Category Archives: Book reviews

Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Longlisted for the baileys women’s prize for fiction 2017

A New York times book of the year

From Annie Proulx, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain, comes her masterwork: an epic, dazzling, violent, magnificently dramatic novel about the taking down of the world’s forests.

In the late seventeenth century two penniless young Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive in New France. Bound to a feudal lord, a “seigneur,” for three years in exchange for land, they become wood-cutters – barkskins. René suffers extraordinary hardship, oppressed by the forest he is charged with clearing. He is forced to marry a Mi’kmaw woman and their descendants live trapped between two inimical cultures. But Duquet, crafty and ruthless, runs away from the seigneur, becomes a fur trader, then sets up a timber business. Proulx tells the stories of the descendants of Sel and Duquet over three hundred years – their travels across North America, to Europe, China, and New Zealand, under stunningly brutal conditions; the revenge of rivals; accidents; pestilence; Indian attacks; and cultural annihilation. Over and over again, they seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource, leaving the modern-day characters face to face with possible ecological collapse.

Barkskins is a riveting read. I had assumed it would be just another historical novel following a few disparate characters but it turned out to be much more. Initially the reader is interested in the characters while the trees and forests are merely something of a backdrop, but as time passes in this wide-ranging novel it becomes obvious that these natural resources are not as limitless as the timber merchants think and we are led on an inexorable path towards ecological disaster. Have the Duke family realised in time that we need to do something to save our planet or is it all too late? The history of the development of the timber trade – the types of trees taken, the methods of cutting and working, the uses of the wood – is cleverly entwined in the story of these two families so that the reader absorbs a great deal of knowledge through osmosis, never feeling lectured to or bogged down with irrelevant information. The amount of research that Ms Proulx has conducted into the timber trade around the world – from North America to New Zealand – is impressive, as is the link to European trade, the whole coming together as an indictment on the dangers of colonialism.

Barkskins is cleverly written as a saga which follows the lives of two families arriving in North America at the same time and in the same condition but then following very different paths. The rich Duke family introduce the reader to the development of business and trade on the new continent while the Sel family show the awful impact that this immigration brought to the lives of the First Nation peoples of the United States, Canada and New Zealand. From the decimation of tribes by European diseases to the discrimination meted out to whole peoples considered to be ‘inferior’ simply because their culture and civilisation were not understood, to the scandal of the Canadian Residential Schools this is a novel which immerses the reader in a conflict of cultures which is still ongoing. Perhaps Ms Proulx in her last few chapters has presented us with a vison of hope in which there may be reconciliation as the First Nations people whose lives were once so closely entwined with the forest may now be the ones with the knowledge and skills to help us save our world from ourselves.

Barkskins is a long novel which might put some people off, but I urge you to read it. The plotting is a tightly-knit web, the characters well rounded – some engaging and loveable, others quite unpleasant, – the descriptions of the forests atmospheric, the prose as a whole beautifully written and engaging. If you are looking for something to keep you occupied on cold winter evenings then curl up with this book and lose yourself in a past world which has such relevance and meaning for our own.

Barkskins can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Annie Proulx here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

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Empire of Sand by Robert Ryan

A sweepingEmpire of Sand epic historical novel about Lawrence of Arabia, one of the most compelling characters in British history.

1915: While the war in Europe escalates, a young intelligence officer named Thomas Edward Lawrence is in Cairo, awaiting his chance for action. His superiors, however, have consigned him to the Map Room at GCHQ. But there’s more to Lieutenant Lawrence than meets the eye. A man of immense energy, he runs a network of agents across the Levant. Lawrence is convinced that an Arab revolt is the only way to remove the Ottoman presence, and leave a free self-governed Arabia. Soon, alarming reports reach him of trouble in Persia, orchestrated by infamous German agent Wilhelm Wassmuss. Intent on taking down Wassmuss and, at the same time, unlocking the secret of his success, Lawrence assembles a small group and travels to Persia…

Anyone who has an interest in the First World War, the Middle East or T E Lawrence (as I do) will enjoy this book. Contemporary accounts of the life of Lawrence were often contradictory, and few people would ever have known of his actions if not for the journalist Lowell Thomas who is responsible for bringing the hero whom he called ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ to public attention. Yet, 100 years later, the real man still remains elusive and enigmatic. Empire of Sand is a work of historical fiction although much of the novel is based on events which really happened to Lawrence (destroying railways, working with the Bedouins etc.), and the tactics he used in his unconventional warfare, which are mentioned here, are still used today. In its way this novel gives us a real insight into the complex character of Lawrence and how he came to be involved in such important events in the evolution of the Middle East as we know it today.

