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.

A Whispered Name

by William Brodrick

Chosen by our book group.  I not sure why we chose it, or what the alternatives were – I probably missed the meeting where it was selected.  I got this book from the library and read it within ten days – but it was a bit of a slog.

Not sure exactly why I had so much trouble with this book.  I found it incredibly slow-moving at first, and the pace never really picked up, although my reading pace did.  I found myself reading ahead and jumping around in the narrative.  This didn’t make it any easier to follow the story, such as it is.

The action in this novel is quite restrained: a contemporary monk, Anselm, begins an investigation into the First World War experiences of another monk, Herbert Moore, now dead.  Herbert was the brother who first welcomed Anselm into the order.  We learn next to nothing about Anselm; his role is that of an investigator, uncovering the truth.  In this respect this book may be said to resemble a thriller – but its crawling pace is out of keeping with any thriller I have read recently.

The author looks deeply into motivation and legality of actions in times of war, and the lasting effect that wartime decisions and actions have on the actors long after the war is over. Two key experiences appear to shape Herbert’s life: his mercy shooting of a soldier in his unit who appears to be drowning in the mud of Flanders, and his part as one of the officers on a Field General Court Marshal trying an Irish deserter.  The ‘back story’ is mainly that of the deserter, another deserter with whom he apparently changes places, and – to a much more limited extent – of Herbert himself.

There are nuances in the plot.  Herbert has been disciplined himself for a similar offence, and perhaps for this reason the judgment weighs heavily on him.  It is implied that Flanagan was statistically more likely to be sentenced to death because he was Irish.  The soldier with whom Flanagan at one point changes identities has enlisted under an assumed name, and is really under age.

The other officers in the story come across as real people – some of them career soldiers, but most of them men who have just ended up on the battlefield and try to come to terms with the terrible things they are being asked to do.

Women don’t feature much in this novel.  The landscape, however – on the Ypres salient, around the convent of Larkwood and on Flanagan’s home island of Inisdúr – features greatly in the lives of each of the main protagonists.

Writing these words, two weeks after reading the book, I wonder why I found it so hard going.  It is in fact an interesting topic given a sensitive approach.  All the same, I don’t think I will be rushing to read anything else by this author, and I can’t give the book more than 6 out of 10.  It would have earned a 7 if the story could have moved along a bit faster!

Reykjavik Nights

by Arnaldur Indridason

Two deaths, apparently unconnected. Both took place at least a year ago. A married woman disappears after a night out with colleagues. A homeless man is found drowned in a muddy pool. The tramp is presumed to have fallen into the pool, drunk, and his death is not further investigated. The woman may have committed suicide, but her body has never been found and the case remains open.

Erlendur is a junior police officer working nights on traffic patrol.  He has met the homeless man on a couple of occasions before his death, and something prompts him to look more closely into the case, despite the fact that he does not work in CID.  He carries on a personal investigation, eventually finding a link between the two cases and solving both murders.

The book is a prequel to a series featuring Erlendur as a fully-fledged detective inspector.  I have not read any other books by this author, but in this book I found his style to be accessible, the English translation particularly so, and the content was fast-paced enough to keep my interest without being unbelievable.

The setting is, probably, typical of Nordic thrillers.  In a word: bleak.  Reykjavik in the 1970s is portrayed as having serious problems with alcohol and homelessness – though maybe this reflects mainly the preoccupations of the characters, who are after all policemen.

Erlendur’s private life features very little in this book, and this is, for me, something of a loss.  He has a girlfriend whom he meets occasionally and, it seems, almost reluctantly.  At one point she announces to that she is pregnant with his child, and suggests they move in together.  This storyline is promptly dropped, as Erlendur gets on with his investigation.  Perhaps readers of the detective series know what happens next – for me, reading only this book, it was deeply unsatisfying.  It would have been better if the author had left this story out of the novel altogether.  It does nothing for the plot, nor does it illuminate Erlendur’s character (except perhaps to show him as extremely callous in regard to his personal relationships).

I won’t rush out to read more by this author, but I will keep him in mind the next time I am looking for a detective story to download.

Cheerfulness breaks in

by Angela Thirkell

I can’t remember where I read about this author – it was a couple of weeks ago, while browsing the internet.  Perhaps it was on another book blog, or in a review of another book, or in one of those lists you find all over the place.  Whichever, it was serendipity.  I needed something relatively light to read over the Christmas holiday. This is a time when I find it hard to get down to ‘serious’ reading, what with the demands of guests and a more than usually active social life.  I had started reading an excellent biography of Attlee, but was ready to put this aside for a week or two and take up something lighter.

Thirkell’s book proved to be the ideal holiday read.  There is humour, but also pathos.  With a huge cast of characters, it is inevitable that some will be sketchily drawn and others caricatures, but there are also characters who seem real enough to leap off the page and arrive on your doorstep, hoping to be invited in for a sherry.

Yes, sherry seems to be very much à la mode in the Barsetshire of Thirkell’s book.  Most of her novels – and her output was prolific – are set in the fictional town of Barchester and surrounding villages, that are the setting for Trollope’s Barchester chronicles.  There are oblique references to some of Trollope’s characters too, though of course their activities are already in the past by 1939, the time this novel opens.

This is a love story and also a story of social life in a village at the start of the Second World War.  The people who populate the book are affected by the war, most notably by the arrival of an evacuated London school which shares facilities with the local public school, and evacuee children who are billeted around the villages.  Most of the ‘action’ takes place in social settings: parties; a ‘communal kitchen’ organised by the ladies of the area to give the evacuee children their midday meal; a Christmas party for the evacuees.  Private moments between the key characters are snatched within these social events.  The novel ends with an understated cliffhanger, as the heroine, Lydia, receives a telegram that may or may not be bad news about Noel Merton.

Thirkell published at the rate of about one novel a year from the age of 40 till her death thirty years later.  Most of these novels are set in Barsetshire.  Having only read this one, I don’t know whether any of the characters reappear – but I get the impression that each novel is quite separate, and populated with its own group of people.  Virago has published a number of Thirkell’s books in its ‘Modern Classics’ collection, and happily they are also available as Kindle editions.

Don’t expect the profound understanding of human character and social relations that Trollope does so well in his Barchester Chronicles.  Look instead for gentle humour and sometimes sharp wit, well-observed characters and a satisfying, if not particularly tidy plot – and you will find it in abundance in this book.