couple used to play; and a man mourning the death of his wife finds his world turned upside down by her diary.

These are lives in miniature, with tiny details that reveal heartbreaks, unfulfilled desires and regrets. Woolf is known for writing streams of consciousness, and the way she follows a thought as it flutters, alights on something for a while and then moves on is exactly how thought processes work. This is writing to be savoured, not rushed through. If you haven’t read her yet, start with these and then go to her books.

Go, Went, Gone: Jenny Erpenbeck

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Translated from German by Susan Bernofsky

“War destroys everything…your family, your friends, the place where you lived, your work, your life. When you become foreign…you don’t have a choice. You don’t know where to go. You don’t know anything. I can’t see myself anymore, can’t see the child I used to be.”

The voices here are of African migrants, men who have risked everything to escape danger and to try to make a better life for themselves in Germany. We see them through the eyes of Richard, a retired classics professor living in Berlin. Richard grew up in East Germany and is still dealing with the reunification of the country. His sense of displacement is, to a much greater degree, echoed by that of the migrants.

It all starts when Richard walks past a group of African migrants demonstrating on Aleksanderplatz. He decides to learn more about these men and under the guise of doing research, he gets to know them. Most of them have made the dangerous crossing over the Mediterranean from Libya and have seen people die. Many of them barely speak German, but Richard’s knowledge of English and Italian helps him.

Little by little, we learn their stories. There is Rashid from northern Nigeria, whose boat capsized—he couldn’t swim and survived by hanging on to a cable, and watched his fellow passengers die. There is Awad from Ghana, who lived with his father in Tripoli, Libya. But father was shot during the civil war, and Awad was captured by the soldiers and beaten. “If you’re lucky, you get beaten, if you’re unlucky, you get shot”, says someone to comfort him. Then the soldiers put the prisoners on a boat and said anyone who tried to get off the boat would be shot. Richard asks him whether they were Gaddafi’s men or rebels. “We didn’t know. They all had the same uniform. … In any case, no one was on our side. Even though I grew up in Libya. Libya was my country.”

Sometimes the migrants find it hard to explain their lives to someone who comes from such a different world, such as the young Tuareg from Niger: “Why should he tell a stranger that he doesn’t know why he never had any parents? … Why should he tell him that he doesn’t know if his parents are still alive? There was fighting going on at the time when he was born. Maybe his mother or his father was among the people buried alive beneath the sand by the Nigerian soldiers, or hacked to pieces or burned alive.”

The migrants, however, are not welcome in Germany. The Kafkaesque system discourages them from staying, as Richard finds out when he tries to help them find work. Like so many other refugees and migrants throughout the world, they want to contribute to society but are prevented from doing so by the system.

It took me a little while to get into the book. In the early part of the book, I felt that the migrants’ stories were like so many we have heard—I didn’t feel that the characters were real. But it was well worth staying with because Jenny Erpenbeck does round them out and by the end, they are utterly convincing. And one other gripe: Erpenbeck refers to the festival as Eid Mubarak, which is like talking about Merry Christmas instead of Christmas. Eid Mubarak is the Eid greeting. It is jarring and could have easily been avoided.

This book puts human faces to one of the biggest crises of the 21st century. It is also a character study of a man whose little life is transformed by the migrants. Just knowing them forces him out of his isolation and makes him a part of a community. Which just reinforces the fact that the “other” is not someone to be feared but someone who could just enrich your world.

Best books of 2019

Photo by Abee5 (CC BY 2.0)

Another year is drawing to a close, and it’s time to look back at the books we have read and pull out some of the best.

Thank you for contributing to this list and making it so varied. I was delighted to see several books in translation this year. Some of you sent in mini-reviews, which are always welcome. (And I see one of you has been taken up with Harold Pinter’s plays!)

The books are arranged by category, the year they were published (for translations, I’ve used the year of the publication in English) and then by author.

