On Book Journals

sundaysalonI’m really bad at keeping track of what I’m reading. I have a spreadsheet where I list all my TBR titles and cross them off as I read. I also have my lists on Goodreads. But what I don’t have is any way to know what I was reading, say this time last year – although I post reviews on this site, they often take weeks to materialise  so are not a good indicator. As for thoughts on the book I’m reading at a particular time, the only notes I make are in the form of scribbles on post it notes.

Book journaling may be the answer. I’ve certainly seen many bloggers mention they keep a journal. But I’m not really sure what this involves and what you put in a journal. Some people seem to use it to list what they are reading, others includes quotes that they think significant and others paste in clippings from articles.

I’m interested in this but am not sure where to begin.  Looking on line for some suggestions I found only some rather basic tips. Most of the sources seem to be geared to students/school pupils rather than adult readers. Some key points that are frequently mentioned are:

  • Buy a durable book – avoid those that have coil bindings since the pages will come apart
  • Write your book entry as you read
  • Finish your entry as soon as you’re done reading
  • Always date your entries
  • Include page numbers with any quotes

Those all sound reasonable but don’t really tell me about the scope of a journal, why people find them useful. How is a journal different to a diary?

Before I go off in search of a beautiful book (but not mega expensive Moleskin version) I thought I’d ask if any of you keep a journal. And if so when/how do you use it? If you have a blog as well as Goodreads/LibraryThing accounts how do they work in conjunction with the journal.

Any pointers would be appreciated.

The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G Farrell #ManBooker

seigeJ.G Farrell is a writer whose work I was completely oblivious to until I started on my project to read all the past winners of the Booker Prize.

The Siege of Krishnapur is part of a series of novels known as the Empire Trilogy (the two other titles are Troubles and The Singapore Grip), which deal with the political and human consequences of British colonial rule. The Siege of Krishnapur is based on the real experience of British subjects during the Indian rebellion of 1857 (what has become known as “the Indian Mutiny“).

At first the remote British colonial outpost at Krishnapur is  blissfully unaware of what lies ahead so they continue with their rounds of soirees  and discussions about pseudo scientific concepts like phrenology. By the time news comes of an impending attack it’s too late to flee so these representatives of the British Raj stiffen their sinews, batten down the hatches and wait for relief. Surrounded by beautiful furniture and artwork, and confident in the ability of the Empire to prevail,  the idiots have no idea what it really means to be under siege and the level of deprivation they will endure.  For a time they are able to preserve their Victorian stiff upper lips, the women strive to maintain the social hierarchy and the men posture and preen, joshing about the best way to fire at the Indian attackers – someone has the bizarre idea when ammunition runs out for their cannons, they should fill them with cooking implements  and fire those instead.

But as the weeks turn into months with no relief in sight, the old standards crack in the face of flying musket balls and insects, dwindling supplies of food and dirty water, disease and death,  Religious beliefs are questioned, valuable items of furniture have to be burned; old ideals are challenged. The deterioration is vividly portrayed – the latter stages of the novel are permeated with the smell of rotting bodies (human and animal) and the image of emaciated people. The atmosphere is one of impending doom.

Most of the characters are condescending and racists but Farrell gives us the ability to sympathise with them, particularly with the character of the Collector. He’s a man who is initially presented as a pompous eccentric, a believer in progress who is often found daydreaming of the  the Great Exhibition when he is not admiring his Louis XVI table and books.


What an advantage that knowledge can be stored in books! The knowledge lies there like hermetically sealed provisions waiting for the day when you may need a meal. Surely what the Collector was doing as he pored over his military manuals, was proving the superiority of the European way of doing things, of European culture itself. This was a culture so flexible that whatever he needed was there in a book at his elbow. An ordinary sort of man, he could, with the help of an oil-lamp, turn himself into a great military engineer, a bishop, an explorer or a General overnight, if the fancy took him.

