5 lessons in book blogging

fifth-birthday

A significant milestone this week – the fifth anniversary of this blog. And a chance to look back over the last few years and appreciate just how far I’ve progressed. Not that I am claiming to be an expert now ; in fact I still feel I am wearing my ‘learner’ plates; but  I’ve definitely made progress. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned along the five-year journey….

Lesson 1: Avoid the ‘Build it and they will come’ mentality: I was disappointed in the first year that my posts didn’t attract many viewers or comments. I would look at other blogs and get envious at the response their content attracted. It took a while for the penny to drop that the world wasn’t exactly waiting with breathless anticipation for my thoughts on a Booker prize-winning novel. In other words that I couldn’t just publish something and expect everyone to rush to read and comment.  I’d have to work at it; I would need to engage more myself with other bloggers. It wasn’t until I began connecting with other bloggers, commenting on their posts and joining a few challenges, that things began to change.

Lesson 2: Add new content regularly: One of the questions most commonly asked of blog experts is “how often should I post new content’.  Not surprisingly the answer is usually “it depends.” By which they mean it depends on how much you have to say about your particular topic and what you think is your readers’ appetite for hearing from you. I’ve seen some blogs – usually ones which review products like cameras or software, which are updated everyday and sometimes even more than once a day. Equally I’ve come across blogs which just get updated once a month. The more common approach it seems is to go for three or four new pieces a week. When I first started I knew nothing about these best practices. I just posted when I had something to say – which was essentially once a week. But over time that’s changed. I no longer have to scratch my head to think of subjectsI want to write about and actually have a list of potential topics that I keep updating when new ideas come to mind (usually at the most inconvenient times like when I am driving and its too dangerous to start searching for pen and paper).  Even so I’m also conscious that it’s easy to overdo the content and irritate readers who are busy people and don’t have time to read multiple postings from me. Nor frankly do I have the time to do much more right now. Ideally I go for three posts a week but if some weeks that goes down to two, I can’t imagine anyone will cry.

Lesson 3: A blog is not just for Christmas. I’m sure you’ve seen ads with the slogan “a dog isn’t just for Christmas” aimed at people who bow to pressure from their kids to buy a puppy only to find the novelty wears off after a few weeks. But the poor animal still needs feeding, walking, cleaning etc. And so it is with a blog. It needs regular nourishment in the form of new content. If  needs to feel love through regular interaction; acknowledgements that people have taken the time and trouble to leave a comment so you should respond accordingly. And it needs regular maintenance – checking web links are still active for example, and archives are up to date. The key lesson for me in recent years is just how much time it all takes – and that doesn’t include the time to check out other people’s blogs and comment on their content…..

Lesson 4: Find your own voice. I mentioned last week that I’ve been doing some spring cleaning on the site (you can find that post here), visiting some old content and doing a refresh. Reading again those posts from five years ago has been a salutory experience. They were well written in the sense that were grammatical. But oh so dull and worthy. They don’t sound like me at all. Maybe some people right from the off have a unique style that reflects their personality but for me it’s taken a while to stop sounding like a professor and more like someone you could have a chat with about books. There’s a long way to go yet to achieve the tone I’d like but at least I no longer cringe when I read my posts.

Lesson 5: Stick to what you love

Creating the blog marked my entry into an entirely new world, one which had its own vocabulary. Readathon, meme, TBR: all foreign concepts to me. Fortunately there were a few kind people around who took pity on me and explained the new jargon. I must admit I got carried away for a time, joining multiple challenges and latching on to every new idea that came my way. It was fun initially but then began to feel that the blog was no longer my  space, it was being driven not by me but by the need to keep up with external events. Instead of writing what I wanted to write about I was answering prompts from challenges and readathons etc. Gradually I’ve been weaning myself off these. I still do a few memes like the Sunday Salon, Top Ten Tuesday and Six Degrees of Separation but only when I feel like doing them not because I am slavishly pedalling away on a treadmill. If a particular prompt doesn’t interest me then I let it go. In short I will do only what I enjoy doing.

And the future?

There is still so much about blogging I don’t understand (like HTML) and many best practices  I have yet to put into use like search engine optimisation. I’m also still vacillating on whether to go for a self hosted site to give even more flexibility in how the blog looks. So plenty for me to focus on for the next five years.

What lessons have you learned while blogging?

Whether you’ve been blogging for 1 year, or 5 or 10, I’m confident you’ve learned some lessons along the way. So do share via the comments option – what’s been your biggest learning experience? What do you want to learn next?

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey #Bookerprize

oscar-and-lucinda

It begins in Devon with Christmas pudding plucked from a child’s mouth by his beloved though sternly Evengelical father. It ends with a glass church floating on a barge along a river in the Australian outback. What lies between is a marvellously idiosyncratic tale of two misfits: a gangly, nervous clergyman called Oscar Hopkins (nicknamed ‘Odd Bod’)  and a frustrated, unconventional heiress called Lucinda Leplastrier.

