Monthly Archives: January 2023

Retelling of classic reminds us misery has not changed

Review: Vivien Horler

Demon Copperhead, by Barbara Kingsolver (faber)

It is years since I read Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, and I have a feeling I skipped a chunk in the middle.

But I do remember the bleakness of the young David’s life, the sense of hopelessness, the poverty, the cruelty and the callousness of Dickensian England. Long gone now.

And yet. Bestselling author Barbara Kingsolver has reworked the narrative, setting it in impoverished hillbilly country in the US’s Appalachia, and adding a lot of drugs, particularly opioids. We end up with an entirely credible modern-day story of the same hopelessness, poverty, cruelty and callousness.

From the start the odds are against the boy.

Red-headed Demon Copperhead – real name Damon Fields – is born to a teenage single mother who is hooked on booze and drugs. She is in fact passed out at the time of Demon’s birth, and he comes into the world alone.

The image that spears the reader is this: “A slick fish-coloured hostage picking up grit from the vinyl tile, worming and shoving around because I’m still inside the sack that babies float in, pre-real-life.”

But as he points out, he got himself born. That was something. Continue reading

Bedside table books for January

These are among the books that have landed on my desk this month.  Some will be reviewed in full later. The first four are among Exclusive Books’s top reads for January.

Whatever Next? – Lesson from an unexpected life, by Anne Glenconner (Hodder & Stoughton)

Not many people would have the optimism, at the age of 90, to write a book titled Whatever Next? And Anne Glenconner is certainly not thinking of the obvious.

She has lived a life of money and prestige, being the daughter of the Earl of Leicester and the widow of Lord Glenconner (better known to tabloid readers as Colin Tennant of Mustique island fame). She was a society hostess, a maid of honour at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953 and lady-in-waiting to the queen’s sister Princess Margaret. She speaks of the house in Norfolk, the castle in Scotland, the flat in London.

Colin Tennant will be remembered by some as the man who bought the island of Mustique in the Caribbean, then a failing cotton estate without electricity or fresh water, and transformed it into a luxury retreat frequented by the likes of Princess Margaret and Mick Jagger.

And yet her life has not been all roses. Her husband was a brilliant and mercurial man prone to public tantrums, who once beat her so badly that she permanently lost the hearing in an ear.

She also lost two sons – one to hepatitis C as a result of heroin addiction, and one to HIV – and a third son nearly died in a motor cycle accident, spending four months in a coma.

When Tennant died, he left his entire estate to his valet, and a long legal battle ensued before the current Lord Glenconner, her grandson, was able to retrieve some of Tennant’s property.

And yet with an innate sense of curiosity and optimism, as well as being trained as a child to be polite, demure and welcoming, she has created a successful life. She still has a son and two daughters, as well as several grandchildren, she is obviously comfortably off, she has travelled widely and has many dear friends.

In her 80s she was persuaded to write her autobiography, Lady in Waiting, based partly on her relationship with Princess Margaret, and this opened up an entirely new career, and led to this latest book.

She says of all her roles in life – daughter, wife, mother, lady-in-waiting – her favourite is that of author. “It has taught me that it is never too late for a new chapter – the one you write for yourself.”

These days she is always asked her secrets for a healthy long life. And she believes the key is striking a balance between pleasing herself and pleasing others.

Last year she turned 90, with a “bonfire” of a birthday cake – all those candles – and told her guests: “I look forward to seeing you all here again in 10 years’ time.”

Whatever next?

The Light We Left Behind, by Tessa Harris (HQ/ HarperCollins)

Most readers will have heard of Bletchley Park and its role in World War II, but it wasn’t the only stately home where hush-hush matters were happening.

Trent Park, an estate once owned by Sir Philip Sassoon, is at the end of London’s Piccadilly Line at Cockfosters, and has been referred to as the house of the secret listeners.

It emerged in 1996, when “top secret” records were declassified, the mansion had been a luxury prison to dozens of senior German POWs. They were allowed walks in the grounds, could use the on-site shop, and even had access to a Savile Row tailor.

But what the German officers didn’t know was that their private conversations were being recorded, with microphones placed in every room and even in bushes outside. The information gathered provided vital intelligence on troop movements, tanks, codes and ciphers, and most importantly, the development of the V-1, V-2 unmanned rocket bombs. There were also plans for the V-3.

Author Tessa Harris has used this as a background to an interesting novel about a young German-speaking psychologist, Maddie Gresham, who is recruited to Trent Park to “break” a senior German brigadier said to be the driving force behind the V rockets project.

I haven’t got very far with this novel yet, but I’m intrigued.

Isaac and the Egg, by Bobby Palmer (Headline Review)

Isaac is standing on a bridge in the dark, considering jumping. Life is pretty tough and he’s not sure there’s much to be grateful for.

