What did I read?

Charting the Vast Pacific by John Gilbert, published by The Reader’s Digest Association Ltd, 1971

A valuable find in a charity shop . . . about those who sailed unknown seas and chartered the Pacific Ocean.

The author, John Gilbert, swiftly refers to Admiral Cheng Ho, who explored the seas in the 1400s and traded with India and the Persian Gulf. Cheng Ho had preceded the ambitious Portuguese and Spanish—not always acknowledged—and China invented the magnetic compass, the sternpost rudder and the watertight compartment.

The book details seafaring patriots from Vasco Núñez de Balboa of Spain and his discovery of the Pacific in 1513, to Captain James Cook of England, who completed the mapping of the Pacific, and whose ship, the Endeavour, carried out scientific enquiry. Both met with a violent end: Balboa was subject to a fake charge of treason and beheaded by his own people. Cook was stabbed to death by islanders on Hawaii; a few pounds of flesh returned to the next in command . . .

The book does not avoid the damage inflicted by foreigners on innocent islanders and lands; they wanted to explore, exploit, claim as their own, convert the communities to Christianity, and colonize. They spread their diseases, including venereal disease. But the book also does not seem to have room within its pages to describe the beginning of and growth of slavery. I later learned a little about “blackbirding” and felt this would have added to the publication.

The gap in information inspired me to look elsewhere. I was shocked to learn that my distant forebears, the Portuguese, set sail with the first cargo of African slaves.

In 1444, Portuguese traders brought their first cargo of 235 African slaves from West Africa to Europe—kick-starting the odious Atlantic slave trade. Captives worked sugar plantations in Madeira, a Portuguese island off the west coast of Africa. In 1481, they built the first slave fort on the coast of modern Ghana. This was Elmina Castle, the headquarters of the Portuguese slave traders.

The Spanish, known for their zeal in using the sword, were obligated to buy their slaves from the Portuguese, who were then brought to America, where American Indians laboured in exchange for nada. Trade in slavery was taken up by England, Denmark, Norway and France.

About Yolanda Christian: My mother is Macanese [Portuguese Macau in south China]. I lived, breathed, exhibited, sold and taught fine art in art colleges and was freelancing within publication teams when a traumatic experience with a construction giant occurred. I re-emerged as a writer of fiction and non-fiction. Previous teaching experience has included special needs, adults, children and other sectors of the community.

The Lone Flag—Memoir of the British Consul  in Macao during World War II,
[John Pownall Reeves] © David Calthorpe 2014
Edited by Colin day and Richard Garrett with a biographical essay by David Calthorpe

This is the memoir of the British Consul, Reeves, assigned to Macau. It describes the years that followed the surrender of Hong Kong to the Japanese on Christmas Day, 1941. The most striking, hopeful aspect of his life story [to me] is the camaraderie that emerged: it was his job to provide succour to 9,000 British-subject refugees plus 940 Americans yet it was Mr Y.C. Liang of Wong Tai Co., who came to his rescue with money for food and shelter until British relief could be established. 

Mr Liang Y.C. in the 1970s while director of the Peninsula Hotel

As the months stretched into years, Reeves, otherwise known as “the boss”, was protected by additional undercover bodyguards in the form of Chungking gunmen… In the early days, it was the Portuguese Governor of the neutral Portuguese colony, who tried to secure the return of Reeves’ wife—Really, the Governor, Comd. Gabriel Mauricio Teixeira and John Pownall Reeves were colleagues working in harmony, which could have invited rebuke from the Japanese military. In fact, the Japanese were desperate to kill Reeves after “parading him naked through the streets”. Meanwhile, the Japanese Consulate, Mr Fukui, literally next door to Reeves, was known to have dispatched food parcels to prisoners in Hong Kong, and thus, we assume that is why the Kempeitai assassinated him.

Around page 105, the memoir picks up as Reeves describes the various assassination attempts upon his life. Reeves wrote with dry humour and in long sentences. He was understated and lacking in detail due to Foreign Office restrictions. Sadly, the F.O. refused publication of ‘The Lone Flag’; it was only after his natural death that a friend put the book together and invited editors to add notes and fill in some blanks. I did regret the lack of detail on espionage! I did regret the lack of detail about Portuguese and Macanese contributions to the war effort.