Oscar and Lucinda, Peter Carey’s Booker prize winning novel from 1988, is a love story in which these two unlikely partners-in-life stumble their way to a relationship. Chance brings them together: a toss of a coin convinces Oscar that God is calling him to be a missionary in New South Wales. On board the ship taking him away from from England he goes to Lucinda’s state-room to hear her confession and discovers their shared passion for gambling. In Lucinda’s cabin the two experience a kind of euphoria, playing poker together for penny stakes. Chance also threatens to drive them apart: to prove his love, Oscar wagers he can transport a glass church built in Lucinda’s glass manufacturing factory through unchartered terrain and erected  on her behalf in a remote bush settlement. It’s a foolish proposition – though breathlessly stunning in appearance,  a ‘crystal-pure bat-winged structure’, its cast-iron framework and glass sheets weigh more than thirty hundredweight. Readers who by this stage of the book is well aware of Oscar’s ineptitude at most things, wouldn’t trust him with such a mission. But Lucinda is a girl in love so she stakes her fortune on his success. The results are unexpected – having set readers on a breadcrumb trail with an unnamed narrator who declares he is the great-grandson of Oscar, Peter Carey springs a surprise about this lineage in the book’s denouement.

Oscar and Lucinda is an episodic novel related in 111 short chapters that chart Oscar’s and Lucinda’s lives with many digressions that introduce a host of minor, odd yet credible, characters. Peter Carey delineates their physical characteristics and their personalities so magnificently that they linger long in the imagination. Oscar himself is a magnificently-drawn character. Scarecrow thin with a triangular face, frizzy red hair “which grew outwards, horizontal like a windblown tree in an Italianate painting…” and a nervous habit which made him unable to ever sit still. He also has a morbid fear of the sea:

It smelt of death to him.  When he thought about this ‘death’, it was not as a single thing you could label with a single word.  It was not a discreet entity.  It fractured and flew apart, it swarmed like fish, splintered like glass.

This fear provides one of the most telling scenes in the novel where, all other attempts to get him up the gangway having failed, his friends and father have to resort to a cage used to load the animals on board for the voyage to Australia . Oscar is clearly a man trapped by his own nature, a theme repeated towards the end of the novel where he is towed up river inside the church.

The man inside the church waved his hands, gestures which appeared … to be mysterious, even magical, but which, inside the crystal furnace of the church, had the simple function of repelling the large and frightening insects which had become imprisoned there.

They flew against the glass in panic. They had the wrong intelligence to grasp the nature of glass. They based against ‘nothing’ as if they were created only to demonstrate to Oscar Hopkins the limitations of his own understanding, his ignorance of God, and that the walls of hell itself might be made of something like this, unimaginable, contradictory, impossible.

Even more vivid for me was the portrait of Mrs Stratton, the indomitable wife of an Anglican vicar, she loves nothing more than a good theological argument. Introduce a question on the merits of the Nicine Creed versus the Athanasian Creed or the nature of divine grace and she’s off ….

She sought the high ground, then abandoned it. She plunged into ditches and trotted proudly across bright green valleys. She set up her question, then knocked it down – she argued that her own question was incorrect. She set alight to it and watched it burn.

Oscar and Lucinda is a novel where the plot and characters get a bit fantastic at times but one where I couldn’t help but get swept along, eagerly wanting to know what happens next. It’s a novel which could frustrate the hell out of people who prefer novels that go from A to B in a direct line and don’t want too many themes and ideas. But for readers who love oddities and  playfulness yet also appreciate a narrative of sensibilities, I hope this will be as much of a joy for them to read as it was for me. This has now gone down as one of my favourites among all the Booker prize winners.

Footnotes

The Book: Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey was published by Faber and Faber in 1988. My paperback edition is from 1997.

The Author:  Peter Carey was born in Australia. He worked in advertising for many years while trying to build a career as a novelist. He is one of the few people to win the Man Booker Prize twice – with Oscar and Lucinda and The True History of the Kelly Gang. There is a fascinating interview with him in the Paris Review in which he talks about the frustrations of trying to get his first fiction efforts published and his writing process.

Why I read this book:  This was one of the 12 Booker prize winning titles remaining to be read in my Booker Prize project. I moved it to the top of my list on the recommendations of our experts on authors from ANZ: Whispering Gums and ANZlovers .

 

Love between the book covers

love-collageIt being Valentine’s Day today, the theme for Top Ten Tuesday hosted by the Broke and Bookish is naturally love. It’s an emotion which comes in many guises. Here’s a list of ten different depictions of love in fiction that I’ve enjoyed over the years. Links are to my reviews where the book is one I’ve read in the last five years.

Young love: Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.  Adolescent/teenage love is the mainstay of a lot of young adult fiction but that’s not a genre I read. So my choice is from the pen of a man whose ability to tap into human emotions would be difficult to surpass. Romeo and Juliet is probably the most famous love story in the English literary tradition. It’s a play about intense passion where love is a violent, ecstatic, overpowering force that supersedes all other values, loyalties, and emotions.

In their first meeting we see all the wonder and yet doubts of early love:

Dost thou love me? I know thou wilt say ‘Ay,’
And I will take thy word: yet if thou swear’st,
Thou mayst prove false; at lovers’ perjuries
Then say, Jove laughs. O gentle Romeo,
If thou dost love, pronounce it faithfully:
Or if thou think’st I am too quickly won,
I’ll frown and be perverse an say thee nay,
So thou wilt woo:

But Shakespeare doesn’t give us a hearts and flowers, happy ever after version of love, but the kind where love overpowers all other considerations and sets the participants against the world – in the course of the play, the young lovers are driven to defy their families, friends and their ruler.

Mature love: Anthony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare.  Passion isn’t confined to the youngsters, nor does love get any easier with age. In Anthony and Cleopatra Shakespeare shows the two principal characters at war with each other and with themselves. Throughout the play emotion is constantly in battle with reason. In their first exchange the two argue whether their love can be put into words or does it transcend reason.

CLEOPATRA: If it be love indeed, tell me how much.
ANTONY: There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned.
CLEOPATRA: I’ll set a bourn how far to be beloved.
ANTONY: Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth.

Anthony may be a military hero and an esteemed statesman but he cannot help be swept along by the force of Cleopatra’s character, even at the cost of his cherished honour and, ultimately, his life.

Jealous love: The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. Greene is a master of storytelling involving tortured souls. In this moving tale of adultery and its aftermath, Maurice Bendrix, falls in love with his neighbour’s wife, Sarah. She suddenly breaks off the affair, leaving him wracked with anger and jealousy that she continues to live with her husband.  The reason for her actions becomes apparent only later in the novel. It’s a superb and compelling portrait of an illicit love affair that one person cannot accept is over.

Unrequited love: Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan. I challenge anyone to read this and not feel desperately sorry for Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting. They are young, newly-wedded and are on their honeymoon. But their first night together goes disastrously wrong. They try to reconcile but angry words are exchanged from which there seems no way back.

Thawrted love: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh.  Charles Ryder, who narrates this novel, comes from a wealthy but emotionally bankrupt family. Befriended at Oxford by the wealthy Lord Sebastian Flyte, Charles is introduced to an eccentric set of friends, to Sebastian’s socialite sister Julia and their ancestral home at Brideshead Castle. Years later Julia and Charles, now both married, embark on an affair and plan to marry. But Julia suddenly realises she cannot turn her back on her strict Catholic upbringing. To marry Charles would be a sin so she abandons him. Charles, who has always struck me as a bit of a cold fish, is forced to confront his emotions.

Parental love: Silas Marner by George Eliot. You can find a multitude of books on the theme of motherly love but not as many featuring paternal love. In Eliot’s novel, the weaver Silas Marner is thrown out of his Calvinist community having been (falsely) accused of stealing their funds.  He makes his new home in the village of Raveloe, becoming a recluse who devotes himself entirely to his weaving and to hoarding money. His life changes when a small child finds her way to his door in a snowstorm. Silas keeps her and raises her as his daughter. Through the strong bond he forms with the girl, he finds a place in the rural society and a new purpose in life.

Destructive loveMedea by Euripedes. A more perfect example of ‘hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’ it would be hard to find than Medea. Abandoned by her husband who fancies a younger model, she plots revenge. Does she throw all his clothes out of the window? Stalk him? Send notes to his new wife telling her what he’s really like? No, all too easy for this tempestuous woman.  Poison and the dagger are her weapons of choice and she’s not afraid to use them even if it means innocent people must also die.

Female love: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. I had no idea what this novel was about when my mother recommended it as a novel her book club had enjoyed. I’ve never met her book club chums but I imagined them as ladies in their seventies whose reading tastes would be conservative. Once I realised that it featured a hot-blooded love affair between two women, I had to completely revise my thinking.

Obsessional love: The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch.  This a great example of what can happen when you believe – mistakenly -that someone loves you. Charles Arrowby retires from his glittering theatrical career, to a house on the coast. He discovers that opne of his first girlfriends lives in the nearby village. He gets the idea that she still loves him and needs to be rescued from her unhappy marriage despite the fact she doesn’t give him any indication she is either unhappy or in love with Charles. But he is not a man to give up once he gets an idea in his head so sets about kidnapping her.  It’s an ill-thought out plan that crumbles but not before damage is done.

Murderous loveThérèse  Raquin by Emile Zola.  Zola’s heroine is unhappily married to a sickly and selfish railway worker when she embarks on a turbulent and sordidly passionate affair with one of friends. The two lovers plot to kill the husband. But what thought was the solution to the problem, proves to be just the start of a nightmare. Haunted by the memory of the murder they suffer hallucinations of the dead man, seeing him in their bedroom every night, preventing them from touching each other and quickly driving them insane.

 

 

Spring-cleaning the blogsite

springcleaningI know officially we are still in winter in the northern hemisphere so it might be a little premature to think about spring-cleaning. And indeed I’m nowhere ready to throw open all doors and windows into the house to let in the clean air which was my grandmother’s preparation for cleaning the house top to bottom. It’s far too cold right now for that kind of malarkey.  But with the fifth anniversary of this blog imminent it feels the right time to do a bit of a dust and polish of the site. I’ve also been goaded into action by some tips shared via a podcast I follow called Pro-Blogger which has some useful advice on how to make your blog more effective.

I’m gradually working my way through all the 100-plus editions of the podcast. Some are not relevant because they are designed for people who want to monetise their site or have a self-hosted domain. But one piece of advice I’ve started to follow is about improving old content.

Darren, the guy behind Pro-Blogger says he has a weekly habit to revisit old posts and assess if they can be improved – maybe redirecting links to more recent content, adding new ones or updating the content with more current information.   His point is a few minutes spent on tweaks can mean readers get a better experience of the site. Plus each time you refresh the page, it is crawled by Google so you get more chance your site will be included in search engine results.

I’ve started with my posts from year one of the blog. What an eye-opener that has been. When I started back in 2012 I really didn’t know a) how to blog b)how to write a good review. So the early posts were very insubstantial. No links, no formatting of text to help guide readers around the page more easily, no photos to break up the text. These are all changes I’ve been making over the past week. I’ve also changed categories, tags and headings. Often I’m making small cosmetic changes such as ensuring consistency in the format and colour used for headings and book titles. I don’t want to alter the actual content unless I think a reader would get to the end of it and wonder why they bothered wasting their time. So with a few of them got more of an overhaul – like my first Booker prize title review The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens where I combined the review with some earlier published content about the author.

I’ll finish 2012 by the end of the week and then move onto the next 12 months. It’s something I can do easily in about 20 minutes per post and watch TV at the same time.

One positive thing has come out of this exercise – it’s shown me than in five years though I still consider myself to be still very much a learner, I have definitely improved.

How are your blogging skills?

Though I’ve learned a lot in the last five years there are still aspects of blogging that mystify me so I’ve been making a conscious effort to learn how to fix issues and some new techniques. What have you learned recently that has made a difference to your own blogging?

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome [review]

 

swallows_amazonsSwallows and Amazons was the first title in Arthur Ransome’s classic series of 12 novels written between 1929 and 1934. It introduces the Walker children, John, Susan, Titty and Roger (the Swallows), the camp they create on Wild Cat island and their adventures with the two intrepid Blackett sisters (the Amazons). Ransome, who was a journalist with the Manchester Guardian, was inspired to write the book after a summer spent giving sailing lessons to the children of some friends. His novel relates the outdoor adventures and play of the two sets of children who are spending the summer holidays in the Lake District. Initially ‘enemies’ the Swallows and the Amazons enjoy a few skirmishes until they agree to band together against a common foe – the Blacketts’ uncle James whom they call “Captain Flint” who angers them by thinking them responsible for the theft of his precious trunk. But of course, since this is a book intended for child readers, all must come right in the end. Mistakes are set right, apologies given, the children become firm friends with Captain Flint and all resolve to meet again the following summer.

I never read Swallows and Amazons as a child – in fact I never heard the title mentioned even among any of my friends. But it was a set text on my children’s literature course so in I plunged. I admit that, despite the fact it was voted in a 2003 BBC poll as one of the nation’s favourite reads,  I didn’t warm to this book initially. It contained far too much about the mechanics of sailing in which I have little interest. But once I’d got over that barrier I began to appreciate this tale of a bunch of children who get to go off on adventures without too much interference from adults.

It’s a novel in the long tradition of ‘island stories’ but instead of travelling to far off places and encountering pirates as the kids do in Treasure Island for example, the children here base their adventures on a small island in  one of the Lake District’s lakes (some local experts claim it’s Lake Windermere, others that it’s Coniston Water.) Influenced by their reading of Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island the Walker children and the Blackett girls let their imaginations roam free.  Adults are transformed into ‘natives’, the map of the lake is re-drawn with their own names assigned to its inlets and bays,  the fish they catch become ‘sharks’ and the pebbles for which they dive are ‘pearls’. They eat some odd sounding meals – it took me a while to work out that the ingredient they call pemmican is something like SPAM – but they are not so far away from civilisation that they miss out on cakes and other treats from their mother and the nearby farm.

The more I read of their invented world, the more I recalled some of the adventures I had with my large group of cousins during our own school holidays, leaving the house just after breakfast and sometimes not returning until it was time for tea. In between we roamed the hillsides building dens to ward off imaginary invaders sustained with some wild berries we managed to forage. For the children of Swallows and Amazons their adventures provide a form of education. They learn practical skills like how to handle the dinghy or how to cook on a camp fire but they also learn a lesson in life – the importance of not taking things at face value and of valuing other people’s property. It has a clear didactic element but it’s handled fairly lightly (certainly in comparison to Little Women!).

On the whole, though I wouldn’t want to read any more in the series, this was a fun read and I found I could easily skip the details about sailing. I loved the way it sparked memories of my own childhood – I wonder whether kids today still make up their own imaginary worlds or has this become a victim of the easy availability of virtual reality and gaming?

Footnotes

The Book: Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome was published in 1930. So popular has it proved over the year that multiple TV and film adaptations have been issued, including one by Harbour Pictures and BBC Films in 2016. (it attracted criticism because out of some odd idea of sensitivity, one character’s name was changed from Titty to Tilly).

 

The Author: Arthur Ransome was born in Leeds but spent large parts of his childhood in the Lake District, using that detailed knowledge to inform his novels. Ransome had already written 20 novels but it wasn’t until third of the Swallows and Amazons series was published did he achieve commercial and critical success.  After the success of his first Swallows and Amazons novel he gave up his journalist career and devoted himselfto to writing adventure stories for children.  The  Arthur Ransome Trust set up to honour his work, continues to operate today, providing children with some of the same experiences as the children in his novels.

Why I read this book: Quite simply I wouldn’t have read it if it hadn’t been a set text for my children’s literature course.

The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra [review]

swallows-of-kabul-montageThe Swallows of Kabul is not a novel which makes for comfortable reading. How can it be otherwise when it opens with the public execution of a woman in which one of the characters, a man who has hitherto shown no propensity for anything other than goodness, finds himself picking up a stone and joining in? This kind of heightened emotion is much in evidence in the rest of this novel, often born out of the despair of people who try to exist (live would be too strong a word) in a world controlled by the Taliban.

Yasmina Khadra takes us deep into the heart of the city of Kabul “a city in an advanced stage of decomposition” and into the lives of two couples. Moshen, the son of wealthy grocers, and his beautiful wife Zunaira have found their freedom and their hopes shattered. He can no longer aspire to become a diplomat while she, once a magistrate and a champion for women’s rights,  stays at home unwilling to comply with the requirement she is veiled whenever in public.

Explaining her resistance to the burqa, Zunaira tells her husband:

Of all the burdens that have put on us, that is the most degrading. The Shirt of Nessus wouldn’t do as much damage to my dignity as that wretched getup. It cancels my face and takes away my identity and turns me into an object. … If I put that damned veil on I’m neither a human being nor an animal, I’m just an affront, a disgrace, a blemish that has to be hidden. That’s too hard to deal with. Especially for someone who was a lawyer, who worked for women’s rights. Don’t ask me to give up my name, my features, the color of my eyes, and the shape of my lips so I can walk through squalor and desolation.

One day, her husband makes a special appeal that she put aside her reservations so they can go out together and rekindle their evening walks from the old days. These were the days he recalls when “the windows of the larger stores didn’t have much to offer, but no one came up to you and struck you in the face with a whip”. Swayed by his love she does put on her burqa and goes out into the streets – but the result is disastrous.

Elsewhere in the city the ex-mujahedin Atiq Shaukat at least has a job though his soul is being nibbled away by his work guarding those who are condemned to death. Life is no better at home: his wife Musarrat suffers from an illness it seems no doctor can identify let alone cure and they live in a hovel. From separate sides of the city, the lives of these four intersect.

I think my appreciation of The Swallows of Kabul was much higher at the start than by the end.  Khadra vividly evokes a country reeling from war. Afghanistan’s countryside,” declares the narrator, “is nothing but battlefields, expanses of sand, and cemeteries.  Ruination is everywhere. Former soldiers who fought during the Soviet occupation huddle outside the Mosque, retelling stories of their former campaigns and heroism that cost them some of their limbs.  The city’s elderly people have become beggars gathering like ravenous dogs outside homes where charitable citizens leave a few grains of rice for the destitute. Taliban thugs roam the streets with whips.  The penalty for truth is death. Death has become a form of entertainment.

Khadra tries to penetrate under the skin of this beseiged city and into the souls of its women who once  “pirouetted in their perfumes like gusts of warm air” but are now reduced to walking in their husband’s shadows. And to some extent it works. Despite the atmosphere of  unremitting gloom and despondency I did feel that I was getting a glimpse of how obsession with an ideology can destroy lives.  But this didn’t overcome my reservations about the final stages of the novel which see Atiq fall so desperately, hopelessly in love that he puts his life at risk. Without revealing the exact nature of his actions which would spoil the novel for other readers, all I can say is that Khadra asks us to believe that the man is so besotted he loses all reason. This is a man who, admittedly had come to hate his job, but I couldn’t buy into the idea that he would make his passion so evident that he would risk questions from the Taliban. Nor could I buy into the idea that his hitherto non-descript and silent wife would summon enough courage to give him a way out by putting herself forward as a sacrificial lamb.

I wanted to like The Swallows of Kabul more than I did. I see there are some rather mixed reviews of it elsewhere with The Guardian and Kim at Reading Matters having a higher opinion than I did while Lisa at ANZLitLovers blog admitted she really disliked the book. Click on the links to see their thoughts.

Footnotes

The Book: The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra was published in 2004 by William Heinemann. My edition is in paperback from Vintage Books 2005. Translation from the French is by John Cullen.

The Author: Yasmina Khadra is the pen-name of an Algerian army officer who adopted a feminine name to avoid censorship by the army. The Swallows of Kabul is his third novel. You can hear him read an extract from the novel on the BBC World Service World Book Club site

Why I read this book: I bought this when I embarked on my world literature project  where I intended to read novels by authors from 50 different countries in the world. This was selected to represent Algeria. 

Dominion by C.J.Sansom [review]

dominion-collageC.J Sansom took a gamble with his political thriller Dominion in which he imagines a world where, having failed to defeat the Nazi regime, Great Britain becomes one of Germany’s subject territories.  The idea wasn’t entirely new – Len Deighton based his 1978 novel SS-GB (shortly to become a BBC drama series) on a similar premise so Sansom needed to come up with an additional sparkle.

He did so with a further gamble – using some historical figures as members of the new puppet regime and thus effectively positioning people like Lord Beaverbrook, Marie Stopes and Oswald Mosely as collaborators. Although he was never at risk of defamation claims needless to say his approach proved controversial when the novel was published in 2012 and readers saw how Stopes had been portrayed as a contributor to the Ministry of Health’s programme for eugenic sterilisation and the newspaper tycoon Beaverbrook as a meglomaniac  Prime Minister.

Sansom sets his adventure in 1952 when Britain has been subjected to Nazi rule  for 12 years. Some aspects of life have changed – Lyon’s Corner Houses have been rebranded for example to remove vestiges of their Jewish origins,  an enormous picture of Hitler hangs in the lobby of the National Portrait Gallery and critics of the regime such as W.H. Auden and E.M. Forster, have been silenced. Though Britain is not an occupied country, the Gestapo and the SS are evident, working closely with Special Branch and the new Auxiliary Police to rout out members of the growing Resistance movement led by Winston Churchill. Sansom doesn’t tiptoe around the fact that there is a considerable level of anti-Semitism in the country though the moderates are distressed when British Jews are rounded up in preparation it is believed for deportation to German camps.

It’s a very credible scenario due largely to Sansom’s credentials as a trained historian – he meticulously documents his extensive research at the back of the novel with his bibliography  detailing all the books which have influenced the final novel.  The result is as believable as the world of the Tudor monarchy he created for his Shardlake series of historical crime fiction.

But Dominion isn’t purely an alternative history novel;  it’s a thriller based on that old chestnut of a man with a secret who is on the run from various factions who either want him silenced or want the secret for themselves. The man on the run in Dominion is an unlikely hero figure – an unassuming geologist by the name of Frank Muncaster who is incarcerated in a mental asylum near Birmingham after learning a secret that the Germans and Americans dearly want because it will give them the edge in the race for a nuclear weapon. The Resistance deploys their extensive network of resources to spring him from the asylum, and get him to the east coast for a rendezvous with an American submarine. One of Frank’s university friends, David Fitzgerald, a civil servant acting as a spy for the Resistance, is despatched in a race against time. Will he save Frank before the Gestapo’s ace man-hunter Sturmbannfuhrer Gunther Hothform reaches him?

Much of this novel is a pretty typical thriller of co-incidences, chases, narrow escapes and unlikely plot devices. I lost track of the number of times characters declared it was unsafe to share information except on a need to know basis yet seemed very lax with details about their own identities when it suited the plot.  I could tolerate most of these as par for the course with this genre but I was more concerned by the clunky characters and uninspiring dialogue. David Fitzgerald and Gunter Hothform are two of the few fully-formed characters (the women are less fully realised than the men) but they are surrounded by characters who seem to exist primarily for the purposes of exposition or to enable Shardlake to show a point of view. Fair enough to want to illustrate how the British population was divided in their attitudes but much of the resulting narrative reads like a summary of a pamphlet. Discussions about the Jewish situation are natural given the setting and topic of the novel but Sansom also introduces a key theme of nationalism and the merits of giving independence to members of the British Empire like India. Sansom’s own view becomes evident when at one point he has a character declare:

Whenever a party tells you national identity matters more than anything else in politics, that nationalism can sort out all the other problems, then watch out, because you’re on a road that can end with fascism.

That Sansom is using Dominion to make a political point becomes ever more evident and is reinforced by his historical note at the end of the novel. In it he expresses deep concern about the growth of nationalist parties like UKIP and the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP). The SNP is, in his view, a threat to all of Britain with their tendency to shift political ground in favour of whatever policies will bring independence regardless of the consequences. He was writing of course on the eve of the 2016 Scottish Referendum but makes no secret of his own views on how the Scottish population should vote.

If this book can persuade even one person of the dangers of nationalist politics in Scotland as in the rest of Europe, and vote ‘no’ in the referendum … it will have made the whole labour worthwhile.

One wonders what he makes of President Trump. Somehow I can’t seem them becoming best chums……

Footnotes

The Book: Dominion by C. J Sansom was published by Mantle in 2012. My edition is a paperback from 2013. 

The Author:  Christopher John Sansom hails from Scotland. He read history at Birmingham university and, after a PhD thesis on the British Labour party’s policy towards South Africa between the wars, left academia for a career in the law. His first novel – Dissolution which introduced the hunchback detective Shardlake – was published in 2003.

Why I read this book:  I’ve read and enjoyed four of the Shardlake novels and knew this was an author who could be relied upon to bring the past to life.  I was curious whether he could be as effective when portraying the twentieth century as he has been with the sixteenth. 

My reviews of Sovereign, Dissolution, Dark Fire and Lamentation  can be viewed by clicking the links. 

 

Snapshot February 2017

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Another episode in my series where I take a snapshot of my reading life on the first day of each month. It’s a way of keeping track of the year though there is little chance I will forget February 1, 2017. It’s the day I came home from hospital to begin a 12 week program of recovery from liver surgery. The next few months are going to be rather challenging. Either I will throttle my husband because he’s such a bad nurse or he will throttle me because I am a totally impossible patient. Joking aside though, despite the excellent care from the medical and nursing teams at the hospital, it is wonderful to be home  and in my own bed.

Reading

dominionOne of the essential tasks for my hospital stay was to select the books I would take with me. Note the plural there. I fully expected to be spending hours unable to do anything other than have my nose in a book so of course needed several options. Since hospital wards are not known for their storage space I constrained myself to two initially – the 600-plus page alternative history thriller Dominion by C. J Sansom and A Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer. But I put aside a pile of another 8 books for my husband to bring with him on his daily visits. What was I the-time-travelers-guidethinking of??? Hospitals are no more suited to reading than jet aircraft. Just when you’ve recovered enough to even feel like picking up a book there’s always someone with needle/thermometer/ blood pressure monitor in hand clamouring for attention. After seven nights I hadn’t even got half way through Dominion. Ian Mortimer’s re-creation of the smells and sounds of fourteenth century England was despatched home without being opened.

State of my personal library

One of my goals for 2017 is to enjoy the books I already own and to reign back on acquiring yet more. I started 2017 with 318 unread books ( I thought it was 299 but then discovered my list of ebooks was incorrect) and a plan to hold off from adding to that number for the first six months of the year. I was doing extremely well up until the end of January, finishing six books from my shelves and managing to resist the temptation of a local library sale and daily promotions from booksellers. But then my sister turned up in hospital having bought me three books so now as of Feb I, the personal library stands at 315 – a net improvement of just 3. Of the books I read in January, the stand out was Narcopolis by Jeet Thayli, a Booker prize shortlisted title that was an intense experience.

Wishing for…

My self imposed restriction on book buying hasn’t stopped me from adding new titles to my Goodreads wishlist. Additions in January included a biography: Charlotte Bronte: a Fiery Heart by Claire Harman; Human Acts by Han Kang (though I have yet to read her earlier novel The Vegetarian) and a Japanese crime thriller The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino and a book I keep seeing reviewed in a very positive way:  A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.

 

 

Taking a break

patient-careBooker Talk is going to be rather quiet for the next few weeks since I am going into hospital tomorrow for some rather extensive surgery. Even if there is a reliable Internet/WIFI connection in the hospital I don’t expect to be in the frame of mind or physical condition for blogging etc.

I had grand plans to write some blog posts in advance to keep you amused. But they never got beyond the planning stage. I’m sure you will manage perfectly fine without me however. I just wanted you to know in case you were wondering why I am not replying to your comments. I promise it’s not that I don’t love you any more. Normal service will resume soon I hope.

Around the world in 10 books

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday hosted by Broke and Bookish gives me carte blanche to write about anything that takes my fancy. I know many bloggers and readers have a goal this year to broaden their reading horizons by selecting authors from different parts of the world. I’ve been making slow but steady progress down that path for the last few years so I thought this week I would take you all on my reading journey via 10 books I’ve discovered. I’ve selected novels that either a strong sense of the country or culture or that provide an insight into its history.