He screams in despair, then hears an answering scream in the nearby woods. As dawn begins to break he goes in search of the source of the sound. And there, in the centre of a clearing, is an egg. No ordinary egg, this; it’s about 60cm high, white, and oddly soft to the touch, like a boiled egg that’s been peeled.

He looks around nervously, in case whatever creature capable of laying such an egg might be nearby, then picks it up and takes it home.

To my mind this doesn’t sound a particularly promising start to a novel, but then I’m not much of a fantasy fan. But it’s had rave reviews.

One reader wrote: “I read it in one breath… true and tragic and funny and hopeful and big – big enough somehow to contain all of our stories and all of our lives inside it.”

Another wrote: “Truly one of the most beautiful stories you’ll ever read.”

So I’m ready to give Isaac and his egg a go.

The Lindbergh Nanny,  by Mariah Fredericks (Headline Review)

Betty Gow was a young Scottish woman who went to the US in search of a new life, and was hired by Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne to look after their toddler son, Charlie.

Charles Lindbergh was beyond famous, having made the first non-stop flight from New York to Paris in 1927, and the Lindbergh couple travelled a great deal. This meant Betty spent a lot of time with the little boy alone, and they grew close.

As we all know, one night in March 1932, after Betty and Anne had put Charlie down to sleep, he was kidnapped from his bed. Two months later his body was found in the woods, not far from his home.

Betty was the one who discovered Charlie missing, and after his body was found she was asked to identify him to spare his parents the pain.

This novel is a retelling of the fallout of one of the 20th century’s most infamous crimes.

Breathless, by Cathy Donald (Europe Books/Helco Promotions)

Cathy Donald is a Cape Town medical doctor who was at the frontline during the Covid-19 pandemic, and she has now written a novel based in a local hospital during those difficult and exhausting years.

Emily goes through the ups and downs of the pandemic, as well as the challenges for her family, the desperate struggle for survival of her patients, and her own problems trying to balance home and work in a desperate situation.

Donald has written a total of four novels, with the third, The Silence of the Shadows, winning the jury prize at the Milan International Literary Awards. It tells the story of five different Cape Town women.

Fly Away – a Sopwith Jones adventure, by Alan Haller (Austin Macauley Publishers)

This action-packed novel by a retired South African-born engineer is rather touchingly subtitled “A Sopwith Jones adventure”, although you’d be forgiven for never having heard of Sopwith Jones, as this is the first in what Alan Haller hopes will be a series.

Set in the present, Sopwith (his father was an aviation buff), an aeronautical engineer, develops a solar-powered aircraft, but then a corrupt SA government minister tries to hijack the technology, and Sopwith is forced to flee to the UK, along with his aircraft.

Some time later, accompanied by a new wife, he flies down Africa, only to be shot down by Boko Haram jidhadists. The couple survive, and end up in Palma in Mozambique where they are captured by jihadists and held together with another pilot, who is beheaded.

It all gets a bit breathless, but if action and excitement are what you’re after, this might be the book for you. Haller says he has written a sequel.




Familiar poem hints at terrible tale of murder

Review: Vivien Horler

The Marriage Portrait, by Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press/ Jonathan Ball)

Do you remember the Robert Browning poem My Last Duchess?

“That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,

Looking as if she were alive…

…She had

A heart – how shall I say – too soon made glad,

Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er

She looked on, and her looks went everywhere…

…This grew; I gave commands;

Then all smiles stopped together.”

The poem was based on the real life Lucrezia di Cosimo de’ Medici, who in 1560, aged 15, left Florence. where her father was the Grand Duke of Tuscany, to marry Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. Less than a year later she was dead.

In a note at the beginning of this historical novel, also based on Lucrezia’s short life, Maggie O’Farrell writes: “The cause of her death was given as ‘putrid fever’, but it was rumoured that she had been murdered by her husband.” Continue reading

When a walk does you good

Review: Vivien Horler

Landlines, by Raynor Winn (Michael Joseph)

We all know walking is good for you, but some people take it to ridiculous extremes. Like Raynor Winn and her husband, Moth.

They set out on a journey to walk the Cape Wrath Trail, from Scotland’s most north-westerly point down to Fort William, a distance of about 330km. It is described in one internet post as running “across the boggy, boulder-strewn wilderness of north-west Scotland, with no signposts and often without any paths whatsoever. It is easily Britain’s toughest long-distance hiking trail, taking 15 to 20 days to complete”.

And why would a couple in their 60s even think of doing such a thing? Well, it had worked before.

Moth has a degenerative disease in the Parkinson’s family, and was getting to the point where he had to crawl upstairs. He also fell from time to time, and it would seem the disease was close to claiming him.

So Raynor, who must be a force of nature, decided a walk would do him good.