However, I was glad to have confirmation of the following—in 1942 during a particularly cold spell, 10,000 people died and were buried in mass graves in Taipa. There was a further 27,000 deaths due to starvation, and, cannibalism did exist. Reeves writes about bypassing a rare meal of roast pork, because it came from the same market where human flesh was apparently sold. I was glad to have this confirmed, because we should never forget, never forget the horrors of war. Thank God, for those who are willing to stick their necks out! We can only hope that today’s Powers remember the past.


Reef by Romesh Gunesekera

The back cover describes Reef as a love story set in a spoiled paradise. Triton goes to work for Mister Salgado, a marine biologist obsessed with swamps, sea movement and the reef. The boy learns how to polish silver, mix a love cake and how to steam parrot-fish for his master’s lover. However to me and in my second read of this novel, Reef is really about a boy’s innocence, obedience and loyalty. As he matures, his unexpected independence strikes a political tone. Reef has a place in my head . . . and my heart. 

In the following quotation, Triton observes his surroundings:

‘The haberdasher had a little handbell which he rang as he criss-crossed his way down the lane. Each time he rang the bell the crows on the road scrambled into the air. The whole place echoed with their cawing, his tinkling and the cooing of our neighbour’s brainless doves.’ 

The next quotation sums up my own preoccupation:

‘I was learning that human history is always a story of somebody’s diaspora: a struggle between those who expel, repel or curtail—possess, divide and rule—and those who keep the flame alive from night to night, mouth to mouth, enlarging the world with each flick of a tongue.’

James Salter [1925—2015]

Originally an officer and pilot in the US Air Force, Salter flew F-86 Sabre jets in the Korean war and was in line to become a squadron leader, but left to pursue a career as a writer. [His life story is really worth a read as well as his writings.] He went on to become known as a “writer’s writer”, and also “the greatest living American   novelist” by Guernica magazine.

Light Years is about the highly civilized Nedra and Viri, who live in a lovely farmhouse by the Hudson River with their happy children, rabbits, a donkey, a horse, and lots of books and toys. It’s a good marriage, full of good parties, and then it’s no marriage at all. They separate and have adventures, which leaves one of them dead and the other lost in a new and strange marriage.

The prose is exquisite, solemn, original in choice of word—the canter brings Proust to mind. In fact, Salter refers to Proust several times. 

Not wanting to sound outrageous, I was disturbed by analogies and adjectives that often referred to the writing profession or jargon of a writer, and in the novel, the daughter even gets a job in publishing. I found it odd that Salter could not stray from his own profession during the task of building up his novel. It just didn’t feel right to me. Why not provide detail about Viri’s job as an architect?

I was amazed to learn that he took the characters and plot from his close friends in real life, the Rosenthals. They were shocked to read Light Years and the amount of detail that came from their lives, including their infidelities, which then led to their divorce and of course an end to their friendship with Salter.

I disliked the racial sterotyping---Nedra and Viri’s childminder is black and one of their buddies is attacked by a couple of black guys.

Don’t get me wrong, Light years is a thoroughly absorbing read and extends your knowledge of ways of writing, but is the content more cynical or more satirical? It left me feeling impressed, but morose.

Paul McVeigh

Mickey Donnelly, a young Belfast lad, is getting ready for a posh grammar school education during the ‘Troubles’ of Northern Ireland. Life evolves around an absent alcoholic father, what Da might do to Ma, his macho brother Paddy, his nice sister Measles, and Wee Maggie, who he adores. Money is scarce and the neighbourhood is divided between the Prods and the Catholics. 

My first misconception was to expect the bleakness and dark humour of Roddy Doyle as in Doyle’s trilogy about Henry Smart. [Henry senior goes around killing people with his wooden leg, and then Henry junior becomes an assassin too, and then he loses his leg.]

Once I got past that, I was quickly taken into Mickey’s world, shrouded in a bright light, the kind of light a young person brings to the adult worldlike Scout in ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’, and of course, that was achieved by the author’s talent and his endeavours to stay on target and make Mickey real.

