The Singing Line by Alice Thomson

I bought The Singing Line in 2012, following a recommendation by an Australian friend. So I have just read it, 9 years later.

Alice Thomson is the great-great-granddaughter of Charles Todd and his young wife Alice. In the 1850s the newly wed Charles and Alice left England for the colony of South Australia. Charles Todd led the ambitious project of constructing a telegraph line from Adelaide in the south to Darwin in the north, where it could be connected to a cable that would complete a link between Australia and the rest of the Empire. Messages between Australia and London that had taken months to reach their destination would take a few hours.

The continent had only been crossed once before from north to south. There were deserts, mountains, swamps to traverse. There was no known route across the mountain ranges in the middle. And yet Todd did it. He named the town of Alice Springs after his wife.

Some 125 years later his great-great-granddaughter and her husband followed the route of the telegraph across Australia. This book tells the story of that 1997 journey, of Charles Todd and his construction of the telegraph line, and of Alice. Ultimately it is a very human story, well told.

9 out of 10.

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

I think a lot of my problems with this book may be the responsibility of the narrator. It took me a while to realise that this book is written in a number of different voices. The narrator did not change his voice, and the introduction at the beginning of each chapter did not initially make this clear. In fact the narration was at times pretty lifeless, making it easy for my attention to wander. That is a pity.

This book is set in Istanbul some centuries ago, I think the late 1500s. It centres on the school of miniaturists attached to the sultan’s court. There is a love story, and also a detective thriller as the killer of two of the artists is tracked down.

At the heart of this book is also a discussion of the differing approaches of Islamic and European art, a conflict which has led to the killings.

I think with a different narrator I might well have enjoyed this book more, rather than wishing it would come to an end. I think I will probably try more Orhan Pamuk, but not with John Lee.

That is why I am giving this 6 out of 10.

The Creak on The stairs by Eva Björg Ægisdóttir

There seems to be more and more of a set formula to Icelandic crime novels: The detective relocating from Reykjavik to get away from something in their past; a claustrophobic small town; an unsolved mystery a generation earlier; and – of course – a murder.

The Creak on the Stairs follows that formula. It does it well. Elma is a detective relocated to her home town of Akranes, escaping memories of her breakup in the big city. Not long after she returns, a body is found. The deceased also used to live in Akranes, and has avoided the town ever since. So why was she there? Why has she been killed?

Eva Björg Ægisdóttir reveals the details slowly, both of what comes out in the investigation and of what happened in the dead woman’s past. And when all is answered, the answers are satisfyingly not what might have been expected.

So yes, this book follows the formula, but it does it well. 7 out of 10.

The Girl From The Hermitage by Molly Gartland

Disclosure: I was given the kindle e-book by the publisher.

I read this book under something of a misapprehension. You know those books that start with an episode from many years ago, and then fast forward to more recent times, when the secrets that have been hidden all those years come out?

Well this is not one of those books. The trouble is that until late on I thought it was.

What we have here is the story of Galina, a child of the Soviet Union, with episodes in her life and her difficulties accepting the changes as the old order changes. The first scenes take place in Leningrad, in the bitter winter of 1941 when the city is under siege. Galina is a child. Her father is commissioned to paint the portrait of a general’s sons. Her uncle has ‘disappeared’. Her father dies.

We then move on, pretty much a generation at a time, with episodes of Galina’s life as a mother, grandmother and great grandmother. And I kept expecting some big reveal going back to the time spent huddling in the cellars of the Hermitage during the siege, but it never came.

No, this is just the story of Galina’s life, told through those episodes at intervals of 20-odd years. In the end I was reminded of the old ladies I saw in 1993, in the Budapest equivalent of Bond Street, trying to sell a bunch or two of vegetables outside the opulent luxury shops that had suddenly arrived.

Molly Gartland tells Galina’s story nicely. It feels authentic. 7 out of 10.

Rachel to the Rescue by Elinor Lipman

This is a lightweight, harmless attempt at topical satire. Rachel has a junior menial job in the Trump White House, After being fired for an unflattering comment about Trump sent in a “reply all” to an e-mail, she is run down as she leaves the White House. The driver happens to be the President’s mistress.

And so it continues, a kind of parallel universe, a different history to the one we know happened. With a bit of a romance thrown in.

