JANUARY READING - The Invisible Bridge; Never the Bride; The Blue Afternoon; Return to Paris; The Man In The Wooden Hat; Moon Tiger

MOON TIGER by Penelope Lively

Just look at the cover of this book. Doesn't it make you want to go to Egypt and sink yourself into this picture and all it conjures up? I don't imagine for a minute that Egypt is like this now, but what a wonderful vision to have when reminiscing on your life. 75 year old Claudia Hampton is dying, lying in a hospital bed, drifting in and out of consciousness as the important people in her life, both living and deceased pass through her memory and by her bedside.

And what a life Claudia has lived. Born between the wars, she decides that the prescribed life for women of marriage and children is not to be for her. Highly intelligent, beautiful, adventurous, fiercely independent and determined to prove herself she becomes a war correspondent in Cairo. The war, like it did for many many people, became the defining event in her life, the center point from which all her memories radiate out. After the war she continues to defy the conventions of the time by not marrying, having a child and becoming a successful historian. Who says women can't have it all?

So now she is dying. And just like her memories coming and going so the story is told in much the same way. Moving seamlessly from the present to various events and occasions in the past, narrated effortlessly by Claudia and those who make up her life, this is a novel all about a life well lived. It is also about the secrets and deep emotions that we all hold in ourselves and that no one else will ever know about. This is so beautifully and poignantly written with such deep insight that you can see why it won a Booker Prize way back in 1987. I read this book when it was published all those years ago without even really knowing what the Booker Prize was. It obviously made an impression at the time as it is a book that I have always kept. Now having read it again some 20 odd years later, and me being older, it is still a book worth keeping.

Like the previous author in this blog, Penelope Lively is also no spring chicken and is also a prolific and successful writer. She lived the first 12 years of her life in Cairo, hence her beautiful writing about it.

And what is a Moon Tiger? It is simply a mosquito coil which as it slowly burn drops ash, in much the same way that Claudia's memories are drip fed through the course of this novel.


Sir Edward and Lady Elizabeth Feathers are devoted servants of Her Majesty's cause in the colony of Hong Kong from the time of the end of WWII to sometime before the handover back to the Chinese - in other words a very long time! In her book 'Old Filth' Jane Gardam chronicles the life of Edward from his unhappy childhood beginning in Malaya with the death of this mother in childbirth, growing up in foster homes in Wales with truly ghastly foster parents, to schooling in England, a career in the law which takes him to Hong Kong. Hence the title Old Filth which has nothing to do with his standards of personal hygiene, but simply stands for Failed In London Try Hong Kong. Which he does with outstanding success. Along the way he marries Elizabeth, or Betty as she is known, but we actually learn very little about Betty in this first novel. Together they stand at the top of the civil service success ladder, complete with knighthood (him) and OBE (her). The story finishes with Sir Edward's old age in Dorset, thus concluding a most interesting commentary on the life of the expatriate in the British colony.

In this particular book, the sequel, the author tells the story of the other half of this success story - Betty. Betty is also a product of a traumatic childhood, having spent most of it in a Japanese internment camp, where both her parents died. We don't learn much about her prior to meeting Edward, other than that she is really quite directionless and finds herself back in Hong Kong about to accept Edward's proposal of marriage. It is not and never becomes a marriage of passion, poor Betty having no role models of what a marriage should or could be, with only distant memories of what her mother was like, and Edward of course has no idea what a marriage should or could be either! Not a good start you might think.

But being British and of the stiff upper lip variety, full of post war fortitude and the getting on with it attitude, that is exactly what they do. Along the way there are slip ups and the odd tragedy which is probably a very normal part of most marriages, and yet it is all handled extremely pragmatically and sensibly with Betty never wavering from her promise to never leave Edward. In fact the marriage and their lives together comes across as incredibly ordinary, whatever an ordinary marriage may be like! But, as one would expect of an expert story teller, never dull. Despite the rigid confines of the British colonial civil service, Betty does manage to find herself, and rise above the banality of life around her. The gradual change for example from being called Elizabeth to Betty is an example of this. As is her determination to stay in touch with her old school friend who also lives in Hong Kong, but a far more ordinary existence than Betty. And finally after years of indecision, deciding that yes she will leave Edward and follow her heart rather than her head.

Jane Gardam is wonderfully observant and insightful of people and relationships. She also writes very vividly of how Hong Kong was after the war in all its colonial splendour in an alien land. And then neatly follows this up with the tedium and uniformity of existence in London and later in the small towns of Dorset where ex-colonials of certain standing retired to. No spring chicken herself, the author is well into her eighties, and, has been writing for children and adults since the 1970s winning a large number of awards along the way.

RETURN TO PARIS by Colette Rossant

Who does not like books about food, and French food at that. No pictures in this one, but such vivid descriptions and such love of the food that we don't really need pictures.

Colette Rossant is of French and Egyptian descent. Now in her late 70s, she lives in America with her American architect husband James, whom she first met when she was 16. Just like any love story, they immediately fell in love and were finally reunited four long years later.

Colette's mother was Parisian Jewish French, her father was Egyptian, from Cairo, and also Jewish. Prior to the war the family was living in Paris, when her father was diagnosed with cancer. The family moved to Cairo when Colette was 5 in 1937, where her father died shortly after. Her mother, not the most maternally inclined of women, effectively deserted her daughter, leaving her in the care of her paternal grandparents. The unhappy and lost child found refuge in the kitchens of her wealthy grandparents,in the process developing a love for food and food preparation. After the war, in 1946, when travel was once again possible, her mother, at the demand of her mother in Paris, suddenly reappeared in Cairo, swept up the now 14 year old Colette and disappeared back to France. Colette's life in Cairo is narrated in the beautiful memoir 'Apricots on the Nile'.

'Return to Paris' is the sequel to the first book, and tells of Colette's sudden and difficult shift back to Paris, a city she hardly remembers, to a grandmother and older brother she has not seen for 9 years. Hardly a simple life for a 14 year old girl. After the freedoms of living in Cairo, life in post-war Paris is not easy; the grandmother is a dragon, her mission in life to bring Colette back into the Jewish fold, to turn her into a young lady and to marry her off to a suitable young man. Once again Colette finds refuge in the kitchen with the lovely Georgette who was the family cook when Colette was a young child. After some resistance she slowly rediscovers her love of French food, which naturally is very different from the flavours of the Middle East. She would appear to have plenty of spirit and thrives on disobeying her elders: missing school so she can explore food markets and back streets of Paris, not playing ball with regards to the young men she is regularly set up with by her family, and seriously enjoying her love of good food.

The memoir finishes when Colette is in her early 20s, having married her sweetheart and migrated to New York, again not an easy shift for her, but her love of food becomes the key to her acceptance of her new life.

Throughout the book are recipes of dishes from her days in Paris. Omelettes aux Fines Herbes, Chicken Fricassee, Tomato Salad, Pommes de terre aux Gratin, Rabbit with Prunes and Lentils, Crepes, Onion Soup, Raspberry Tart to name just a few. With one or two exceptions, all of the recipes are very straight forward, depending, like all great meals, on good quality ingredients combined with what appears to be easy technique and a bit of time.

I really enjoyed reading this. Having read 'Apricots on the Nile' some years ago, I knew reading this would be like meeting an old friend and catching up on the next instalment. Most of the book covers her teen years and as we know being a teenager is never an easy time in life. She is very honest and open about the difficulties she has with her family and the expectations placed on her, and I imagine at times she fully deserved their anger and rules! But I never felt like I disliked her, or that she was getting too big for her boots! Totally charming and self-deprecating, with this overriding passion for food and personal discovery, I think she is just gorgeous. By the way the Tomato Salad is delicious, be careful of garlic burps the next day.


Because I like William Boyd's novels so much, I chose this book without bothering to read the blurb as to what it was about. Blind confidence? Of course not! I just knew it would be yet another fabulous story, with interesting characters, set in interesting times, and interesting places, doing interesting things and with a number of interesting twists! This novel was published in 1993 so it is one of Mr Boyd's earlier novels (he has now written 10) and at the time won two book awards.

Opening in the Los Angeles of the 1930s, talented young architect Kay Fischer is getting over a broken marriage and a broken business partnership. Into her life appears the mysterious Salvadore Carriscant who inexplicably claims to be her father. Slowly he weaves his spell over her, which takes the reader back to the Philippines, to the city of Manila in 1902. Recovering from three wars in very quick succession - the Philippine war, the Spanish-American war and the Philippine-American war- Manila is not a happy place and still has a very heavy American military presence. Salvadore is of mixed race as many of the Filipinos are - his pedigree is Spanish, Scottish and Filipino. He has recently returned to Manila after training as a doctor/surgeon in Edinburgh. He finds himself working in one of the badly equipped, and shockingly unhygienic hospitals, with doctors who have no idea or interest in the modern hygiene and surgery practices that Salvadore has brought back from Scotland. This inevitably leads to conflict with the hospital hierarchy. When American soldiers start turning up murdered and mutilated, the pressures mount. Throw in a doomed love affair, a fellow doctor trying to be one of the first men to fly an airplane, and we have all those interesting places, times, characters and events. And let's not forget the twists and turns.

Boyd writes in such a way that the reader feels as if they are actually there. In this book, we feel the humidity and oppressive air of Manila, we are walking through the poverty ridden streets and hovels, we are in the disgusting operating theatres smelling the blood and the decay, we are in the airplane as it makes its first flight, feeling the wind, the excitement and the adrenalin rush. It would make a fantastic movie. This is a marvellous story, perfect for a long plane flight, lazy day or holiday reading.


The only thing I know about the English city of Whitby is that it is in the north of England and is the place where Captain James Cook began his sailing career. Plus it is also a suburb in the city of Wellington with all the streets named after Captain Cook related and sailing related things! What I didn't know about the Whitby in Yorkshire is that twice a year since 1994, in April and October, it has hosted a Gothic Weekend! There is some historical association with Dracula, and the festival is now apparently one of the most popular of its type in the world!

It is hardly surprising then that this most peculiar and entertaining Gothic novel is set in Whitby. I don't think I have ever read a true Gothic novel before. Do Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre fall into this category? But as we all need to step out of our comfort zone from time to time, and it is a relatively small book, some 275 pages of large font and spacing and a half, I thought it was worth a go! This particular book is the first in a series of what is now five books, starring the never-specifically-stated-age Brenda and her similarly aged friend, Effie. I suspect they are on the other side of middle aged. But being a story full of secrets, one would never really know!

Anyway Brenda is a relatively new arrival in Whitby and is owner/manager of a B and B which by all accounts is a successful business with a steady flow of visitors. Next door is Effie, a spinster, who owns and manages an antique shop, the premises having been in her family for a very, very long time. It transpires Effie is descended from a very long line of witches, and the house, naturally is chock full of witch related stuff. Brenda has her own particular history which is very mysterious; although it becomes obvious early on where she is descended from, but it is never actually stated.

So naturally with these two strange characters, there also have to be many others. After all there is something about Whitby that seems to attract the stranger element in our society! We have Mrs Claus who runs the Christmas Hotel where every day is Christmas Day, and her elves are very weird. Then there is Mr Danby who owns the Deadly Boutique, where people who go in come out rather different! Even some of Brenda's guests would be classified as weird. And then we have the psychic-themed TV show that wants to make an episode in Effie's house that goes spectacularly wrong!

The roles of Brenda and Effie in all this strangeness is to find out exactly what is going on in these various establishments and the people who inhabit/work/visit them. There are a number of mysteries to solve, each with its share of surprises, the book ending with a very alarming surprise that no doubt sets the scene for the second book in the series. Brenda and Effie are a most unlikely pair, nothing like Miss Marple in their mystery-solving techniques, but very entertaining all the same.

