A brilliantly composite narrative of Henry V’s short life and reign. King for just under 10 years, Henry’s life was eventful and significant. It was he, with his victory at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, his retaking of Normandy in 1417 and the signing of the Treaty of Troyes in 1420 that left him as the heir and regent of the French throne. The realisation of Edward III’s ambition more than 50 years earlier. He was an able and charismatic leader, intelligent, capable of multi tasking with a fervent attention to detail. Perhaps what is most remarkable about Henry was not just that he won the crown of France, but that he endeared himself to the French by his firm but fair rule. This was a style of Kingship that Henry strongly believed in, often pardoning those who opposed his rule, and placing even those who were not necessarily sympathetic to his rule in positions of power. Had his life not been cut short at just 35 perhaps the double monarchy of England and France would have succeeded and the History of Western Europe would have been very different. We will never know. However the many successes of his short reign have left him as one of the most beloved and admired of Medieval England’s Kings.
T.E. Lawrence in Arabia; War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, Scott Anderson 5/5
Barbara Truncham, the brilliant historian most famous for ‘Guns of August’ once stated that her primal goal when writing History was to retain the reader’s attention. Many historians, vigilant as they are with the facts, fail in that endeavour, other historians lose the facts in their pursuit of readability. Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson succeeds because of the magisterial way he fuses incredible detail with an engaging readability. I often found myself reading the book aloud for chapters on end because of the melismatic ease of his writing. Having said that, this is not a simple book. It is densely researched and broad in its scope.
The focus is not simply Lawrence, but three other characters in the Middle East at the time of the First World War and the Arab Revolt. Curt Prufer, a German attache to the embassy in Cairo who attempts to ferment Islamic Jihad. William Yale, an American on an oil finding mission for Standard Oil and Aaron Aronsohn, agronomist and committed zionist who gains the trust of both the Ottomans and the British. Each of these men is handled with deft, with in depth explanations of their background that familiarises the reader with an understanding of the motives behind their actions, as well as placing them in the wider global context. The book jumps between these men in a linear chronology that can at times be confusing because absorbed as I was with one individual, I would forget where it was I had left the other. Yet it also serves to create a novelic feel to what is a purely academic work.
Unsurprisingly, given the current global context and the centrality of the Middle East to geo-politics, the role it played in the Great War and the effects of the War on it have become important questions to modern audiences.
Anderson convincingly promulgates the high powered geopolitical jostling for ascendancy in the Middle East at the time. The British, whom Anderson claims were largely the creators of the modern Middle East, do not emerge sympathetically. On one hand they had promised to grant the Arabs a pan-Arabic state in return for revolting against the Turks, and on the other hand the Sykes-Picot Agreement meant a partition of the Middle East between France and Britain. Even-handed as he is, Anderson also portrays the extent of the disgust within the British Military at the duplicity of such an agreement, when it came to be known. He explains the logistics of such a decision, detailing how one department of the British Army could take one decision, another department take the opposite decision, and neither side be aware of the other’s actions because of the separation between the two.
Written as it is chronologically Anderson skillfully weaves several different threads together, most deftly with regards to the Armenian Genocide. He proffers no opinion on the classification of ‘genocide’ instead he explores the reasoning behind Ottoman policy. Was it an attempt to ethnically cleanse all Armenians, or was it driven by a genuine fear that the Armenians would revolt against the Ottomans in the case of a Russian invasion? Was it both? If it was in fact a collective decision to ethnically cleanse the Armenians why did the Governor of Syria Djemal Pasha help thousands of them during the War. He manages a seemingly ostensible recount of their suffering, lowering it into chapters not directly concerned with the Armenians, elucidating the widespread nature of their suffering. For example, William Yale on a train trip to Damascus, describes the lines of severely impoverished Armenians up and down the roads, many of them dead, others begging for mercy.
Of course this is a book about T.E Lawrence, and while he is placed into a necessary perspective in the hierarchy of decision making, he is not relegated from significance. Thomas Edward Lawrence emerges a tragic hero, often frustrated by British decision making during the war and eventually broken by the decisions at Versailles and Lausanne. He is a lonely figure, whose sexuality remains a quag of speculation and innuendo. He loved the Arabs, he spoke their language and felt at ease with them. He genuinely believed in their right to self-autonomy and was deeply affected by the decision to partition the Middle East along imperial lines.
Anderson, although broadly sympathetic, does challenges Lawrence, if a piece of evidence contradicts Lawrence’s later recollection of events, his difficult nature, his arrogance and his disloyalty to the British in favour of the Arabs.
Despite the considerable fame he procured in the years following the war, Lawrence spent his final years desperately unhappy, spending the majority of his time in seclusion. ‘It’s hard to escape the image of a sad and reclusive man, his circles of friends and acquaintances steadily dwindling to a mere handful’. Anderson believes that this desire for anonymity was born out of a sense of guilt, that he had promised the Arabs so much and failed to deliver; that men had died in the pursuit of these unfulfilled promises. In the end Lawrence died in 1935 in a car accident. It is for certain that the mystique of Lawrence will endure for his contribution to history is of the unlikely variety. A middle-class Englishman helps lead an Arab revolt against the Ottomans. It is the stuff of legend and myth; precisely the best storytelling.
This book overwhelmingly leaves the reader with the question of ‘what if?’. What if the Ottomans had joined alongside the Allies rather than the Central Powers? What if Germany had won the war? What if the British had listened to Lawrence and invaded from Alexandretta as opposed to Gallipoli? A decision that, based on further research I’ve undertaken, is breathtaking in its incompetence and short sightedness.
What if the British had in fact granted the Arabs their state? Would it have succeeded? Anderson provides a qualified statement. ‘The notion of a true pan-Arab nation was always something of a mirage, the differences between its radically varied cultures far greater than what united them… (However) It is hard to imagine that any…could possibly have produced a sadder history than what has actually transpired over the past century, a catalogue of war, religious strife and brutal dictatorships that has haunted not just the Middle East but the entire world.’ A Brilliant work.
The Iron Kingdom, Christopher Clark 5/5
This is a book about a Kingdom that no longer exists whose former existence was greatly consequential to modern European History. Prussia was the Kingdom that lead the unification of Germany. The book details it’s most famous personalities from Frederick the Great to Otto Von Bismarck, the decimating effect of the Thirty Year’s War, it’s many years of inferior status in Europe, it’s religious tolerance. Prussia was dismantled by the Allies after the Second World War, its leaders believing Prussian militarism responsible for the Two World Wars. Clark grapples with this question. He acknowledges the extent of the role the military played in Prussia, but details that there was more to Prussia. This was an enlightening read about a society I knew very little about and I came to appreciate just how important Prussia and Germany were to European society.
Kaiser Wilhelm II; A Life with Power, Christopher Clark 4/5
Kaiser Wilhelm Hohenzollern II is one of the most controversial figures in 20th century history. As the leader of Germany during the First World War he has been held ultimately responsible for the actions of his nation prior to and then during the conflict. Christopher Clark assesses his legacy in this book and in his familiar style doesn’t explicitly state a sympathy or antipathy towards his subject, it must be found in between the lines. Clark has no time for comparisons with Hitler and the notion that Wilhelm was evil. Rather the Wilhelm Clark portrays is more a child than a villain. He is temperamental, his focus shifting from one subject to another fluidly, in need of constant adoration, frustrated by Germany’s seeming isolation in Europe, desperate to attain the supremacy he believed Germany deserved. As Queen Victoria’s grandson he revered and is jealous of the British, it is this inferiority complex that forms part of the reason Wilhelm pursues the fateful German naval building policy. I found this relatively short book did not answer all my questions about Wilhelm but on its own accord it is excellent.
Russia: A Short Introduction, Geoffrey Hoskings 3.5/5
There are many of these Short Introduction books that provide simple, easy to read, overviews of their subject. It can be read in a few hours barely 100 pages long. I bought the Russian edition because I wanted to attain an overview understanding of Russian History. Geoffrey Hoskings is an expert on Russia and he manages to tell Russia’s story simply and provide answers to questions about Russian History. Especially to the question of why Russians will support a strong leader no matter how despotic – Ivan the Terrible, Josef Stalin – they are. The reason is essentially because they believed the alternative to be anarchy. This is a great introduction to Russia.
The Plantagenets; the Warrior Kings and Queens Who Ruled England, Dan Jones 5/5
The English Royal Dynasty best known to posterity are the Tudors. It is perfectly understandable, there’s is a dynamic story that involves all the ingredients to keep modern audiences transfixed. However the Royal Family that preceded them, the Plantagenets, were just as transfixing. For three days straight I locked myself in my room and flew through this lengthy read that encompasses over 300 years of history. It includes everything we know and love about Medieval Europe. Knights, War, Famine, the Church, Rage, Power, Lust, Sex. It begins with who I think was the best of the Plantagenets Henry II and includes some of the most important moments in English History. Murder in the Cathedral, Richard the Lionheart’s death, Magna Carta, the Wars with Scotland, the Black Death, the Crusades, the Barons revolt, The removal of Edward II, the Hundred Years’ War, the Peasants Revolt, ending with the removal of Richard II whose rule proved most unpopular. Dan Jones is very even handed through-out, as all good historians ought to be, even finding positives to state about possibly the most reviled of all the English Kings, John. No numerical addition required for there will only ever be one King John. I loved this book and will return to it as it contains so much information, it is impossible to absorb in one reading.
The War That Ended Peace, Margaret MacMillan 4.5/5
In the end the First World War was a tragedy, a tragedy the pulled Europe to the brink and worst of all ended millions of lives. Some have attempted to claim that the war was a pointless crime but to do so would be wrong, because many of those who fought did so because they believed it was necessary. To do so would be to arrogantly presume our current society so advanced that no such conflict could be replicated in our times; the reasons for War in 1914 not applicable to ours. To do so would be to deprive our generation of a valuable lesson from history. The sad reality is that many Europeans at the turn of the 20th century shared the belief that Europe, now a beacon of enlightenment and progress, had found the means to avoid war. Margaret Macmillan attempts to, and largely succeeds in elaborating this point, hence the title, the War That Ended Peace. All the regular players are involved, Kaiser Wilhelm, Tsar Nicholas, Edward Grey. The narrative begins at the 1900 Exhibition in Paris, France, showcasing the modernity and progress of the modern world. A glimpse into pre-war society that is almost haunting benefited by hindsight.
For most of the narrative Macmillan allows the sources she’s collected to speak for themselves but there are other times where she is more equivocal in her opinion. She scorches the Germans for the incompetency of their foreign policy. She takes the view that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was on the verge of collapse. She views the Kaiser as a bit of joker. Yet, like many modern historians, Macmillan doesn’t apportion blame to any single nation for the war but spreads it around to Germany, Russia, Austro-Hungary, Serbia and to a lesser extent Britain and France, whom Macmillan claims deserve less blame than the others, but ought to be criticised for not doing enough to prevent the conflict. It truly was the War That Ended Peace and the world is all the worse for it.
The Uses and Abuses of History, Margaret MacMillan 3/5
This is a short, sharp read about how History has often been used as a political means of justification eg. Hitler and Frederick the Great, and the adverse effects of doing so. There are points where MacMillan’s political views emerge but overall it showcases the dangers of history as a political tool.
Paris 1919: 6 Months That Changed the World, Margaret MacMillan 5/5
When the First World War concluded following four years of inglorious fighting the World’s focus shifted to Paris where the world’s leaders met to negotiate the peace. Leaders from all across the world converged on Paris in what was an extraordinary period in the city’s cherished history; from China and Japan, to parts of Africa, Australia but mostly from Europe. A Europe altered dramatically by the Great War. The three most important of these men were Woodrow Wilson, the President of the United States, David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Georges Clemenceau, Prime Minister of France; The victors. It was in their hands that the most important decisions of the Paris Peace Conference were made.
One of the central theses of this work is that the Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles were not to blame for the Second World War. MacMillan, in this brilliant work, argues that these men believed they were creating a better world, especially Wilson and his beloved League of Nations. However, they had to balance this with the promises they had made to allies during the War, against the often irrational demands of jingoistic nationalism, as well as the appeasement of their own populaces. The book details how difficult this often proved to be. In the end the peace was hardly perfect and many of the decisions of the conference continue to affect us today. Notably the division of the Middle East, but perhaps most surprising to me was the effect it had on the Chinese populace, who lost much faith in the West owing to their treatment at the conference. I read the majority of this book in Europe, including Paris, which only added to the enjoyment I received in reading this enlightening and important book.
When We Were Young And Foolish, Greg Sheridan 3/5
Greg Sheridan is an Australian journalist who works for the Australian. He is of conservative inclination, and a close personal friend of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott. His area of expertise is Asia, an area he loves, and writes passionately about especially Indonesia. This book details his early years, including his time working for a Union as a member of the Labor Party, taking the fight up to the Communist dominated left at University, entering a seminary to become a Priest, and getting to know some of the most important of figures of future Australian politics, including Bob Carr, Tony Abbott, Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull. This is a fascinating read and while Sheridan is a good writer, he is a better columnist.
The English and Their History, Robert Tombs 5/5
There is an intrinsic depth and breadth to English History that is captivating. This book, over a thousand pages in length, explores English history but also explores the culture and art of the moment, the development of the English language, and the overall historical context. As the title suggests, this is not just a work about English History it is also about the English. Tombs is remarkably even handed through-out, one reviewer hoped Tombs would ‘bare some teeth’ but he doesn’t. That is in essence what makes this such an agreeable book. Any author who manages to remain apolitical about Margaret Thatcher is doing something right. Another example is the First World War. Tombs declares that the First World War was not an accident but then questions what else Edward Grey could have done during the July Crisis. He claims that Europe’s populations did not happily march into war, believing it an adventure to be over by Christmas, rather they were quite saddened by the announcement, fearful of its ramifications, but also believing in it. The English Civil War is portrayed not as some great Parliamentarian victory but as an avoidable accident. The Empire is portrayed for its mistakes as well as its victories. I loved this book and whenever I feel I need some information on English history I return to it. He does brush over Medieval England a little, but there are plenty of other books to turn to for that.
I was unable to split my two favourite books of 2015. Both unforgettable in their own way.
The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky. 5/5
This is a novel that doesn’t quite leave you. It may take you a while to complete it though. It is so detailed, racked with depth and intelligence. I’m not ashamed to admit that I have spent an inordinate amount of time this year aimlessly pondering its endless crevices. It is the story of the four sons of Fyodor Karamazov. Dmitri, Ivan, Alexei and Smerdyakov. Each of the brothers is extremely different in temperament and belief. This cocktail, mixed with a debaucher father, proves to be lethal when Fyodor is murdered. The writing is not lyrical, it is dense and detailed, allowable to consider the breadth of thought and ideas expressed by the Brothers. Their conversations consider God, suffering, morality, Love, honour. This manifests itself most famously in the ‘Grand Inquisitor’, a chapter where Ivan tells Alexei a story he had created about the return of Christ and his implication that the Roman Catholic Church would not welcome this. It is a brilliant and thought-provoking dissertation that my many hours of pondering often focused on. Alexei is the novel’s hero, and he is mine. Perhaps my favourite literary character. He is so humble, so honest, so good, a creation seemingly to be trampled upon, broken by those around him, yet he emerges as the hero and rises above. It is a brilliant work!
The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Zafron. 5/5
It is novels like these that remind me of why I love literature. The Shadow of the Wind is exciting, heart-warming, heart-breaking, a pallet of emotion. It’s characterisations are real and authentic, yet Zafron never ceases in holding the reader’s attention. Set in post-war Barcelona, this is the story of a young boy who is taken by his father to the Library of Forgotten Books. He picks the Shadow of the Wind and falls in love with it. That is merely the tip of the iceberg. Zafron’s majesty lies in the way he brings the lives of a large group of disparate people together, leaving the reader breathless and moved.The story shifts from comedy, to tragedy, to social commentary on the Francoist regime. Barcelona comes to life, almost as a character of its own but is used only to advance the story, not as a means of laudatory propagation.
Perhaps it is strange to place the Shadow of the Wind on the same mantel as The Brothers Karamazov. It is true that they are two extremely different novels. Karamazov is intellectual and thought-provoking, where as The Shadow of the Wind is passionate and intense, almost the anti-thesis of the other. Yet for all their differences, they share a similar message. The way that ideas, dogmatically held, influence us all. It may not be the literary equivalent of Karamazov, yet I will never forget the way the Shadow of the Wind made me feel. The emotions that I experienced. For that reason, I cannot separate the two.
I’m Not Scared, Niccolò Ammaniti 3.5/5
What is perhaps surprising about Italian society, based on the two books I have read this year set in Italy, is just how recently violent its society was. Perhaps this is an unfair generalisation and I find myself somewhat confused by it, Italy is one of the largest economies in the world, with approximately 60 million people and millions of tourists who travel there every year, they’re not going to travel to a violent country, yet as recently as the 1970’s poorer communities in the south of Italy were kidnapping the children of richer families from the north for ransom. This is the focus of this short but chilling novel, about a young boy who finds a child in an old abandoned house. He presumes him to be a ghost, and written as it is from the perspective of a child, the novel retains its innocence through out, even as the reader figures out that this is no ghost and the reality is more frightening.
The Zahir, Paul Coelho. 3/5
Paul Coelho is best known for the Alchemist, a novel I have bought but yet read. Zahir is the Arabic word for obsession, this novel’s central theme. The main character’s wife leaves him and he becomes obsessed with finding her. The novel asks questions about love and life, about how much work is too much work, and what does it truly mean to be happy. Interestingly the novel ends up in Kazakhstan. It suffers from being too repetitive. Coelho makes the same point about happiness several times.
The Iron King, Maurice Druon 4/5
The first book in a series of historical fiction novels that document the fall of the Capet Dynasty in France. The Iron King details the brutal end of the Knights Templar and the curse placed on the Capet Kings by the final remaining Templar, as he burns to death. George Martin called it the original Game of Thrones. It is every bit as gruesome as GOT, only not fantasy, but very very real.
The Little Prince, Antoine De Saint-Exupery 4/5
Arguably the most famous work of literature to come out of France. The Little Prince is a novella about a pilot stranded in the desert, who meets a Prince from a distant planet. It is written for children but arguably more so for adults. A touching, beautiful read, it teaches us not to forget the power of imagination. Not to loose the innocence and hope of youth.
My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante. 3.5/5
Elena Ferrante is the pseudonym of an Italian author whose identity remains unknown. She has written a coming of age series set in Naples that focuses on two young girls Elena and Lila, growing up in the 50’s and 60’s. The first book in this four part series, focuses on their childhood on the streets of Naples. It is often violent and bloody. I was rather shocked by the extent of the violence but then again Naples is known for that. Other times it is literary and beautiful. They learn many different languages and push for their chance at education. It is very eloquently written. I am looking forward to reading the second part of the series.
Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn 4.5/5
Managing to hold the reader’s attention doesn’t necessary make a novel great, but in the case of Gone Girl, it is precisely this staying power that renders it unforgettable. I decided to read the book before I saw the movie, which came out last year. I picked it up thinking I would read a few pages, unsure of its premise, and found myself mesmerised. The novel is written from two very different perspectives, Nick Dunne and his wife Amy. Nick returns home one morning to find that Amy has disappeared and very quickly the reader realises not to trust his narrative entirely. Running simultaneously is a diary written by Amy from the time her and Nick first met. This also proves to be very unreliable. There are points in this novel that are jaw dropping. It reaches a peak towards the middle and then just runs home from there.
The Silkworm, Robert Galbraith 3.5/5
The second book in JK Rowling’s new Cormoran Strike murder-mysteries. They’re wonderful reads that keep you fixated and engaged for long periods of time. This time it focuses on the murder of a not-so-successful author. At times it is laugh out loud funny, especially when Rowling re-creates sections of the dead author’s work. The reveal of the murderer at the end of this book was much better than in the Cuckoo’s Calling.
Memoirs of A Geisha, Arthur Golden 4/5
You are immersed in a world that you didn’t know existed, in a world that is now lost. It is often bleak, punctured by rare rays of light, with a similarly bitter-sweet ending. Golden has done his research and it shows in the descriptions of make-ups and dresses, of the training and classes Geisha’s went through, the unceasing need for the approval of ones clients. You can almost smell the perfume and taste the Sake. A novel I plan on returning to.
The End of the Affair, Graham Greene 4/5
I remained awake till early dawn to complete this book. I began it late one evening and before I knew it, it was three am and I was complete. It is different to other Greene novels in that it is so eloquently written. The story of a torrid love affair, between a married woman and a single man, it asks questions of love and life, and in typical Greene fashion, places Catholicism right at the heart of it.
The Quiet American, Graham Greene 5/5
This book reminded me a lot of The Year of Living Dangerously, which explains why I loved it so much. Based on Greene’s time as a journalist during the Indochina war, a British journalist in Vietnam befriends an American agent working undercover. The novel takes you close to the natives and the destructive nature of war. Piercingly anti-American, its focuses on the effects of colonialism as well as of the inefficiency of intelligence agencies. It may have been published 1955 but in many respects it remains very relevant today.
The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini 4/5
I had been encouraged by several people to read this novel, stating that it is beautiful and heart-warming. It most certainly pulls on your heartstrings and you don’t forget how you feel after you’ve read it. Set in Afghanistan the book tells the story of a young boy and his father and how the Afghani wars on the 70s till now demoralised a nation and its people. Despite being well written, it is a very black and white story; there is no room for grey. The bad guys behave horrendously and the good guys can’t help but be victims of their horror. Real life is more nuanced than that.
Bring up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel 5/5
The second book in the Thomas Cromwell Trilogy, Mantel focuses on the downfall of Anne Boleyn. Just as brilliant as Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies is even bleaker. Despite knowing what will happen, Mantel manages to make these events fresh and exciting, keeping the reader engaged as she seamlessly and believably recreates one of the most controversial and mysterious events in English History. This maybe a revisionist history of Thomas Cromwell, but you still can’t help but despise him for what he does to so many innocent people, simply to appease the wishes of his despotic King.
A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel 5/5
I don’t think there’s anything of Mantel’s I’ve read that I have disliked. It isn’t as if she possesses a distinct style I find engaging. On the contrary, Mantel is known for the distinction between each of her books. A Place of Greater Safety focuses on three of the most important figures of the French Revolution, Maximillen Robespierre, Jacques Danton and Camille Desmoulins. Despite being unaware of the intricacies of the French Revolution, I found this book easy to follow. It is experimental, jumping from first person, to third person, sometimes mid-sentence. There are scenes written as scripts. After almost 900 pages, you are left with an understanding of the way the Revolution descended into a terror that destroyed its most hopeful aspirants.
Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, Hilary Mantel 5/5
What could be more terrifying than living in Saudi Arabia? According to Hilary Mantel, not much. Based on her experience living in Saudi Arabia for three years, Mantel gives a tense, shocking incursion into what daily life is like in the Kingdom. Written in the gothic style, it reaches a terrifying climax, that leaves the reader with chills. In one particular scene the main character Frances Shore, is attempting to cross a street. She sees that a car is coming, so she pauses to let the car through. The gentleman in the car stops to allow her through. Just as she is about to cross, he revs his car forward slightly frightening Frances. He just stares at her not moving and Frances realises he does not want her to cross, so she turns and goes another way. I cannot know for certain, but I feel that Mantel may have experienced this herself. As with any Mantel novel it is beautifully written, but as in any Mantel novel, it is unlike anything else she has written. She very clearly portrays the divide between eastern and western values that have for so long plagued relations between them. A very relevant tome in our times.
The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro 3.5/5
I hadn’t heard of Ishiguro until a snippet of his latest novel appeared in the UK Telegraph. What struck me was the calm, poetic tone of his writing. The feeling one gets reading Ishiguro, is the feeling one gets reading when it is cold, gloomy and raining. It is the best time to read. The Buried Giant is set in Anglo-Saxon England. It is a re-imagining of a world that still remains in our imagination because we know so little about it. Yet it tells a story of the universality of love and the fickleness of memory. A theme that recurs quite often in his works. It suffers at time from an inauthenticity of voice.
The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro 5/5
Like Graham Greene, Ishiguro’s novels tend to be short and snappy. They make their point without lingering unnecessarily. The Remains of the Day is Ishiguro’s most famous work, and won him the Booker Prize. Set in the 1950s, an old Butler, Stevens, who serves in a former great English estate known as Darlington Hall, takes a journey to visit Miss Kenton, the former housekeeper. In extensive flashbacks over the three-day journey, Steven looks back at the previous thirty years of his life and considers his actions, assesses his regrets, especially the blindingly obvious but unacknowledged love between he and Miss Kenton and affirms the importance of his job as a butler. It has an interesting side-story about, the once owner of Darlington Hall, Lord Darlington’s attempts at conciliation and appeasement with Weimar and then Nazi Germany.
An Artist of the Floating World, Kazuo Ishiguro 4.5/5
Ishiguro’s second novel. Set in post war Japan, from the perspective of Masuji Ono. During the War, Masuji was not only an artist of Japanese Propaganda but also a police informant. He finds himself discredited in the new Japan, embarrassed of its imperialist and jingoistic past and his daughter struggling to find a husband because of the reputation of her father. Like the Remains of the Day, Ishiguro patiently makes these revelations through flashbacks and conversations. This is perhaps Ishiguro’s most heartfelt story as Masuji Ono slowly begins to understand the impact of his life’s decisions.
A Pale View of Hills, Kazuo Ishiguro 4/5
Ishiguro’s first novel. This is one strange read. After I finished it I spent a couple of hours on the Internet attempting to make sense of it. Etsuko in England is saddened by the suicide of her daughter Niki. She reminisces about Sachiko a single mother she met when she was still living in post-war Japan. The novel moves at a simmering yet predictable pace until it alters towards the end and the narrator, Etsuko, proves to be very unreliable. There are many different theories on what it means, Ishiguro has admitted that he made it too ambiguous, but nonetheless there is an element of enjoyment in attempting to decipher the ambiguity.
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro 4.5/5
When you get to the end of this novel you don’t know whether to cry for the characters or be happy for them. Set in a dystopic England where the main characters are clones of other humans, raised to donate their organs, and then eventually die ‘complete’ from the complications. Without ruining any of the story, this is inherently a novel about death and how we humans struggle to accept it, constantly looking for ways to avoid it, rarely accepting that we can’t do so. Probably Ishiguro’s most thought-provoking novel.
When We Were Orphans, Kazuo Ishiguro – 4/5
According to Wikipedia, this is considered Ishiguro’s weakest effort. Even he says so. ‘This is not my best work’. It may not be his best, but considering the consistent quality of his work, it is still of a high calibre. Set during the inter-war years, it focuses on successful detective Chrstopher Banks’ desire to find out how and why his parents disappeared in Shanghai when he was a child. The novel’s themes are similar to other Ishiguro works. The unreliability of memory, the effects of war, the unspoken but obvious. The flashbacks to Shanghai are absolutely brilliant; nobody quite does flashbacks like Ishiguro, who seamlessly fits them into the narrative. The second half of the novel is weaker than the first. Something about the Banks, returning to Shanghai because he believed his parents to be alive, struck me as unconvincing, there are also times when the novel lulls, but overall it’s a beautiful work.
Girl with Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson. 4.5/5
It isn’t very often that you come across a novel that is so unique; it possesses its own texture and depth. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is very much this novel. It is very dark and tense. Every turn of the page, the reader fears what may happen next. A murder mystery into the disappearance of Harriet Vanger, it is more a parable on the violence women experience and why it often goes unreported. Lisbeth Salander, the novel’s titular character, is inverted and strange, but we identify with her. She has struggled; some of these struggles receive very detailed documentation in the book, others remain a mystery. A truly unique experience.
The Girl who Played With Fire, Stieg Larsson 4.5/5
The second novel in the Lisbeth Salander series may not be a clear-cut murder mystery but it is equally thrilling and intense. Not to mention equally gruesome. Written in that distinct style, the second book encompasses more characters and takes an even more political tone. Journalists become involved and shady underworld figures gain prominence. Once again Larsson focuses on female injustices, this time sex-trafficking. Lisbeth Salander only becomes more fascinating as we learn more about her mysterious past.
Life of Pi, Yann Martel 3.5/5
For such a popular book, it may seem a very low rating. That is because the middle section of the book is often quite boring. The movie suffers from the same problem. Others may disagree but I found myself often skimming the middle sections. The plot is simple. Pi, is a deeply religious young boy, practising, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. His family leave India to Canada. On the way, their ship gets destroyed (how exactly, we don’t know) and Pi ends up shipwrecked with a Tiger known as Richard Parker, (his family owned a Zoo in India and were transporting the animals to Canada). Part 1 and Part 3 are brilliant and thought-provoking. Pi survives the ordeal and ends up on the shores of South America. When explaining the story to the Japanese Insurance Company investigating the crash, they don’t believe him, stating his story doesn’t make sense. He can’t have survived with a Tiger on board with him. So Pi tells them another story, which is more believable, instead of animals, they are people. Which story is true? The first story with the Tiger, explains Pi, has God, the other doesn’t. The Japanese choose the story with Tiger, because the story is always better with God. A very though provoking novel.
The Great Zoo of China, Matthew Reilly 3/5
An easy, couple of hours read, about a Great Zoo built in China. Its main attraction; Dragons. It has a well-constructed plot and moves incessantly. No literary awards are coming its way, but it was a great easy read.
Under an hour of the flight remains, thank the Lord! It began relatively bumpy, but has smoothed considerably since. I’m not the best flyer, but I’ve certainly improved from my earlier fears. Any slight hint of turbulence and I would begin praying, rosary after rosary until I thought it safe. I still get nervous as the plane shakes lightly but not as much as before. The flight was delayed four hours, which is quite unfortunate because it means that we won’t be arriving in Los Angeles until half past two in the morning. It’s going to completely throw out our sleeping pattern.
We arrived in Waikiki on the 11th of December, and immediately made our way to the hotel to check in. We were told that our room was not yet ready and to return in a couple of hours. We asked what was a good place to eat. Duke’s was the response from the concierge. He provided me with instructions ‘left turn here, right turn there’, which I pretended to take in, knowing I would never remember, and would not need to remember, not with both Google Maps and Maps on my phone. Paula, Christie and Mary-Joe had not tasted any food since Sydney and were positively famished, especially Paula. My sisters are even worse flyers than me. I’ll at least eat the food on the flight. They won’t even consider it. Paula and Christie are the worst, always on the verge of gagging. Thankfully they retained vomit on this flight. Duke’s, according to google maps, was only a few minutes walk on the main road in Waikiki, right on the beach. We walked around slowly, taking in our new surroundings. Waikiki city is nothing particularly special. In fact it’s rather old in places and not in a charming sense. There was construction across the road from our hotel, which only added to the perception of disrepair. On Waikiki road, we crossed past a vast length of shops and restaurants. There was an Apple Store and Macy’s, H&M and Forever 21. We even came across the world famous Cheesecake Factory. Everybody I knew that had gone to Hawaii strongly recommended I go. Their food is great, they would tell me, their serving’s are enormous. I convinced my parents we should go there instead, but the line was deemed too long and my sisters simply could no longer wait. So we continued a little further down to Duke’s, hidden somewhere inside a hotel. My concern that this was an obscure place that we were recommended because of an arrangement between the establishment and the hotel proved unfounded. A 10-15 minute wait, proclaimed the girl at the counter. Her American accent something I was still not accustomed to. We decided we’d wait, because we wanted good food and could not be bothered to look for another. We sat on wooden chairs, with leather bottoms, waiting. The restaurant lies right in front of the beach, attached to a swimming area for hotel guests, from which the restaurant opens out into. The sun beams into the restaurant, shadowing only some sections of the restaurant. I ordered a Caesar Salad, being not too hungry having actually eaten on the plane. My sisters ordered burgers which they absolutely loved and would convince us to return to Duke’s for a second time. The second time I ordered a burger and I saw what it was my sister’s loved. I will give Hawaii something, the beef is amazing.
We stayed at Aqua Waikiki Pearl, a hotel one street off the main. It was chosen more for its affordability than anything else. 11 nights for six people this time of year was always going to be expensive. So I picked the best option I could find. The Hotel wasn’t too bad. A 6.5-7/10. The location was great as was the price. The room was clean and there was nice running hot water, but the beds weren’t great, especially the sofa. It had the thinnest mattress imaginable. I thought the mattress I slept on in Madrid was terrible, this was worse and made just as much sound. Christie and I originally shared it, but after one night she realised this was not feasible and concocted her own bed from the couch cushions. Her bed ended up being more comfortable than mine. We also had to change rooms, because of the excessive noise being made by drunkyards at a bar attached the hotel. We weren’t getting any sleep. The second room was a vast improvement.
The flight is about to land, and I need to preserve my battery.
It is after 2 am, apparently. Had I really been reading for that long? It hadn’t felt like it. I was still wide-awake, buzzing with excitement and adrenalin, having experienced a full spectrum of emotion. Two minutes ago, it had seemed, I had opened the final two hundred pages and told my self I would read till the end of the chapter. I was so mesmerised by the story, by its lucid writing, tragic heroes, evil villains, tragic villains and evil heroes, and mostly its unforgettable storyline, that I didn’t realise the hours that had passed. The page number became irrelevant, I was going to get the end and I did. When it was all over, I put the book down, disappointed, I hadn’t wanted it to end, but exhausted by the emotional veracity of its content.
This is a story of the tragedy of love, the hope of youth, the bleakness of age and the power of literature. The Shadow of the Wind is a story, within a story, where the sub-plots have sub-plots. It intertwines itself into a Barcelona of a different age, before the millions of tourists arrived and altered it forever. It is a reminder of how beautiful and moving literature can be. At times it makes you laugh, others it makes you cry, others it frightens you.
Combining brilliant story telling with memorable, vivid characters. Zafron’s majesty lies in the way he takes the reader deep into the lives of his characters. He makes us love them because we know their story.
We hope with them, we despair with them; we hold our breath knowing some of what comes next. Penelope, Julian, Miguel, Jacinta, Fumero, Nuria and Daniel are elevated because we know their story, their trials and hardships. Even Fumero, the novel’s main villain, has a tragic backstory. He is unable to let go of his past, of his lost love, of his sense of inferiority. He lashes all those around him, disloyal and savage, doing all he can to move up in the new world, so he can destroy the old world of which he was nothing.
Zafron doesn’t just show, he also tells; story after story, from the perspectives of the many different characters we come across, in evocatively written flashbacks.
He gives the characters a very authentic voice, especially the larger than life Fermin. Everything Fermin says feels his own, as opposed to that of a writer, moving a storyline along, shaping a character to his will.
It is easy to see now why millions have loved this book and why millions more will love it in the future.
In an interview with the Telegraph Hilary Mantel expresses an ‘I told you so’ attitude about the current difficulties the west is facing in deal with extremism. Her frustration stems from an understanding she gained of these difficulties living in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for four years in the 1980s and in 1998 publishing a novel on it. 8 Months on Ghazzah Street is a tense, paranoid, brilliant novel about Frances and Andrew Shore who move to the city when Andrew gets a well paying job.
The novel moves at a simmering pace, carefully placing important pieces of information to keep the reader feeling tense and uncomfortable. The gun men on the street, the sobbing upstairs in the so called ’empty apartment’. Rumour and innuendo spread by ex-pats.
Mostly, through its riveting account of the suffocating existence for a woman, even a man, in the Kingdom. Women cannot drive, they cannot work. Alcohol is illegal. The religious police are constantly lurking in the background. The punishment for adultery is hanging for men, and stoning for women. Frances is assured by her neighbour Jasmin that the stones are a mere token and the woman is then shot. ‘I’m relived’, replies Frances. In these conversations the East-West divide provides the central premise of this book. The polarity of experience and sensibility between Jasmin and Frances cannot remain hidden. Frances cannot help but judge, and Jasmin becomes defensive. These two woman represent two very different ideals and values and while they may be calmly discussing it over ‘bitter-tea’, its ramifications are ones we continue to feel today. As Mantel notes the book explores the ‘vast gulf of misunderstanding between East and West. It was in those misunderstandings that extremism breeds, because the image of the West there was so black and so distorted.’
The final chapters are hair raising, but we won’t give them away. Note to readers, once you have completed the book, go back to the memorandum on the first page and check the dates. There is a nasty surprise in stall for you.
Sitting at Rome airport. Half an hour before boarding and still no gate assignment. The perks of travelling through Europe. My so called Etihad flight to Sydney begins with Air Berlin and a thirteen hour lay over in Berlin. The perks of changing flights last minute. All in all, I’m not uncomfortable. My hotel in Berlin is booked. I’ll be all rested before my flight the next morning.
It’s all a little surreal. Six and a half weeks in Europe have flown by with alarming alacrity. Could it be more than a month since I touched down in London and was awed by the majesty of the city? Time really does speed up as you get older. The swiftness of the trip only reinforces to me the correctness of my decision to travel.
Rome and London were the greatest. The ‘bookends’ as I’m sure I’ll call them when I get asked hundreds of times, where did I love the most. London I’ve already gone into.
Rome is what I expected really. Very old. Very touristy. Extremely hot. I was awed by the colosseum. Inspired to learn more about Ancient Rome. I’ll be sure to order the Masters of Rome series when I get home.
The food was great. Word of advice, If Trip Advisor says it’s good, it usually is. The metro wasn’t extensive but it gets you to where you need to go. Overall though, get used to walking in Rome. On average between 15-20 kilometres per day. From the Roman Forum to the Vatican museums you will walk.
Speaking of the Vatican. Now that was an experience. Walking from one country, Italy, to another Vatican City. The guide explained that the Vatican City was created in 1929 in a treaty signed between the Pope and Mussolini. ‘Mussolini, what’s that?’ Asked Thien. I buried my head into my hands.
We booked a tour to avoid the lines and gain that insider information. It was worthwhile. The lines to get in were long and arduous. The museums themselves, require days on end for the really critical eye. We got through in three hours. Not enough time, yet enough in the moment. There were tourists everywhere. Most rooms weren’t air conditioned and if they were, the sheer number of people rendered them ineffective.
We saw incredible art. Artists I’ve never heard of and whose names I don’t remember. Then there’s Michelangelo. He dominates so much of the Vatican. Most notably the Sistine Chapel. First we were told that she (the guide) would have to explain the art and history of the chapel outside because inside she wasn’t allowed to speak. She explained how the Sistine Chapel roof is a row of paintings depicting scenes from the Old Testament. The most famous is Adam being given life by God. Michelangelo gives God a perfect physique because he believed that it was sin that aged man. The Chapel itself was very noisy, much to my disappointment. I had expected, probably naively, a solemn experience and found myself unable to move or concentrate. Despite the repeated efforts of the guards, there was no quiet, just continual noise.
When travelling through Europe, one sees his fair share of churches. The main, most well known, will always amaze you. Toledo, Seville, Notre Dame, St Mark’s Venice (with its incredible mosaic ceiling) , St Paul’s London. After six weeks, it does become repetitive. That is until you enter St. Peter’s Basilica. I don’t possess the knowledge to describe the architectural genius that is this place. It is grand beyond all measure. 120 years it took to complete, encompassing three different artistic periods. Here St. Peter, the rock, lay and upon this rock the most grand Church was built. I did wonder at points just what Jesus would have made of all this grandeur. Matthew 21:12 came to mind.
While Rome was very much what I expected, Berlin was very much not. It is sprawling and large. One does not feel that they are in a city, rather a large town. The city streets are not crawling with people like London, Paris, Rome, rather they are sprinkled everywhere. It was sometimes hard to imagine you were in one of the largest cities in Europe. This was not necessarily unwelcome, it was just unexpected.
The past dominates this city in a way very different from any other European city. It is still so recent, still raw and very much follows you around. A paved double line crosses the city, reminding citizens and visitors alike exactly where the Berlin Wall stood not 25 years ago. We met former citizens of East Germany and pestered them for information about what life was like. I had expected them to suggest it wasn’t as bad as we had been told to believe. They didn’t. It was very much the decadent, corrupt state, all the Soviet states were.
Memorials to the victims of Nazism slowly emerge across the city. Right next to the Brandenburg gate is a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. As you walk past, you see a clutter of grey boxes, separated, all the same shape, yet of different height, in an area about 50 metres squared. There are children running across these boxes, so my initial impression was that it was a play area. It wasn’t. It was the memorial. There is no clear sign, or symbol denoting the memorial. What it means, no body really knows. The designer of this memorial has never explained it. Each persons leaves with their own interpretation. It is powerful in its own understated kind of way.
Berlin however is a city in progress. Most of the city was destroyed in the Second World War.
It was then re-built in two very different images.
One an American-Western image, the other a Russian-Soviet image. It hasn’t got a distinctly German, Berliner identiy that other places in Germany do. Parts of the city feel quite depressing, a very Soviet ugliness to them. Cities take time to be built, and Berlin had cranes galore working on it.
Been assigned a gate now. Time to get onto my flight!
Arrival in Barcelona, waiting for the others so we can head out to La Sagrada Familia. So now seems a good time to look back on Seville.
Seville was one of those places on the trip that had I travelled alone I would not have gone to. Which is why travelling with others is a good thing, because I would have deprived my self of a beautiful place.
Seville or Sevilla (silent l) in Spanish, is a very touristy place in the south of Spain. An old Capital, it’s age is shown in its narrow and cobbled streets. The taxi that took us to our apartment from the train station was deafening as the wheels bumped against the cobbles. Not fun.
It is simple to walk around, seemingly lost, only to find a corner you remember and find your way home. If all else fails of course, there is Google maps.
We were in Seville for only two nights. If only more. We arrived early and went to the Seville Cathedral. The third largest in the world. I walked in and immediately thought I was in Toledo. The design was so similar. It was truly grand, yet far more touristy than Toledo, which perhaps explains why I didn’t enjoy it as much. The main attraction the place offers is its bell tower. Built as a ramp, so that horses could go up it, it was far preferable to St Paul’s dome, which forced you to take stairs. 40 levels we went up and got a good look at the city. Truly beautiful.
After that, it was to the Alcazar of Seville. A royal palace built by the Arabs when they ruled Spain. The place came highly recommended, not to mention scenes from Game of Thrones were filmed there! Now this was truly exquisite. The walls were all inscribed in what appeared like Arab writing. Painted in simple blues, greens and reds. It wasn’t gothic, or classical, it was very different. Very Arab. I loved it, Michael thought it was the best place he’d been to. We spent a good three, four hours there and couldn’t get enough of it. I wasn’t as moved by it as Toledo, but it was certainly a highlight.