By the end he has risen above banalities to become a leader capable of bravery and the common sense lacking in those around him. His eyes have been opened to the true significance of his beloved Exhibition and what it really represented:

He, too, [had] suffered from an occasionally enlightening vision which came to him from the dim past and which he must have suppressed at the time . . . The extraordinary array of chains and fetters, manacles and shackles exhibited by Birmingham for export to America’s slave states, for instance . . . Why had he not thought more about such exhibits? Well, he had never pretended that science and industry were good in themselves, of course . . . They still had to be used correctly. All the same he should have thought a great deal more about what lay behind the exhibits.

Farrell of course is poking fun at the colonial concept with its pretensions and supreme confidence in the Empire’s military and moral superiority. Few of these characters emerge with any dignity yet Farrell makes us feel sympathetic towards them. Much of the novel is witty and funny – hard to achieve given the subject matter but he makes it work.

A well-deserved winner of the Booker Prize in 1973 and one of the best winners I’ve read.


The Book: The Siege of Krishnapur is book number 2 in the Empire Trilogy by J.G Farrell

Published: 1973. My version is a 1993 edition published by Phoenix

Length: 314 pages

The Author: J.G Farrell was born in Liverpool of Irish parents. He was a teacher for many years, combining this with his writing. In 1979, he left London to live in southwestern Ireland. A few months later he was drowned after being swept from the rocks by a rogue wave while angling. He is one of the few authors to have scored a double with the Booker. In 2010 Troubles, which is set against the background of the Irish War of Independence ,was named as the first  (to date the only)  winner of the Lost Booker title – this was a title awarded by a public vote when, because of a change in the award rules, books published in 1970 had not been eligible.

Why I read this: It is part of my Booker Prize project. 

A disaster remembered

Today marks the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest tragedies experienced in my home area of South Wales: the Aberfan disaster which saw the death of 144 people, 116 of them children. I was nine years old at the time – the same age of many of the children that were buried when thousands of tonnes of waste coal slid down the mountainside onto their school. It’s an event seared into my memory. The small community of Aberfan was just a few miles across the mountains from my school which was also in a mining town. What happened at Aberfan could easily have happened in my community.

Watching the news coverage of the commemorative events today was an emotional experience. Archive film shows the desperate efforts of rescuers to dig through the black slurry in the hope of finding someone alive. Among the many images from those days, this one has always stuck in my mind. The girl wrapped in the arms of a policeman was one of the lucky ones. She was found alive. Most of her classmates didn’t.


An inquiry followed. To this day, although the blame for the disaster was laid firmly at the door of the people managing the waste site, (the National Coal Board) no employee or board member has ever been demoted, dismissed, or prosecuted.

A memorial was set up. By the time it closed,  nearly 90,000 contributions from all over the world had been received, totalling more than £1.6million. But instead of all that going to the bereaved and distraught families, it was used to make the remainder of the tip safe. Unsurprisingly, the community felt betrayed by the justice system and the political system. During my early days as a journalist I met some of those parents. I was struck then, and again today seeing some of them interviewed on TV, by how dignified they were in relieving those memories and of the betrayal that ensued.

blackriverIt seems a fitting day to begin reading a book that is based on the events of fifty years ago: Black River by Louise Walsh. It follows Harry, a journalist for the South Wales Echo journalist, who tries to protect the village of Aberfan from press intrusion in the run up to the first anniversary of the 1966 disaster.

If you want to find out more about this tragedy, the BBC Wales site is a good source. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources


Best laid plans go awry

I’ve been taking advantage of the Autumn sunshine with a mini break in Wiltshire (I refuse to pander to marketing folks who want to brand such trips as staycations).  I persuaded Mr BookerTalk that a visit to Bookbarn International (which claims to be one of the largest used book sellers in the UK) wouldn’t mean too much of a detour on our path to the renowned cathedral city of Salisbury. Actually I had no clue where this bookish heaven was located other than somewhere vaguely south of Bristol. But good old sat nav got us there easily enough and I prepared myself for a good couple of hours of mooching and buying.

What a disappointing experience. I’d sifted through my TBR and found a good armful of non fiction books I no longer wanted and thought I could sell. Their website promises this service but when I asked, the response was that I could donate but they don’t buy.

