The Essex Serpent (2016) by Sarah Perry

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The beautiful William Morris-y design gracing the cover of The Essex Serpent was what first sparked my interest in this book. It was also enough to attract the attention of two strangers who separately approached me to enquire what I was reading. On one of those occasions I ended up drawn into a long (but interesting) conversation about Victorian novels until, hey presto, lunchbreak was over and I was supposed to be back at my desk fifteen minutes ago. Ooops.  But still, it’s nice the way a pretty book can bring strangers together.

On the face of it this book is everything I usually love: not-so-stuffy Victorians, a strong and intelligent female lead, tons of gothic drama and atmosphere, a mythical threat and a bit of social conscience. The leading lady, Cora Seabourne, is a young widow and amateur fossil hunter who heads to the marshy Essex countryside for some rest and relaxation following the death of her husband. Curiosity at the bizarre rumours of a winged serpent terrorising local fishermen attract her to the village of Aldwinter where she sparks up a friendship with the harassed local vicar William Ransome. The novel focuses partly on the hysteria and superstition arising from the supposed mythical beast but also on the effect that her rapport with Ramsome has on them both and those they love.

The setting, I think, is possibly the thing I enjoyed most about this book. I often find that I particularly warm to books with a strong sense of place so Perry’s haunting descriptions of the bleak, wintery marshes rang really true to me. It’s also the case that in books and in real life I’m naturally drawn to this kind of flat landscape myself (see: WaterworldGreat Expectations, The Nine Taylors…) so maybe I just felt quite at home in Aldwinter. It’s the perfect setting for a mythical beast dragging unsuspecting men fresh from the alehouse to their deaths beneath the waves. I also think it lends itself really well to a story like this one where tension and atmosphere are so important. Combined with Perry’s beautifully lyrical writing style this makes an eerie, almost otherworldly tale at times.

 “Each was only second best and they wore each other like hand-me-down coats.”

I couldn’t help thinking that in the end, sadly, too much of The Essex Serpent was given over to the growing friendship between Cora and Ransome and as much as I enjoyed watching this unfold at the beginning I found it to be a bit of a distraction towards the end when the narrative tension should really have been at its height. I didn’t dislike either party particularly but it occurred to me afterwards that I found every other character more compelling and would have liked more of them instead. In the main, though, I think my problem is that I was just a bit disappointed that the serpent didn’t feature more prominently or that the answers to my many questions weren’t answered in the way I wanted them to be. It felt a little bit like a clever plot had been swept aside in favour of some romance and melodrama that weren’t enough on their own to keep the momentum going. I’d have liked a twist, a reveal, something, to keep me interested but it just wasn’t there.

This book hasn’t been relegated to the charity shop just yet; I think I enjoyed it enough to keep hold of it for now and it will look quite pretty on my shelves (when I find some space for it). I’ve since read Albert Camus’ The Plague  – a 99p Oxfam shop find – and was struck by some of the similarities, and differences, between this and The Essex Serpent (although I’m aware that this isn’t a fair comparison to either author). I’m working on a short post on this now and should have something up here soon.

 

The Sellout (2016) by Paul Beatty

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That’s the problem with history. We like to think it’s a book, that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you.”

I still haven’t found that copy of Dr Zhivago I bought in January and promptly mislaid. Its absence throws all my immediate reading plans into question, not that I’m ever very good at sticking to those plans, but still, it’s the principal of the thing. In the end I gave up the search for the missing book and reluctantly added it to my Amazon wishlist ready for my birthday. You never know, I thought, I might get lucky. In the meantime I decided to focus on some of the books I received for Christmas but haven’t yet got round to reading, beginning with Paul Beatty’s Booker Prize winner The Sellout.

I heard so much about this book in the wake of the prize nomination last year that I felt like I knew the story fairly intimately already. For those not in the know, the novel’s narrator, known affectionately as Bonbon, embarks on a campaign to quietly re-impose segregation on his home town of Dickens. His actions are partly a protest against the swallowing up of his community by the anonymous Los Angeles suburban sprawl but he’s also fuelled by a belief that there might be some tangible benefits to his campaign; when his friends and neighbours are confronted by a ‘Whites Only’ sign on a bus, for example, they’ll be reminded of how much has already been achieved and how much they still have to fight for. It’s not a genuine crusade against the achievements of the Civil Rights movement, more an opportunistic attempt to inspire and unite a lost community.