And it all ends suddenly with a swift change of gears as Covid shuts things down in March 2020. But then real life was like that.

As I said: lightweight and harmless (or should that be mostly harmless?). 6 out of 10.

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

What a lovely book! The Midnight Library has been getting high praise, and deservedly so.

Nora Seed’s life is falling apart. It is full of regrets – about things she backed out of, including possibly being good enough to swim in the Olympics, her engagement to be married, and being in a rock band. She decides to end it all.

But she ends up between life and death, in the Midnight Library. Here she is given the opportunity to try out other lives she might have led, had she made other choices at various times. One by one her regrets are unpacked, and she gets the chance to see them all in a new light.

Beyond that, no spoilers. Very well narrated by Carey Mulligan. 10 out of 10

Rather be the Devil by Ian Rankin

Yes, another Rebus. The 21st, in fact.

DI Rebus is still retired, and so is in fact a civilian. Yet he still sticks his nose in to cases in which Siobhan Clarke and Malcolm Fox are involved, and seems to end up running them. I am surprised Siobhan and Malcolm haven’t been told that if they have anything further to do with Rebus they will be out of the force!

This novel has a mix of old cold case, up to date police politics following the restructuring into Police Scotland, and investigation of current crime. And of course Rebus and Cafferty – who also seems to be having second thoughts about being retired – continue their ambiguous relationship..

Not the best Rebus, but not bad. The series has yet to disappoint.

7 out of 10.

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford

I chose this audiobook out of sheer curiosity: I knew next to nothing about Genghis Khan and the Mongol hordes except that they had a fearsome reputation. And what a fascinating history this turned out to be.

The story comes in 3 parts. We begin with the boy who was to become Genghis Khan, how he grew from just another boy in a nomadic herder family to defeat and unite clans then tribes to become the Great Khan of the Mongols, and then embark on wars of conquest.

Then we have the massive expansion of the Mongol Empire, from Korea to the Mediterranean, with discussion of the tactics, often brutal and ruthless, always cunning, that were used to defeat enemies. (Interestingly, it seems that they pretty much decided that Europe 800 years ago was too backward and not worth bothering with.)

The final section covers the rapid decline of the Mongol Empire, and its lasting effects. In some ways, this last section was the most fascinating.

It was interesting to be listening to this audiobook in 2020. It seems that a substantial cause of the collapse of the empire was the Black Death, which came out of China and was rapidly carried along the trade routes and communication lines of the Mongols. Just a few weeks earlier I had read an article arguing that a major cause of the demise of the Roman Empire was a couple of pandemics in the period 3-400 CE, spread through the Roman communication routes.

I found this fascinating and really interesting. Strongly recommended. 9 out of 10.

An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire

I am about to write about 4 books I have finished over the last few weeks. Here is the first.

A young woman is brutally raped and murdered.

But this is not a detective novel. Rather, it is about the effects of the crime on the small town in which it happened, on the victim’s sister, and on one particular journalist covering the story .

It is almost incidental that the killer is caught and convicted.

This is a well written book, and a different perspective on the crime genre. 8 out of 10.

How To Be Both, by Ali Smith

I will subtitle this post “How to be neither“.

I bought this after hearing about it on A Good Read. Well, the blurb says:

How to be both is a novel all about art’s versatility. Borrowing from painting’s fresco technique to make an original literary double-take, it’s a fast-moving genre-bending conversation between forms, times, truths and fictions. There’s a renaissance artist of the 1460s. There’s the child of a child of the 1960s. Two tales of love and injustice twist into a singular yarn where time gets timeless, structural gets playful, knowing gets mysterious, fictional gets real – and all life’s givens get given a second chance.

I didn’t get it. I just didn’t follow how the two parts are connected. I understand that in some editions the two parts are printed the other way round.

So I began with the story in the modern setting. The art of the painter more than 500 years earlier features in the discussions between the teenage daughter and her recently dead mother. I felt that I could see how it was being set up. But the second part, the story narrated by the painter lost me. I was not able to see the connection of the “then” part to the “now”. The writing style of the “then” part didn’t really help me.

That’s the trouble with art that other people need to explain to me. It may be intellectually challenging, but it can be lost on me. I may go back to read the first part again, to see if it helps me put the second part in a different perspective.

My mark is a neutral 5 out of 10: not one thing or another.