Anthony Doerr ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’


What his mother and sister distribute among the men, the honey and preserves, the pickled cabbage and the trout, the sheep’s cheese, the dried venison, comprises almost all of their food for the winter. Many of the men wear cloaks and daggers like woodsmen, whilst others dress in cloaks of fox fur or camel hide and at least one wears ermine with the teeth still attached, most have daggers attached to girdles about their waists and everyone speaks of the spoils their going to win from a great city in the south.


Books are fragile, they die, so little of the literature from ancient Greece has reached us, and that often copied and re-copied or translated. But books can free us, change our perceptions, even give us a reason to live. In this tale, Anthony Doerr rells us of such a book, a fictitious work by Antonius Digenes, Cloud Cuckoo Land, its journey to us and through to the future, of librarys and mankinds vain attempts to assemble all knowledge. We discover Cloud Cuckoo Land and its influence on a number of people in this intertwined tale.
We pick up the story and the first of our characters at the siege and fall of Constantinople in 1453, we meet Omeir as the army moving towards this city with the unpenetrable walls at the moment that he is engaged and the immensity of the tasks they must catty out as illustrated in the opening quote

We meet Anna, a seamstress living in what has become an almost illiterate city just before the arrival of the Ottomans, of her learning to read from a dying and drunken Greek living in their city walls, of her finding books in a forgotten and crumbling monastry and selling them to Venitians who have come in search of knowledge for their libraries. As she reads one of the codexes to her dying sister we learn of Ethan the goatheard and his journey in the fantastic old tale and the peace it brings her sister.


She has grown quicker at deciphering the tidy left leaning script inside the old codex and by now can lift lines off the page without trouble. Whenever she comes to a word she does not know or lacunas where mould has obliterated the text she invents replacements, Ethan has managed to become a bird at last, not the resplendent owl he hoped but a bedraggled crow. He flaps across a limitless sea searching for the end of the earth, only to be swept up by a water spout. So long as Anna keeps reading Maria seems to be at peace.


Through Anna and Omeir, the story reaches modern day, being uncovered in the Vatican library. The only timeline where the link with the book is not apparent is that of Konstance, travelling on an interstellar spaceship leaving the Earth behind to implant life on a faraway planet with her family and a group of other passengers, and of course a computer containing “all the knowledge of the world”:


Konstance stands in the library atrium touching the place on her work suit where mother stitched a pine seedling four years before, mrs flowers’ little dog stares up at her and wags his tail, he is not real, the desk beneath her fingertips feels like wood, sounds like wood, smells like wood, the slips in the box look like paper feel like paper, smell like paper, none of it is real.


In the present day, Zeno, an 80 year old Korean war veteran is putting on a school play called Cloud Cuckoo Land by Antonius Diogenes when Seymour, a disturbed adolescent, worrying about the planet comes into the library with a bag packed with explosives:


He remembers how it felt, his whole body taught when he sprung the lid off the crate of pawpaws old grenades for the first time, all that latent power, never before has someone articulated his own anger and confusion like this. Wait they said, be patient they said, technology will solve the carbon crisis. In Kyoto, in Copenhagen, in Doha in Paris they said we’ll cut emissions we’ll wean ourselves off hydrocarbons and they rolled back to the airport in armour plated limos and flew home on Jumbo jets and ate sushi at 30000 feet in the air while poor people choked on the air in their own neighbourhoods. Waiting is over, patience is over we must rise up now before the whole world is on fire.


Why take explosives into a library? who are all of these characters and how are the present day and the future linked, I’ll give you a guess. Get this wonderful read and find out.

First Published in English as “Cloud Cuckoo Land” in 2021 by Fourth Estate

Abby Geni ‘The Lightkeepers’


All the biologists had seasons in which they could focus on their areas of expertise (when their animals ruled the roost) and seasons when they were required to help the others (when their animals were absent). During the summer, Forest, the shark specialist, had been in command.
He and Galen had given orders, and everyone else had jumped to obey. But autumn had brought the whales, and winter would give way to Seal Season, which would be followed by Bird Season. Each biologist had a moment in the sun. This was Mick’s time to shine.


This book, my fourth read for the Prix du Roman de Rochefort 2021, and my first by Abby Geni. Miranda, a photographer chooses to come to the Farradon islands, off of the Californian coast for a year, we quickly learn that these inhospitible Islands, where the presence of a few biologists are rythmed by the seasons as explained in the opening quote.

Miranda lives in a world of quiet violence, writing letters she never that can never. arrive to her mother, trying to cauterise a wound from her youth that has seen her wandering the planet taking pictures in dangerous places, never coming closer to solving her internal torments:


I understand now why I first voyaged here. It has taken me all year to come to terms with that choice. Since your death, I have been looking over my shoulder, looking backward. I have been stuck in time. I have been writing letters to you—letters to no one, a body in a cemetery, a woman I knew for only a small part of my life. Hundreds of notes, some sitting in the Dead Letter Office of various cities, others buried and burned and scattered on the wind. I have never once questioned whether writing them was sane or healthy. Now, though, I can see that it was neither. Each letter has been an anchor chain, dragging me back into the past.


The Island itself is full of natural violence amongst the animals, some on a par with violence she has seen in war zones with the act of photography itself described by Abby Geni and practised by Melanie as violence itself:


There is a wonderful violence to the act of photography. The camera is a potent thing, slicing an image away from the landscape and pinning it to a sheet of film. When I choose a segment of horizon to capture, I might as well be an elephant seal hunting an octopus. The shutter clicks. Every boulder, wave, and curl of cloud included in the snapshot is severed irrevocably from what is not included. The frame is as sharp as a knife. The image is ripped from the surface of the world.


Miranda discovers violence herself at the hands of one of the biologists that rapes her leaving her unable to talk about it. Then the rapist is found dead at the bottom of some cliffs and after a police investigation no one is suspected and an accidental death assumed, but the experienced, quiet biologist Galen has been studying the people around him and by analogy realises what has happened:


Galen has had some experience with this phenomenon. The animal mind is one without memory. He has researched it. Most animals are able to recall the short term—the past few seconds or minutes—but anything further back is released from the brain like a balloon on the breeze. Animals retain impressions, rather than stories. They may avoid a dangerous place by instinct. They may shy away from an object that is associated with trauma. But they do not recall specific events. A shark, having devoured a seal, will swim away with a clean conscience, no echo of blood or pain. A gull might kill its own chick in a fit of fury, then mourn when discovering the little body later, unaware of its own guilt, lost in its own forgetting.


No spoiler of course, except inferred, this was a complex, well written parallel study of human and animal life. Well worth the read.


First Published in english as “The Lightkeepers” in 2016, by Counterpoint
Translated into french by Céline Leroy and published as “Farallon Islands” by Actes Sud in 2017

The quotes in French.

Chaque biologiste avait une saison durant laquelle se concentrer sur son domaine de compétence (quand son animal régnait sur les lieux) et celles où il ou elle devait aider ses collègues (quand son animal était absent). L’été, Forest, le spécialiste des requins,était au poste de commandement. Galen et lui lançaient leurs ordres et nous autres nous empressions d’obéir. Mais l’automne avait vu le retour des baleines, et l’hiver laissait place à la saison des phoques qui serait suivie par la saison des oiseaux. Chaque biologiste avait droit à son quart d’heure de gloire. C’était le moment pour Mick de faire des étincelles.

Aujourd’hui, je comprends enfin pourquoi je suis venue jusqu’ici. Il m’a fallu un an pour accepter la raison de ce choix. Depuis ta mort, je passe mon temps à regarder par-dessus mon épaule, à jamais tournée vers le passé. J’ai écrit des lettres — sans autre destinataire qu’un corps dans un cimetière, une femme que je n’ai connue que quelques années. Des centaines de mots dont certaines de mots dont certain prennent la poussière au Bureau des lettres mortes ici et là, d’autres enfouis, brulés ou emportés par le vent. Pas une fois je ne me suis demandé si les écrire était sain ou raisonnable. Maintenant je sais que ça n’était ni l’un ni l’autre. Chaque lettre était une ancre qui me ramenait vers le passé.

