With the onset of COVID-19, Norwegians found themselves suffering from a peculiar kind of cabin fever. Cabin-owners across the nation were no longer allowed to stay at holiday houses outside their home municipality, something that led Norwegians closer to civil disobedience than they had ever ventured before. This obsessive attachment to our holiday homes is explained well in The Cabin in the Mountains by Robert Ferguson. Enamoured with Norwegian culture, the English writer has lived in Norway since the 1980s, and is well equipped to present his compatriots with the many curious aspects of his adopted home country.
Wow…is all I can say about The Notebook by Agota Kristof. This is one of the more disquieting books I’ve read but it’s also impossible to put down. It’s the notebook of two nameless young twin brothers somewhere in Eastern Europe, sometime at the end of the Second World War. Calmly and unsentimentally, the boys tell us what war does to people. It’s not a pretty story but it leaves an indelible impression.
Surge by Jay Bernard is a poetry book composed of many different voices. At times confidential, at others longing, prophetic or lyrical, it weaves together the voices of the past, allowing the dead and forgotten to speak to the present. Through it all we hear the clear voice of Bernard, fearless, tender and unflinching.
The terrible killing of George Floyd in America has reminded me of Ta-Neshisi Coates’ stirring Between the World and Me which I reviewed a few years ago. A must read.
Once in a blue moon you come across a book that changes your perspective. Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ open letter to his 15-year-old son about race relations in America, is such a book. An eye-opening account of what it’s really like to grow up as an African American in America’s poorest neighbourhoods and a book that – at the risk of sounding patronising – everyone ‘should’ read.
There’s something special about novels based on real events, particularly when the story is crazy as that of the The Visit of the Royal Physician by Per Olov Enquist. It’s the late 1700s and the time of absolute rulers. In Denmark, a German doctor is hired to take care of the 16-year-old mentally disturbed King Christian VII. Within months, Struensee becomes the Queen’s lover and de-facto sovereign while living alongside King Christian. How was this possible? And was this Struensee’s intention all along? A wild journey into the madness of 18th century court life, revolutionary ideas and an absolute treat of a novel. Read full Review
Not all books are blessed with a brilliant opening line, but Lobster Life by Erik Fosnes Hansen certainly is. His first novel in ten years kicks off with the offhand remark: ‘They had got as far as the cakes when Herr Berge, the bank manager, suddenly slumped down at the table and started to die.’ They turn out to be the young boy Sedgwick and his grandparents, and although Fosnes Hansen’s wit is not as tinkling throughout as it is in that shiny first sentence, Sedgwick’s story turns out highly amusing nonetheless.
The cynical, whiskey drinking, mac-wearing sleuth Philip Marlow is one of crime literature’s most enduring characters. Written in 1936, The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler has stood the test of time despite a dash of homophobia and sexism which, today, seem so outlandish it just makes you laugh. The story involves the wealthy General Sternwood, his spoilt, unruly daughters Carmen and Vivian, and blackmail. Chandler was in a league of his own when it came to astute observations of people and places and it’s this that sets The Big Sleep apart from so many others in the genre.
Norway’s capital is perhaps not the most spectacular city in Europe, but it has seldom been more charming than in Echoes of the City by Lars Saabye Christensen, the first instalment in an ambitious trilogy tracing the lives of ordinary people in post-war Oslo. One of Norway’s most respected novelists, Saabye Christensen has managed the feat of attaining both critical acclaim and high sales.
I am writing the review of This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun eight weeks into the extraordinary lockdown we find ourselves stuck in. This remarkable, deeply unsettling novel, based on a true story, has reminded me of the incredible strength humans find in order to survive the darkest of situations. Strangely, although a harrowing and at times uncomfortable read, it has proved to be a perfect book for now. I hope you will feel the same.
I’m finding that bitesized, escapist fiction suits my concentration levels these days and We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, perfectly fits the bill. The story of two mysterious sisters living with their ailing uncle in a grand, ivy-covered Vermont house is unsettling from the word go. We Have Always Lived in the Castle was Jackson’s – the American queen of ghost and horror stories – last and, many think, best novel.