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An Abandoned Book: ‘Golden Child’ by Claire Adam **

I had been intrigued by Claire Adam’s debut novel, Golden Child, since its publication.  There is very little literature set in the Caribbean – one of my favourite regions on earth – which I have found readily available to date, and thus I was pleased when I found a copy of the quite delightfully designed hardback in my local library.

39731604._sy475_Golden Child is set in Trinidad, and deals with the disappearance of a thirteen-year-old boy.  The book’s blurb does not give a great amount away; it simply says that its protagonist, Clyde, has to come to terms with what it means to be the father of twin boys, and is made to discover ‘truths about Trinidad, about his family, and about himself.’  Whilst I enjoy familial sagas and mystery novels, and was intrigued by the blurb, I found the novel itself very difficult to get into.

The descriptions within the novel were not as I was expecting.  Rather than drawing attention to the lush landscapes and tropical weather of Trinidad, I found Adam’s prose rather plain.  For instance, when Clyde begins to go and search for his son, she writes: ‘Shorts and slippers are no good for that bush across the road.  Before, when Clyde was small, he used to go in there barefoot: by daylight you can easily pick your way along, avoiding ant-hills, sharp stones, prickers and whatever else.  But it’s a long time since he’s been in there, and also – who knows what will be out now, at night?  Snakes, frogs, agouti, all the night-time creatures, or spirits, or whatever they are.’  There is so little beauty within the novel, even with regard to the natural world.

When I examined the thoughts of other readers on Goodreads, I found that Golden Child has very mixed reviews; some have absolutely adored it, whilst others have either abandoned the reading process, or given it just one star.  This is, of course, markedly different to the reviews adorned on the book’s cover, which laud it variously as ‘intensely moving’, ‘quietly powerful and compelling’, and draw comparisons between Adam’s writing and that of ‘icons of her tradition like V.S. Naipaul’.

To me, Golden Child felt like something of a missed opportunity.  The novel did nothing to draw me, as a reader and observer, in; rather, I found its characters two-dimensional, and its settings rather drab.  The dialogue between characters is dull and repetitive, and the pace is plodding.  So little atmosphere and tension have been built, which I find peculiar for a novel which sees itself as a mystery, almost a thriller.  There is a real lack of emotional depth here, and too much superfluous detail; Adam focuses more on what characters are wearing and drinking than how they feel.  There is very much a ‘tell, don’t show’ mentality in place, it seems.

I read several chapters of Golden Child, but found myself reluctant to return to the novel whenever I put it down.  The story did nothing to draw me in, and I could not get on with Adam’s very matter-of-fact writing style.  I did stop reading before I found out what happened to the missing teenager, but a mixture of disinterest and the hint at disturbing elements which other reviewers mentioned put me off.  I am sure that there will be readers who really get on with this novel, but I, alas, am not one of them.

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‘Saraswati Park’ by Anjali Joseph ****

I travelled to Mumbai (once known as Bombay) on a cruise last November, and have been eager to read more books set in the city – and, indeed, within the whole of India – ever since.  I therefore requested Anjali Joseph’s debut novel, Saraswati Park, from my local library, and settled down with it immediately.

8517801Although it seems underread, with less than 100 reviews and just 600 readers on Goodreads, the novel was well received upon its publication in 2010, and won both the Desmond Elliott Prize for New Fiction and the Betty Trask Prize.  The Guardian writes that this ‘subtle novel is infused with multiple regrets.  How true to life it seems…’, and The Times calls Joseph ‘a latter-day Mrs Gaskell’.  The Literary Review takes a wider view, noting that the author ‘perfectly articulates a growing sense of alienation as the old, socially fractured – yet transparent – India is superseded by modern democracy.’

The protagonists of Saraswati Park are married couple Lakshmi and Mohan Karekar, who live in the quiet suburb of Saraswati Park in Bombay.  Mohan works as a letter writer, and Lakshmi is, to all intents and purposes, a housewife.  They are settled, with their children grown and living elsewhere.  When Mohan’s young nephew, Ashish, comes to stay with them, however, the lives of all three are changed.  Ashish is ‘an uncertain 19-year-old’, who is coming to terms with his homosexuality, and is struggling to make sense of himself.  Within the family, tensions begin to grow, and Mohan and Lakshmi ‘start to question the quiet rhythm of their lives – and discontents, left unspoken for many years, begin to break the surface.’

The sense of place which Joseph has created here is wonderful.  From the outset, one can feel the constant buzz and heat of Bombay, and the always moving stream of people which fills its streets and alleyways.  The novel is also highly evocative of its characters; we are aware of Mohan and Lakshmi, their motivations, and their relationship with one another from very early on.  Ashish, too, is presented as a daydreamer, rather vague and unable to stick to one path.  We learn about the past lives of each of the characters in turn, which gives them more solidity.  Their interactions with one another have been shrewdly imagined, and just as much importance is given to what is unsaid.  One gets the sense that Joseph really sees her characters.

Joseph makes one continually aware of old and new Bombay, and the sense of tradition and change within the city.  She writes, for instance: ‘A hundred and fifty years earlier this had been the beach, before the land reclamations; perhaps it was the murmur of the waves one heard on the busiest of days, through the endless talking… and the rumble of the red buses, the taxi horns, the metallic steps of each person hurrying through the Fort.’  The contrasts between rich and poor are, as one might expect, apparent throughout.

I love character-focused novels, and fiction set in India is a real favourite of mine.  It is therefore difficult to imagine how I would not enjoy Joseph’s novel.  Although parts of Saraswati Park are really quite slow, the overall novel is a delight to read.  The exploration of Ashish’s sexuality is one of the best handled elements in the entire book.  Saraswati Park is a lovely piece of escapist fiction and, with the rich picture Joseph creates of life in modern India, it would be the perfect choice for the even the most discerning armchair traveller.

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‘Fifty Words for Snow’ by Nancy Campbell ****

Nancy Campbell has been a writer on my radar for such a long time now, but I had yet to pick up one of her books – until, that is, a gorgeous hardback edition of her newest effort, Fifty Words for Snow, landed on my doorstep. It really appealed to the cold weather enthusiast in me, and it felt like a wonderful choice to incorporate into my autumnal reading, particularly as the days are getting steadily colder.

The idea for Fifty Words for Snow was born from Campbell’s research on ice. She was a Writer in Residence in Greenland during the winter of 2010, at the most northerly museum in the world, and her surroundings sparked this interest within her. Much of her work since – a decade spent on the ‘changing language and landscape of the Arctic’ – has revolved around cold weather, and what it means to us.

At this point in her life, Campbell tells us in her introduction, ‘… I was seeking to escape the distractions of a capital city. I needed white noise… There is much poignant art and literature about polar purity and silence, but the longer I spent among the snow [in Greenland], the more I suspected such tropes are born of luxury and distance. It is a view that overwrites the peopled landscape, ignores the tracks of sleds and snowmobiles that cross it, the busy burrows and root systems beneath it. As time passed and I looked more closely, I realised snow does not always appear white. As I listened more carefully, I realised that snow was not silent.’

As its title indicates, Fifty Words for Snow gives fifty international words for snow, many of them denoting very specific kinds. Campbell ‘digs deep into the meanings and etymologies, the histories and the futures of fifty words for snow from across the world, using them as clues to the many ways in which we are all connected to one another and to our planet.’ She writes about the shifting landscapes, as snow patterns change across the world: ‘Just as the ecosystem is changing, so are the languages that describe it and the way they are understood.’ Of her project, and her sustained interest within it, Campbell explains: ‘The process of tracing a single theme across many languages new to me seemed a powerful way to overcome the borders that were going up around the world.’

In her introduction, Campbell notes that ‘every language and culture has its own word for the magical, mesmerising flakes that fall from the sky.’ The words which the author has drawn together here come from a wealth of different languages and cultures: they range from Latvian and Scots, to Thai and Kashmiri; from Maōri and Mongolian, to Newfoundland English and Faroese. Some of the languages which Campbell has chosen to use are endangered, sometimes used by just a single community.

Each word which Campbell writes about – all of them randomly rather than geographically ordered, which I found an interesting touch – forms a short yet precise chapter. Some of these chapters, indeed, are only a paragraph or two long; others are far more detailed. Each begins with the chosen word and the language which it comes from, and then gives its specific translation, some of which are wonderfully precise. The Icelandic hundslappadrífa, for instance, means ‘snowflakes big as a dog’s paw’. In Finnish, tykky means ‘thick snow and frost that accumulates on tree branches and other structures.’ The Japanese word yuki-onna denotes a snow-woman, whose ‘skin is cold; her hair is silver; she dresses in white.’

Around the world, snow ‘may be welcomed, feared, played with or prized.’ Campbell is constantly aware of the reliance which different cultures have upon the snow. The Sámi language, for instance, ‘reflects the herders’ intimate relationship with their environment. The rich terminology for snow and ice includes words to describe the way snow falls, where it lies, its depth, density and temperature.’

Throughout, Campbell touches upon so many subjects. She writes about shepherds in the Scottish Borders, Greenlandic microbreweries, snowboarding, environmentally friendly fake snow made specifically for use on film sets, polar exploration, the building of igloos, avalanche prevention, and even the inspiration of snowy climates on the flags of several countries.

Fifty Words for Snow is both thoughtful and thorough. Campbell’s prose is lyrical, and holds such beauty about it. This work of non-fiction is clearly a labour of love, and it is a perfect choice to dip in and out of or, indeed, to read all in one go. Campbell’s book is far-reaching; she has tapped into so many languages and cultures, and gives fascinating details throughout. It will certainly make a lovely gift for the festive season, and there is something wonderfully comforting about it, too.

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‘Orphan Island’ by Rose Macaulay ***

I found, to my delight, that my local library system had a copy of Rose Macaulay’s Orphan Island in their stock deposit collection, and I duly reserved it.  The copy which I received was rather an ugly hardback, with library stamps in it dating from the 1960s and 1970s.  Regardless, I settled down with it happily, eager to read more of Macaulay’s writing.

9781448204267First published in 1924, and set during the mid-Victorian 1850s and the 1920s, Orphan Island takes one on rather a memorable romp to an island in the South Pacific, ‘far beyond even Tahiti’.  This island is, ‘at times… almost too perfect, too well-equipped by nature.’  Here, one family, fresh from Cambridge, arrives during the Roaring Twenties.  They land on the same island which Miss Charlotte Smith has, in effect, colonised, after landing there in 1855.

Miss Smith, a ‘kind-hearted lady of thirty or so’ at this point, has been tasked with taking ‘some fifty orphans, of various nationalities and all of them under ten years of age’ to San Francisco from England, where an orphanage has been provided for them.  Of course, this does not go to plan, and after the ship in which they are travelling becomes damaged, they are squashed into lifeboats and set adrift, finally ending up on a ‘peaceful and uninhabited’ island.  Miss Smith and ‘her orphans’ became castaways, ‘with nothing but a meagre library and an ideal vision of Queen Victoria at Balmoral to guide them towards the future.’  Of course, the island also provides the castaways, which include a doctor and a nursemaid, with an abundance of delicious fruits, and a freshwater spring.  The two sailors who travel with them soon abscond, and more adventure ensues.

The Cambridge-based grandson of one of these soldiers, sociologist Mr Thinkwell, finds out about the island during the 1920s.  Soon, he and his three grown-up children – Charles, William, and Rosamond – all of whom are conveniently at a relatively loose end, decide to make a journey there, to see if there are any survivors.  Their ‘voyage passed,’ writes Macaulay, ‘like a strange and lovely dream.  For days and nights they flew full-sail…’.  Of course, they find a fully-established colony, in which the now elderly Miss Smith is the fully-fledged matriarch.  She has built her very particular persona upon that of Queen Victoria.

However, the island’s society is hardly a utopian one.  Rather, the hierarchical class system is very much in place, and they rely on slaves who ‘don’t expect’ to be paid.  There are huge differences, too, between the island’s inhabitants and the Thinkwells: ‘Between them seventy years seemed to yawn, and neither understood.’  We are given a sweeping history of the island, as well as many musings upon religion.