Mickey is different from the other boys and girls, and attracts derision and bullying, however the local women really enjoy his good manners and sense of humour. 

A real delight is the way the author allows prepubescent Mickey’s sexuality to develop . . . He wants to ‘lumber’ Martine, he can get a hard on with a dirty magazine but can’t ejaculate, everyone calls him ‘gay’, and then one day another young lad, much like himself, causes the tinniest of stirring in his pants. And so the issues about a young lad’s growing awareness are portrayed. It really is sweet, engaging, important, and written in a robust vernacular voice. A dab of magic on top plus irreverent prose, which always goes down well with me.

However, I’m one of those people who can’t help but nitpick . . . I’d have liked to read about Ma working in the chippy and then she’d bring some chips back home wrapped in paper. I cringed at the reference to The Black and White Minstrel Show. 

As I understand it, ‘The Good Son’ is to be given out for World Book Day. I can completely understand this, because the book goes beyond a good read and lets younger people know that they are OK, they are normal, and what’s more they can carve out a life for themselves no matter what. And as an adult, I was left with a smile on my face.

My Christmas stocking read, 2016:

ALFIE, The Doorstep Cat by Rachel Wells

Alfie, the cat, is homeless following the death of his elderly and beloved Margaret. Another cat advises him to become a ‘doorstep’ cat and to follow his instincts and find the ‘right’ place to carry out this plan of action. This takes Alfie to Edgar Road, where he sets about cultivating 4 loving homes—just in case he ever gets left in the lurch again. However, Alfie isn’t the selfish type; he doles out affection and keeps a watchful eye on all of his 'owners', and even risks his life for Claire, a thirty-something divorcee, who hits the bottle after work.

Initially, I was irritated by the writing style and felt that more editing would have benefitted the book, especially the crucial first chapter. However, as I had the joy of a clever loving puss at my side for 16.5 years, I made myself read on and was rewarded by a lovely read, which I’d recommend to anyone, who wants to see below the surface and appreciate the world of animals.

I have a couple of gripes though--the author has always had pets in real life but sets a bad example by not introducing or speculating on the right diet for a cat, thus influencing many readers and pet owners to give their cats 
sardines, tuna, smoked salmon--too rich and not good for them in the long run. The best diet for a cat is raw fresh meat, water and cat milk.


Camberwell Book Club meets up to discuss Small Island by Andrea Levy, and then we're out for a Christmas pizza! Stunning book--has to be one of my favourites for 2016. This is what I thought of it.

Small Island by Andrea Levy
[Camberwell Library book club, second Tuesday of the month]

Small Island is a stunning novel set in 1948. It focuses on the diaspora of Jamaican immigrants, who moved to England in the hope of a better life; the last thing they expected was to be treated like scum...

Andrea Levy gives us the separate points of view of Hortense, Queenie, Gilbert and Bernard, each held within their own designated chapters. What ensues is a subtle game of chess, a revelation about each character’s good or bad, each person's innocence, pride or prejudice. Except for Gilbert though. He's thoroughly well meaning, if not a little daft, especially when Hortense, his Jamaican virgin wife, arrives on the scene and he undresses in five seconds flat to enjoy his conjugal rights. Hortense is having none of that nonsense.

Gilbert is the well-grounded and mistreated RAF man, who accidentally triggers a riot in a London cinema. Why? Because he wants to sit with his white friends near the front...

His friends are his landlady, Queenie, and her father-in-law, Arthur. Arthur is a real sweetie, who suffers from PTSD and has been rendered mute except he did manage to say "I love you" to Queenie when she was in bed recovering from a bomb blast. As you can imagine, it's pretty unfair when Arthur gets shot dead as a result of the riot...

Queenie has sublet rooms in her house to 'coloured' men like Gilbert while husband Bernard is away fighting the enemy. However, when she shows Hortense around the shops, Queenie treats her like an idiot and tells Hortense that she doesn't mind being seen in public with a "darkie", thus, the reader gets to see the unthinking discrimination of white folk for that time period.

