Ashes in the Wind by Christopher Bland (Head Zeus)

ashesinthewind“John Burke wants to be Tomas Sullivan. John wants Tomas’s worn brown boots, the scabs on his knees, his green jersey darned with whatever coloured wool had come to his mother’s hand. He wants to talk like Tomas.”

AN old school book, economical and direct, parallel tales of two Irish boys in the first half of the 20th century. Tomas is a bottle of whisky. John is red burgundy. The style is perhaps informed by Christopher Bland’s time as a businessman and media chairman, notably at the BBC, the Royal Shakespeare Company and BT (and some publishing too at Century Hutchison). I heard him quoted as saying that had he known the pleasure he found in writing/story telling, he would have started much earlier. This was his first novel, published in 2014. He died in January this year. His subject matter is worth our attention as he tracks the painful schisms of Irish independence. It was, you could argue, the Irish through the various factions of the IRA, who invented modern terrorism, or maybe it was the moment that patience ran out for empire. Predictably our heroes are cast on either side of the divide, their romantic escapades as disruptive as the political shenanigans.

The colourful horse racing scenes dovetail in a curious way with Doped which picks things up later in the ’50s but reveal another side of the author who also owned a vineyard in Gascony and was chair to Leith’s cookery school. A good venue to read this book might be a stable loft with clean hay and regular deliveries of mugs of sweet tea.

The narrative veers towards the military. She anounces she is pregnant. He shows his elation by going off to paint the spare room. The women are all a bit of an unkowing quest for the boys to discover their mother Ireland. The personal like the politics is sloganned. By the third part, the narrative accelerates as Bland finds himself as a writer. His real theme is in the title. For all the noble virtues we imbue in words like patriot, freedom, independence, there is another side of the coin for those who do not share in the triumph.

On a personal note having witten a history of oysters, I found the end scenes all the more heartwarming.

Posted in 101greatreads, Biography, fiction | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Recipes for a nervous breakdown by Sophie White (Gill)

recipesforanervousbreakfdow“Before going mad, I didn’t really give madness that much thought. It seemed like a distant concept that had absolutely zero bearing on my life.”

THE best recipe writing comes from a compulsion, like composers, to explain a passion, a conviction as to her rightness. Sophie wonders early on if “I am literally the the only person in the world who drifts off to sleep musing on the following day’s menu plans”. These plans take us on to the comfort of the peanut butter series, on to the chilli con carne which includes ale and chocolate and on to homemade Rolos. For salmon with caper butter she explains: “in a fit of restraint in this instance I opted for a shitload of butter, and it tastes delish”.

This is the antidote to celebratory chefs, to clean eating. She may well end up being a TV chef but it won’t be TV cooking as you know it. This is Dawn French meets Gabrielle Hamilton. Bridget Jones goes to cookery school with Mr Bean. She opens with her bad experience on ecstasy – how one pill took five years out of her life –  and then takes us on a 20-something’s romp through boyfriend (Himself), baby (Yer Man) dealing with parents (Herself and Kev) and only child syndrome etc each episode rounded out with some inventive, sometimes hilarious but thorough recipes including the “only ice cream recipe you’ll ever need…no ice cream maker required”. 

She writes beautifully in that loose ramble you can also find in other Irish writers. Her friend Mark is – one of those six foot 14 year olds who literally has no clue what to be doing with his giant man body. The Amsterdam bad trip might count as one of the finest pieces of drug writing I have read.

And she picks up the mores of her era, especially to do with eating. “I have been pretty fat at times” but if only “one could be as fat as the first time one thought one was too fat”.

She is also a bit of a social media babe. See her here making whipped cream the FUN way. In a sense this memoir is before the event. Perhaps that is the joy, making the everyday important. Everything about the book itself, the typography, the subdued photos, the paper has been given the kind of respect and care a diva would expect.

At heart it is about our conflicted contradictions with eating. She comes out in favour of meringue roulade… with a little low carbs on the side.

Posted in Biography | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The poet by Michael Connelly (Orion)

thepoet“Death is my beat. I make a living from it.”

