The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E.Harrow

This is the book I took with me on holiday back in January, I’d forgotten about it to be honest. I hadn’t read any fiction for four months and thought perhaps something completely outside my usual genre might ease me back into reading.

I chose it because it seemed like a fun, escapist read, and I was intrigued by the use of doors as portals into other worlds. It reminded me of my childhood reading adventures into Narnia, an era when I devoured fantasy and loved to enter those other worlds outside my own.

I wondered how fantasy had moved on in the 21st century, whether it had the ability to suspend belief in the same way that it had in the past.

Goodreads describes the novel like this:

In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artifacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored, and utterly out of place.

Then she finds a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds, and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page turn reveals impossible truths about the world and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.

Today I definitely see and read it through older eyes and I am aware of the underlying commentary about our own world, it’s halls of power, it’s attitude towards otherness, difference, it’s dislike of magic or of those who look as though they don’t belong.

Some of the transitions were vaguely executed which removed a little of the escapist journey I was on, but otherwise I enjoyed it and would recommend it for a light, escapist read, if you like to occasionally read fantasy.

Top Five Uplifting Fiction

Finding Uplifting Fiction that isn’t genre specific like Romance or ChickLit is quite difficult. Since you’re unlikely to have these on your shelves, I’m  including a link to a longer Goodreads List described also described as Uplifting:

When you close these books you feel happy to be alive, secure that life is worth living, and motivated to get out there and live an awesome life.

Some of these books may deal with the dark side of life, but they still convey that overall it is good to be alive and leave you feeling uplifted.

GoodReads Top 100 Uplifting Fiction

A lot of the books on their list are children’s classics or novels by familiar authors such as Jane Austen and Elisabeth Von Arnim (I’ve read Elizabeth & Her German Garden and The Enchanted April); others are more contemporary and were popular when they were published like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, The Life of Pi, The Secret Life of Bees, The Goldfinch, The Shipping News, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.

None of my choices are on that list, but these five below are my personal favourites.

Top Five Uplifting Fiction

1. Two Old Women by Velma Wallis

Inspired by an Alaskan legend, this is a wonderful short read featuring the original inhabitants of the interior of Alaska; nomads they moved about in search of food according to the weather.

During a particularly harsh winter the group makes a decision regarding the two old women, which results in a sudden change in their attitudes and demands that they recall and put into practice everything they have learned over their long lives. It’s a wonderful, inspiring story, an ode to the importance of sharing experiences through friendship and community and a warning against complacency.

2. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

This book is a modern classic in America, so I expected it to be a slower read than usual, but I was totally hooked right from its opening pages.

Not only is it a compelling story of a woman’s search for fulfillment, it is an elevating study of character and consciousness emphasized by the use of dialect that draws the reader into the narrative as if it’s being read to you. A unique and exciting reading experience once you get into the rhythm of it.

3. The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain

Antoine Laurain is a French author who writes whimsical, humorous novellas and this was the first translated into English. They’re a guaranteed light, uplifting read. The President’s Hat is about what happens when President Mitterand leaves his hat behind in a restaurant and someone else picks it up. That person too leaves it behind, and so on, it is a nod to the nostalgia of Parisian life told as a kind of fairy tale, with its connection to a revered hat-wearing President of the 1980’s, whom Laurain describes as being like a noble Florentine Prince. Also inspired by the loss of a much loved hat and an active imagination!

His other books are similarly uplifting, The Red Notebook, Vintage 1954, or the slightly darker Smoking Kills.

4. The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

This is a wonderful story of octogenarian neighbours Hortensia and Marion, living in a suburb in Cape Town, South Africa. They’ve both had successful lives, run their own businesses and are on the same neighbourhood committee, but their similarities act as a reason to divide them rather than support each other. One day an unforeseen event forces the women together. Could this long-held mutual loathing transform into friendship?  Is it really possible to love thy neighbour? Easier said than done.

It’s a story that reminds me a little of A Man Called Ove, except I didn’t like Ove and wouldn’t put that book on my list, but this one definitely, these two are far more interesting to hang out with than Ove ever was! And this novel was nominated for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2017, a worthy contender in my opinion.

5. The Italian Chapel by Philip Paris

Inspired by a true story, this is a tale of Italian prisoners of war, transported from the North African desert to the freezing cold of Orkney, (an archipelago off the northeastern coast of Scotland), at the beginning of winter 1942.

In a testament to the wonders of the human spirit, despite insufferable conditions they build a chapel, one of the most enduring icons of hope and peace to come out of WWII.

The novel introduces us to key characters and imagines them achieving this incredible feat. It is a story of optimism, resourcefulness and the things men do to keep their spirits up when the circumstances are against them. An easy, light read, moving without being overly sentimental, knowing this wonderful refuge still exists today makes it all the more special.

Philip Paris has also written a non-fiction account of the true story behind the chapel. Orkney’s Italian Chapel: The True Story of an Icon. In my review he wrote a comment, saying that he and his wife had returned for the 70th anniversary of the chapel’s completion and met up with several family members of the key artists who built the chapel, as well as 94 year old Gino Caprara, an ex Orkney POW who travelled from Italy for the event. There were many tears shed during those few days together.