Mr Ryan has included in his novel a number of real people such as the German Wilhelm Wassmuss (who was the same age as Lawrence, looked similar, and worked in a similar way) and Captain Noel Edward, as well as the great female explorer Gertrude Bell. The main plot line (the importance of Wassmuss’ luggage – no spoilers!) is based on a real event in which all of these men were involved. This novel is a testament to the detailed research conducted by the author who has created an absorbing novel around real and very important events. The descriptions of Cairo, the life of the British in the Middle East, and the difficulties involved in desert warfare all serve to draw the reader into this story, giving an understanding of how people used to a British climate and culture struggled to live and work in the Middle East in the early part of the twentieth century. One can almost feel the burning sun and the wind-blown sand which plagued those who struggled in unfamiliar surroundings against the Turks and Germans.

Mr Ryan has delved deeply into the character of Lawrence and his love for the Arab peoples, so much so that this novel gives a clear insight into what Lawrence believed was the best way to bring about peace in the Middle East, it is a sad truth that if he had been listened to many of the problems which face us there today might never have arisen. The narrative of Empire of Sand enables the reader to get to know the real Lawrence, rather than the hero of David Lean’s epic film, and as such elicits a sympathy for and understanding of him which is often missing in purely historical accounts.

I was disappointed that this novel took the story of Lawrence up to the time he went into the desert to help the Arab uprising against the Turks but did not include the dramatic events which led to his ride on Damascus. To do what Lawrence did, lighting a fire beneath the Arab revolt and dealing with the difficult leaders of the Middle East, took a charismatic and quite unique character and I would love to see this part of Lawrence’s life portrayed in another novel by Robert Ryan!

Empire of Sand can be found on Amazon

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

 

The General by C S Forester

The most vivid, moving – and devastating – word-portrait of a World War One British commander ever written.

C.S. Forester’s 1936 masterpiece follows Lt General Herbert Curzon, who fumbled a fortuitous early step on the path to glory in the Boer War. 1914 finds him an honourable, decent, brave and wholly unimaginative colonel. Survival through the early slaughters in which so many fellow-officers perished then brings him rapid promotion. By 1916, he is a general in command of 100,000 British soldiers, whom he leads through the horrors of the Somme and Passchendaele, a position for which he is entirely unsuited and intellectually unprepared.

Wonderfully human with Forester’s droll relish for human folly on full display, this is the story of a man of his time who is anything but wicked, yet presides over appalling sacrifice and tragedy. In his awkwardness and his marriage to a Duke’s unlovely, unhappy daughter, Curzon embodies Forester’s full powers as a storyteller. His half-hero is patriotic, diligent, even courageous, driven by his sense of duty and refusal to yield to difficulties. But also powerfully damned is the same spirit which caused a hundred real-life British generals to serve as high priests at the bloodiest human sacrifice in the nation’s history. A masterful and insightful study about the perils of hubris and unquestioning duty in leadership, The General is a fable for our times.

The British generals who served during the First World War have a reputation for incompetence and a callous disregard for human life, yet until the late 1920’s they were recognised as heroes – 1 million people went to London to pay their respects at the funeral of General Haig in 1928. It was not until the late 1920’s that novels began to appear criticising the war and those who led it, and it was in this climate that C S Forester wrote ‘The General’ in an attempt to explain what made men launch such catastrophic attacks against the enemy time and time again.

This is a story of human nature rather than military strategy, revealing the thought processes and perceived obligations of an officer during the First World War with such clarity that it reads more like a biography than fiction. Mr Forester has written a well-researched revelation of life on the front line, getting to the heart of the conversations of soldiers and the planning of the disastrous attacks which killed so many. The development of tactics and arms from the end of the use of cavalry through the introduction of machine guns, reconnaissance planes, and tanks is shown through the perfectly normal feelings of scepticism which always accompany new ideas and inventions. ‘The General’, which takes Curzon from South Africa to northern Europe, gives the reader some understanding of how difficult it would have been for officers of the ‘old school’ who had last fought during the Boer War to face the nightmare of trench warfare which the author describes in word pictures which are all the more real for their simplicity.

The character of Curzon is rather awkward, socially limited and lacking in imagination, yet he is single-minded in his loyalty to his men and his desire to be the best officer possible. He is respected and admired by his men, a dedicated and hard-working professional, but his tragedy is that he is unable to grasp the changing nature of warfare and use it to his advantage even though he does take the unusual step of appointing civilian conscripts rather than the traditional officer class to carry out new roles in logistics, chemistry, train scheduling etc.