Further disappointment came once among the shelves. Filming for something or other was in progress so a good quarter of the place was shut off. The crew wasn’t actually using all the space for the film but if you’ve been around production teams you know they like to spread themselves and their equipment just about everywhere. And of course the area they had commandeered included the shelves I wanted. So it was fine if you wanted fiction by authors whose names were in the first half of the alphabet. But of no use for me in my quest for Zola or for any Virago Modern Classics which were also shelved in the restricted area.

The layout of the place wasn’t all that helpful either. The printed sheet detailing which shelf numbers contained which collections didn’t match the chalkboard descriptions on the end of each aisle. So looking for classics I found myself in ‘wine and cookery’. After much huffing and puffing I learned that they have recently reorganised the place but hadn’t got around to changing the blackboards. Not very impressed……

Did I buy? Yes but not anything I was desperate to get. I think I bought on the basis that everything was ridiculously cheap (£1 a book no matter how big and fat) and I’d got that far so I may as well buy something. I ended up with this collection.


Tony Morrison’s Beloved I’ve been meaning to read for some years. Cousin Bette is considered to be Balzac’s last great work with its themes of vice and virtue and the influence of money. Tigers in Red Weather got a lot of visibility when it was published two years ago – not sure if I will read it or just pass straight to my niece. I haven’t read a lot of Rose Tremain’s work so this pristine copy of The Road Home, a story of an immigrant from Eastern Europe, caught my attention. It was selected for World Book Night in 2013.

And finally, a book that I suspect most readers of this blog will not have heard of previously. Off to Philadelphia in the Morning by Jack Jones. Jones, the son of a Welsh coal miner,  was a trade union official and politician as well as a novelist and playwright in the mid 1940s and 1950s. The novel gives a fictional picture of the early career of the composer Joseph Parry (who came from Jones’ home town of Merthyr Tydfil) as they move from the poverty of south Wales to the hardship of industrial America. Parry gained a reputation through his composition of Myfanwy (a song you’ll still hear today) and the hymn tune Aberystwyth, upon which the National anthem of South Africa, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika is said to be based.  The book was an instant success – a highly successful TV film followed. I wish I’d bought this a week earlier and then I could have used it for the 1947 reading club run by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. Maybe they’ll let me sneak it in???

Two disappointing crime stories

I’ve always been able to rely on Ruth Rendell in the past when I wanted a good crime yarn on audio; one that wasn’t too complicated that I lost attention on my driving and was rather topical. But its clear that the early novels in the series that feature her ace detective Chief Inspector Wexford and his  work in Kingsmarkham area were as skilful accomplished as the later titles.

Wolf to the Slaughter is the third in the series.  I’m so glad that I read many of the later titles before this one because if this had been my first experience of the series, I wouldn’t have gone back for me.

wolf-to-the-slaughterIt’s about a woman who has vanished. She’s a bit of an odd flighty character living with her avant grade painter brother, both of them forgetful and not much use at domestic activities. Their life revolves around parties. There’s no body and as far as Wexford can discern initially no real crime. But he does have an anonymous letter which is hinting that there is something about this disappearance that warrants his attention. Off he goes with Inspector Burden and a young copper who lets his powers of observation collapse when  he falls in love with a young shop girl. There are the inevitable red herrings before Wexford comes up trumps as we know he always will.

It might sound ok but it was really missing the edginess that I’ve found in her later work. This Wexford is a pale imitation of this older self and it shows. I was happy to get to the end.

undertakerI turned instead to an audio recording from another stalwart of the crime genre –  Margery Allingham – someone whose name I’ve heard for many years but never read. On the basis of More Work for the Undertaker I won’t be disturbing her again and the two books I have in print on my bookshelves can be dispensed to a charity shop. Published in 1948, this features her suave amateur detective Albert Campion who, just before he is about to take up a diplomatic post overseas, agrees to investigate the mysterious goings on at the Palinodes household. These turn into death for two people. Campion takes rooms in the household in order to identify the culprit, working alongside the official police investigation. I hate books with a lot of ‘wacky’ characters. I suppose we were meant to find these delightful in examples of eccentric English figures. I just found them tedious and the story dull. So gave it up as a bad job.