Further Reading Lists

Top Five on MyTBR

Top Five Spiritual Well-Being Reads

Top Five Nature Inspired Reads

Kindred by Octavia E.Butler

I have been wanting to read Octavia E. Butler for some time, she was one of the most well-known African-American science fiction writers, with a reputation akin to the likes of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou who sadly passed away at the age of 58 in 2006.

I guess it was the science-fiction label that stopped me reading her until now, having read Kindred her best-known work, I understand why Butler refers to this particular novel not as science fiction, but fantasy. She uses that element of fantasy to transport a character back to that historical period.

The novel begins with a shocking revelation, that immediately puts the reader on guard. After reading the first line, I was ready for something brutal to occur. It did, but not what I expected.

I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm.

It is 1976 and Dana is remembering everything that happened leading up to that moment. She is a Black woman writer married to a white man, a writer named Kevin. On her 26th birthday, something strange happens, she feels dizzy and nauseated, the room blurs and darkens around her, symptoms she will come to recognise with horror, signalling she is about to be transported back in time.

I was at the edge of a woods. Before me was a wide tranquil river, and near the middle of that river was a child splashing, screaming …

Drowning!

The child is Rufus, it is 1815 in Maryland and Dana has time-travelled (without explanation) to an era where her liberties are severely constrained, to save the life of an ancestor. She must try and survive while she is there and figure out how to return to her own life. Until the next time his life is danger and she is called back again.

It’s a riveting account, putting a modern woman into an era where her attitude, education and way of being in the world are a danger to herself. It reminded me of Andrea Levy’s story of slavery in the Jamaican plantations Long Song both writer’s had a similar objective, to get inside the world of their ancestors, to imagine those voices that hadn’t been able to record their perspectives and feelings.

Levy looks at slavery through the eyes of a slave and does so with both humour and distaste. Butler transports a modern women, someone like her in fact, back in time, and makes us feel what life was like in 1815, showing us how someone from our own time might cope if sent back there, knowing what we know now. It’s an interesting predicament.

The longer Dana stays, the more she begins to feel part of the household, familiar and accepting.

That disturbed me too when I thought about it. How easily we seemed to acclimatize. Not that I wanted us to have trouble, but it seemed as though we should have had a harder time adjusting to this particular segment of history – adjusting to our places  in the householder of a slaveholder.

Rufus is the son of the plantation owner, the person Dana is connected to, as he ages and becomes more like his father, she struggles to rationalise her feelings towards him.

I looked at him again and let myself understand. It was that destructive single-minded love of his. He loved me. Not the way he loved Alice, thank God. He didn’t seem to want to sleep with me. But he wanted me around – someone to talk to, someone who would listen to him and care what he said, care about him.

And I did. However little sense it made, I cared. I must have. I kept forgiving him for things…

It’s a thought-provoking novel that uses that element of fantasy to place a woman of the 1970’s into the 1800’s to look at that life and legacy from the inside out. We can imagine how that would have stretched the imagination of the author and the challenges that created for her, grappling with what she discovered there, with what she was becoming aware of.

Highly recommended.

Reading Lists for Total Confinement

Health and Well-Being

Our bodies are affected by what we eat, the air we breathe, how much we move and the strength of our immune systems. When these things are in balance they have a positive effect on the mind.

When we are told to stay at home, whether that’s due to recovering from an ailment or like now, to protect us from one, we risk becoming out of balance, physically and mentally.

We are discovering alternative ways to continue activities in unique ways, whether learning, exercising, preventing boredom or coping with the effect of the over abundance of panic/fear inducing news stories out there.

Some are creating suggestions for the #StayAtHome period, so when Paula at Book Jotter in her Winding Up the Week post asked if anyone was creating therapeutic reading lists, I thought I might create a few, I have shared a few of these titles with people already this week, being worthy titles that might assist or entertain us during this crisis.

I believe that what we consume affects our state of mind and that applies to our reading material as much as food. In order to bring balance, we can refer to books that have a positive effect on the mind, that allow us to stay in a calm, neutral state, an antidote to the excess of material and media that triggers fear, panic and other states of disequilibrium.

So over the next few days, I’ll be making a few suggestions from books I’ve read, according to the following themes, which I’ll link back to this page:

Top 5 Spiritual Well-Being Reads

  • books that suggest how to move to a perspective that fosters calm, helps prevents trigger inducing states, moves us out of drama and protects us from negative energies. And how to have fun doing it.

Top 5 Nature Inspired Reads

  • since we can’t all go there, these books put you in nature and allow you to appreciate it, going to places you’ll probably never visit, bought alive and evoking the senses without ever getting bored.

Top 5 Uplifting Reads

– they are few and far between in my opinion, books that actually make you laugh or feel good about humanity, the no drama, no trauma zone, feel good factor.

Top 5 Translated Fiction

– a sample from the millions that we’ll never read, the few that have made it through to be translated into English, providing us a glimpse into storytelling from parts of the world we probably don’t even know how to ‘Hello’ in.

Top 5 Memoirs

– Not the rich or famous, just glimpses into a slice of life of someone who has experienced something that gave them an interesting insight into life.

Top 5 Popular Fiction

– just a really good unputdownable read.

For today, I’m going to share the Top 5 Books on my TBR (To Be Read) across different genres and themes, which at the moment changes daily!

Top 5 Books On My TBR

1. Courageous Dreaming – How Shamans Dream the World Into Being (Spiritual) by Alberto Villoldo – I’ve read 3 or 4 books by Villoldo and loved them all, a psychologist and medical anthropologist who studied the spiritual practices of the Amazon and the Andes, he shares more of these ancient wisdom teachings. You can read my reviews of his other works here.