The Sellout is bitterly, darkly funny and made me laugh out loud quite suddenly and unattractively on several occasions. For the first two thirds of the novel I was enjoying it so much it was all I could do to refrain from reading whole paragraphs aloud to those around me, knowing as I do how annoying I find it when others do the same thing. The combination of Beatty’s shrewdness, his almost confrontational tone and the subject matter make this an uncomfortably entertaining read but it’s so highly entertaining that I can recommend it on this basis alone. My only real problem with The Sellout is with the final few chapters; after promising so much it just fizzles out without really acknowledging the consequences of all that has gone before. It’s almost as if such a perfectly set up plot can’t sustain the cleverness for long and collapses under its own weight. I don’t really know what I was hoping for.

Only a short review this week – that doesn’t do this book justice at all – as I’m a little behind with posts at the moment. I’ve nearly finished Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent and I have a ton of pictures to post from my latest literary travels, which reminds me that I still haven’t posted pictures from our pilgrimage to another author grave way back in December. So many good intentions, so little time…

His Bloody Project (2016) by Graeme Macrae Burnet

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I’ve probably mentioned a hundred times before that I’m a sucker for an unusual narrative style and particularly for stories told in letter or diary format. This book caught my eye last year, before it was nominated for the Man Booker Prize, because of its subtitle: “Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae.” Hang on a second there, sunshine. Documents? Just my cup of tea. After that I fully intended to pick this up at the next opportunity but, as so often happens, promptly forgot about it as soon as something else came along. That’s just typical really. I spotted it again during some impromptu bookshop browsing a few weekends ago and then managed to read the whole thing before the weekend was over. That should tell you how daft I was to delay reading it for so long.

“One man can no more see into the mind of another than he can see inside a stone…”

In the preface to his novel Burnet describes this as a true story uncovered while he was researching his own family history in a Scottish archive. I don’t believe that’s actually true but it’s a clever layer to the fiction and adds a certain gravity to the tale he goes on to tell. The story he’s uncovered is that of seventeen year old Roddy Macrae who, we’re told, was charged with a horrific triple murder in a remote Highland crofting community in 1869. In this novel Burnet brings together all the original evidence relating to the trial that followed: the witness statements, post mortems, expert opinions, court transcripts and, most remarkably, Roddy’s own lengthy account of the events leading up to the crime. Roddy’s defence claims that he was suffering from a sort of temporary insanity at the time of the murders but would an insane man know he was insane? And if so, can you really trust anything he tells you?

This isn’t a straight forward crime/detective genre novel. Instead, as Burnet applies layer upon layer of information he leaves the reader to decide how far the evidence can be trusted and whether Roddy was really in his right mind at the time of the murders. I think the ‘documents’ format works really well in this respect as it means the reader can see the same man, and the same crime, from several different angles, each one with its own agendas and prejudices. Burnet’s restraint in handling all these different layers is evident here and it never feels disjointed or jarring. With hindsight I’m not sure that Roddy’s own account of the crime feels quite as historically authentic as some of the other reports but in some ways this works in the novel’s favour. It certainly creates a really atmospheric picture of this tiny, isolated community with its ancient customs, language, feuds and tensions.

It took me a while to realise that Burnet was deliberately leaving the ‘facts’ of the case open to interpretation by providing conflicting opinions and omitting certain details from Roddy’s memoir. One key piece of information mentioned briefly in a post-mortem report had me scratching my head for ages as it didn’t tally with Roddy’s own account, which I wanted to be truthful. It was at his point that I realised that there was clearly more to this tale than initially meets the eye and I spent much of my time from hereon waiting for a twist, a big reveal, that would suddenly make everything fall into place. However, I think by refusing to hold your hand or provide all the answers Burnet makes this a much more gripping, though unnerving, read. It’s the kind of book that will either leave you disappointed by the lack of answers or raking over the details in your head for days following. My response was much more like the latter.

