Good Omens: Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

This delightfully subversive look at the Apocalypse and everything that went before is one of my favourite books.

Aziraphale, an angel, and Crowley, a demon, have been living on Earth since the beginning. Crowley, who starts out as the serpent in the Garden of Eden but has taken on human form, has “dark hair and good cheekbones”, dresses in black and drives a Bentley with a cassette player that plays only Best of Queen. Any cassette left in his car for long enough turns into Best of Queen. Aziraphale is the angel who stood at the entrance to the Garden of Eden with a flaming sword, which he gives to Adam and Eve when they are expelled: “They looked so cold, poor things…and what with the vicious animals out there and the storm coming up…”. He prides himself on his impeccable clothes and owns a rare books shop which is really a place for him to store the books. No sale is ever made and customers are persuaded quite quickly to leave.

Aziraphale and Crowley have grown quite fond of Earth and its inhabitants and have become, in a way, friends. “[Y]ou grew accustomed to the only other face that had been around more or less consistently for six millennia.” They have come to an Arrangement, in the way that “many isolated agents, working in conditions a long way from their superiors, reach with their opposite number when they realize that they have more in common with their immediate opponents then their remote allies.” It consists of not interfering in some of the other’s activities, ensuring that neither side lost but neither side won. 

Of course, their respective Authorities (or Head Offices) have no idea of this. But as long as the work gets done, no one seems to care.

That is, until the arrival of the Antichrist. Crowley is summoned to go collect the baby and deliver it to the hospital run by the nuns of the Chattering Order of Saint Beryl. The plan is to swap the Antichrist for the American ambassador’s baby, whose wife is supposed to be the only patient there. (The nuns are really Satanists, which explains their cooperation with the dark forces). Except that Mr. and Mrs. Young, an English couple, are also there, having their child. Sister Mary, to whom Crowley hands over the child, mistakes Mr. Young for the ambassador, so the wrong baby is swapped.

Because of the mix-up, the Antichrist, named Adam, has a perfectly normal childhood in a little English town called Tadfield, while Crowley and Aziraphale are keeping an eye on the wrong child. All is well until Adam turns 11. That’s when things are set in motion, and Crowley and Aziraphale have to do everything they can to avert the end of the world.

There is so much to enjoy in this book. Famine, one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, is a popular dietician who invents a no-food diet. Death is straight out of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. He speaks in CAPITAL LETTERS and is somehow cool. (He is one of my favourite characters in Discworld, so I’m biased.) The hellhound, sent to Earth to find his master (11-year-old Adam, who has no idea of the events unfolding around him), has glowing red eyes and a “low, rumbling snarl of spring-coiled menace” but changes shape when Adam announces that his dog will be a bright, small mongrel called Dog. In a flash, a terrifying beast turns into a friendly—and rather surprised—pet.

The writing is brilliant—funny, sharp and observant, but then you expect nothing less from Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Aziraphale and Crowley meet in St. James Park by the pond, where they can be unobserved. They talk as they feed the ducks, who are old hands at this. “The ducks in St. James’ Park are so used to being fed bread by secret agents meeting clandestinely that they have developed their own Pavlovian reaction. Put a St. James duck in a laboratory cage and show it a picture of two men—one usually wearing a coat with a fur collar, the other something sombre with a scarf—and it’ll look up expectantly.” Someone has the voice “the colour of an old raincoat”, and a computer has the “intelligence of a retarded ant”.

If you haven’t read this book yet, then you will love discovering it. If you have, then you know what I’m talking about.

Books for the lockdown

Photo by Pancholp (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Some of you have asked for books you can read during this time of lockdown and the threat of pandemic. Nothing too grim, something that will make you laugh or that will help you escape. So here is a far from exhaustive list, mostly, though not entirely, from my blog. And there is a also a list from Sophie, a reader of this blog.

Do you have any more suggestions? Respond in comments to this article.

To put a smile on your face and maybe warm your heart

Aya of Yop City: written by Marguerite Abouet, drawn by Clément Oubrerie
A graphic novel from Côte d’Ivoire about three young women and their worries about how life is going to work out. Very much of its place but universal in the way that people aren’t that different, no matter where they live.

Hag-Seed: Magaret Atwood
Atwood’s take on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, with an ageing stage actor as Prospero. Delightful.

A Man Called Ove: Fredrick Backman
Backman peels back the layers to reveal the heart behind the grumpy old man. Funny and heartbreaking (so it will bring tears to your eyes, but it is ultimately heart-warming).

