In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman

I read In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman because it won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 2014 and I have a personal project to read all of the winners, which I’m never going to complete I’m sure, but I’ll have a good go. It pushes me to read some books that I never would have thought of reading otherwise, this one comes under that category. I had a wee look at the reviews on Goodreads and noted that several people had abandoned the book, that’s something that I rarely do, but I can see why people would do so, this is a very wordy book at 554 pages, actually it seemed longer. I can’t say that I disliked it, but at the risk of seeming sexist I think this one might be appreciated more by male readers. This is partly because a lot of the book is conversations between two men who have been friends since they met at Oxford University.

The narrator is an investment banker of Pakistani origin, it’s 2008 and he suspects that he is going to get the blame for the mess his bank is in, they need a fall guy and he’s the youngest partner, but to be fair – he did have the idea of selling sub-prime mortgages, which caused all the trouble. He comes from a very wealthy background so losing his job is not a great worry. He has lost sight of Zafar over the years since they were at university, and when Zafar turns up at his front door he doesn’t even recognise him. Zafar has been in Afghanistan which as we know had become a hellhole.

The narrator mainly sits back and listens to Zafar as he does a lot of ‘mansplaining’, pontificating on varied subjects that he seems to be an expert on however, he’s not an expert on the one thing that I know about – the design of the Union flag/jack which he says most people think is symmetrical, when we all know that it certainly isn’t symmetrical and anyone putting up that flag has to be careful not to fly it upside-down! But the narrator also points out that Zafar is wrong about some things.

Otherwise Zafar tells the story of his life, from his conception in Bangladesh and poverty stricken childhood to his disastrous relationship with Emily and her wealthy entitled family in London.

Although this is a well written book, sometimes beautifully written, it was in dire need of an editor, and I’m left just hoping that the author has fewer problems with women in his own life than his characters have in the book. The women are all portrayed as being ghastly.

Evelyn Finds Herself by Josephine Elder

Evelyn Finds Herself by Josephine Elder was first published in 1929 but my copy is a modern paperback which has been reprinted by Girls Gone By, actually although it’s a paperback (I prefer hardbacks) it’s still a lovely book and there are 46 pages of very interesting information at the beginning. There’s some history of education in England and Scotland which had/have very different systems. Scotland’s system was way ahead of the English one which only really got into gear for ordinary children in the 1930s. It was the 1920s before commissions recommended that secondary education should be available free to all children in England. In contrast in Scotland education was sponsored by the state from the 18th century. There are also some interesting photographs of the original book covers, and some old schools and teachers.

Unusually this book is set in an ordinary girls’ secondary day school rather than a boarding school so the reader sees the girls at home as they visit each other to do homework together and also as they enjoy each other’s company outside school and socialise with their families.

Evelyn’s best friend is Elizabeth but when they meet up at school after the summer holidays they haven’t seen each other for eight weeks. It’s evident from the beginning that although they’re great friends they’re quite different characters. Elizabeth is always thinking ahead, such as planning to get what she thinks will be the most interesting seat locations in their new classrooms. Evelyn is altogether more serious about her studies.

When Elizabeth seems to be more interested in being friends with another girl Evelyn is surprised, she can’t see the attraction and the girls grow apart somewhat. There’s no animosity, just a coolness but Evelyn is hurt. It’s all character forming though, and all so familiar to anyone looking back on their own schooldays. I particularly enjoyed the way the girls were disdainful of the ‘Home Life’ department and the girls who were too stupid to do anything else – it felt so true to life. I just remember being astonished that anyone would need lessons on such things as washing clothes! I had been doing all the housework in my family home since I was ten years old.

This book is so well written and observed with the teachers also coming across as human beings with a life outside their workplace. This is a really enjoyable read so I’ll definitely be looking for more books by the author.

The Spanish Letters by Mollie Hunter

 The Spanish Letters cover

The Spanish Letters by Mollie Hunter was first published in 1964 but my copy is a Puffin book dating from 1972.

The setting is Edinburgh and the year is 1589, the end of January. Young Jamie Morton is a caddie in the city – that means he earns his living by doing messages for people, whatever is needed, maybe delivering a note to someone, a sort of odd job person who has to know the city inside out. He has been trained up by ‘the Cleek’ a much older caddie. There are a few hundred such males of all ages in Edinburgh, it might be a bit of a precarious living but Jamie likes it because he’s his own boss. He isn’t so keen on being starving half the time though.

When a young well known musician goes missing Jamie is asked to help track him down and so begins a tale of adventure, murder and kidnap with the Earl of Huntly – a favourite with King James involved.

There’s a ship from the Netherlands docked at Leith, Edinburgh’s port, and there’s a suspicion that it has Spaniards on board. Is there a Spanish plot afoot? A second Armada attempting to topple Queen Elizabeth. For once the Scots and the English are on the same side, well most of the Scots are.

This was a really enjoyable read, my first by the author but I’ve recently bought a couple of others. Her writing reminded me of Dorothy Dunnett’s adventures which is high praise indeed, but obviously not as convoluted (or long) as Hunter’s writing is aimed at youngsters. Her books are apparently all well researched so it seems like a painless way of learning history.

For anyone who has already read this book you might be interested in this blogpost that I wrote earlier, when I visited Huntly Castle in Aberdeenshire.

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!

Bel Lamington by D.E. Stevenson – a book review

Bel Lamington cover

Bel Lamington by the Scottish author D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1961 and to begin with the setting is London although it does move on to the north of Scotland later.

Bel has been in her tiny London flat for 18 months but she doesn’t know any of her neighbours, she had had to move to London to find work after her aunt had died. Her parents had died long ago when she was a small child, so apart from her work in a shipping company the only joy in Bel’s life is her small garden which she has cultivated in containers on a flat roof outside her living-room window. So when she comes home from work one summer evening she’s not best pleased to discover that a strange young man has invaded her wee patch of heaven. It turns out that Mark is an artist, quite a good one and he wants Bel to model for him, which she does, but Mark turns out to be a bit of a flibbertigibbet.

Meanwhile things at Bel’s work aren’t going well, she lives in fear of losing her job as she has no money to fall back on so life is stressful, especially when the women who have been working there for years take a dislike to her. Well, she had been promoted over their heads so that was bound to cause friction. Things come to a head and Bel ends up travelling to Scotland to spend time with an old schoolfriend and her father. The Thames-Clyde Express takes her to Dumfries in south-west Scotland where Bel’s life takes a turn for the better.

This was an enjoyable read, especially when the story moved to Scotland, but I thought that the London workplace stresses and office were very authentic. I knew eventually there would be a happy ending and that’s the sort of book that I’m drawn to at the moment.

The Suffragette Bombers: Britain’s Forgotten Terrorists by Simon Webb

Dimsie Goes to School cover

The Suffragette Bombers: Britain’s Forgotten Terrorists by Simon Webb was originally published in 2014.

The author had been annoyed when Andrew Marr had implied that the suffragettes “were not terrorists in any serious modern sense”, the truth is actually very different and Simon Webb set out to put the record straight. He did repeat himself quite a bit but this is still a very informative and interesting read as well as being an eye-opener for me as I had thought I knew a fair amount about the subject, it turns out that I didn’t.

It’s often thought that the years from 1900 to the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914 were something of a golden age of peace and prosperity. The truth is that it was a time of upheaval with the WSPU led by the Pankhursts conducting a campaign of terrorism. In 1906 the non-violent suffragists had been hopeful that their campaign for universal franchise would be successful as the Liberals had won a landslide victory, but heigh-ho, the new government was busy with other things such as setting up the welfare state and Old Age Pensions. The suffragettes who were mainly upper-class people who didn’t want ‘votes for all’ only wanted votes for wealthy women, home and business owners, a very small minority of women. At the time most men didn’t have the vote either.

Emmeline Pankhurst was completely in control of her Women’s Social and Political Union which was financed by aristocratic people to the extent that it was awash with money. Her daughter Christabel skipped Britain to live in Paris in luxury. She helped her mother control things from there. The last half of this book seemed to be a long list of terrorist activities that went far further than chaining themselves to railings and breaking windows.

Historic churches were routinely burnt to the ground, many bombs were deployed causing huge damage to people and buildings, trains were bombed, houses were burnt to the ground. St Paul’s Cathedral was almost blown up. A new Carnegie library was completely burnt within less than 24 hours of it being opened, railway stations were popular targets for bombs and for some reason Scotland took the brunt of the campaigns of violence. Dundee seemed to be a hotbed of suffragette violence. In Fife where I live they burnt down Leuchars railway station and parts of St Andrews University. Historic documents went up in smoke. Golf courses and football grounds were routinely damaged, anywhere that would particularly upset men really. The beautiful Kibble Palace in Glasgow was blown up just after it was opened, the list of atrocities just goes on and on. It’s no wonder that their are photographs in existence of furious people going after suffragettes as they had no care for the lives of others and just didn’t care what happened to the general public who had to put up with all the violence.

Interestingly when there was a truce in 1911 the WSPU’s coffers were much emptier than they had been. Apparently the violence pulled in the money from donors. I couldn’t help thinking about that Qanon woman Marjorie Taylor Green who has been pulling in loads of money from donors who agree with her particular brand of madness, the more crazy her speeches are the more money they send her! It seems it was much the same for the suffragettes.

Yes some women were permanently harmed due to being force fed but that didn’t last long as the powers that be were so worried about creating martyrs for the cause that when suffragettes were sent to jail for setting off bombs they just went on hunger strike for three days and were released, no matter how long their sentence had been. Emily Davison of course ended up being their martyr and over the years there have been arguments as to whether she meant to kill herself or not. She had tried to commit suicide on two earlier occasions, breaking her skull in one attempt, she was a poor soul really who obviously had mental health problems despite being highly intelligent and having been to university, she was badly treated by the Pankhursts who refused to give her any money despite the work she did for them. She wasn’t a young woman she was 41 years old and that return ticket to Epsom to see the Derby meant nothing as on the race day the price of the single or return ticket was exactly the same and I suspect that the busy ticket clerks just gave everyone a return ticket.

One thing that did annoy me was that the author remarks at the beginning of the book that the suffragette dcolours of white, green and purple stood for purity, hope and majesty. Of course the purple stands for equality which is why it was used by the Fathers for Justice campaigners in recent years.

Anyway, that was a long one, I had a lot to say but it’s just so interesting the way history can be whitewashed over the years. We’ve always been taught that we women had a lot to thank the Pankhursts for when in reality the public at the time lived in fear of being blown up by them and their very well paid staff, and they had no conscience at all about burning down the workplaces of poor women, leaving them destitute. They never wanted ordinary people to have the vote at all never mind ordinary women. I’ve only listed a small amount of the places damaged and sometimes obliterated by them.

This book has a very comprehensive bibliography. I was sent a digital copy by the publisher via Netgalley.

The Loud Halo by Lillian Beckwith

 The Loud Halo cover

The Loud Halo by Lillian Beckwith was first published in 1964 and it’s the third book in her Hebridean series. These books are comic novels set in the village of Bruach where ‘Miss Peckwit’ has gone to recover from an illness, she had been a teacher in the north of England. Life on a remote and primitive Scottish island is very different from what she has been used to. There’s no indoor plumbing, actually no plumbing at all, no running water just a well and the toilet is a shed with a big bucket – if you have a man strong enough to lug it out. Lillian makes do with two earth sheds which she takes turns at using and seems to think that’s hygienic enough.

By this time Lillian has been well and truly accepted by the locals and is even speaking some Gaelic. The books are stories of her encounters with her neighbours who all seem to be eccentric. There’s Kirsty who treats her poor brother like a slave and she steals her neighbour’s crops with no conscience involved, her neighbour ends up having to move.

More and more tourists are arriving, despite the midges and they are turning out to be good business opportunities for the locals. Quite a lot of this book deals with the things that the islanders get up to in order to get money, including the government assistance which they all seem to be on, there’s also an awful lot of boozing going on. I had a feeling that life on the island was beginning to lose its charm for Beckwith and indeed at the end of the book she has packed up and the villagers are seeing her off at the station. She did write some more Hebridean books in later years though.

It was a wee bit of a Miss Buncle situation – if you’re familiar with that D.E. Stevenson book you’ll know that Miss Buncle wrote a book about life in her own village which became very successful. The trouble was that all of the characters were far too recognisable and none of them was happy at being put in her book!

This book is a good light read, a glimpse back to the days before everyone on the islands had all mod cons. By the time I went to Skye for the first time in 1970 the locals even had freezers which I was very impressed with as we only had a small fridge with ice box at home. Our old friends who had gone back to live on Skye again after a five year sojourn in Glasgow had a freezer in their living room, it was one of those sliding lid ones and thinking about it I think it actually said ‘Wall’s ice cream’ on it! Anyway, I still have a few of these Beckwith books to read so I’ll continue with the series at some point in the future.

The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

The Lotus Eaters cover

The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 2010. If it hadn’t won that prize I doubt if I would have picked the book up because the subject matter didn’t really appeal to me, but I ended up really enjoying this book which was quite a surprise to me.

The book begins on April, 28th 1975 with Helen Adams picking her way through the streets of Saigon. The long war is coming to an end. There’s a lot of looting going on in the centre of town, it’s time for her to leave the city and go home, but she wants to hang on and be the last photographer to leave, she’s sure there are still great photo opportunities for her.

Ten years earlier she had decided to go out to Vietnam to become the first female war photographer there, she was totally clueless. She wore suede high heels and only had an instamatic camera so had never even loaded film into a ‘real’ camera. She had been drawn to go to the war zone because her younger brother had been killed there, she wanted to find out how her brother had died if possible, but it was also partly because she had always been infuriated by the way she had been left out of things by her father as he took her brother out with him to do father/son bonding things, such as hunting. She felt she had some catching up to do.

The male photo journalists weren’t happy about her being there, nor were the combatants, but Helen hung on to Sam Darrow’s coat tails and learned the job from him. From Linh his assistant she learned Vietnamese, something that the others didn’t bother to do.

This is a love story of sorts although the obsession with getting good photos that tell a story and will be of interest to the folks back home as well as the editor of Life magazine becomes paramount. Like others before her Helen is loth to leave and go home to a mundane life, she’s become a bit of an adrenalin junkie despite her terror as she accompanies the soldiers on patrols. The love interests didn’t ring quite true for me, but that’s me nitpicking.

Despite the descriptions of violence and the horror of the war this is a really good read, very atmospheric. It’s the sort of book I would normally avoid, simply because the setting is in such a steaming hot country – daft I know but I prefer books set in cold countries – but I’m really glad that I read this one. It’s quite amazing to think that this was her first book. It is so much better than the last James Tait Black prize winner which I read (Personality by Andrew O’Hagan).

I was also impressed by the two pages of bibliography which Soli listed at the back, she certainly did her homework.

The Double Image by Helen MacInnes

 The Double Image cover

The Double Image by Scottish author Helen MacInnes was first published in 1966, so at the height of the Cold War and this book seems now to be a nostalgic look back to the time when spies were kitted out with seemingly innocuous items such as pencils, cuff links, tie clips and lipsticks in which could be hidden notes, microfilm or even a poison filled tablet for use in desperation.

The book begins in April in Paris where academic John Craig is doing some historical research. He’s very surprised to bump into an old professor of his in the street. Professor Sussmann looks very worried and it transpires that he has just seen a man that he had presumed to be dead years ago. Sussmann is an Auschwitz survivor and he’s in Paris to testify against a group of Nazis who are on trial in the city. Of course the Nazis are all claiming that they were only obeying orders, but the man who was giving them the orders is Heinrich Berg and according to Sussmann he has just seen him in Paris, although he was supposed to have died and been buried years ago. The worrying thing is that Sussmann thinks that he was recognised by Berg as they had been childhood friends.

So begins an old-fashioned but very readable espionage tale which ends up with John Craig becoming involved in a joint MI5, CIA and Deuxieme Bureau plot to catch Berg along with others of his ilk. As you would expect there are plenty of surprises along the way including double agents.

When the action moves to the Aegean island of Mykonos, a place that John Craig had intended visiting anyway, the sense of danger and tension ramp up.

This was a really enjoyable read, probably particularly if you remember the ‘good old days’ of the Cold War.

I love the dust jacket of this book but sadly my hardback copy has lost its cover. The one above is the one that should have been on my 1966 copy though, I think it’s very stylish.

The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson

The Long Ships

The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson is a Scandinavian classic and was first published in English in 1954, translated from Swedish to English by Michael Meyer. This is a great read which combines Viking raids in various countries, slavery, conversion to Islam under duress, escapes, fights and battles a-plenty, romance and details of domesticity in the late 10th century. There’s quite a lot of humour too, with the whole idea of men going ‘a-viking’ apparently coming about because the men were tired of listening to their women’s sharp tongues over the long dark winter.

This is a real page-turner with the action beginning in Skania (southern Sweden) where a young man called Orm has been left behind with the women while the men go a-viking. Orm had been rather mollycoddled by his mother after his older brother Are had left home and never come back again, presumed dead. But Orm ends up being abducted from his own doorstep and so begin his adventures which end up with him becoming a leader of men. But it isn’t all about fighting men, there are plenty of good, strong female characters in this book.

This book does seem to be historically correct and it details how Christianity was spread throughout Scandinavia, something which seemed unlikely given that the Vikings were so keen on raiding holy islands and murdering monks and priests.

Frans Bengtsson was a poet and biographer and The Long Ships was his only novel, it’s a great Viking saga.

This year I intend to try to read quite a lot of European books in translation, this one counts towards that personal challenge.