Shylock is my Name (2016) by Howard Jacobson

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There has been frustratingly little reading time this last week or two and I’m trying very hard not to feel a bit down about it. It’d be horrible if reading were to become some sort of competition where I have to read so many books in a year or I’ll feel like a failure…. But at the moment it seems to be taking me a long, long time to finish any books at all. It’s disappointing. I miss reading. It makes my day (and me) a little bit nicer.

“That’s how vilification works. The victim ingests the views of his tormentor. If that’s how I look, that’s what I must be.”

This book was a birthday present from P earlier in the year on the back of a documentary we saw with Jacobson and Alan Yentob in Venice in which they talked about our responses to Shylock. I came away with the impression that this was a sort of retelling of The Merchant of Venice but that’s not quite right; it’s more of a re-plotted, re-imagined tale in which Shylock – not a version of Shylock but the actual Shylock fresh from Venice – strikes up a strange friendship with modern day art dealer Simon Strulovitch in a Manchester cemetery. The two have a lot to talk about and when Strulovitch’s precocious daughter Beatrice becomes entangled with a Nazi saluting footballer, Shylock suggests that Strulovitch exact his ‘pound of flesh’ from the man who has wronged him in a way that will sound eerily familiar.

The conversations between Strulovitch and Shylock form the backbone of this novel. They discuss errant daughters, fatherhood, what it means to be Jewish and how Jews and non-Jews regard each other in the modern world. Their discussions are interesting, funny and challenging enough that they aren’t as tortuous as they would be in the hands of a less clever author. In fact, they’re the perfect mouthpiece for Jacobson to explore Shylock’s place in our world and you get a strange sense that he’s really enjoying doing this. The rest of the novel feels kind of flimsy in comparison and I wondered whether Portia (or Plurabelle as she is here) deserves a bit better than Jacobson is willing to give her; she’s no longer the spirited young woman capable of annihilating Shylock in court but the vapid star of a reality TV show. It doesn’t seem quite fair. Shylock on the other hand is just as disconcerting here as he is in the play; he’s vociferous both in defending his own actions four hundred years previously and in urging Strulovitch towards revenge.

It helps if you have at least a passing familiarity with The Merchant of Venice beforehand. I haven’t read the play but I’ve seen it performed on stage and on film so I was fairly confident that I’d get to grips with this in no time. Within a few chapters, however, I was flicking through The Complete Works of Shakespeare trying to remind myself what the hell the monkey had to do with anything (and then kicking myself for having forgotten that the monkey is the final twist of the knife in Jessica’s attempt to hurt her father; it’s kind of a big deal). I think I kept up with this novel but maybe I’d have appreciated some of the nuances a bit more if I’d had a deeper knowledge of the play. It’s something I’ll have to bear in mind for a future reread. Even armed with a bit of knowledge, I imagine this isn’t always easy going, partly because the conversations between the two main characters require some concentration but also because, while there’s a certain amount of dark humour here, there’s also some bewildering anti-Semitism on the part of some of the other characters. Much like The Merchant of Venice, this isn’t a comfortable experience and although it doesn’t have the same power to devastate I admire the way it’s told.

The Road to Little Dribbling (2015) by Bill Bryson

“I like being in a country where when cows attack, word of it gets around.”

I read this book’s forerunner, Notes From A Small Island, for my A’Levels, alongside Great Expectations and A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters (both of which I loved) and As You Like It (which I hated more than I can tell you). At the time Notes from a Small Island occupied a happy middle ground between those two extremes; I didn’t love it or hate it, but it was quite amusing and very easy to read. Back in August my dad came back from his holiday raving about how much he’d enjoyed reading the follow up so I bumped a few things off my TBR list (AGAIN) to make way for an impromptu Bryson fest.

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In this latest instalment Bryon travels the mainland UK along an imaginary line stretching from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath. To be fair, the Bryson Line, as he calls it, is a piece of fiction as Bryson thankfully spends very little time on his official course. In between his stated starting and ending points he’s free to wander into Cornwall, Wales and East Anglia or anywhere else he chooses to visit. The nice thing about reading this now, compared to when I was seventeen, is that I’ve since seen a bit more of my home country and am able, much more than before, to recognise some of the places Bryson stops to admire. My old university gets a mention, as does the seaside town where I spent many childhood summers with my grandparents, along with the village P and I visited a few August Bank Holidays ago. I probably didn’t realise it at the time but it does make a bit of a difference.