I did a bit a research on the author who has also done quite a bit of writing of Dr Who novels for the BBC. And this book definitely has a Dr Who fantasy fiction tone about it. I don't know if I will read anymore books in the series, Harry Potter being about the extent of my entering the genre of the fantasy fiction. But I did enjoy this book very much. It is quirky, funny, sinister, full of surprises and chock full of bizarre, weird and peculiar people.


Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, novels and memoirs of WWII in Europe dominated much of the reading from the local public library. Without digging too deep into the memory bank, 'The Diary of Anne Frank', 'I am David', and 'The Silver Sword' immediately spring to mind. And then moving onto the 1980s with 'Sophie's Choice', 'Schindler's List' and the novels of Leon Uris. More recently 'The Reader', 'The Book Thief', and many many others, continue to document the horrors of the Holocaust, the Nazi regime, the displacement of millions, the destruction of cities and countries, the millions and millions of deaths. And let's not forget all the movies and TV programmes that have so effectively illustrated these stories. You would think that with all that saturation we would be anesthetized to new novels and stories of these terrible times. After all, we know what happened, we know how awful it all was, and so we think perhaps it won't touch us anymore. Then every now and again a book comes along that does touch us, and opens our eyes again to what a truly awful period in modern history the war, or any war for that matter, really was.

This book is one of those, with writing like this - "In fact, the aperture to any future beyond the war seemed to contract by the day. They lived in constant fear of deportation; from the outlying towns came news of thousands sent away in closed trains. In the capital itself there were horrors enough: frequent Arrow Cross raids on the yellow-star buildings, the displaced families' possessions stolen, men and women taken away for no reason other than that they happened to be home when the Nylias men arrived." And so it goes on.

The story opens in 1937, in Budapest, Hungary. Young Andras Levi is about to leave home for the first time. He has been awarded a scholarship to go to architecture school in Paris, because being Jewish, the quota has been exceeded for him to study in Budapest. His older brother Tibor, is a promising medical student and is awaiting on a scholarship to Italy. Huge adventures for young men. Andras establishes a life for himself in Paris, immerses himself into student life, and falls in love with Karla, an older Hungarian woman with her own sad history, which becomes intertwined with his own. Life continues like this for two years, then with the outbreak of war, being Jewish, Andras' student visa is not renewed and he and Karla have to return to Budapest. The idyllic freedom and richness of life in pre-war Paris in the first half of the book is in marked contrast to the catastrophic events and turmoil about to unfold in Budapest for the next six years or so.

Hungary, in order to appease Hitler and to save itself, finds itself on Germany's side, having to provide armed forces and labour to Germany's cause - namely invading Russia and protecting the borders to the west and the north. Andras and other Jewish men are called up into a forced labour scheme which sends them to all corners of Hungary living in the most appalling conditions. Meanwhile back in Budapest, Karla, the other women and older family members are left to fend for themselves amidst a city falling apart. And so it grinds relentlessly on. It is not survival of the fittest, but survival of the luckiest.

This brief synopsis does not really do the novel justice,. Many many things happen in this story, involving a large number of characters and diverse personalities. The other major character in the story is the country of Hungary itself, a country I wager most of us know very little about, and with a war history I expect we know nothing about. I must say it does make a change reading about the experiences of a country and population that fought on the German side rather than the allied side. The author is the granddaughter of a Hungarian couple who lived in Budapest during the war. Being Jewish, her grandfather spent time in one of the forced labour camps, and her grandmother had her first child delivered by a Nazi doctor.

This is a very big book, some 600 pages, closely written with lots of detail. But don't be put off. Right from the beginning, the story is all go. It is slow moving in parts, and time does seem to almost stand still. There is perhaps a little too much emotional angst going on in the first half, but the romantics among us would say it is setting up the strong ties of love that will endure through the later hardships. Well worth the time it takes to read.