IF you have a cold or flu, then Michael Connelly is a good companion. Being a bit dopey helps with the severe plot twists, not twists at all really but 90 degree corners, the dialogue is the driving force, the victims are worse off than you are and no one is fully emotionally engaged. These characters do not have much range or tone. They are one notes. It is a Trumpian view of Americana, paedophilia, chopped up bodies, bent cops, clues in cars, two bit criminals, dodgy lawyers, women who stay at home.

Jack McEvoy, murder correspondent for the Denver paper, to which, this being America, he has no shortage of choices as to what to write about each day. Until, that is, his twin brother commits suicide. I wanted to read this because logically a newspaper reporter might lend a fresh angle to crime drama. Not in this case because our Jack just becomes another virtual detecto. As I have written before part of the appeal of Connelly’s approach is the sense that you are along for the ride on someone else’s day job.

This is the style: A hatchet face always seemed red the times I saw him. I remember he drank Jim Beam over ice. I’m always interested in what cops drink. It tells a lot about them. When they’re taking it straight like that, I always think that maybe they’ve seen too many things”. Not much punctuation, you might notice.

I am not sure I agree with the ending here, or perhaps it is a deliberate set up for another title, my deduction is different to that given on the page, or maybe I just did not believe any of the rationales and here we just ran out of pages to explain. Whatever. I feel better now. Although it is 20 years old it still feels iconic of its genre and highly topical with the football abuse scandal going on. The official follow up books are the Narrows (2004) and the The Scarecrow (2009), no point wasting some good characters on one title.

Posted in 101greatreads, fiction | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Pigeon Tunnel by John Le Carre (penguin/Viking)


“I sit at my desk in the basement of the little Swiss chalet that I built with the profits from the Spy Who Came In From The Cold in a mountain village ninety minutes by train from Bern, the city to which at the age of sixteen I had fled from my English public school and where I had enrolled at Bern University.”

THERE is a line on page 72 that asks: “maybe I am just one of those who people who are unable“…surely, surely, John that should be singular, is unable, it is not a royal we? Or do you mean we the secret service, we at her majesty’s service, or we the spies or we who lived in the ’60s or is it just an old idiom of the time? The royal we, John the queen? Or the establishment, a loose knit old boy’s network of bumptious undergraduates who speak foreign languages and are uplifted to a secretive world of embassies and ambassadors, lies and deception?

His major role at the Bonn embassy was to chaperone parties of German journalists and politicians on visits to London to see how things are done, or should be done post world war 2. He had carte blanche to just travel about then west Germany like a radar antennae to listen into the local politics. What in this context of the cold war is a spy anyway, something he transfixes on and has brilliantly conjured up in his fiction but as he explains here the real line between lies and truth is thin. John is not a spy in the sense that he has a bagful of secrets to offload, rather he was briefly the bag man and conduit through which such a creature might suggest a getaway plan. Until he became such a successful writer that he could afford a chalet in Switzerland, a house in Hampstead and a mile of Cornish coastline.

Much of this book is less memoir and more trailers for the people he has met and portrayed in his fiction. The best of all, by a street, though is his father Ronnie, “conman, fantasist, occasional jailbird“. Everyone else pales in his shadow. Here is a snatch:

“I am holding the hand of my mother Olive, alias Wiggly. As we are both wearing gloves, there is no fleshly contact between us. And indeed, as far as I recall, there never was any. It was Ronnie who did the hugging, never Olive. She was the mother who had no smell, whereas Ronnie smelled of fine cigars, and pear-drippy hair oil from Taylor of Old Bond Street, Court Hairdressers, and when you put your nose into the the fleecy cloth of one of Mr Berman’s tailored suits you seemed to smell his women there as well.”

Think of Hugh Laurie as Richard Onslow Roper in the Night Manager. Ronnie stands out because he is real where everyone else tends to be cartoons, of interest only for who they were, Richard Burton, Robert Maxwell, Alec Guiness. In Rupert Murdoch’s case, lunch lasted 25 minutes. There is not so much to tell.

For all the clues, the winks, the brown envelopes, the double dealings, the standing on street corners in old raincoats, the retelling of old yarns, it all feels very black and white compared to the colour of his fiction. But the ’50s and ’60s were the era of black and white, dissolved in the darkroom of truth. What colour we have is not high minded and principled but delivered by larger than life rogues like Ronnie, and one suspects Le Carre aka David John Moore Cornwell, himself.



Posted in Biography | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Homo Deus by Yoav Noah Harari ( (Penguin)


“At the dawn of the third millennium, humanity wakes up, stretching its limbs and rubbing its eyes. Remnants of some awful nightmare are still drifting across its mind.”

HOWEVER awful events might have been through history, it is over. It won’t come back. We are safe in the present tense. The future on the other hand is scary. Having looked back over our time on this planet for his last book Sapiens, the historian Harari starts to peer forward. It is not a comfortable prospect. Those science fiction monsters start to seem quite cuddly compared to what Harari sees. Of course they may not happen but, as he argues most cogently, the big things that do happen are not necessarily what you thought they were going to be, good or bad. The inventors of Viagra back in 1991 for example thought they were looking for a cure for angina.

We live at the end of what Harari defines as the Anthropocene era: A time when all life on the planet was subject to the laws of what we call nature, natural disaster, disease, famine etc. In the 21st century we are moving into a new period where we, as mankind, start to exert control over our own destiny and that of the rest of the planet. We are becoming godlike. Or some of us are. We aspire to longer life, happiness. On the face of it, that may sound great but, well there are quite a few buts coming up here, but, but, but, but…Harari writes like a barrister making a case for the prosecution. He points out we don’t exactly have the greatest track record in looking after things. We have previous. Quite a lot of previous. It is not encouraging.

 “People are usually afraid of change because they fear the unknown. But the single constant of history is that everything changes.”

One measure of his thesis is how we treat other creatures on the planet. For the most part we have killed them off or subjected them to the cruelties of factory farming so that we can eat them. If that is what we do to other creatures then the law of chance suggests we might end up doing the same to each other.

Here is an arresting statistic: In 2012 more people committed suicide than were killed in acts of violence but twice as many again died of diabetes. “Sugar is now more dangerous than gunpowder.” This is an agenda setting vision, the intellectual tools to guide us forward, to make us think. In that regard he is akin to Stephen Hawking, a visionary coming at us from the heart of the scientific. That he is obviously such a brilliant mind, is doubly troubling. A question for you: what is the difference between the brain and the mind? Or what is consciousness? Discuss.

It is relevant because for all the pomp of modern science our intelligence remains a mystery. Another riddle is that larger groups of people do not behave or think in the same ways as smaller groups, so intelligence differs. This ability to cooperate has set us out as humans. Harari refers to it as the intersubjective, when a group of people buy into an idea which makes something real happen. Obvious examples are religion or money. The intersubjective is what will forge the shape of our tomorrows.

Harari’s skill as a writer is to communicate such complex ideas. He wraps his arguments up in cute box-sized chunks. They are not hard to follow, one vignette rolls comfortably into the next…he has the gift of making you feel intelligent enough to understand where he is coming from through a long read of nearly 400 pages.  Of course, he is a vegan who lives on a collective farm and won’t be expecting a phone call from Donald Trump or Benjamin Netanyahu one suspects. More is the pity.

For a while you feel he is going to come down as a humanist but then he sides as a scientist. He disowns things he cannot prove – no soul, no freedom of action, even no individuality but dividuality which leads us to his intellectual crescendo.

“The train of progress is again pulling out of the station – and this will probably be the last train ever to leave the station called Homo sapiens…to get a seat you need to understand 21st century technology…biotechnology and computer algorithms.”

An image stays in the mind from Chekhov: If a gun appears in act one of a play, then for sure it will be fired in act three. Harari is putting the gun on the table.

The answer he suggests is…dataism or the flow of data.

Posted in 101greatreads, Biography, Non fiction | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The noise of time by Julian Barnes (Vintage)


“All he knew was that this was the worst time.”

IT is 1936, Stalin is reaching the height of his paranoia. The child prodigy and revolutionary treasure Shostakovich is denounced in Pravda.

Short paragraphs rather than chapters paint tableaux of their own which then fit into the larger narrative, I am tempted to use the cliché, like Russian dolls. This Shostakovich is fragile, the women in his life apparently stronger than him (although there is not much evidence, except from his mother) but this wisp of a man in iconic spectacles overwhelmed by state and family has an unwavering grasp of his own genius. Even in disgrace he does not think of getting another job, he just carries on composing. For 40 years and more it was an unhappy, unwanted marriage to regime and rivals represented here in shorthand just as The Powers.

There is a diamond irony as he tells the story of how Russian cinema audiences clapped to show their disapproval of a live pianist in the background ruining their enjoyment of a film. The image is later repeated in America where he gets a standing ovation for different reasons. But he does not like America, he does not like being called Shosti, he is hurt by his rejection by another Russian in exile in Stravinsky, he wants to curl up in a box with some vodka and sausages.

There are little tricks, repeated phrases, “he swam like a shrimp in shrimp cocktail sauce”, as in a music score, “as one fishermen picks another from afar”. Meticulous, chain smoking, examining his conscience daily, Barnes has a grand canvas of man and state: ‘To be Russian was to be pessimistic; to be Soviet was to be optimistic. That is why the words Soviet Russia were a contradiction”.

Russia, mother Russia, passive-aggressive, secretive, scary. This is/was a world where a friend paid the housemaid to save the composer’s rubbish which now resides in the national Glinka museum.

Strictly this not a biography in the usual sense, but Barnes the novelist has given himself a backstage pass into the genius’s brain, thanks to the meticulous more conventional research of others including biographer Elizabeth Wilson whom he credits as a prime source. Personally I find the revisionist thesis that in some way Shostakovich was writing dissident jokes into his music almost as questionable as the Soviet musicologists attack on him that his music was all just muddle.

There are no shortage of examples from capitalist America of the originators of music being summarily disenfranchised and their work passed down the line for others to profit and take credit from. Think Elvis Presley for a start. The Soviets wanted more. They were vain enough to demand that the maestro composer endorse them. Shostakovich might have feared being disappeared by some anonymous KGB  agent in the middle of the night. No. Stalin wanted to own him, to own the music, to own the glory in the genius for himself and the Communist cause.

The struggle was for the art and all that represents.

Footnote: It is a shame – especially in the context of talking about the value of art – that whoever designed the cover did not get a credit here because it is equally outstanding example in another medium.

Posted in 101greatreads, Biography, fiction | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

The bird tribunal by Agnes Ravatn (Orenda)


“My pulse raced as I traipsed through the silent forest. The occasional screech of a bird, and, other than that, only naked, grey deciduous trees, spindly young saplings and the odd blue-green sprig of juniper in the muted April sunlight.”

IT always strikes me as strange that most of us know the greatest works of fiction in translation rather than in its first hand incarnation. Apparently the vernacular if you like,  the original incarnation, can be discarded without apparently devaluing all its appreciation, a point that obviously does not happen with other arts such as music or painting. Story telling is a fundamental, human expression that breaks out from its own constraints and thrives in other mediums and languages.

There is a privilege to reading books from other countries and languages too, like taking a lift down to another floor to new sets of mores, customs, inferences, unexpectednesses. In that regard every town deserves its own writer.

Here we are in Norway. We have two characters with secrets, known only perhaps to the old shopkeeper who writes all purchases down in her ledger…She has applied to be the gardener to a recluse. She is escaping, he is…it is an unlikely dance.

“He’d see that even I was no stranger to peculiar behavior, he’d realize he wasn’t the only one familiar with that particular art”.

She is imprisoned in the first person, he in the third party. They are drawn together by an old handwritten recipe book. And the wine in the cellar. It is a difficult courtship.  The back cover says it is a psychological thriller but that is not quite right, it is the psychology itself that thrills. The sense of the unlikely is underscored with Norse legends and pagan rituals plus the black fjordic setting. Actually it is all very accomplished indeed leading up to a finale that is, well beautifully Nordic.

Posted in 101greatreads, Biography, fiction | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment