Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….He was an old man, slight, with white hair and bowed head, and with a professional caressing voice. His practice had shrunk, and his bills to Mrs. van Beer were large and paid without question. He was not dishonest or in any way a dishonourable man. Later events threw an unkindly brilliant light upon him. But he was an averagely diligent G.P., with a professional equipment which had been moderately good in 1889, the last year in which he had attempted to learn anything, with failing eyesight and memory and with an increasing difficulty in concentrating. Lack of any other resources forced him to go on practising when he should have retired. He had to live, and for that reason, someone else was to have to die.

* * * * * * * * *

I met Victory Day in East Prussia. For two days it was quiet, there was no shooting, then in the middle of the night a sudden signal: “Alert!” We all jumped up. And there came a shout: “Victory! Capitulation!” Capitulation was all right, but victory – that really got to us. “The war’s over! The war’s over!” We all started firing whatever we had: submachine guns, pistols… We fired our gun… One wiped his tears, another danced: “I’m alive, I’m alive!” A third fell to the ground and embraced it, embraced the sand, the stones. Such joy… And I was standing there and I slowly realised: the war’s over, and my papa will never come home. The war was over… The commander threatened later, “Well, there won’t be any demobilisation till the ammunition’s paid for. What have you done? How many shells have you fired?” We felt as if there would always be peace on earth, that no-one would ever want war, that all the bombs should be destroyed. Who needed them? We were tired of hatred. Tired of shooting.

Valentina Pavlovna Chudaeva, Sergeant, Commander of Anti-Aircraft Artillery

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….Mrs Swettenham was once more deep in the Personal Column.
….Second hand Motor Mower for sale. Now I wonder… Goodness, what a price!… More dachshunds… “Do write or communicate desperate Woggles.” What silly nicknames people have… Cocker spaniels… Do you remember darling Susie, Edmund? She really was human. Understood every word you said to her… Sheraton sideboard for sale. Genuine family antique. Mrs Lucas, Dayas Hall… What a liar that woman is! Sheraton indeed…!’
….Mrs Swettenham sniffed and then continued her reading.
All a mistake, darling. Undying love. Friday as usual. – J… I suppose they’ve had a lovers’ quarrel – or do you think it’s a code for burglars? … More dachshunds! Really, I do think people have gone a little crazy about breeding dachshunds. I mean, there are other dogs. Your Uncle Simon used to breed Manchester Terriers. Such graceful little things. I do like dogs with legsLady going abroad will sell her two piece navy suiting… no measurements or price given… A marriage is announced – no, a murder. What? Well, I never! Edmund, Edmund, listen to this…

‘A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6.30 p.m. Friends please accept this, the only intimation.’

….‘What an extraordinary thing!’

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….He stood at the window with a tumbler of whisky, smoking a cigarette, and watched the last traces of the sun disappear behind the trees of Ludwigkirchplatz. The sky glowed red. The trees looked like the shadows of primitive dancers cavorting around a fire. On the radio, the opening of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture signalled the start of a special news bulletin. The announcer sounded half-crazed with excitement.
….“Prompted by the desire to make a last effort to bring about the peaceful cession of the Sudeten German territory to the Reich, the Führer has invited Benito Mussolini, the head of the Italian Government; Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister of Great Britain; and Edouard Daladier, the French Prime Minister, to a conference. The statesmen have accepted the invitation. The discussion will take place in Munich tomorrow morning, September 29th…”
….The communiqué made it seem as if the whole thing had been Hitler’s idea. And people would believe it, thought Hartmann, because people believed what they wanted to believe – that was Goebbels’s great insight. They no longer had any need to bother themselves with inconvenient truths. He had given them an excuse not to think.

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From the Archives…

….In those early visits it was as though we were building something sacred. We’d place words carefully together, piling them upon one another, leaving no spaces. We each created towers, two beacons, the like of which are built along roads to guide the way when the weather comes down.

* * * * *

….Already the mountain grass is fading to the colour of smoked meat, and the evenings smell of burning fish oil from lamps newly lit. At Illugastadir there will soon be a prickle of frost over the seaweed thrown upon the shore. The seals will be banked upon the tongues of rock, watching winter descend from the mountain.

(Click for full review)

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So…are you tempted?

Modern classics…

The Classics Club – July Meme #ccmeme

classics club logo 2

The Classics Club meme for this month is looking at recent books rather than old ones…

What about modern classics? Pick a book published since 2000 and say why you think it will be considered as a “classic” in the future.

Hmm… the first thing, I suppose, is to define “classic”. When I drew up my own list of classics, I decided that it pretty much meant any book over 50 years old that is still in print and read today. By “in print” I mean in a priced version by a publisher, rather than a scanned Kindle freebie or only available on Project Gutenberg and the like. I did include a couple of out of print books in my Scottish section, but in general I still hold that if a book is out of print it hasn’t really survived the test of time.

So, restricting it, not surprisingly, to books I’ve read (and reviewed, ‘cos they’re the only ones I ever remember!) I came up with several that I expect will still be in print and being read in fifty years’ time. The majority are pretty safe bets, since they come from authors with such an established and respected body of work that their stuff is bound to survive. Most of these authors have won or at least been shortlisted for the major literary prizes, though not necessarily for these books. Here they are…

Harvest by Jim Crace

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt*

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

(*The inclusion of The Goldfinch will alert regular readers to the fact that I’m only suggesting these books will become classics, but not necessarily saying I think they’re good…)

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It’s more difficult to guess which newer, less established authors will survive. It’s rare indeed for an author to write only one book that becomes a classic, however great it may be. To Kill a Mockingbird springs to mind, but not much else. However, in general, the bulk of an author’s work survives or it all disappears, even if it’s generally accepted that one or two of their books are outstanding and the rest not quite at the same level. The Great Gatsby is read by millions of people who never read anything else by Fitzgerald, for example, but all his major work remains consistently in print.

So here are four authors that I think may survive. In each case, the book I’ve listed has had some success but not the recognition I felt it deserved.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

Burial Rites was a bestseller but was unforgivably not longlisted for the Booker. However, it’s Hannah Kent’s only book to date, and by itself I don’t know if it would survive. But if, as I expect, she goes on to write a whole lifetime’s worth of good stuff, and wins major prizes one day, then I think her books will become classics for sure. Similarly, Yann Martel might be a fairly safe bet because of the major success of The Life of Pi, but I feel he still needs a bigger body of work before his place as a great is assured.

Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery

The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer

Patrick Flanery and Aatish Taseer both received a good deal of critical praise for these books, but neither really took the reading world by storm as much as I’d have expected (though Taseer may have done in India and Pakistan – I don’t know). Again, neither was longlisted for the Booker, not that that’s much of a guide to longevity, anyway – the books on the longlist will mostly be forgotten by this time next year, if they ever get read at all by anyone except those who like to read the longlisted books each year. (My evidence? Pick a year and look at the longlisted, but not shortlisted, books on Amazon and see how few reviews most of them will have; and most of those will appear at around the time of the longlisting announcement. You might, or might not, also be surprised at how low even those dedicated Booker readers tend to rate these ‘best’ books of the year… but be careful, or you might become as cynical as me…)

Aatish Taseer
Aatish Taseer

Both at the beginning of their writing careers, I’m betting both Flanery and Taseer will break through properly at some point, and join the likes of Rushdie, Tóibín, McCarthy, as writers with a solid body of work, some great, some good, but almost always worth reading. And I’ll stick my neck out and say they’ll both win the Booker one day. And, of these two books, the one which seems to me more likely to have a long life is Patrick Flanery’s.

I reckon Fallen Land was written too soon after 9/11 and the global crash for the American public to accept how fundamentally these things had affected every aspect of society. The book, in my opinion, shows the widening gulf that is becoming ever more clear now between the progressives and the conservatives, how that arises out of the constitution and history of the US; and that the gap between them leaves a dangerous vacuum waiting to be filled. With its references to the founders, to slavery, to the importance of land ownership, to the attitude of suspicion towards ‘foreigners’, to surveillance, to the disconnect between people and the government, to the part of the American psyche that turns people into assault-rifle-wielding survivalists, I’m betting it’s a book that will be appreciated more in retrospect for what it says about today’s America than America is willing to admit even now. So it’s the one I think most likely to be a future classic. But only if Flanery does achieve that major breakthrough…

Patrick Flanery
Patrick Flanery

Over to you…what modern book do you think will become a classic?

(PS – On reading this over, it seems awfully opinionated and a bit grumpy… but it’s late and I’m tired and I can’t bring myself to redo it, so please don’t hold it against me… 😉 )

Five of the Best!



Each month this year, I’ll be looking back over my reviews of the past five years and picking out my favourite from each year. Cleo from Cleopatra Loves Books came up with this brilliant idea and kindly agreed to let me borrow it.

So here are my favourite July reads…click on the covers to go to the full reviews, though it must be said my early reviews were somewhat basic…




testament of a witchThis is the second in a series of historical crime novels set in the late 17th century just before the dawn of the Scottish Enlightenment. On checking it appears that the next one has just been released, 4 years later. Douglas Watt is a ‘proper’ historian, so one assumes his day job must have got in the way. This works excellently as a standalone, though – well written, historically insightful and with a solid plot based on the concerns of the time – treasonable plots, religious division, superstition and witch-hunts. Through the two main characters, rationalist John MacKenzie and Presbyterian Davie Scougall, Watt sheds a good deal of light on the political, religious and cultural concerns of the times and foreshadows the move towards Enlightenment thinking in the following century. But he doesn’t let the history get in the way of the story-telling, as MacKenzie must try to prevent the daughter of a friend from being burned as a witch.  The descriptions of how witches were identified and dealt with are both fascinating and horrifying. A couple of chapters are written in Scots dialect but not broadly enough to cause problems for a non-Scottish reader to understand.




shakespeare's restless worldThis set comprises 20 15-minute episodes in each of which Neil MacGregor (of A History of the World in 100 Objects fame) discusses an object from Shakespeare’s day, linking it to the plays or the theatres and also using it as a means to shed light on the society of the day.

MacGregor is excellent, clearly an enthusiast both for his subject and for sharing his knowledge. Each episode focuses on one object linked to an aspect of the plays – for example, a model ship leads us to the witches in MacBeth – and then MacGregor tells us of how that would have resonated at the time, when witches were still credited with the power of raising storms, causing shipwrecks etc. Every episode, though short, is packed full of information, interestingly told. If you prefer reading to listening, there is a book of the series, which is without exception the most lavishly illustrated book I own, and is a thing of beauty in itself.




burial rites

Set in Iceland in 1829, the book is a fictionalized account of the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, condemned to die for her part in the murder of two men, one her lover. While waiting for the date of execution to be set, Agnes is put into the custody of Jón and Margrét Jónsson and, at Agnes’ request, a young priest, Reverend Tóti, is given the task of preparing Agnes spiritually for her death. At first the family are horrified to have a murderess amongst them, while Tóti doubts his own experience and ability to help Agnes find some kind of repentance and acceptance. But as summer fades into the long, harsh winter, Agnes gradually breaks her silence and begins to reveal her story of what led to that night…

Beautiful, sometimes poetic, writing, excellent characterisation and a haunting and heartbreaking plot, but what lifts this to the top ranks of literary fiction is the atmospheric depiction of the life and landscape of this remote community in the cold and dark of an Icelandic winter. A fabulous book that I felt was cheated by not being included on the shortlist for that year’s Booker.




