In one word ….. Wimbledon.

I’ll catch up in the second half of the month.

Hasta la vista.

1st July already?

Blimey – it’s true, time speeds up as you get older.

So today is the first day of the second half of 2016 – a year of huge changes, with even more to come on the UK front, I suspect.  But I’m leaving that well alone.  This blog is about my literary life, and nothing else.  (Though I might make an exception later in the year, as something really big, personally speaking, is on the horizon …)

But for now, it’s time to check in on those reading and other book related objectives for 2016.  Everything  was going so well at the end of Quarter 1.

End of Quarter 2  – Cue disaster on nearly all key performance indicators (KPIs).  😫

KPI 1 – Books read: 50
KPI 2 – From the pre-2016 TBR: 39 (78% Target for the year is 80%)
KPI 3 – Books translated from German: 17 (34% Target for the year is 40%)
KPI 4 – Books culled: 143
Purchase allowance = (Books read + books culled) / 5 = 38
KPI 5 – Purchase allowance balance = -12

(This means that for all the jiggery pokery I’m operating a one book read: one book bought ratio.  The TBR will never reduce at this rate ….)

My self-discipline went awry during June.  There was my avoid-the-Euros Independent Book Shop week related gallivant around the Borders and Northumbria  and, of course, the publication of the Edinburgh Book Festival programme on 10th June, following which the inevitable spate of  acquisitions.  Still I’m starting on my #20booksofsummer today and that should help the realign the statistics somewhat.

I sat down last night to choose my 20 books and, given my plans for a very busy summer quarter (Jul-Sept), involving #spanishlitmonth, Edinburgh Book Festival, a trip to Prague, and Bloody Scotland, I wrote down the list below in about 5 minutes.  So that’s the target for the end of September to read 20 books from this list, even though they are unlikely to improve KPIs 2 and 3, given that the list comprises mainly of 2016 releases/acquisitions and hardly any German Literature.  (Not to worry, I can make up for this in the final quarter of the year.)

Are there any on my list that you particularly recommend?




imageOne after the other reviews extolling the perfection of Maggie O’Farrell’s latest and most ambitious novel come rolling in. I appear to be out of kilter with general consensus though.

What was I missing?  1) The emotional engagement I had with Esme Lennox  and 2) a novel that turned the pages of its own accord.

This will surprise many – it surprised me, particularly as the first chapter is simply hilarious, one of the best first chapters I’ve read in ages.  And the following chapters, establishing the stories and tragedies of Daniel, his ex-film star wife, Claudette, and their immediate family pulled me in.  There is something profound and sympathetic about the flawed characters in this book,  and it is this honesty that is the novel’s greatest strength.

Somewhere around page 250, though, I found myself wondering whether to read to the end.  I did, but reluctantly.

It didn’t help that I wasn’t as in love with Claudette as Daniel (though I did mellow towards her in the final third of the novel).

I did tire of the “technically dazzling” (Guardian) structure.  O’Farrell tells this story of mental and marital breakdown from the point-of-view of no less than 7 different characters. (There may be more, but I can name 7 off-hand.) These narratives are not told  in chronological sequence.  Episodic incidents shuttle back and forth through time.  Secrets revealed in one chapter unfold in minute detail 100-150 pages later.   Obviously the events aren’t of prime importance, the impact of those events on the minds of the characters is.  I have nothing against working the reader like this per se,  nor of the post-modern inserting of a museum catalogue of the ex-film star’s artifacts or of an interview with her former film director partner.  But the resulting repetitions do extend the length of the novel, in my opinion unnecessarily at times.  My biggest problem, however, was that in many of the chapters the narrative voices didn’t differentiate themselves sufficiently. (Perhaps this is where listening to the audio book enhances the experience.)

