Muzungu – A Rhodesian Testament by Rod Madocks – a memoir of an African childhood and beyond

Muzungu – A Rhodesian Testament by Rod Madocks.

Rod Maddocks spent his childhood in Africa. This book reveals that it was so memorable, so vital, that those years were to dominate his life, even though he has spent decades in Britain and Europe. It is not surprising that his memories, clarified in a stream of photographs which illustrate this book, are so vivid as his birth and first formative years were spent in observing the last decade or so of a colonial government. His father was a senior government official whose position took him away from home frequently, leaving Rodney to be supervised by black servants and later to theoretically supervise them. Indeed, the opening chapter of the novel recalls a solo trip he made into the bush in pursuit of guinea fowl and how he lost his way. This was not a minor incident as the bush was full of dangers both seen and unseen, and the event typifies his childhood of his determination to pursue his goal whatever the risk.

This is a fascinating memoir of a complex life, one shaped and defined by his early experiences, his volatile mother, his ambitious father who was eager to ensure his only son had the education and opportunities he missed, and the wartime experience that meant he was lucky to survive.

 Madocks is honest in his assessment of his life and has a phenomenal memory for the African section of it. His experience of school life in Britain is a hard one; his African origins, his self-sufficient personality and his physical ability to be aggressive is not enough to protect him from the other students and the casual abuse of staff. He also saw his new surroundings through the eyes of his African perspective, where being outside in the dark was to be exposed to danger from both creatures and to a certain extent, other people. He is aware of the cruelties of another way of life, with weaker babies being abandoned, of the extreme poverty of the black native people, and the beginnings of violent resentment against the white administrators and their families.  This was a country, a continent undergoing seismic changes of government, of expectations and much more. In comparison with his life in Africa, which is brought back so vividly by the objects imported by himself and his parents, his adult life is one of disappointment and struggle. He wanders around Europe with little money and having to adopt a dubious way of life, his relationships with women are temporary and inconclusive. He experienced the first effects of the Chernobyl disaster, he worked in care and prison sectors, he was confronted by the hard and aggressive side of life repeatedly. It was only when he discovered an ability to write that he found his true vocation, especially when he could call on his African background.

This is a powerful and well written book which captures the sense of a life lived. He reveals much about himself and his background, his parents and his somewhat wary attitude to other people. It conveys effective portraits of people from all backgrounds, from the most unsophisticated and superstitions of Africans to academics in American universities. This is a phenomenal memoir of a life, with thoughtful reflections on the politics of a changing continent and its effects on those who lived there. Madocks is a perceptive and skilled writer, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.

A collection of novels for Difficult Times – authors to turn to when life is tricky

Books for Difficult Times  – a list

When life gets a bit difficult – a sudden crisis, ill health in the family – a global pandemic – there are books (or series of books) that I have found a useful distraction. Not that they have completely removed my thoughts from what is going on but have provided a bit of a break. It’s a bit tough in our family at the moment, so I thought I would share some ideas in the hope that they may focus my mind and perhaps help somebody else. Nothing too obscure, nothing that is too difficult to find, but series and individual books that have helped in the past.

First, Jane Austen’s six novels. They have the benefit of distance, can be funny if read in the right way, and are free of life and death situations. The main one is “Pride and Prejudice” of course. The other advantage is that there are many tv adaptations and audio versions so even if you cannot face reading the books, there are other possibilities.

Georgette Heyer books – the Regency\Georgian books, are not really in series order, but some characters do pop up in various novels again. These, like Austen, are free of tragedy generally, but often feature humour and a chase across the countryside. They also usually feature a happy ending for most of the characters…

PG Wodehouse has got me through some tricky times. Yes, like Georgette Heyer, they can be an acquired taste, but they are incredibly funny once you understand the humour. There are the Jeeves books, and they of course were brought to life by Fry and Laurie quite brilliantly. Less well known but possibly even funnier are the Blanding novels – featuring tired and emotional secretaries throwing flowerpots, pigs and irritable gardeners galore.