Links lead to reviews on this blog. The links on the three travel books listed (all by women this time) lead to my reviews to Women on the Road. In cases where I don’t have direct links to these books, you will need to scroll down the page to find them.

What were your favourite reads this year?

Hope this list gives you ideas for books to read in 2020. Happy reading!

Contributions by Jo Grin-Yates, Kamakshi Balasubramanian, Keith Stimpson, Kristine Goulding, Paddy Torsney, Rishad Patell, Sally-Anne Sader, Sarah Waller, Suroor Alikhan, Tom Peak, Usha Raman and Will Finh Ramsay.

Fiction

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson (2019)
The return of Jackson Brodie: really enjoy reading about this detective who has a very quirky but humane side to his character.

The Parisian by Isabella Hammad (2019)
This is a really ambitious debut novel, which explores currents of historical change in a grand setting.

The Murmur of Bees by Sofia Segovia (translated from Spanish by Simon Bruni) (2015, English translation 2019)
Her first book to be translated into English, it is set during the Mexican Revolution and the Spanish flu epidemic of the early 1900s. There are a lot of characters, but the main character is a very lovable mute with special gifts who has always been surrounded by bees since he was found by Nana Reja abandoned under a bridge. A lovely read and beautifully translated.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Torczuk (translated from Polish by Antonio Lloyd-Jones) (2009, English translation 2019)
By the Polish author and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. A woman living alone in a forest observes the events unfolding around her as hunters are killed. Are the animals taking their revenge? Unusual and intriguing. It’s not just a whodunit, it’s also about animal rights, nature and astrology.

Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (2019)
A forensic account of life in a reform school for boys in the Jim Crow era, and a friendship between two of its African-American inmates.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (2018)
A retelling of The Odyssey from the point of view of Penelope.

Milkman by Anna Burns (2018)
There’s a reason this won the 2018 Booker Prize for fiction. None of the characters are named, none of the settings are named, none of the conflict is named, and yet it’s so clear that this is a personal, deeply emotional story about The Troubles in Northern Ireland. The protagonist starts as an average, unnoticeable teenage girl, trying to hide her boyfriend from her mother. But when first brother-in-law sniffs out her struggle, and rumours start to swell, middle sister becomes “interesting”. The last thing she ever wanted to be. To be interesting is to be noticed and to be noticed is dangerous. It’s a story where inaction causes all the tension and silence speaks louder than words.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (2018)
The story follows Washington Black, a field slave working on a Barbados sugar plantation. Chosen by the eccentric brother of the master, Titch, to be a manservant and to assist in building and testing a flying machine, the character of Washington grows and develops in parallel with Titch as Washington becomes more human. What follows is their flight along the eastern coast of America, and, finally, to a remote outpost in the Arctic, where Wash, left on his own, must invent another new life, one which will propel him further across the globe. While a compelling and touching story, I have read The Book of Night Women and Underground Railroad too recently to not draw parallels—and for Washington Black to fall a bit short.

Circe by Madeline Miller (2018)
A fantastically relevant retelling of a classical tale for the #MeToo era, and just a rollickingly gripping underdog story.

Warlight by Michael Ondjaate (2018)
Michael Ondjaate’s inimitable prose tells a story of love, betrayal and a lost childhood in post-war England.

There There by Tommy Orange (2018)
A group of Native Americans head to a powwow; each of them has a different motive for being there. The chapters move between the people and reveal a web of connections between them. A powerful book by a Native American writer. 

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (2018)
The story follows the life of the so-called Marsh Girl, Kya Clark, an outcast living on the brink of society in a marsh in North Carolina. When a popular local man is found dead, rumours spread of her involvement. The story jumps between the present and the past to unravel the mystery, with a haunting background of the natural beauty of the marsh and a love story intertwined. Reminiscent of Barbara Kingsolver, the characters are engaging but the environment is its own force in the narrative.

Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Sadaawi (translated from Arabic by Jonathan Wright) (2013, English translation 2018)
A man in Baghdad, is appalled at the way blown-up bits of bodies are left to rot. Determined to give them a proper burial, he collects body parts so he can create a man. Maybe then this “man” can get a proper burial. But the spirit of a dead man, looking for a home, inhabits the creature and brings him to life. A brilliant twist on the Frankenstein story.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017)
A Korean woman goes to Japan just before the war in Korea and the Second World War. The book follows her as she grows old. There was so much I didn’t know about Koreans living in Japan. Beautifully written.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley (2017)
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Award, Elmet is set in rural Yorkshire in the present, although it could have taken place a hundred years ago. John, a paid fighter, struggles to protect his two children and to save the home he built himself on his ex-boss’s land. It is beautifully written and worth reading, but it is a grim story.

The Sultanpur Chronicles—Shadowed City: Achala Upendran
In her first novel—and the first in a series—Upendran has created a fantasy world based on Indian and oriental myths. A delight.

Men Without Women: Stories by Haruki Murakami (translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goosen) (2014, English translation 2017)
I am not usually a fan of short stories, but Murakami packs so much into each story that you do not feel short-changed.

Conversations with Friends: A Novel by Sally Rooney (2017)
You’re inside the mind of (the very young) Frances as she talks about her life and her friends, all in one breathless go.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (2016)
The early days of Maoist China make a panoramic backdrop for this family saga, where a young woman goes in search of a father, but finds a lost history.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016)
Charming book about a Russian aristocrat who is forced to live in a hotel. In this confined space, he watches the changes in the Soviet Union and Russia.

The Gap of Time: William Shakespeare’ The Winter’s Tale Retold: A Novel by Jeanette Winterston (2016)
Winterston’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale. Love, jealousy and abandonment—she gives a new life to these familiar themes. Winterson writes beautifully about people and their attempts to muddle through life. I’m really enjoying these modern reimaginings of Shakespeare.

Outline: A Novel by Rachel Cusk (2015)
The words of the novel weave their way around the protagonist and her life, without ever getting inside.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (2015)
I haven’t had a book stick like this in many years. The narrative is gripping and the characters—who start deep and get deeper—are both compelling and deeply flawed in an utterly human way. Beautifully written but raw and stark. I had to put the book down a few times because I found myself getting too emotional. What a lovely read!

Let Me Be Frank with You by Richard Ford (2014)
Four pieces told through Ford’s Frank Bascombe character. Each piece is about the passage of time and the decay of ageing and its blows on the human soul—all shot through with wry touches of jaded humour.

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2015)
It’s more of a short story than a novel, but published as a stand-alone book. It gives guidance to the young niece of the author on how to live a feminist, empowered life.  As a new mom to a little boy, I found the words poignant and well-placed. It’s a quick read and one I will go back to again in the future.

The Selector of Souls by Shauna Singh Baldwin (2012)
This book is about two Indian women, one a middle-class housewife fleeing from her abusive husband and the other, a maidservant who goes home to her daughter. Shauna Singh Baldwin uses their stories to expose the struggle of Indian women, the rise of the right-wing and the politics of abortion.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (2009)
A book about twins born in Ethiopia. Their mother is Indian and dies in childbirth, their English surgeon father can’t cope and leaves, and they are brought up by an Indian couple. Medicine, politics, love, betrayal and redemption—this is a wonderful book.

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay (2007)
The story links the victims of the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup of Jews in Paris in July 1942 and a French family living in Paris in the present. Very moving and beautifully written.

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (2003)
This Pulitzer Prize winner from 1992 holds up as an astounding piece of literature from one of America’s best authors. A modern-day king Lear.

The Cure for Death by Lightning by Gail Anderson-Dargatz (1996)
The coming of age story of a 15-year-old girl, Beth Weeks, on a farm in Canada. Her father went a little crazy ever since he went into the forest after a bear that attacked Beth. Beautifully observed, tender and angry.