The Sellout: Paul Beatty
Hilariously subversive. Me (yes, that’s what he’s called, son of F.U. Me) tries to save his town from disappearing off the map. If that means making schools segregated again, then that’s what he will do.

Rosie is My Relative by Gerald Durrell
Another of my favourites. A man living in London inherits an elephant with a tendency to drink and takes her across the country to find her a home. It starts slowly but is hilarious (especially when Rosie gets drunk in a stately home and goes skittering across the ballroom floor).

Good Omens: Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
No list would be complete without this wonderfully irreverent take on the Apocalypse by the two masters of irreverence. One of my favourite books (review coming soon).

Tales of the Tikongs: Epeli Hau’ofa
Development experts find themselves continually outsmarted by the residents of a Pacific island. A humorous look at development aid to small countries.

The Rosie Project: Graeme Simsion
A brilliant man with a touch of Asperger’s tries to find himself a girlfriend and meets Rosie, who turns his life upside down.

A Parrot in the Pepper Tree: Chris Stewart
The second in Stewart’s account of living on a small farm in Alpujarras in Spain, and my favourite of the three. It made me laugh out loud, but it also brings the place to life.

A Gentleman in Moscow: Amor Towles
Towles’s charming book about a Russian gentleman who is confined to a hotel for 30 years while the country changes around him. Gentle and maybe appropriate for our times?

The Gap of Time: Jeanette Winterson
Winterson’s take on Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Cloudstreet: Tim Winton
Winton’s novel about a family in Australia. Humming with life.

P.G. Wodehouse
I found him funny when I was 13 and his books still make me laugh.

Crime and some twisty plots

The Emperor of Ocean Park: Stephen L. Carter
A complex thriller about the privileged black community in the US. Tal’s father dies seemingly of a heart attack, but was he murdered?

The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken: Tarquin Hall
I would recommend all four books in this series. Although Hall isn’t Indian, he captures the Delhi lingo perfectly, and the books are delightful. But this one is my favourite—about the scars and secrets that still exist after the partition of India and Pakistan.

Magpie Murders: Anthony Horowitz
A whodunit within a whodunit, the second one a pastiche of Agatha Christie books. Fun

The Blackhouse: Peter May
A whodunit set on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. A police officer moves back to the island and gets pulled back into his past.

Where the Crawdads Sing: Delia Owens
A woman grows up on her own in the marshes of North Carolina. The police turn up when a body of a man from the nearby town is found there. But did she kill him?

The Long Way Home: Louise Penny
An Armand Gamache whodunit. Gamache is pulled out of retirement when a friend asks him to help her find her husband. Set in Canada.

Historical crime novels

The Matthew Bartholomew Chronicles: Susanna Gregory
A series of whodunits set in medieval Cambridge, when science was emerging. The protagonist is a Benedictine doctor (not a monk), and through him, Gregory shows the battle between medicine and the old beliefs.

Dark Fire: C.J. Sansom
A whodunit set in the time of Henry VIII. Sansom captures the period beautifully—the King and his entourage feel like real people. The protagonist is a hunchback lawyer in the service of Thomas Cromwell. Note: I have also reviewed another of the books in the series here: Tombland.

Twisty / complicated plots

S.: JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst
A three in one book: the book itself is a novel written by VM Straka, then there are footnotes by the translator and in the margins are notes that a couple make to each other. Something to get lost in, with real inserts like a map drawn on a napkin.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle: Stuart Turton
A truly twisty plot that will blow your mind.

Strange worlds to get lost in

The Book of Chameleons: Jose Eduardo Agualusa
Narrated by a gecko who lives in the house of an albino in Luanda, Angola. The albino makes a living by giving his clients new pasts. Magical.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell: Susanna Clarke
Set in England in the early 1800s. Magic has disappeared from the land, and two very different men are determined to bring it back. A world you could get lost in.

Kafka on the Shore: Haruki Murakami
Murakami’s strange world of a man who talks to cats, a man who dresses like Johnny Walker of whiskey fame, and strange goings-on.

Firmin: The Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife—Sam Savage
The life of a rat who loves to read. Delightful.

Thoughtful reads

Einstein’s Dreams: Alan Lightman
A riff on time—the myriad ways that Einstein would imagine time: flowing, circling in on itself and moving in fits and starts. Beautifully written.