My pandemic survival books were a multitude – I reviewed a book every single day for three months, but three authors were particularly significant. Barbara Pym’s novels such as “Excellent Women” and “Jane and Prudence” got an airing – but I avoided her later works as they are known to be more serious. Not that everyone ends up living happily ever after -but it’s all very gentle stuff. Mary Stewart novels also featured – rather dated thrillers featuring a woman trying to work out what is really going on in fairly exotic locations. Not to everyone’s taste, but absorbing stuff!

A more contemporary series – the twelfth and final book has recently been published – also helped. “The Shipyard Girls” series is set in the Second World War and feature a gang of woman working as welders in one of the shipyards of Sunderland – the main yard is fictional but the author, Nancy Revell, is based in the area and is deeply immersed in the sights, the sounds and the bitter weather. There are a few tragedies, betrayal, happiness, bitterness and danger. As the series progresses the main characters’ backstories emerge, family and friend links become more complex, houses magically expand to fit all comers and all human life is here. There are definite baddies who do evil things, and women who rally round to deal with them, at least on a temporary basis. Some incidents are memorable and tragic, other events positive and revealing enormous loyalty. Revell has been very careful to spin out her tales so the War proceeds in almost real time – she certainly does not jump months or years but steadily reveals life on a realistic basis. Not comfort reading in the sense that everyone is happy and satisfied in every novel, but absorbing, distracting and generally good humoured in the face of wartime challenges.

Finally, my latest find – the Miss Read “Thrush Green” books. Yes, I have had a long-term relationship with Angela Thirkell novels, with all their wonderful characters and entertaining situations, but they are not everyone’s taste and some of the writing has not aged well, even if the wartime novels are wonderful in my opinion. Miss Read wrote later, well into the 1970s, and beyond, and so for her background events can safely be ignored. Life in this village is far less dramatic than war and the surrounding times. Indeed, I think it is very difficult to give an exact time for them – some things like the cars available suggest relatively recently, but other elements are pretty timeless. I discovered an edition of the books which are illustrated and emerged for a division of Penguin. My most recent is “Encounters at Thrush Green” which is an omnibus edition of “The School at Thrush Green” and “Friends at Thrush Green”. The two novels feature the characters of a small village, such as the Vicar, the local eccentrics and those who help them, and in the first book, Dorothy and Agnes, the headteacher and teacher at the school respectively, who propose to retire and move away. There are the trials of learning to drive again, what to buy the two ladies, difficult and demanding relatives and general idealistic village life with a full time Vicar, a GP always on hand for constant house calls, and a small village school of settled families unto the umpteenth generation.  In the second book one of the long-term residents of the village shows disturbing tendencies to collect items, and a new arrival has a problem that could have tragic consequences. While these are small concerns in the great scheme of things, and such a perfect village never existed, this is peak comfort reading. Miss Read wrote an immense number of books, none of which have ever been seen as great literature, but they are essentially predictable, safe, and what else could you need in a difficult time?

Keeping a Christmas Promise by Jo Thomas – a moving and atmospheric novel of discovering a different way of life

Keeping a Christmas Promise by Jo Thomas

This is a moving and enjoyable novel which takes three women out of their normal lives at a busy time of the year and plunges them into a different world. Narrated by Freya, and featuring her two friends Meg and Joanna, this is a story of friendship and community in extreme times, and the importance of living life looking forward. It features lively descriptions of an unknown landscape in an extreme set of circumstances, when several of the characters learn a lot about other people and crucially themselves. For those who love food and cooking there are some genuinely memorable details, as well as the incredible descriptions of how different styles of cooking and creation of meals varies.

The setting for the book is Iceland, as the three friends are determined to fulfil a promise made to the fourth member of their group who had wanted to see the Northern Lights. They have accordingly taken time out of their busy lives at great cost in many ways, so it is little surprise when they show immense determination to see the lights on the first night of their stay despite the weather not being very promising. Their late friend Laura had compiled with them a list of things to achieve, and seeing the Northern Lights was high on the list. Meg is planning her wedding just after Christmas and is beset with family demands and her quest for perfection. Joanna is married to an extremely wealthy older man, who expects a family Christmas on a grand scale which she must organise. Freya is single, but is totally committed to working in a Michelin starred restaurant where she has worked her way up from a minor job to nearly opening another restaurant in the group. She has a genuine love of food and remembers people in terms of the meals she has cooked for them.