L’acte photographique renferme une merveilleuse violence. Ce mécanisme est puissant, qui retranche une image d’un paysage pour la fixer sur un morceau de pellicule. Quand je choisi un segment d’horizon à prendre, je pourrais tout aussi bien être un éléphant de mer en train de chasser un poulpe. L’obturateur émet un déclic. Chaque rocher, vague et volute nuageuse qui entre dans l’image est arraché irrémédiablement à ce qui n’y entre pas. Le cadre est affûté comme un couteau. L’image est arrachée à la face du monde.

Ce phénomène ne lui était pas inconnu. Les animaux n’ont pas de mémoire. Il avait fait des recherches. La plupart des espèces animale n’ont qu’une mémoire à court terme — sur quelques secondes ou minutes — et au-dela. tout leur échappe comme un ballon de baudruche emporté par le vent. Les animaux retiennent des impressions plutôt que des histoires. Leur instinct peut les pousser à eviter un endroit dangereux. Ils peuvent s’éloigner d’un objet associé à un traumatisme. Mais ils n’ont pas de souvenir détaillé des évènements. Un requin qui vient de dévorer un phoque s’éloignera la conscience tranqille, sans souvenir du sang ou de la douleur. Un goéland peut tuer son petit dans un accès de rage puis en faire le deuil après avoir découvert son cadavre, ignorant tout de sa culpabilité, perdu dans son oubli.

Richard Powers ‘Bewilderment’

“Booker Prize 2021: 6 Books Shortlisted for this prize.
“Bewilderment”: In order of reading book number 5.


I NEVER BELIEVED THE DIAGNOSES the doctors settled on my son. When a condition gets three different names over as many decades, when it requires two subcategories to account for completely contradictory symptoms, when it goes from nonexistent to the country’s most commonly diagnosed childhood disorder in the course of one generation, when two different physicians want to prescribe three different medications, there’s something wrong.


In this complex father-son relationship story, Richard Powers adresses his vision of science’s view of the state of the world in a near future and paints a picture of hopelessness as we collectively head towards our own anhilation.
The narrator, Robin’s father, bringing up his special needs son alone after his wife’s accidental death, is being pushed by society towards treating his 9 year old son with opioids, as illustrated in the opening quote. He resists and one of his wife’s friends offers an experimental treatment for Robin, a new method using a neural feedback loop linked to AI, Robin’s mother had previously helped advance this experimentation also as a subject. Powers uses these two points to show an enlightened child able to question the world with his own mother’s wisdom and a child’s directness before the impending doom.


Clinicians and theorists are rarely going to agree on what constitutes mental health. Is it the ability to function productively in hard conditions or is it more a matter of appropriate response? Constant cheerful optimism may not be the healthiest reaction… I had an awful thought, maybe the last few months of neural feedback were hurting Robin, in the face of the world’s basic brokenness more empathy meant deeper suffering, the question wasn’t why Robin was sliding down again, the question is why the rest of us were staying so insanely sanguine?


Powers’ father is a leading light in looking for life in exo-planets and through discussions with Robin introduces us to Fermi’s paradox and eventually to his son’s vision of the probable solution to this paradox:


At last he said “I think I might know where everybody is.”
It took me a while to remember the question he’d latched onto so long ago on a starry night in the Smokies, the Fermi paradox…
“Remember how you said there might be a big roadblock somewhere.”
“A great filter, that’s what we call it”.
“Like maybe there’s a great filter right at the beginning when molecules turn into living things or it might be when you first evolve a cell or when cells learn to come together or maybe the first brain.”
“Lots of bottlenecks”
“I was just thinking we’ve been looking and listening for sixty years.”
“The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.”
“I know but maybe the great filter isn’t behind us maybe it’s ahead of us.”
“And maybe we were just now hitting it, wild, violent and Godlike consciousness, lots and lots of consciousness, exponential and exploding consciousness leveraged up by machines and multiplied by the billions. Power too precarious to last long.”
“Because otherwise, how old did you say the universe is?”
“14 billion years.”
“Because otherwise they’d be here.”