I remember, when I read Notes from a Small Island as a teenager, being a little bit baffled as to why anyone would admire Britain so much, let alone love it to the extent that Bryson seems to. I can’t say that I’m any wiser now but I’ve never been particularly patriotic and at the moment I’m still suffering from horrible post-Brexit pessimism. It’s nice that in amongst all that twee British stereotyping Bryson still finds plenty to rage against, whether its austerity, the decline of the high street, littering or the alarming rise in anti-immigrant feeling. I’d have been troubled if Bryson’s picture of the UK had been an entirely rosy one. On the other hand, as much as I think Bryson is at his best when he’s bit peevish, there’s only so many times you can hear someone rant about how expensive absolutely everything is before it becomes a little exasperating. Trust us, Bill, we already know.

On the whole, however, this was really quite funny at times and it was nice to be reminded of some of the places I really do love in the UK. It’s a shame Wales, Scotland and the north get quite short shrift in comparison to the south but I suppose it’s unfair to expect that Bryson should visit every last place in the British Isles. I don’t remember enough of Bryson’s first book to say whether I like this one more or less but I think it’s probably still in that middle ground. It was a pleasant enough way to spend a few hours of reading time.

The Story of a New Name (2012) by Elena Ferrante

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I surprised myself with how much I was looking forward to jumping back into Ferrante’s Neapolitan series. My Brilliant Friend, which I read back in April, is still one of my favourite books of the whole year and I’ve been desperately impatient to get my grubby little hands on the follow up. It took a while – mainly because of that whole changing jobs/libraries thing – but it finally appeared on the reserve shelf, with its little white label marked with my name, last week and I was over the moon about it. I did a silent dance right there and then in the library. I finished the book in a week (not bad at my current reading pace) and I’m already thirsty for book three so I’ll be back there later this week to add my name to another reservation list.

“How easy it is to tell the story of myself without Lila: time quiets down and the important facts slide along the thread of the years like suitcases on a conveyor belt at an airport; you pick them up, put them on the page, and it’s done. 

It’s more complicated to recount what happened to her in those years. The belt slows down, accelerates, swerves abruptly, goes off the tracks. The suitcases fall off, fly open, their contents scatter here and there.

 

The Story of a New Name begins almost precisely where My Brilliant Friend left off: with Lila’s marriage and Elena’s growing acceptance that her best friend is finally escaping the poverty and the violence of the neighbourhood they’ve known since childhood. I’ll let you guess whether that actually happens. In this novel Lila has chance to adjust to her new life as Signora Caracci while Elena reluctantly continues her studies, pining for Nino and quietly envying her old friend’s glamorous new existence. This is a surprisingly long (and tumultuous) novel; a lot happens and all I can really say, without giving too much away, is that the friendship between the two becomes increasingly complicated and troubled.

The weird thing about this novel is that my feelings towards Lila evolved almost in time with Elena’s, which almost proves how utterly convincing Ferrante’s writing is. You can completely understand the fascination Lila holds for those around her and why they all seem to love her and hate her in equal measure. She’s at her most ferocious here; she lashes out at others to compensate for her own humiliation and sometimes she seems to do it with real relish. On the other hand you also get a real sense of how terribly afraid she is. You never doubt that she’d happily claw your eyes out to get what she wants, to prove everyone wrong and to salvage some sense of herself from her unhappy existence. Now that I think it over fully I wonder whether she might be one of the realest characters I’ve ever come across. Elena never manages to be quite so compelling but I think that’s probably the whole point. In her reluctance to dwell too much on the details of her own life away from the neighbourhood we get a very clear message that without Lila there’s not much worth dwelling on. Their relationship is frequently exasperating but it’s also engrossing and, at times, horribly distressing to witness. You wish that they weren’t quite so quick to push each other away when times get tough.

Ferrante’s writing, as I’ve now come to expect, is like nothing I’ve really read before. It’s brutal, intense, fierce even, and somehow quite urgent. It really emphasises the volatility of the relationships and the stark realities of life in this violent but rapidly changing neighbourhood. I find it emotionally exhausting at times but in a strangely positive sort of way, almost like I can’t read fast enough to satisfy my hunger to know what will happen next. There aren’t many authors who have that ability to provide such a brilliantly nuanced insight into a relationship or who leave you quite so emotionally drained afterwards.

