Review Catch-up

In an effort to plan for Christmas and beyond (who am I kidding?), I’m aiming to clear the decks of my review pile, so this is the first of a couple of catch-ups.

Shiny Linkiness

My three latest reviews for Shiny

  • Madly, Deeply: The Alan Rickman Diaries – edited by Alan Taylor. Rickman’s diaries, which run from 1993 to his death in 2016 were endlessly fascinating. Rickman comes across as a generous friend and forgiving man, yet he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He’s opinionated and political (Labour obvs.). He knows everyone, yet he’s pretty normal underneath, but overall, he’s an actor’s actor and director who strives to do the best work always. The book was slightly infuriating at times too, particularly keeping track of which films or shows were being talked about, which requires tenacity, since the planning, filming, then promoting don’t overlap. For anyone interested in how a show comes together, Rickman is good at explaining the process – a word he’s big on. If you enjoy the name-dropping, the who’s who of the British theatre and film world, he’s your man – just don’t forget that most are his friends and peers as much as his colleagues. READ MY FULL REVIEW HERE.
  • Literary Cats by Judith Robinson and Scott Pack.This super hardback book from Bodleian Library Publishing has ‘Christmas gift for the cat lover in your life’ written all over it. Who would have thought that there were so many cats in literature? From classics and children’s books, world literature and fairy tales, to Bob the Street Cat, you are bound to find both favourites and new feline reads in this book, for it proves that cats are ubiquitous in the literary world. Complete with notes, further reading lists, and a good index, the text is packed full of quotes from the books and authors featured and the writing is breezy and entertaining. This book will add countless titles to any cat lover’s wishlist – it did to mine! An ideal Christmas gift recommendation. READ MY FULL REVIEW HERE.
  • The Coming Darkness by Greg Mosse. The publicist’s pitch of ‘Bladerunner meets John Le Carré’ was totally irresistible for this high tech spec fiction thriller. Greg Mosse has a long pedigree in theatre, as a director, playwright and actor. He has also set up various creative writing programmes and is husband to bestselling author Kate, so I had high hopes for his first novel, written during lockdown. The Coming Darkness is set in the near future, beginning in 2037. There are two key locations, the new breakaway republic of Cyrenia and Paris, where Alex Lamarque works for the French Secret Service. As thrillers go, this ambitious novel wasn’t a fast read, it has an intensity that ensures the reader takes time to digest what is happening – until the final act, where the race against time becomes super critical and there is a real fear that Alex won’t make it – then it became a page-turner! I thoroughly enjoyed meeting Alex Lamarque on these pages, and would love to see his return…. READ MY FULL REVIEW HERE.

Book Group reports on recent Jubilee Reads

We’ve been reading from the Big Jubilee Read that the Reading Agency with the BBC put together for the late Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. We have the final decade to go and will be discussing Damon Galgut’s The Promise in the new year. It’s been fun reading around the Commonwealth, here’s our list of one book per decade

  • 1952-61: To Sir With Love by EB Braithwaite (Guyana)
  • 1962-71: Death of a Naturalist by Seamus Heaney (Northern Ireland)
  • 1972-81: Clear Light of Day by Anita Desai (India) DNF
  • 1982-91: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (Canada)
  • 1992-2001: Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah (Tanzania)
  • 2002-2011: A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam (Bangladesh)
  • 2012-2022: The Promise by Damon Galgut (South Africa)

Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah

The tale of a boy, twelve-year-old Yusuf who is pawned, sold into slavery to pay off his father’s debts. He has no idea that his Uncle Aziz is not actually his uncle, but a rich merchant, so he never questions why he is sent off on a trip with him. The story is set in the early years of the twentieth century, but until near the end when we encounter the German mercenaries in East Africa, there is no real indication of its timing. Over the years, Yusuf will have to work very hard in Aziz’s shop alongside Khalil, an older teenager who’d also been pawned. There will be beatings – but never administered by Aziz. Yusuf will grow to accompany Aziz on some journeys into the interior, having a close scrape with a warring tribe whose leader is surely inspired by Conrad’s Kurtz. Returning to Aziz’s home and store while he is away on another mission, Yusef finds himself in demand by Aziz’s wife, who is disfigured and mentally unwell – Yusuf falls for her maid Amina, but I couldn’t possibly say how that proto-romance nor the onward events turn out.