When it comes to the flipside of Bernard—as the author likes to do this—I was disappointed to find him socking it doggie-fashion to a 'working' girl, an Indian girl in a whorehouse in Calcutta. This image has been used many times in films etc and I felt Bernard might have dealt with his unusual purchase differently...

As the characters interweave, the writing is exquisite and well researched. The final outcome for Queenie has poignant and profound implications for everyone and ultimately allows Hortense to find her place in a cold unfriendly London.

A truly stunning read. In 2009, The Guardian selected Small Island as one of the defining books of the decade.


I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

[Camberwell Library book club, second Tuesday of the month]

. . . is a 1969 autobiography, which begins in Stamp, Arkansas, USA. It is a coming-of-age story and illustrates how strength of character and a love of literature can overcome racism and trauma. It's been reprinted many times. I may be the last person on the planet to read it . . . 

Maya presents her experiences with a warm voice. It's a great read. A must read for all. 

What I noticed at our book club was that we all wanted to refer to our own [unpleasant] experiences. I know that as I read it, I felt mean for spending time thinking about my own past hurts when I should have been concentrating on Maya's.

I envied her early years with "Momma", a strong grandma, and a good Uncle Willie. Momma must have been incredible and she gave Maya and her brother Bailey
 those early building blocks in life, which are essential. She gave them a secure home in a grocery store, and because of her ingenuity, they were in a unique position to enjoy regular food and clothing, while their satisfied customers trudged off to pick cotton in the knowledge that they would never make any profit to improve their lifestyle, but could maybe owe Momma later. Meanwhile, the white folk had the luxuries and nice homes.

There is a well-described surreal incident in that 3 girls come to taunt Momma. One white girl suddenly does a handstand and as her dress falls over her head, a triangle of public hair is revealed. A bloated dead black man is pulled from the river. Young Bailey is forced to help drag the body to the Sheriff's office, leaving him distressed beyond reason.

Now disaster strikes for Maya and Bailey. They are sent to their separated parents at various times. With Mother, Mr Freeman [Mother's lover] cannot resist his urge to impregnate / rape the 8-year girl. Brother Bailey is again distraught. Then it's Maya's father's turn. He takes her off to Mexico, offers to marry her off to the Tollgate man, leaves her alone with a bunch of celebrating adult Mexicans, while he's getting his end away . . .

Disaster again. Or is it a blessing? Maya decides to lose her virginity as part of a self-exploration. She has asked herself: am I a lesbian? She becomes pregnant 
instantaneously. Her free-spirited non-judgemental mother embraces the new circumstances. Maya delights in motherhood.

Throughout the book, we're introduced to other racist incidents: the dentist, lack of parity in educational terms, lack of job opportunity etc. Thankfully, Maya is smart and clever, has received a good education, and goes on in life to become a shining beacon.

[Since moving to Camberwell and now in this very year 2016, I have experienced more discrimination from both sides of the fence [black & white] than I never thought possible. Why? ]

July 2016, The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton [Picador]

[Camberwell Library reading group, second Tuesday of the month]

Set in 1686, Amsterdam, Nella Oortman arrives at the house of wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt. They are newly-weds. My initial responses were:
  • Oh, the house is on the bank of Herengracht's canal, where I once stayed in a squat! 
  • Oh, will the book measure up to Girl with Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier? 
  • What can I learn from this author and her internationally-successful debut novel? 
To begin with, I am not overly convinced that the prose reflects the intended genre, however, the characters of the house rapidly come to life and embrace you: 
  • There's Cornelia, who doesn't behave like a typically obedient maid, [but still does all of the chores]. 
  • There's Otto, the manservant from Porto-Novo, who attracts derisory attention from the white population, and who defies convention by not being a slave or behaving like one. 
  • Marin is the hawk-eyed sister of Johannes, who never married and never relinquishes her tight-hold on the household. 
  • Johannes is the debonair, mature, virile, successful seafarer with a salty tan. 
  • As in 'May we be forgiven' by A. M. Homes, various pets add another dimension to the family---a green parrot called Peebo and two whippet dogs.
By now, I'm gripped by the considerable plot. In fact, the plot is strong enough to exist without the Miniaturist and the miniature house, but without these aspects, how would the novel be singled out for public consumption? As it is, these aspects add a haunting confusion to Nella's experience and our experience as the reader.