Bring on book 3 🙂

We Need New Names (2013) by NoViolet Bulawayo

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“We can see, in the eyes of the adults, the rage. It is quiet but it is there. Still, what is rage when it is kept in like a heart, like blood, when you do not do anything with it, when you do not use it to hit or even yell? Such rage is nothing, it does not count. It is just a big, terrible dog with no teeth.”

Hello all and apologies for the long hiatus. I had so many reading and blogging plans for the past few weeks but they all shot out the window as the chaos of changing jobs set in. It’s now been three weeks and I’m slowly forming a vague new routine but things might remain a little sluggish round here while I work out how to squeeze in regular times for the things I enjoy. In the meantime I thought I’d herald my return to the blogosphere with a very quick review of NoViolet Bulawayo’s book We Need New Names, which makes Zimbabwe the next stop on my Around the World in 80 Books tour.

We Need New Names is narrated by Darling, a precocious 10 year old living in a shanty town called Paradise. School has been closed so these days she spends her time with her friends, stealing guavas, playing at finding Bin Laden and trying to avoid being dragged to church to hear the rantings of the Reverend Revelations Bitchington Mborro. It’s a far from idyllic life – in fact her circumstances are frequently brutal – but Darling is in her own way happy. These are times of upheaval for Zimbabwe though and occasionally the outside world impinges on her fun. In one memorable scene the children hide in a tree as an angry mob storm the house of a rich white couple with machetes chanting ‘Africa for Africans!’ In another they play at re-enacting the murder of a family friend by the police. These scenes have an innocent, macabre horror to them, which make them doubly unsettling. You’re seeing these events unfold through the eyes of a child who doesn’t understand the implications of what she’s seeing.

Eventually, Darling’s mother makes the awful decision to send her daughter away to America for her safety. Bulawayo prefaces the move with a couple of pages thinking over how gut-wrenchingly difficult this must be for those forced to leave behind their families and homes in the hopes of a better life elsewhere. It’s rather unwieldy, the way she does this, but it’s kind of touching all the same.

“Look at them leaving in droves, arm in arm with loss and lost, look at them leaving in droves.”

From hereon the reader follows Darling in her new life as she discovers the realities of life as an immigrant in the west. There’s the good stuff – the junk food and the internet and the shopping malls – but it’s blindingly obvious that there are precious few real opportunities for someone like Darling in America.

I enjoyed the first half of this novel enormously, almost entirely because of Darling’s down to earth, dry tone of narration. Somewhere in the second half, however, it all went wrong and I can only blame this partly on the book; it was at about this time that I changed jobs and had to put the book down for a week. When normal reading resumed I found it much less interesting, much less clever than I’d remembered. Did I lose my way with the book? Or did it go astray without me? Had it always been this disjointed? I’m really not sure. I can only say that I found the second half a little flat.  I can convince myself that this was deliberate, that Bulawayo wanted to provide a stark contrast between the old life and the new, but in reality I just missed the drama and the colour of the preceding chapters. And worst of all, I missed the old Darling. The innocence and humour seemed to have disappeared too abruptly and I was left feeling decidedly underwhelmed.

Since finishing reading I’ve read several reviews describing We Need New Names as a sort of Eye Spy book of African ‘issues’, from AIDS to FGM, government corruption to child poverty. I agree that Bulwayo’s themes aren’t particularly new, and that her points aren’t generally very well made, but it seems a tad unfair to blame her for referencing some very real problems. I’m slightly baffled by this criticism.

Anyhoo, that’s enough nonsense from me for one night. P has gone out for the evening so if I don’t get to bed soon I’ll lose my one opportunity this week for a night in with a book. How rock’n’roll.

My Brilliant Friend (2012) by Elena Ferrante

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The Neapolitan series (of which this is the first) has popped up on my radar a few times over the past year or so. I’ve seen a multitude of blog reviews (generally fairly positive) and a number of press and TV pieces speculating on Ferrante’s true identity (when really I don’t think she could have made her wishes any plainer). The upshot of it all is that I’ve just been a bit curious to see what all the Ferrante fuss is about. On the face of it, My Brilliant Friend isn’t really the sort of book that I would normally seek out – what with the old lady cover design and the fact that a friend vaguely mentioned that it was about ’friendship’ – but you know what? I liked it. No one is more surprised than I am.