A Book of Silence: Sara Maitland
Maitland, on her search for silence, finds that there are various kinds: the silence of the desert, that of the forest and being on one’s own—each of these has different qualities.

From Sophie

The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo
In 1930s Malaya (today’s Malaysia), Ren, an 11-year-old houseboy, sets out on a mission: he has to find his late Master’s missing finger in 49 days and bury it, so that his master’s spirit rests in peace.
Meanwhile, Ji Lin, a dressmaker and dancehall girl, is very unwillingly drawn into the search for the severed finger. Let me add that since a village girl might have been slaughtered by a Weretiger, the reader will find all the ingredients to an energetic and fascinating whodunit, in which superstitions and Confucian traditions play a predominant role.
I did enjoy Ms Choo’s novel tremendously and cannot wait to read her second one, the Ghost Bride.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles
In 1870 Texas, the aging Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd goes from town to town to read the country’s and the world’s news to a paying audience.
A former Searcher and a Civil War hero, he agrees to return a 10-year-old captive to her relatives in San Antonio. Little Johanna, who was abducted by the Kiowas four years earlier, only thinks of herself as a Native, cannot speak her mother tongue anymore, and has no remembrance of her past.
Of course, Captain Kidd and Johanna’s journey will not turn out as it was previously planned, and both travelers will have to live up to some very rough adventures.
This excellent Western had me hooked from the very start, but is nonetheless more than a story of the Far West.
The novel questions the issues of loss, delves into the power of love, to eventually exemplify Kidd and Johanna’s absolute resilience.

When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman
This delicate novel is about Elly, her family and brother, Joe.
It is a novel about love, about family ties and about growing up, it is above all the story of a brother, a sister and their secret.
I found this story an exhilarating, elegant and very tender tale, spruced with wit and humour.

The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney
The murder of a French fur trapper in the village of Caulfield, Ontario, is the starting point for a complex yet fascinating plot, set in 19th century Canada.
The narrator starts on a perilous journey into the Canadian wilderness in order to find her son Francis, who went missing on the very same day the trapper was murdered.
Mrs Ross, Francis’ mother, follows her son’s tracks into the wild, fighting for survival in a snow-covered nature that is as brutal as the several characters she will meet.
This novel is not only a murder mystery. It is also a quest, a thriller, and a love story. It is also, so far, my favourite novel for 2020.

The Quarry: Iain Banks

“Do not go gentle into that good night. / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Dylan Thomas

Guy is dying and has no intention of going gentle into the good night. He summons his best friends to his crumbling house by the quarry by telling them he has found a video that they had made during their days as film students, and which would be embarrassing to all of them if it were to be made public.

So they arrive: Holly, a film critic; Pris, a nurse and social worker; Haze, Pris’s ex-husband, a bit of a loser; Alison and Rob, a corporate couple; and Paul, a lawyer standing for parliament. It’s a mixed bunch and the already existing tensions between them are ratcheted up by Guy, who enjoys manipulating people. But once they’re there, Guy can’t remember what he has done with the tape. Or so he says.

The story is narrated by his son Kit, a young man with Asperger’s, who lives with Guy and cares for him. Extremely bright (by his own admission) and observant, Kit is the heart of this book. Guy, typically, hasn’t told Kit who his mother is. He spins him various stories, including the fact that one of the three women visiting that weekend is his mother. Which could be true—or not.

The cancer that is eating Guy is hollowing out everything, much as the quarry near the house is slowly encroaching on it. Guy battles his disease with rage, taking no prisoners. It’s hard on Kit, who tries to keep things under control and whose attempts at being positive are met with fury by his father.

But Kit has his secret world: he is a player in an online game where he is highly respected and into which he disappears. Holly is his one confidante.

Both father and son, in their own ways, expose the pointlessness and the hypocrisy of the social mores that most of take for granted. Kit tries to navigate the world around him, to behave “normally”, as coached by Holly. He goes along with it, unconvinced. “‘That’s nice’ is one of those pointless phrases I never have used but for Hol. My natural response to something like what Pris had just said would be nothing. So, she is going to Ormiscrake to meet her relationship partner for breakfast. Does that really require a response from me? No.”

Guy, on the other hand, welcomes his friends with a blistering attack on how people are around the dying. “Seems to be a very embarrassing thing, even quite distressing and upsetting for people, being around someone dying, coming to visit them. Specially when they can practically see an old mucker shrivelling away in front of them, like he’s letting the side down by doing something none of us is supposed to do for another forty years or whatever. … We don’t know how to react to them, how to treat them, how to maintain the usual isn’t-everything-marvellous…bullshit like we usually do.”