I won't spoil the shock that surrounds Johannes' demise, or refer to the power of his voice in and among the oppressive society in which he lives, and while his genius benefitted the coffers of Amsterdam. 

By the end of the novel, the most impressive picture I'm left with is that Burton has brought together free-thinking mavericks under the roof of the Herengracht house, and it is 18 year-old Nella, who will steer the ship to calmer waters.

 17 June 2106, A tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Oh, I wept! Some intriguing quotes from this famous book:

Pg 69: ‘Cramped in all kinds of dim cupboards and hutches at Tellson’s, the oldest of men carried on the business gravely. When they took a young man into Tellson’s London House, they hid him somewhere until he was old. They kept him in a dark place, like a cheese, until he had the full Tellson flavor and blue-mould upon him. Then only he was permitted to be seen, spectacularly poring over large books, and casting his breeches and gaiters into the general weight of the establishment.’ 

Pg 75: ‘They hanged at Tyburn, in those days, so the street outside Newgate had not obtained one infamous notoriety that has since attached to it. But, the gaol was a vile place, in which most kinds of debauchery and villainy were practiced, and where dire diseases were bred, that came into court with the prisoners, and sometimes rushed straight from the dock at my Lord Chief Justice himself, and pulled him off the bench. It had more than once happened, that the Judge in the black cap pronounced his own doom as certainly as the prisoner’s, and even died before him.’ 

Pg 118: ‘It was an oppressive day, and, after dinner, Lucie proposed that the wine should be carried out under the plane-tree, and they should sit there in the air. As everything turned upon her, and revolved about her, they went out under the plane-tree, and she carried the wine down for the special benefit of Mr. Lorry. She had installed herself, some time before, as Mr. Lorry’s cup-bearer; and while they sat under the plane-tree, talking, she kept his glass replenished. Mysterious backs and ends of houses peeped at them as they talked, and the plane-tree whispered to them in its own way above their heads.’


June 2016, may we be forgiven by A.M. Homes [Granta]

[Camberwell Library reading group, second Tuesday of the month]

This is essentially a substantial and humorous read that will entertain the reader. I found myself agreeing with Vogue: “A humane, comic story of a good man”, except Harry doesn’t show his ‘good’ qualities until after his sister-in-law [who seduced him] gets coshed to death by her jealous husband, Henry’s brother, George. This triggers events that change all of the characters, including the pet dog, Tessie, and the cat.

Not wanting to detract from what was a good read, at times, it did feel slightly contrived in terms of sex [lunchtime sex with strangers and the nude social event], while a variety of politically correct boxes were ticked off. However, this could have been a double irony.

The female author gave us an unquestionably convincing male protagonist in Harry, and left fond memories of the children, Nate and Ashley, and the pets. Sub-plots were intriguing: Nixon’s life story, cut-throat lawyers, George being left in an open-air prison, the trip to Africa, the ageing parents [grandparents to Ashley and Nate] and their no-nonsense approach.

A few questions were raised---no white American knows the meaning of financial distress, the murdered sister-in-law remains faceless, the betrayed wife of Harry remains faceless. These women either don’t matter, because we live in a misogynistic world and 
it’s intended to be ironic, or it’s an unconscious act by the author. There's an endorsement at the end of the book by Zadie Smith, implying that the first option is the correct one. The problem is though, the majority of the world does not afford respect / basic safety to the female gender, so this a dangerous path to tread.


May 2016, A Star called Henry by Roddy Doyle

[Camberwell Library reading group, second Tuesday of the month]

The novel is set in Ireland in the era of political upheaval between the 1916 Easter Rising and the eventual truce signed with the UK in 1921, and is seen through the eyes of young Henry Smart. 

The story opens with Henry analyzing his “mammy” and the reader learns that this is a family of extreme poverty, and that the preceding sibling, also named Henry, is now a star in the sky.

Page 2, his mammy inexplicably has copies of Shakespeare and Tolstoy under her shawl and although the reader learns that Granny Nash is a vociferous reader of stolen books, the author never connects the granny and the mother. Initially, there might be a disbelief in the widespread poverty, which reminded me of the film version of ‘Angela’s Ashes’. 