This novel criticises the lack of imagination in the planning of the war – if an attack fails then just do the same thing again but with more men and more guns. Curzon sees the tragic and appalling loss of life as indispensable to victory and so accepts them in a way which  may seem callous to us but which is perhaps intended to show how each aspect of the General’s role was compartmentalised as he focused on final victory, he buries his reaction to the death of his men in order to carry out his duty and ‘finish the job’. The reader has to face the same dilemmas as the General himself – should Curzon have surrendered positions to save lives? Would defeat have been better?

The General shows that the perception of cowardly generals leading from behind the lines is unjust. In fact most generals visited the front lines regularly, for some it was almost every day, and more than 200 generals were killed, wounded or captured during the course of the war. A General serving during the First World War would have been considerably closer to the action than generals are today. (About 12% of ordinary soldiers in the British army were killed during World War 1 as opposed to 17% of its officers).

The General paints a portrait of a man who was not wicked or incompetent and who elicits some sympathy from the reader. It is not really possible to love Curzon, but he can be seen as a tragic figure who did the best he could for his country in a particular time and place. As we are currently commemorating the centenary of the ending of the First World War in November 1918 it is perhaps a fitting time to read this novel and reflect.

‘The General’ can be found on Amazon

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended Read – The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

The Garden Of Evening Mists“On a mountain above the clouds, in the central highlands of Malaya lived the man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan.”

Teoh Yun Ling was seventeen years old when she first heard about him, but a war would come, and a decade would pass before she travels up to the Garden of Evening Mists to see him, in 1951. A survivor of a brutal Japanese camp, she has spent the last few years helping to prosecute Japanese war criminals. Despite her hatred of the Japanese, she asks the gardener, Nakamura Aritomo, to create a memorial garden for her sister who died in the camp. He refuses, but agrees to accept Yun Ling as his apprentice ‘until the monsoon’ so she can design a garden herself.

Staying at the home of Magnus Pretorius, the owner of Majuba Tea Estate and a veteran of the Boer War, Yun Ling begins working in the Garden of Evening Mists. But outside in the surrounding jungles another war is raging. The Malayan Emergency is entering its darkest days, the communist-terrorists murdering planters and miners and their families, seeking to take over the country by any means, while the Malayan nationalists are fighting for independence from centuries of British colonial rule.

But who is Nakamura Aritomo, and how did he come to be exiled from his homeland? And is the true reason how Yun Ling survived the Japanese camp connected to Aritomo and the Garden of Evening Mists?

This is a novel which appears, on the surface, to have a rather simple storyline, but as the reader journeys through it page by page a subtle complexity is revealed. Through a strong description of time and place the author uncovers the history of Malaya in three distinct time periods – during the Second world War, ten years after the war, and thirty years later. The novel switches between time periods without any indication in chapter headings etc. and, at first, this is a little disconcerting; but as you move further through the book it is easy to slip from one time to another which subtly mirrors the way Yun Ling’ thoughts and memories move as she attempts to come to terms with an illness which leads to loss of memory, although sometimes there are things she deliberately chooses to try to forget and these are, paradoxically, the ones which seem to remain.

As Yun Ling thinks back over her experiences, both as a prisoner of the Japanese during the war and during the Emergency which followed, the relationships between the characters and the consequences of their actions are revealed. These individual relationships mirror those of the nations involved in the conflict – no one person or nationality is wholly good or wholly bad and Yun Ling has to struggle to accept the complex characters of the people around her, particularly the Japanese.

Tan Twan Eng has drawn on his own experiences to describe Malaya in a way which is totally believable, one can almost feel the heat, smell the vegetation, luxuriate in the cooling rain. This is seen most clearly in the Japanese garden which is slowly created and is a central feature to the story, its development mirrored in the unfolding of Yun Ling’s story, her understanding and final acceptance of all that she has experienced. The subtlety of a traditional Japanese garden presenting constantly changing vistas as you move through it is used as a perfect metaphor for the journey of Yun Ling, and our own journey, through life. The layered depths of the story are beautifully described in elegant prose which leads to an absorbing novel of personal and social transformation. Important issues are hidden beneath surface detail and it is a delight to uncover these in both the people and the land as one reads further, and deeper, into this novel.

The Garden Of Evening Mists is a beautifully written novel in which the loss of honour, dreams, and loved ones in carefully balanced by the beauty of a Japanese tea ceremony, lanterns of hope released into a dark night sky, and a beautiful garden which finally brings peace and closure. This novel will not appeal to all readers. If you like an action-packed book with a clearly defined story arc you may find this a little too much work, but if you enjoy exploring ideas of identity, love and loss, and of the interplay of pleasure and pain in the recalling of your past, then I think you will enjoy this novel. It is an intelligent read in which mysteries are slowly and carefully revealed, yet certain aspects are left deliberately obscure to allow the reader to follow their own inner journey to its conclusion. When the character Yun Ling begins her apprenticeship with Aritomo she observes him carefully and notes ‘He was similar to the boulders…only a small portion was revealed to the world, the rest buried deep within, hidden from view.’ A perfect description of this wonderful novel which masterfully allows the reader to uncover those hidden depths for themselves.

The Garden Of Evening Mists can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Tan Twan Eng here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

 

 

Recommended Read – The Soldiers Story by Bryan Forbes

In the uneasy post-war peace of occupied Germany, a British soldier is billeted to a bombed Hamburg hotel. Alex’s days are spent investigating Nazi war criminals, but it is a chance meeting with a German university professor in a shabby back-street bookshop that changes his life. Having befriended the professor and his wife, Alex falls in love with their only daughter, Lisa, only to discover that the professor may not be as innocent as he first appeared. The stale aftermath of a long and hideous war has left the old society in ruins. There are still many secrets to uncover and Alex has to ask himself what is more important – love or truth? As he digs deeper into the professor’s past Alex is forced to recognise that he cannot have both.

This is an absorbing novel in more ways than one. We follow Alex as his life moves from war to peace, from seeing the Germans as enemies to trying to help them on the road to recovery. When he finally leaves the armed forces Alex, like so many men who served in the Second World War, has to re-adjust to civilian life. The Lincolnshire farm where he grew up seems confining, he feels rootless and unable to find his way. In this sense ‘The Soldier’s Story’ is a tale of lost youth. Interwoven with this is a love story, an English soldier falling in love with a young German woman at a time when ‘fraternisation’ was still frowned on; how would her family, and his colleagues, react? If this were not enough, a photograph from Auschwitz places Alex in an impossible situation. What should he do? Should he put his love for Lisa before justice for those who suffered and died in the war? Should he follow his heart or do his duty?

‘The Soldier’s Story’ is a well written novel, peopled with many facetted characters who struggle to do right in a world which is never simply black and white. The dialogue is engaging and believable, helping to bring the characters to life. The descriptions of bomb-damaged Berlin, the Russian sector, the drab people struggling to come to terms with defeat, all combine to give an insight into a fascinating period of history. ‘The Soldier’s Story’ is not a dry history book, although through its pages we achieve a greater understanding of the years immediately following the Second World War, the true destructiveness of conflict, and the loss of innocence which it brings. This is a great piece of historical fiction which I heartily recommend to anyone who has an interest in history, the Second World War, morality, human nature and love.

The Soldiders Story can be found on Amazon 

You can find out more about Bryan Forbes here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

The Summer Before The War by Helen Simonson

It is late summer in East Sussex, 1914. Amidst the season’s splendour, fiercely independent Beatrice Nash arrives in the coastal town of Rye to fill a teaching position at the local grammar school. There she is taken under the wing of formidable matriarch Agatha Kent, who, along with her charming nephews, tries her best to welcome Beatrice to a place that remains stubbornly resistant to the idea of female teachers. But just as Beatrice comes alive to the beauty of the Sussex landscape, and the colourful characters that populate Rye, the perfect summer is about to end. For the unimaginable is coming – and soon the limits of progress, and the old ways, will be tested as this small town goes to war.

What a gem of a book! This is the first time I have read anything by Helen Simonson and it reminds me very much of the novels of Jane Austen. Like the best books by Austen The Summer Before The War is filled with a range of characters who are portrayed with a subtle blend of warmth and wit. From the strongly independent heroine to the young men looking for a wife, and from a formidable aunt to the ‘society ladies’ with their fears of scandal it is easy to both laugh and cry with the inhabitants of Rye during that last halcyon summer before the outbreak of war and the loss of innocence, the innocence both of individuals and of a society which was already on the cusp of change.

This novel has a strong plotline which brings to life the evolving world of the early twentieth century, its tight dialogue a good vehicle for the portrayal of social norms, women’s suffrage, divorce, upward mobility, pregnancy outside of marriage, and a hint of forbidden homosexuality. Through her carefully crafted prose Ms Simonson brings to life the small provincial town of Rye in the months before the war, which makes the changes forced upon it and the losses it endures during the conflict all the more poignant. This depiction of Rye is mirrored in the pace of the book which may seem slow and genteel at first, but there is soon an increase of pace as war looms and personal conflicts grow, a pattern which is engrossing and draws the reader in.

