Category Archives: Book Reviews
The Flying Man by Roopa Farooki
Roopa Farooki’s fifth novel The Flying Man is a strange one. It’s a brave author who attempts to win sympathy for a protagonist who is anything but likeable. It’s a gamble that didn’t quite pay off.
The eponymous flying man – so called because of his habit of flitting from one country to another – is Maqil Karamis, charlatan and fraudster extraordinaire. He keeps one step ahead of detection by adopting new identities and moving his base of operation. One time political activist, playwright and journalist, he morphs into a gambler, businessman, fraudster and thief.
Despite the light-hearted tone of Farooki’s narrative, Maqil isn’t the kind of rogue for whom you can have even a sneaking admiration because, with each new assumed identity, he leaves behind a trail of abandoned wives and children.
This is a man who seems perpetually in flight.
In his youth he flees from what he views as the stultifying conventionality of his family home in Pakistan, preferring the freedom of life as a student in New York. He arrives with three identities: Maqil to his family; Sonny to his mother and Sunny to his father.
But “let loose in the Land of the Free … ” he quickly assumes a fourth more enigmatic identity as MSK, “the campus international man of mystery.” Even this isn’t enough for him and he tries on more ‘costumes’ before deciding he quite likes being Mike Cram “an anonymous man who could be from anywhere.”
Over the course of the book he turns up as Mehmet Khan, Miguel Caram and Mikhail Lee in Paris, Cairo, London and Hong Kong. Along the way he collects three wives, though doesn’t bother with the niceties of divorce. When he’s had enough of the relationship, or the effects of his conniving, fraudulent activities threaten to catch up with him, he just disappears.
Rogue or cad?
The Flying Man verges on being a fun adventure novel but the humour never overcame my general feeling of unease about the sordid way in which Maqil treats his family.
Though he tries to court our sympathy with the occasional moment of self candour, his ‘mea culpa’ isn’t convincing. For this is a man who has made such a success of being a fraud, it’s hard to believe anything he says. I was more in sympathy with his second wife Samira and the twins he abandons, than with this chameleon. He wasn’t a loveable rogue, more of a cad who shies from anything that involves commitment or responsibility.
Maybe I would have been more empathetic if I’d understood more clearly why Maqil had this compulsion to be constantly on the move. But we seldom got deep enough into his personality to discover his motivation beyond a sense that he hates to be bored. Is that enough to make him a believable character? Not in my book. I wanted a fully rounded character but what I got was a shadowy figure that flitted from page to page.
This experience hasn’t put me off reading Roopa Farooki, I just have to find the right book.
The Flying Man: Fast Facts
Roopa Farooki was born in Lahore, Pakistan, but moved with her family to London when she was seven months old. She worked in advertising before she turned to writing fiction full-time.
Her first novel Bitter Sweets was published in the UK in 2007 and shortlisted for the Orange Award for New Writers that year.
The Flying Man, published in January 2012 , was longlisted for the Orange Prize in 2012.
The Jeweller by Caryl Lewis. Translator: Gwen Davies
With The Jeweller award-winning author Caryl Lewis has created a gem of a novel about the despair and longing of a solitary woman.
Mari lives in a small cottage on the edge of a West Wales seaside town, alone but for her pet monkey and photographs of strangers. By day she operates a market stall selling vintage clothing and jewellery collected by clearing the houses of the dead. By night she works on shaping and polishing an emerald so its rare ‘fingerprint’ can be revealed.
In the midst of velvety green was a fingerprint – a bubble of air in a perfect pattern. …. A blooming foliage they called “garden” is quite common in an emerald but a single fingerprint is rare. The inclusion would make the gem easy to break but so lovely if she managed to cut it right.
As she searches for the inner beauty of her gem, Mari also searches for answers about her past. What she eventually discovers transforms her outlook on life and her relationships with the market stall holders who are her only friends. But the journey to a new life requires the loss of the old one, including the pet whose presence has sustained her through her darkest moments.
I loved the way Caryl Lewis shows the close bond between Mari and Nanw, her monkey. Nanw regularly misbehaves, throwing all her toys out of the cage, and driving Mari to distraction with her constant demands for attention. But then when night falls, and it’s just the two of them in the cottage, there is comfort in the monkey’s presence.
Mari lay back on the bed with a happy Nanw, nosetip touching nose, one gaze wrapped in the other’s as though it were a gift shared. Leathery hands combing human hair, both close to sleep.
Nanw’s decline and the effect it has on Mari is a deeply moving and almost mythical episode in the novel. I understood that it marked a watershed in Mari’s life, and that she could not move forward until this part of her life came to an end. And yet I was so rooted in this relationship that a large part of me felt the wrench when it came to an end.
This was the first novel by Caryl Lewis that I’ve read. It captured my attention immediately because Mari is such a richly complex and engaging character. She tries to give this impression that she has everything in her life under control but it’s all a front. She is in reality a desperately sad and vulnerable woman. It’s fortunate that she has in Mo, another market trader, a friend upon whom she can rely.
The Jeweller is beautifully written, with a lyrical quality that is a testament to the skills of Gwen Davies’ translation. If you want to experience this for yourself, read an exclusive extract from the opening of the book.
The Jeweller: Fast Facts
Caryl Lewis is an award-winning Welsh-language author who has published eleven books for adults, three novels for young adults, and thirteen children’s books.
She won the Wales Book of the Year Awards in 2005 with Martha, Jac a Sianco (Martha, Jack and Shanco), and Y Bwthyn (The Cottage) in 2016.
The Jeweller was published in Welsh as Y Gemydd in 2007.
Caryl Lewis has also written extensively for cinema and television. Her credits include the adaptation of Welsh-language scripts for the acclaimed “Nordic Cymru” crime series Hinterland which was produced back-to-back in Welsh and English.
Her short story The Root can be read on line here
On a placid river bank in Devon, tucked away from inquisitive eyes, stands a Georgian mansion once owned by Agatha Christie.
Greenway House was a “dream house” and “the loveliest place in the world” according to Christie. It was a place where ‘The Queen of Crime” could retreat from the public eye and surround herself with family and friends.
Devon itself had a special place in her heart because it was where she was born. She maintained a house there throughout her life although she and her husband also had a home in Berkshire.
She often used her characters to extol the beauty of the region. ‘Devon is so beautiful, those hills and the red cliffs,’ Vera Claythorne says in And Then There Were None.
And the county’s hills, islands and coves inspired the characters and locations of many of her novels. Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple both ventured to the area around Torquay (the town of Christie’s birth) to solve heinous crimes.
Greenway itself featured prominently in the 1956 murder mystery Dead Man’s Folly. In the book it is described as a small, white, one-storey building set back from the road with a small railed garden round it. The internal layout is that of Greenway as are the paths that wander through woodland and gardens down to the riverside quay.
The book’s description is so close to the reality that Greenway was used as the setting of the 2013 television adaptation of Dead Man’s Folly, with David Suchet in his last performance as Poirot.
A Bargain Home That Lasted A Lifetime
Agatha Christie bought Greenway in 1938 when she noticed it was up for sale. In her autobiography she described it as ‘a house that my mother had always said, and I had thought also, was the most perfect of the various properties on the Dart.’
She and her husband, the noted archaeologist, Max Mallowen, went to view the property. It was as idyllic as she remembered from her childhood. The couple were astounded to learn the asking price of £6,000 was so low.
They drove away excited by their visit. She records she told her husband: ’It’s incredibly cheap,’ I said. ‘It’s got 33 acres, it doesn’t look in bad condition either, wants decorating, that’s all.’
Greenway was never Agatha’s primary residence, it was the family holiday retreat—a place where the family gathered for Christmas and Easter, and where she spent her summers. Locally she was always known as Mrs Mallowen .
In 1940, while Mallowan was working for the Anglo-Turkish Relief Committee in London, Agatha Christie used Greenway as her base. The danger presented by German air attacks did not deter her from her work. She wrote to her agent Edmund Cork: ‘A great deal of air activity here – bombs all round are whistling down!’
War Disrupts the Peaceful Retreat
The Christies had to move out in 1943, when the house was requisitioned for use as officers’ quarters for the US navy. In January 1944 a flotilla of twenty four landing crafts together with their commanders and support staff, arrived in the River Dart from the USA. More than 50 captains and members of the planning team stayed in the house until just before D-Day.
When they were allowed back into their home after the end of the war it was to find two additions to the property. Agatha Christie was deeply unhappy about the 14 lavatories she had been left and went into battle with the Admiralty to get them removed.
The second addition was much more welcome. The library in the house was as a recreation and ‘mess room’ by the officers. During their six-month stay a landing craft captain who was a graphic artist, painted a frieze on the walls, depicting places visited by the flotilla in the 11 months it took them to reach Greenway.
The Admiralty offered to paint it over, but Christie refused, saying that it would be a historic memorial and she was delighted to keep it in her house. She enjoyed the ‘slightly glorified exaggeration of the woods of Greenway” and a representation of a pin-up girl in the nude “which I have always supposed to represent the hopes at journey’s end when the war was over.’
Agatha Christie at Home
In 1959 Greenway was made over to Christie’s daughter, Rosalind, who moved to live at the estate with her husband in 1968. After Christie’s death in 1976, Rosalind took on the role of safeguarding her mother’s work and reputation. The family donated the house to the National Trust in 2000 giving fans of the writer the chance to walk in her footsteps.
I visited Greenway in 2018. The National Trust has done a fabulous job in preserving the spirit of the place (working closely with her grandson). As you walk through each room there are signs everywhere of how the Mallowen family spent their time at Greenway.
There are dominoes and card games laid out in front of the fire in the drawing room which also boasts a Steinway Piano. The hallway is festooned with picnic baskets and walking sticks and of course the library is walled with bookcases.
Agatha and her husband seem to have been great collectors. There are little silverware items on a bedside table, lots of china in display cabinets and – the most wonderful assembly of lacquered and wooden boxes. Every room looks as if the family has just left and will return in a few moments.
It’s a delight to wander through the house but if you decide to make your own trip there, do make time to take in the gardens. I was there in the midst of a very hot summer’s day but if you go in spring you’ll apparently find a magnificent display of rhododendron and camellias. If ever there was a good reason for me to pay a return visit, this would be it.
This is part of a series in which I look at the homes that provided shelter, solace and inspiration for some of history’s greatest literary talents. If you’ve made a literary pilgrimage do leave a comment to describe your experience.
The Last by Hanna Jameson
Dystopian fiction meets crime thriller in Hanna Jameson’s much-praised debut novel The Last.
This is not a harmonious marriage however. The Last is novel in which the two genres seem to be in conflict with each other instead of blending into a new and exciting narrative style.
The premise is an interesting one. A nuclear war has destroyed much of the Western world. The guests at a hotel deep in the Swiss countryside learn the truth in text messages sent hurriedly by their loved ones in the destroyed cities.
Twenty people remain in the hotel, cut off from the outside world and fearful whether help will arrive. As days roll into weeks and the sun never shines or rust coloured clouds produce rain, the survivors become ever mor fearful for their future.
Some cannot deal with the uncertainty and immediately make plans to get to the nearest airport, ferry port or border. Others decide that suicide will bring a blessed relief.
In the midst of the upheaval, the body of a young girl is found in a water tank. No-one recognises her or even recalls seeing her in the hotel. But it’s clear that she was murdered and the murderer may still be in the hotel.
As the days progress, one guest, the American historian Jon Keller, decides to make it his mission to search for the truth about the girl. He begins keeping a daily journal of events, interviews with all the remaining guests and searches of the 1,000 rooms.
It’s through Jon’s eyes that we follow the reactions of his fellow guests, all of whom, have, until now been strangers.
The Last contains plenty of dramatic incidents. The survivors discover bandits in the woods outside the hotel; an expedition to find food in the nearest city results in death and one guest suffers a drugs overdose.
An Overcooked Narrative
But it felt like Hanna Jameson was trying too hard, throwing just about everything possible into the mix. Strange footsteps in the night. A hotel with a history of unexplained deaths. Guests who disappear never to be seen again. Rivalries between the survivors. Uncertainty on who can be trusted and who is a danger.
If this is all familiar ground so too is Hannah Jameson’s depiction of how a group of people would react in the fact of catastrophe. They argue a lot; challenge the right of anyone to lay down rules; resort to violence; worry about radiation poisoning; suffer guilt about family members etc etc.
But it’s hard to get attached to any of them because they are ‘types’ rather than characters; people who seem to have been chosen because they can prove useful to the narrative.
We have a doctor, a chef and a security expert . One guest is a student who turns out to be an ace with a gun. There’s also a guy whose job involves working with traumatised children – very handy for trying to tease info out of the two children in the hotel.
I never felt invested in any of these characters and in fact kept forgetting who they were. Their tendency to speak in platitudes and cliches didn’t help make them any more real.
… what we think of as right and wrong doesn’t exist anymore. Everything that happened before, it has no meaning now.
Murder Mystery Fizzles Out
Throwing a murder into the mixture didn’t really help. It’s honestly a mystery why it was even included because it’s not particularly central to the story. No-one in the hotel other than Jon seems particularly bothered about finding the murderer; they’re more concerned with just surviving. And even Jon seems to forget about his quest periodically.
I could be entirely wrong but my suspicion is that the murder element was slotted into the plot part way through the writing; a kind of force fit rather than an integral part of the story.
The Last is a promising concept. It’s been compared to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and Stephen King’s The Shining but the comparison doesn’t work. There’s little of Christie’s sense of mystery and even less of King’s menacing atmosphere.
Though it’s a fun read in many ways and does keep you reading the pages, ultimately the book doesn’t live up to its original promise.