I’ve already read each of the opening chapter quotes, which I find reminiscent of our times, Chapter One, Escaping The Nightmare begins with the following thought-provoking epigram:

“I believe in looking reality straight in the eye and denying it.”

GARRISON KEILLOR

2. The Shackle by Colette (Fiction) – I LOVE Colette, my favourite French classic author, a woman with attitude, totally outside her time, read Introduction to Colette (my review)here. I bought this novella because Vivian Gornick discusses The Shackle and The Vagabond in her new book Unfinished Business – Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader. I can’t read that till I’ve at least read The Shackle!

I have also read The Complete Claudine, (my review) a series of four novellas that can be read as one and I have Earthly Paradise, a selection of extracts from her  memoirs, notebooks, and letters which together provide an insight into her life.

3. The Book of Harlan by Bernice L. McFadden (Historical Fiction)– Last year I read Praise Song for the Butterflies,(my review) my first novel by McFadden and it was excellent. She seems to write well researched, easy reading novels that teach us something interesting, that earlier novel was inspired by a tale told her by two women she met when visiting Ghana concerning a practice called trokosi.

The Book of Harlan is historical fiction set during WWII about black American musicians in Paris invited to perform in a Montmartre, affectionately referred to by them as “The Harlem of Paris”. Also based on extensive research, it blends the stories of her actual ancestors and imagined characters.

4. Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie (Nature Essays) – One of my favourite nature essayists, Kathleen Jamie is a poet and an astute observer of sensory detail no matter what she is studying. Surfacing is her latest blend of memoir, cultural history, and travelogue of her visits to Alaska, Orkney and Tibet. From the thawing tundra linking a Yup’ik village in Alaska to its hunter-gatherer past to the shifting sand dunes of the preserved homes of neolithic farmers in Scotland, she explores the natural world, considering that which surfaces and that which connect us with the past.

My reviews of her debut collection Findings and Sightlines here.

5. Plainsong by Kent Haruf (Fiction) – There’s nothing like a good trilogy and I’ve read a couple of excellent ones, such as Sandra Gulland’s excellent historical fiction of the life of Josephine Bonaparte: The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B, Tales of Passion – Tales of Woe, The Last Great Dance on Earth and Nancy E Turner’s memoirs of her great grandmother Sarah Prine, an astonishing, willful, unforgettable pioneering woman who seeks a living in the harsh, untamed lands of the Arizona Territory circa late 1800’s, These is My Words, Sarah’s Quilt, A Star Garden.

Kent Haruf’s Plainsong trilogy follows the lives of a cast of characters in a small farming town in Colorado.

Ursula K. Le Guin said when he passed away in 2014 that Haruf’s

“courage and achievement in exploring ordinary forms of love – the enduring frustration, the long cost of loyalty, the comfort of daily affection – are unsurpassed by anything I know in contemporary fiction”.

I’ve just finished Octavia E. Butler’s excellent novel Kindred, so tonight I’ll start one of these. Watch this space!

Please take care everyone, don’t take unnecessary risks, stay at home and be safe.

What exciting read do you have on your TBR to read next?

 

Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

I absolutely loved this, a surprise read, it was a gift from a friend who spends more time living in the wilderness than with humanity. When I read the bio of the author and saw she was a nature writer and wildlife scientist, with a degree in Zoology and a PhD in Animal Behaviour, I was even more attracted to the potential this might infuse, what looked like a murder mystery novel.

Delia’s research on the importance of female grouping in social mammals influenced her fictional writing. Where the Crawdads Sing explores the behavioral impact on a young woman who is forced to live much of her young life without a group.

It’s a slow burning, pleasurable observation of Kya, a girl as a fledgling, one pushed from the nest of family and abandoned before fully formed. And so she develops in a way not like others, highly observant, ultra sensitive to her surroundings, the marsh. They call her the marsh girl.

The marsh did not confine them but defined them and, like any sacred ground, kept their secrets deep. No one cared that they held the land because no one else wanted it.

Like any weak female species, she knows she is prey to the predator, and so acts in ways that might seem strange to other humans, who live within the security of a home and a community (although this is the 1960’s in North Carolina, so not all humans are treated equally).

When cornered, desperate, or isolated, man reverts to those instincts that aim straight at survival. Quick and just. They will always be the trump cards because they are passed on more frequently from one generation to the next than the gentler genes. It is not a morality but simple math. Among themselves, doves fight as often as hawks.

The story is told via twin narratives; the present day when a young man Chase Andrews is found dead at the base of a tower, and the question being asked is whether he fell or was pushed, and if pushed by who; and the past, the story of Kya, her abandonment, her survival, her friendship with Tate, with Chase, with Jumpin’ and Mabel, and how her feelings of rejection affect her relationships.

Her father stays long enough to teach her how to fish and navigate the channels with a boat, but when he leaves she has to learn to feed herself and make money to keep the boat in fuel.

The way the author makes the reader see Kya through the lens of biology and the behaviour of different species is stunning. When she described certain species behaviour, they were like clues to what was coming, I loved that she used nature as a guide.

Observing fireflies, she notices that each species has its own language of flashes to attract a mate. The males recognise the signals and fly only to the females of their species. But the female is capable of changing codes.

