Saturday by Ian McEwan

Saturday cover

Years and years ago, before I started blogging I read a book by Ian McEwan and it had such a horrible ending I swore I would never read any more of his, but his book Saturday which was published on 2005 won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. I have a personal project on the go to try to read all those prize winners, so I had to give Saturday a go. Luckily I found this one to be a lot better although I kept waiting for something awful to happen. It had its moments but nothing too horrific.

The story all takes place within Saturday, February 15th, 2003 in London. Later on in the day there’s going to be a massive anti-war demonstration – against what became known as the Iraq War (or the Second Gulf War.) But for Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon it begins very early in the morning as he woke up and found himself drawn to look out of one of his very large home’s windows. There’s something flying across the London sky and at first he thinks it might be a comet, but it’s an aeroplane with an engine on fire, possibly it’s a terrorist strike, given the political situation. He’s worried that the perfect family life that he and his wife Rosalind have with their two grown up children might be threatened.

It turns out that it’s something far more mundane that leads to a terrifying situation for them all. A silly car accident and the ensuing confrontation with the other driver and his side-kicks, coupled with Henry’s refusal to back down almost leads to disaster.

There’s a lot to like in this book, the loving relationship between Henry and his wife Rosalind, the very talented and successful arty off-spring Theo and Daisy who also seem to be very grounded, but it isn’t all sweetness and light – like most families. There’s also a cantankerous grandfather, and an awful lot of information on various neurological problems, too much maybe. McEwan certainly did his research, and not just in books, in operating theatres too.

The setting of the family home is great too, a huge house overlooking a London square that Rosalind had inherited. It’s a weird thing but at the moment I don’t seem to be able to get away from London squares – and I don’t mean Albert Square.

This was a surprisingly good read.

An Edinburgh Reel by Iona McGregor

 An Edinburgh Reel cover

An Edinburgh Reel by Iona McGregor was first published in 1968. I’ve been reading a fair few books set in historic Edinburgh recently and this is another one. The setting is mainly around the Royal Mile, six years after the battle of Culloden, so 1752.

Christine has left her family home of Strathdallin in the Highlands to go and meet her father in Edinburgh, it’s her first visit to the capital and she’s not impressed as the place stinks. So although her family home at Strathdallin had been trashed by the Redcoats after the battle and there are only a few rooms left standing and the roof is leaking, she’s still homesick for the place. Living in a couple of freezing rooms at the top of a tenement building doesn’t suit her at all, despite having friendly but much better off relatives living in the same building.

John Murray, her father has spent most of the past six years in France after he managed to escape from a prison hulk after his capture, he knows that he had been betrayed by another Scotsman after Culloden but doesn’t know his name. He’s still a loyal Jacobite and is determined to get back at whoever betrayed him.

When Christime first sees her father she’s shocked that the he doesn’t look at all like the handsome tall man that she remembers. She must only have been nine years old in 1745 and she has grown while her father seems so old and shrunken, he has permanent health problems because of his treatment by the English and his estate has been seized by the government, so they are penniless.

Christine is worried for her father as he’s in danger of getting dragged into another Jacobite plot and ending his days kicking on the end of a rope.

This was a great read, very atmospheric with a wee bit of a romance too. I’m sure that Iona McGregor got it exactly right when she has the wealthy Edinburgh inhabitants getting all teary eyed and sentimental over the songs sung about ‘The Chevalier’ – despite the fact that most of them hadn’t been supporters of the Jacobites during the Rising.

This book was apparently aimed at children aged 11 and over, but like all well written books it’s appreciated by people of all ages.

An Episode of Sparrows by Rumer Godden

 An Episode of Sparrows cover

An Episode of Sparrows by Rumer Godden was first published in 1956. The setting is an area of London which like them all has a mixture of what had been grand houses fringing a poorer neighbourhood. The Victorian iron railings had been removed from the private gardens in the square belonging to the grander houses, and big holes were appearing in the grounds where large quantities of earth had been removed, it was a real mystery and Angela – queen bee of the Garden Committee – is determined to get to the bottom of it, although someone else will have to do the work of course.

Although I really enjoyed this book I did find it at times to be so sad as the main character, an eleven year old girl called Lovejoy Mason lives a loveless and neglected life as her mother has dumped her on strangers while she goes off to pursue a life on the stage, and doesn’t even send money for her upkeep with the result that Lovejoy has grown out of her clothes and shoes, something that she feels keenly as she has a love of good quality fabric and design, something that her mother had passed on to her.

A packet of cornflower seeds begins her love of gardening and she manages to make a secret miniature garden on a bomb site, the only one which didn’t seem to be inhabited by a gang of boys. But when the local baseball season was over (a game they had been taught by Zassi a little American boy) Tip Malone and his gang turned up to reclaim their patch and trouble ensues. But Tip Malone finds himself drawn to Lovejoy, it’s a mystery to him. He thinks maybe it’s because she always looks so clean with her hair well brushed, despite her obvious poverty. The garden becomes the most important thing in Lovejoy’s life and Tip gets dragged along in her wake.

The children – the sparrows – are the main characters in the book, but their exploits have a big impact on Angela and her older sister Olivia who has always lived in her young sister’s shadow. In particular Olivia who has never pushed herself forward is impressed with Lovejoy’s attitude to life although it has to be said that Lovejoy is anything but a Goody two-shoes.

Although there’s plenty of strife in this book the writing is lovely and it has a great ending so it turned out to be a perfect pandemic read.

I had been under the impression that I had read this book back in the 1970s when I had a big Rumer Godden binge, but I soon realised that I hadn’t, so that was a nice surprise. I wonder how long it has been sitting unread on my bookshelves!

The Strays of Paris by Jane Smiley

The Strays of Paris

I must admit that I had never even heard of the Pulitzer prize winning author Jane Smiley until she featured in a Guardian Review article which mentioned that her latest book is The Strays of Paris, and luckily it was available on NetGalley, so I requested it and amazingly got a digital copy for review. I’m so glad that I did as this was one of those books that I just didn’t want to end.

It begins with a racehorse called Paras, or Perestroika as is her racing name, she’s an inquisitive horse and when she realises that her stable door isn’t locked she pushes it and manages to walk out of the stableyard and makes for Paris. The previous day she had won her first race, so she knew she had won a ‘purse’ so she took the purse that she saw lying on the ground outside her stable along with her.

She relishes her freedom and all the different smells around her, she’s happy to be able to crop the wild plants that she passes, her very good racehorse diet could get a bit boring. Eventually she reaches Paris where she realises it’s important for her to keep a low profile, but she makes friends with Raoul who is a raven, a mallard duck couple and Frida who is a stray dog since her human who had been a talented homeless street busker had died. Later on a couple of black rats are incorporated into the little stray family, and they can all communicate with each other.

Frida is wary of humans having been well warned by Jacques her human that most of them didn’t like barking dogs, Frida does a lot of grumbling under her breath. All of the animals are sort of semi attached to their own kind. The dogs of Paris bark at Frida because she doesn’t have a human and doesn’t wear a collar. Paras felt different from the other race horses in the stables, but she does miss the warmth as winter in Paris begins to bite.

Some of the human characters who also happen to be loners could also be described as strays, they realise that there is a horse living loose in their neighbourhood and befriend Paras, but it’s Etienne an eight year old boy who does most to get Paras through the winter and keeps her safe from inquisitive policemen. Etienne is yet another stray who lives with his very elderly deaf and almost blind grandmother who is the last of her generation. She worries about what will become of Etienne when she is no longer around.

This is a great read with the animal characters having hopes and ambitions for the future and it has a fairly happy ending, just what I was needing.

Thanks to the publishers via NetGalley for sending me a digital copy for review.

The Guardian Review – some links

I thought you might be interested in some of these links to articles from last Saturday’s Guardian Review.

The Guardian has asked seven writers about their survival strategies in lockdown, you can read the article here.

There’s a review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s new book Klara and the Sun. It’s another masterpiece apparently.

There’s a review of Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

There’s an article about a great crop of children’s books being published, aimed at children aged eight and over. You can read it here.

The Dark Mile by D.K. Broster

 The Dark Mile cover

The Dark Mile by D.K. Broster was first published in 1929 and it’s the third part of a trilogy. The Flight of the Heron and The Gleam in the North should be read before this one.

The setting of The Dark Mile is nine years after the battle of Culloden. The inhabitants of the Highlands of Scotland are still very much under the rule of the Redcoats. They aren’t allowed to own guns for fear they would be used against the British army which is very much in control with hundreds of soldiers based at Fort William.

The disaster of Culloden isn’t far away, especially for Ewen Cameron who is still mourning the execution of his friend and relative Doctor Archibald Cameron at Tyburn, for High Treason. Ewen knows that someone had betrayed Archibald, probably giving information of his whereabouts to the English authorities – in return for gold.

Ewen’s cousin Ian Cameron is now his father’s heir as the eldest son had died at Culloden. Ian’s father is keen for him to get married and is beginning to negotiate with another family for their daughter’s hand, but Ian has fallen in love already, unfortunately his choice is a Campbell. It seems doomed from the beginning as Ian’s father will have nothing to do with Campbells as they were on King George’s side during the Jacobite Rebellion.

This book has more romance in it than the other two, but there’s still adventure, danger and drama. It’s a good read.

Pinocchio by Carlo/ Charles Collodi

Pinocchio Cover

Pinocchio by Charles Collodi is the children’s classic that I chose for my Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 list. I’ve been meaning to read it for years, but I must admit that I had no idea that Pinocchio was written so long ago. It was in 1880 that Collodi started writing The Adventures of Pinocchio, the stories were published weekly in a children’s magazine. The Disney film was made in 1940.

This was an enjoyable read with Pinocchio getting into all sorts of scrapes because he was being naughty, despite promising to be good. He’s always very sorry and sees the error of his ways, but he really just can’t help himself.

Each chapter is a warning to the young readers not to do what Pinocchio does. He runs away from Geppetto his ‘father’. He’s easily duped out of his money by a couple of con-men in the shape of a cat and a fox. He ends up being hung up from a tree, but rescued by a blue-haired fairy via a crow. There is a talking cricket but it doesn’t feature in the way that Jiminy Cricket in the film does.

The author managed to write stories with morals and warnings, about the best way children should behave to avoid trouble and upsetting other people, but without being preachy or prissy and with plenty of fun. It’s illustrated in line and colour by A.H. Watson, although there’s only one colour illustration.

My copy of the book dates from 1945 and has a foreword by Compton Mackenzie. It is DEDICATED TO THE BOYS AND GIRLS OF EVERY COLOUR, AGE, AND COUNTRY.

Pinocchio End Papers

I really like the endpapers, but as you can see a bookshop has added a sticker to the front ones.
Boans Book Salon, 1st FLOOR, MURRAY ST. END PERTH WA

The word PERTH jumped out at me and I thought, it hasn’t travelled far in its 76 years, then I realised it was Perth in Australia.

The Masterpiece by Emile Zola

 The Masterpiece cover

The Masterpiece by Emile Zola was first published in 1886. My copy was translated by Thomas Walton in 1950 and I must say that I doubt if anyone else could have done a better job. It’s the fouteenth novel in Zola’s Rougon Macquart series, and it’s a great read. I read this one for Back to the Classics Challenge and The Classics Club.

The Masterpiece is Zola’s most autobiographical novel, he based the main characters – a group of artistic friends on some of his own friends and himself. The artist Cezanne was his friend and there must have been plenty of artistic discussions between the two over the years, so Zola would have had plenty of copy to choose from I’m sure. The character Sandoz is based on Zola.

The main character Claude is a serious young artist, his friends think he has great talent and it’s only a matter of time before he becomes his generation’s Delacroix with his art being hung in The Salon and winning prizes. Claude is developing a new style called ‘Open Air’ (Impressionist). However he makes life difficult for himself, painting on enormous canvases and never being happy with his work, never knowing when to stop. His ideas which start off well somehow always go awry and when he does manage to get a painting accepted by The Salon it’s only in the gallery of the ‘refused’ artworks, where everyone laughs at his efforts. However some years later one of his friend’s steals that composition and changes it slightly and the resulting painting and the artist are lauded.

Zola concentrates on Claude’s story and his wife Christine, but his friends are a sculptor, journalist, architect and of course a novelist, and their lives and how they interact with Claude are also a big part of the book.

Germinal has always been my favourite in this series but this one ran it a close thing, although I must warn anyone thinking of reading it – especially in these angst-ridden pandemic times – that it vies with Thomas Hardy for shock and darkness. However there are some lovely descriptions of Paris, especially at night, Claude was in love with the city.

There’s an introduction by the translator Thomas Walton, obviously not to be read until you’ve finished reading the book, but as it happens the one passage that I had marked to quote is in his introduction.

Sandoz (Zola) is speaking to Claude:

“Has it ever struck you that posterity may not be the fair, impartial judge we like to think it is? We console ourselves for being spurned and rejected by relying on getting a fair deal from the future, just as the faithful put up with with the abomination on this earth because they firmly believe in another life where everyone shall have his deserts. Suppose the artist’s paradise turned out to be as non-existent as the Catholic’s, and future generations proved just as misguided as the present one and persisted in liking pretty-pretty dabbling better than honest to goodness painting! …. What a sell for us all, to have lived like slaves, noses to the grindstone all to no purpose!”

Such is life!

I bought my copy of this book in a charity shop in North Berwick one hot summer’s day a few years ago in the glory days of travel. I can’t say that I like the cover though. It’s an Ann Arbor paperback, The University of Michigan Press, and I bought about five other Zola books along with it, all similarly very far from home.

I Belong Here by Anita Sethi

I Belong Here cover

I Belong Here by Anita Sethi is subtitled A Journey Along the Backbone of Britain and is due to be published on the 29th of April 2021 (Bloomsbury) and as it’s tagged ‘Outdoors and Nature.’ I was a bit disappointed that the first fifth of the book the author concentrated on writing about a horrendous experience she had while travelling on the Trans Pennine railway line when she was racially abused at great length by a fellow passenger. Luckily she was able to film some of it on her phone, and she also had good support from the railway staff. This culminated in the perpetrator being taken off the train and handcuffed. Eventually he pled guilty, but the experience haunted/haunts Anita and she keeps returning to the subject throughout the book. This isn’t surprising as the man had threatened to set her on fire. If you live in the UK you’ll probably remeber the case being on the news. I hope writing this book was a cathartic experience for her.

I can only imagine how annoying it must be when people keep asking you where you come from because you have brown skin, as if generations of brown and black skinned people haven’t been born in Britain. When Anita Sethi met Prince Charles he asked her where she came from and when she replied Manchester he said – you don’t look like you come from Manchester. Proving that Charles is indeed his father’s son. To be fair though, I bet that if I ever met him he would have had to make some sort of remark about me having red hair! That’s just another thing that can rile up strange people, as can a Scottish accent as I know myself, having been made to feel very unwelcome by some people while living in the south of England – or even just visiting England. Brexit has definitely emboldened bigots.

I had been under the impression that this was a book about nature and hill walking but that part of the book seemed like a long time in coming, which I found quite frustrating, but when the nature writing began I was impressed by it, and I hope she writes more in that vein. Her descriptions of rock formations and water ‘forces’ as waterfalls are called in ‘the north’ (of England) made me take note of the places she visited with a view to following in her footsteps, when we’re allowed to travel again – if I’m not too old by then!

The author does go off at tangents at times so there are a lot of subjects covered in the book, including grief – after the unexpected death of her friend who was only 28. She writes about the etymology of some words which I always find interesting, immigration and the Windrush scandal, mental health and ‘forest bathing’ – to name just a few subjects.

All in all I enjoyed being in Anita Sethi’s company most of the time, and meeting the people she had had conversations with along the way. I would have preferred less of the angst and more of the nature though.

I was sent this ebook by Bloomsbury for review via Netgalley.

Aunt Jo’s Scrapbag volume 6 by Louisa May Alcott

I recently finished reading Aunt Jo’s Scrapbag volume 6 by Louisa May Alcott. It’s a collection of short stories so it’s obviously a mixed bunch of tales and as always with these things some are better than others, but they were all worth reading. I read it on my Kindle and downloaded it, free from Project Gutenberg here.

L.M. Alcott was a woman ahead of her time. From her writing in these short stories she was obviously anti-slavery but also anti-caged birds and anti-whaling. While reading The Whale’s Story I experienced one of those strange moments when I saw that the tale was being told by a Right whale (deceased) from Greenland. Just a couple of hours earlier I had been reading an article about how a very rare Right whale had been spotted very far from where it should have been. Until then I had never even heard of Right whales!

You can read a wee bit about Alcott’s life here.