Henry’s father has a wooden leg and an overcoat impregnated with the countless murder contracts he’s carried out . . . 

. . . any reader willing to stick with the narrative and the lingo, will be rewarded with a powerful and stirring novel. If it was on the school menu in Ireland, there would be riots.

Here are some references:
Daddy Henry is carrying his two young boys through an underground tunnel that leads to the Swan River. As he holds open the manhole, he says, “Bye bye now, boys. Be good for your mammy” and disappears forever with his wooden leg. The author has created a beautiful scene, has invited sympathy for the assassin, and you feel really sad for the very young boys.

Pg 66. Later, Henry junior thinks:

We fended and coped, we survived and grew, side by side, with Victor on my shoulders. We survived but never prospered. We were never going to prosper. We were allowed the freedom of the streets---no one gave a fuck---but we’d never, ever be allowed up the bright steps and into the comfort and warmth behind doors and windows. I knew that.

When Henry junior reaches the grand age of 14, he’s a fully fledged uniformed rebel soldier holding fort while bullets around over him. That doesn’t stop him from a loin-slapping seduction scene thanks to Miss O’Shea, nor does it stop him from eating a chicken dinner standing up. Henry’s subsequent marriage provides some hope and there is subtle humour to find in within the bleakness.

I look forward to reading the rest of the trilogy,and being further educated about Irish history.


May 2016, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Capote grew up in Monroeville, Alabama in the 1920s and was the childhood buddy of Harper Lee. He is reputed to have provided companionable feedback to Harper for her memorable novel, ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’, and was the basis of the character, Dill. As the years ticked by, Harper returned the compliment by accompanying Capote during his interviews and investigations for ‘In Cold Blood’, a true crime, which took place in Holcomb, Kansas, USA.

Referred to as true crime genre and a “non-fiction novel”, Capote merges face-to-face investigation with his interpretation of the actual victims—four members of the Clutter family—and the same regarding the murderers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickman. The true crime ends with the men being hung, and while Garden City is still reeling from shock and adding bolts and locks to front and back doors.

Here are a couple of quotes:

Pg 71 [about Percy, one of the murderers] 
He had merely fallen face down across the bed, as though sleep were a weapon that had struck him behind.

Pg 146 [Alwin Dewey, the main detective]

A mile separates River Valley Farm from Hartman’s Café. Dewey decided to walk it. He enjoyed hiking across wheat fields. Normally, once or twice a week he went for long walks on his own land, the well-loved piece of prairie where he had always hoped to build a house, plant trees, eventually entertain great-grandchildren. That was the dream, but it was one his wife no longer shared; she had told him that never now would she consider living all alone ‘way out there in the country’. Dewey knew that even if he were to snare the murderers the next day, Marie would not change her mind—for once an awful fate had befallen friends who lived in a lonely country house.

Capote continually gets inside the heads of the dead victims, the murderers and the local community. And slowly but surely, Capote brings the murderers to life, both hampered from youth, either from the effects of a severely dysfunctional and unjust upbringing, or a head injury following car accident. The implication is that this has contributed to them becoming psychopaths.

Dick, who has a predilection for rape and youngsters, accepts the hangman’s noose with bravado. Percy is contrite, a lonely figure, and he’s afraid.

‘In Cold Blood’ brought Capote fame but he appears to have made himself unpopular at some point, and when he died, Vidal Gore is reputed to have remarked: “Good career move.”

This is an electrifying read. The reader cannot know exactly where Capote has manipulated events.


12 April 2016, The Murder of Richard Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

I’ve joined a reading group in my new local library and it was on the menu. Never thought I’d be reading an Agatha Christie novel! I was filled with negative preconceptions due to TV programmes and reluctantly began . . . 

Really pleased to tell you that the novel was so well written it was like drinking a glass of clear water. As with all good writing, the pages turned quickly and with ease. As a fledgling writer, I found myself marvelling about the author's very clear POV and plot.

I did guess the killer quite early on though. Here are some favorite quotes:

“. . . , that he has never been farther east than India, where he juggled with tins of bully beef and plum and apple jam during the Great War.”