First she flashed the proper sequence of dashes and dots, attracting a male of her species, and they mated. Then she flickered a different signal, and a male of a different species flew to her. Reading her message, the second male was convinced he’d found a willing female of his own kind and hovered above her to mate. But suddenly the female firefly reached up, grabbed him with her mouth, and ate him, chewing all six legs and both wings.

Kya watched others. The females got what they wanted – first a mate, then a meal – just by changing their signals.
Kya knew judgement had no place here. Evil was not in play, just life pulsing on, even at the expense of some of the players. Biology sees right and wrong as the same colour in different light.

Loneliness leads her towards trouble and lessons. The marsh and its inhabitants always reward her. Humans disappoint her and she withdraws more than ever. Fortunately her one friend Tate, teaches her to read and her knowledge of the marsh becomes more academic and her appetite for learning about and within her natural environment are insatiable.

Sitting outside the old cabin, she picked up a scientific digest. One article on reproductive strategies, was entitled “Sneaky Fuckers.”

:

Kya dropped the journal in her lap, her mind drifting with the clouds. Some female insects eat their mates, overstressed mammal mothers abandon their young, many males design risky or shifty ways to outsperm their competitors. Nothing seemed too indecorous as long as the tick and tock of life carried on. She knew this was not a dark side to Nature , just inventive ways to endure against the odds. Surely for humans there was more.

She tries to understand life through the biology she reads about and observes, but the community don’t tolerate difference and will create a narrative of their own in order to seek justice for one of theirs.

Ultimately Nature will decide.

A brilliant way of exploring human nature and our ecosystem, the culmination of a long career of observing wildlife and nature, now in that stage of life where she can share it perhaps more widely in the fictional form.

Delia Owens was born in southern Georgia and grew up with a close relationship to nature. After her studies, she and her husband drove over the central Kalahari in Botswana and set up camp there for 7 years studying lions and hyenas, co-authoring the book Cry of the Kalahari. From there they moved to Zambia, where they studied elephants and established a program offering jobs, loans, and other assistance to local villagers so they would not have to poach wildlife for a living. They lived 22 years in Africa before returning to to the US.

She wants to continue writing fiction, especially mysteries that explore how our evolutionary past on the savannas influenced our current behavior in a world less wild.

She has won the John Burroughs Award for Nature Writing and has been published in NatureThe African Journal of Ecology, and many others. Where the Crawdads Sing is her first novel.

Booker Prize Longlist 2019 Announced

The longlist, or ‘Booker Dozen’, for the 2019 Booker Prize was announced on Tuesday 23 July.

The list of 13 books was selected by a panel of five judges: founder and director of Hay Festival Peter Florence (Chair); former fiction publisher and editor Liz Calder; novelist, essayist and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo; writer, broadcaster and former barrister Afua Hirsch; and concert pianist, conductor and composer Joanna MacGregor.

“If you only read one book this year, make a leap. Read all 13 of these. There are Nobel candidates and debutants on this list. There are no favourites; they are all credible winners. They imagine our world, familiar from news cycle disaster and grievance, with wild humour, deep insight and a keen humanity. These writers offer joy and hope. They celebrate the rich complexity of English as a global language. They are exacting, enlightening and entertaining. Really – read all of them.” Peter Florence

Featuring 8 women and 5 men with authors from the UK, Canada, Ireland, Nigeria, the United States, Mexico, Italy, India,  South Africa and Turkey, the nominated titles are:

Margaret Atwood (Canada), The Testaments (Vintage, Chatto & Windus)

– the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, fifteen years later, as told by three female characters.

Kevin Barry (Ireland), Night Boat to Tangier (Canongate Books)

– sex, death, narcotics, sudden violence and old magic in a Spanish port town

Oyinkan Braithwaite (UK/Nigeria), My Sister, The Serial Killer (Atlantic Books)

– a blackly comic novel about how blood is thicker – and more difficult to get out of the carpet – than water.

Lucy Ellmann (USA/UK), Ducks, Newburyport (Galley Beggar Press)

– A scorching indictment of America’s barbarity, past and present, a lament for the way we are sleepwalking into environmental disaster.

Bernardine Evaristo (UK), Girl, Woman, Other (Hamish Hamilton)

– Generations of women, the people they have loved and unloved – the complexities of race, sex, gender, politics, friendship, love, fear and regret.

John Lanchester (UK), The Wall (Faber & Faber)

– a chilling fable, dystopian novel that blends the most compelling issues of our time—rising waters, rising fear, rising political division—into a suspenseful story of love, trust, and survival.

Deborah Levy (SouthAfrica/UK), The Man Who Saw Everything (Hamish Hamilton)

–  the difficulty of seeing ourselves and others clearly. Specters that come back to haunt old and new love, previous and current incarnations of Europe, conscious and unconscious transgressions, and real and imagined betrayals, while investigating the cyclic nature of history and its reinvention by people in power. And a man crossing Abbey Road.

Valeria Luiselli (Mexico/Italy), Lost Children Archive (4th Estate)

– inspired by the experiences of desperate children crossing the desert border between Mexico, New Mexico and Arizona, and the Apache warriors who made their last stand in the desert, told as a family sets off on a road trip.

Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria), An Orchestra of Minorities (Little Brown)

– contemporary twist on the Odyssey, narrated by the chi, or spirit of a young poultry farmer, a heart-wrenching epic about destiny and determination.

Max Porter (UK), Lanny (Faber & Faber)

– an experimental fantasy set in an English village where a child goes missing, highlighting societal issues, history and the environment.

Salman Rushdie (UK/India), Quichotte (Jonathan Cape)

– a tour-de-force that is both an homage to an immortal work of literature and a modern masterpiece about the quest for love and family, a dazzling Don Quixote for the modern age.

Elif Shafak (UK/Turkey), 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World (Viking)

– After death, a woman’s brain remains active for 10 minutes 38 seconds, during which her memories recall significant moments of her life and stories of 5 close friends she met at key stages in her life.

Jeanette Winterson (UK), Frankissstein (Jonathan Cape)

– a young transgender doctor called Ry is falling in love – against their better judgement – with a celebrated professor leading the public debate around AI.  Alternating with chapters narrated by 19 year old Mary Shelley, who is writing a story about creating a non-biological life-form.

The list was chosen from 151 novels published in the UK or Ireland between 1 October 2018 and 30 September 2019. The shortlist will be announced Tuesday 3 September.

I like that it’s such an international list, with voices from a variety of different countries and cultures, bringing more depth and diversity to the prize.

I haven’t read any of these titles, but I’m interested in Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities novel, Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive and Deborah Levy’s and Bernadine Evaristo’s novelsThat said, I’m only reading #WIT Women in Translation during August, so I’ll be watching and reading the reviews of these longlisted titles to see which really tempt me.

And you? Have you read any of these? Interested in any?

Further Reading

The Guardian article: Not Read Them Yet? A cheat’s guide

The Gold Letter by Lena Manta (Greece) tr. Gail Holst-Warhaft

Destiny caresses the few, but molests the many.

Turkish Proverb

Greek and Turkish histories go back a long way, and I profess to knowing little about them, however it’s clear that whichever people you belong to there is likely to be a bias towards their stories, and it as likely that these populations are more mixed than they would like to believe, that there have been generations of cheerful intermingling, despite the differences that keep their identities separate.

The Gold Letter is a story of Greek families living in what was then known as Constantinople (later renamed as Istanbul, one of many name changes – The city was founded in 667 BC and named Byzantium by the Greeks ), and how the same twist of fate affects three generations of the same two families, where a young woman and a young man fall in love, only to have the union thwarted by their parents – in each generation it is for a different reason, beginning with them not being of the same wealth and social status, where marriage was more of a contract between families decided by the father’s.

He had married her not, of course, because he loved her, but because that was what her father had decided…Nobody thought of asking Kleoniki if she wanted to marry the grim Anargyros, with his rough hands and even rougher personality. Besides it was thought to be a very good marriage, since the groom was prosperous and an orphan.
“A big thing, that, my dear!” the matchmaker informed the girl. “Neither a mother-in-law in your face nor a father-in-law to boss you round. Lady and mistress of your own house!”

And in case they thought about falling into the temptations of forbidden love, there were frequent reminders of the sins of those who’d done so and had to flee, “discussed with horror and scorn in hushed voices at evening gatherings and tea parties”.

Even if some woman, deep down inside, understood the girl, she didn’t dare say so. Many romantic souls sighed secretly, calculating what a great love the girl must have felt to run off with her beloved, overlooking the fact that he was a Turk.

Though the son’s obey their fathers and the families are estranged, fate’s determined magnetism continues to bring  subsequent generations together.

He couldn’t shame his father; they hadn’t raised him that way. And the blood of the revolution didn’t run in his veins. He would have to bury his heart.

An abandoned house in Turkey

The story and family history are narrated in the present day as a middle age woman Fenia, arrives from Germany having been summoned by a family lawyer in Athens and told she has inherited a house from a grandfather she never met.

She decides to stay and do up the house and various knocks at the door lead her to meet two relatives, one bearing good wishes, the other hostility and through them she will fill in the gaps in their shared history.

And what is this Gold Letter – a beautiful gift imagined and designed by one son, that becomes an heirloom that will find its way into Fenia’s hands and connect the stories together.

I was a little skeptical when I began reading due to the clear prejudices of the characters, whether it was Greeks against Turks or the attitude of the men towards women and certainly the women in all these generations suffer greatly, those in the present day perhaps most of all. They were indicative of their time and sadly of  reality in some lands where country borders have moved and changed over the years when not everyone can flee, yet they remember the violence and deaths of members of their families in the past, which continues to keep them separate and untrusting for generations.

“My girl, sometimes you meet your fate on the road you took to avoid it.”

I was reminded of the wonderful novel about a friendship between two children in the same village, one of Greek and one of Turkish origin by Louis de Bernieres, Birds Without Wings, also a tragic love story, but one that combines the story of ordinary people’s lives in the 1930’s with a biography of the leader that will shift the balance of power in Turkey. One of my all time favourite books, exceptional.

I enjoyed reading The Gold Letter, covering three generations means there are many characters and connections to juggle so not much time is spent with some. That said, it’s clear the author is a gifted storyteller invested in her characters, whom I enjoyed following.

At times I felt almost like I was watching this on film, it’s an entertaining, episodic family drama of the old tradition, of couples trying to keep up family and cultural traditions as life modernises and social, political circumstances force change.

Lena Manta was born in Istanbul, Turkey, to Greek parents and moved to Greece at a very young age. She lives in Athens, has written 13 books and this is her second to be translated into English.

Buy a copy of The Gold Letter via Book Depository

N.B. This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Maria in the Moon by Louise Beech

Maria in the Moon intrigued from the moment I looked at its beautiful cover and read the title, wondering what the significance of it was. This tender novel hooked me from its opening pages and never let go until I heard that chant ‘maria in the moon’ and understood.

We meet Catherine-Maria as she is recalling her beloved Nanny Eve who chose her name and used to call her in a sing-song voice, we read about the Virgin Mary statue passed down from mother to daughter, and become aware of a memory block in childhood.

But one day she stopped singing.
She stopped calling me the long, pretty name she’d chosen when I arrived.
I try now to remember why, but I just can’t.
I think it was winter; I think the sun no longer had the strength to kiss our heads.
I know I’d accidentally smashed the Virgin Mary.

Something stopped all the singing in their house and when she tries to remember all she sees are the shattered porcelain pieces of Pure Mary spread across the floor.

The story is set in Hull 2007, after their wettest summer on record, when 8,000 homes and 1,300 businesses were flooded.

Catherine has had to move out of her home into temporary accommodation and decides to volunteer at the local Flood Crisis helpline, an occupation she already has experience in. Here she remembers her first call at a Crisis Centre.

I’d learned well on the course; I was non-judgemental, patient, gentle. My first caller was a fifty-year-old man who’d been married for thirty years, but had always been desperately in love with his friend Jim.
‘What should I do?’ he’d asked.
It wasn’t for me to tell him, only to listen, ask the right questions, and let him figure out his own feelings. I was shaking when the call ended but felt empowered.

Going to work at the Flood Crisis Centre, taking calls and getting to know others who volunteer to do this kind of work through this novel was fascinating and felt real, it reminded me of reading Eleanor Oliphant and her work environment and interactions, there is a similar feeling of closeness to the characters and an awareness of the character’s underlying solitude, as expressed in this quote from Olivia Laing’s book, The Lonely City:

“…loneliness is hallmarked by an intense desire to bring the experience to a close; something which cannot be achieved by getting out more, but only by developing intimate connections. This is far easier said than done, especially for people whose loneliness arises from a state of loss or exile or prejudice, who have reason to fear or mistrust as well as long for the society of others.”

Her first shift at the Flood Crisis Helpline runs smoothly, and she begins to develop a close connection with her mentor Christopher, however something about this new experience triggers an awakening of her childhood memories, and more disturbingly brings back a recurring dream.

Over the weeks that follow, from the Sunday lunches with her extended family, her conversations with work colleagues and her flatmate Fern, she gains clarity around her own personal mystery and in a dramatic denouement confronts her past and puts a few ghosts plaguing her mind to rest.

Maria in the Moon is one of those books you want to get back to every chance you can, it was gripping until the end, and even the quiet and mundane parts I found riveting. I loved going to work with Catherine and listening to her handling calls, the characters were well formed and contributed to a deeper understanding of the dynamics surrounding her, but also raised questions.

There came a time – and I’m not sure when it was – that I fell out of love with her. Maybe it was after Dad died. She changed. But so did I. Where she had treated me well (but a little coolly) during his lifetime, she now grew impatient, was less willing to talk. Perhaps it was during my forgotten ninth year that I stopped trying to please her and no longer wanted to copy her elegant style. Instead, I did all I could do to oppose and annoy and argue.

I wanted to know more, to ask her how she coped growing up without knowing her Mum, her attachment to Mother (stepmother); there’s an unselfish compassion within her, masking the ache of losing both parents at a young age and her response to it is to stay close to the family she’s been left with, despite the friction, claiming it as her own.

With Louise Beech, there is always depth, there are layers to unfold, there are stories beneath stories. I have my own personal story of a mystical experience while reading her debut novel How to Be Brave (review linked below) and I learned that Maria in the Moon has also inspired a story song, created by singer Carrie Martin, you can read more about its creative inspiration here at Louise Beech – Making Magic With Words.

What more can I say, I’ll read everything Louise Beech writes, she’s entertaining and an inspiring author who writes from the heart and one who’s open to the magic and the mystical.

Buy a Copy of One of Louise Beech’s novels here

Further Reading

My review of her debut novel How To Be Brave

My review of her second novel The Mountain in My Shoe

Vintage 1954 by Antoine Laurain tr. Jane Aitken, Emily Boyce

French Literature

Another satisfying light read full of laughs from Antoine Laurain. It’s so rare that a book actually makes me laugh out loud, but this one did, quite a few times.

It’s far-fetched, but knowing he writes an uplifting tale and creates such fun characters makes me want to read everything he writes.

Here, its 2017 and we meet a Parisian man named Hubert who lives in a building that has been in his family for generations, though now he owns only the apartment he lives in. His wife and daughters are away, he had just attended the management committee meeting for residents and on entering his cellar afterwards discovered a dusty 1954 Vintage Beaujolais.

Accidentally locking himself in, he is rescued by Bob from Milwaukee, who’s rented Madame Renaud’s apartment on AirBnB, an activity forbidden by the committee (say you’re the American cousin if anyone asks) so in a gesture of appreciation Hubert invites Bob and two tenants Julien (a cocktail waiter at Harry’s Bar) and Magalie (a restorer of antique ceramics) to join him to open the bottle.

1954 was a special year and the novel has already taken us to the Saint Antoine vineyards in the Beaujolais wine region, just north of Lyon where the grapes may have been infused with a touch of magic from a low flying unidentified object.

Monsieur Pierre Chauveau (Julien’s great grandfather) gave a witness statement on 16 September 1954, describing what he had seen. His unusual testimony was classified by the police as follows:

Report of an unidentified flying object by one Pierre Chauveau, a wine grower residing in Charmally-les-Vignes.

Though mocked locally, the police weren’t as surprised, by the end of 1954 more than 1,000 witness statements and over 500 reports of UFO sightings had been received by the police across the country. No explanation for this phenomenon was ever found and gradually the number of reported sightings fell back to normal levels – between fifty and one hundred a year.

One evening shortly after, he consumed a bottle of the 1954 Beaujolais, gave some to his dog (as was his habit), went out for a walk and they were never seen again.

The morning after the four in Paris drink the vintage wine, they wake up in 1954.

Hubert loosened his tie and walked rapidly back home, trying as best he could to make sense of the morning’s events. Unless it was a dream, Salvador Dalí was staying at the Hotel Meurice, all the buses were vintage, street sellers had reverted to using hand-drawn carts and the large moustachioed man surveying his building work whom he’d greeted as he left this morning was none other than Monsieur Bouvuer himself, the founder of the charcuterie of that name. The charcuterie that had opened in 1954. Hubert stopped. 1954. The same year as the wine.

As they head out into their day, we too are taken back in time and see the city and people’s habits as they were back in the 1950’s. Bob, who had never been to Paris took the longest time to realise he was no longer in 2017.

The four of them have various interesting encounters, Hubert with a long lost relative whose charred diary he finds in the apartment he left empty for 24 years, Julien meets the original Harry MacElhone, founder of the bar he works in and Magalie seeks out her now thirty-one-year old grandmother Odette.

They meet up at Harry’s to discuss their situation and to come up with a plan on how to get themselves back to their present, which will lead them on another adventure to the wine region of Beaujolais.

It’s an entertaining ride, as they journey across old Paris bringing back to life a few memorable characters and places in Paris of a bygone era.

Along the way, we encounter Jean Gabin, Edith Piaf, Salvador Dali, Robert Doisneau, Marcel Aymé, Jacques Prévert, Hubert de Givenchy, Audrey Hepburn, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, the duke of Windsor and the infamous Scotsman of the winebar where the Bloody Mary was said to be invented, Harry MacElhone.

In a blog post Millésime 54 Antoine Laurain briefly mentions that readers will come across these characters in his book and if you click through you’ll see a collection of portraits of some of them.

Le Baiser de l’hotel de ville (The Kiss), 1950
© Robert Doisneau

These encounters reminded me of Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris, except here, Antoine Laurain pays tribute to more renowned French celebrity characters of Paris, and its the 1950’s not the 1920’s, inviting the reader to discover who they were and where they used to hang out.

In an interview, Laurain explained that the idea of writing a story where his characters travelled back to the 1950’s came to him long ago, before he wrote The President’s Hat. He adored the work of Doisneau and Brassaï, but he needed a way to bring them back to era. The wine became the way and that surge in UFO sightings that actually occurred in 1954, his point of departure.

Vintage 1954 is an invitation to the reader’s imagination to join Laurain’s adventure in 50’s Paris, to discover the vineyards of the Beaujolais region, and is as pleasurable, if not more than the wine itself.

A full-bodied, sweet novella, with depth, elegance, it is expressive, connected, ultimately one of finesse.

Further Reading

Interview Q&A with Antoine Laurain by Gallic Books – Wine and time travel with Antoine Laurain

The Book Trail Vintage 1954 – a few of the book locations in Paris mapped out with explanations (also links to locations in his previous books)

The President’s Hat (reviewed here)

The Red Notebook (reviewed here)

Smoking Kills (reviewed here)

Buy a Copy of Vintage 1954 via Book Depository

Gardens in the Dunes by Leslie Marmon Silko

2019 is becoming my year of reading Silko, this now is the second novel I’ve read after Ceremony and I loved it as much, in some ways perhaps more, given the journey it takes the reader on. It follows on from two other books I read, reviews linked here, her excellent memoir The Turquoise Ledge and a slim collection of letters between Silko and the Pulitzer prize winning poet James Wright, The Delicacy and Strength of Lace.

While Ceremony was the coming of age of a young man set over a short period of time, Garden in the Dunes is more of a historical novel, set in the late 1800’s, tracing the lives of two native American sisters, Indigo and Sister Salt and at various times, their Grandmother and the newlywed white woman Hattie who provides refuge for Indigo for a period of time after she escapes the boarding school she has been imprisoned within.

Hattie and her husband Edward take Indigo with them to Europe for the summer, where she experiences differences in their way of life, but also finds something in the old world that she connects with. Archeological art in Bath, sculptures in a garden in Lucca from pre-Christian Europe create a link with American Indian symbolism through Indigo’s observations and experiences.

Along the way, as she had learned in the dunes, she collects seeds (the old ways) and flower bulbs (a new interest) for replanting when she returns home. She represents the connection to the past and also the future, learning new skills that will improve, add to their lifestyle.

Silko traces the transcultural histories and significances of sacred snakes and their feminine symbolism, unsurprising given her own close relationship to those that dwell beneath her own home in Tuscon. The final scene in the novel is fittingly given over to the return of a snake, a lasting metaphoric image of generational continuance and survival.

The novel rests in numerous locations where the girls live and must adapt, but their spiritual home and the place they always wish to return to, the place where their Sand Lizard people come from are the gardens in the dunes, inland from the river, where there is a natural spring and if enough rain, plentiful opportunity to grow what they need to survive.

Sister Salt remembers everything. The morning the soldiers  and the Indian police came to arrest the Messiah, Grandma Fleet told Sister Salt to run. Run! Run get your little sister! You girls go back to the old gardens! Sister Salt was big and strong. She carried Indigo piggyback whenever her little sister got tired. Indigo doesn’t remember much about that morning except for the shouts and screams.

When the girls are with their Grandmother and return to the gardens they have a purpose, they learn when and how to plant, to prepare food, to stock it, to identify edible plants, they are natural foragers. When they are removed from their natural home, they have to find other ways to survive.

Sherman Institute, Riverside, California

At times it has been necessary to flee, when there is insufficient rain or when pursued by authorities, who effectively kidnap Indian children, separating them from their families and way of life to put them into institutions, forcing another form of education on them, removing their connection to their culture.

The authorities judged Sister Salt to be too much older than the others to be sent away to Indian boarding school. There was hope the little ones might be educated away from their blankets. But this one? Chances were she’d be a troublemaker and might urge the young ones to attempt escape. Orders were for Sister Salt to remain in custody of the Indian agency at Parker while Indigo was sent to the Sherman Institute in Riverside, California.

American Indian Girls in a state run Laundry

Sister Salt is sent to work in an Indian laundry in the vicinity of water dam projects of the Southwest; she and twin sisters she befriends decide to set up their own laundry service, living near one of the dam construction sites, becoming knowledgeable of the needs of the men working there, finding protection and collaboration with the chef Big Candy, the girls surviving together, supporting each other.

Throughout the novel, the men are involved in moneymaking projects, whether it’s Edward collecting orchid samples, his companions seeking rubber plant specimens, the men at the dam with their side interests in illegal gambling, brewing beer and the laundry.

The dam project diverted water to Los Angeles and made Indian lands less productive, initially it provided employment, but slowly the people realise what it is taking away from them, their land, their homes, their riverside livelihoods. Those with profit making motives have little or no concern for the destruction and loss caused in their wake. But they too risk falling victim to their own kind, Silko doesn’t miss the opportunity to make them suffer the consequences of their own greed.

Most native tribes did not adhere to the European view of land as property. For most Indians, land was communal, and its resources were to be protected and shared. This was in direct contradiction to European notions of land as individual property.

Ancient Minoan Snake Goddess

It’s far-reaching in its geographic span and themes, which through adept storytelling are repeated via the behaviours of characters. Women stick together, collaborate, survive and when not separated from each other, begin to thrive, though they remain wary of those from other tribes or cultures. Exploitation, greed and corruption are everywhere, interfering in the way people try to live their lives, imposing their ways, trying to keep people(s) separate or making them conform to a perceived way of being.

Indigo never loses the essence of who she is, despite being groomed and dressed like a white American to accompany Hattie and her prospector/explorer husband and being taken far away to Europe, her heart is like a magnet, she never ceases thinking of her intention to find her sister and mother.

Fortunately, Hattie is a sensitive and intelligent woman, who though the child brings out a maternal response and desire, promises to help her find them when they return. Hattie’s father was a free thinker who encouraged her higher education giving her access to libraries of friends to pursue her studies. She is sympathetic to their ways, but will also confront barriers when trying to cross over in her efforts to support them.

It’s a brilliant depiction of so many issues around origins and identity and the ways people survive and thrive, in particular women. We witness their attempts, how they are thwarted, see them compromise and discover that being with other women provides them with a force, even when they are from different tribes or cultures, sometimes that is a necessary element to their survival, to learn from other women, from other experiences, to share what they know.

Despite being a relatively long read (477 pages), it felt like it could have gone on, some threads leave the reader wondering what happened next, endings come about a little quickly. It could easily have been more than one book.

The final page and the closing sentences are beautifully given over to nature, to a demonstration that though we may grieve at what is passing, nature will always ensure that new life prevails, that something will survive from the ruin. That hope can manifest, though it may not be what we expect.

“Nearly all human cultures plant gardens, and the garden itself has ancient religious connections. For a long time, I’ve been interested in pre-Christian European beliefs, and the pagan devotions to sacred groves of trees and sacred springs. My German translator gave me a fascinating book on the archaeology of Old Europe, and in it I discovered ancient artifacts that showed that the Old European cultures once revered snakes, just as we Pueblo Indian people still do. So I decided to take all these elements – orchids, gladiolus, ancient gardens, Victorian gardens, Native American gardens, Old European figures of Snake-bird Goddesses – and write a novel about two young sisters at the turn of the century.” – Leslie Marmon Silko, Gardens in the Dunes (1999)

“I suppose at the core of my writing is the attempt to identify what it is to be a half- breed or mixed-blooded person; what it is to grow up neither white nor fully traditional Indian. It is for this reason that I hesitate to say that I am representative of Indian poets or Indian people. I am only one human being, one Laguna woman.”  – Leslie Marmon Silko, Laguna Woman (1974)

Buy a Copy of Gardens in the Dunes via Book Depository