OCTOBER READING - Ghost Train to Eastern Star; Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Day After Night; The Good Mayor; The Long Song

THE LONG SONG by Andrea Levy

Andrea Levy centres her novel on a dark chapter in British history - the last years of a 300 year history of slavery in Jamaica. In the first quarter of the 19th century, July is born to Kitty, a field slave on the Amity plantation. Her father is the brutal white overseer, so July is a mulatto. Not that this makes her life any easier, but purely by chance she is literally taken from her mother's arms and ends up as a house slave living in the big house as the personal maid to Caroline Mortimer, sister to the English owner of the plantation. July's life is by no means easy, but she is smart, has excellent instincts and quickly learns to manipulate her mistress, and eventually the new white overseer, fresh off the boat from England, idealistic and noble.

At this time there were strong moves in Britain to abolish slavery, but naturally it took a while to filter through to places like the Carribean. In 1831, the slaves in the area of Jamaica that the novel is set in, revolted against the British landowners. The revolt as one would expect. was quickly and violently and cruelly suppressed with plenty of reprisals against the slaves, but it did result a few years later in slavery in Jamaica being abolished, and the slaves being freed. Although the changes brought about by the stroke of a pen in London took considerably longer to take place at the grass roots of plantation life somewhere half way around the world. Suffice to say that July's life is never an easy one, but it does make a superb story.

Not only is the story riveting, but the author has chosen to tell it through the eyes of July as an elderly woman, telling it her way, to her son, who wants the story told his way. In dribs and drabs the son 'encourages' his mother to tell her story, in wonderful parent-child dialogue, the son of course wanting every detail possible and the mother wanting to keep some things secret. It is almost as if there are two stories going on in this novel.

The best thing about this story is the rich use of language. July is of slave birth and so has no chance of growing up speaking the 'Queen's English',let alone being able to read and write. Her way of speaking and telling a story is a complete corruption of English as we know it. It is colourful, colloquial, idiosyncratic and has a whole rhythm and music to it that English English does not, making it a joy to read and enjoy. On first reading there were sentences that just did not make sense, but like all good writers, she makes us re-read the sentence to get the sense.

The subject matter is tragic, violent, heart-rending, far too visual and ghastly in places to be called enjoyable. But July's refusal to give up, to keep on trying to make things better for herself, her ability to turn situations to her advantage give this story enormous energy and hope, and like many other books I have read and loved, it shows the power of the human spirit to overcome and beat adversity. Read this and just love this woman for the survivor she is.

THE GOOD MAYOR by Andrew Nicholl

I got to the last page of this many-paged novel - 465 pages - , closed the book, and said out loud, "Gorgeous, just gorgeous". What a lovely, wonderful, passionate, delicious love story this is. Not at all soppy or syrupy but oh so romantic, with rich, delightful writing and so full of hope!

Tibo Krovic is the mayor of the town of Dot, an average town in some far off corner of north-west Europe (I think). Dot has the river Ampersand running through it, and the neighbouring rival town is called Dash. Krovic is a very good mayor, honest, popular, humane, and single. He has been desperately in love with his beautiful, voluptuous, generous-spirited and unhappily married secretary Agathe Stopak for quite some time. Never did the path of true love run smoothly, and it certainly doesn't in this story. As the reader, at times you have to suspend belief just a little bit, but it just adds to the charm and delight of this story. Bizarrely this novel is narrated by a saint, the patron saint of the town called St Walpurnia, a 'bearded virgin martyr, whose heart-wrung pleas to Heaven for the gift of ugliness as a bolster to her chastity were answered with a miraculous generosity.'

This is a big book and I have written much longer reviews of books much smaller than this one. There is nothing more to add, it is just so enjoyable and as The Scotsman newspaper says 'Enchanting'.

DAY AFTER NIGHT by Anita Diamant

WWII continues to be a very rich and diverse source of material for novels both entirely fictional and those based on historical incidents. One such incident was the escape in 1945 of 200 refugee immigrants in a British illegals displacement camp in Israel with the help of Jewish settler partisans. The escape happens towards the end of the story, but the escape is not really what the book is about. It is about four young Jewish women, none older than 21, who have all been displaced by the war in Europe. Polish-born Shayndel was orphaned during the war and ended up fighting with partisans; Dutch-born Tedi is half-Jewish and spends most of the war in hiding until she is betrayed and sent off to a camp; Leonie is Parisian who is saved by brothel keeper, and has a miserable time trying to stay alive as a prostitute; and finally Zorah, also Polish who manages to survive the horrors of the concentration camp. All very damaged emotionally and physically, they find themselves in Israel as there is really nowhere else for them to go and they are promised that Israel will finally be the home they are looking for.

The girls are just four of the couple of hundred men, women and children in the camp where they have to learn to live a normal life again, to trust people and build relationships and friendships. There are nightmares to get through, symbols such as the barbed wire of the camps reminding the internees of the concentration camps, physical health to rebuild.