Plays

A Slight Ache: Harold Pinter (2015)
A couple invite a match seller into their home. The seller’s silence destroys one of them and gives the other strength.

Betrayal: Harold Pinter (2013)
Pinter deals with betrayal, not only by people but also by time.

Victoria Station: Harold Pinter (1982)
A radio dialogue between a minicab controller and a driver waiting for instructions.

Non-fiction

Autobiography/Biography/Memoirs

Becoming by Michelle Obama (2018)
A welcome nostalgia trip in the current climate, harking back to a time when US politics was going in the right direction and anything seemed possible, but also a sobering contrast with the state of affairs today.

The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between by Hisham Mathar (2016)
A man’s journey to find his father and rediscover his family and his war-torn country of Libya.

Wave: A Memoir of Life After the Tsunami by Sonali Deraniyagala (2013)
For anyone dealing with grief who needs some reassurance that crazy is normal at times! Plus an evocative depiction of multicultural family life.

The Country Under my Skin: A Memoir of Love and War by Gioconda Belli (translated by Kristina Cordero with the author) (2002, English translation 2003)
A fabulous feminist memoir of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua.

Indira Gandhi: A Biography by Pupul Jayakar (1995)
An intimate biography of the first woman prime minister of India by her close friend and confidante. It provides us an in-depth account of her personality that is often seen as hard and ambitious, but that had a layer of softness beneath it all.

Language

Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer (2019)
Taking us through his rules of good writing, Benjamin Dreyer manages to be simultaneously ironic and sincere. Whether you care about the Oxford comma or not, if you’re “persnickety about language,” you will enjoy this book.

Current Affairs

Bullet Proof: A Journalist’s Notebook on Reporting Conflict by Teresa Rahman (2019)
A journalist’s often harrowing account of covering insurgency in northeast India.

The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantú (2018)
A non-fiction account of a well-educated Mexican-American who becomes a border control agent on the US-Mexican border during the early 2000s. While the author clearly isn’t a professional writer (yet), the reader gets a glimpse of his voice and the turmoil of the work he undertakes. Also, this is clearly a topical book given the current geopolitical situation.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyou (2018)
John Carreyou’s investigation into the rise and fall of Silicon Valley startup, Theranos, reads like a thriller.

History

Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji by Manu Pillai (2018)
Manu Pillai excavates the little-known history of the six kingdoms of the Deccan (South India), between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Science

The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli (translated from Italian by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre) (2017, English translation 2018)
A book on the nature of time. It is elegantly written and a little esoteric, and I would highly recommend it.

Travel

Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains: A Journey Across Arunachal Pradesh—India’s Forgotten Frontier by Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent (2018)
One of my favourite travel writers. Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent bikes (on a motorbike, not a bicycle) her way through northeast India, visiting parts of the country that are not well-known by the Indians, never mind foreigners. Fascinating.

Revolutionary Ride: On the Road to Shiraz, the Heart of Iran by Lois Pryce (2017)
One of the first travel books I have ever read. It was a great one to start with: I would never have imagined that a book could make me want to visit a country and, in particular, Iran, due to the bad publicity it gets in our part of the world.

Indonesia etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani (2015)
Pisani visits the many islands that make up Indonesia. The fact she can speak the language gives the reader a real insight into the country.

The Places in Between: Rory Stewart

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Rory Stewart had set out to walk from Iran all the way to Nepal—through Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. But in December 2000, when the Iranian government took away his visa, the Taliban refused to allow him to enter Afghanistan. So Stewart had to go directly to Pakistan. At the end of 2001, when he heard that the Taliban had fallen, he decided to return to Afghanistan and walk from Herat in the west of the country to Kabul. He took a shorter route through the mountains, even though it was during the middle of winter.