“I feel no nostalgia for our childhood; it was full of violence. Every sort of thing happened, at home and outside, every day, but I don’t recall having ever thought that the life we had there was particularly bad. Life was like that, that’s all, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.”

The story begins in the present day as Elena, our narrator, receives the not altogether unexpected news that her childhood friend Lila has disappeared. The rest of the story is told in one long flashback as Elena reflects back on a childhood spent in the poverty stricken slums of post-war Naples. She and Lila first meet while playing with their dolls in the courtyard of their apartment building; by the time this instalment of the series ends the girls are sixteen and navigating very different paths in life. It’s an almost forensically detailed, moment by moment, analysis of the constantly shifting dynamic between them as they’re pushed together and pulled apart over the years.

It’s a compelling read because Elena’s relationship with Lila is kind of electrifying. They vacillate between resentment and jealousy one minute and a fierce, destructive sort of loyalty the next.

“Do you love him?”

She said seriously, “Very much.”

“More than your parents, more than Rino?”

“More than everyone, but not more than you.”

Elena is quiet and studious and understands herself only in relation to her friendship with Lila. Lila likes breaking things, says Elena, and that seems true. She’s ferocious, a force of nature and, like Elena, I’m slightly in awe of her. Ultimately life unjustly bestows very different opportunities on the girls and while one is given a daily escape from the slums, the other is condemned to remain. It ends with a wedding, a wonderfully tense wedding in fact, and a final sentence that feels a bit like a surprise slap in the face.

Ferrante paints an intensely colourful, almost cinematic, portrait of a slum community in the shadow of the war. Shoemakers, grocers and seamstresses appear side by side amongst profiteers and thugs. The novel is so densely populated that at first I struggled to distinguish between some of the families and had to rely on the supplied character list to help me out. But after a bit of perseverance I was so caught up in the story that I didn’t even notice that I’d stopped needing to check. I love the way that Ferrante slices together the day-to-day coming of age parts of the plot – exams, pimples, boyfriends, rows with parents – with the violence that seems to be inherent in the setting. There’s domestic violence, a murder, brawls in the street, family feuds, the menacing Solara brothers… It’s artfully done.

I know it’s the worst of all the clichés, but I really found it hard to put this book down. In part I think this is because the two central characters, Lila in particular, are drawn so well. They feel like people you know. A lot of the credit also goes, of course, to Ferrante’s writing. It’s not lyrical or poetic but it’s precise. Every turn of phrase, every word, gives the impression that it’s been specially chosen for the exact something that it will bring to the scene. Nothing is superfluous. For someone who very much favours standalone novels this was a bit of a surprise to me. I’m going to put the next one on my library list and we’ll see where we go from here.  The reviews for the later books all seem to be pretty complimentary so I’m hopeful.

The Fall of the Stone City (2012) by Ismail Kadare

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I have to say that I found this book more than a little frustrating and I think it must have been my own fault. I was having such a hard time staying on top of the story that I began to wonder if maybe I was reading too quickly, not paying close attention or just generally slow on the uptake. In truth, it could have been any of those things, I wouldn’t be surprised.

“I’m not Albania, just as you’re not Germany, Fritz. We’re something else.”

The Fall of the Stone City is set in September 1943, as German tanks are rolling across the Albanian border towards the ancient city of Gjirokaster. At the head of the invading forces is Nazi Colonel Fritz von Schwabe  and, as chance would have it, his dear old friend Dr Gurameto happens to be a respected surgeon in the city he’s about to occupy. The two haven’t met since their university days but on his first night in Gjirokaster the Colonel is invited to a dinner party at Gurameto’s home, a dinner party that becomes a local legend, the subject of wild rumour and speculation for years to come. Ten years later, when Albania is in the grip of a Communist dictatorship, the events of that infamous night spell life or death for Dr Gurameto.

