The New Confessions

by William Boyd

I must confess to congratulating myself on having reached the end of this book. I had struggled with it from about a quarter of the way through.

A couple of weeks ago we were staying in a holiday cottage in Devon, and when I had finished one of the books I had brought with me, I found that there were several on the shelves there that I would wish to read, as well as several others I had already read.  It would appear that the landlady and/or previous guests have similar tastes in reading to my own.  I selected about four ‘possibles’, and chose this one.  We were snowed in for a couple of days, giving me enough time to get about a third of the way into the book, so I downloaded it in order to continue reading after we left for home.

I’m always ready to try something by Boyd, whose writing is incredibly fluent and engaging.  But the story really didn’t capture my imagination, being what appears to me a very macho, pseudo-autobiographical story of a self-obsessed and selfish man.  Some of Boyd’s novels I would class among the best writing I know: An Ice-Cream War, Ordinary Thunderstorms. His last two books left me cold, and I have mixed feelings about Any Human Heart although it did grip me at the time I read it.  Boyd’s first novel, A Good Man in Africa, did not appeal for many of the same reasons that I was turned off by this one: his character’s, and to some extent the author’s, callous treatment of women.

The ‘hero’ of this life story is one John James Todd, a Scot born at the very end of the nineteenth century.  His life reflects the times he lives in; he sees action in both World Wars, is named and persecuted in the anti-Communist persecutions of 1940s and 1950s America, experiences both the glamour and hardships of the film industry in pre-war Berlin and later in Hollywood, and rubs shoulders with many real and well-known people whose names are casually dropped into the narrative.  He experiences loves affairs, marriages, children, war wounds, friendships made and lost, betrayals.  On the whole he is alone throughout his life, and does not seem prepared to invest the emotional energy needed to make and preserve lasting relationships.  He seems devoid of any moral compass that allows him to decide when and where to do the right and decent thing.  His decisions appear to be driven, every time, by a desire for self-preservation.

Are we all like this, at heart?  IS this really the story of “any human heart” though written some years before Boyd’s book of that title?  Maybe Todd is just telling an uncomfortable truth that applies to every one of us: that all we are really interested in is ‘number one’.

I suppose it is fair to say that this book has made me think, and has captured my attention enough to make me finish reading it.



The Secret Scripture

by Sebastian Barry

I didn’t know what to expect, but I really enjoyed this book.

The language is poetic in many places, and for me this worked very well and served to further illustrate the characters.  For example, soon after introducing Father Gaunt, we are told: “He carried a highly ecclesiastical umbrella, like something real and austere, that said its prayers at night in the hatstand”.  Or when Roseanne describes her skin as a centenarian as being like the thin transparent layer that covers a razor fish shell that you might find on a beach.  These passages give you an insight into Roseanne’s character and her powers of observation, and this helps the reader to trust her version of the story, even though it is at odds with the ‘official’ version recorded by Fr Gaunt.

I also liked the way Roseanne’s reflections as an old person contrast with the way she describes her life as a girl and young woman.  In most of her narrative, she inhabits her younger self, so that you sometimes forget that she is telling the story some 70 years later.  But then her older character comes out with something like this: “It is always worth itemising happiness, there is always so much of the other thing in a life, you had better put down the markers for happiness while you can” and you feel that it is the older Roseanne reflecting on her life, and presenting it in the way she wants to.

Roseanne’s life is shaped by the environment she lives in: the civil war in Ireland; the influence of the clergy in the new republic; and finally the official move to close down institutions such as the one in which she has spent most of her adult life, and to right some of the wrongs done to their inmates.  She has no control over these historical events, and she doesn’t even reflect on them much, yet they have been the main influences on her life and that of the people around her.  I felt that this was an interesting treatment of the subject of Irish history. This book gave me a better understanding, in particular of the relationship between church and state in Ireland during the middle years of the twentieth century.

I was less satisfied with the ‘twist in the tail’ and I felt that tying up Roseanne’s story with that of Dr Grene and John Kane was just a bit too tidy and rather implausible.  However, it didn’t detract from the main story as far as I was concerned.

For  our book group, I gave this book a score of 8 out of 10.

First Lady: The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill

by Sonia Purnell

I came across this book when I watched a video of the author giving hints and tips about writing biography.  I’ve just noticed that there are two titles by this author about Clementine Churchill.  Could it be that one was published in the US and one in the UK, with different titles?  I can’t imagine that they can be different books.  She has also written about Boris Johnson.  Hmmmm.

My feelings about First Lady are mixed.  On the plus side: the life is interesting enough for a biography, the times Clementine lived in provide an exciting backdrop, and Churchill himself is thrown into relief through this narrative of his wife’s life.  I found myself exploring some of the background, and even watched the film The Battle of Britain again after reading about that period in history.  During the time I was reading this book, we had also been to see the newly-released film Darkest Hour.  So I may say that the film sparked my imagination and my interest in the era Clementine lived through, and especially the Second World War.

But I have reservations about the writing style, as well as the story’s coverage.

Purnell’s language does not scintillate in the way that, say, Claire Tomalin’s writing does, making you feel that not only the subject of the book, but the writing itself compels you to read on.  A previous reader of my library book had ‘corrected’, in pencil, various words and phrases through the text.  I rubbed some of these out.  They were either stylistic alternatives and not improvements (“due to” in place of “thanks to”) or just plain wrong (“materiel” corrected to “material”).  Annoying, but hardly the author’s fault!  What I did find annoying, though, were the occasions when the author seemed to ‘dumb down’ what she was writing for the sake of a presumed uneducated reader.  In the chapter describing the Churchills’ life at Chartwell in the 1920s and 1930s, the list of notable people they entertained there includes “Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother” and “Lawrence of Arabia”. Presumably she means the Duchess of York and T E Lawrence.  It is not only an inaccuracy, but insulting to the reader not to say so.  Put their other names in brackets or in a footnote if you must.  This is perhaps the crassest example, but I really felt that throughout the book, the author missed opportunities to elaborate on some of the no doubt interesting background to other characters, and links to the world around its subject.