However, before he can begin his journey, Stewart has to explain to the Afghan Security Services why he is walking across the country and reassure them that he is not spying for the UK government. “It is mid-winter—there are three meters of snow on the high passes, there are wolves and there is a war”, the man from the Security Services tells him. “You will die, I can guarantee. Do you want to die?” Stewart is finally allowed to continue, but only on condition that two men from the Security Services accompany him for part of the way. Stewart knows that it would not go down well in the villages where he would be spending the nights, but there is nothing he can do about it.

This is a fascinating account. Stewart is always aware of the juxtaposition of history with the present. Herat, once “a great medieval market for China, Turkey, and Persia…was now selling Chinese alarms clocks, Turkish sunglasses and Iranian apple juice”. Throughout his book he quotes the Baburnama—written by the first Mughal emperor, Babur, about his journey from Afghanistan to India in the early 16th century—thus connecting Babur’s time with ours.

Stewart is not always welcome in the villages. War has led to a mistrust of strangers. Fortunately, he speaks enough Dari (one of the Afghan languages) to hold conversations with the men he meets (and it is almost always men). He speaks with Afghans who fought in the wars that began in the late 1970s, first during the Russian invasion and then during the civil war.

Politics in Afghanistan is never straightforward. The headman of a village he stays in had been a military commander for 24 years, first fighting the Russians with a group funded by Pakistani intelligence and then with a group funded partially by the British. “Then the Russians withdrew and he fought the pro-Russian Najib government and the rival Northern Alliance groups. When the Taliban took over the province five years earlier, he decided, he said, to ‘retire from fighting’. This probably meant that he had been the Taliban commander in the area but would deny it if I asked him.”

Eventually, the two security men leave Stewart, but he acquires a new friend—a dog the size of a small pony, given to him by villagers, whom he names Babur. Man and dog then help each other through blizzards and snow drifts.

And then there is the landscape, which changes all the time, from deep snow on the mountains to this: “We walked on through hills whose brilliant colours showed metal ores in the soil: a rock face striped like candy, a crest of snow-softened russet, then slopes of green and orange sandstone, and finally, a cliff streaked with bull’s blood red.”

This book is important, coming at a time when the world knows so little about Afghanistan excerpt for the wars and the bombings.

I lived in Afghanistan as a child in the early 1970s, before the Russians invaded. My memories are of a beautiful, rugged country and a warm and hospitable—and fiercely independent—people. But the scars left by decades of war are going to take a long time to heal. There were times in this book when I could barely recognize the country I had known.

The walk across Afghanistan really brings home just how diverse the country and its people are: the various tribes, languages and landscapes. Stewart does not romanticize any of this but tries to portray the country and its people with honesty and empathy. I just hope that this magnificent land will find peace someday.

Magpie Murders: Anthony Horowitz

This is a whodunit within a whodunit. One Friday evening, Susan Ryeland, the Head of Fiction at Cloverleaf Books, picks up Magpie Murders, the latest manuscript by Alan Conway—one of their most successful writers—and takes it home. She pours herself a glass of wine and starts to read.

As she reads the manuscript, so do we. Conway’s book is Anthony Horowitz’s homage to Agatha Christie. It reads like a traditional English murder mystery. Like Hercule Poirot, detective Atticus Pünd is a foreigner who has moved to the UK during the Second World War.

The manuscript of Magpie Murders begins in the village of Saxby-on-Avon with the funeral of Mary Blakiston, a woman who used to clean for Sir Magnus Pye, the owner of the big house, Pye Hall. Mary has been found dead at the bottom of the stairs in what looks like an accident. A few days later, Sir Magnus is found decapitated in his home.

There are rumours in the village that Mary has been murdered—her son Robert had been heard arguing with her the day before she died. The past also holds its secrets. Mary’s younger son Tom had drowned in the pond at Pye Hall when he was 11. Was Tom’s death really an accident?

Just as Pünd is about to reveal all, Susan finds that the last chapter of the manuscript is missing. She is not only frustrated but also worried—Conway’s books are vital to the publisher’s survival. The copy that Charles Clover, her boss, has is also incomplete.