That said, there is some wonderfully perceptive writing.  I’ve already commented on the insight of the psychological character studies.  I also appreciated the details of the physical tortures caused by eczema (based, if I remember rightly from previous author events, on the experience of the author’s daughter), and must admit that Niall, the eczema sufferer was my favourite character.  Landscapes too deserve mention.  Whether rural Donegal,  or the salt desert of Bolivia, O’Farrell transported me directly to her chosen locations. As for the place of the title,  the place that is home, that is for Daniel to decide upon. The novel is, at its core, the telling of his finding it.




I am a football widow.  I am OK with that.  With the Euros running from 10.06.2016-10.07.2016 my free time is my own, and I haven’t got a minute to spare!

What Lizzy did

I’ve been shadowing the Walter Scott Prize and last weekend saw me go to the Borders Book Festival to hear the shortlistees and attend the prize giving.  I am absolutely delighted that my favourite won!  This tends to suggest that this year’s judges and I have a lot in common.  Here’s Simon Mawer at his moment of victory.  (Rather grainy photo, taken with mobile phone from back of marquee.)


That was Saturday evening, but that was half way through my long weekend and  a lot of water had flowed underneath the bridge by then.  A lot – I got soaked as I wandered through the grounds of Abbotsford – home of Sir Walter Scott – on Friday afternoon.  OK so that’s an occupational hazard in Scotland and I had the survival kit – raincoat and prerequisite brolly, which are always, but ALWAYS kept in the car boot.  It wasn’t windy and and it was warm.  All in all it was a wonderful afternoon.  Scott had a lovely home and a magnificent library.  Of course, having lost his money in the financial crash of 1825, he had to work his butt off to keep his creditors at bay and keep his hands on Abbotsford.  But the fact that he paid back 50% of his debt (approx 5 million pounds in today’s money) by the time of his death in 1832 speaks volumes for the man.

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The two Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize events were taking place in Melrose on Saturday afternoon/Saturday evening, so the morning was mine to do as I pleased.  A stroll into Melrose along the banks of the River Tweed in SUNSHINE was a rare and glorious treat.  Saturday 18th June coincided with the start of Independent Book Shop Week and, being in Melrose, gave me the opportunity to start a #bookshopcrawl to celebrate.  (Usually I don’t – home being 40+ miles away from an independent book shop.)

Cue visit to Masons of Melrose – a small, but classy shop, beautifully designed to take advantage of every square foot of space.  When you walk in, you might be forgiven for wondering where you are.  The candelabra says this shop has aspirations beyond its square footage!  Floor to ceiling bookshelves positioned around a central counter, replete with greetings cards of the kind that enticed me to spend a small fortune, and keyrings that I now regret having left behind, the wall-to-ceiling book shelves are filled with a judiciously curated selection of books.  Off the main area there a little cubby hole for the kids too. Kids will also love the bookshelf in the main area (although parents might not) stuffed with cuddly toys …..

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As I was making my purchases, and asking for permission to take the photos you now see, the lady at the counter recommended a book shop 1o miles down the road in St Boswells.  I’d never heard of St  Boswells, never mind the Main Street Trading Company, but I set out on Sunday morning to investigate ….

Well,  I fell in love.

A gruffalo, a book burrow for kids to listen to audio books (and adults, including Lizzy to shamelessly misappropriate for a photo opportunity), a book bag with matching note book to die for,  a selection of books for which overdrafts were created, and a cafe with a strong brew to calm my fluttering heart, it’s no wonder the place was heaving …. on a Sunday morning.  Unfortunately (or should that read thankfully?) Main Street Trading Company is located 73 miles from home.  It cannot be my new local (unless I move to St Boswells …..)

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Following this (expensive) reconnaissance mission,  it was time to cross the border into England.  Heading for Alnwick (pronounced Annick) in Northumberland, I was on my way to the mythical Barter Books.  A busy place in a converted railway station, I wouldn’t have gone, had I known about the nightmarish car park .  (I am a nervous driver, unused to busy single-track car parks …).  Regardless, the pain of parking was rewarded once I entered this cornucopia of used books.  It is massive, and I decided to walk the periphery and circle inwards to get my bearings.  This is the view once you get to the far side.