Powers, through the pressure on the father’s project’s funding of the Seeker space telescope, presents to us a barely extrapolated vision of the fight for science against economic obscurantism in our times, illustrated by his thoughts following one of the President’s tweets:


“So called science should stop inventing facts and charging them to the American people….”
The Seeker was just another proxi-battle in the endless American civil war, our side claimed the discovery of earths would increase humanities collective wisdom and empathy, the presidents men said that wisdom and empathy were collectivist plots to crash our standard of living


This is, as always with Powers, an engaged piece of work. A well constructed story and a pessimistic vision of our ineluctable future. Empathy is the way forward but the human race is not capable of enough of this commodity. Robin’s condition is an allegory of the earth’s situation; as for Robin, in one generation since the Meadow’s report, the realisation of the effect of humans on the climate and on our present and future lives has gone from non existant to the centre of preoccupation and as for Robin’s condition politicians and scientists “want to prescribe three different medications”. An interesting read.

First Published in English as “Bewilderment” in 2021 by W. W. Norton and Company

Anuk Arudpragasam ‘A Passage North’

“Booker Prize 2021: 6 Books Shortlisted for this prize.
“A Passage North”: In order of reading book number 3.


Waking up each morning we follow by circuitous routes the thread of habit, out of our homes, into the world, and back to our beds at night, move unseeingly through familiar paths, one day giving way to another and one week to the next, so that when in the midst of this daydream something happens and the thread is finally cut, when, in a moment of strong desire or unexpected loss, the rhythms of life are interrupted, we look around and are quietly surprised to see that the world is vaster than we thought, as if we’d been tricked or cheated out of all that time, time that in retrospect appears to have contained nothing of substance, no change and no duration, time that has come and gone but left us somehow untouched.


A passage North is a carefully written introspective book, the opening quote gives an idea of this degree of thought, a great deal of emotion is present but mostly kept at a distance as Krishan is forced to reflect on his life both just before and during his passage north. We learn something of the magnitude of the war between the Tamil Tigers and government forces in the poverty stricken north of Sri Lanka where the Tiger’s were not just beaten but their very trace erased from the land leaving the people in a great state of trauma. Krishan was away from Sri Lanka in India during the war, somehow explaining away to himself what was happening there:


Even now he felt ashamed thinking about his initial reluctance to acknowledge the magnitude of what had happened at the end of the war, as though he’d been hesitant to believe the evidence on his computer screen because his own poor, violated, stateless people were the ones alleging it, as though he’d been unable to take the suffering of his own people seriously till it was validated by the authority of a panel of foreign experts, legitimized by a documentary narrated by a clean-shaven white man standing in front of a camera in suit and tie.


Whilst in India krishan had fallen in love with Anjum, an activist and their story had lasted on and off for several years.

After moving back to his home in Colombo, in the south of Sri Lanka, Krishan is given the opportunity to help his ailing grandmother by employing Rani, a woman from the north that had lost her husband and her son during the war, having Rani away from her home region seemed to be helping her. After news of her death Krishan learnt more about Rani’s life, about her electric scock treatment for trauma, and undertakes the long journey north by train where he is able to reflect on his own life.

This is a very different piece of writing to the other shortlisted books, caught between ancient and modern, violence and gentleness, the events are not yet first hand.

First Published in English as “A Passage North” in 2021 by Random House

Maggie Shipshead ‘Great Circle’

“Booker Prize 2021: 6 Books Shortlisted for this prize.
“Great Circle”: In order of reading book number 4.


In my blip of higher education, I had time to take Intro to Philosophy and learn about the panopticon, the hypothetical prison Jeremy Bentham came up with, where there would be one itty-bitty guardhouse at the center of a giant ring of cells. One guard was all you needed because he might be watching at any time, and the idea of being watched matters way more than actually being watched. Then Foucault turned the whole thing into a metaphor about how all you need to discipline and dominate a person or a population is to make them think it’s possible they’re being watched. You could tell the professor wanted us all to think the panopticon was scary and awful, but later, after Archangel made me way too famous, I wanted to take Katie McGee’s preposterous time machine back to that lecture hall and ask him to consider the opposite. Like instead of one guard in the middle, you’re in the middle, and thousands, maybe millions, of guards are watching you—or might be—all the time, no matter where you go.