The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M Coetzee: a baffling #ManBooker longlist novel

It’s been five weeks since I read the novella The Schooldays of Jesus which was long listed for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. I was hoping that the gap between reading and writing my review would bring inspired thinking to help me make sense of this piece of work. But it didn’t. I am as baffled by it now as I was the day I got to the final page. Such a disappointment because I thought until then that J. M Coetzee would be an author I would want to read a lot more. Now I have grave doubts.

Part of the problem I thought might have been that The Schooldays of Jesus is a follow up to The Childhood of Jesus published in 2013 but which I have not read. But on closer inspection I don’t think it would have made that much of a difference since the The Schooldays of Jesus gives us some of the backstory in small snippets. It picks up from the previous novel where Simon and Ines arrive with their ‘adopted refugee’ son David to begin a new life in Estrella (the country is not specified but it’s Spanish speaking). They find work on a fruit picking farm though neither of the adults has any experience of labouring or farm work. Still they settle into it and make a success. The one cloud on the horizon is that David, the boy they rescued, is a challenging child, always asking difficult questions and finding normal school life too slow for his active brain.

The solution comes in the form of an offer from the three women farm owners, who, seeing his potential, agree to fund him for a place in a special academy of dance in a nearby city. It’s rather an odd place where the pupils learn through dance – everything else is secondary. There David is introduced to the mystical Dance of the Universe; a technique to reach “a higher realm where the numbers dwell”. The idea according to David’s teacher Ana Magdalena, is that each dance has a mathematical as well as an astrological dimension. “You close your eyes while you dance and you can see the stars in your head.” As dancing is largely visual, it’s difficult for anyone other the teacher or the dancer to comprehend this let alone the reader who has to rely on their imagination.

It’s one reason for the breakdown of David’s relationship with Simon. The other is David’s growing infatuation with Dmitri, the caretaker of a nearby museum who is a frequent visitor to the Academy. Things take a turn for the worst when Ines decides she can no longer live with Simon and begins to make a new life for herself. And then Dmitri is accused of sexually assaulting and murdering David’s dance teacher, a development that exposes  David to the reality of life and how distasteful adults can be but finds it impossible to condem Dmitri for his action.

This isn’t much of a plot but then the novel is meant to be one of ideas rather than story, but what exactly are those ideas? What are we meant to take from the novel? There’s clearly a key idea Coetzee is exploring but I’m darned if I can work out what it is. Are we meant to identify David’s story with that of Jesus? Other than Simon who of course is one of the disciples, the only other connection I can make is to the symbolic meaning of the name of the town to which his pseudo parents lead him ( they follow ‘a star’ to Estella) and where a census takes place. Are we meant to see David as an exceptional boy whose great wisdom can change the world? True he asks lots of tough questions and seems to see meanings beyond those Simon can grasp but what child  doesn’t come up with challenging questions as his intellect and curiosity develops? Beyond the mystic of the dance of the numbers I can see little that is particularly illuminating.

Much of the novel is rendered in a rather stilted  form of dialogue interposed with increasingly irritating used of indicators of whom was speaking. Most noticeably we kept bumping up against “he, Simon” or “to him, Simon” and “Then he, Simon” none of which was necessary. Once I spotted this it was hard to avoid.

In short, reading this was not an enjoyable experience.





A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny #crimefiction

great-reckoningLouise Penny has for a few years now been one of my favourite crime writers with her series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, Head of Homicide at the Sûreté du Québec.  When we got to book number 10 I was worried she was about to bring the series to an end since this saw the denouement of a long running theme of the Chief’s battle against the forces of evil that lay at the heart of the judicial and political establishment. But in book 11, The Long Way Home, she came up with a plot to keep him occupied in his retirement to the delightful small village of Three Pines, where so many of his investigations had led. As nifty as a device this was, it had limited scope I thought – this is a village so small it doesn’t even appear on a map so it would stretch credulity too far to keep conjuring up crime incidents for Gamache to investigate. I needn’t have been concerned however for Penny has devised a far more credible new role for the Chief in her newest episode in the series A Great Reckoning.