The Summer Before The War is a gently satirical novel, full of wry social commentary yet with a depth and sensitivity to the writing which reflects the authors shrewd observation of people and their interactions. The slower pace and genteel setting of the first part cleverly serves to emphasise the darker times brought about by war both on the home front and in the trenches. Ms Simonson has obviously conducted a great deal of research and shows a keen understanding of this period and the impact that war had on individuals, families and communities at that time, communicating this effectively through her delightful cast of characters. She is skilled in creating an absorbing, emotional, and engaging prose that leaves us in no doubt of the heartache caused by the war across the whole social spectrum in Rye from the wealthy to the poorest boy, Snout, who embodies so many young people who lied about their age to seek adventure but found hell instead.

This novel has all the ingredients which make for a good saga – love and loss, prejudice, family conflict, hidden secrets from the past, and a lovely twist in the tail. It may not be a novel for everyone but I found the similarities to Jane Austen’s style strangly compelling, certainly anyone who enjoys Pride and Prejudice or other novels of that style will enjoy reading The Summer Before The War.

You can find out more about Helen Simonson here

The Summer Before The War can be found on Amazon

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

Vikram Seth’s novel is, at its core, a love story: the tale of Lata – and her mother’s – attempts to find her a suitable husband, through love or through exacting maternal appraisal. At the same time, it is the story of India, newly independent and struggling through a time of crisis as a sixth of the world’s population faces its first great general election and the chance to map its own destiny.

The search for ‘A Suitable Boy’ for Lata to marry is the over-arching theme which runs through this novel, yet the book is really so much more than that. Set in an India learning to stand alone after independence this novel is a true saga, bringing together diverse characters from all levels of society whose lives and interactions leave us with a surprising depth of understanding of the historical and political situation at that time. To give insights into the religious conflicts Mr Seth also introduces the reader to two families – one Muslim and one Hindu – who have been friends for many years. Their friendship continues despite the religious rioting and death which accompanied Partition and it is, in fact, an affair of the heart which threatens to shatter the relationship. We are also introduced to a range of characters from different levels of society – politicians, businessmen, landowners, poor workmen, and the untouchables. Anyone who has ever lived in India will recognise the truth of these characterisations and realise that in many ways the years since Partition have been slow to bring change to this ancient structure of Indian society.

In his novel Mr Seth has created a world of closely connected people with believable characters, and many readers will recognise aspects of themselves in the well scripted dialogue and familial descriptions. From the over-anxious mother to the over-bearing politician, the bullying brother to the pushy friend, the man obsessed by love to the woman who prefers her independence, it is easy to become attached to many of these characters as they go about their everyday lives. Alongside this A Suitable Boy weaves a rich tapestry of the complexities of Indian society – the religious festivals which underpin all aspects of life, the family structures, the duties of sons and daughters to their parents, the complex and sometimes corrupt political system, arranged marriages, caste, education – the list is endless and endlessly fascinating.

At it’s heart this is a novel about relationships and the conflicts that arise when we place personal freedom and self-fulfilment against our duty and responsibilities to others. The characters created by Mr Seth are multi-faceted and none of them are completely good or completely bad; they are real people and as such the author does not offer any easy answers to the conflicts which they face, just as there are no easy answers in real life. What comes across clearly is that the decisions which we make, whether at a personal or political level, have consequences for ourselves and others, and sometimes the only thing we can do is to choose the path of least harm as we make our way through life.

As well as the clever characterisation and plotting in A Suitable Boy Mr Seth also uses his considerable skill with words to paint a picture of life in India – the heat and dust, flora and fauna, fashion and food, all are cleverly integrated into the novel in such a way that anyone who knows India will easily recognise the land and its people, and those who are new to that country will come away from the book with clear mental images of what makes India such a fascinating place.

Although I have enjoyed reading it I would give two caveats to my recommendation of A Suitable Boy. Firstly, it is a wonderfully complex novel full of rich and nuanced language, but it is a saga in the true sense of the word (the edition which I read is 1,350 pages long). If you like a story which can be read in a day or two then this book is not for you. Secondly, there are passages of prose telling something of the history of the times immediately after Independence, and also a number of political speeches which do tend to slow the pace at times; it is, however, possible to skim over some of these without any loss to the story. There is also a fair amount of Indian vocabulary for the reader to contend with and a wordlist at the end of the book would probably be useful. Having said that, if you enjoy well written books which cover all aspects of life from birth to death, love, friendship, jealousy, loss, grief etc., and are willing to put in the time, then you will enjoy reading A Suitable Boy.

Please note that there are no spoilers here; if you want to know if Lata and her mother found A Suitable Boy you will have to read the book!

A Suitable Boy can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Vikram Seth here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here