Where to start and how to survive this overload of 300,000 potential acquisitions?  With rules – very strict rules.  No novels (I have more than enough in the TBR) and books must be as new.  90 minutes after entry, and having bartered a bag of books, I walked away with 3 non-fiction titles for my reference library.  (Folio Society edition of The Thrty Years War, biography of Robert Louis Stevenson, Taschen Art Volume on Wiliam Morris.) They cost me a fiver.   I am a happy bunny and I may just brave the nightmare parking once more.

Because I will return to Alnwick.  If only to return to my first literary crush …. Hotspur!


King Henry IV Part One – O-level English text.  I was sweet16 and bedazzled by Henry Percy. Flawed hero of the piece … or perhaps even tragic hero?  Certainly not villain. My English teacher organised a debate and was worried I might win it! I didn’t – my classmates had more sense – but here I am 4 decades later, meeting my hot-headed Hotspur in the metal in the grounds of Alnwick Castle for the first, but not the last time.  Others may return to the site of Harry Potter’s quidditch tournaments or the site of Downtown Abbey’s 2014 Christmas Special, but Hotspur’s the man for me!

What Lizzy Will Do

This was the trip that kept on giving, and you might think that I’ll start reading my new acquisitions.  Not a bit of it, because today was the day Edinburgh Book Festival tickets went on sale. So now I’ll got an immediate baker’s dozen TBR, including Don Quixote!  Add in a couple of (short) titles to cater for Spanish Literature Month in July and the odd bit of whimsy, and I might successfully complete a #TBR20.  (Possibly at the 9th attempt so far this year.)

P.S I’m in dire need of more free time.  Could someone extend the Euros 2016 beyond 10.07.2016?


imageShortlisted for the 2016 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

Marian Sutro is a British operative working with the French resistance.  In 1944 she is betrayed and finds herself in Ravensbruck concentration camp; an experience she barely survives – No longer the confident woman she had been.  Following the war, she tries to return to normal life, but there are the Nazi War Trials to endure.   She marries a – shall we say – compromise candidate, but as she regains her spirit, she finds life in the early 50’s too humdrum.  The Cold War needs to be fought, and, gradually she is sucked back into the life of an intelligence agent.  However, deeply concerned at the imbalance of power resulting from the creation of the atom bomb, the scene is set for Marian to turn traitor in the name of peace.

When I read Mawer’s Booker-shortlisted The Glass Room, I had reservations about both structure and characterisation.  No such issues here.   I found the psychological portrait of Marian’s recovery fascinating.  Her wartime experiences are pivotal but appear mostly in – deeply disturbing – flashback.  She is walking a tightrope – struggling to maintain her balance in a world that considers her a heroine, that wants her to relive the nightmare giving evidence at the war trials, when all she wants is to bury her past and move on.  When she does so, her past catches up with her and seemingly casual acquaintances attain much deeper significance.

There is, of course, also the political tightrope at the heart of events.  This is the Cold War era before MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) and, within its pages Mawer explores the rationale of those who were willing to pass scientific secrets to the Russians.  This is where the pace picks up, especially as Marian becomes involved in a honey trap à deux.  Highly immersive reading. Impossible to predict the outcome.

But who has all the insider information, because it’s made clear that this information is not contained in Marian’s official papers.  A framework device, for which I’m a complete sucker (blame Theodor Storm) takes care of that.