This novel was published in 1994, and Gurnah went on to win the Nobel Prize in 2021. His writing was engaging and easy to read, although the subject matter of a boy sold into slavery – twas ever thus it seems – is hard to stomach. Yusuf, however, is never truly worn down by his sometimes desperate situation, he has develops an inner core and a desire to see the world as he comes of age. To return to the beginning though, the scene where he leaves his family for instance is so touching.

When the time came to leave it hardly seemed real. He said goodbye to his mother at the front door of the house and followed his father and Uncle Aziz to the station. His mother did not hug and kiss him, or shed tears over him. He had been afraid she would. Later, Yusuf could not remember what his mother did or said, but he remembered that she looked ill or dazed, leaning exhaustedly against the doorpost.

Our book group all read the book and felt we learned a lot about that region of Africa at that time. It was multi-cultural even then, which leads to conflict, as the approaching colonialism of the Germans took hold in this part of the continent and corruption gets more embedded. Although set in Nigeria and a contemporary timeline, I was reminded of The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré which has a teenaged girl put into a similar position as Yusuf, who too has hopes for a different future.

Source: Own copy. Bloomsbury paperback, 320 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam

Anam’s first novel, which won her the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Book, is also set during a period of transformation. It is 1971 and civil war is brewing, as East Pakistan breaks free to become Bangladesh. The book follows the life of one woman in Dhaka and her family and begins with a prologue set in 1959 with Rehana Haque, talking to her husband at his graveside…

Dear Husband, I lost our children today.

It’s a stunner of a first line to the novel! Rehana, so the judge said, hadn’t coped after the death of her husband. His elder brother Faiz, a rich barrister, and his wife Parveen had applied to look after her son and daughter, Sohail and Maya. The only problem was that they lived a thousand miles away in Lahore in Pakistan, the other side of India. Her neighbour Mrs Chowdhury with her daughter Silvi, whom Rehana’s son Sohail was sweet on, come by to offer consolation.

We move on to March 1971. Rehana was able to get her children back, much against the childless Parveen’s wishes, but she had managed to get the money to get herself straight – how she got it is another matter, which will bother her right until the end of the book. She had built another house in the back of her garden, which she lets to a lovely Hindu family, but now as the tension rises in the mainly Moslem neighbourhoods, they no longer feel safe and leave. Sohail and Maya are now young adults. When Mrs Chowdhury announces her daughter is to marry a young officer in the army, that’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back for Sohail, who runs off to join the Bengali liberation forces, followed by Maya who will work for the press there. Rehana is alone again. She shuts up the house and visits the camps, where she works for a while as a nurse, but when she can take no more, returns home, whereupon Sohail will be back – to bury guns in their back yard, bringing a wounded Major for Rehana to look after. I can’t say more!

I must admit, I knew nothing of the civil war in East Pakistan, which led to the secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan, as did most of the rest of our group. Again, we all learned some history from this novel, which doesn’t shy away from the brutality the army administered against the guerillas and anyone they decided were associated with them. We all enjoyed reading the book, particularly some of the food parts – Rehana is always preparing mouthwatering sounding biryani and chickens for every occasion, which momentarily took our minds off the war.

Source: Own copy. Canongate paperback, 290 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

9 thoughts on “Review Catch-up

  1. Calmgrove says:

    Wow, so much variety and worth summarised here, Annabel. I’ll have a look at your SNB reviews presently, but of all your titles I’ve only read the Henry – which reminds me, I must settle down to his translation of Beowulf, a prelude maybe to revisiting the other half dozen translations I’ve accumulated over the years!

      • Calmgrove says:

        Thanks for the link, Annabel, I have editions of the original text even if my copy of Heaney’s translation doesn’t include it; it’s best of course to read any version out loud to appreciate how most audiences would have originally received it. Still, I also like examining the written text to get the most out of the composition – the caesuras, the alliteration, the kennings – though I seem to recall the manuscript appears more like prose in paragraph-like sections without line breaks.

        I read Gardner’s Grendel in the 70s in, I think, a Paladin paperback and only remember it as quite visceral and possibly foul-mouthed. I’d probably get more out of it these days though!

  2. BookerTalk says:

    So glad to hear your book enjoyed A Golden Age and for the same reasons I did! Those passages about food were mouthwatering. I think I read somewhere that there is a follow up to this book

  3. CLM (@ConMartin) says:

    I read a long excerpt of Rickman’s Diary and really enjoyed it.

    I will be interested to hear what you think of A Box of Delights. For years, my Puffins had a blurb for it in the back so I built it up in my mind but when I finally got a copy (as a teen I suppose) I simply could not get through it. I don’t know if I was the wrong age or if it was just not the type of fantasy I enjoyed.

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