“King’s Abbot is a mere village, but its station happens to be an important junction. Most of the big expresses stop there, and trains are shunted, re-sorted and made up. It has two or three public telephone boxes. At that time of night, three local trains come in close upon each other to catch the connection with the express for the north, which comes in at 10.19 and leaves at 10.23. The whole place is a bustle, and the chances of one particular person being noticed telephoning or getting into the express are very small indeed.”

One thing I must do is read Agatha Christie’s biography. By the way, the reading group meets every second Tuesday at Camberwell Green, London at 7pm.

16 October 2015, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

This bestselling thriller opens with 2 paragraphs on 2 separate pages. There’s a touch of the Alfred Hitchcock about them. I’m not normally a reader of thrillers . . .

Rachel is introduced in the first person with diary-style thoughts and events. Chapter 2 introduces Megan, however the point of view does not differ enough to register this with me. I then wrongly assume Scott is one of Rachel’s past lovers.

Rachel likes a drink. She’s very human. She’s one of us.

‘I don’t look well. Still, three days off isn’t bad, and I’ll start again today. I stand in the shower for ages, gradually reducing the water temperature, making it cooler and cooler until it’s properly cold. You can’t step directly into a cold stream of water, it’s too shocking, too brutal, but if you get there gradually, you hardly notice it; it’s like boiling a frog in reverse.’

When the therapist Kamal is introduced, the female characters start to separate in my mind due to the events that occur, and I notice, thanks to the name change on the page header, Anna is now giving her point of view.

After page 120, I am immersed. What intrigues me is that the 3 women merge at times. Tom’s wife Anna despises Rachel’s failings, and then starts to demonstrate the same failings herself. Anna identifies this herself:

‘So why am I wondering now whether that was true? It’s this house, this situation, all the things that have been going on here – they’re making me doubt myself, doubt us. If I’m not careful they’ll drive me crazy, and I’ll end up like her. Like Rachel.’

The plot intensifies. The last few paragraphs are evocative, tense, brilliant.

Afterwards, I thought about other possible endings:

--Tom and Scott are very plausible chilling examples of men. Maybe Detective Gaskill could have been developed to create balance, that is, unless the author wants us ladies to be wary of all men;

--Rachel’s mother could have given Rachel more than money; she could have appeared in the flesh and accompanied her to the graveyard;

--Kamel allows himself to breach his code of conduct and visits Megan in her home. Would any UK therapist do this?

--I’d have liked more train imagery in the later half.

The Girl on the Train raises questions about thirty-something [educated and middle-class?] adults in London. The women live their lives around their men and compete. Everyone is self-obsessed. There’s little reflection of the bigger picture.

A good thriller. It doesn’t disappoint. I liked the book cover, design, and typeface too.

15 June 2015, Monkey by Wu Ch'eng-en. Translated by Arthur Waley
Very sad to reach the last page as I enjoyed the 350 pages of Old Monkey's antics very much. The author appears to have lived between A.D. 1505 and 1580, and Tripitaka, whose pilgrimage to India is the subject of the story, was a real person.

'The Taoists are celebrating a Mass in their great temple,' said Monkey, 'and the whole place is littered with offerings. There are dumplings that must weigh a quart, and cakes weighing fifty pounds, and all kinds of dainties and fruits. Come and enjoy yourself.'
    Pigsy, hearing in his sleep something about things to eat, at once woke with a start. 'Brother, you're not going to leave me out it?' he cried.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . 

As soon as the place was empty, the three of them slipped in, and that fool Pigsy began to stuff himself with victuals.

This opinion is too good not to repeat: The British poet, Edith Sitwell, characterised the translation of Monkey as “a masterpiece of right sound” and that it had an “absence of shadow” like the clearness and directness of Monkey’s mind.

2 June 2015, ADRIFT: My Childhood in Colonial Singapore
A family memoir [Volume 1] by David TK Wong

[David] Wong Tzi Ki in the Air Training Corps months before Japan surrenders, aged 17

My parcel arrived from Epigram Books, Singapore!

The book begins by referring to Tzi Ki’s great grandfather, who leaves Kwangtung Province for an unpopulated malaria-infested island [Hong Kong]. This unusual decision condemns his descendants to be ‘forever rootless and homeless’.

At 3 years of age, Little Ki gets the love he needs from grandmother, but soon inexplicable separations occur, repeatedly, and such abandonment has a chilling effect on him: ‘I decided to keep my thoughts to myself also, not giving a crumb away to any adult.’

In 1935 there is a move from Canton to Singapore, where Little Ki meets his paternal grandfather.  Page 62: ‘He used a great variety of pipes, ranging from the curved type associated with Sherlock Holmes . . . to a full-blown Chinese metal water-pipe . . . sometimes cigars . . . opium . . . heat small dollops of opium over a lamp before inserting them into the knob of the pipe.’

As Tzi Ki grapples with the unexplained changes within family structure and geography, he’s already developed a Sherlock Holmes and at times devious approachanything to hope for answers, affection, or distraction. ‘In truth, I did not mind being restricted to the classroom during recess. Many objects in the classroom warranted my attention.’

He finds his father’s books and devours Tom Brown’s Schooldays and The Scarlet Pimpernel in ENGLISH. Amusing stories arise in relation to the dentist and breast-feeding and so on, all written in alarming honestly and full-blooded, warped ego.

Now ADRIFT opens up its magic to me:

Street hawkers call on 10 Blair Road, Singapore. Ah Sei, the faithful servant, exclaims ‘First Born got Flying Serpent’, and wants to dispose of the serpent’s head with a hot iron—the boy has shingles at 6 years of age.

The author receives a Chinese education, then a British one, which is then supplemented by a short-term Chinese one.  He is confused about the original nature of man. Which is rightthe Christian view, or the Chinese view? Is he a bad boy or not?

1939 war in Europe. Pearl Harbour. The bombing of Singapore. Tzi Ki and other siblings are taken to a village by the sea. Weeks later, he’s on a long sea journey to Australia, and on 15th February, Singapore surrenders in ‘the largest capitulation in British history’, Winston Churchill.

The memoir is riveting, painful, amusing, informative, and moves on to the eventual defeat of the Japanese in 1945.

The author returns to Blair Road, Singapore. What’s waiting for him? Did everyone survive? All of the painful issues of abandonment continue, and he’s clocking up regrets about his behavior too.

There are many terrible events that should never be forgotten in history. David TK Wong touches on some, and uses his unique point of view: a 100% Chinese mantechnically a British subjectwith a stout English educationa precocious mind; someone who . . . if he’d been in the right place at the right time, would probably have strategized a shorter war and saved thousands of lives.

When this first volume ends David is barely 18 years old.


25 May 2015, House of Ashes by Monique Roffey

The novelist takes you by the hand and introduces Ashes, a young man who wears spectacles, loves his wife, and is happy to receive the grace of God. One day, he is driven to the House of Power, where he and others will take politicians hostage. As Ashes moves closer to his unknown task, he nonchalantly observes:

‘Five palms stood outside the gate like thin girls, showing their lewd red bunches of berries under their skirt-fronds. Ashes had never been so close to the House. He felt like he was near something very feminine and glamorous, like his wife’s purse.’

Later, Ashes decides, ‘Jesus Christ was a born socialist. And they nailed his arse to the cross.’

and, ‘The House had already started to stink of death.’

The point of view then switches from the likeable Ashes to Aspasia, but gradually I am won over, especially when she goes thorough a series of emotions about the hostage-takers . . . from the slums . . . boys, who still need parenting.

When Aspasia finally gets to the washroom, I want her obvious relief and bodily functions to be portrayed, but they are not. Then there is a brilliant development as a cleaner emerges from out of the broom cupboard. By page 175, the reader is taken back to Ashes, and again back to Aspasia. The changing POV runs naturally and has resonance.

Page 325, another character, Breeze, speculates about his roots and about how lost he is.

House of Ashes is a thoroughly engaging read, which allows for redemption, but recognizes the relentless nature of power. The prose is clear and imaginative, and although, I wanted to know how Aspasia’s life panned out and wondered why the story only tied up loose ends on the men, the end result was satisfying.