This is a story about two timelines and two women with a number of things in common, of Marion Graves, the aviator, who dissapeared in 1950 during a round the world attempt passing by both poles and of the actrice chosen to play her role for a film of Marian’s life, Hadley Baxter. Hadley’s parents died in an aircrash when she was young and she was brought up by a Holywood uncle who between drinks and drugs had her taken to a number of castings from which she eventually becomes the young woman epitomised in the opening quote.
Hadley had read the lost logbook of marian in the library:


The lost log book of Marian Graves… It made a big impression on me when I was a kid orphan solidarity you know, team raised by uncles, i thought it would be full of hidden messages like tarot cards….
It’s the perfect sort of book for that isn’t it mostly cryptic bits and pieces what did it tell you? nothing…..really I’m most intrigued by the question of whether or not she intended it to be read at all. I think the fact that she left it behind at least meant that she couldn’t bear to destroy it.


Marian’s life is however the centre point of the book, from surviving a mysterious ship sinking on the atlantic with her twin brother Jamie during the first world war to being brought up, or left to bring herself up by a gambling and drinking uncle who was also a semi renowned painter in Missoula an out of the way town in Missouri where she made and kept, throughout her entire life, her childhood friend Caleb. How did she become an aviator? Well she passed by many steps, marrying a jealous bootlegger and then flying for him before changing her name and going into hiding to escape him:


He’s my friend, Marian said he’s always been my friend am I not allowed to have friends? Her voice rose, do you want me to be completely alone except for you? He sat down heavily the anger going out of him yes he said if I’m being honest
You want to know what we did we talked she gathered herself said as though making an accusation i told Caleb I loved you he looked up, you did when did you start having me followed say it again tell me what you told him he was radiating thrilled pleasure, she felt only hopelessness not now tell me you love me Louder she said When did you start having me followed when you flew to Vancouver only because I was so afraid of losing you…it was for your protection.


Marian becomes an aircraft ferry pilot during the second world war in England before the events around that ship sinking as she was an infant catches up with her. The question Hadley then asks herself and eventually solves is whether Marian really resembles the Marian in the film.

If the prize were to go to a traditional “story” then this book would be an excellent candidate.

First Published in english as “Great Circle” in 2021, by Doubleday

Nailed on Booker Prize winner 2021 selected from the shortlist…..

The Booker Prize shortlist was announced today, in a recent reading spate, I guessed 2 from 4 – thats:

The Fortune Men, Nadifa Mohamed (Viking, Penguin General, PRH)

No One is Talking About This, Patricia Lockwood (Bloomsbury Circus, Bloomsbury Publishing)

Can I say

I’m sorry for the two I read that didnt get there, the excellent Light Perpetual Francis Spufford (Faber) and A Town Called Solace Mary Lawson (Chatto & Windus, Vintage

So can I beat this Jury? Is this really them?

2 left to read before my official announcement, tune in for the winner.

Richard Powers: Bewilderment

Great Circle: Maggie Shipstead:

A Passage North: Anuk Arudpragasam:

Damon Galgut: The Promise

Can The official jury find this winner? I doubt it!

Patricia Lockwood ‘No One Is Talking About This’

“Booker Prize 2021: 6 Books Sure to be shortlisted for this prize.
“No One Is Talking About This”: In order of reading book number 5.


SHOOT IT IN MY VEINS, we said, whenever the headline was too perfect, the juxtaposition too good to be true.img_0238SHOOT IT IN MY VEINS, we said, when the Flat Earth Society announced it had members all over the globe.


I sometimes wondered what it must have been like to have your whole idea of what a story or novel is put in question, for instance for the pre-war audience to wake up to discover the Beat Generation “From William S. Burroughs’ cut-up technique (the splicing of a document, rearranged to create new meaning), to Jack Kerouac’s stream of consciousness, the Beats forged new formats through their innovative and experimental approaches toward literature.” Well here I’m faced with writing shaped by the internet, short attention span paragraphs unlinked to each other but slowly forming a whole, a message in the first half of this book, here are a few:


The people who lived in the portal were often compared to those legendary experiment rats who kept hitting a button over and over to get a pellet. But at least the rats were getting a pellet, or the hope of a pellet, or the memory of a pellet. When we hit the button, all we were getting was to be more of a rat.


A twenty-three-year-old influencer sat next to her on the couch and spoke of the feeling of being a public body; his skin seemed to have no pores whatsoever. “Did you read . . . ?” they said to each other again and again. “Did you read?” They kept raising their hands excitedly to high-five, for they had discovered something even better than being soulmates: that they were exactly, and happily, and hopelessly, the same amount of online.


And after losing herself online, the narrator is faced with reality in the second part of this book, told in the same short sharp paragraphs which after seeming void, empty, vaguely humorous in the first part, in this second part they become a little more linked to each other, although rarely directly. This same approach becomes caring, alive, touching and human; quite some feat!
Reading the acknowledgements afterwards it seems this experience in the second part is based on Lockwoods own family, and hence her own life, there is then little doubt that the first part is also based on her life. I’ll let you discover this story, but here is a sounbite:


Dread rose in their hearts upon hearing the worst seven words in the English language. There was a new law in Ohio. It stated that it was a felony to induce a pregnant woman before thirty-seven weeks, no matter what had gone wrong, no matter how big her baby’s head was. Previously it had been a misdemeanor, a far less draconian charge. The law itself was only a month old: fresh as a newborn, and no one knew whose it was, and naked fear on the doctors’ faces.


This is experimental writing, and required me to hang in there in the first section, even if some of the paragraphs were mildly humorous. The narrator after sinking without trace into the portal is dragged out by real life, by emotions and later after the events of the second part we know she’ll be pulled towards it again but she will not fall in.

First Published in English as “No One Is Talking About This” in 2021 by Bloomsbury circus

Kazuo Ishiguro ‘KLARA and THE SUN’

“Booker Prize 2021: 6 Books Sure to be shortlisted for this prize.
“Klara and The Sun”: In order of reading book number 4.


‘He’s a B2,’ Manager said. ‘Third series. For the right child, Rex will make a perfect companion. In particular, I feel he’ll encourage a conscientious and studious attitude in a young person.’
‘Well this young lady here could certainly do with that.’
‘Oh, Mother, he’s perfect.’ Then the mother said: ‘B2, third series. The ones with the solar absorption problems, right?’
She said it just like that, in front of Rex, her smile still on her face. Rex kept smiling too, but the child looked baffled and glanced from Rex to her mother.
‘It’s true,’ Manager said, ‘that the third series had a few minor issues at the start. But those reports were greatly exaggerated. In environments with normal levels of light, there’s no problem whatsoever.’
‘I’ve heard solar malabsorption can lead to further problems,’ the mother said. ‘Even behavioral ones.’


Ishiguro’s Klara is set some time in the not too distant future and lets us compare two feats of engineering, Klara, an AF, an Artificial Friend, developed to be a friend for teenagers and the teenager in question, Josie. Josie who is “lifted”, that is to say as we learn near the middle of the book, genetically engineered, a choice her richer parents were able to make because if you’re not “lifted” you have no real chance of an education.

The story is told by Klara, from the beginning in the shop waiting to be bought, where we learn through Klara of her observations and deductions, Klara is a B2 as illustrated in the opening quote and of course has a very particular relationship with the sun which gives her all of her “nourishment”. Whilst in the shop window, Klara made two observations which were to form her vision of the world, firstly a machine working in the street outside which giving of large amounts of smoke temporarily hides the sun and secondly a drunk passed out on the street who comes around when the sun shines strongly on him.