Returned to the apartment for our new favourite thing, siesta. Shopped for a bit as well. Then we decided enough is enough. We are going to be young, wild and free. We went to the main party district and ended up at a club called Libanos, with argili! It’s almost as if God wanted us to go there. The Spanish are crazy! We got there at 1am, on a Wednesday night. I thought maybe we’d left it too late. We hadn’t. The club only began to peak around 3am. It packed out. The drinks and drunks flowed. The argili filled the hot night time air. The music was Spanish and English. I was Shazaming the whole night.
Thien, Sarah and Dom, all ended up filling plastic bags around 5am. It was fun to be young again. After I finished taking care of them, it was bed time by 6.30 am as the sun was coming up. It’s fun to be young. I never want to do that again.
The next day was slow. Nothing really happened. The others didn’t wake till 12-1. We got time to go to the Plaza Des Espana. Beautiful! Then a unique experience in a convent. You go to it and ring a bell, from behind the wall a nun asks you what you want. They make sweets. So you tell them, put the money on this round platform that turns around, she turns it around from inside, accepts the money, places the sweets you ordered and spins it back around.
Caught a Flamenco show. Traditional Spanish dancing and singing. The guy who sang absolutely grated on my ears. The dancers though we’re amazing. They stomped their feet, and shook their hips, and worked up an enormous sweat. It was a true cultural experience.
Anyway the others are now about ready. First impressions of Barcelona. Too touristy and dirty. At this stage would have liked to stay in Seville and gone to Cordoba and Alhambra. Let’s see if that opinion changes.
Off to La Sagrada.
‘They love carbs with carbs’ Michael Soud perfectly summarising his view of the Spanish people. All foods, no matter how fattening they may be, come with a side of bread or crisps.
In many ways Madrid is beautiful. The city streets are wide surrounded by many different coloured buildings, that rise up about 5-6 levels. It is classical and elegant and although the buildings look different, they are designed quite similarity: small balconies with iron bars. It is quintessentially European.
There is ancient architecture to take your breath away. Especially the Royal Palace. Room after room decorated in the most beautiful colours, with the most expensive artefacts. Just when you think you’ve seen the best room, the next takes your breath away. The highlight, perhaps unexpectedly, was the dining room. It was enormous, with giant chandeliers, dominating the room.
There was some museum sight seeing. We won’t review that. Art isn’t really my thing. Some classic pieces were nice and if my feet weren’t hurting me so much, I may have appreciated it more, but my feet. There was a lot of pain. A lot of it.
The food in Madrid was nothing special. In some ways, I had expected the food in Spain to a highlight, and perhaps with that expectation, the reality has been a disappointment. Maybe it was the restaurants we went to, they weren’t the right ones, we didn’t look hard enough. Although I believe it’s simply that the quality of food in Sydney is just so high, we’ve become accustomed to fine cuisine. I’ll be sure to keep an update on that, once I’ve done France and Italy.
The apartment we stayed in was very small. Thien and I shared a sofa bed. Every movement, no matter how slight, no matter how insignificant, would making a creaking sound and the entire world was waken.
The night life on a Saturday night was boisterous. Clubs not really peaking until 3am. I’m no clubber, so that was probably lost on me. I went home and slept at 2am, still unaccustomed to the time zone change. Other nights of the week, unsurprising, did not peak anywhere near as much.
The best thing we’ve learnt about Spain, is siesta. One of life’s greatest things. Literally, the country stops for a couple of hours. Shops close, offices close, job sites close and everybody goes home and sleeps for a couple of hours. A wonderful thing. Although with that attitude, no matter Spain’s unemployment rate is stuck at 25%.
The highlight of Madrid, wasn’t even in the city itself, but about 30 minutes by train outside the city. A place called Toledo. A village/town, that houses one of the biggest Cathedrals in the world. The Saint Mary of Toledo. It was a truly breathtaking place. My favourite place of the trip so far. It was so grand and inspiring. Tall gothic poles all round. The main altar made from gold. Small chapels, dedicated to different saints, Cardinals and Monarchs. The choir, it just has to be seen to believed. There was so much to contemplate. So much to consider. Many prayers were made.
Next stop Seville.
On the flight to Madrid. I have the aisle seat, Sarah’s asleep in the middle and a red haired Spanish man is on the window. Sarah was asking him to teach her Spanish words to ease our communication in the country. She wrote then down in my notes. It’s not the Oxford Dictionary, but it will help.
In many ways I was sad to leave London. There was much about it I loved. The grand streets, the friendly people, the history. In other ways I was ready to leave. It had been four days and the accommodation we stayed in was terrible. The room was tolerable, it was more so the location. Also my feet were aching from all the walking we’d done. I need to purchase new footwear, if my feet are to survive the rest of the trip. The weather has also been a difficulty. I came to Europe in the hope of enjoying hot stuffy nights. All I got was cold winds and heavy breezes. Last night especially was awful. We had dinner at canary Wharf and on the way back to the hotel, almost froze to death.
I will return to London, and do it differently and better the second time around.
Today Sarah and I got up early and went to the Borough Markets. A slightly hidden market place near London Bridge. There are many stands of food from different parts of the world. Cheese and cakes and meats. We ended having an English Breakfast in a stand that also provided seating. It was the usual kind, bacon, eggs, sausage, and something I’d never heard of prior, bubble. Sarah and I were confused so an old, respectable looking English couple chose to explain that it was basically a mash of left overs. I was sceptical but the lady said it was very nice, so we tried it and she was right.
After the Borough Markets, Sarah went to the Tate Modern Museum and I went in search of a book store. I entered into Foyles, apparently the Dymocks of British booksellers. Dymocks has nothing on it. It was five stories and I found an entire section of books on English and British history. I sat there for about two hours going through book after book. Obviously not buying, but sampling and then taking photos, to remind my self to buy them when I get home. Books on Thomas Becket, Henry II, Edward II, the Anglo-Saxons and the formation of the English Kingdom. If only they had places like this in Australia.
Surrounding Foyles, which is next to Trafalgar Square, were many antique book stores. There wasn’t much that interested me there, except a first edition Wolf Hall. I got excited when I saw the price, £300, thinking it was a signed copy. It wasn’t. I was disappointed, and bemused at the price. Wolf Hall is a brilliant book, but surely a first edition is not worth that much!
I eventually got my foot massage. It was greatly relaxing and my feet do feel a little better. Not too much though.
London I will be back. Madrid here I come!