Raynor Winn is the author of The Salt Path, a British Sunday Times 2018 bestseller. Through some ill-advised financial dealings, they lost their home, and with no money coming in, were literally homeless.

Moth had already been diagnosed, and had been advised not to get overtired, and to be careful on the stairs. Well, when you’re homeless you don’t have any stairs, so that was a comfort.

At a loss as to what to do, they came up with the idea of following Britain’s South West Coastal Path, which stretches 1 000km from Somerset to Dorset via Devon and around the foot of Cornwall.

There were few stairs, but many headlands and valleys, they were buffeted by the wind and coastal mists, and their tent wasn’t much good. They had very little money and often went hungry, but they endured and even prospered. And at the end of it Moth’s condition had improved.

Afterwards Raynor wrote her wonderful book, and made sufficient money from it and a second book about a long walk in Iceland, to buy a small farm in Cornwall.

Now, in early 2021, Moth is not doing well and believes he has hit the final stretch. But Raynor isn’t ready to let him go. She begins to leave guides to the Cape Wrath Trail lying around.

It works. Moth agrees to give it a go, but Raynor is beset with doubts and guilt. What if he falls somewhere miles from anywhere and she can’t raise help? What if he falls down a gully and dies? Well, says Moth, then he’d die with no regrets. Raynor feels otherwise.

But they go – not setting off from Cape Wrath which is closed because of army manoeuvres, but from a few kilometres south. The trail is wet, boggy – as advertised – and lonely. Raynor is wearing new boots and immediately gets crippling blisters.

Sometimes the trail is hard to find. Sometimes it snows, despite being May (they had set off in spring to beat Scotland’s notorious midges). One morning the tent zip is frozen shut. Rivers are in flood. Moth trips and cuts his head. Their little stove, essential for hot cups of tea, breaks. Despite the time of year there are midges.

But the views of mountains and lochs are beyond lovely. They meet kind people who go out of their way to help them. Raynor thinks Moth’s gait has improved.

They reach the end of the trail at Fort William and discover it is the jumping-off point for the 150km West Highland Way, a gentler, less rugged path built on old drovers’ roads used to walk cattle to market.

Raynor and Moth eye each other. “I’m not ready to stop,” says Moth. So they carry on. Somewhere along the line they order bicycles which are delivered at the end of the West Highland Trail because, yes, they’re planning to go on, along canal towpaths from Glasgow to Edinburgh and then into England.

Well, you can guess what happens next. Moth is feeling so well they just keep on going, on and on and on, Moth becoming ever more jaunty, until something like 1600km after they set off in Scotland four months ago, they walk back to their home in Cornwall.

On their last night in the tent, Raynor ponders: “Thousands of feet over thousands of years have trodden many of the same trails we have, tracing their passage on to the landscape, imprinting their memories into the soil. What remains are not just paths, they’re precious landlines that connect us to the earth, to our past and to each other… We’re at the point where time and place and energy combine, where we become the path, the walker and the story.”

This is a story of hope, faith, a good bit of pain, fortitude, and concern for the changing environment (Scotland’s midges are moving south as the climate changes). But mainly it’s a story of love.


Roots of the Ukraine crisis go back 80 years

Review: Archie Henderson

Blood and Ruins: The Last Imperial War, by Kevin Shillington (Viking)

Ten years after the end of World War 1, Leonard Woolf, a British economist and political theorist, more famous today for being married to Virginia, predicted that the collapse of the German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian empires would lead to the fall of the others: British, French, Italian and Japanese.

The only question, he wondered, was whether “it will be buried peacefully or in blood and ruins”.

Fortunately for Richard Overy (if not the millions who suffered) it was the latter: it made for a better title.

A good title to go with a good book, but not the “work of genius” as a military website called it. It’s also hard work: almost 1,000 pages, if you include the footnotes, and printed in a small font. But it is often rewarding and even topical; near the end is a bit of background on the current Ukraine war where the end of Soviet imperialism and current Russian revanchism are leading to more blood and ruin. Continue reading

And it all just keeps getting better – mostly

Review: Vivien Horler

For Better, for Worse, by Damian and Siobhan Horner (Phoenix)

Mostly I review shiny new books because I’m in the lucky position of being sent them, and I’m genuinely grateful.

But every now and then I come across a book that’s been around for a while and reading it is a bit like a holiday, a book that I don’t have to review.

For Better, for Worse is one of them. And here I am reviewing it after all.

It was published in 2009, and I bought it secondhand, but it is still available on Amazon.

The subtitle is “One family, one boat. And one brand new life”.

Damian and Shiv (it helps to know Siobhan is pronounced Shivonne) live in London with their two children under two, Noah and India. Damian’s a hotshot in advertising, Shiv was a marketing journalist specialising in travel, but is now a fulltime mum. Continue reading