READING IN NOVEMBER - Waiting for Sunrise; Bitter Almonds; We Are All Made of Glue; The Blasphemer


In our book club we love William Boyd. His books are always satisfying, complicated, great plots, interesting flawed protagonists, or as one reviewer puts it - there is always a 'Dude with a Problem'. And the author himself is timeless, judging by the photo that graces the book covers. Although as an aside, the photo on the cover of this, his latest, does actually resemble a man who could be approaching 60 years of age!

Lysander Rief is a young Englishman, an actor, who is the son of a now deceased famous actor father. He is engaged to a young actress. He comes to Vienna in 1913 to seek a cure for a personal and private problem, Vienna of course being the home to Sigmund Freud and his theories of psychoanalysis. Lysander is very much an innocent abroad, rather dull, indecisive, bit of a wimp really. In Vienna he meets a wide assortment of very interesting people ranging from his fellow lodgers, his therapist, a fellow patient with whom he has a very complicated entanglement, and some fellow Brits. Life suddenly takes a very dark turn for Lysander, and it seems as if he goes through a personality transplant in the process. The result is a man of action who would not be out of place in a John Le Carre novel. Suddenly his life has a purpose, ie save it, and in the process uncover a mole deep inside the British military machine.

Because of course, by now it is World War I. Lysander is quite literally, thrown in the deep end, on his quest to solve the intelligence leak. This takes him to the trenches, to Switzerland, back to England, tripping around all over the south coast, dealing again with his complicated entanglement, finding true love, and finally managing to derail the traitor. Quite an achievement really for someone whose life only months before appeared to be going nowhere.

I know it is all only fiction and made up, but the changes that take place in Lysander I did find a little far fetched. Maybe his psychotherapy treatment produced a truly new man! Maybe those acting genes finally kick in. The book could be psycho analysed forever in an attempt to understand the author's purpose. But it doesn't really matter because this is a very readable, action filled, page turner of a book. The story may be a little uneven, the ending a bit of an anti climax, but William Boyd's writing, as usual, is flawless. It doesn't take much for him to pick the reader up and throw them into the action too.

BITTER ALMONDS by Mary Taylor Simeti and Maria Grammatico

I have mixed feelings about this book. Firstly what sort of book is it? Is it a recipe book - 111 pages of its 229 pages are recipes; secondly is it biography of Maria Grammatico or thirdly is it a memoir of Mary Taylor Simeti telling how she came to be telling Maria's story. And these two latter stories cover the first 118 pages.

There is a terrific story here in the life Maria Grammatico.  In the 1950s, her impoverished mother sent her, at the age of 11, and her older sister to live in the enclosed and cloistered world of the local convent. There were approximately 22 people living in the convent of whom 13 were nuns, the rest young girls such as Maria and her sister. Maria lived here till the age of 25, when she left the convent. The only skills she had were how to make the delicious, dainty, delectable pastries, sweetmeats and biscuits that she had 'acquired' over the years living with the nuns. The nuns produced vast quantities of these morsels to sell to the locals on feast days and religious celebrations/ceremonies. None for the girls.  It was an appalling existence really for young girls. There was never enough food, very few comforts, very little if any freedom, no celebrations or fun of any kind. The one solace for Maria was the kitchen. Now, in her fifties, she still lives in the town the convent was in - Erice - and has her own very famous and highly regarded Italian patisserie where she makes, by hand, all the delicacies she had learnt all those years ago. On You Tube there are some lovely films of Maria in her kitchen and interviews with her about her life. I would love to have had the whole 229 pages about her life, more about what convent life was like, more about what happened to her when she left the convent, how she started her business  - I kid you not, it is summarised in one paragraph. Very very disappointing.

So is the book then a memoir of the writer, Mary Taylor Simeti and how she came to meet Maria and write the book. Unfortunately there is almost as much about this as there is about Maria. Mary is a successful writer herself, married to a Sicilian and living on Sicily. Her books about Sicilian food and travel are highly regarded and would appear to be well worth reading. But to me, this little book, should not be about her, and unfortunately it is. She intersperses Maria's story with snippets from her own, and the thread really does at times become quite confusing.

Then we come to the remaining 111 pages of recipes. And glorious they are too! From almond dough, almond cream, ricotta tart, citron jam, marzipan,  fig biscuits, preserves - 46 recipes in total. And all this is marvellous to read too! But is it perhaps just a little too much?

My overall feeling on finishing this book was that I felt cheated. And that Maria actually deserved more. Maybe one day someone will write a real biography of Maria's story instead of this offering.