This is the kind of book I love: throw a bunch of people together in a small space and see how they react to one another. But more than anything else, this is a book about life and death. It is made more poignant by the fact that it was Iain Banks’s last book—he died of cancer soon after finishing it.

Although the book sounds depressing, it isn’t. Guy is not a likeable person but he is a force of nature. Each of the characters has a distinct voice, so much so that you can tell immediately who is speaking. Kit is a wonderful character: his dry humour and observations of the people and the goings-on around him bring a lightness to the book that might have otherwise been quite dark. You root for him throughout.

Mister Pip: Lloyd Jones



Set on the island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, this book tells the story of a young girl, Matilda, who is 13 when we first meet her. The story takes places mostly in the 1990s, during the civil war and is narrated by Matilda.

Because of the civil war,[1] the school is closed. The Australians, who were mining copper on the island, leave, taking with them some of the local men, including Matilda’s father. The only white man left on the island is Mr. Watts, married to Grace, a local woman. He is nicknamed Pop Eye by the kids:

“He looked like someone who had seen or known great suffering and hadn’t been able to forget it. His large eyes in his large head stuck out further than anyone else’s—like they wanted to leave the surface of his face. … Pop Eye wore the same white linen suit every day. His trousers snagged on his bony knees in the sloppy heat. Some days he wore a clown’s nose. … We never saw him smile. And on those days he wore the clown’s nose you found yourself looking away because you never saw such sadness.”

Mr. Watts reopens the school, but he has only one book for the students: Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. Slowly, the children become immersed in this world that is completely different from theirs. They learn about new things like frost and lawyers. The book is an escape for Matilda, who becomes a little obsessed by it. Her staunchly Christian mother does not approve of this: she worries that the white man will pollute her daughter’s mind and show her a world that will always be out of her reach. She is also afraid of losing Matilda, who is growing away from her.

Meanwhile, many of the young boys in the village have run off to join the rebels. The redskins (PNG forces) come looking for them, and unable to find them, attack the village. After they leave, the villagers have to face the rebels, who come down from the mountains where they have been hiding. Mr. Watts’s beloved Grace dies, leaving him distraught with grief. But things are about to get a lot worse.

It takes a cataclysmic event for Matilda to leave the island and make a new life for herself. As an adult she tries to unravel the mystery that was Mr. Watt, also known to some as Mister Pip (the protagonist of Great Expectations).

I didn’t know much about the history of Papua New Guinea, so I found this book really interesting. I believed in Matilda: the yearning for something more, the ups and downs of adolescence and finally, the realization that there is much more to people than you think, and even the ones you think you know best can surprise you.

The book is certainly not for the faint-hearted, though: some of the violence is particularly brutal and hard to take. I enjoyed it, but it left me with a sadness for the senseless waste of life that wars result in.

[1] A note on the civil war: it was fought by the secessionist Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) against the Papua New Guinea forces (known here as the redskins). But it was not so straightforward—the BRA also fought other armed groups on the island.

A Book of Silence: Sara Maitland

“It is quite hard to remember which came first—the freedom of solitude or the energy of silence. … I became less driven, more reflective and great deal less frenetic. And into that space flowed silence: I would go out into the garden at night or in the early morning and just look and listen… . For the first time in my life I noticed the gradation of colours before sunrise—from indigo through apricot to a lapidary blueness.”

Our society seems to be getting noisier. Noise follows us everywhere—in the busyness of cities, the music in shops and 24-hour television. And even when there is no sound, there is noise of another kind—the distraction of social media and smartphones. It feels like people are afraid of being quiet. And paradoxically, quiet is also what many people yearn for: a slowing down, the time to stop and notice, and to reflect.

Sara Maitland grew up in a noisy household, where the children were encouraged to voice their opinions. She loved talking, so much so that she says her hobby was depnisophy (skill at dinner party talk). But after her divorce, when she starts to live alone, she finds what she really needs is silence and moves to an isolated house on the moor in Weardale, near the Penines.

Maitland is curious about silence: what it means, how it affects people differently and what drives those who go in search of it. She sets out to answer these questions both by going to remote places and by reading the accounts of others who have, voluntarily or involuntarily, spent long periods by themselves.

But how do you define silence? Is it just an absence of noise, of conversation, or a complete emptying of the mind? Does reading, or listening to classical music (without vocals) or loud bird calls count as being silent?

Before I read this, I hadn’t realized how many kinds of silence there were. There is the silence of hermits, and the one experienced by people alone on boats in the middle of the seas or hiking in the wilderness; the kind that focuses inward and the kind where the boundaries between the self and the universe fade. And there is the dark side, the path to madness.

People often fear the absence of sound, of communication. A retreat from the world and into utter silence is often seen as an indication of something not quite right, and a risk that isolation can lead to insanity. Rather than something that enriches, it is seen as an absence, a lack. Maitland disagrees. As a practising Christian and a writer, she values silence and the way it opens up a space within.

She writes about how the quality of silence changes with the landscape. The silence of the desert is very different from that of a forest. She goes to the Sinai desert and for the first time, hears “the sound of silence…the absence of anything to hear”. In a forest, there is always some sound—water, creatures or the wind through the trees. Also, in a desert or on a moor, everything is visible for miles. The forest, on the other hand, holds secrets, which is why fairy tales are so often set there. 

Silence can affect the mind, playing tricks on it. One winter when she was snowed in, she ventures out for a walk. About half a mile from her house, she hears a terrifying sound, like the wailing of the damned. She is convinced that it will drive her insane, but eventually realizes that it was the wind.

But on the whole, there is more to gain than lose from silence. Being alone with your thoughts makes you more reflective, more self-aware and more still within. As the quote at the beginning of this piece shows, you become more aware of nature, of tiny changes and their meanings. 

This is a rich book with interesting ideas, and a lot of research—it is full of quotes from other writers, which is sometimes interesting but at other times, a little too much. I learned a lot from this—and not just about silence.

The Memory Police: Yoko Ogawa

Translated from Japanese by Stephen Snyder

“‘Things go on disappearing, one by one. … It doesn’t hurt, and you won’t even be particularly sad. One morning you’ll simply wake up and it will be over, before you’ve even realized. … People gather in little groups out in the street to talk about their memories of the thing that’s been lost. … But no one makes much of a fuss, and it’s over in a few days. Soon enough, things are back to normal, as though nothing has happened, and no one can even recall what it was that disappeared.’”

On an unnamed Japanese island, things are disappearing: emeralds, ribbons, bells, stamps, birds, photographs. Soon the people forget they even existed, except for a few who are unable to forget and try to salvage the disappeared things. The mother of the unnamed narrator, a novelist, is one such person. She pays for it—one day, the Memory Police come to take her away, and the narrator never sees her again.

Because none of the disappearances are natural occurrences. They are being orchestrated by a nebulous power—a dictatorship of some kind, although that is never clear. The Memory Police are the enforcers of this power, scouring the island for those who can’t forget.

The book the novelist is working on is an echo of the situation on the island. It is about a young typist and her teacher. Under his influence, she gradually loses her voice and can only communicate by typing. But when her typewriter breaks down, the teacher lures her to a room in the tower under the pretext of repairing it. He imprisons her in that room filled with broken typewriters.

The one person the novelist trusts completely with her work is her editor, R. But he is, like her mother, someone who is unable to forget. Worried that he will meet the same fate as her mother, she decides to hide him in her home, with the help of an old man who was married to her nurse. But it isn’t easy hiding a man under the eyes of the Memory Police. And how long can she hang on when everything around her is vanishing into thin air?

The way the book is written is almost like a fable. Most of the characters do not have names, as if they were insubstantial. It is about the loss of memory, a loss so deep that looking at a disappeared object brings no spark of recognition. It is also about a loss of identity, of the loss of control over our innermost selves. Our memories make us who are and if they start to dissipate and vanish, then who are we? This haunting book stayed with me for a while after I had finished reading it.

No Place to Call Home: J.J. Bola


, ,

“And in the end, we are all looking for the same place: somewhere to call home. Home is somewhere we know, somewhere we trust. … Home is where your heart is, home is where you rest your head, home is where you never feel alone. For me, there is no place to call home; nowhere that I belong.”

At the centre of this book is a family: Papa, Mami, Jean and Marie—refugees who left Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo to try and build a better life in London. It centres mostly around Jean and his attempts to fit in, but also tells the story of Papa and Mami.

Jean becomes friendly with James, a young tearaway whose parents quite clearly neglect him. Jean looks up to the young English boy and admires his bravado. The friendship suffers when Jean decides to pay attention to his studies and leaves the cool, I-don’t-really-care gang to join the studious, uncool gang. But after everything they have been through together, the two boys never really lose their bond. 

We also learn about Papa, and how he fell in love with Mami in Kinshasa the first time he sees her: “and the person inside him who was always running away stood still”. But Papa is sent by his father, Koko Patrice, to study in Brussels. He meets Mami again a few years after, and they resume their relationship. Mami becomes pregnant and is thrown out by her father. Papa returns from Brussels to take care of her. They manage to save enough money for him to return to finish his studies.

The DRC is under the rule of a dictator, Le Marechal. J.J. Bola’s observation about the dictator and the way his supporters are taken in by him is so universal. “They swallowed his promises, his vacuous and empty promises, like poison to the thirsty, fed to them like starving children with no food. Promises are made when intentions are not honoured; be wary of the man who feeds you promises.”

Under his rule, Kinshasa is becoming unsafe. The soldiers of Le Marechal, les soldats, are killing and looting. Papa talks Mami, now pregnant with Marie, into leaving.

No Place to Call Home is about trying to create a home in spite of the constant uncertainty of someone else making the decisions about your future. Mami opens her home to others looking for shelter: Tonton (uncle in French), the flamboyant man who moves in with them, and Madeline, her daughter Christelle and the child Glody, whom Mami takes in because they have nowhere else to go.

This is such a rich book: it is a coming-of-age story, it is about the obstacles refugees face in their so-called land of refuge, and the unimaginable wounds people carry deep inside them. Papa tries to throw Tonton after another night where he turned up dead drunk. But Tonton has his pain too, a pain he tries to forget but cannot. When he tells Papa his story, “these two men like giant rocks worn down by tears” weep. Tonton had kept his story to himself, “not out of a façade or to maintain an appearance, it was because…Tonton did not want anyone else to carry the extra weight he too carried.”

Bola writes beautifully: he is also a poet, and it shows. On one of his visits to James, Jean finds out that his strong friend is really a lost, unhappy child. James’s father is a violent drunk. James climbs onto the balcony ledge and sits there, feet dangling over the edge, saying over and over again that he was so tired. Jean is terrified that his friend will let himself fall. “The night had darkened: the only remaining light was the dim moon in the sky, and the brightness of inextinguishable hope still shining in their eyes. Time was lost on them, it did not exist for moments such as this; there was no rush, no slowing down, everything was frozen, silent still. The world did not watch, but it waited; no flowers bloomed, no breeze blew, no clouds passed. James got down. Time started once again.”

What I loved about this book was the perception and empathy—everyone has a story if you look close enough. I can’t recommend it enough.

Beyond the Rice Fields: Naivo

Translated from French by Allison M. Charrette

This is the first novel from Madagascar to be translated into English. It tells the story of Rafa, a young woman, and Tsito, the boy her father buys her for a slave. Their relationship is closer than mistress and slave—they are around the same age and they grow up together as playmates and friends.

Through Fara and Tsito, the novel charts Madagascar’s history in the 19th century: the influence of Christianity through schools set up by missionaries, the persecution of Christians, and the struggle of the local leaders to maintain their independence.

Fara lives with her mother Bao and her grandmother Bebe. Fado, her father, has another family and only visits Bao occasionally. Tsito is in love with Fara, who is fond of him but does not return his love. Instead she is infatuated with Faly, a bully who Tsito hates—Faly has been picking on Tsito ever since he arrived at the village.

The two children are sent to the local missionary school with Vero, one of their playmates. Vero eventually joins a group of evangelists, which puts her in danger when the new Empress wants to rid the country of Christianity, which she feels is destroying the old ways.

In the meantime, Tsito has been taken under the wing of Ibambo, a powerful slave. Thanks to him, Tsito gets a job with Andriamady, a local lord. His new job takes him to the big city—the City of Thousands. He comes across his old enemy, Faly, who has become an important and ruthless man.

Political shifts, like everywhere else, have consequences on the countryside. Rado is a victim—once a rice farmer, who was also a zebu herder, he is now doing odd jobs, thanks to a group of the kingdom’s dignitaries. Tsito realizes that “The changes happening at the heart of the kingdom hadn’t just cost him his commercial connections; they’d also cost him his rice fields.”

This rich narrative moves between the points of view of Tsito and Fara. Apart from describing a period of Madagascar’s history, it is also a love story, a tale about the battle between the traditional and the “white man’s ways”—neither of which come off well—and the struggle of ordinary people, trying to live their lives as best they can in the face of injustice and manipulation by competing powers. I got completely absorbed in the lives of the characters. It was a great introduction to the history of Madagascar.

The Ruins of Time: Ben Woolfenden

“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?”

This quote by Marcus Tullius Cicero sets up the theme of this book. After Tom’s father retires, he becomes obsessed with tracing his family’s history. At first, Tom is bored and irritated by his father’s long accounts of what he has found, but finds himself drawn into the story.

The book moves between the past and the present, between the two sides of the family that came together to create Tom’s father. It all begins with William, a child from a poor family in Lancashire in 1830, scaring away birds from a field to earn a few pennies from the farmer. The death of his parents pushes him to leave the village, heading for Manchester.   

The enigma at the heart of the story is Elias Crane, Tom’s grandfather. Tom’s father never really knew him well—Elias was distant, a man who found it hard to show his emotions. But the discovery of a sepia photograph and a letter in Elias’s handwriting hold clues to his past. 

Having grown up in a loveless house with a stern father who could only punish and threaten, Elias becomes secretive and scornful of authority. “To have been forced to respect what he loathed, to fear where he should have loved, to have grown up to be lonely and secretive, always with an unnameable chill of dread about his heart—he saw how all these things conspired to make him what he was. And now he was a man, still he was powerless to shape his own fate.”

But he does get away, and it is with him that the paths of these two families converge.

This is a quick read, but perceptive about the damage that people inflict on each other. It also reminded me about our connection with our ancestors—whether we have anything to do with them or not, we carry their genes and their histories within us. It is moving, and well-written for a first book.

Where the Crawdads Sing: Delia Owens

“Marsh is not swamp. Marsh is a space of light, where grass grows in water, and water flows into the sky. Slow-moving creeks wander, carrying the orb of the sun with them to the sea… . Then within the marsh…true swamp crawls into low-lying bogs, hidden in clammy forests. Swamp water is still and dark, having swallowed the light in its muddy throat. … A swamp knows all about death, and doesn’t necessarily define it as a tragedy, certainly not a sin.”

The book starts with the discovery of a body in the swamp, the body of Chase Andrews, an arrogant womanizer. But this is more than a murder mystery. It is the story of a girl who grows up in the coastal marshes of North Carolina, a place where people move to when they are running away from something, often the law. The town’s people look down on the marsh folk and treat them like trash.

Kya lives with her family in the marsh. Her father is abusive, and her siblings get away as soon as they can. But Kya suffers the biggest blow when her mother walks out without a backward glance, leaving her alone with her brother Jodie and her father. Eventually Jodie follows his siblings and her father dies. The only people Kya has now are an old black man known as Jumpin’, who runs a store by the water, and his wife. They become her friends and parent figures.

Then two men come into her life and change it. Although Kya is illiterate—her one foray to school was a disaster—her knowledge of the marsh is encyclopaedic. Jodie’s friend, Tate, recognizes her innate intelligence and teaches her to read. They fall in love, but after Tate leaves for university, she doesn’t see him again.

Meanwhile, there have been rumours in town about a wild woman living in the swamp and the young men compete to see who will take her first. Chase Andrews starts visiting her and becomes her lover. He promises to marry her but has no intention of seeing it through.

Then one day Chase ends up dead in the swamp, and Kya is accused of murdering him. But did she do it?

Kya is a wonderful creation—talented, strong-willed and independent. The book is seen through her point of view. Even during the trial where her life is at stake, she can’t help observing the way the principal players reveal their status:

“The judge, obviously the alpha male, was secure in his position, so his posture was imposing, but relaxed and unthreatened as the territorial boar. Tom Milton [the defence attorney], too, exerted confidence and rank with easy movements and stance. A powerful buck, acknowledged as such. The prosecutor, on the other hand, relied on wide, bright ties and broad-shouldered suit jackets to enhance his status. He threw his weight by flinging his arms or raising his voice.”

But Kya is not the only one at the heart of Where the Crawdads Sing: the marsh is a character in its own right. Delia Owens obviously knows and loves the marshlands and her love comes through in this book. There is a vivid, magical quality about them—when the scene shifts to the town, it feels like the colours fade. Owens not only tells a fascinating tale but shines a light on the beauty and the sheer diversity of creatures that live in this relatively unknown habitat. I enjoyed the story but what made this book stand out for me was the lyrical description of the marshes.