 Three strong women have joined forces to honour their friend’s wishes, and a weather forecast will not deter them. Even when they come to a grinding halt in a bad storm, they are still determined to see the lights, but it soon seems evident that they are stuck for an indefinite time. In seeking help, Freya encounters Petur, who has an influential role in the community, and there are many surprises to come.

I really enjoyed this book and found it extremely memorable for its descriptions of a way of life of an isolated community in difficult circumstances. The way that the weather, the landscape and the conditions is written made this such a lyrical, almost visible narrative. Freya’s voice is sincere and realistic, especially as she acknowledges that she is deeply challenged by the tasks she has taken on. She compares the food she is offered in the hotel with what she discovers and cannot help realising that her cooking in London is not perhaps what she wants. She becomes attracted to many things in her new situation, not least the taciturn Petur, and yet knows that she and her friends must return to their ordinary lives as soon as possible. Her voice throughout this novel is realistic and revealing and is so well written. This is a wonderful book to read as the weather gets colder, and yet is so well written that it can be enjoyed at any time. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this novel and recommend it as a really enjoyable and absorbing read.   

The Bone Flower by Charles Lambert -a vivid, well-paced gothic thriller of memories, betrayal and more

The Bone Flower by Charles Lambert

This is a book that is a really powerful Victorian gothic thriller written in the faster paced style of more contemporary times. It features a young man whose capacity to find love with a woman changes his life and shapes the lives of those around him. There are chilling descriptions of visions, realisations and events that may make this a book for daytime reading as they are so vivid and memorable. The characters described are well introduced and consistent, even if they are not at the forefront of the action for some time. The male characters are arguably better developed than the female, but the women are nonetheless strong presences in the novel and are probably more sophisticated elements in the story. It is a novel drawn in the shadows, on the edge of sight, in the background where more the frightening characters lurk, where nightmares and dreams abound. The clever element of bringing in characters from another culture gives the novel depth and the suggestion of what may be going on. Altogether this is a vividly written novel, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.

The central character in the novel is Edward, a wealthy young man who is seeking a direction for his life as the novel begins. Despite his time at Cambridge he is not worldly wise, and he is first observed listening intently to the older men at his club telling of their travels. Impressed by the ideas of spiritualism, he agrees to attend a séance with some of the men. As he enters the venue he sees a young woman selling flowers, who strikes him as very memorable. Later she gives him flowers, and hints that she may agree to meet him. Everything about the girl is elusive and unusual, and while Edward is quickly obsessed with her and she seems to return his love, he realises that there is a problem in her background. While he is estranged from his father, he knows that he will not accept the girl as a daughter in law, despite the depth of the relationship. What happens next is tragic and full of horror that causes shock to both the character and the reader. The subsequent story causes the reader to reflect the borderline between life and death, what is seen and unseen, and the effects of betrayal. Most of the narrative relates to Edward’s progress and how he reacts to events, atmosphere and more, but the author gives excellent detail to the reactions of other characters and in at least one case, the loyalty of friendship.

This is a very effectively written novel that creates a real sense of other worldly and difficult to explain elements of the story in its descriptions of Edward’s experiences. It conveys the sights, sounds and even smells of everything from foul odours to orange blossom, just as the visions of the past reminds Edward of past actions. There are gentle hints of humour, especially in connection with the wonderful George, which offer some relief from the darkness of much else which is going on. This book conveys the power of personality in many ways, as well as the effects of mental strain on the characters. I found this a fascinating read, which I would definitely recommend as a ghost story with real impact in so many ways.           

Janet Jackson’s Yorkshire B&B by Becky Papworth – an honest and funny novel of life

Janet Jackson’s Yorkshire B&B by Becky Papworth

This is a truly honest and funny novel! Janet Jackson – yes, that is the name of the main character’s name – has decided to open a B&B on a small basis. She has spent all her money on converting her garage into a tiny cottage and embarks on letting it out. After all, she lives in beautiful Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire, a small town which is a magnet for tourists and unconventional lifestyles. That would seem to be a sensible move given that she is a divorcee whose only other income is her full-time job as a dental receptionist and she has a teenage daughter Chloe at home to support.  Despite being a bit demanding in the case of snacks and similar essentials of life, Chloe is often helpful with her computer knowledge and business acumen, which Janet seems to lack. Maureen, on the other hand, who also lives in the main house is frankly not keen on actually helping – she has other interests including performance poetry and well, men. In case of emergency, she is often absent in mind, body and spirit (unless from a bottle), leaving Janet to sort out the situation as much as possible.  

Janet tells the story of the garage/ cottage / self -catering annex etc in her own words, including her panic moments, her worries about most things including tax and welcome hampers, and her mistakes. Becky Papworth has given Janet a convincing voice to describe the daily ups and downs of being a landlady, host and owner of the newest B&B in the market, as well as trying to get on with her own life. There is romance, including with safe Peter, and who would expect her ex husband to reappear with issues? The humour is gentle and convincing, emerging from situations and the amazing variety of guests that the cottage attracts. There are classic mistakes in charging for stays and other traps, especially when a noisy neighbour gets involved, but there also some lovely visitors that restore everyone’s faith. The downsides of single parenting a teenager emerge, but also the rewards when Chloe is supportive of her mother’s efforts.

This is a genuinely funny book which is relatable on many levels even if you have never been tempted to let a cottage or even a room. Janet’s household is as chaotic as possible, but there is a lot of affection between the inhabitants. I really enjoyed her enthusiasm for gardening, how she copes with her job at the dentists with the memorable patients, and the hurdles she must overcome. Christmas is a brilliant set piece with a full house of people she has sort of collected. There are some awkward situations which I could see coming, but they were still funny. The characters were well drawn in their often-maddening consistency, especially the ever-flamboyant Maureen. This book was honest about the choices for older women in a way many other light reads are not, especially the realities of romance in a complex world. I especially enjoyed the tips for life that appear at the end of every chapter; they begin with “Tips for Running a B&B” and become Tips for other situations such as “Tips for Family Life” and even “Tips on Nights out with Sisters”. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book and recommend it as a light-hearted read.   

The Hidden Palace by Dinah Jefferies – a novel of two women facing enormous challenges in two very different times and places

The Hidden Palace by Dinah Jefferies

1923 and 1944. Two time periods, two women facing challenges and circumstances beyond their control. In this superbly constructed novel, the two timelines weave in and out of each other, as the young women discover that not everyone can be trusted, and some events are beyond their control. Dinah Jefferies has written a powerful book about betrayals and secrets that mean that decisions must be made. Rosalie Delacroix has fled from Paris in 1923, leaving no clues as to where she has gone, and has tried to make a new life. In 1944, Florence Baudin has faced the Occupation of France and escaped, risking her life, only to discover a challenge from her mother which seems impossible to meet.

The settings of these two women’s stories are very different, and very well introduced and maintained. In the earlier story the streets of Paris almost immediately give way to the colours, sights and smells of Malta, a natural paradise with lurking dangers, a place of beautiful buildings and squalor within a short distance of each other.

Florence’s new life begins in Devon, in an almost an impossibly comforting cottage, but it is soon revealed as a place of secrets. The first chapter opens with a journey on a crowded train, as Florence and her companion Jack are about to reach his cottage home. They have travelled together through the dangers of Occupied France and beyond to make their way to this point; it seems that Jack was a British agent in France while Florence has undergone a traumatic experience and needed to leave her sisters Elise and Helene behind. Florence and Jack are not a couple, and it seems that Florence’s mother Claudette wants to see Florence at her own cottage as soon as possible. When Florence arrives, however, Claudette is not exactly welcoming, especially when Florence explains what is going on in France with her sisters and why she was in greater danger. Claudette, it seems, wants Florence to find her sister Rosalie as a matter of urgency, but the only clue to her whereabouts is a Maltese cross. This is August 1944, and there is no possibility of travel, but Claudette is adamant.