Meanwhile, Conway has been found dead at the bottom of a tower in his mansion in Farmington. The verdict is suicide. He was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and Charles has a letter from him hinting at his intentions.

But Susan is not convinced and suspects foul play. When she goes to Farmington, she finds that the village mirrors Saxby-on-Avon. Many of the characters in the book are based on people living there—like Vicar Robeson who appears in the book as Osborne (an anagram of his name). Conway’s house is the model for Pye Hall. Was he trying to leave clues in his book about what was really going on?  

The story moves between the manuscript (set in Courier font) and Susan’s world. Horowitz also includes an excerpt from the first book that Conway wrote and the notes that Conway’s sister made about their childhood. Horowitz gets the different tones right—the pretentiousness of Conway’s early “serious” work is very different from the Atticus Pünd novel. But I’m not sure we needed two pages of it.

Horowitz said (in a Penguin Podcast) that writing a regular whodunit would be boring—the only way to liven it up would be to play with the form. He does that here and has great fun with it. I love whodunits and got two of them in one book here! This is an entertaining read, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Gap of Time: Jeanette Winterson

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“God doesn’t need to punish us. We can do that for ourselves. That’s why we need forgiveness.”

A man driven crazy by jealousy, a wife accused of adultery and a lost child: this is Jeanette Winterson’s take on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.[1] But unlike Othello, The Winter’s Tale allows the for redemption and a chance to right wrongs. Like the original, The Gap of Time is ultimately a book about forgiveness.

The plot: Leo is a wealthy man, living in London, used to getting his way. He is married to a French cabaret singer, MiMi, and they have a nine-year-old son, Milo. Leo has a hedge fund, which specializes in buying and stripping the assets of business, and loading them with debt, making a profit for himself and his stockbrokers.

Leo is convinced that MiMi is having an affair with his best friend, Xeno, and that the child she is carrying is his. In a jealous rage, Leo tries to kill Xeno. Xeno flees. When the baby is born, Leo refuses to acknowledge her as his. He gives her to his gardener Tony with a briefcase full of money, and bribes him to take her to Xeno.

Tony sensing that he is being followed by muggers, hides the baby in a BabyHatch (a place for abandoned babies). She is found by Shep and his son Clo, who take her home and raise her. With the money in the briefcase, they also find a diamond necklace and a piece of sheet music titled Perdita. That’s what they name the baby: the little lost one.

Having got rid of the child, Leo takes Milo and tries to catch a flight to Berlin to escape MiMi. Milo doesn’t want to go and runs away from his father straight into the path of oncoming van.

Leo and MiMi divorce, and she returns to Paris, a shadow of her former self. Leo has to live with his actions that have resulted in the death of his son, the loss of his daughter, his beloved wife and his best friend.

Meanwhile, Perdita grows up happy and loved in New Bohemia, a place that feels like the southern US. Then one day, she throws a birthday party for Shep and invites her boyfriend Zel. Zel’s father turns up too, and secrets that have been long hidden come tumbling out. She decides to go find her biological father and confront him.

I enjoyed this “cover version” as Winterson calls it. Perdita’s two fathers, Shep and Leo, are antitheses of each other: one open and kind, the other self-centred, focused on accumulating money and power. Xeno is an interesting character—sexually ambiguous, he is close to both Leo and MiMi, and won’t allow himself to be dominated by his friend. The friendships are destroyed by the fact that Leo can’t bear to share people he loves with anyone else. It takes the child to heal the wounds caused by the adults.

I liked the way Winterson turned the King Leontes’s empire into the cut-throat world of finance. Some of the coincidences are a little far-fetched, but she is just reflecting Shakespeare, who used them fairly liberally. I’m not complaining—they bring the plot together and allow a resolution.

The writing is lyrical. Part of the joy of this book is rereading some of the passages. There is so much I can quote, but I’ll restrain myself to this:

“And the world goes on regardless of joy or despair or one woman’s fortune or one man’s loss. And we can’t know the lives of others. And we can’t know our own lives beyond the details we can manage. And the things that change us forever happen without us knowing they would happen. And the moment that looks like the rest is the one where hearts are broken or healed. And time that runs so steady and sure runs wild outside of the clocks. It takes so little time to change a lifetime and it takes a lifetime to understand the change.”


[1] The Winter’s Tale is part of a series commissioned by Hogarth Press, a contemporary reimagining of Shakespeare’s plays. Also reviewed on this site: Margaret Atwood’s reworking of The Tempest, Hag-Seed, and Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth.

Flicker: Theodore Roszak

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“[E]ntertainment rules more lives than art and rules them more despotically. People don’t put up their guard when they’re being entertained. The images and the messages slip through and take hold deeper.”

Flicker is a thriller, a history of film (with a conspiracy theory thrown in) and a cautionary tale about the power of movies.

Jonathan Gates, a young film student in Los Angeles, becomes obsessed with a German B-grade movie director called Max Castle. He discovers Castle’s films at The Classic, “the best film repertory film house west of Paris… a legendary little temple of arts wedged between Moishe’s Strictly Kosher Deli and Best Buy Discount Goods”. The Classic is run by Clare Swann and Sharkey, who handles the antiquated movie projector.

Jonathan begins an affair with Clare, who is a trenchant film critic. She hunts out forgotten films to show at The Classic, and finds a copy of Castle’s lost film, Judas Castle. The film leaves them uneasy, feeling unclean.

Jonathan becomes an expert on Castle, tracking down his films and finding the few people who knew him. Thanks to him, the films find a cult audience.

In his search for the elusive Castle, Jonathan keeps coming across the Orphans of the Storm, a powerful sect. Descended from the Cathars, the sect sees the body as a living hell and advocates not bringing children into the world, not by killing but turning people off sex. This puts them in direct opposition to the Catholic church, which encourages procreation. In the Middle Ages, the Cathars were hunted down by the Church and went into hiding.

The modern Orphans of the Storm has partly emerged from the shadows and is known for taking care of abandoned children. However, its real power has never been acknowledged. Its influence is far-reaching—having infiltrated politics, entertainment and everything else, the Orphans spread their creed, always behind the scenes. The young Orphans are taught film-making and how to insert images under the actual film—the flicker—that has a subliminal effect. Castle is an Orphan but fell out of favour because of his independence.

Meanwhile, Clare becomes a respected film critic and lives in New York. The theatre is taken over by Sharkey, who is showing mostly low-grade films, with lots of violence and sex. Like the films of Arthur Dunkle, an 18-year-old who makes graphically violent films.

Dunkle’s films take the world by storm—it’s not just the kids who love him but also the critics. Jonathan hates the films but can see the skill with which they had been made. To him, they signal the loss of taste, of real storytelling. Not surprisingly, Dunkle is one of the Orphans. Jonathan, still on the trail of Castle, uses the excuse of interviewing him to get into the orphanage in LA. But the more he learns, he gets deeper he gets. Until he takes one step too far.

I read Flicker in the early 1990s and thought it was brilliant. It didn’t make it to my top 15 books, but came close. This year, I decided to reread some of these books and see whether I felt the same about them.

It was an interesting experience. There was a lot I had forgotten about it. I remembered Jonathan, Claire (a wonderful creation), the Classic, the inserting of images and the twist in the tale but everything else felt new. It’s a good story, and I can’t resist convoluted plots. But reading it now, I found it much more disturbing and bleaker. Maybe it’s the times we live in: the graphic violence in films and the way AI has seeped into our lives makes it feel almost believable. And like a good conspiracy theory, it’s impossible to prove or disprove. Not that I’m saying I believe any of this happened—this is, after all, fiction—but it left me feeling uneasy, in the way I imagine Max Castle’s films would. This is not a book that you will forget, and believe me, you will never see a film in quite the same way again.