28 April 2015

Stallo by Stefan Spjut, Sweden, 2012

The English translation of this very good Swedish thriller has the same name: Stallo, and, though I cannot comment on the translation, the original - all 592 pages - is definitely worth reading. Stefan Spjut's writing, especially his descriptions, is magnificent. He paints detailed pictures of small everyday, almost unessential, things and actions, and the reader has no choice other than to be physically drawn into the story. 

Stallo (a Lappish word) describes a troll that can 'hide' using animal forms, and the book is basically about trolls, elves, goblins and other supernatural creatures - some of them kind, others completely the opposite. The story revolves around a lost child and the three people - Susso, her mother, Gudrun, and her ex-boyfriend, Torbjörn - who criss-cross over the length and breadth of Sweden, trying to find out what happened and why. Not all questions are answered, but I feel that the author's main goal with this book is to make people think about how the supernatural affects our everyday lives, how we relate to nature and animals (so much part of our lives), and the parent-child relationship. Consequently, there must remain some questions without answers. 

 Photo of Stefan Spjut from
If I am to criticize anything, it would have to be the use of real people: John Bauer and Sven and Barbro Jerring among several. All these people are now deceased, so it is difficult to know if their viewpoints and experiences actually paralleled those described in the book. It is, of course, possible that Stefan Spjut is privy to special information about these people, but if this is not the case the inclusion of such people creates not only question marks and raised eyebrows but also a weak point in an otherwise masterfully executed story. 

21 April 2015

Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, UK, 1975

This fairly slim novel (181 pages), which won the Booker Prize in 1975, is set in the India of the 1920s with a parallel story taking place in the 1970s. The contrasts and the similarities in these two stories are woven together to give an intelligent and extremely observant picture of India in the closing years of Imperialism and India almost three decades after Independence.

In the story from 1923, sheltered, somewhat-spoilt Olivia arrives in India as the young bride of Douglas, an English civil servant. Surrounded by unbelievable poverty and the heat and dust of the title, she is part of the English enclave where English traditions are upheld to the point that if one could remove the heat and the dust one might almost believe that one was still living in England. The Indians are shadowy, background figures who are only there to make life more comfortable for the English rulers. The exception is the Nawab, a minor Indian prince, who, in spite of his being corrupt and completely untrustworthy, offers Olivia some respite from an often-absent husband, loneliness, boredom and even the inhospitable Indian climate.

Photo of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from
In the parallel story, in which Olivia's step-granddaughter comes to India in the early 1970s to try to find out what happened to Olivia all those years ago, the racial tables are turned, although the poverty and the dust and the heat are the same. Apart from the step-granddaughter (whose name remains a mystery) and an Englishman called Chid, who has come to India seeking enlightenment, all the other characters in this story are Indian. The granddaughter, unlike Olivia, is self-assured and independent, but, like Olivia, becomes involved with two men, one from each side of the racial divide. Both women, half a century apart, are plunged into a situation where they must make a difficult choice against the background of racial and social expectations; in the end, it is the country, India, that is the ultimate victor.

There is a restrained, subtle humour throughout the entire book, which is well-written, and the descriptive passages are obviously written by someone who has lived in the country and who has learnt to love it. The excessive lifestyle of the small group of English civil servants is contrasted both with the poverty of the ordinary Indian and with the harsh beauty of the untamed landscape. It is a book about the need to survive, irrespective racial group or social class, in an environment where the country itself always has the highest card.

Heat and Dust was made into a film in 1983.

15 April 2015

the best of times by Penny Vincenzi. UK, 2009

 the best of times is definitely not one the best books I have read. The blurb on the cover of the book reads: Treat yourself to a Vincenzi; however, unless the person who wrote this is a sadist, I cannot understand what there is about the book that can be equated with the word treat. That said, the beginning promises an interesting, easy-to-read, uncomplicated novel, and I like the way Vincenzi describes her characters, and their individual problems, before bringing them all together in the dreadful accident on the motorway. I also like her use of small sections, hopping from one person or one strand to the next; however, in my opinion, at 900 pages, the book is at least 600 pages too long, and it had most probably benefited by tying together these different strands well before page 300.

Unfortunately, the best of times very quickly deteriorates into a Mills and Boon type romance with much emphasis on handsome (sexy) men and beautiful (sexy) women, all of whom are motivated only by the prospect of marriage and the acquisition of an attractive (usually well-off) partner. Although a sense of reality is definitely present at the beginning of the book, it has more or less disappeared by the halfway mark as the book descends into the realms of PG-rated animated fantasy with puerile sexual overtones.  
I did discover that Penny Vincenzi is one of the UK's best-loved and most popular authors (Amazon), and that she is universally held to be the 'doyenne of the modern blockbuster' (Glamour), so I am possibly on my own in not liking her writing. That she has such a wide following is, no doubt, an indication that there is a need for this kind of fairly superficial novel, and she is to be congratulated for recognizing the need and acting upon it. 

Photo of Penny Vincenzi above from

07 April 2015

In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien, USA, 1994

I really enjoyed this book where fact and fiction sidle past each other until it is difficult to know what is fact and what is fiction. The story begins with John Wade, an up-and-coming politician, failing to be elected to the American senate. He and his wife, Kathy, then retreat to their cabin by the lake in the woods to avoid the relentless media and to try to work out what actually happened. Damaging rumours about John's time in Vietnam have been circulating, and it is certainly these rumours that have lost him the senate position.

As the story unfolds, we learn of John's childhood with an abusive father, with whom John desperately wanted contact, and of John's attraction to the world of magic. Through flashbacks, we see how John meets Kathy at college, is drafted into the Vietnam War and, on his return to America, pursues a career in politics. His ambition to succeed is so great that everything else - even having a family - must take second place. John is plagued by nightmares, and as the flashbacks begin to merge, it becomes apparent as to what may be causing the nightmares. While John and Kathy are at the cabin, something happens which is pivotal to the entire story.

  Photo of Tim O'Brien from

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, In the Lake of the Woods is an intrinsic mixture of both fact and fiction. The connection to Vietnam and the My Lai massacre is part of the factual material, but at times, these accounts take on a fictional feeling while John and Kathy Wade's experiences by the lake, although fictional, begin to seem completely real. O'Brien's use of quotes from different investigations (My Lai), characters in the story and even other authors gives a strangely authoritative feel to the novel as a whole. The reader is presented with the information, both factual and fictional, and then it is up to him/her to make a decision.

Like all magic, there is the reality and the illusion, and it is the reader's job to sort the one from the other. Beautifully written and completely suspenseful from the first to the very last page, I would definitely recommend this book. 

In the Lake of the Woods was made into a film in 1996. You can watch the trailer here.

01 April 2015

Idle Hour in the County of Hope by Julie Simpson, Australia, 2000

If I had fallen over this book in a book shop or elsewhere, I would most probably have passed it by. The title, together with the somewhat depressing pink and brown cover image, does not grab one's attention, nor does it imply an interesting read; however, as it was the book club's book of the month, I had no choice but to read it. I am happy to say that I was pleasantly surprised.

I had expected a fairly mundane collection of short stories, but these stories are well thought through and delightfully crafted. Even though Idle Hour in the County of Hope is not a literary masterpiece, the writing is nuanced and manages to bring to life contrasting characters and divergent situations. I like the way the stories are all connected, being about the residents of the town of Idle Hour. That said, the author does not stress the connection; it is simply something that is there in the background, on many different levels. 

The stories display tragedy and humour in many different forms; sometimes the line between these two is flimsy, just as it often is in life. Not only is it evident that Julie Simpson must have experienced a town (or towns) similar to Idle Hour, but it is also very noticeable that she has particularly good observation skills for both people and places. It is a pleasant little book to pick up in between more challenging books; as Anne Deveson writes on the front cover, this is definitely a book that '... leads us to magic places.'