Dancing with the Tiger by Lili Wright

2016-05-25 13.17.35When I heard about the premise of this debut novel I couldn’t wait to get my grubby mitts on it. And so, when an advanced proof copy arrived on my desk just before I jetted off on my holidays, Dancing with the Tiger queue-jumped its way to the top of my gigantic to-read pile and became my first poolside read of 2016.

The plot revolves around a much-desired ancient mask thought to be the death mask of Aztec emperor Montezuma the second. With its distinctive blue face, the drug addicted looter who discovers the mask in a Mexican cave is confident that he has stumbled across something of great monetary and historical value. Of course, he’s right and as word of his discovery spreads, the priceless mask attracts the attentions of three art collectors each desperate to add it to their own collection. Reyes is a Mexican drug lord, Thomas Malone is a wealthy collector and Daniel Ramsey is his friendly American rival whose own reputation and that of his daughter Anna are in tatters after their book on Mexican masks has been widely discredited. For Anna and her father securing ownership of the Montezuma mask is their best chance of regaining respect in the art world and of creating a collection worthy of Anna’s deceased mother’s name. Propelled by her sense of family duty and a desire to run away from home after being betrayed by her love-rat fiancé, Anna sets off for Mexico. But her mission to acquire a piece of art quickly dissolves into a seedy and dangerous quest to get back to America alive as Anna realises that her competition is violent, clever and ruthless.

The novel is told in mostly short, very punchy chapters, narrated in the third person. The character focus shifts at each chapter juncture to follow Anna, the looter and Hugo the gardener, who works for Thomas Malone and has been sent by Reyes to claim the mask. Narrative depth and interest is added by the chapters concerning a supporting cast of intricately related characters. In addition to Anna, Hugo and the looter we meet Hugo’s wife Soledad who is housekeeper to Thomas Malone, a beautiful young girl working in a paper shop who Hugo is having an affair with, a Mexican artist called Salvador who wants to keep Mexico’s treasures in their homeland, Thomas Malone’s erratic and glamorous wife Constance,  a pregnant girl named Chelo who the looter meets on a bus and Pedro the pool cleaner who is partnered with Hugo to track down the mask on behalf of Reyes. The effect of so many narrative strands, which are constantly switching and overlapping is an impressively complex and winding story, which never fails to leave the reader with a staccato-style, cliff-hanger chapter end.

Dancing with the Tiger is perfect holiday read. It’s a book that races along with glamour, sexiness and drama aplenty and its themes of art, theft and adventure provide some much-needed escapism (unless your day job is art theft!). Plot aside, there are also some strikingly memorable observations to be found in Lili Wright’s Mexican adventure tale. Two that really stayed in my mind were an early description of an archetypal art-crowd at a museum reception:

“Gay men in tight pants and tangerine neckties. Pale nymphs in tafetta miniskirts or cowgirl braids or Clark Kent glasses, trying to prove they could be beautiful no matter how badly they dressed.”

And a simple, but surprisingly tender physical description (which moved me when I read it, but which I struggled to track down again for the purpose of this blog entry, so please excuse me if this is a slight misquote):

“Her hair was so straight, it broke his heart.”

I think a lot of people will really love this novel, however I wasn’t completely convinced, despite the appeal I found in its themes. Generally, I’m quite a fan of short chapters, but I found the pacing of Dancing with the Tiger a bit anti-climatic. There’s so much drama in this novel and it’s so tightly packed that the rhythm created is one of swiftly setting up one plot point, resolving it and then introducing another soon after. Because of this, I found that there wasn’t much room for a real sense of suspense to develop. My only other criticism is that I felt some of the characters, particularly Anna, lacked the emotional complexity required to make them believable. It’s true that there are times when we are granted glimpses of Anna’s more vulnerable side, when she tells Salvador about her mother’s death, for instance. But – for a woman who has been cheated on by her fiancé, who is almost killed on copious occasions, who is almost raped, who has lost her mother, whose father is a recovering alcoholic (etcetera, etcetera) – Anna is as at best impressively gumptious and at worst too foolish to feel any trepidation at the danger repeatedly puts herself in.

It’s tricky to wrap up how I feel about Dancing with the Tiger. I can definitely see myself recommending this book it’s a smart, sexy summer read with pace, vibrancy and a really interesting mix of characters, which I think will appeal to a lot of readers. Unfortunately because I couldn’t believe fully in Anna’s plight, some of the story’s impact was a bit lost on me. I’d love to hear what other readers think of this book once it’s published (or if, like me, you’re lucky enough to get to read an advanced copy).


Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

image-08-05-16-06-40-2When picking my next read, I don’t usually opt for “classics”. Of course I read plenty at school and at university, I even enjoyed most of them (apart from Hard Times by Charles Dickens, surely nobody enjoyed Hard Times?). Since completing my studies  I’ve gone back and picked up a few that somehow slipped through the educational net, but there’s something about a book being hailed a “classic” that seems to turn me off a little… Perhaps it’s the sense of expectation: calling a book a classic means that we expect brilliance and that kind of hype can be off-putting, because it’s often so difficult to live up to. Perhaps it’s also that association with education and study – do the books that are preached to us in school lead us to believe that “classics” are boring, stuffy, irrelevant? Even when we find that not be true after buckling down and engaging in their narratives? I’m not too sure why I’m a little reluctant when it comes to classics, but now and again, I cast aside my reservations and I have a go anyway…

As “classics” go, Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner is very contemporary, it was first published in 1987 and is now part of Penguin’s Modern Classics series.

The story is narrated by the ageing Larry Morgan who recalls the friendship between him and his wife Sally and Charity and Sid Lang during the Great Depression. It’s a relationship built on much in common – both Sally and Charity are pregnant when they meet in Wisconsin, where both of their husbands teach at the University. Their bond is instant, warm and generous and despite the huge differences in their wealth (Charity and Sid are very wealthy, whilst Larry and Sally live very modestly), they strike up a genuine friendship that will last many, many years.

I found much to admire in this calm and composed American portrait of four friends. What’s immediately striking is the control of the writing. Larry’s voice is measured, uncluttered and powerful in it’s descriptions of the escapades of the Morgans and the Langs. There are lavish parties, bucolic camping expeditions, revitalising holidays in the sunshine, all depicted with a transporting vividness. Larry writes, Sid recites poetry and Charity and Sally delight in one another’s company. The overall atmosphere is refreshingly lovely and the characters are kind, good-natured people.

However, for me, the blissfulness of Crossing to Safety is also its blunder. As a bookseller I’ve frequently been challenged with requests for books in which nothing bad happens/with nice characters/with a happy ending, and it’s something I always struggle to provide. Partly, I suspect, because there are very few good quality books that achieve this without turning out rather dull. Saying that, Crossing to Safety is not boring,  but I do think it’s significantly lacking in the drama department.

In his role as narrator, Larry creates dramatic expectation on several occasions. The first chapter, in fact, begins with the friends in their senior years, with Sally in a wheelchair and Charity in health, we know from the off that the idyllic scenes of their younger years will soon be unpicked. Later on, Charity’s domineering character and the impact that it has on her relationship with Sid is cast as a major issue in the storyline. There are smaller underlying troubles too – struggles with money, job security, family tensions, etc. Somehow though, none of these episodes caused me real concern. Some of the more serious ones (Sally’s health for instance) lose their impact perhaps due to Larry’s reassuring narrative style. He never seems to panic (maybe due to the his retrospective stance) and so neither did I. Others are small fry when put into perspective – i.e. Charity is a domineering force, but her strength of character is crucial to her relationship with Sid and they love one another in spite of their foibles. As a reader, I don’t require a big plot-thirsty blockbuster, but the lack of any psychological or actual conflict in Crossing to Safety, did mean that – whilst I can appreciate Stegner’s wonderful style – I can’t rave about this book.

Unexpectedly though, Crossing to Safety has a rather wonderful and sparky ending – an ending with a sense of direction, of intrigue and of compassion. I don’t like to spoil the resolution of stories and I’m not going to here, but I will say that I was really moved by the final few chapters of the story and I think that the way in which Stegner concludes the narrative is surprising, clever and – in it’s placement in this novel – rather punchy!

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

A few years ago this tiny novel was much-talked about and deservedly much-loved. Now, never ashamed to be a little late to the party, I’d like to revive that love.

This was the first book sent to me as part of my Mr B’s Reading Year – a book subscription service with choices tailored to an individual’s reading tastes. I’ll come clean right away, I work for Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, so please excuse the sense of self-endorsement here and accept this book review from the perspective of a delighted customer, whose husband was completely at a loss as to which books to buy his book-geek wife and so turned to Mr B’s for a little help.

Set in 1971, during Mao’s Cultural revolution, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is the story of two young boys, banished to a small village “re-education camp” where they must simage-17-04-16-04-38pend their days carrying excrement up and down mountain paths. Life is dull and charmless, until the boys discover a secret stash of banned Western novels, which they devour and retell to the beautiful, but uncultured daughter of the local tailor.

This is such a refreshingly straightforward story, which balances its dramatic cultural setting with the lightness and humour of its main characters. What I loved most about it was the playful little plot pieces that pepper the narrative. There’s a fantastic section early on when the two boys play pranks on the village headman with their cuckoo alarm clock, which is the first clock the people of the village have ever seen (having previously used sunrise and sunset to measure their days). There’s also a wonderfully vivid episode in which Luo retells The Count of Monte Cristo to the little seamstress’ father, who has been sent for to act as a dentist to the suffering village headman. My favourite of all of the boys’ antics are the excursions that they are sent on to a nearby town, where they must watch a film and then narrate it’s storyline in the same amount of time as the the original feature’s running time, to the entire village.

The characters are playful, funny and just odd enough to be on the interesting rather than irritating side of the quirky. The settings are so richly described, that it seems no great stretch of the imagination to escape to a ginkgo lined lake, to an impoverished mountain village, or to a country in the grips of a terrifying dictatorship.

It reminded me of lots of my other favourite books: like Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones it has book-obsessives at its heart; like City of Thieves by David Benioff it has two dynamic young male characters united in their mission, divided by their personalities; and like A Riot of Goldfish by Kanoko Okamoto it has a rich sense of place and an old-fashioned community aspect to it.

It’s a very odd experience to have your own reading tastes so closely examined when you spend your days doing exactly that to other people. Being a Reading Year recipient might make me feel a little self-conscious (perhaps more-so than most because I know the people choosing my books so well), but I can definitely put my neuroses aside if my books continue to be quite as lovely and remarkable as this one.

The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

image-20-04-16-09-52-1If you talk to me regularly about books, or if you keep up with my sporadic blogging you’ll probably know that my favourite book of last year was Hanya Yanagihara’s heart-breaking work of staggering genius (which really must win the Bailey’s Prize) A Little Life. With that in mind I was excited and a wee bit apprehensive to read Yanagihara’s first novel.

Set in the 1950’s, The People in the Trees features a Nobel Prize winning scientist, whose life-changing discovery is overwhelmed when he is accused and charged with crimes of sexual abuse.

We meet Doctor Abraham Norton Perina through two press releases in which we learn briefly of his scientific achievement: he has discovered a syndrome which appears to result in immortal life when a rare turtle is consumed. And we hear of the charges that he faces and of his prison sentencing. A short preface follows from Norton’s good friend and research fellow Dr Ronald Kubodera. “Ron”, as he introduces himself, stands in defence of Norton and of his scientific achievements, despite the accusations against him. Ron urges Norton to record his story and offers to act as editor. What follows is the narrative that forms the rest of the book: “The Memoirs of A.Norton Perina, edited by Ronald Kubodera M.D.”.

The memoirs follow Norton from his childhood, from the death of his strangely vacant mother, to being an obnoxious student (this chapter reminded me hugely of Donna Tartt’s Secret History), to his first voyage to the Micronesian island where he would work with anthropologist Paul Tallent and study the Ivu’iavuan tribe who would become the crucial cog in his great scientific discovery.

The descriptions of Norton’s mission and discoveries on Ivu’ivu are wonderfully immersive and unsettling. The pressure that Norton put himself under to make a notable discovery and the abrasive relationship that he developed with Tallent and his accomplice Esme, whose own studies and ethic clashed massively with his are palpable. And hanging over all of these episodes is the knowledge that Norton will do something horrific  – or something that will lead to him being accused of doing something horrific.

Above my commitment to the unfolding narrative, I found the premise of the memoir fascinating. We know from the outset that Ron is a biased narrator and that ultimately Norton’s diary lies in his editorial control. For the most part what has and hasn’t been heavily edited remains (as it would with most books) unknown, but we’re constantly reminded of Ron’s presence in the story by the informative footnotes that he adds to Norton’s narrative. Mostly these diversions add background to Norton’s relationships with characters or detail about the rituals and research of the tribesmen and women, but their effect is far more jarring than you’d expect from a trivial note. Very late in the book, Ron intervenes in a far more explicit manner, by openly admitting to removing an entire passage of the memoir at his own will.

It’s so humbling (and irritating) to realise that The People in the Trees came from the same writer as A Little Life. Both books are swathed in literary merit from their effortlessly smooth prose and both share a theme of sexual abuse – although this is dealt with in a lot more depth and humanity in A Little Life than in The People in the Trees – but for me, that is where the similarities end. What I found striking is how A Little Life is an essentially warm book, featuring characters whom you love and care for from the outset, The People in the Trees is the opposite. I didn’t root for Norton (who would?), or for Ron. Tallent and Esme don’t lend themselves to being liked and nor do any of the other characters who we meet along the way. I didn’t care about these characters, I was gripped by their story and by the way it was told, but I felt no empathy for them. For me, reading The People in the Trees was an analytical exercise, it was interesting and it was unpredictable. It’s a book that I read with my head, but not with my heart. It’s a book I’m glad that I read, but I’m not sure that I enjoyed, and I think perhaps that is entirely how Yanagihara intended it to be.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Just before Christmas, in the grips of a terrible reading rut, I decided to jump on the band wagon and find out what Ferrante fever is all about.

image-17-04-16-04-38-3In bookselling circles (and beyond) The Neapolitan novels with their strangely ugly covers had become legendary receiving rave reviews and the mutual adoration of all kinds of readers. I was desperate to devour something absolutely fantastic and I was told that My Brilliant Friend was just what I needed.

The four novels follow the friendship between two girls in a small poor community on the outskirts of Naples. My Brilliant friend opens the quartet observing Elena and Lila in the 1950’s as they grow from little girls to young women. The prologue offers a particularly gripping beginning, as it introduces the book’s leading ladies, aged sixty-six. Lila has gone missing and cut herself out of all of her family photos. Her son calls Elena to ask if she knows of Lila’s whereabouts. Frustrated by her friend’s disappearance, Elena begins to pen the story of their friendship.

The narrative unfolds over many years as Elena gets to know Lila, a naturally brilliant young girl who excels in her studies and goes on to be a great beauty. Elena, who is much plainer and seemingly, much less academically gifted, is always measuring herself by her friend’s high standards and as a result of grit and hard work pulls herself up to contend with her idol and classmate.

The sense of place is fantastic and primarily created by the colourful depictions of the families who Lila and Elena grow up amongst. There is the Carracci family, headed up by the reputedly mad, terrifying Don Achille, The Solara Family, who own a local bar/pastry shop and whose flashy sons, blaze around in posh cars causing trouble, the Sarratore family with a mysterious poet father and Lila and Elena’s own families (the Cerullo’s and the Grecos), to name just a few. Initially all of these characters can get a little muddled in the reader’s mind, but as the story plays out each personality is thoughtfully and fully developed to make up a very distinctive cast.

I think the expert character development is what struck me most about this book. On several occasions I felt as though I had just about figured out how a certain person ticked, or who they were in someone else’s eyes and then Ferrante would add another dimension or scenario that uprooted my sense of knowledge and made me appreciate that character in a different light. This happens continually with Lila and Elena and the effect is really striking and moving. It’s also remarkably true to that kind of intense friendship – just when you think you know someone completely, they can do something that absolutely changes your perception of them and consequently either makes you love them all the more or question whether you ever liked them at all.

The thing to know, I think, when starting the Neopolitan novels is this, it’s hard to stop reading! I wish I were the kind of reader who after finishing the first book had the time to pick up the second, because the cliff-hanger ending of My Brilliant Friend is both brilliant and hugely irritating at the same time. I know that I need (and want) to read The Story of New Name (book two), I only hope I’ll be able to remember all the intricacies of book one’s plot by the time I get to it.

My Brilliant friend is a fantastic book  – it’s subtle, delicate and gripping and I can see why everyone loves it as much as they do. Indeed I love it too, but perhaps it’s not quite up there in my favourite books of all time and I can’t quite put my finger on why yet. All the ingredients are certainly there: wonderful characters, great writing, powerful sense of place, but something is missing… perhaps completeness. Interestingly, Elena Ferrante claims that the novels are really written as one book, separated into quarters due to length and time constraints and I do wonder whether if I were to read all four volumes I might feel differently. I’ll have to get back to you on that…

The One in a Million Boy by Monica Wood

Please excuse my lack of blogging, but whilst I haven’t made time to write about books (or cooking) for some months, I have been reading (and of course, eating) plenty…The One in a Million Boy

I discovered an advanced reading copy of The One in a Million Boy by Monica Wood in my goodie bag after last year’s Booksellers Association Conference – it was an intriguing looking object – very bright red, with a simple matt design and a white silhouette of a boy on a bicycle on its cover. I’ll admit, it sat unread on my bookshelf for some months before whispers of greatness from my friends and colleagues sent me in search of it.

I’m always a little shy of book-hype, high expectations are often hard to meet, but this book surprised me. It’s by no means the most brilliant book I’ve ever read, but there is something quite special about it and when I finished reading it stayed on my mind for quite some time afterwards.

The story revolves around Miss Ona Vitkus, a one-hundred-and-four year old woman, who with the encouragement of an eleven year old boy, becomes intent on breaking a Guinness World Record. The boy in question is an unnamed boy scout, sent into Ona’s home to help out with odd jobs. An unusual but genuine friendship develops between the elderly lady and her young helper, as she shares her stories of the past and her expertise in magic tricks and the boy listens, questions and introduces Ona to his love of lists and world records.

The book begins at the point where the boy has suddenly stopped visiting Ona and his dad arrives in his place, determined to finish his son’s good deed. From here several narrative strands take hold. The chapters vary in form, from present-day episodes as Quinn (the boy’s father) gets to know Ona and his own son through a stranger’s eyes, to flashbacks of conversations between the boy and Ona, (in which Ona recounts her life story onto tape as part of the boy’s school project) to lists of world record breaking statistics. The singular thing that binds all of these elements is the warmth of the writing and of the characters. Even in his absence from half of the narrative, the boy’s innocence and kindness seems to permeate into the lives of those who know him.

The real star of the story though, is Ona. She’s a remarkably recognisable character, who I believed in totally, in fact I even googled her after I finished reading to see if she was real (which she doesn’t appear to be). Ona is such a dynamic personality, a tough, intelligent woman with a wealth of stories and secrets in her arsenal. Her age is both her vulnerability and, in the field of world records, her trump card. She’s razor sharp in her understanding of the world around her and the people who enter and leave her life. In recent years elderly protagonists seem to be trending in popular contemporary fiction (e.g. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, The One Hundred Year Old Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared) and with heroes as refreshing and vibrant as Ona, I completely understand why.

This book probably won’t win big literary prizes (it’s a bit too commercial and light for literary gongs) but it will move readers with its simple values, great characters and unlikely friendships and I’m not ashamed to say I really enjoyed reading it.

A Cookery Course with Honey & Co.

In busy times, my blog has taken a back seat, but I had to make time to write about this week’s foodie treat.

For my birthday this year, I was lucky enough to receive a voucher for a cookery course at Demuths Cookery School in Bath from my lovely work colleagues. The voucher entitled me to a place on any cookery course at the vegetarian school, and with several day and evening courses running each month there was plenty to choose from.

Food from the Middle EastI’ve been an Instagram follower of Honey & Co for a little while now. This husband and wife team have a small, popular Middle Eastern themed restaurant in Fitzrovia and two beautifully produced cookbooks bursting with mouth-watering recipes. Their Instagram feed features photos of herby, fruity meats and salads, of gleaming cakes, and of their friendly team baking, cooking, eating and proudly displaying their wares. It’s clear from their presence on social media, from their website and their cookbooks (and no doubt from their restaurant, which I haven’t yet been lucky enough to visit) that these are people who love food and love what they do.

So, needless to say, I was really excited when I realised that Honey & Co. were coming along to Demuths in November to share some of their recipes and tips, and I swiftly booked my place.

It was a fantastic evening. Sarit and Itamar were wonderfully entertaining teachers who, in the space of two tummy-rumbling hours, created a Middle Eastern feast before our eyes. Accompanied by a scrawled list (which they both frequently forgot and then comically pointed each other toward), copious trays of special ingredients (each one chosen with care to ensure the very best flavours), lots of homemade spice blends, and the ever-helpful team at Demuths (who washed dishes, assisted with machinery and kept our glasses of Cava topped up), Sarit and Itamar brought us this beautiful menu of dishes to try:


All these recipes (and lots more) can be found in their cookbook “Food From the Middle East”.  For the benefit of those who don’t know (and I didn’t until Thursday evening), muhamra is a dip made of roasted tomatoes, onion, chilli and peppers and pomegranate molasses and a Fatoush is a salad that contains bread.

As well as the recipes, we were also treated to lots of handy tips and hints. Here’s three of my favourites:

  • Never used canned chickpeas to make falafel.
  •  Locals can buy hard-to-find ingredients from Bristol Sweetmart
  • When baking a cake in a springform cake tin, turn the base of the tin upside down so that the groove is underneath, making the cake. easier to remove.

And here are the results of Sarit and Itamar’s hard work:


I think my favourite element was the falafel, with the plum and pistachio cake a close second.

I buy falafel from the supermarket quite frequently, but when you eat proper, freshly made falafel you realise just how delicious it can actually be. Honey & Co.’s falafel is a Yemeni inspired recipe with a perfectly crispy outside and lovely warming flavours from the  chickpeas, onion, coriander and cumin inside. This particular recipe was Itamar’s, who explained how in Israel each family or community likes their falafel cooked to a certain recipe and therefore marriages inevitably result in much heated discussion about whose falafel is the tastiest!

The cake was to die for. Syrupy and glossy from the plums, crunchy from the pistachios and surprisingly light despite all of that sugar, butter and wintry fruit. I could have easily shoved another slice in my handbag (but I opted for a parcel of marzipan cookies instead, which were easier to transport)!

A big thank you to Sarit and Itamar for such an enjoyable evening and for the recipes that they shared with us. I can’t wait to have a go myself.


The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

ImageA new Margaret Atwood novel is always an exciting prospect. Over the years, Atwood has become a stalwart of my reading year. I’ve probably read more books by Atwood than by any other author. I think the reason that I go back to her again and again is her inimitable style, her assured contemporary prose, which is rippled with intelligence but is never a struggle to read.

I had received mixed messages about the nature of “The Heart Goes Last”, being told on one hand that it was a more straightforward narrative than her previous two novels (which had completed the dystopian trilogy that began with one of my favourites “Oryx and Crake”) and on the other having heard it described as a twisted fairy tale. The second description is bang on.

“The Heart Goes Last” begins with the introduction of Stan and Charmaine, a young married couple who are living in their car after a financial crisis robs them, and most of their town, of jobs and homes. Life is desperate and dangerous as they try and get by on Charmaine’s temporary bar job and hide from the violent vandals who roam around their vehicle. So when Charmaine hears about a social experiment that offers jobs and houses as part of the package she’s keen to sign up. The project is called “Consilience” and revolves around a prisoner/guard rotation system in which Stan and Charmaine must trade their home and freedom every other month to play the role of prisoners. But the stability of their new situation is soon threatened when both Stan and Charmaine become involved with their “alternates” – the people who live in their house when they’re not there.

As ever, Margaret Atwood’s dystopia and its twisted utopia are all too imaginable. She has this wonderful way of picking up on something current and familiar, like a financial crisis, or a reality-television type set-up, and stretching its limits. The result is that for readers who are not habitual science-fiction devotees her worlds don’t push our reading boundaries too far, we can see exactly how they might occur, but it’s the creative twists that she casts upon them that make them extraordinary.

“The Heart Goes Last” is nevertheless surprising in the direction it takes. This is a far kinkier and more playful Atwood to the writer we’ve seen recently. The spiritual, environmental concerns of her trilogy are notably missing from this very stark and modern novel. Instead we have high security surveillance, bespoke sex robots and an eerie clinical feel. That’s not to say that Atwood’s other books have been devoid of technology, indeed “Oryx and Crake” is constructed around the concept of a computer game, but it’s certainly at the forefront of this novel and key to creating its very contemporary atmosphere.

What is familiar however, is Atwood’s ability to introduce some truly brilliant plot twists. She’s so very clever in the way she weaves the character scenarios around each other, and whilst sometimes (as you become more at home in her wicked world) you do come to suspect what is about to happen, the pay-off is always fantastic.

I’ll be honest, “The Heart Goes Last” isn’t my favourite Margaret Atwood novel (perhaps I prefer Atwood her more serious shoes) in fact, it’s probably not even very high on my list (1. Alias Grace, 2. Oryx and Crake, 3. The Blind Assassin, 4. The Handmaid’s Tale…etc.) but it’s still completely absorbing and so masterfully constructed. Any Atwood fan will love this book and anyone who is yet to discover her writing has such riches ahead.

The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

image-14-09-15-02-56The premise of this novel draws to mind Hannah Kent’s wonderful debut “Burial Rites” – both books tell the story of young women on death row, facing execution for murder.

I was pulled head-first into “The Book of Memory” by its intriguing first chapter. Our narrator is Memory, a black albino girl who recalls the story of her parents selling her to a white man when she was nine years old, she is now being prosecuted for his murder. In that same first chapter Memory denies killing Lloyd, she tells us that she found him dead, but she also divulges that eventually she told the police “what they wanted to hear”.

As the narrative develops we learn that Memory is writing her story from a high-security Zimbabwe prison, interspersing tales of her cell-mate’s crimes and her relationships with the prison’s guards with recollections of her kind and patient father, her unsteady mother and of growing up in Lloyd’s home.

Like memory itself, the structure of the story is uneven at times, pulling the reader unexpectedly from one narrative strand to the next. Each strand seems to have its own particular tone, from the sardonic humour that prickles through Memory’s accounts of prison life, to the hazy disquieting descriptions of her family and finally the mystery-cloaked episodes of life with Lloyd.

I was half way through the book before I realised just how good it was and at that point I also became fearful that I might know how things were going to develop. What was so impressive was the mastery with which Petina Gappah so gradually reveals Memory’s story. As readers we are kept guessing throughout. Why did Memory’s parents sell her? What was the nature of her relationship with Lloyd? How did she end up in prison? And how did Lloyd die? These questions remain at the forefront of our minds and we are denied answers to them for so long. And yet somehow, the intrigue never became over-cooked or frustrating. I worried that the answers to these questions would turn out to be predictable, answers that have been written a thousand times before in other novels, or films, or in the news, but what really impressed me is that Gappah utterly refuses to take the obvious bait, instead she creates a genuinely surprising and therefore greatly satisfying narrative.

Unlike “Burial Rites” which fizzles with drama and pace throughout, “The Book of Memory” is a slow-burner, the kind of story that creeps up on you. It’s not one for the impatient reader, but I found its rewards are worth the wait.

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

image-06-05-15-09-51Now and again, I like to take a little break from dark brooding literary books for something a bit cheerier! I was lucky enough to receive a very early (and very gorgeous) proof of this biographical novel about the fascinating life of Beryl Markham (which I actually devoured most of on my holiday earlier this year).

“Circling the Sun” is a wonderfully light, evocative and summery glimpse into the life of a truly extraordinary woman and her circle of glamorous, well-travelled friends.

I’d encountered Paula Mclain’s writing before in 2011 when I read “The Paris Wife” – a biographical novel about Hemingway’s first wife Hadley. I’d also met Paula when she was the special guest at one of our Mr B’s events for “The Paris Wife” and was struck by her warm personality and her refreshing lack of seriousness! She returned to Mr B’s last week to talk to our audience about “Circling the Sun” and once again she delighted everyone with her atypical research methods (she wrote both novels sourcing her geography from Google Earth and didn’t visit the countries in question until after the books were finished) and the personal way in which she connects with her characters.

Like “The Paris Wife”, “Circling the Sun” immediately creates a strong setting for the story that follows. This time we’re in Africa and specifically in Njoro, a small town south-west of Kenya where Beryl Markham grew up on a farm. Having emigrated from England, Beryl’s mother swiftly decides that Africa isn’t for her and returns home with Beryl’s sickly brother in tow – leaving her bereft young daughter in her father’s care. Luckily life in Njoro suits Beryl; her childhood is an untamed, outdoor adventure playing and learning with the native children, with no regard for the usual airs and graces a young girl might be expected to have. It was no doubt the perfect beginning and a hugely positive influence for a woman who would prove herself such a free spirit. From this idyllic beginning we follow Beryl’s path as she succumbs to the expectation to marry and tumbles from one ill-advised relationship to the next. She socialises with glamorous Baroness Karen Blixen and big-game hunter Denys Hatton Finch and finds strength in her careers as a champion horse trainer (inspired by her father) and eventually as a pioneer of female aviation.

Interestingly, Paula assumes a first person narrative throughout the novel (as she does in “The Paris Wife”) giving voice to the emotions of a woman who was known for being intensely private. It’s a brave thing to do and although Paula sticks to real events and real-life characters it’s this choice of voice which defines this historical novel as being more novel than history. It’s something that readers might regard with suspicion, how can Paula McLain claim to know what Beryl Markham thought? She can’t of course, but to me this seems like rather a strange complaint. When else do we readers complain that our fiction isn’t close enough to the truth? Historical fiction alone seems to face this challenge and to confront it in all kinds of ways – from meticulously researched novels that are closer to history books to a smattering of real-life events with an imagined narrative surrounding them. I think as long as the writer acknowledges the fiction in their work, there can be little complaint made.

This is a really captivating and enjoyable introduction to a set of characters whose lives I knew very little about. I’ll definitely be reading Beryl Markham’s own book “West with the Night”, it will be fascinating to compare the styles of Paula’s own writing to that of her muse.