the truth is a caveI described this book as stunning at the time and that still seems like the right word. A dark tale of a journey, a quest into the Black Mountains to find a cave – to find the truth – the story is equalled and enhanced by the amazingly atmospheric illustrations of Eddie Campbell. The two elements – words and pictures – are completely entwined. There’s no feeling of the one being an addition to the other – each is essential and together they form something magical. The story is by turns moving, mystical, dramatic, frightening; and the illustrations, many of them done in very dark colours, create a sense of mirky gloom and growing apprehension. Do click on the cover to see the review, where I included some pictures of the illustrations. As the story gets darker some of the later pictures are truly macabre and unforgettable. And the story itself is wonderfully haunting – one I remember very distinctly more than a year after reading it. I’ve read this in another collection without pictures, and it’s only about half as effective, so I strongly urge anyone who wants to read it to go for the graphic version – the paper one. A superb book.




sunset song 2Considered to be one of the greatest Scottish novels of the 20th century, this first volume of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s trilogy, A Scots Quair, is a lament for the passing of a way of life. It tells the story of Chris Guthrie, daughter of a tenant farmer in the fictional estate of Kinraddie in the north-east of Scotland, before and during the First World War. Some of the writing is heart-breaking in its emotional intensity but never overloaded with mawkishness or sentimentality. As war approaches, Gibbon handles beautifully the gradual change within the community, from feeling completely detached and uninvolved to slowly finding their lives affected in every way. But he also shows that the community was changing already, with increasing mechanisation of farms, the landowners gradually driving the tenant farmers off as they found more profitable uses for the land, the English-ing of education leading to the loss of the old language and with it, old traditions. And as he brings his characters together once again after the war ends, we see them begin to gather the strength to face their uncertain future in a world that will never be the same again. A brilliant book that fully deserves its reputation.

FictionFan Shadow Booker Award 2013

And the prize goes to…


It has taken six months but I’ve finally finished reading the 2013 Booker shortlist – a mammoth task, not made easier by the current fashion for ridiculously long books. The final part of the task is to decide whether I agree with the judges’ choice of winner. So here’s a brief summary of what I thought of the books – click on the book title if you’d like to read any of the full reviews.

Just for fun (and hopefully to provoke a bit of controversy), I’ve put the books in reverse order…

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Shouldn’t have been shortlisted…


the lowlandThe Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri


Lahiri’s strange choice to leave the interesting character and storyline of Udayan and the Naxalbari at an early point in the book, and instead follow the dull-to-the-point-of tears Subhash and Gauri to the States for (yet) another look at the ‘immigrant experience’, combined with her lacklustre writing and lifeless characterisation, led this to being the only one of the shortlist that I really wouldn’t recommend at all. So, for the FF Shadow Booker Award, it’s been removed and replaced.

* * * * * * * * *

6th and last place


a tale for the time beingA Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki


The quality of writing and storytelling shown in the part of this book that deals with the young Japanese girl Nao is in stark contrast to the clumsiness and dullness of the portion relating to the author’s namesake (and alter-ego?) Ruth. Add in copious and unnecessary footnotes, daft little drawings and the silliest descent into quantum-mechanical quasi-mystical mumbo-jumbo at the end and you have a book that could have been great…but isn’t. (Perhaps it’s great in a parallel universe, though…)

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5th place


HarvestHarvest by Jim Crace


With poetic, often lyrical writing, Crace’s book brilliantly evokes a rural society on the cusp of overwhelming changes as landlords begin to enclose land for sheep-farming. Unfortunately the narrative voice is somewhat unconvincing and the story falls away badly in the last third of the book. Well worth reading, and worthy of its shortlisting, but just fails to be great.

* * * * * * * * *

4th place


Testament of MaryThe Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín


The strongest and most beautiful piece of writing on the shortlist, this short novella punches well above its weight and will undoubtedly be the book I remember most vividly. But…it’s far too short to be considered a novel, and for that reason, regardless of how much I loved it, I remain surprised that it was shortlisted and can’t bring myself to think that it should have won. However, it comes with my highest recommendation of all the books – if you haven’t read this one, you should.

* * * * * * * * *

3rd place


burial ritesBurial Rites by Hannah Kent


This book should have been shortlisted in place of The Lowland. A haunting and heartbreaking debut, this fictionalised account of a true story shows a confidence and assurance rarely matched by even the most experienced writers. Kent conveys brilliantly the harsh Icelandic environment, the relentless struggle of the inhabitants, the constant threat of extreme weather; and her use of language is skilled and often poetic. The omission of this one in favour of The Lowland shows that sometimes more account is given to an author’s name and reputation than to the actual quality of the novel.

* * * * * * * * *

2nd place


we need new namesWe Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo


There are significant weaknesses in this book – firstly, the ticklist of horrors that Bulawayo seems to be working through in both Zimbabwe and the US, and secondly, the weakness of the second half in comparison to the first. However these are massively outweighed by the positives – the freshness of the writing, the characterisation of Darling (who has joined my list of unforgettables) and most of all, the beautiful chapter in the heart of the book that reads like a prose poem as it describes the exodus of a generation from their troubled homeland. This book has gained a permanent place in my heart and the decision not to name it as my winner has been a hard one indeed…

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1st place and…

Winner of the FictionFan Shadow Booker Award 2013!


the luminaries blueThe Luminaries by Eleanor Catton


Yes, I believe the judges got it right! (I bet they’re sighing with relief!) Intelligent, original, and wonderfully crafted, Catton’s structural game-playing doesn’t prevent this from being first and foremost a great read. The only one of the books apart from The Testament of Mary in which the highest standards are maintained all the way through, The Luminaries does what any great book must do – it teaches us something we didn’t know and sheds some light on that nebulous thing we call the ‘human condition’. Despite its ridiculous length, I can envisage re-reading this book more than once and gaining something new each time. A worthy winner!

* * * * * * * * *


Overall I enjoyed the books and the challenge of reading them all, but I suspect it will be a one-off experience, especially since, by allowing American authors to participate, the Booker has thrown away the thing that made it unique amongst literary prizes – its deep ties to the Commonwealth. (I shudder at the thought of The Goldfinch winning in 2014…)

* * * * * * * * *

Now…let the controversy begin…


(puts on some music and steps out of the way of hordes of irate Lady Fancifulls…)


FictionFan Awards 2013 – Crime/Thriller Category and Book of the Year 2013

A round of applause please…


…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2013 in the Crime/Thriller Category.

If you’ve been around the last couple of weeks, you might want to skip this bit and go straight to the awards. But for the benefit of new readers, a quick reminder of the rules…


All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2012 and October 2013 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.


There will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories

History/Biography/Politics – click to see awards

Literary/Contemporary Fiction – click to see awards

Science/Nature/Environment – click to see awards




Book of the Year 2013


For the winners!

I guarantee to read the authors’ next book even if I have to buy it myself!

For the runners-up!




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So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in



This turned out to be an almost impossible category. While there was a clear winner, there were so many contenders for runners-up that in the end I’ve had to include 6 honourable mentions. And because the choice was so hard, I’ve also decided to list the nominees that didn’t make quite make it into the final list. All of these books were great reads, and I look forward to seeing where the authors take us in the future.


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Pilgrim Soul (Douglas Brodie 3) by Gordon Ferris

pilgrim soulThe first two novels in the Douglas Brodie series were very good noir thrillers – fast-paced, explosive and full of black humour. This one is very different and takes the Brodie series to another and much darker level.

Brodie is asked to investigate a spate of burglaries in Glasgow’s post-war Jewish community. But when the burglar is found murdered it gradually becomes clear that there is a connection that leads back to the horrors of the concentration camps – horrors that Brodie has been trying to forget since his role as interrogator of war criminals after the war.

 Click to see the full review

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Like This, For Ever (Lacey Flint 3) by SJ Bolton

Llike this for everacey Flint’s third outing shows Bolton at her best – inventive plotting, great characterisation, plenty of humour, much of it black, and a sense of tension that builds throughout to a thrillingly dramatic climax.

The book starts with the discovery of the body of twins under Tower Bridge, the most recent victims of a serial killer who steals young boys and cuts their throats. The MIT squad, still led by Dana Tulloch, is getting nowhere fast – these murders don’t fall into the normal pattern as there’s no sign of a sexual angle. Dana and the squad are already feeling the pressure and it’s going to get worse…

Click to see the full review

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The Chessmen (Lewis Trilogy 3) by Peter May

The ChessmenThis third part of Peter May’s Lewis trilogy is stunningly good. As a long-standing enthusiast for May’s work, I believe these three books are by far his best work*, and this last one may even be the best of the three. (*That is, until I read his new one, Entry Island, which is better yet…)

May’s descriptive prose and sense of place are, as always, wonderful. The bleakness and yet beauty of this harsh weather-beaten landscape, the way of life and traditions of the islanders, the still strong grip of the ultra-conservative Church – all of these are woven seamlessly through the story. And the story once again is focused on shadows of the past coming back to haunt the present.

Click to see the full review

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The Stranger You Know (Maeve Kerrigan 4) by Jane Casey

the stranger you knowOne murder might be a one-off, two might be a coincidence, but a third means there’s a serial killer at work. Maeve Kerrigan is assigned to the investigating team and is shocked to discover that the chief suspect is Josh Derwent, her colleague and boss. OK, he’s an unreconstructed male chauvinist pig, he’s a bully and a womaniser but…a murderer? Maeve can’t believe it. At least, she almost can’t believe it – but this murderer is plausible, he gains the trust of his victims and his psychological profile does sound an awful lot like Derwent…and it seems this isn’t the first time he’s been a murder suspect…

Click to see the full review

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Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer

RubberneckerPatrick is a young man with a mission – to find out the meaning of death. And having Asperger’s Syndrome means that he takes his mission to extremes. When he signs up for a course in anatomy, his team is tasked with dissecting cadaver Number 19 to see if they can spot the cause of death. Meantime, elsewhere in the hospital, Sam is in a coma, but although he can’t wake up he can see and hear what’s going on around him and it’s not all good. But Sam is gradually coming back and is desperate to regain the ability to speak…

Grisly, macabre and in places gloriously blackly funny, this book is a compulsive read. It may be a cliché, but I really couldn’t put it down.

Click to see the full review

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Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

burial ritesHaunting and heartbreaking, this is the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, condemned to die for her part in the murder of two men, one her lover. While waiting for the date of execution to be set, Agnes is put into the custody of Jón and Margrét Jónsson and, at Agnes’ request, a young priest, Reverend Tóti, is given the task of preparing Agnes spiritually for her death. At first the family are horrified to have a murderess amongst them, Margrét fearing for the safety and moral well-being of her own two daughters Lauga and Steina, while Tóti doubts his own experience and ability to help Agnes find some kind of repentance and acceptance. But as summer fades into the long, harsh winter, Agnes gradually breaks her silence and begins to reveal her story of what led to that night…

Click to see the full review

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Laidlaw by William McIlvanney

“Glasgow was home-made ginger biscuits and Jennifer Lawson dead in the park. It was the sententious niceness of the Commander and the threatened abrasiveness of Laidlaw. It was Milligan, insensitive as a mobile slab of cement, and Mrs Lawson, witless with hurt. It was the right hand knocking you down and the left hand picking you up, while the mouth alternated apology and threat.”

When Jennifer Lawson’s body is found in Kelvingrove Park, it falls to Laidlaw and his colleague Harkness to find the man who raped her and beat her to death. But they’re not alone in the search. Jennifer’s father, Bud Lawson, wants to get there first, to mete out his own form of justice. And both Lawson and the killer have contacts in the city’s underworld – men for whom violence replaces judge and jury. So the race is on…

McIlvanney’s Glasgow is a bleak place, with violence never far beneath the surface, fuelled by drink and prejudice. A place of contradictions, where love exists but doesn’t flourish, where loyalty is a product of fear and betrayal is met with uncompromising brutality. Laidlaw is our everyman, our observer – a player, yes, and a flawed one, but with an understanding of humanity that allows him to look beyond events to their causes, and to empathise where others condemn.