Soon after being bought by Josie, Klara learns that Josie is very ill and may die (genetic engineering seems to be a risky business, Josie had had a sister that had died at her age and as we learn, if they manage to live through this age then they’ll be ok). So she tries to reason how to save Josie and thinks back to her earlier experience:


I thought too about the time the sun had given his special nourishment to beggar man and his dog and considered the important differences between his circumstances and Josie’s. For one thing many passers by had known beggar man and when he’d become weak he had done so on a busy street visible to taxi drivers and runners, any of these people might have drawn the sun’s attention to his condition and that of his dog. Even more significantly I remembered what had been happening not long before the sun had given his special nourishment to beggar man, the Cootings Machine had been making its awful pollution.


We learn that people think of AFs as having superstitions but we see through Klara that a partial understanding of the world around you can lead to this. Can the sun help Josie? Through Klara’s observations we learn of the toll of human suffering the technology brings, of people losing their jobs, of communities fighting back. More directly, firstly we see in the shop the differences between the AFs, each with their own personality and then hear Josie’s father wonder about the ironing out of differences between the lifted children:


Mr Paul is an expert engineer I said turning to face him, I was hoping he’d be able to think of something, but the father kept gazing through the windshield at the yard I couldn’t explain it to mosey earlier in the diner, I couldn’t explain why I hate Kapaldi so much, why I can’t bring myself to be civil towards him but I’d like to try and explain it to you Klara if you don’t mind, his switch of subject was highly unwelcome but anxious not to lose his goodwill I said nothing and waited I think I hate Kapaldi because deep down I suspect he may be right that what he claims is true that science has now proved beyond doubt that there is nothing so unique about my daughter, nothing there our modern tools can’t excavate, copy, transfer, that people have been living with one another for all this time, centuries loving and hating each other and all on a mistaken premise, a kind of superstition we kept going while we didn’t know better, that’s how Kapaldi sees it and there’s a part of me that fears he’s right.


Josie’s mother would like Klara to learn to be Josie, to replace her for a while if she were to die, to ease the pain. It of course never gets to this and as the book comes to an end, and Klara to the end of her useful life, her observations as to what makes a human individual and why she would not have been able to replace Josie ring true. Finally a whole AF life, for an exceptional AF to really understand humans.

Another most enjoyable book well worth reading.

First Published in English as “KLARA and THE SUN” in 2021 by Faber & Faber.

Mary Lawson ‘A Town Called Solace’

“Booker Prize 2021: 6 Books Sure to be shortlisted for this prize.
“A Town Called Solace”: In order of reading book number 3.


The boxes were in the middle of the floor, which made Clara fidgety. Every time the man came into the living room he had to walk around them. If he’d put them against a wall he wouldn’t have to do that and it would have looked much neater. And why would he bring them in from his car and then not unpack them? At first Clara had thought it meant that he was delivering them for Mrs Orchard and she would unpack them herself when she got home. But she hadn’t come home and the boxes were still there and so was the man, who didn’t belong.


Mary Lawson takes us to northern Ontario, 700 miles north of Toronto in this bitter sweet novel with the aptly named town. Clara, a young child is sat in her window looking out for the return of her sixteen year old sister, Rose, who has run away from home when she observes a stranger in the house opposite, mrs Orchard’s house. Mrs Orchard is Clara’s friend and she has given her a key to feed Moses the cat whilst she is in hospital. As Clara questions what she sees based on her 8 year old experience, her dialogue is reminiscent of another Klara from “Klara and the Sun” as illustrated in the opening quote.

The story is told from three points of view, Clara but also Liam, the stranger from the first quote, arriving after a painful separation and Mrs Orchard who has gone to hospital, the novel explores the implicit link between Liam, who as a young boy lived next to Mrs Orchard before moving away and Clara living next door to Mrs Orchard with both of the adults for different reasons having come to the improbable Solace in pain and both finding a sort of solace. Liam working for a local roofer who it turns out had never left Solace and slowly reflects about his life, even slowly remembering some of the forgotten time before moving away from next door to Mrs Orchard when he was young. The search for Rosa permeates the story, as the policeman says, they run away to Toronto, there really is nowhere else to go. Mrs Orchard thinks about the past, talking to her long dead husband from her hospital bed, talks about the importance of Clara to her and about Liam as she revisits her own traumas:


I can’t tell you how I long for home. Just the normal routines of the day; they’re what I miss most. Putting the kettle on. Perhaps having a little chat with Clara if she pops over after school. I enjoy our conversations very much, you never know where they’re going to end up. She doesn’t make my heart lift the way Liam did, but no other child has ever done that.