Having completed my reading of the entire 2016 shortlist, I’m now faced with a decision.  To which novel should I award my shadow prize?  Mrs Engels was in prime position until I read Tightrope, and now I’m torn.  Given the scarcity of historical source material, McCrae’s Lizzie Burns is a finer feat of literary imagination.  Yet Mawer’s novel, set just a handful of years before I was born, is meticulous in its historical detail, and  has made me ponder the origins of the MAD world I was born into more than I have ever done before.  I need to go away and argue with myself for a few days.  Hopefully I’ll come to a decision before the official announcement on Saturday afternoon.

imageShortlisted for the 2016 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

Now if I were handing out a prize for most entertaining narrator on this year’s Walter Scott Prize shortlist, Lizzie Burns, protagonist and narrator of Mrs Engels, would win hands down.  She’s a real character.  How’s this for an opener ….

No one understands men more than the women they don’t marry and my own opinion – beknown only to God – is that the difference between one man and another doesn’t amount to much.  It’s no matter what line he’s in or which ideas he follows, whether he is sweet-tempered or ready-witted, a dab at one business or the next, for there isn’t so much in any of that, and you won’t find a man that hasn’t something against him.  What matters over and above the contents of his character – what makes the difference between sad and happy straits for she who must put her life into his keeping  – is the mint that jingles in his pockets.  In the final reckoning, the good and the bad come to an even naught, and the only thing left to recommend him is his money.

Her outlook, which when you consider that Lizzie, a working-class Irish girl, is the unmarried Mrs Engels of the title, shacked up with the exceedingly rich, cotton-mill owning Mr Friedrich Engels but still pining for her poor former Irish lover, explains a lot.  (Even if it doesn’t explain her ongoing desire for the latter given the legacy of that relationship.)  The further into the novel we go, the more unconventional and complex Lizzie’s domestic arrangements become.  Without the wedding ring, there is only so much that Lizzie can do in Victorian society, but she is a force to reckon with, a pillar of strength for Engels, the smoother of many obstacles and embarrassments.  Yet she has to put up with Karl Marx, a rival who takes all of Friedrich’s time and a lot of his money.  Worse still, his wife, Jenny, towards whom she feels a natural antipathy, not unrelated to the history of Lizzie’s sister, Mary, Lizzie’s predecessor to Engels’s affections.  But put up with her she must, and also with Engels’s sometimes high-handed approach, if she wants to continue enjoying his wealth in their “grand” house in Primrose Hill.  Otherwise it’s back to the Manchester slums for her.

Through her not-so-convinced eyes we see the birth of Marxism.  And it’s a revelation, I must say.  The portraits of Marx and Engels as political theorists are not always flattering, and Jenny Marx comes across in places as Mrs Bennett reincarnated.  Nor are the French comunards, displaced by the failure of their 1871 uprising,  and seeking refuge in London, a sympathetic crowd. Fine clothes and wine, their particular weaknesses.

Shifting between the present life in Primrose Hill and her earlier impoverished life in the Manchester factory, Lizzie’s narrative is always honest, graphic, and in places very down to earth.  Even the pragmatist she accepts some real blows with a shrug of her shoulders.  I suspect the reigniting of the affair with her Irish pro-Fenian lover is fuelled more by rebellion than by affection.

How much of Lizzie is the real woman?  Impossible to say because the real Lizzie Burns was illiterate, and so has left no written records.  Engels, of course, had other things to write about other than his partner who died at 40 and who he refused to marry until she lay on her death bed. (But at least he made an honest woman of her in the end.)  McCrea has, therefore, written into the gaps of the historical record, and not only created a credible  record of what might be true but an absorbing novel to boot.

Mrs Engels was my fourth read from this year’s Walter Scott Prize shortlist, and the first I thought would make a worthy winner.  Will book 5 A Place Called Winter or book 6 Tightrope snatch the shadow trophy from McCrae’s hands?  All to be revealed before Saturday’s official award ceremony …….

Just 5 hours to the online launch of the 2016 Edinburgh Book Festival Programme, always a thing of great wonder and surprise.  Having been invited to and attending the official offline launch at 10:15 a.m this morning, I hope to have stopped hyperventilating by then!

