11 March 2019

68 – Ireland – William Trevor – Fools of Fortune – February 2019 – (Score 8.33)

There is  a connection of about 160 years between the Irish village of Lough with its nearby house of Kilneagh, and the splendours of Woodcombe Park in Dorset, in England. All those years ago Anna Woodcombe married William Quinton of Kilneagh. Over the years two more girls from Woodcombe Park married Quintons in Kilneagh.

Slowly we get hints of the problems which began after the First World War in which Irishmen fought alongside Welsh, Scottish and English soldiers, against Germans and their allies.

The narrator is a young boy, Willie, about to go to boarding school. Kilneagh was burned down by the UK protestant militia, the Black and Tans, even though the family is Protestant. The war, and the civil war which raged in Ireland after it, are over. Ireland is independent from the UK. Willies story forms the first part of the book, Marianne’s the rest.

The story goes on through the lives of these people, and those who come after them, up to Willie’s last days, and those of his daughter who never knew him. I gave the book a score of seven.

08 February 2019

67 – Sierra Leone – Aminatta Forna – Ancestor Stones – January 2019 – (Score 6.3)

There are many characters in this book, and several generations. There is a family tree near the front, but it is so ornate that I suggest you make up your own

Abie, in the United Kingdom, is contacted by one of her cousins in Sierra Leone, to be told she has inherited land, if she wishes to take it. She flies out to see it. I think there may be something awry with the timescale of events in this story.

The story moves to Asana, some eighty years before. The season is changing so that their crop is moving from rice to Bulgur (I add that to my morning cereal, among other things). She is telling her family the story of how her father led them to found a new home in the jungle. They are descendants of invaders from the north, and are an aristocracy. My reading of history tells me that all aristocracies descend from better armed invaders from elsewhere.

We see the arrival of a “Moon-shadow Man”, possibly an Arab, possibly a European, catching songbirds to take them away in cages for his own profit.

Back in time Mariama’s story tells us the first effects of the arrival of Arabs from the north and Europeans from the south – loss of the native religion and acceptance of that of the others. A Muslim preacher comes to the town and leads the people to throw all their native religious items onto a pile which is then lit, to burn all night with more being added. It reminds me of the “Bonfire of the Vanities” set by Savonarola in mediaeval Florence.

When we meet Serah she is talking about people playing Warri, a board and pebble game played in a number of forms throughout Africa. In poorer regions depressions are scooped from the earth to make a playing area.

We move on to find European gold prospectors arriving, and buying the placer gold gathered by the people for a fraction of its value, thoroughly cheating the locals in the process.

Eventually the Europeans leave, to allow the local peoples to make their own way, with difficulty, in the world.

Time passes and there is a civil war between the people in the north and those in the south. Eventually there is a new young President who has forced out the old corrupt regime. This reminds me of “The Parachute Drop” by Norbert Zongo of Burkina Faso. Like “The Parachute Drop” the new President is eventually driven out by yet another takeover.

I don’t want to go into any more detail. It is sufficient to say that I loved this book, and gave it a score of 9/10.

As a bit more background we find that Mariama has painted her room with depictions of Kurumasaba, the giant who carries the earth on his head as he turns to create day and night, Kassila the sea god, Kumbu the rain god, Yaro Anayaroti goddess of wealth, and Aranson the hunter. The people had forgotten the names of their other gods since the incomers came.

18 January 2019

66 – Nigeria – Lola Shoneyin – The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives – December 2018 - (Score 7.1)

We find ourselves in Nigeria with a man who has four wives. He is a happy man because his wives have given him a total of seven children. Except that, and here is his possible single point of sadness, all his children have been gifted to him by his first three wives. His fourth wife is not playing ball, and he wonders what is wrong with her.

The story goes back to the arrival of his fourth wife, Bolanle, a well-educated university graduate. She decides to improve the other wives. We shall see.

There is humourous writing throughout the book, an example being “an old train snorted and let out a gasp before it commenced its daily chugging”. Many policemen and guards seem to be corrupt, increasing their meagre salaries by politely extracting some money from travellers going through the checkpoints on the roads at night.

We get very enjoyable back-stories of the lives of the four wives before they married Baba Segi. Wife No 1, Iya Segi (married 1984) and Wife No 3, Iya Femi, (married 1994), try to make Bolanle’s life a misery. Wife No 2, Iya Tope, tries to mollify them, but is unsuccessful.

Iya Segi, the first wife, really took a dislike to Bolanle and led the other two wives too although Iya Tope was not too keen. Iya Segi’s daughter Segi seems to have been poisoned by eating chicken which was intended for Bolanle’s meal. Iya Segi and Iya Femi seem to have conspired over this but have misjudged things.

The cover of the book carries the words “Four women, one husband and a devastating secret”. Enjoy this book on your way to determining the secret. I gave this book a score of eight.

21 December 2018

65 – Iceland – Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir – Hotel Silence (Score 6.15)

Jonas is arranging to get a tattoo of a flower round his nipple. His mother is in a care home. His neighbour is Svanur. Jonas is no spring chicken.

Jonas seems to be intent on killing himself and borrows a shotgun, but forgets(?) about cartridges. He searches the internet for countries at war to find a suitably dangerous one where he could be killed.

Our “hero” flies to a city which has been all but destroyed in a war, but has developers who have come to reconstruct it. Although he can’t understand the taxi driver (and vice versa) they both speak English. They arrive at Hotel Silence which seems to have survived the war fairly well.

The section of the book set in Iceland is boring, but it becomes a bit more interesting when he arrives in the war zone and begins to interact with other people. Unfortunately this does not last.

He finds himself doing odd-jobs for assorted people, the jobs becoming more and more complicated. Unfortunately all this did not make the rest of the book much more interesting than the boring bit at the beginning. At least he gets his tattoo.

I gave the book a score of four.

06 November 2018

64 – Norway – Tarjei Vesaas – The Ice Palace – October 2018 (Score 5.90)

Spoiler Alert 1 – Don’t read the back cover until you have finished the book.

It’s a dark autumn evening in Norway. Siss, an 11 year old schoolgirl, is going to meet Unn, a new girl at the school that autumn. After Siss has visited Unn I have the feeling that Siss’s father may have been related to Unn’s unknown father (or possibly the same person).

The girls make tentative moves towards friendship. Umm asks Siss to visit her at home – not entirely successful.

Unn plays truant and goes exploring in the wintry frozen forest. I enjoyed the description of Unn’s journey to the Ice Palace, the ice built up from the frozen water in the waterfall from the lake above, and her looking for and finding an opening in the ice wall. She is frightened by the echo from her calls of “Hey!”

Unn is eventually completely lost in the twists and turns of the passages inside the ice. Finally she could move no more. Everyone in the village soon realises that something is wrong with Unn, but nobody thinks to visit her home.

Unn is clearly missing and a search starts, at the same time as the snow starts. Siss is unbelievably unhelpful. Would a child really behave like that when her new friend goes missing?

The search eventually reaches the Ice Palace but leads to nothing. The snow keeps coming as the snow peters out.

Spoiler Alert 2

I feel the story is rather obvious, especially if you have read Spoiler 1. That destroys the tension which should have been there for most of the rest of the book I could only give it a score of 5.

05 October 2018

63 – Pakistan – Nadeem Aslam – Maps for Lost Lovers – September 2018 (Score 8.7)

This story is of the people, from Pakistan, who are living in a large area in London away from the centre of the city. All the street names are in Urdu. The author doesn’t say whether the name plates are in Urdu script or in the Latin alphabet.

The name, Dasht-e-Tanhai, which the immigrants apply to London, translates as “The Waste Land of Loneliness” or, as in the transliteration given below from the song as sung by Meesha Shah (among others). A book of the same title was written by Fakhira Batool. I can’t trace whether the poem comes from the book or vice versa. I found a version on the internet. The sound is beautiful, even if I don’ speak the language.

“The Desert of my solitude

In the desert of my solitude, my love, quiver the shadows of your voice, the mirage of your lips.
In the desert of my solitude, from beneath the dust and ashes of the distance between us, bloom the jasmines and the roses of your presence.
From somewhere close by rises the warmth of your breath it smolders in its own perfume – gently, languorously.
Far away, on the horizon, glistens drop by drop, the dew of your beguiling glance.
With such tenderness, my love, your meMeesha Shahmory has placed its hand on the cheek of my heart
That although this is the dawn of our farewell, it feels as if the sun has set on our day of separation and the night of our union is already at hand.”

Towards the beginning of the book there is some history of the antagonism between Pakistanis and Hindus in the sub-continent with the wars between East and West Pakistan and India. This antagonism seems to have been carried over to London by immigrants from those countries.

The primary protagonists are the extended family of Shamas who is a well- educated, and self-taught man, trying to keep his family together. Although a Moslem, Shamas learns that he was born a Hindu. His wife is Kaurab, uneducated and speaks very little English even after many years in London. Their family are all well-educated and speak both languages

The book is packed full of tension, of things which have happened, have not happened or may yet happen, people seeing what they should not have seen and have, anyway, misconstrued. All this reflects on other people and their lives, usually badly.

Bearing in mind the events in the story I had a frisson of shock when Shamas found a heart on the footpath, cut in two. It was two orchid flowers which had fallen from a funeral wreath.

The book is beautifully written, with many references to nature, impossible to list. Read the book to find them. I enjoyed it very much, even allowing for the bad things which happen at intervals. One thing in particular brought the period back to me – Jack Frost patterns on the windows in the winter. We had never heard of central heating and double glazing, let alone insulation. I would guess that they probably didn’t even exist at the time. I scored this book at ten.

62 Japan – Tanizaki Junichiro – Some Prefer Nettles (Score 6.25)

I found the introduction to this book very useful in highlighting the differences between the Japanese way of thought and language and the more brusque Western way. We also learn a lot about Japanese life and how so many things differ from how we in the UK do them. The story is set in the 1920s.

The main characters, to make it easier for the reader to follow the story, are –

Kaname – the husband,

Misako – the wife,

Hiroshi - their young son,

Misako’s father,

O-hisa – her father’s mistress,

Aso – a possible love interest for Misako.

Takamatsu – Misako’s cousin.

Kawame and Misako travelled by train to Osaka to meet her father to go to th Puppet Theatre. Instead of buying tickets for the specific journey tore tickets from their books of tickets at the end of the journey. The play they are to see is the famous Bunraku performance “Love Suicide”. The Bunraku puppets for this performance are Jihei, the man, and Koharu, the geisha. They are both large, better to be seen from a distance. Bunraku performances last for several hours.

I really enjoyed the interplay of the characters, especially between Misako and Takamatsu. On page 77 Kaname set a dreadful precedent when he dog-eared a page in his book.

After you read the book you may be interested in searching on line for some relevant references –

Awaji Theatre,

Awaji Genojo,

Bunraku puppets,



16 August 2018

61   Ireland – Mary Costello  – Academy Street (Score 7.0)

This is the story of Tess Lohan, pre-school when we first meet her, and aged when we leave her on the last page. She is one of a large and growing family which has its troubles.

Her mother’s funeral is early in the story. When her coffin is being put into the hearse the word “shove” is used rather than “push” or “put”. This suggest to me that the people from the funeral parlour are rather uncaring.

Later, Tess mentions her sister, Maeve, rubbing Zam-Buk on her feet for chilblains. About 65 years ago, so this book resonates. Tess herself later loses her voice for an extended period after seeing the death of a traveller girl who, and she, put out their tongues to each other. She eventually got her voice back when she battered her head off a workbench.

On page 69 someone uses the word “citóg” which is Irish Gaelic for a left-handed person. In Scots it is a combination of Gaelic and Scots, ie corrie-fisted.

Tess emigrates to the United States and, several years later, falls pregnant to David, a military-man who, the next day goes off to fight in Vietnam. He ignores all her letters about the baby. On page 117 Tess hums along with Etta James singing “I would rather go blind”. I remembered the song but it took me a search on Google to find the singer.

Many years later Tess finds that David had returned unharmed and had a successful career, and married. He had, presumably, never given a second thought to Tess.

I didn’t think much of this book. Although it, being based on an Irish girl had no real relevance to my childhood or youth, brought back memories. I thought the story was rather predictable and deserved only a score of 6.0