Click to see the full review

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And finally…

the winner of the



fallen land 2

(And if you’re surprised by that, then you really haven’t been paying attention… 😉 )

In this extraordinary book, Patrick Flanery delves deep into the troubled American psyche in the post 9/11, post global crash world where the tectonic plates of certainty and complacency have shifted with volcanic and destructive results. A disturbing psychological thriller, this works just as well as a metaphor for a society where love and trust have been overwhelmed by suspicion and fear. Flanery’s prose is wonderful and the characters he has crafted are complex and compelling, each damaged by history and experience and each inspiring empathy in the reader. He develops them slowly, letting us see the influences, both personal and political, that have made them what they are. This was the first book I blogged about – indeed, the book that inspired me to blog, in an attempt to spread the word about Flanery. His first book, Absolution, was my FF Award Winner in 2012 and this year he has achieved the double with Fallen Land. What next from this exciting and talented author? Who knows, but I can’t wait to find out…

Click to see the full review

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Thanks to all for joining my reading journey this year and, with your help, I look forward to finding some more great books in the year to come.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

burial rites“The quality of mercy…”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Publication Due 29th August 2013

Haunting and heartbreaking, this is the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, condemned to die for her part in the murder of two men, one her lover. While waiting for the date of execution to be set, Agnes is put into the custody of Jón and Margrét Jónsson and, at Agnes’ request, a young priest, Reverend Tóti, is given the task of preparing Agnes spiritually for her death. At first the family are horrified to have a murderess amongst them, Margrét fearing for the safety and moral well-being of her own two daughters Lauga and Steina, while Tóti doubts his own experience and ability to help Agnes find some kind of repentance and acceptance. But as summer fades into the long, harsh winter, Agnes gradually breaks her silence and begins to reveal her story of what led to that night…

“The weight of his fingers on mine, like a bird landing on a branch. It was the drop of the match. I did not see that we were surrounded by tinder until I felt it burst into flames.”

Set in Iceland in 1829, the book is a fictionalized account of a true story. The writing is excellent and the author has clearly researched both Agnes’ story and Icelandic culture of the time thoroughly. The characterization is very strong, especially of the three main characters. We see Tóti’s struggle to overcome his own feelings, initially of repugnance, but later of inadequacy and guilt as he begins to feel attracted to Agnes. Margrét is stern and determined to protect her family, but as she comes to know Agnes better her innate fair-mindedness begins to see that things are not as black and white as she had thought. And the complex character of Agnes remains ambiguous throughout – sometimes she earns our sympathy, pity even, but the crime is always there to make us think there is another side to her. Mostly told as a third-person narrative, there are also first-person sections that let the reader see some of the thoughts and memories Agnes is holding back from the other characters.

“In those early visits it was as though we were building something sacred. We’d place words carefully together, piling them upon one another, leaving no spaces. We each created towers, two beacons, the like of which are built along roads to guide the way when the weather comes down.”

Hannah Kent
Hannah Kent

Kent paints extraordinary pictures with her words. She brings the harsh Icelandic environment vividly to life – the relentless struggle to scrape an existence out of the land, the constant presence and threat of extreme weather. And she shows us the isolated and claustrophobic way of life, where old superstitions still persist in spite of the strict enforcement of religion; and where all members of a household, master and servant, share a communal living space in farms which may be cut off from even their nearest neighbours for days or weeks at a time. She weaves these things so naturally through the story that there is never a feeling of being ‘told’ about them – rather she writes as if these things will be familiar to the reader, and gradually they become so.

“Already the mountain grass is fading to the colour of smoked meat, and the evenings smell of burning fish oil from lamps newly lit. At Illugastadir there will soon be a prickle of frost over the seaweed thrown upon the shore. The seals will be banked upon the tongues of rock, watching winter descend from the mountain.”

I loved the style of writing from the first pages, and as I got drawn more into the characters and the culture, I found this became an intensely moving book, never sentimental, never taking the easy option, never telling the reader what to think or feel. To call this a stunning debut is almost to insult it – this is a more compelling and assured book than most writers ever achieve. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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