I’ve always wondered how I would programme a festival like this.  So for the purposes of this post, let’s pretend this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival has been programmed by me, just for me.  Here are the 20 events on that programme, not necessarily in order of preference, apart from event number 1.  It will be interesting to see how my fantasy programme matches up with reality later today.

Stream 1  – German Literature (because that’s my thing)

1 A German Translation Duel with translators Katy Derbyshire and Donal McLaughlin-Because I know both translators and I’d give my right arm to hear them knock spots off each other – in a friendly way – about whether that long Germanic construct should be punctuated with a semi-colon or a comma, or even separated with a full stop.  Oh, and by the way I’m left-handed.  :)

2 Alina Bronsky – Because Rosa in The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine has to be the feistiest, most self-deluded matriarch in world literature and I want to hear Bronsky talk about her and her new heroine Baba Dunja.

3 Ilja Trojanow – Because his Collector of Worlds has been in my TBR for ages and I want an excuse to read this and his new novel, The Lamentations of Zeno.

4 Heinz Helle – Because I’m interested in the dilemmas of modern man, and, yes, his book, Superabundance, is in my TBR.

Stream 2 – Events about Other Books In My TBR that I want to read sooner rather than later

5  Suzanne Fletcher – Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew  – Because I adored Corrag and I love Van  Gogh.  His Irises adorn my hallway; his Cafe Terrace at Night my dining room.

6 Tim Winton – Because Eyrie was my Book of 2015.  (No chance of this happening, as he hasn’t got a new novel out this year.  Another year, perhaps?)

7 Thomas Keneally – Napoleon’s Last Stand – Because of 6, I’m trying to read more Australian fiction this year and I’ve never read Keneally.

8 Gail Jones – A Guide to Berlin – Because of 6, I’m trying to read more Australian fiction this year and the Berlin setting chimes with my Germanophile tendencies.

9 Charlotte Wood – The Natural Way of Things – Australian, Winner of the 2016 Stella Prize and Shortlistee for the 2016 Miles Franklin Prize.  Need I say more?

10 Ann Patchett – Commonwealth – Because I loved, loved, loved Bel Canto.

11) Frances Hardinge – The Lie Tree – The 2016 Costa Book of the Year, beating Kate Atkinson to the post.

Stream 3 – The Literary Zeitgeist

#shakespeare400/#cervantes400 A celebration is in order with so many possibilities such as:

12)  A homage event based on the And Other Stories anthology Lunatics, Lovers and Poets.

13) Homage event inspired by the Hogarth Shakespeare Series.

14) James Shapiro on 1606 – William Shakespeare and The Year of Lear

15) William Egginton on The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered In The Modern World. (This is not – yet – in my TBR – but leads me nicely to the next stream,)

Stream 4 – Books that need to join my TBR pronto!

See 15)

16)  Sarah Perry – The Essex Serpent – Because I’ve heard nothing but superlatives about this.

Stream 5-  Reading Workshops

17)  Edith Grossmann on Don Quixote – because of #cervantes400 and  last year’s workshop by Rosamund Bartlett, translator of Anna Karenina, was a revelation ….)

18)  Jill Dawson on Patricia Highsmith’s Mr Ripley – because I think Dawson would be very knowledgeable, given her recent release, The Crime Writer.

19)  Jolien Janzing  on Villette to coincide with the bicenntenial of Charlotte Bronte’s birth and I think she would be knowledgeable, given her recent release, Charlotte Bronte’s Secret Love.

Stream 6 – Last but definitely not least

20) Michael Collins – A completist author of mine, who I thought had retired from writing.  But, in the biggest surprise of  2016 so far, a new novel, The Death of All Things Seen, will publish on 1.7.2016.  Besides, he was the first author I ever saw at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2003.

I’m confining myself to a list of 20, but I’m also hoping for events with Joanne Harris, Maggie O’Farrell, Javier Marias and Patrick Modiano.  Plus …. No best leave it there lest I come across as greedy.  😉