WE ARE ALL MADE OF GLUE by Marina Lewycka I actually really liked this book, despite the many negative reviews that have been written about it. No, it is not nearly as good as her first novel 'A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian' or even 'Two Caravans', but I found it hugely enjoyable with its convoluted slightly ridiculous plot, equally eccentric and stereotyped characters, and at times really quite funny. I enjoyed this novel far more than the author's latest 'Various Pets Dead and Alive' which I reviewed in September, even though it is all over the place and has more threads going on than an out of control sewing machine. Georgie Sinclair has recently separated from her husband Rip (ridiculous name). She has two children, the younger one Ben is still at school and lives with her. The daughter, Olivia is at university. Georgie has a rather strange job writing for a trade magazine that specialises in glues and adhesives. So all the chapters are headed with some sort of adhesive that may or may not be relevant to the contents of the chapter, for example Rubber, Biopolymer, The Attraction Between Adhesives and Adherends'. Very intriguing. Her husband walking out after an argument over the attachment of a toothbrush holder to the bathroom wall has left Georgie in a bit of a state. In the process of venting her rage by throwing all his precious LPs into a skip she meets an elderly, possibly eccentric lady who resides nearby called Mrs Shapiro. An unlikely friendship begins to unfold. Georgie suddenly finds herself named by Mrs Shapiro as her next of kin following an accident that requires the latter to stay in hospital for a spell, and then run the gauntlet of compulsory and permanent removal to a rest home. It becomes Georgie's 'job' to protect Mrs Shapiro's interests from the Social Welfare bureaucrats, the local real estate agents/sharks, feed the stray cat population, and try to find out more about Mrs Shapiro, her mysterious past and hopefully some relatives. At the same time Georgie is dealing with her Ben who is losing himself in the cyber universe convinced the world is going to end any day, Rip the husband, her closet romance writing (dreadful),and her own search for new love. This book highlights just perfectly how there is nowt as queer as folk, that we are all bound together in some way or other, and that out of any situation that may arise, with a little effort there is always a way forward. Yes it has it faults. For example I am still not really sure why the marriage reached such a crisis point, the overly simplistic view of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, even the mysterious past of Mrs Shapiro. But despite all this it is a joy to read, and likely to leave a smile on your face at the end of many of the gluey chapters.
THE BLASPHEMER by Nigel Farndale

My goodness, there is SO much going on in this book, it's a minor miracle it is all packaged up and concluded in 492 pages. Is there a God or is there not? Was the earth created in seven days or not? Are there angels or not? And that is just for starters. But having said that, these three questions form the crux of the novel.

Daniel Kennedy is an atheist. He is also an associate professor of zoology at Trinity College in London, and has recently written and fronted a natural history television programme.  He lives in London with his long time girlfriend Nancy and their nine year old daughter Martha. When the book opens he and Nancy are preparing to take a trip to where the creation vs evolution debate began - the Galapagos Islands. On the way to their island destination, the sea plane crashes, Daniel makes an error of judgement, but does survive, as does Nancy, although his actions reverberate for months afterwards. Immediately post crash, as penance perhaps, Daniel makes the decision to swim the 14-odd kilometers to shore for help and during the swim has a vision of a young man - angel - who encourages him, enabling Daniel to hang on and eventually reach shore. All is well. Except for Nancy and Daniel's relationship which goes into freefall.

Running parallel to Daniel's story is that of his great grandfather, Private Andrew Kennedy, 21 years old, on his first day facing the horrors of Passchendaele. Andrew is a plumber, a very ordinary young man, brought up to believe in a God and that God is on the side of the right, which naturally includes him. His first day of war is a complete disaster, and he sees a vision which takes him off the battlefield, into a village in France, only to find himself some months later in front of a firing squad for desertion.

As if these two threads don't have plenty of potential for plot and character, the author also throws in radical Muslims and terrorist attacks,  a bitter and twisted university academic, nine year old Martha madly in love with her teacher, Mahler and Vaughan Williams, old age and mortality, distinguished military careers, other love interests, and long winded philosophical discussions on whether there are angels or are such visions a frontal lobe malfunction due to extreme stress. Quite frankly it all gets a bit much, with the whole story becoming quite incongruous and far too many coincidences for it to have any chance of being truly credible.

But despite the weakness with plot and lack of character development of some important people in the story, this does actually read very well and is quite a page turner. The author knows how to make a story. I did enjoy it, and who knows, maybe there really are angels out there.

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