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We start our journey in Asia …

  • India: I had so much choice here. In the end it was a toss up between Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry or The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee. Mistry takes us into the heart of Mumbai at a time (1971) when the country was in the midst of internal upheaval and the Prime Minister uses her secret police to undermine the forces that threaten to disrupt the whole fabric of India. In the end I plumped for The Lives of Others which takes a similar path of portraying a family caught up in political turbulence. Mukherjee’s tale takes place a decade earlier than Mistry’s novel at a time when Communist forces were trying to de-stablise the country. I chose this novel because I had no idea about that aspect of India’s history but I also enjoyed the way Mukerjee showed how the breakdown in the political world was mirrored by a breakdown in the structure of one family.
  • Japan: Norwegian Wood by Murakami Huraki is an exquisitely written novel about love and despair but I chose this because it portrayed a different side of life in Japan. This is not the Japan of kimonos and geishas, of rituals and codes of behaviour but a world seen through the eyes of its young people. Huraki sets much of this novel in Tokyo in 1969, taking us through the student world of late night bars and all night cinemas with not a karoke microphone in sight.
  • China: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Saijie. I knew before reading this novella that intellectuals were considered abhorrent by the Maoist regime in the 1970s and often lost their lives as a result. But I didn’t know that the regime also tried to ‘re-educate’ them by sending them off to live with the peasants in the countryside. Saijie’s novel follows two young boys despatched to a remote village where instead of being cleansed of all tainted ideas, they instead discover new ones through the novels of Balzac, Hugo and Flaubert that they have to hide from the authorities.

Let’s pick up our suitcases and make a brief stop in South America  …

  • Colombia: The Armies by Evelio Rosero Diago. As you sip your next cup of coffee spare a few moments to think about the country from which many of those beans originate. Diago’s novel is set at a time when citizens of Colombia live in fear of armed gangs and drug dealers who hide out in the hills. They may be killed or they may have been made to ‘disappear’. This is what Ismael −a retired teacher – fears has happened to his wife when he returns home to find the place deserted. The result is a deeply moving story about a man who cannot seek safety for himself until he knows the truth about his wife.

And now we’re en route to Africa …

  • South Africa:  I was tempted to go for Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, a classic text set just before the introduction of apartheid but decided instead on a book that shows a completely different side of the country. Fiela’s Child  by Dalene Matthee is set well before the apartheid era but the issue of colour is still very much part of this novel about a white boy who goes missing from his woodcutter family and is found many years later living as the child of a native family. It’s a story that poses a question of which bond is stronger – that of the birth family or the family who raise and nurture the child?
  • Republic of the Congo: Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou. This short novel brings some light relief from the serious issues with which a lot of African fiction is concerned. It’s set in a seedy bar and features the host of characters to be found propping up the bar and boring the pants off the other customers with their hard luck stories. In between we get some insights into their thoughts on life in the Congo, the delusional nature of the nation’s male population and the distrust of politicians and the nature of African politicians. It’s great fun to read and to try and spot Mabanckou’s numerous allusions to other texts.

And finally we land in Europe …

  • Finland: White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen. Until I picked this up from the Pereine Press catalogue I had no idea that Finland had experienced a devastating famine in the late 1860s. This novella holds nothing back in relating the misery caused by that event and the desperate lengths to which its citizens will go to save themselves. One of them – a peasant farmer’s wife from the north – is the focus of the novel. She abandons her dying husband and sets off on foot through waist-high snow with her two young children. You read this with a sense of dread about what awaits her.
  • Hungary:  Satantango by László Krasznahorkai. This is an equally grim though fascinating book which exposes the way evil materialises to take advantage of poor and desperate peasants already suffering the misery of an oppressive political regime. Not a book that will make you happy but it will certainly make you thankful not to be living under such a regime.
  • France:  L’Assommoir by Emile Zola. Paris, the ‘city of lights’,  had its dark  side in the nineteenth century. Behind the magnificent facades and glittering wealth were people living in abject poverty amid open sewers and overflowing drains. They dreamed of a different life but – according to Zola’s theory of naturalism – their inherited flaws of character or the environment around them would always bring them down. Zola always bases his novels on meticulous research so you can be sure all the detail of living conditions is far from exaggerated.
  • Italy: Inspector Montelbano series by Andrea Camilleri. I’m going to end with something which could be considered light reading compared to most of the titles in this list. Ask people to name anything associated with Italy and though some will mention ‘art’, ‘heritage’ it won’t be too long before you hear ‘wine’ and ‘pasta.’  Food and Italy are inseparable  which probably explains why Andrea Camilleri devotes so much time to describing the meals eaten by his lead character Inspector Montelbano. Few pages go by without a scene where the Inspector pops into his favourite trattoria for lunch – not for him your typical working day lunch of a sandwich while sat at the computer. This is a full blown three course affair. When he gets home at the end of a long day chasing criminals it’s to find his housekeeper has prepared him something delicious for supper. Camilleri is pretty mean to his readers by listing all these fabulous sounding meals but the tourist board of Sicily must be thrilled because the Montelbano books are guaranteed to make you want to dig out that passport and head for the island.
How are your reading travels going?

If you also are trying to broaden your reading this year, do share your experience. Perhaps you found some other gems for the countries I’ve mentioned. If you need inspiration take a look at the recommendations of bloggers who have written guest posts about the literature from their country – you’ll find them all on the View from Here page.

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