The edition which I read featured an introduction written by Alan Pryce-Jones.  He calls Macaulay a ‘moralist’, explaining that ‘she found the spectacle of life extraordinary and fascinating; she was never deceived by appearances; but she was always unwilling to pass a final judgment.’  Pryce-Jones is well aware of the ‘gleam in Rose Macaulay’s eye which is would be unwise to overlook: she is seeing how far she can go, playing with her reader as she plays with her own fantasy.’  He believes that Orphan Island is ‘an admirable point of entry’ to her work.

As with other Macaulay novels which I have read, she has a great deal to say in Orphan Island, and writes very well.  Her descriptions of place and person are rich and sensuous; for instance, when she writes of Rosamond: ‘She wanted to swim, to wade, to curl up in the warm sand and sleep.  A small wind spiced with vanilla stroked her cheek, stole into her mouth.  There was a stirring of birds in the woods, and sharp, staccato cries, and it seemed that a monkey also woke and sang.’  Of one of the island’s inhabitants, who takes Rosamond under her wing, Macaulay notes: ‘Her voice was clear and cool, like a small waterfall, or ice tinkling on glass; her face was a blown candle, which smoulders still.’

Macaulay, throughout, poses much for her reader to consider, and Orphan Island is certainly an interesting novel in a lot of ways.  It does not, however, contain a driving narrative; there are some segments which are quite slow, and almost plod along.  Other sections are constructed like an interview, telling of practices on the island from the mouth of one of its citizens.  Orphan Island is rather a far-fetched novel in many ways, but it does provide a slice of escapist fiction.  The novel feels, at times, like an adventure story, somewhat in the vein of Swallows and Amazons but on a far more exotic scale.

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Ten Great Mysteries

I have loved reading mystery novels since I was a child, when I reread Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven series over and over.  Whilst I still read a lot of mystery books, I realised recently that I often neglect to post about them.  This is largely because I do not like to give things away.  I myself tend to read reviews of mystery novels only when I have read them, just in case a major plot point is thrown in by mistake.  With this in mind, I have decided to compile a list of ten great mysteries, all of which I have really enjoyed, and which I would highly recommend, whether you are a seasoned mystery reader or not.

 

1. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie 9780007136834
‘Ten strangers, apparently with little in common, are lured to an island mansion off the coast of Devon by the mysterious U.N.Owen. Over dinner, a record begins to play, and the voice of an unseen host accuses each person of hiding a guilty secret. That evening, former reckless driver Tony Marston is found murdered by a deadly dose of cyanide.  The tension escalates as the survivors realise the killer is not only among them but is preparing to strike again… and again…’

 

97807515372842. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
‘Late one night, exploring her father’s library, a young woman finds an ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters addressed ominously to ‘My dear and unfortunate successor’. Her discovery plunges her into a world she never dreamed of – a labyrinth where the secrets of her father’s past and her mother’s mysterious fate connect to an evil hidden in the depths of history.  In those few quiet moments, she unwittingly assumes a quest she will discover is her birthright – a hunt for the truth about Vlad the Impaler, the medieval ruler whose barbarous reign formed the basis of the Dracula myth. Deciphering obscure signs and hidden texts, reading codes worked into the fabric of medieval monastic traditions, and evading terrifying adversaries, one woman comes ever closer to the secret of her own past and a confrontation with the very definition of evil.  Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel is an adventure of monumental proportions – a captivating tale that blends fact and fantasy, history and the present with an assurance that is almost unbearably suspenseful – and utterly unforgettable.’

 

 

3. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (my review can be found here) 9780099466031
‘The year is 1327. Franciscans in a wealthy Italian abbey are suspected of heresy, and Brother William of Baskerville arrives to investigate. When his delicate mission is suddenly overshadowed by seven bizarre deaths, Brother William turns detective.  William collects evidence, deciphers secret symbols and coded manuscripts, and digs into the eerie labyrinth of the abbey where extraordinary things are happening under the cover of night. A spectacular popular and critical success, The Name of the Rose is not only a narrative of a murder investigation but an astonishing chronicle of the Middle Ages.