The establishment of the state of Israel by the British and the United Nations forms the background to the story, the displacement of the Palestinians barely rates a mention, and the British come across as the enemy with the exception of a few of the the British running the immigrant camp.

So is it a good book? Well, good plot, interesting characters, plenty of action and tension, but something is missing. I felt like I was reading a narrative: he said, then she said, then she said. It just felt a bit too one dimensional. The richness of writing that made 'The Red Tent' so special and memorable, for me, just is not there. Maybe it is not supposed to be there, the subject matter of internment camps and the tragedies of the people who find themselves there perhaps do not lend themselves to rich, beautiful writing. Still it is book worth reading simply for the history it chronicles.

TWO LIPSTICKS AND A LOVER by Helena Frith Powell

"Unlock your inner French woman...". How do they look so sleek, so glamorous, so slim, wearing such gorgeous clothes, with such beautiful hair,and such immaculate faces? And all those temptations-delicious wines, oh-so-tasty cheese, that crusty, soft bread???? Why can't us Anglo-Saxon women have such style, look so effortlessly good?

Well, let me tell you, it takes effort, and plenty of it. Ms Powell moved from England to France with her husband and immediately felt like a frump. So in the process of discovering her inner French woman she interviewed and spent time with many beautiful French women to discover what really goes on. In short a lot of money is spent, a lot of time is expended, eating habits are abnormal, having girlfriends means competition - for men, having a career is not encouraged, having babies is really a bit of drag and terribly unsexy. But on the upside, women of all ages are adored and respected by men, they are encouraged to be intellectual, to think and to express opinions, and to take lovers. These are the things Ms Powell discovered in her research and what she wrote her book about.

As an exercise in self-discovery it is fairly light hearted, and she does manage to find her inner French womanliness! But I really did have a problem believing that ALL French women lived their lives like this. The women she interviewed all seemed to have lots of money, lots of time, were high profile either as society women, fashion shop owners, ex-models, actresses, successful career women and so on - women who are expected to look and be fabulous all the time.

As an aside I googled 'French Women Images' and came up with pages and pages of gorgeous beautiful women until I got to page 9, and there was a fat French woman which took me to an article in the Daily Mirror 19/09/2006 called 'Myth of Thin French Women Exposed' claiming that a third of French women are overweight. How beautifully refreshing I thought. They are normal after all!! Time for a glass of wine and some gooey cheese on a thick piece of crusty white bread. Or maybe a croissant...


Twenty five years ago while living in a Pacific tropical paradise, I would visit the two very small English language book/stationery shops at least weekly to feed my reading appetite. Being very small shops there was a very limited range of books, so I had to expand my horizons somewhat and found myself reading books I would never have normally read, like Paul Theoroux's 'The Great Railway Bazaar'. Even though I was quite young still at the time, and it had been written by a sad, grumpy man some 12 years older than me who was going through some very major domestic strife, it left a lasting impression on me. His intense curiosity, his sense of adventure, his cantankerousness, the freedom of a life on a train was such a fantastic combination to read about. He was a grumpy bugger though, opinionated, little patience for many of the different societies and peoples he met, and I don't think he had a great deal of fun!

So thirty three years after that journey in 1975, Paul Theroux, now in a much better head space decides to retrace his steps on that epic train journey. His first journey took him through Italy, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Ceylon, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Japan and across the vast expanse of the USSR. Already you will see that that particular journey would be quite a different undertaking now! Yugoslavia is now a number of different countries; the communist states have been over run by capitalism, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan are off limits to anyone of a Western hue. So the journey takes the author slightly north of these troubled countries through some of the now independent states of the former USSR - all the -stans; India is neck and neck with China as the world's fastest growing economy; the war is over in Cambodia and Vietnam; and is Russia any further ahead than it was some 40 years ago? To top it all off, the journey takes place some 16 months after the devastating Boxing Day tsunami. So a lot to write about!

The author is still cantankerous, obviously does not tolerate fools easily, and as the review in the Los Angeles Times said, "One of the problems Theroux presents to the careful reader is the fact that he's a compelling writer who is essentially unlikable. In part, that's a consequence of his blimpish judgments on everyone upon whom his disapproval settles...". But I think he is a much happier man now, his domestic life would appear to be pretty good, he certainly is not as angry, age would appear to have mellowed him as it does to us all!

His journey by train is, in a word, fantastic. I loved it, loved reading about where he went, what he saw, what he ate, the people he met, the changes he observed from 30 years ago, in particular the impact of technology and Westernisation. But the book is also about his own personal journey, comparing the man he was 30 years ago with the man he is now, and that is also fascinating to read about. He is now somewhat reflective and, shock, horror, traces of humility creeping through!

This is a long book with a lot of reading, but well worth it, and if at all possible, try to read the first book at the same time.