This novel sees Gamache start a new job as head of the Sûreté academy, the body that trains new officers for the force. Gamache is determined to clean up some of its less desirable practices which have resulted in a bunch of new recruits who are overly aggressive and below the standards Gamache expects from Sûreté officers. His clean-up campaign will see him go head to head with some of the established leaders of the academy who are none too pleased with the changes. It also re-unites him with one of his oldest friends, a now-disgraced former head of the Sûreté, a man who has good reason to dislike Gamache as the man who brought about his demise. When one of the Professors at the Academy is found murdered, the spotlight turns on several of the staff, including Gamache. Questions are raised about just how far would he go to eradicate corruption and what exactly is his relationship with Amelia Choquet, one of the new cadets who with her tattooed limbs and pierced nostrils and lips looks more like one of the people a Sûreté officer would question as a suspect than recruit to their ranks.

There is another mystery that requires Gamache’s attention. An intricate old map is found hidden in the walls of the bistro in Three Pines. The villagers become more and more intrigued by this artefact. Who was the mapmaker and what was the purpose? Why did the mapmaker include a pyramid, a snowman and a cow and why was does the stained glass window in he village church feature the a soldier carrying the map? Challenges and questions Gamache gives to four of the cadets as an exercise in the investigation skills they will require once on active duty. Along the way he gives them an object lesson in how to be a skilled – and compassionate investigator, quoting from Jonathan Swift and Marcus Aurelius in what seems to be one of the tenets guiding his own life:

The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane

And thats one of the things I admire most about the Gamache series. The plots are generally good (the one in he Great Reckoning isn’t as compelling as previous titles but is still executed flawlessly) and the characterisation superb. But what lifts this above the ordinary crime novel is the investment made to show Gamache as a rounded man capable of great depth of understanding, humanity and humility. Qualities which he tries to pass onto his family, friends and those under his wing as he does in his end of year address to the Academy staff and students:

We are all of us marred and scarred and imperfect. We make mistakes. We do things we deeply regret. We are tempted and sometimes we give into that temptation. Not because we are bad or weak but because we are human. We are a crowd of faults. But know this… There is always a road back. If we have the courage to look for it and to take it.

Wise words from a man who is often accused of arrogance, of thinking he knows better than anyone else what to do in a crisis situation. But essentially he is a man who recognises he makes mistakes in his quest to root out wrong doing and isn’t afraid to admit it to others when the time is right.

You could do worse than read The Great Reckoning not just as an example of quality, thoughtful crime fiction but  as a study in humanity and true leadership. The extra good news is that towards the end of the book there is a hint he is going to move on to a new role. My guess he will become head honcho of the Quebec Sûreté but Louise Penny could have another surprise up her sleeve.


Author: The Great Reckoning is book 11 in the series by Louise Penny

Published: 2016 by Little, Brown Book Group UK

Length: 400 pages

My copy: Provided by the publishers via NetGalley in return for an honest review.


Bloggers’ recommendations fill my shelves

toptentuesdayThis week’s Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish is all about sources of book recommendations. What books have we read because of another blogger or came across via a newspaper, magazine etc. 

Once upon a time my first action on getting the weekend newspaper editions was to turn to the book section to find reviews and recommendations of some of the newly published titles. Sadly, though both the Daily Telegraph Saturday edition and the Sunday Times do still have book reviews, they have been scaled back considerably. It’s now left to the Guardian to carry the flag with a lively blog and thoughtful articles that go far beyond reviews.

Like many book bloggers I find inspiration these days more from bloggers than newspapers. I try to keep a list of these because I find so many ideas I can’t possibly remember them all when I go shopping. Thankfully I also have captured the name of the blogger!

