A Time of Gifts – Patrick Leigh Fermor

9780719566950 For last month’s book group we decided to try a genre which was new to us as a group and read some travel writing.  Since we had a slightly longer than usual gap between meeting we chose Patrick Leigh Fermor – if we had time to read more than just Time of Gifts there were the follow-up volumes, Between the Woods and the Water and the Broken Road, to keep us busy.

These three books between them cover a journey the author took from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. In his late teens. In the 1930s. On foot.  Although, for me, the places he travelled through were interesting it was the timing and the mode of transport which I really wanted to read about.  We spend so much of our time these days in boxes – in our homes and cars, in trains, buses and planes – looking at the world through screens or windows: I wanted to hear about someone who actually got out into the world and experienced it first hand. Because the walk itself happened when Fermor was in his late teens (although he didn’t publish the first two volumes until he was into his sixties) I was concerned that it could be a little like reading ‘gap year’ adventures but I needn’t have worried.  Although I’m sure there were young people in the 30s who did nothing but lounge around, patronising those older or less British than themselves, but this author seems to be made of sterner stuff.  He does, from time to time, meet up with friends and spend time socialising (particularly in Vienna – a city which then and now seems to suit the word ‘glittering’) but most of the time he is on foot, sleeping in barns and hostels and meeting with people of all types.

One of the first things to strike me was that this was not a journey that it would be easy to replicate these days. So many of the quiet roads that Fermor used must now be major autobahns and the fields he strode across would now be much more closely guarded private land.  It would also, hopefully, be hard to replicate the fact that he was walking during the rise of Fascism in Germany and through countries with whom we would soon be at war.  Because the book is written many years later, after a distinguished military career, it would have been easy to paint a grim picture of the Europe of those times. What we get, however, is a balanced view – some of the Germans he meets are Nazis but most of them are not; he meets shopkeepers, farmers, minor nobility and bright young things as well as soldiers and Jews.

I only managed to finish the first volume of this before the Book Group met (like Bex, my to-read pile seems to getting bigger, not smaller, as the days go by) but I think I will want to read to the end at some point.  Which was, I think, the response of the rest of the group.  We enjoyed it but now we are looking forward to something different….



Half Bad – Sally Green

9780141350868Haha – I think I have beaten Bex to reading the next big thing in Young Adult fiction!  Which is a bit mean of me really since Young Adult is not my usual genre of choice (I don’t think I even remotely qualify as young anymore and only pretend to be an adult….) but is one that she loves (as you may have been able to tell from her If You Like John Green, You’ll Love…. post).

I have read a few bits of Young Adult in the past and I have also been reading a fair bit of stuff with teen protagonists (Universe Versus Alex Woods, Perfect, Casual Vacancy and God’s Own Country – all fabulous reads, you should check them out) but the books this made me think of first are the Harry Potter stories.  The main character, Nathan, is a young witch who struggles with good and evil while living in a world where witches are commonplace but live unseen alongside non-witches – known in this world as fains.  So far, so J.K. Rowling, but this is a much older and darker story.  Witches are either ‘white’ or ‘black’ – with black witches being a illegal group, hunted to death by the whites – but our hero is a very unusual witch indeed since he has a white witch mother but his father is a notorious black witch.  Imagine if Lily Potter and Tom Riddle had a son…..

Nathan is also very much a modern teenager.  He is moody, swears, fights and, when he has to, steals but he loves his family – apart from one older sister who, to be honest, I imagine no-one likes much at all – and just wants to live as normal a life as he can.  But his life is anything but normal: he is regularly assessed by a White council (who make the Ministry of Magic look like amateurs), removed from school and his family, kept in a cage, beaten and scarred.  He cannot read – but, after his jailer reads him Solzhenitsyn, becomes a big fan of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Because he survives…

This is a fast-paced and gripping read but also takes the time to set you thinking about bigger issues.  The title is ‘Half Bad’, presumably in relation to Nathan’s half-breed status, but you are made fully aware that white witches are not necessarily on the side of good. After all, it is the white witches who incarcerate and torture Nathan. The story ranges from London, through Scotland and Wales, to Geneva and, since this is just the first installment, it has much further to go.  This one ends on a major cliff-hanger – and I don’t know when the next book is due.  I’d better find out soon because I really, really need to know what happens next….


Cockroaches – Jo Nesbo

9781846554933There are no real surprises in this book – it is a fairly typical Jo Nesbo thriller – but I sometimes feel there are types of books which we read because they basically do what we expect them to.  I don’t mean that the plot was obvious or that I knew who the killer was from page 6 or anything like that: just that it can be quite comforting to read a thriller knowing that it would contain murder, sordid scandal and a few one-liners.  As I said, no surprises there.

That said I did enjoy the story – our hero, Harry Hole, has to sober up long enough to solve the mystery surrounding the death, in suspicious circumstances, of the Norwegian Ambassador in Bangkok.  This is an early Harry Hole novel, so we do have some background information about why he needs to drink, his family and his relationships with his colleagues.  I did also feel, by the  end, that events had led Harry himself to a better understanding of how things were going to be – but, obviously, we need him to be a bit tortured. All the best detectives are a bit tortured….The story rattles on, with a bit of love interest (which is never going to end well – all the best detectives have rubbish love lives…), a hint of scandal in high places and a good side-kick.  I particularly like the way that we are given a hint of the politics of Norway and it is assumed that we sort of understand them – not too much explanation of things which seem different at first but, at heart, are fairly universal.  The ending is suitably blood-soaked and convuluted and, of course, takes our hero back to Norway for his next adventure.

In conclusion – when I am in the mood for good old-fashioned thriller I shall be reaching for more Jo Nesbo. His plots are good and I am learning to care about Harry Hole.


Ghana Must Go – Taiye Selasi

9780670919888This is a novel which seems to look through a microscope and a telescope at the same time.  On the one hand we get a very detailed view of certain incidents in the stories of the various members of the Sai family – particularly the death of Kwaku and each of the parents’ memories of their own families – on the other hand we see very little detail of some of the big events like Kwaku’s desertion of his wife and children or Folasadé’s life as a single mother.  Other parts of the tale – particularly details of traumas suffered by the children – are revealed gradually.

The book is beautifully written.  There are a number of different narrators but each voice is distinct – you even hear the Ghanaian and Nigerian accented english (which I must admit I recognise from sketches by the late Felix Dexter in episodes of The Real McCoy ).  It is not an easy read since we do jump from one narrator to another and back and forth in time but it certainly can reward you if you are able to take the time to focus on the writing.  I can also see that it could be possible to see the problems faced as minor since, during most of the book, the characters are living very priviledged lives (private schools for the children followed by Ivy League Universities, careers as doctors and respected artists).  Personal tragedy, however, is not limited to the oppressed.   Oddly I didn’t feel that it was an ‘African’ novel – the characters are searching for their own identities, be they American, Nigerian or Ghanaian – but a far more inclusive story which we could all take something from.


1,339 QI Facts to Make Your Jaw Drop

9780571308941I love facts.  One of my childhood nicknames was ‘Cloggsy’ (short for clever-clogs). The only Charles Dickens book I have ever really enjoyed is Hard Times where Gradgrind insists that children are taught only facts and one of my favourite quotes from Dorothy L. Sayers (an author I have admired for years) is ‘facts are like cows. If you look them in the face hard enough they generally run away’.* I am also, like very many people, a huge fan of the tv show QI so a QI book of facts is a bit of a no-brainer for me.

I will admit I read this book from cover to cover before Christmas and I had, originally, planned to give it away as a prize in a quiz I had to write in December.  But when push came to shove I just couldn’t do it – I really had to own this book (and you never know when you will have to write another quiz).**  The appeal comes, largely from the quality and range of the facts contained within – ranging from the name of the fleshy part at the base of your thumb to the definition of ‘strikhedonia’*** – proving just how hard the QI elves work.  But an added bonus is the fact that all the facts are verifiable online (qi.com/1339) and they welcome queries and corrections.  Really, I  can’t fault their logic and it makes it a book which just keeps on giving!


*The quote is reported to be made by Bunter’s elderly mother.

**Of course if any of my fellow BAAHS members gets their own copy they may be onto a winner…

***Thenar.  And ‘the joy of not giving a damn’.



The Invention of Wings – Sue Monk Kidd

9781472212757As I started to read this book  the first things to strike me were the similarities to Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway.  The main one, initially, is the quilting angle but runaway slaves and quakers soon make an appearance.  In this story, however, you don’t feel that this heroine’s tale is largely about which man she should choose (along with his lifestyle and principles) because in the end neither Sarah nor Handful (the two narrators) settle with a man.  Although both have romantic involvements they both find their own place in the world as women rather than as wives or daughters.

I didn’t feel that this was done heavy-handedly but I admired the way that Sarah, in particular, was able to turn down a good, loving and principled man because he would have required her to give up her personal ambitions.  Since the book is set in Charleston in the first half of the 19th century we should remember that neither a slave or her female owner had many rights at all.  At one point Handful points out to Sarah, her owner, that while as a slave her body is not free her mind is her own. She also reminds  Sarah that although she may enjoy physical freedom she is, paradoxically, almost enslaved mentally.  Sarah’s struggle is is to gain her own freedom of the mind and it is hard-fought.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the whole book is the afterword where we discover that Sarah and Nina Grimké were real women who actively campaigned for the equality of both slaves and women.  I had never even considered that abolishionists didn’t necessarily believe in equal rights.  I am very glad that I have been able to read this beautifully written book about some remarkable women.  Recent films, such as Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave, have highlighted the realities of slavery but the voices of women slaves are less commonly heard.


The Elements of Eloquence – Mark Forsyth

I have sold many, many copies of Mark Forsyth’s previous books (The Etymologicon and The Horologicon) – they are part of that group of ‘surprise’ bestsellers which seemed to start way back in 2002 with Schott’s Miscellany and which publishers have been trying to replicate ever since – but I have not read either of them. Yet.  Based, however, on my reading of his latest work, The Elements of Eloquence, I am certainly going to read them both in the very near future.



This book is a modern guide to the ‘figures of rhetoric’.  Which didn’t help me much when I started it since all I could think of was the term ‘a rhetorical question’ – and who can say what that really means?  It turns out that these figures are ways of making language more memorable – a kind of grammatical monosodium glutamate if you will.  Or as Mark Forsyth describes it ‘formulas for producing great lines’.  Some of them I had heard of – alliteration, assonance, hyperbole and personification – and some I had no clue about at all.  In fact some of them sounded more like dinosaurs than anything to do with grammar.  Anadiplosis anyone?

I hope this doesn’t make the book sound boring, however, as it is anything but.  The best part is that the examples we are given come from such a wide range of sources.  Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible feature heavily (naturally) but I’ll admit I didn’t expect to see so much of the Beatles, Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen.  Although I shouldn’t be surprised, should I?  These are, after all, people who are known for writing memorable lines – phrases which we can’t get out of our heads.

What this book does best is show that all these fancy sounding tricks – with names like hendiadys, epizeuxis and congeries – are just ways of defining things many of us do every day.  My personal favourite is aposiopesis…