The story then moves to Paris in 1923. Rosalie is desperate to find excitement and dance, rather than settle to a suitable marriage as her parents’ demand. A particular incident makes her decide to flee the city, her parents and break contact with her married sister Claudette, who has three daughters. She travels to Malta having found an advertisement suggesting they require nightclub dancers. She is impressed with the island, but soon discovers that some girls are deeply unhappy to be there. She changes her name and discovers that some friends represent the wealth and difference to be found on the island. Mysteries and secrets seem to be dangerous, and Rosalie must decide what to do.

This novel is far more than a straightforward wartime saga as it takes in more than one time period and various settings. It is the second in a series following “The Daughters of War” but as I have not read that book, I can confirm that it works a standalone. The two main female characters in this book are shown as resourceful and determined, and face severe challenges in so many ways, which provides the main plot of the novel in a convincing way. This is a novel which is difficult to put down once begun, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this powerful combined story.  

The Jane Austen Remedy by Ruth Wilson – an empowering memoir based on the works of Jane Austen

The Jane Austen Remedy by Ruth Wilson

This is an unusual book – part memoir of an interesting life, it is also the story of how a life was “reclaimed through reading” specifically the novels of Jane Austen. As an older woman Ruth Wilson was beginning to regret her calm life of conventional domesticity and marriage, so decided to reclaim her independence by a time of living alone and re reading the novels that had entered her life in 1947 as a teenager. So significant was her careful and structured reading that she decided to embark on a PhD on reading and teaching Austen, which she successfully completed in her late eighties in 2021.

While Austen’s books have been endlessly analysed, written of and adapted, considered and debated, this book looks at how one woman’s personal reactions to a collection of novels written many years before can speak not only to her but to many who may be in search of something more, a new perspective on a changing and challenging world. This is a personal book of memories and perspectives on novels which so many of heard of, but maybe not actually read in a spirit of enquiry and expectation that a woman of such different times could have anything to say to them. It argues for the joys of reading generally and specifically these early and revered novels. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this memorable book.

This book is written from the perspective of an Australian who has lived in that country for most of her long life. Born in 1932 to Jewish parents, Wilson’s childhood was lived in the shadow of a war that was at once far away but also had effects on her family life as the secret horrors of persecution came to be known. As she reaches the age of sixty, she began to question how easily she had accepted a role as wife, mother and teacher rather than following a more unconventional and possibly more satisfying life. When a legacy allows her to buy a cottage away from her husband and family, she seizes the opportunity to go beyond Woolf’s room of her own and establish herself in her solitude to reread all of Austen’s novels. She had encountered them throughout her life but had not really read them as significant statements of what life could be, or how them commented on life’s chances and changes. She discovered connections with characters that spoke to her in a new way and became determined to share them with others in the light of her new discoveries. Thus she follows an autobiographical account of a settled life, of school followed by college then her conventional marriage. Her father’s occupation of a doctor inspired her to see reading as an “antidote”, written by a near saintly woman as portrayed in her family’s biography in Austen’s case. Generally, a love of language and stories has informed and fascinated her, from family stories to the literature she studied academically. An enthusiasm for acting and reading aloud has made the experience of texts more personal and significant. Her interest in grammar has informed her reading of the texts of Austen’s novel generally. Wilson embarks on a series of chapters looking back on her life through the framework of the individual novels which sharpens the observations she has been making on such topics as relocation and moral choices.

This is at once a personal memoir and an appreciation of Austen’s writing. There are also discussions of other authors and writing, as there is a substantial bibliography of other books mentioned. There is also a short reading list of Austen related books of many types provided. This is a very interesting and readable book which has much to say on Austen’s writing and its power to change lives as well as change perspectives of women’s expectations and experiences.   

Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson – a complex and clever look at London nightlife and more in 1926

Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson

From a large cast of characters, an amazing sense of London life in 1926 and a deep understanding of what people are capable of, the latest novel by this talented author is so different from her other novels yet shows the same commitment to making historical fiction vivid and alive. This is a post First World War novel in which there have been losses on the battlefield, but this a time when girls and drugs were the valuable commodities on the streets of London.  Five clubs that operated on the edge of the law are owned by the redoubtable Nellie Coker, matriarch of a family of six children, fearsome, devious and haunted. Run by Nellie with a rod of iron, her five oldest children are charged with tasks to protect and advance themselves and the family empire. Not that it is easy; the success of the clubs with their frequently dubious business set ups depends on alcohol laws being adapted, blind eyes being turned to the fate of hostesses and other practices. Police raids, competition and those who have designs on the clubs as well as those who feel visceral anger towards Nellie are circling.

 Into this storm enters a police Inspector charged with sorting out the nightlife of London. Inspector John Frobisher is a quiet man, thoughtful and concerned with trying to sort out the gangs’ influence and the more violent elements doing business in the city, while suspecting that there is corruption in Bow Street station, where he has been assigned.  The remarkable Gwendolen, until recently a librarian in York, has just arrived in London in search of her sister’s friend Freda, and decides that there may be more than one way of finding her. Meanwhile Freda has decided to come to London to find fame and fortune, in the mistaken belief that, as her friend Florence says, the streets are paved with gold. It doesn’t take her long to realise that the only gold to be found is not all that it seems, and that she may have to make sacrifices to survive.

This is a book that contains action and twists, surprises and complex situations. It exposes some of the downsides of the life of the Bright Young Things, desperately trying to find new sensations to cover their memories. Nellie’s offspring includes the clever and enigmatic Niven, the oldest, whose experience includes surviving the horrors of the Somme. Ramsay is a complete contrast as he exists on the boarders of the fashionable life, unable to cope with Nellie’s expectations.

This is a book with enormous range, in terms of the themes it tackles, and the way it interleaves the characters’ stories. Gwendolen is a bright spark for more than one character; she sees things differently and seems unchangeable. Freda may be one of the youngest in the novel but has a fascinating backstory. There is subtle humour as well as a complex plot as it becomes clear that often people are not what they seem. There are bodies found and missing people, drinks and dancing, celebrations and disasters. The descriptions of London are simply brilliant, almost visible in the contrasts, full of the colours, sounds and smalls of a city in the interwar years. This is such an impressive novel in so many ways, with such a range of characters, situations and a clever plot with subplots. I enjoyed the style of writing, the depth of characterisation – Nellie’s omnipresence is frightening, and some of Frobisher’s discoveries very sad. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review, and I would thoroughly recommend it.   

Lessons by Ian McEwan – An Unchosen Life of memories and more

Lessons by Ian McEwan

“How easy it was to drift through an unchosen life, in a succession of reactions to events”. Roland Baines’ life has many fascinating aspects as related in this superbly written book. It reveals the pinpoint detail of his life as well as the big world events that shape things around him, the reactions he feels to things that seem out of his control, his actions that set his life and that of others on a particular path. It is a sort of life story, though it rarely travels in a straight line; like memories it goes off down pathways, waymarked by letters and notes on occasions, but often it takes the form of returning to events, considering them in the light of present knowledge. It is incredible in its details, of the interiors of buildings, especially homes. It is a book peopled by Roland, but also by a teacher, a wife, a baby and others who seem to enter the stage for a section, then fall back into the background.

 I found this book an intense reading experience, in which Roland is in the foreground, but others are given room for their stories, and events roll around. The events are sometimes world changing, others just challenge Roland’s world. Some are expected, some are almost surreal. A world recovering from War, with all that implies, questions of bravery and separation, becomes the dangerous peace of a Cold War which suddenly becomes real. The pain of the Iron Curtain’s effects on people is so well expressed in relation to Germany that the Fall of the Wall seems almost personal. Climate change, even covid, are seen through eyes of fear and some understanding, while the realities of Brexit linger in the background. This book brilliantly combines the personal with the political, the massive with the mundane, as Roland learns that there are many lessons in life to be learnt. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this big book in every sense.

The book begins with an eleven-year-old boy, who has already had a complex life, going through a piano lesson with a young teacher who is unexpectedly reactive to his playing. She makes demands on him that go beyond what is to an extent already seen as a precocious talent, but he takes this as one more thing he cannot understand in a strange school existence. His mother is far away, but it seems that she cannot protect him – his dominant father sees to that. He is essentially vulnerable, and Miriam will go on to teach him and leave scars that cannot be left behind. The scene shifts to a house in London twenty-five years later, when new father Roland is abandoned by his wife, left to look after a seven month old baby, Lawrence, with no preparation and little understanding. A note solidifies the abandonment, the pain, and while the State grudgingly gives him a little money, the police are interested in a man whose wife has disappeared. This is especially the case when an officer finds a scribbled line of poetry which may suggest a woman’s death. It is only gradually that the reference becomes clear, as Roland’s memories of a curtailed formal education is explored, and his efforts to fill the perceived gaps – the courses of reading, the travels melt into the friendships, the relationships. Politics becomes personal when he encounters the realities of a divided Germany, and the endless debates about the government that pervade the dinners and drinks of friends and acquaintances. Still, there are questions, of women who he has been close to, of men who often challenge him. Memories, passions and sheer luck meld together to provide an unforgettable portrait of a life illustrated by reality.

This book is not only engaging, it is also immersive as Roland’s life story expands on the page. Like real life it does not run in straight lines; there are always considerations of others, of the what ifs, of the effects of decisions that he has taken, that others around him take, that are made on a global stage. The standout section for me concerns the fall of the Wall in Berlin in late 1989, when history is reduced to accident, to assumptions about people, when life changes forever in some ways, but also continues in others. This is a book that instantly becomes memorable, that I found an intense reading experience, and I recommend to those who are interested in life as it was actually lived by some in the second half of the twentieth century and beyond.

The Library by Bella Osborne – an enjoyable novel of contemporary life and a Book Club choice

The Library by Bella Osborne

Some book groups go for challenging literature – for our second meeting of our relaunched book group we decided that this book fitted the bill. It has characters that are perhaps unusual in a contemporary novel – a teenage boy and a seventy-two-year-old woman. It features one character who has severe problems and the topic of loneliness in two different age groups. It is also of course set in a library, one that Maggie and Tom meet in, and is under threat of closure. My edition also includes “Questions for your Book Club”, which we did not work our way through, but which made interesting points about the book’s themes. In a way it is a very positive book – but I admit to at least point that I found quite moving when Tom’s dad destroys something important to Tom. It has its comic points – Maggie it seems is a physically tough older lady, when it comes to work on her small holding dealing with Colin and other tasks, and in defence of herself and others. Tom describes himself as “invisible” as only a quiet sixteen-year-old can be, without friends and having lost his mother when he was younger. His relationship with his father is tough, his concern about a future working in the dog food factory understandable, and his half expressed hopes for romance painful. This is a novel that can set off many discussions topic, and also be an enjoyable book in its own right.

It is soon established that the importance of the library is that it is one of the few places that people from different age groups and backgrounds can come together and all find something for them that is free. Maggie is organised and resourceful, but essentially lonely with not enough to occupy her. Widowed and living alone, she enjoys reading many types of books, especially when it means she can go to the library on a Saturday for a book group. Tom’s appearance at the library is more accidental; a comforting memory of visiting with his mother, and a place of books which fill the empty hours in his difficult home life. After his dramatic meeting with Maggie, it becomes a place where he realises that he may find friends, both much longed for and surprising. The structure of the book is very interesting: Tom relates his own story and feelings in his own voice, including his terrible times with his father, his taking on of domestic responsibilities. Maggie’s story is closely related, but it soon becomes obvious that she has an unusual back story and a dramatic secret. As befits a teenager Tom has much to relate on the subject of food, especially the contrast between the sparse fare at home and the plentiful meals that Maggie happily provides, and there are also some wonderful pictures of the farming life that Maggie is used to, but which is a whole new world for Tom.

Altogether this is a novel which provided many talking points. We spoke about libraries at some length; we admitted that our own use of libraries varied at the moment but that they were valuable places that are worth fighting for. The fight for the library as described in the book is realistic, with the suggestion that the local authorities are only really interested in the financial aspects of the closure. This is a novel which we generally enjoyed, and I would certainly recommend it as a good read which combines lots of interesting issues with great characters.