Here is my list of 10

  1. All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West. Recommended by Marilyn at Me, You and Books. This has been on my Classics Club list for three years but it was only last week that I managed to get a good condition second-hand copy.
  2. Chief Inspector Armand Gamesh series by Louise Penny as recommended by Laura at Thinking in Fragments (sadly Laura hasn’t been blogging for many months now). I read on of these every year and love the characterisation and settings. The best by far is A Beautiful Mystery  I just read the latest The Great Reckoning – review coming tomorrow.
  3. review by CurlyGeek at The Bookshop of Our Souls at Night led me to Kent Haruf. though I have yet to read that particular title I got hold of Benediction instead and fell in love with Haruf’s writing. Our Souls at Night has now become one of my ‘rainy day books’ – ones I save up for a special occasion.
  4. Ali (HeavenAli) and Karen (Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings) take all the credit for introducing me to a long list of female authors who I’d never heard of until seeing their reviews.  Elizabeth Taylor I began reading in 2014 but got left rather cold by the first one I read ( Wreath of Roses). It wasn’t until I read Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont that I warmed to her – so now I have three more of her books to enjoy.
  5. Lisa at ANZLitLovers does sterling work about reminding me of the whole world of literature that comes from Down Under. Thanks to her and Sue at Whispering Gums I have made a start on a collection of writers like Peter Carey and Richard Flanagan. Lisa wrote on more than one occasion in 2015 about Black Rock White City by A. S Patrić, describing it as “a stunning novel that places A.S. Patrić among the finest of our new crop of writers.  His prose is uncompromising but his imagery is exquisite.” Her review came through at a time I was thinking I needed to read more work by Australian writers – not that I have read it yet but its on the shelf. Thanks to Whispering Gums I have a copy of Patrick White’s Voss which is considered such a classic it pops up often on school syllabi.
  6. Lisa’s project to read all 20 of Emile Zola’s Rougon-Marquet series inspired me to start the same project, beginning of the series so I can fill in the gaps of those titles I haven’t read yet (4 read 16 to go). I’ve read If you’re not familiar with this series, take a look at the ReadingZola website
  7. Several bloggers including have highlighted the British Library Classic Crime series which began making an appearance in bookshops in the UK about 2 years ago with some beautifully atmospheric artwork covers. Guy at SwiftlyTiltingPlanet just published a review of about 10 of these ( I might have miscounted) so go take a look if if you haven’t come across them before and went to get a sense of what they’re about.
  8. Talking of crime, it’s so hard to keep up with the voracious reading habits of Cleopatra at Cleopatralovesbooks who knows more about crime than some police forces. Her blog is responsible for many titles I have bought in e-format for days when I need a total break from my usual reading fare.
  9. When I started on my quest to read more literature in translation I discovered Stu’s  blog Winston’sDad which is a treasure trove of reviews about writers in far flung countries that I would never have discovered without his dedication to translated fiction. The best recommendation I got was for Satantango by the Hungarian author Laslo Krasznahorkai which is a chilling account of evil.
  10. And last, but really pride of place, are the bloggers who have contributed guest posts to my View From Here series to share their insights about which authors to read from their countries. We’ve covered countries from Japan to Belgium, from Australia to most recently South Africa. There is a wealth of information here about authors you may never have heard of but are just waiting to be added to your TBR.

A delightful bookish week

sundaysalonThis was the week when……

  • Shiny New Books published by review of Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien which is on the Man Booker shortlist. You can see that review other site here There was so much in this novel that I could have talked about so I did another review yesterday on this blog (see this review here)- even then I feel I only touched the surface. We will have to wait a few weeks to find out if the judges agree it’s a worthy winner.
  • I finished The Great Reckoning the newest title in the Chief Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny. I hope to post the review within a few days but for now I’ll just say that the plot wasn’t gripping as in previous books but Penny has maintained her ability to go beyond a pure crime fiction and raise broader issues. There was a very poignant afterword in which she reveals that her husband is suffering from dementia so she wrote this book under very difficult circumstances. We’ll forgive her therefore for a minor slip in plot.
  • I discovered – or should I say rediscovered a second hand book shop in Cardiff (the nearest city to me). I’ve  been moaning to my nearest and dearest how sad it is that the capital city of Wales can’t manage to sustain more than one decent bookshop (Waterstones) and an Oxfam book shop which I think is rather pricy and doesn’t have a great selection of the books I like to read. A chance conversation with a friend revealed that there is indeed a second hand shop right in the city centre – I went there some years ago but forgot about it and just assumed it had closed. So of course I had to make a trip – and delightfully they stock a fair number of Virago Modern Classics which I’ve found difficult to get anywhere else.  So of course I had to buy ….When I got home I flicked through one of them to find two £10 notes in pristine condition. Did someone use these as bookmarks and then forget about them? I rang the shop in the hope they knew where they’d got the book but to no avail. Then my husband started taking a closer look and concluded they are fake… so my next trip will be to the police station to hand them in… Seems a very odd way to distribute fake currency….
  • A status check on my TBR showed that despite good intentions this year it’s grown yet again. At the start of the year I had 168 books unread (not counting e- versions). Today I see that I have 185. With a bit of luck maybe I can get it back down to around 170 by the start of 2017. I don’t really view the number of books I have as a curse or something to complain about. It’s wonderful to have a large library all of my own. I just need to actually read more from it.
  • I took my first baby steps in Bookcrossing after hovering on the fringes for years. It’s never been entirely clear where you could leave books without fear that someone would consider them a) litter and just add them to the rubbish bag or b) a security risk and needing to be destroyed. But with the help of an old hand at this I was able to find a cafe where they have a bookshelf of free books. So now 4 books have been released. I’m curious whether anyone has picked them up – maybe I should pop in for a coffee and just check.
  • Tutorials started for my Open University course on children’s literature. We had a great discussion about how the view of ‘childhood’ has changed dramatically over the centuries. The course is fascinating so far – just wish I had read a lot more children’s fiction. We were all asked to name the first book we could remember reading for ourselves as a child. Those years are so long ago my memory struggled but I think it was either Five go Adventuring by Enid Blyton or Alice in Wonderland. What was your first book – do you remember?

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien #Bookerprize

madeleinetheinI’m surprised there hasn’t been much on line chatter about Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien. Amidst the chatter about the contenders for the 2016 Man Booker Prize she seems to have been overlooked and yet this is one novel that deserves to be read more widely.

This is a novel about what happens when a political regime flex its ideological muscles and dictate how individuals should live their lives. The regime in question is the Communist Party of China under the direction of Chairman Mao and his successors. If you’ve read Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang, you’ll already have a good grounding in the history of the People’s Republic of China and the disastrous consequences of projects like The Great Leap Forward.

Thien’s novel covers some of the same historical period as Chang’s account but is more contemporary since it includes the build up to the Tianenman Square massacre of 1989. This is the background against which she sets her story of three talented musicians  whose lives are turned upside down when the government decides their music is not appropriate to the new order.

This is an astonishingly ambitious novel not only because of the vast swathe of history that Thien covers but because of the large number of characters she introduces and the blend of fact and fiction. Her characters are people who are who leap off the page and in whose company you delight.  – from the wonderfully named Big Mother Knife and Swirl to the unassuming Sparrow (one of the musicians) and his talented daughter Zhuli. They have to manoeuvre every subtle change in ideology, trying to make sense of their world and all the time longing to keep hold of the western music they revere.

The only life that matters is in your mind. The only truth is the one that lives invisibly, that waits even after you close the book. Silence, too, is a kind of music. Silence will last.

I know some bloggers thought some sections the book dragged but that wasn’t my experience. It’s definitely a book that you have to read with full attention because of its dual time narrative which switches between and the vast array of ideas woven into the text. Thien seems to have constructed her narrative along musical principles. She introduces a motif or a theme; explores it, expands it and then lets it fade away only to return to it at a later stage though in a slightly different note. So compellingly does she write about the music adored by Sparrow, his daughter and his mentee that I felt compelled to get a copy of some of the key pieces – especially Bach’s Goldberg Variations whose recordings by Glenn Gould with whom the trio feel a particular affinity.

There is another musical reference which I didn’t discover until reading a few other reviews of the novel. The title is an adaptation from the Chinese translation of the L’Internationale, the 19th century song adopted by socialist and worker groups worldwide. “Do not say that we have nothing, / We shall be the masters of the world!”



Author: Do Not Say we Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Published: 2016 by Granta Books.

Length: 473 pages

My copy: Provided by Shiny News Books for whom I wrote a  more detailed review 




%d bloggers like this: