Review: Gold Digger – Frances Fyfield

gold diggerI’ve always been fascinated by the more remote coastal resorts of England such as those found in East Anglia and the more remote parts of Kent. Cromer, Southwold, Broadstairs, Whitstable – these places are loaded with atmosphere with their tarred fishing huts, little cafés where a few customers huddle over mugs of tea and their remote beaches so suitable for windy winter walks.

Frances Fyfield lives in such a place – Deal in Kent, and a few of her books have been full of impressions from these coastal communities.  Of course, the reader can’t be too specific as to the  exact location of her complex mystery novels, but I’m pretty sure we are back in Deal here, a place we grew to know so intimately in her  earlier novel Undercurrents.

In Gold Digger we read of Thomas Porteous, an elderly art-collector who takes up with a young “waif and stray” Di Quigley, a girl from a troubled family who tried to burgle him when she was 17.  Thomas sent her art books while she was in prison and when she came out, they got together and despite a huge age difference they developed a deep affinity leading to an unlikely marriage. Although separated by a considerable number of years, the two are true soul-mates, united in a love for abandoned and forgotten paintings which they reclaim from obscurity and give favoured wall-space to in Thomas’s rambling sea-side home.

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Review: The Age of Doubt – Andrea Camillieri

Age of Doubt

I’m new to Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano series of books.  The Age of Doubt is number 14 so I have a lot of catching up to do.  A bit of research on Andrea Camilleri showed me that he (yes, Andrea is a man not a woman) is now 87 years old and wrote his first Montalbano book in 1994, The Shape of Water.

In The Age of Doubt we find Inspector Montalbano dealing with a badly disfigured body found at sea and brought into Vigàta harbour by a large luxury yacht owned by the mysterious Livia Giovannini.

The book opens with Montalbano having a chance encounter in a traffic jam with a strange young woman who he rescues when her car is on the verge of tipping over into a flooded channel.  He takes her back to the police station while she waits to have her car recovered and hears that she is heading out to meet the very yacht which has brought in the body.

Before long, Montalbano finds himself deeply involved in investigating the phenomenally wealthy yacht owner and her crew.  Is the body linked to them in some way?  Why does the yacht spend so much time at sea, travelling around Africa and Europe?  Why has the woman he rescued from the car now disappeared?

On the way, Montalbano finds himself dealing with a beautiful young harbour official, Lieutenant Belladonna. As he works with her to solve the mystery of the yacht he finds that they are getting on remarkably well together – Continue reading

Review: Sea of Ink – Richard Weihe

sea of inkI haven’t reviewed anything from the excellent Peirene Press for some time and when Sea of Ink arrived through the post I was pleased to find another beautifully produced novella, this time about the life of Bada Shanren, the leading exponent of what we now call “Chinese brush painting”, from the Ming Dynasty.

Bada Shanren was born into the Chinese royal family just as the old Ming Dynasty was crumbling.  Forced into exile to escape the new Qing Dynasty Bada Shanren devotes himself to a form of painting which tries to capture the essence of an object with single brush-strokes.

He covered the small piece of paper he had laid out with a few rapidly executed vertical and horizontal strokes.  In the right half of the picture he interrupted a downwards sweep by lifting the brush and, from the centre of the paper, painted a broad line which he guided along a gentle incline to the right-hand edge of the paper . . . now he could see two stones on coarse grass, nestling up to a larger boulder.  In their shelter grew a modest mountain flower with many leaves watched over the the rough-edged rock.  He recognised himself not  in the boulder but in the tiny plant.  The fortune to be oneself was sufficient for the plant to sit at the centre of the world.

I know a little about Chinese brush painting but through reading this book I now realise the depth of ascetic and spiritual training which the great masters of the art submitted themselves to.  Bada Shanren went through years of discipline in the monasteries of northern China, becoming a master of the Tao.  For many months he just drew circles with his brush and then took six years out from his painting to go to rebuild a derelict monastery, high in the Fengxin mountains.

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The Story of the Other Wiseman – Henry Van Dyke

6a00e551d8b936883401287672755e970c-250wiI published a post about this short story three years ago in 2009 and I notice from my site statistics that every December the article seems to attract a large number of hits.  There were some shortcomings in the original article and so I’m republishing it here and include links to an audiobook version (see below).

If you read the original article back in 2009 then please pass over this one – the next article will be appearing in a day or two’s time and will be about a new Peirene Press book, Sea of Ink.

The Story of the Other Wiseman was written by Henry Van Dyke who was one of those writers whose memory is lost in the mists of time.  Van Dyke was an American Presbyterian clergyman, the author of quite a few books, most of them long-forgotten and of little interest.  Nowadays The Other Wise Man is the only book for which he is remembered.  The story doesn’t take long to read and the edition I have is only 60 pages long including illustrations such as the one on the right.

These days I find myself struggling with the Christmas thing.  Like most adults, I’ve lived through many of them.  I’ve had times when the whole Nativity has meant a lot to me, and other times when it barely passes through my consciousness – this year, the latter condition seems to apply.

But sooner or later, all those carols on the radio start to get to me – John Rutter’s Candlelight Carol for example, or Harold Darke’s arrangement of In the Bleak Midwinter, or perhaps that most moving German Christmas song, Still, Still, Still, Weils Kindlein Schalfen Will.

I suppose the appeal is something about a message based on an infant  “bringing down the mighty from their thrones”, which runs counter to the strong-flowing current of modern life, so obsessed with celebrity and status.

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Review: Mission to Paris – Alan Furst

mission to paris

You know quality when you see it and with Alan Furst’s books set in Europe in and around World War 2 you know that quality is guaranteed.   His new book, Mission to Paris is no exception.  Frederick Stahl, an Austrian-born film actor based in the USA is sent to Paris in 1938 by Warner Brothers to star in a film about partisan politics in Eastern Europe.  While leading a life of luxury in Claridges Hotel with all the trappings of celebrity, he is drawn into the complex politics of the time and before long finds that his life is in extreme danger.

Alan Furst always bases his books on impeccable research and there is tons of period detail in his descriptions of pre-war Paris, a moody city of contrasts with incredible luxury on the one hand and dingy back-streets populated by poor and desparate people who live in fear of their lives.  For despite political accords and treaties, there is no doubt that the Germans are coming.

Within a couple of days of his arrival, Stahl is being courted by people who see his usefulness. German intelligence services are deeply embedded in the city and work via old friends and colleagues, as well as through sympathetic French Fascists who see the future of their country as a vassal nation dominated by a powerful neighbour but at least free from Communists and Jews.

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Review: I Sleep in Hitler’s Room – Tuvia Tenenbom

I’ve read some strange books in my time, but this one certainly pushes the boundaries.  At first glance it seems to be a typical travel book in Bryson-esque style.  But with its title, I Sleep in Hitler’s Room – An American Jew Visits Germany, you know from the start that this is not going to be your usual travelogue.

I first encountered it from an article in the English edition of German weekly magazine Der Spiegel, and being a bit of a Germano-phile (I love travelling in the Germany), I thought I would see what it was like.

Tuvia Tenenbom is the son of Holocaust survivors and also Founding Artistic Director of the Jewish Theater of New York.  He was invited to write this book by the publishing company Rowohlt Verlag, one of the biggest in Germany. The company’s representative asked him if he would like to come to Germany, to “travel around the country a few months, and write a book about my experiences”.  By the time Tenenbom had submitted the draft of his book he found himself in serious dispute with the publishers who evidently did not feel that they have got what they bargained for.

The scurrilous, partisan, rude and hilarious manuscript ended up being red-penned to the degree that Tenenbom felt that he could no longer be associated with it and the publishers refused to publish it without major changes.  Tenenbom eventually published the book himself in the USA and finally this year, a German version was published but with quite a number of deletions of passages which may have fallen foul of German law.  In the English version reviewed here, you get the complete text, a book which I found to be one of the funniest and also the most controversial things I have read this year.

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Christmas Gifts for Readers

Over the last month I’ve been looking out for books which would make good Christmas gifts for readers. I’m covering one more item today and also listing the other four below this article.  Today’s choice is a subscription to Slightly Foxed, a quarterly journal which calls itself “The Read Reader’s Quarterly”.

I have periods of subscribing to Slightly Foxed and at other times I catch up with back-numbers on ebay.  Either way its a journal which reminds me what reading is all about.  It’s not about the rush to read the latest new release or to spot something you must have in a in book-shop, so much as a slow meander through shelves old and new, remembering gems from the past and passing on your enthusiasm to others.

Each edition contains a number of articles by book enthusiasts in which they write about a book or an author who has inspired them.  The articles are illustrated with drawings and wood-cuts and are printed on a beautiful creamy paper.  The journal is meant to be kept – this is not a magazine which you will want to pass on to someone else because with the addition of the annual index it builds up into a wonderful resource on writers old and new.

The range of books covered is as wide as the avid reader would want.  One article could cover Terry Pratchett or Lee Child, the next could go back to the delights of Laurence Sterne or John Cowper Powys.  Whatever period the books come from, you can guarantee that the writer of the article will make you want to dip into the chosen volume and my experience is that of finding many beautiful books which I would otherwise never have encountered.

Of course, this would be no use if the books mentioned in Slightly Foxed were unavailable, and indeed, many of them will be out of print – but I usually find that they can be found so easily and often cheaply online on ebay or abebooks etc.  I now have quite a few books on my shelves which I discovered by reading about them in Slightly Foxed and I am grateful to the publishers that my reading has been enriched in this way.  One article by Jonny le Falbe on Gregor Rezzori led me to aquire all this mid-20th century writer’s books and I have written a set of articles about his work on A Common Reader.  Another unlikely find was Elizabeth Von Armin, a Countess and also a friend of H G Wells who I have yet to write about but will do so next year – most of whose books can be downloaded for free in ebook format on Project Gutenburg.

The other items on my Christmas recommendations list can be seen below: Continue reading