Category Archives: Blasts From The Past

Some things in the war in Ukraine have not changed since 1944

Review: Archie Henderson
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, by Anthony Beevor (Penguin)
This is not a new book, having first appeared in 2009, but it has become relevant again after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
This war, in spite of its current confined location, has taken on dimensions of World War 2, but with greater ferocity because of the weapons at the disposal of both sides. It is also revealing of the true nature of the Russian war machine, the indiscriminate use of young men employed as cannon fodder.
There is a myth, perpetrated mostly by Russia, that battlefield casualties in the last months of World War 2 were greater on the eastern front than in France. Anthony Beevor, historian and expert on sides of that war, debunks this most effectively in his book on D-Day.
Not that the Russians did not suffer in the defence of their homeland from 1942 and in the great counter-attacks from 1943. But many of those casualties were also inflicted by the Russians themselves – by NKVD troops shooting deserters and slackers out of hand.

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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

‘Motions of the soul’ to beat the odds on Everest

Review: Vivien Horler

The Moth and the Mountain – A true story of love, war and Everest, by Ed Caesar (Penguin Books)

There is something magnificent about the doomed man at the centre of this book, the Englishman Maurice Wilson.

In the early 1930s, Wilson decided to be the first man to summit Everest. And he planned to do it alone, unsupported and without oxygen.

His idea was to fly from the UK to Tibet to the base of the highest mountain in the world, and then climb it.

The fact he had never climbed a mountain, had never flown an aircraft, and that Tibet was barred to foreigners, did not deter him.

He had seen hardship in his life. In April 1918, sixteen years before he reached Everest, he had been a 20-year-old officer with the 1/5 West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales’s Own) at the battle of Wytschaete – known to British troops as White Sheet. Continue reading

Short reviews of three novels – two new, one an old favourite

Reviews: Vivien Horler

The Island of Missing Trees, by Elif Shafak (Viking/ Penguin)

Growing a fig tree in London is not easy. They don’t like the climate.

This may explain something about the British character. The ancients believed a great cosmic tree joined the underworld to earth and heaven, its branches holding up the sun, moon and stars, and its roots reaching down to hell. But what sort of tree was it?

Humans were unable to agree. It could have been a poplar, a tamarind, a cedar or a baobab. And so humans fell into war.

But the narrator of this luminous novel, which happens to be a fig tree, says fighting over what the cosmic tree might have been is unwise, as different trees have different characters, suitable to different moods and moments.

If you’re feeling discouraged, a flowering horse chestnut will cheer you up. An aspen will help you emerge stronger and kinder. A magnolia will help you dream about the future, and a jacaranda could stir your imagination. “Then again, if it’s love you’re after or love you have lost, come to the fig, always the fig.”

And this is what Kostas and Defne do.

In early 1974 Kostas and Defne are in love. But they live on Cyprus, with Kostas Greek and Defne Turkish. While this story begins when the island towns and villages are still integrated, before the overthrow of Archbishop Makarios and the civil war, love across the line is rarely accepted.

But Kostas and Defne have something going for them – a sanctuary in the form of a backroom at the Happy Fig, a bar in Nicosia run by two gay men, one Greek, one Turkish.

The Happy Fig is distinguished by an ancient fig tree which grows in the middle of the pub and out through a hole in the roof.

Trouble erupts on the island. Kostas’s older brother is shot dead, and his younger brother disappears to fight with the partisans. Their mother, desperately afraid she might lose her last remaining son, sends him to London to stay with her brother. Kostas is dispatched with such haste he is unable to say goodbye to Defne.

But we know that they do eventually get together again, because the story opens in London, with Ada, Kostas and Defne’s daughter, an unhappy high school pupil who feels she doesn’t fit in. Her mother has died, and Kostas and she are increasingly at a distance.

It’s shortly before Christmas, a storm is threatening, and Kostas has to do something to protect his fig tree, taken from a cutting of the tree in the Happy Fig. He slices away some of the roots, digs a trench, and then pushes the tree over to ride out the weather under shelter.

Somewhere along the line has Defne told Kostas she doesn’t want Ada burdened with the misery of the history of the island civil war; as a result the girl knows almost nothing of her own and her family history. And then her aunt, Defne’s sister, comes to stay, and slowly Ada learns the truth.

Initially I found the fig tree narrator irritating, but I – and probably most readers – don’t know that much about Cyprus; the fig tree gives us context

This novel grew on me slowly, but it was worth persevering.

Elif Shafak is a British Turkish writer whose novel 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World was shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize.


The Night She Disappeared, by Liza Jewell (Century)

It’s midsummer and Tallulah, a teenage single mother, goes on a date night to the local pub with her boyfriend Zach.

Tallulah, Zach and baby Noah all live with Tallulah’s mum, Kim.

Kim likes Zach, and has discovered a small jewellery box in Zach’s jacket pocket, one containing a small diamond ring. Kim is delighted, and is pretty sure that tonight’s the night Zach is going to pop the question.

But after 4am Kim wakes to discover the young couple are still not home. A few hours later Kim contacts Zach’s parents, but they have no idea where the pair are. Eventually Kim goes to the pub to be told Tallulah and Zach had met friends and gone on to a pool party at grand house nearby.

Kim doesn’t know these friends but, increasingly terrified, goes to the grand house. Kim hears Tallulah had had too much to drink and the couple had called a taxi to take them home.

Kim checks with the local taxi companies, but none reports having picked anyone up at the house. The trail runs cold. Kim fears that Tallulah may have answered Zach’s proposal with a “no”, leading to violence.

A year or so later a young novelist, Sophie, moves to Kim’s village. Sophie’s teacher boyfriend has been appointed headmaster of an expensive private school, and they have a cottage in the grounds.

On a walk in the woods behind their home, Sophie spots a small notice nailed to their back fence. It says: “Dig here” with an arrow is pointing down. Sophie fetches a trowel and digs, finding a  muddy little jewellery box. Inside is a small diamond ring.

Detective mysteries are Sophie’s stock in trade. She rubs dirt off the little box and finds the name of a jeweller in the nearby town. Intrigued, she goes to the store and is told the ring was bought by a young man a year previously. This leads her to Kim.

The police have not made much headway with the case, so Sophie and Kim join forces. And in the process they uncover some strange and scary events, involving a variety of people including old schoolfriends of Tallulah’s, teachers at the private school, and the daughter of the school matron.

I’m not alone in finding this a gripping thriller. In a shout on the cover Lee Child describes it as “365 pages of insane suspense”, while Marian Keyes says it is “unbelievably good”. I thought so too.


Changing Places, by David Lodge (Penguin Books)

Any fan of David Lodge’s smart and comic novels, often set in academia, will know Changing Places is not new.

In fact it was published in 1975, in a forgotten time before cellphones and personal computers, when you could still smoke in aircraft (cigarettes only though, not pipes, to the chagrin of British lecturer Philip Swallow)

I spotted it among several other David Lodge novels on a bookshelf at a beach house on a weekend away, and fell upon it. Lodge is such a good writer, and he’ll have you laughing out loud.

Swallow teaches literature at Rummidge, a rainswept university in the British Midlands, while Professor Morris Zapp is a Jane Austen scholar (his children are called Elizabeth and Darcy) at the sundrenched Euphoric State University in a thinly disguised California.

Leaving their families behind, the men, who apart from their specialities have almost nothing in common, are selected to exchange posts for a year, with donnish, uptight Swallow heading to Euphoric State, and brash, cigar-smoking Zapp off to Rummidge. Lodge hilariously compares and contrasts the men’s reactions to their new colleagues and new environments.

Inevitably the men meet each other’s families and become involved in hotbeds of intrigue and naughty romps.

Changing Places and two other Lodge novels, Small World and Nice Work, have been published as A David Lodge Trilogy. If you’re a David Lodge fan, you’ll find the books are well worth rereading, and if you’re not, you’re in for a delight.

My only real caveat is this book, like many published a goodly while ago, is printed in a very small font. You’ll need your reading glasses.



A tough, tender memoir about plants and and a scientist

Review: Vivien Horler

Lab Girl – A story of trees, science and love, by Hope Jahren (Fleet)

When you are in the forest, for every tree that you see, there are at least a hundred more trees waiting in the soil, alive and fervently wishing to be.

That is an early sentence in this wonderful book, first published in 2016 but only now discovered by me.

It is by a distinguished American scientist who does research into paleobiology, a field which, according to Wikipedia, combines the methods and findings of biology with the methods and findings of paleontology. So a bit of a mix of biology and fossils.

Professor Hope Jahren is also a woman, which may be what gives her a warm take on her work. She has won academic prizes, published in scores of journals, and has won three Fulbright awards.

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The joy of being beside the seaside

Review: Vivien Horler

Land’s Edge – a coastal memoir, by Tim Winton (Picador)

Any half-awake policeman based at Muizenberg has only to look out of a window of the splendidly positioned police station to know that that the regulations against going on to the beach under Level 3 are being widely flouted.

At first it was just the surfers, scuttling across the sand with board under arm to get into the waves, but now it’s everyone: walkers, sandcastle builders, paddlers, dog walkers, even, in late June, the occasional swimmer.

Maybe the police have better things to do, being out looking for murderers, gangsters and cigarette smugglers, or maybe they’ve just given up. Because it’s not easy, or even very sensible, to keep residents of a coastal city away from the sea.

The Australian writer and environmental activist Tim Winton would understand the drive to be in or near the ocean, to be close to its wildness and unpredictability, to feel the wind and swirling water at a time when nothing is guaranteed. Continue reading

Getting a good night’s sleep – or not

Review: Vivien Horler
Why We Sleep – the new science of sleep and dreams, by Matthew Walker (Penguin Books)
How do you know if you’re routinely getting enough sleep? There are two simple questions, says neuroscientist Matthew Walker: are you sleepy around 11am, and can you function before noon without a cup of coffee?
If you answer yes, and no, Walker says the chances are you’re not, along with most people in the Western world. Left to ourselves, without outside pressures such as starting school or work early, and staying up late for a myriad reasons, the average person would be awake for about 16 hours and sleep for eight in every 24-hour period. Continue reading

Call the Midwife – the true stories behind the hit TV series

Review: Vivien Horler

Call the Midwife – a true story of the East End in the 1950s; illustrated edition, by Jennifer Worth (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

call the midwife I have been an enthusiastic viewer of the TV series Call the Midwife, so when I came across this illustrated edition of the Jennifer Worth’s bestseller, originally published in 2002, I fell upon it with glad cries.

In fact it turns out Worth, known as Jenny Lee when she was a midwife in London’s Docklands, wrote three books, Call the Midwife, Shades of the Workhouse, (2005), and Farewell to the East End (2009). The trilogy has sold almost 2million copies worldwide. Continue reading

The key to being an aspiring Englishman

rosenblums listReview: Vivien Horler

Mr Rosenblum’s List – Or friendly guidance for the aspiring Englishman, by Natasha Solomons (Sceptre)

You sometimes make delightful finds on the shelves of beach cottages. One I found on holiday this week is Mr Rosenblum’s List, published in 2010, and described on the cover as an international bestseller.

The Times shout says the book is “Hilarious and touching… prepare to be seriously charmed”. Continue reading

Why local food, honestly grown, is good for us

animal vegetable miracleReview: Vivien Horler

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle – Our year of seasonal eating, by Barbara Kingsolver (faber and faber)

We’re descended from a long line of Cornish tin miners, with not a farmer among us, so the fact my nephew Shaun is now living and working on an ostrich farm near Oudtshoorn is something of a novelty.

We were talking about sustainable farming and good practice and I mentioned Barbara Kingsolver’s book, first published in 2007. Best known for her bestseller novel, The Poisonwood Bible, she has written a non-fiction account of a year in the life of her family on a small farm in Virginia in the US. Continue reading