 

97818604925944. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (my review can be found here)
‘Sometimes I whisper it over to myself: Murderess. Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt along the floor.’ Grace Marks. Female fiend? Femme fatale? Or weak and unwilling victim? Around the true story of one of the most enigmatic and notorious women of the 1840s, Margaret Atwood has created an extraordinarily potent tale of sexuality, cruelty and mystery.’

 

5. The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin 9780008124120
‘Richard Cadogan, poet and would-be bon vivant, arrives for what he thinks will be a relaxing holiday in the city of dreaming spires. Late one night, however, he discovers the dead body of an elderly woman lying in a toyshop and is coshed on the head. When he comes to, he finds that the toyshop has disappeared and been replaced with a grocery store. The police are understandably skeptical of this tale but Richard’s former schoolmate, Gervase Fen (Oxford professor and amateur detective), knows that truth is stranger than fiction (in fiction, at least). Soon the intrepid duo are careening around town in hot pursuit of clues but just when they think they understand what has happened, the disappearing-toyshop mystery takes a sharp turn…’

 

97801401677716. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
‘Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of morality, their lives are changed profoundly and for ever.  The Secret History is a story of two parts; the chain of events that led to the death of a classmate – and what happened next.’

 

7. The Valley of Fear by Arthur Conan Doyle 9780241952979
‘In this tale drawn from the note books of Dr Watson, the deadly hand of Professor Moriarty once more reaches out to commit a vile and ingenious crime. However, a mole in Moriarty’s frightening criminal organization alerts Sherlock Holmes of the evil deed by means of a cipher.  When Holmes and Watson arrive at a Sussex manor house they appear to be too late. The discovery of a body suggests that Moriarty’s henchmen have been at their work. But there is much more to this tale of murder than at first meets the eye and Sherlock Holmes is determined to get to the bottom of it.’

 

97814091929548. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
‘Angelfield House stands abandoned and forgotten.  It was once home to the March family: fascinating, manipulative Isabelle; brutal, dangerous Charlie; and the wild, untamed twins, Emmeline and Adeline. But the house hides a chilling secret which strikes at the very heart of each of them, tearing their lives apart…  Now Margaret Lea is investigating Angelfield’s past, and its mysterious connection to the enigmatic writer Vida Winter. Vida’s history is mesmering – a tale of ghosts, governesses, and gothic strangeness. But as Margaret succumbs to the power of her storytelling, two parallel stories begin to unfold…  What has Angelfield been hiding? What is the secret that strikes at the heart of Margaret’s own, troubled life? And can both women ever confront the ghosts that haunt them…?  The Thirteenth Tale is a spellbinding mystery, a love letter to storytelling, and a modern classic.’

 

9. The House at Riverton by Kate Morton 9781416550532
‘Grace Bradley went to work at Riverton House as a servant when she was just a girl, before the First World War. For years her life was inextricably tied up with the Hartford family, most particularly the two daughters, Hannah and Emmeline. In the summer of 1924, at a glittering society party held at the house, a young poet shot himself. The only witnesses were Hannah and Emmeline and only they–and Grace–know the truth. In 1999, when Grace is ninety-eight years old and living out her last days in a nursing home, she is visited by a young director who is making a film about the events of that summer. She takes Grace back to Riverton House and reawakens her memories. Told in flashback, this is the story of Grace’s youth during the last days of Edwardian aristocratic privilege shattered by war, of the vibrant twenties and the changes she witnessed as an entire way of life vanished forever. The novel is full of secrets–some revealed, others hidden forever, reminiscent of the romantic suspense of Daphne du Maurier. It is also a meditation on memory, the devastation of war and a beautifully rendered window into a fascinating time in history. ‘

 

978000819651610. The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie
‘”Anyone who murdered Colonel Protheroe,” declared the parson, brandishing a carving knife above a joint of roast beef, “would be doing the world at large a service!”  It was a careless remark for a man of the cloth. And one which was to come back and haunt the clergyman just a few hours later. From seven potential murderers, Miss Marple must seek out the suspect who has both motive and opportunity.’

 

Which are your favourite mystery novels?  Has anything on this list caught your eye?