This slow moving story as people learn to live with life’s pains grows on you and as a reader you slow down to the speed of the story.

First Published in English as “A Town Called Solace” in 2021 by Vintage

Nadifa Mohamed ‘The Fortune Men’

“Booker Prize 2021: 6 Books Sure to be shortlisted for this prize.
“The Fortune Men”: In order of reading book number 2.


Mahmood Mattan pushes through the crowd at the bar.
« I said get me another coffee. ». Berlin catches his Trinidadian wife’s waist and steers her towards Mahmood.
« Lou sort this trouble maker another coffee».Image1
Ranged along the bar are many of Tiger Bay’s Somali sailors. They look somewhere between gangsters and dandies in their cravates, pocket chains and trilby hats. Only Mahmood wears a homburg pulled down low over his gaunt face and sad eyes. He is a quiet man always appearing and disappearing silently at the fringes of the sailors or the gamblers or the thieves. Men pull their possessions closer when he is around and keep their eyes on his long elegant fingers.


Nadifa Mohamed takes us on a trip back in time, to Tiger Bay in the early fifties where she draws us a vibrant picture of this area around the docks in Cardiff, and in particular to the Somali sailors washed up on these shores in between ships, or in the case of Mahmood Mattan with wife and children. At the beginning of the book we meet Mattan in Berlin’s milk bar, with a short description which nonetheless gives us a detailed sketch of him as illustrated in the opening quote.

Why were the Somali sailors there in Tiger Bay? Why were sailors of all nationalities there in the early fifties? The answer is obvious but who were these people? It may be difficult to give them names but Nadifa Mohamed brings to life the vibrancy by naming the jobs they filled:


Passing the shops on Bute Street, he finds a few lights still on: at Zussen’s pawnbroker’s where many of his clothes are on hock, at the Cypriot barbershop where he has his hair trimmed and at Volacki’s where he used to buy seafaring kits but now just bags the occasional dress for Laura. The tall grand windows of Cory’s Rest are steamed up, with figures laughing and dancing behind the leaded glass. He peeks his head through the door to check if some of his regulars are there, but the West Indian faces around the snooker table are unfamiliar. He had once belonged to this army of workers pulled in from all over the world, dredged in to replace the thousands of mariners lost in the war: dockers, tallymen, kickers, stevedores, winch men, hatch men, samplers, grain porters, timber porters, tackle men, yard masters, teamers, dock watchmen, needle men, ferrymen, shunters, pilots, tugboatmen, foyboatmen, freshwater men, blacksmiths, jetty clerks, warehousemen, measurers, weighers, dredgermen, lumpers, launch men, lightermen, crane drivers, coal trimmers, and his own battalion, the stokers.


Then to help us understand that immigration isn’t a new thing but is age old, Berlin tells us stories of his own from the beginning of the century, working on the skyscrapers in New York or as an exhibit in the world fair in Germany.

But the story is about a sordid crime, the murder by blade of Violet Volacki the daughter of an Eastern European Jewish father, she runs a shop on Bute street, and also cashes seaman’s cheques. Violet lives with her sister and niece, and one night opens late for a person described as black and is found dead with her throat cut 20 minutes later.

Then begins the search for the killer, a Somali had been seen in Bute street by one witness, Mattan is known to the police for petty larceny and is questioned. Nadifa Mohamed gives us a very credible insight into Mattan’s life, his way of thinking and a possible reason for his not necessarily wanting to tell where he had been.

The story is based on a true life case and the language of his defense lawyer is an eye opener to the level of casual racism at the time.

Yet another excellent choice, a must for the short list!

First Published in English as “The Fortune Men” in 2021 by Viking.