The View from Here: Books from Spain

Welcome to the next country in  The View from Here series on literature from around the world. Today we get to visit Spain. Our guide is Isi who loves blogging so much she has two sites: FromIsi in English is available via this link. The Spanish site is here.

Isi describes herself as one of those persons who enjoys winding down by grabbing a hot tea and a book and finishing the day immersed in a good story.”

Given that, she says it was a natural step, once the technology was available, to create a blog to talk about books.  Her first blog was in Spanish. How did the English language version happen?  “At the age of 30,” says Isi, “I decided to resume my long abandoned English lessons I started at school and my teacher, knowing my love for books, suggested to start a book blog in English, so I could practice my writing skills by writing reviews – a book lover always has something to write about, hasn’t she? That was the best idea ever, because not only did I practice every week, improving fast and enjoying the process, but I also found a great community of book bloggers from all around the world; people who have become my friends.”

Q. What books and authors from Spain were required reading in school? Books/authors that wereconsidered classic in other words and that every child was expected to know about?  

There are many of classic books you had to know at school, including all genres (poetry, drama, etc.), which, of course, at such ages you can’t enjoy or even get to know the subtle message hidden in them that seemed to provoke that awe to Literature teachers. It didn’t help that they are still written in old Spanish, which makes the reading even harder for young lads. I also remember learning lists of authors and their books by heart, an activity that I now see as useless as reading all those classics at such ages. I guess Literature lessons are the same in schools all over the world, but in my opinion, this approach only makes students hate books.

However, there is one exception: Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, the poet. I believe all teenagers have a “Bécquer period” in their lives; you fall in love for the first time, and Bécquer’s love poems begin to make sense…

To mention some other author and titles that have been translated into English, we all have read “The Celestina” by Fernando de Rojas, “The Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes, “Lazarillo de Tormes”, whose author remains unknown, or “The grifter” by Francisco de Quevedo.

Q. It’s likely that anyone asked to name a Spanish author would come up with Cervantes. Or looking more to contemporary authors, they might name Javier Marías. Who are some authors we could be missing out on?

Well, let’s start with some authors who have been popular in recent years. Luz Gabás has been a best-selling author, whose first novel (Palm trees in the snow) has made it into a film, and it’s a great romance novel set in the last years of the Spanish colonialism in Africa. I particularly liked this book because I read and commented it with my grandmother, who also enjoyed it, and then we went together to watch the film. Almudena Grandes is another example of great literature I always recommend because her characters are too real, with complex stories that make you be part of them. Arturo Pérez-Reverte can be also considered a modern classic (like Javier Marías); his articles, short-stories and long novels are all well written and hooking – I particularly like his books about Captain Alatriste, but I’ve enjoyed every other piece he’s written. I’ll finish with Dolores Redondo, whose crime novels, The Baztán trilogy, have been also best-sellers and made it into films everybody talks about nowadays.


Q. Which classical author from the past is your particular favourite  — and of course, why?

I couldn’t tell another than Benito Pérez-Galdós. I knew the titles of his books (because I had learned them by heart in school), but I only read one of his novels for the first time a few years ago, thanks to a fellow blogger. He wrote 46 books called “National episodes”, which are actually fictional, but include real events from our recent history, beginning with the title “Trafalgar”, that relates one of our endless conflicts with the British (I had to mention this, haha!).

Q. What can you tell us about the themes and traditions of literature in Spain?  Are there particular styles of writing or themes that are prevalent?

The most influential theme in our literature is the Spanish civil war. Like the books set in both world wars, our books set in the civil war always have something new for you to learn, and it is an issue that still divides Spanish society. To mention some of my favourite novels on the subject, I recommend “The frozen heart” by Almudena Grandes, who I mentioned above, and “In the night of time” by Antonio Muñoz Molina. However, I must warn future readers because I think you must do some research on the subject before reading these books to really benefit from them; you might get lost otherwise (after all, Spanish readers have being told about about the war by their relatives and studied it at school).

Recently there was a kind of “breakthrough” in Spanish literature with the publishing of a novel set in the Basque Country talking about ETA terrorism. The author is called Fernando Aramburu, and the title is “Patria”. It has been translated into several languages, so I guess it will be available in English soon.

Q. Who are some of the up and coming authors in Spain to whom you think we should pay more attention?

Apart from Aramburu, you absolutely have to read Víctor del Árbol. His books will be published in English this year, and you will find deeply emotional and though-provoking -but very hard- stories. Add “A million drops” to your reading list, please.

Alejandro Palomas is one of those rare cases in which I have to recommend an author I still haven’t read, but everybody is talking about him now and I have many reasons to believe I need to read his novels: he just won a literary prize and all my fellow bloggers are in love with his work, so take him into account as well.

Q. Are there any literary prizes that help to promote Spanish writing?

Many (too many?). There are several prizes awarded by some of the most important Spanish publishing houses but we, the readers, don’t pay much attention to them because they always seem to go to very famous authors, in order to increase sells for the publishing houses. An unknown author wouldn’t sell as much, right?

Nevertheless, there are other prizes that promise a good read. One of them is the Nadal Prize (nothing related to the tennis player, lol), the one Alejandro Palomas won this year, and there is another I always consider reading, which is an award from the booksellers association.


From Lincoln to Gaza in six steps

journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step is a common saying that originated from a famous Chinese proverb. Our journey in this month’s Six Degrees of Separation is going to begin in North America but is going to take us rather more than a thousand miles to complete. But we have to start somewhere and this month it is with the book that won the 2017 Man Booker Prize: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.

I’ve not read this and don’t have any plans to do so essentially because it has a vast number of characters and I know from experience I get lost with books of that nature.

winding-roadThe title of this book refers to the 16th President of the United States. But Lincoln also happens to be the name of a city in the UK. It’s also a colour (Lincoln Green is what Robin Hood’s merry men were reputed to have worn). Which gives me a clue for my first link… a city associated with colour.

Reykjavik Nights by Arnaldur Indridason is set in the capital of Iceland, a country to which thousands flock every year in the hope of seeing the phenomena of the Northern Lights. The most common colour seen in this natural light display in the sky, is yellowish-green. 

The colour most associated with my next city is red.

If you’ve ever seen the May Day parade in Moscow, you’ll know that it takes place in Red Square watched over from the walls of the Kremlin by members of the Politburo. Just around the corner is another of the city’s landmarks – the Hotel Metropole,  renowned as a haunt for kings, politicians and cultural luminaries. In the superb novel A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, Count Alexander Rostov is escorted out of the Kremlin and into the hotel where, by order of a Bolshevik tribunal, he has been sentenced to indefinite house arrest. Instead of his usual suite, he must now live in an attic room while Russia undergoes decades of tumultuous upheaval.

The upheaval of the Russian Revolution started not in Moscow but in the city that was, for a time, the capital of the country.

So for my next link let’s travel a little further north to St Petersburg and an early novel by Ken Follett, The Man from St Petersburg. This was the first book by him that I’d ever read. It was so long ago that I can’t tell you much about the story other than it was completely engrossing tale set before the outbreak of World War 1. One thing I do remember is that Follett had clearly undertaken a lot of research yet it never felt like he was just dumping the results on his readers. All the historical detail was carefully woven into the narrative. 

But I’m feeling rather chilly after spending so much time in the north. Let’s go south in search of some warmer climes.

The city in Patrick Modiano’s Paris Nocturne is more than a setting, he makes it as much a character as his unamed narrator. With him we go on a meandering journey through deserted streets, across moonlit squares and into the cafes and bars of Paris. This is a novel which so effectively conveys the sense of the French capital that you feel you’re there, sipping wine in a boulevard cafe.

Let’s turn up the temperature even further with my fifth book: The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra. Now I like heat and sun but I don’t think I fancy taking a trip to this particular city. I’d have to wear a burkha and walk a few steps behind my husband, both of which would be anathema to me. 

So lets get out of here quickly.   The Book of Gaza edited by Atef Abu Saif is a collection of short stories by ten Palestinian writers.  They live daily with the dangers and frustrations of restricted movement, military control and curfews and the threat of violence. But through their stories they also show  there is another side to life in this embattled region from what is typically seen in media reports. Well worth reading. 

And so we have reached the end of the chain this month. We’ve travelled from the land of the free to a land of conflict, and from icy climates to oppressive heat.

If you want to join in with the Six Degrees of Separation, take a look at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest. 

Snapshot February 2018

Throughout 2017 I was making a note on the first day of the month of what I was reading and the level of what I call my personal library (otherwise known as the TBR mountain). I forgot to do this in January but here’s how things stood on February 1, 2018.

Just read

I limped my way through Muriel Spark’s The Comforters which was her first published novel. Such a disappointment after the other two novels I’d read by her: Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means.

Currently reading

When I complained recently that I’d hit a reading slump there were many bloggers coming forward with ideas of how to get the enthusiasm back. Melanie at Grab the Labels recommended: “return to a book or genre you deeply enjoyed before you started blogging” which advice I duly followed that very evening when I was looking for something new to begin reading. Two writers called out to me: Louise Penny whose Chief Inspector Gamache series I’ve loved so far and Emile Zola who I have sadly neglected this last year. Since I had recently read and listened to a few crime fiction novels I plumped for Monsieur Zola.

Melanie’s advice proved the perfect medicine. I am now happily ensconced in the world of a Parisienne department store in the nineteenth century via The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames). It was one recommended by Lisa at ANZLitLovers to whom I shall be eternally grateful. Zola’s usual approach of conducting meticulous research before writing his novels is very much in evidence here. We get details about how every department works, from the cashiers to the sales people who work the floor, and some colourful details about the wonders to be purchased in this emporium. Department stores are nothing remarkable to us now but in the time Zola was writing, they were a revolution.

State of the personal library

Once again I find my numerical skills – or is my cataloguing skills – leave something to be desired. I thought I was doing a pretty good job last year of keeping track of all the owned but unread books in my home. I even had a spreadsheet with formulae designed so that I wouldn’t have to do the counting manually.

Well something clearly went wrong because instead of the downward trend I was congratulating myself upon all throug

h the year, I thought I ended 2017 with 225 books in my library. But somehow I have started 2018 with 245. Where that extra 15 books came from is a mystery. But no amount of double checking my spreadsheet or my formulae is giving me the answer. So I just have to accept that the number is 245.

But instead of going down, it’s already gone up from that…

Joanna Cannon

I won two books in a giveaway hosted by Kath who blogs at Nutpress. I might just be the only person on the planet who hasn’t read Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. I now have no excuses since Kath presented me with this plus Cannon’s latest novel Three Things About Elsie. 



I’ve also just taken delivery of the first book from my year-long subscription to the Asymptote Book Club. As part of this I’ll receive 12 books from around the world. January’s choice comes from the Indian sub-continent. Aranyak by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay was written between 1937 and 39 and looks at the conflict created between the need to cultivate the land for food and shelter and the need to preserve ancient forests and the traditional ways of life followed by its indigenous population.

My recent blue period also saw me indulge in a few purchases….

Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty. This is the selection for our next book club meeting in March

Since I was in the shop buying this I couldn’t help but have a mooch. So ended up buying a book I’ve seen attracting a lot of comment recently. Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. Walker is a professor and Director of the University of California Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab so he knows a little about sleeping. In the book he explains the science about sleep and the consequences of too little sleep (clearly not something I should be reading on nights when I wake in the wee hours and can’t get back to sleep again).

I’ve also picked up a copy of Anna of the Five Towns by Arnold Bennett. This wasn’t an intentional acquisition but driving to the gym one day I noticed a little free library outside a house. It’s the first one I’ve seen in the UK. So of course I had to stop and have a peek at the contents …. a lot of the titles were thrillers or crime so not of interest but I saw the Bennett and knew I had to have this because most of this series which is set in the fictional Potteries towns of Stoke, are out of print. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it…..

Hopefully by the time March 1 comes along and it’s time for another snapshot I will have actually read something from my growing collection….. But I won’t guarantee it.

The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer #Bookerprize

the_conservationistBooks frequently have deeper resonance for me when I read them in the country in which they are set. This was particularly true in the case of Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist,  a 1974 Booker prize winning novel set in South Africa. Last year as I drove across the vast dry plains of the Klein Karoo, empty but for a few isolated farms, we were looking upon a landscape which is a key point of reference in this novel.

Gordimer’s novel is a character study about a rich, white South African capitalist who  buys a 400-acre farm as a tax dodge and a love nest for assignations with his mistress. Mehring soon becomes absorbed in the mechanics of running a farm, making excuses to get away from business meetings and social occasions so he can spend more time on his land. He believes he is a good steward of his land and a fair and generous employer.

We see him in a very different light however.

Mehring feels he bonds with his black labourers when he hands out cigarettes and indulges in good humoured banter. What we see is that his workers largely go about their work regardless of whether he is there to supervise. He thinks he understands how to look after the land but his Boer neighbours view him as merely an amateur, a ‘weekender’ from the city. He considers he is creating value by ensuring his land is productive, but his lover sees a man who pays starvation wages and writes off losses against tax liabilities.
He believes he has developed a physical and emotional affinity with the land.
His shoes and the pale grey pants are wiped by wet muzzles of grasses, his hands, that he lets hang at his sides, are trailed over by the tips of a million delicate tongues. Look at the willows. The height of the grass. Look at the reeds. Everything bends, blends, folds. Everything is continually swaying, flowing rippling waving surging streaming, fingering. He is standing there with his damn shoes all wet with dew and he feels he himself is swaying….
But here too he is blind to reality.  Death and violence lie beneath the surface of his idealised rural retreat, emerging quite literally in the form of a man’s body dumped in a shallow grave. As if in protest at the treatment of people like Mehring, the land rebels. Drought, followed by flood, destroy Mehring’s farm.
Such is Mehring’s inability to understand reality that he alienates all around him. His estranged wife has gone to America and he struggles to form a relationship with his liberally-minded teenage son, Terry. Though he’s frequently invited to social gatherings we get the feeling it’s Mehring’s wealth and status that is the attraction, not his personality.

Although The Conservationist concentrates on one man, it’s clear that Gordimer sees Mehring as a representative of a particular type of South African. One who reads the signs that change might coming but has no desire to take any action himself to end discrimination or improve the lot of his workers. He simply doesn’t see there is any need for change. If ever he needs a signal that he is wrong and that hold on the land is but a tenuous one, it is the body of a black man that refuses to remain buried. The corpse is the real possessor, the real guardian of the land; not Mehring. 

The Conservationist is an intense read and not simply because of Gordimer’s message. It’s the style of narrative that takes time to get used to, with its frequent flashbacks, stream of consciousness monologues and lack of speech tags.  It was hard work, necessitating many stops while I tried to work out whether I was reading a dialogue or unspoken monologue, and where in the sequence of events was this scene taking place. There is really little in the way of action – everything revolves around the farm and the different attitudes towards it exhibited by Mehring and his workers.

I respected what Gordimer was doing but can’t say I particularly enjoyed the book.

If you’d like to see another view of this book, take a look at Lisa’s review at anzlitlovers.



About the author: Nadine Gordimer is one of South Africa’s most respected authors. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991.  Over a career spanning some 60 years she dealt with moral and racial issues, particularly apartheid in South Africa. She was active in the anti-apartheid movement, joining the African National Congress during the days when the organization was banned, and gave Nelson Mandela advice on his famous 1964 defence speech at the trial which led to his conviction for life.  Gordimer’s writing dealt with moral and racial issues, particularly apartheid in South Africa.

The book: The Conservationist was joint winner of the 1974 Booker Prize, sharing the honour with Stanley Middleton’s Holiday.

Why I read this book: It is one of the few remaining titles on my Booker Prize project.

A touch of the January blues?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that January is the least favourite of months for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. Sleet, rain and wind do not a happy formula make especially when combined with chilly mornings and loss of daylight around 4pm. Maybe that’s why I’ve struggled to get back into a reading and blogging groove this month.

gentleman_in_moscowThe beginning of June, things looked promising. My first book of the year was a stunner -— A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I was curious how Towles would manage to sustain interest in a 400+page novel about a member of the Russian aristocracy under house arrest in a plush Moscow hotel. Wouldn’t it get rather repetitive I thought? The short answer is no, absolutely not. This is a master class in how to construct a narrative. I’ll get around to posting my review shortly but in the meantime I’ll simply say that if you haven’t read it yet, you’re missing something special.

After that things went downhill rapidly.

I’d agreed to review the fourth book in a crime series which pays homage to the Golden Age of detective fiction. Sadly, A Death in the Night wasn’t much more than just ok. So then I turned to Muriel Spark and her first published novel The Comforters. I chose it because it was published in 1957, the first year of my ‘reading my life’ project. Now I’d enjoyed two other novels by her: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means so I had similar expectations to be as entertained by The Comforters. Far from being entertained, I found it a struggle to get to the end and was heartily glad when I did. Clearly her kind of humour isn’t for me.

Even my audio book choices have been disappointing this month. I’ve abandoned most of them: The Untouchable by John Banville (about an esteemed art historian revealed to be a double agent); Father Brown Stories by G K Chesterton and Agatha Christie Close Up (a collection of archive radio programmes about Christie). None of them held my attention.

I’ve also struggled to get enthused by blogging this month. Hence why I am way behind with reviews, many from last year even. I’m way behind also on reading posts from other bloggers even those that are my favourites. As for Twitter, well I seem to barely look at it some days. I’m just a tad tired of seeing message after message about book cover reveals…. So if you’ve not heard from me for a while, I promise it’s not because I don’t love you any more.

This fug is not anything I’ve experienced before. I hope it doesn’t last much longer. In fact I hope I can break out of the cycle tonight when I’m going to be opening a new book. In keeping with my intention to make 2018 the year of reading naked I have a completely free hand in selecting that book. There has to be something in my bookshelves that will tickle the taste buds back to life again.


A Death in the Night by Guy Fraser-Sampson #bookreview


A Death in the Night is the fourth book in the Hampstead Murders series which focus on the activities of the detectives based at Hampstead Heath police station in London. They are police procedurals that seek to pay homage to the spirit of the Golden Age of detective writing, particularly the principle that everything the reader needs to know to solve the crime themselves, is contained within the text.

The crime with which the detective team have to wrestle in A Death in the Night is the murder of Professor Fuller, mistress of a prominent barrister, who is found dead in her room at The Athena, an exclusive women’s club in Mayfair. By coincidence Detective Sergeants Bob Metcalfe and Karen Willis, together with psychologist Peter Collins, were all attending a vintage-themed dinner dance in the club at the time the woman is believed to have met her killer. 

There are a multitude of suspects but very few clues. Added to the problem is that initially the initial identification of the body is incorrect. By the time the real identity is confirmed, the hotel room has been cleaned and vital evidence lost. To get at the truth the team, under the direction of their Golden Boy boss, Detective Superintendent Simon Collinson, have to meticulously dissect every statement from staff and guests as well as her lothario husband. Was Professor Angela Bowen killed by her lover or by his wife or perhaps by another of his mistresses? For a time the team are not sure if she was even the intended victim. Nor are they clear on how the murderer managed to obtain a spare key to the room unnoticed by all the people milling around the reception area. By the time they find the answers, reputations have been damaged irrevocably.

As with the other novel in the series I’ve read, Miss Christie Regrets (book 2 in the series),  A Death in the Night is strong on procedure and on the setting. The atmosphere of the Mayfair club is captured particularly well. Amid the private equity firms and luxurious hotels frequented by Russian billionaires and “exotic creatures  wearing handmade suits, bright waistcoats and permanent suntans” it is a reminder of Mayfair’s more dignified past.

Tucked into an unassuming corner position in Audley Square, its membership continues to be drawn from exactly the same sort of intelligent, well educated woman as it was back in its earliest days when Dorothy L Sayers used to write her books in its library and take tea and anchovy toast afterwards in one of its famously comfortable armchairs.

Designed to be a comfortable bolt hole for professional women who find themselves in the city,  The Athena offers discretion for those who want a place to discreetly entertain male friends and companionship for those who dislike eating alone at restaurants. 

As much as I admired the nod towards the Golden Age (Peter Collins is a devotee of Dorothy L Sayers and loves to drop her name into conversation) I felt the novel would have benefited from a lighter touch on the procedural aspects. The team meets every day to review progress which means there is a fair amount of repetition of key facts (presumably these reminders were give readers a good chance of spotting the clues). More problematic for me however was an early chapter where the Metropolitan Police Commissioner chairs a meeting to review a report recommending a reorganisation of the force’s detective resources. The intent was presumably to show that Superintendent Collison, the report’s author, is gaining respect among his superiors, but to me it was an overlong and unnecessarily detailed interlude that didn’t strongly connect with the narrative.

Don’t let this comment put you off the novel however. If you enjoy well constructed crime fiction and are happy with a measured pace, then this will certainly be a series to consider.


The Book: A Death in the Night was published in November 2017 by Urbane Publications UK. My review of Miss Christie Regrets is here.

The Author: Guy Fraser-Sampson has a list of writing credits to his name including works on finance, investment and economic history. He is best known as the author of  three novels in the Mapp and Lucia series created by E.F.Benson.

Why I read this book: I received a review copy from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Howard’s End is on the Landing by Susan Hill

Howards EndUnlike author Susan Hill I don’t live in an old rambling farmhouse with aged beams and cosy nooks from which I can look upon “gently rising hills and graceful trees”. Nor sadly do I have an elmwood staircase that could take me up to a landing with overflowing bookcases. But I do know the sensation of coming face to face with a mountain of unread books.

Climbing the stairs one day in search of a book she knew was there, Hill discovers “at least a dozen, perhaps two dozen, perhaps two hundred” that she had never read. Among them are recommendations from the Richard and Judy book club, Booker prize winners, classics, childhood annuals (charmingly she still gets The Beano every year) and an old alphabet book.  She resolves to spend a year reading only those books already on her shelves, forgoing the purchase of new ones, which, she admits, is a strange decision for someone who is both author and publisher.

I wanted to repossess my books, to explore what I had accumulated over a lifetime of reading and to map this house of many volumes. There are enough here to divert, instruct, entertain, amaze, amuse, edify, improve, enrich me for far longer than a year and every one of them deserves to be taken down and dusted off, opened and read.

We get some delightful and often surprising titbits: about the time when as an English student at King’s College London, she  devoured detective stories as light relief from Beowulf (one can understand why!). Or the unexpected encounter with EM Forster in the London Library. Having bent down to pick up the book an elderly man had dropped on his foot she looks up to find herself looking into the watery eyes of one of the grandest of the grand old men of literature. But here he was “slightly stooping and wholly unmemorable.” and yet “the wonder of the encounter has never faded.”


I warmed to her after reading the chapter where she recollects the magic of receiving the gift of books as a child. It was impossible to disagree with her that today, with such easy access to books, we have forgotten how special they were in our past. For Hill growing up in the 1940s they were rare treats.  Every Christmas brought annuals that she read so often she could memorise the stories but the most precious gift she remembers is her first pop up book. Some of these she still has and one of the pleasures of her year of reading from her bookshelves is going through the collection.

Over the year, Hill draws up a list of 40 titles that she thinks she “could manage with alone, for the rest of my life”. It’s absolutely not a ‘best books ever written’ type of list but ones she considers has special meaning for her. The list tells you a lot about her taste and her foibles. Trollope gets two places, as does P G Wodehouse; Dickens is there with Our Mutual Friend, Virginia Woolf with To the Lighthouse and E. M Forster (not Howard’s End surprisingly but A Passage to India).

The list is significant for its omissions. There is little in the way of European authors unless you count Dostoevsky as ‘European’ – no Zola or Camus however. The Americans are represented by Edith Wharton (the House of Mirth) and Henry James (Washington Square). Her rationale for the poetry choices tell you that she is in essence a conservative reader.  “I do not read much poetry now, and rarely anything new,” she admits. “I know I should. Should. Ought. But I don’t and that’s that. Perhaps I don’t need to. I can recite the whole of ‘The Lady of Shalott’, after all.”

She is without question a woman of firm opinions. Some I found it hard not to agree with, such as her love of the physical feel of a book (she loathes e-readers) and her aversion to the fashion for reading the “very latest book everyone is talking about.” She has little patience with people who pretend to have read certain classics or who boast about the number of books they read each week (“Why has reading turned into a form of speed dating?” she asks). Jane Austen she finds boring but considers Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower to be a masterpiece and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s work is long overdue for a re-issue.

The interjections spice up what could easily have become a pleasant but otherwise inconsequential journey through one woman’s reading preferences and habits. Hill has an edge that nicely counterbalances the sometimes whimsical tone and in her final selection of 40 has made certain to stir up debate.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

lastpaintingFact and fiction blend seamlessly in The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, Dominic Smith’s remarkable novel about choices and consequences and the power of art to stir our deepest emotions.

New York lawyer Marty de Groot is the latest member of his family to take possession of a Dutch landscape painting called ‘At the Edge of a Wood’, believed to be the only surviving work by Sara de Vos, one of the few women admitted to the prestigious Guild of St Luke. It hangs above his bed in the Manhattan apartment he shares with his wife Rachel.

Family legend holds that the painting is “cursed”, responsible for the“300 years of gout, rheumatism, heart failure, intermittent barrenness and stroke in his bloodline.” Ever since Pieter de Groot bought it, in 1637, at an auction, none of its owners  has lived past the age of 60.

Still, de Groot values his family heirloom. Every night he studies the painting, admiring the haunting quality of the scene in which a young girl emerges from a snowy thicket above a frozen river.  He knows it intimately. One night in 1957 something doesn’t seem quite right with the painting. The frame looks different. And the canvas is dirtier than normal. Closer examination shows it’s a fake; a meticulously crafted replacement for the original stolen while he and his wife had hosted a charity benefit event six months earlier.

When police fail to find the thief and there’s no sign of the painting on the black market, Marty resorts to a private investigator to find the forger and retrieve his lost masterpiece. And so begins a decades-long obsession.

The culprit is not a professional forger but an impoverished graduate student Ellie Shipley who goes to extraordinary lengths to understand the techniques of the Dutch masters she studies. In her tiny Brooklyn apartment she boils rabbit pelts to make glue and pulls  apart old canvases so she can build them up a layer at a time and so understand the process of creation. When approached by a secretive art dealer, she doesn’t see her copy as a forgery but as a tribute to the legacy of Sara de Vos.

She has no interest in the composition from ten or twenty feet—that will come later. What she wants is topography, the impasto, the furrows where sable hairs were dragged into tiny painted crests to catch the light. Or the stray line of charcoal or chalk, glimpsed beneath a glaze that’s three hundred years old. She’s been known to take a safety pin and test the porosity of the paint and then bring the point to her tongue. Since old-world grounds contain gesso, glue, and something edible—honey, milk, cheese—the Golden Age has a distinctively sweet or curdled taste.

The past catches up with her in 2000 when, as an internationally renowned art historian, and curator of a gallery in New South Wales, Australia, she anxiously prepares for a show devoted to works by female painters of the Dutch Golden Age. Two identical paintings are on their way to the gallery:  the original Sara de Vos  “At the Edge of a Wood,” and the forged version painted by Shipley nearly 50 years earlier. Ellie understandably  “feels certain this is the beginning of how it all ends”.

Between these two threads is a narrative set 300 years earlier in Amsterdam which reveals the life of Sara de Vos and the grief that compelled her to paint At the Edge of the Wood.  Sara, widowed, bankrupt and mourning the death of her only child from the Plague, can find no relief in painting the tulips that her clients demand. Only in painting rural landscapes that are surreal allegories of loss can she find the strength to carry on.

The appeal of Smith’s book is the way he weaves three alternating timelines and locations to show how one painting exerts a powerful influence on three people across the centuries and across the world. One moment we’re in 1950s New York jazz clubs tracing de Groot’s attempts to track down the forger; the next we’re in mid seventeenth-century Holland as Sara de Vos struggles to regain her position in the all-powerful Guild and finally in Sydney in 2000 as forger and victim come face to face.

The Dutch sections were captivating. Smith spins an aura of melancholy around de Vos and tantalises us at the beginning of the book with a description of her supposed last work.

A winter scene at twilight. The girl stands in the foreground against a silver birch, a pale hand pressed to its bark, staring out at the skaters on the frozen river. . . . Her eyes are fixed on some distant point — but is it dread or the strange halo of winter twilight that pins her in place? She seems unable, or unwilling, to reach the frozen riverbank.

I was ready to believe not only did Sara de Vos exist, but so did her painting. Sadly both are as much an invention as Ellie Shipley’s forgery.  Although women were admitted to the Guild of Saint Luke  (without membership no painter could have sold their work) Sara de Vos herself never existed. She is a composite created from the ” biographical details of several women’s lives of the Dutch Golden Age” Dominic Smith found while researching through the Guild’s records, as he explained in an article for The Paris Review

Such detailed research gives the novel its feeling of authenticity but Smith is too canny a writer to let his knowledge of seventeenth-century painting techniques or the techniques of forgers, drag down the impetus of the narrative. Just as astutely he navigates between the mystery element and the history, delivering a multi-layered narrative that I found totally engrossing.


About the author: Dominic Smith is an Australian who has lived for much of his life in Texas. He has garnered several awards for his fiction.  His debut novel, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre, was a Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers Book, and received the Turner Prize for First Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters. The Last Painting of Sara de Vos was a New York Times Bestseller and a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice.

Why I read this book: I love books about painting (Michael Frayn’s Headlong is a favourite) but when you bring in Amsterdam, one of the loveliest cities in Europe, it was hard to resist. Even harder when I read some the reviews of other bloggers including Lisa at ANZLitLovers (see review here) and found no-one had a bad word to say about this book.

Postscript: since publishing this post I’ve also discovered that Kim has reviewed the book. Here is her review

Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac #bookreviews

VertigoI’ve watched the Alfred Hitchcock film Vertigo several times but never realised that this tale of mental disturbance and obsession was based on a French novel called D’Entre les Morts (translated into English as From Among the Dead). 

The plot of the film is essentially the same as that of the novel though the characters’ names are different and Hitchcock makes far more about the vertigo suffered by the protagonist. Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac set From Among the Dead in Paris and Marseilles but Hitchcock went for San Franscisco, presumably because its relative proximity to Hollywood made it more economical.

More significantly the historical context is eradicated from the film version.  From Among the Dead is set against a background of World War 2 and the ugliness of war deepens the sense of displacement created by the plot. The book opens in a period called ‘the phoney war’ when people in France wait uneasily for the hostilities that seem inevitable.  Some in France, like the industrialist Paul Gevigné, stand to profit from the war but others, like his old university friend Roger Flavières feel they are living on the edge of an abyss. “The future was … a blank. Nothing had any real meaning except the spring leaves in the sunshine – and love.”

The pair haven’t seen each other for several years but Gevigné, now a prosperous shipbuilder, tracks down his old friend because he needs help. His wife Madeleine is behaving strangely, experiencing attacks which leave her in a frozen, trance-like state . She denies going out in the afternoons but Gévigne has evidence to the contrary. Is she lying (and if so, for what purpose) or is she suffering a mental disturbance affecting her memory? Doctors can’t find anything wrong with her but Gevigné isn’t convinced. Adding to his anxiety is the fact Madeleine’s great-grandmother, Pauline Lagerlac, suffered from a similar mysterious affliction and committed suicide when she was twenty-five, coincidentally Madeleine’s age now. His old friend Paul used to be a police detective so who better to help him by following Madeleine and solving the mystery?

Flavières is initially reluctant to help. But after just one sighting of Madeleine he’s dazzled. This is a woman whose beauty is as mysterious as that of the Mona Lisa, but with a sadness that he finds endearing.  “It was no longer a question of watching her, but of helping her, protecting her,”  he reflects after seeing her at the theatre one night. And so his fate is sealed. As he trails her through the streets of Paris, Flavières — who has never before been in love — becomes obsessed by his friend’s wife.

He was making a fool of himself of course. Torturing himself into the bargain, living in a constant tumult of painful impressions. Never mind! Beneath that tumult was a peace and a plenitude of joy such as he had never known. It swallowed up the frustrations of recent years, the fears, the regrets.

His delight is short-lived. On an excursion into the countryside, Madeleine throws herself off the tower of a church and dies. Her death brings part one of the book to an end, coinciding with the fall of France to the Nazi invaders.

Flash forward four years. The war is over and people in France are picking up the pieces of their lives. Paul Gevigné is dead and Roger Flavières is an alcoholic, tormented by the loss of Madeleine and his guilt that he couldn’t save her. His doctors tell him that for his own sanity he should get out of Paris.  On his last night in the city he goes to the cinema and sees in a newsreel a girl who closely resembles Madeleine.

He persues her, courts her and takes her as his mistress but the relationship goes downhill because Flavières tries to remake her in the image of the dead woman, dictating what she wears and the style of her hair. Believing his mistress is really a reincarnation of his lost love, his hold on reality becomes ever more fragile.  Flavières comes across as a bully at this stage, never letting up for moment in his determination to force his mistress to confess that yes, she is Madeleine.

Vertigo is a dark and stylish tale about a man in torment. A man who is destroyed by his infatuation for a woman and his search for the truth. Although we sense from the outset that things are not going to turn out well for Flavières, that feeling of inevitability doesn’t spoil the enjoyment of the novel.  The first part is a little on the slow slide but the tension ratchets up significantly in the second part, coming to a satisfying twist in the final pages. But by then it is too late for Flavières. His life is in ruins.


D’Entre les Morts was published in 1954. Apparently Boileau and Narcejac wanted to move away from the conventions of Golden Age mysteries. They wanted to turn victims into conspirators and protagonists into perpetrators and operated to a rule that “the protagonist can never wake up from their nightmare”. The English version came out in 1956 and the film in 1958.

In 2015 Pushkin came out with a new edition as part of PUSHKIN VERTIGO, their new imprint for crime classics from around the world, focusing on works written between the 1920s and 1970s.



From African crime to games of English politics

It’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation. This month we begin in Botswana and the colourful detective Mma Precious Ramotswe (isn’t that a delicious name?) created by Alexander McCall Smith for his No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series. I did enjoy the book but never went on to read any of the later titles, nor watch the TV adaptation.

Crime and Africa provide me with my first link. There’s even a direct connection to book 2 in the chain because on the back of my copy of Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartery is a comment from The Booklist  that the novel will be relished by fans of Alexander McCall Smith’s Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency series.


Actually Quartery’s novel is much darker than McCall Smith’s because in order to solve the  murder of a young female medical student, the investigating detective has to contend with a veil of secrecy about a practice which sees young girls offered as trokosi (or Wives of the Gods) to fetish priests. He finds important clues in the Adinkra symbols that are used to decorate the cloth worn as wraps. Never having heard of these symbols I spent an enjoyable hour searching the web for images to explain their symbolism.

Lives of Others

The book in my next link also dealt with fashion accessories, but this time in the form of the jewellery worn by Indian brides. The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee blends family saga and political turbulence in India during the second half of the 1960s. For light relief we get the squabbling members of the Ghosh family and their petty jealousies over gifts of saris and wedding jewellery. Looking at some images of young brides dressed in jewel-encrusted saris and double their body weight in gold, I remembered a visit to the royal jewellery collection at the Kremlin. What the Tsarinas had to wear for their coronation was so phenomenally heavy I couldn’t imagine how they managed to stand let alone walk.

The moonstone

A gift of jewellery from India is the catalyst for the plot of the next book in my chain. The large diamond in Wilkie Collins’ novel The Moonstone was stolen by a British army officer and bequeathed to his niece Rachel Verinder on her eighteenth birthday. But on the night of her party it goes missing, believed stolen, an event which results in unhappiness, turmoil and ill fortune for her and the cousin who had hoped to be her husband.


Jewels+India+turmoil= The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott. This is the first part in his Raj Quartet collection about the dying days of the British in India and one of my favourite novels of all time. You can see why it has such a special place in my affection by reading the ‘Books that Built the Blogger’ post I wrote for Cathy at (here’s the link if you’re interested.)

Katherine of Aragon

The link to book number 5 in my chain may be a bit obvious but I’m going there anyway. Katherine of Aragon by Alison Weir is the first in her series about the women who wore the crown of a Queen of England by virtue of their marriage to King Henry VIII. Some managed to hold onto it for a few years, others lost their head over it which just proves the validity of that line from Shakespeare’s Henry 1V part 2 ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown

In Alison Weir’s novel we first meet Katherine as a young and beautiful bride to be who has left Spain to marry the heir to the English throne, Prince Arthur. When he dies she marries his brother Henry and gets to be queen. Weir shows Katherine as more than a match for Henry’s intellect and energy but fate, and Henry’s roving eye, means she ends up divorced and a lonely figure banished to draughty manor houses well away from the court.


Katherine in her role as abandoned wife is a key figure in my final book. Hilary Mantel’s dazzling novel Wolf Hall  vividly recreates the life of the man the former queen holds responsible for her demise: Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief advisor. Cromwell is usually depicted in fiction as a shrewd, manipulative and cold figure who will go to any lengths in his master’s service. Mantel turns the traditional portrait on its head and shows Cromwell also as a loving husband and caring father. It’s an extraordinary work of historical fiction; lyrical yet tightly written, bursting with scenes and images that linger in the mind. Quite simply, the most inventive and thrilling historical novel I’ve ever read (apart of course from Mantel’s follow up Bring Up the Bodies).

And so we’ve reached the end of this chain. We’ve travelled from Africa via India to England, from crime and sensational fiction to historical fiction. Is there a connection between our starting book and the one with which I ended? Maybe it’s stretching a point to call the way Katherine was treated as a crime, but she was certainly an innocent victim in a political game.

If you want to play along with Six Degrees of Separation head to Books Are My Favourite and Best where Kate sets us off with a new book each month.  As always all the books I’ve included are ones I have read though not necessarily reviewed.

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