There is no doubt that this book is painstakingly researched.  Notes at the end reference the many quotations in the text.  Maybe these are less distracting than footnotes on the page; but I would have welcomed something, in notes or in the body of the text, to make the story glow rather more than it does.

If this were an essay I would grudgingly give it an A or perhaps A-.   I won’t be rushing to read another book by Ms Purnell.  And anyway, who wants to read about Boris Johnson’s life?

Home Fire

by Kamila Shamsie

Aneeka and Parvaiz are twins, raised by their sister since their mother died when the twins were only twelve.  The family lives in Wembley and is well-loved by members of the local, diverse community.

The story is split into section, each based primarily on the experience of one of the main characters, but with the whole still flowing as a story.  At the start, Isma is starting a new life as a PhD student at a Massachusetts college, having had her education interrupted during the years when she was caring for and financially supporting the twins, nine years her junior.  Life seems to be looking up when she meets and is immediately attracted to Eamonn, himself from London and half Pakistani.  We learn of Isma’s previous connection with Eamonn’s politician father.  The story of her own father begins to unfold, and at the same time the reader learns (though it is not spelled out) that Parvaiz has gone to Raqqa to fight with IS.

The story takes Eamonn, Parvaiz, Aneeka and Karamat is turn as the primary actors, as it moves towards its inevitably tragic end.  The modern setting for this ancient story is littered with hashtags, Skype calls, text messaging – and yet this does not seem contrived but fits the action perfectly.  I feel that if I were to re-read this novel in twenty years’ time, whilst some of these things might appear old-fashioned, they would still fit the era (now) and place in which the the story is set.

Only on finishing the book did I read that it is based on the story of Antigone.  To my shame, I am largely unfamiliar with Ancient Greek myths and legends, so I read up on this one and I can clearly see the references in the inevitable and tragic fate of Parvaiz and Aneeka, but also in the names of the main characters.

This book gripped me from the start, and I read it in two days.  I had also enjoyed Shamsie’s earlier novel Burnt Shadows, but this most recent novel seemed more believable as a story, and perhaps less didactic than the earlier book.  It is one of those novels that you feel will give up even more in a second reading.  I hope so, since I may well recommend it for my book group.

The Abbess of Crewe

by Muriel Spark

I think this is the first book I have read by Muriel Spark – though it is possible that I read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie as a young girl (I certainly saw the film).  A book group friend mentioned another Spark novel she had been reading, and I decided to download this one when I saw it mentioned in an online list of some sort.

It’s a short novel, written just after the Watergate scandal and presenting a version of that story, set in a convent.  Sister Alexandra and her supporters ‘fix’ the election of a new abbess, allowing Sister Felicity – who, it has to be said, is not blameless, but conducting an affair with a Jesuit priest.

Spark’s writing is pithy, humorous, clever.  The story is a bit silly and didn’t really ‘grab’ me.  But I can see why this writer is revered and, indeed, loved.  Perhaps this was not a good book to choose as my first venture into Spark territory, but I’m not sure I will rush out to read more by this author.


by Margaret Atwood

Wow. I could have given this post the title “My favourite Canadian”, so entranced am I by Atwood’s writing. Not a word out of place, not a superfluous phrase.

This is the third book in the Hogarth Shakespeare series that I have read, or – as in the case of Jacobson’s My Name is Shylock – attempted to read. I came to it through another book blog, on which various people claimed it was the best of he bunch (so far). So I determined to give it a try.


The story is that of The Tempest. This is not a play I know well, but the author helpfully summarises the plot at the end of the book. Even without this summary, you feel you know the story well by the time you finish this novel. Why? Well, at least in part because the story is played out twice, in some detail, in the course of the novel.

Felix’s own exile echoes that of Prospero with his (in Felix’s case dead and imagined) daughter Miranda. The friends who send him there are every bit as evil and scheming as Antonio and Alonso. Felix’s plan to trick them into submission relies on the present-day ‘magic’ of electronic technology. And aside from this, there is a play within the play, as Felix stages, in the prison, the production which allows him his revenge.

The plot is ingenious and yet somehow believable. Even Ariel and the goddesses have a role in the prison production that seems entirely right and, if contrived, then contrived by Felix and not by the story’s author.

Atwood’s writing just gets better and better. This is the best thing I’ve read in months: for plot, characterisation, language and sheer chutzpah.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá in America

by Robert H Stockman

I confess that I don’t read much Bahá’í literature, apart from scripture.  I have read some biographical and historical books, the most spectacular of which was undoubtedly Lighting the Western Sky by Kathryn Hogenson, a wonderful book about the first pilgrimage of Western Bahá’ís to Haifa and Akká.

This book was recommended to me by a good friend, who was kind enough also to lend me his copy, which I selfishly hung on to for almost a year.  For some reason I got about halfway through and then paused for several months.  This is in no way a reflection on the writing or content of the book, however.  Stockman has researched his subject meticulously, using archive material and other published material, painstakingly (and correctly) pointing out where his sources differ and where there are gaps.  In fact, ‘Abduk’l-Bahá’s travels in America are very well documented, it seems.

The book achieves, for me, the right balance between historical fact to help the flow (journeys undertaken, houses stayed in, talks held), reported speech including chunks of text from some of the ‘Master’s’ talks, and anecdote which brings his and other characters to life.

Stockman has also written two volumes about the Bahá’í Faith in America in its early days.  I’m inspired to read these now.