It’s been two days since I finished this and I’m still not sure I quite get it. Perhaps Kadare was keeping the story deliberately open ended. Or maybe I missed one small, key detail that would have made sense of everything for me. I’m really not sure. None of this is to suggest that I didn’t like this book, although it did mean my feelings were pretty mixed. Thankfully there were enough likeable things to prevent it putting me off Kadare for good. The writing is beautifully lyrical and I loved the way he weaves together Albanian folklore and real events until even the Nazi invasion begins to feel like a legend. I guess the point is that the lines between fact and fiction are blurred and you can never really trust what you’re told, either by your dearest friend or by the government blaring out propaganda through a tannoy. Maybe this also says something about Albania, as she’s tossed about from one occupier to the other. I don’t know. As I said, I’m confused.

As this was one of my first reads for the Around the World in 80 Books challenge I was pleased to note that Kadare’s descripton of Gjirokaster really brings it to life, much more so than any of the characters in fact. I’m not sure how he does it but I always really like books that have a strong sense of place. After it was over I spent a merry half hour looking at photographs of the city on Google Images, just to see if it looked as I’d imagined. Incidentally, at the end I also went back and reread the dinner party chapter and was amazed to see it in a whole new light. The events of the final chapters give some of the smaller details new meaning. If I’d had more time I’d have liked to read the whole thing again to work out where I went wrong. But alas, it was due back at the library too soon.

Can anyone recommend other works by Kadare?

The Visitor’s Book (2015) by Sophie Hannah

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Sophie Hannah gave a talk at my local library back in October. I’ve not read much of her work (one novel and a handful of poems) but I was intrigued enough to go along, despite the fact that it was at a really awkward hour after work and I didn’t have enough time to go home first. In the end my colleague and I retired to a pub round the corner, drank a bottle of wine, waltzed into the talk half-tipsy and proceeded to wolf down all the complimentary tea and biscuits we could lay our hands on before it started. Ho hum. That’ll teach ‘em for holding an event at seven o’clock on a school night.

It’s been ages since I last went to an author event, mainly because there’s a part of me that wonders whether they’re a bit self-indulgent whilst the other is all indignant and secretly gets a thrill from hearing authors reading aloud from their own works. I’m so indecisive. It’s a wonder I make up my mind about anything. Thankfully this talk was exactly what I hoped it would be and Hannah was really funny and engaging. She spoke a little about her love for murder mysteries and ghost stories, where she gets her ideas from and how she ended up being commissioned to write the new Hercule Poirot novel.

Quite near the beginning she read an extract from The Visitor’s Book, her newest release, and I was hooked pretty much instantly. I needed to know the secret of that visitor’s book. Unfortunately the same need seems to have gripped everyone else and I wasn’t quick enough to purchase a signed copy at the end (although Hannah did sign another book for me). Thankfully my colleague was luckier and lent me her signed copy last week. I didn’t need to borrow it for long because it’s a really short read, equating roughly to two twenty minute commutes, a cup of tea and a lunch break. Perfect.

The Visitor’s Book is a collection of four supernatural stories. The first of these, the one that inspired the title, is about a young woman who’s unnerved to find that her creepy new boyfriend is a bit obsessed with getting her to sign the visitor’s book in his suburban terraced house in Walthamstow. It’s the best of the four stories I think and I really enjoyed all that to-ing and fro-ing between the couple about whether it’s a bit pretentious to have such a book in a rather ordinary home. The dialogue feels really natural and easy. I liked it.

The other stories feature a small boy left behind at a party, a woman who starts seeing living dead people and a resentful mum plotting her revenge on the other women gathered in a school playground. Two of these were a little predictable and I didn’t particularly enjoy them but I quite liked the lady who saw dead people who were really alive (or live people who were really dead if that’s a better way of putting it). It was weird but that’s probably the reason why I liked it.

I’ve read a few ghost stories recently and I’ve found all of them disappointingly unspooky. These weren’t an exception, although that’s not to say I disliked them. Is it just me? Maybe the problem is that they’ve all been short stories? Perhaps you need a bit more time to build up some tension. Or maybe it’s because so many of them have been classics and the things we find scary now are probably different to the things that terrified the Victorians. I don’t know. I should say, though, that I hate being spooked and I never watch or read horror for this reason. But still there’s a little bit of me that wants to be scared by one of these books… How’s that for indecision?