Book 68 Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

Most days can be fairly mundane and follow the normal routines of our every days lives.  It’s not that there is anything wrong with that it is just how life is and often we are grateful that they happen like that as it means life is running as normal.  However when a mundane day is struck by an unexpected gift it pulls it out of the mundane into a special day.  So it was with me when I came home to a parcel with a book in it with a letter from a school friend.  It was her favourite book and she wanted me to read it.

I can’t tell you how much this unexpected gift meant to me so much so that I found it hard to start the book if I am honest.  I have a life long habit of being really touched by unexpected gifts or gifts for Birthdays and Christmase’s that are so right for me that I don’t use them.

I don’t know why it’s as if by using them the specialness goes away which of course it doesn’t.  Recent years have made me realise that any gift has been given to be used in the here and now not treasured for a day that may or may not come.  So after months of reading and re reading the letter and stroking the book I thought “Fiona Drane stop it and get reading.”

Shantaram is 933 pages of some of the best writing I have ever read.  At first I was daunted by a book of this magnitude but by the end I was sad it was finished.  The book is set in the 1980’s in Bombay.  It is the true story of Gregory David Roberts who was an armed robber from Australia who escaped from prison and headed to India.  It is the story of his time there which includes going back into drugs, living the high life, living the low life in the slums, finding himself, falling in love, going to prison and realising the true meaning of humanity.

I have never visited India and although I would love to the sheer size of the population for someone who can get claustrophobic daunts me if I am honest.  But the more I have read of the country the more it fascinates me.  This book again brings India to life.  It’s corruption but how the whole country know how things work and abide by the rules however corrupt and senseless they seem.  The increasing prosperity alongside the huge poverty.  Man’s in humanity to man alongside our ability to live and love in communities.  India’s love of cooking where no matter where you live cooking and food is the centre of the household.  And most of all Indians ability to see the positive side of life even when all to a Western person would seem as bleak as it gets.

No one exemplifies this more than one of the lead characters Prabaker a poor man from the countryside who has come to Bombay to make a better life who be friends Gregory and awakens something in him dead for many years.  I am going to finish this review with Gregory’s tribute to Prabaker which shows the beauty of the writing and also the sorrow of losing someone who in a year of loss I could relate to:

“At first, when we truly love someone, our greatest fear is that the loved one will stop loving us. What we should fear and dread, of course, is that we won’t stop loving them, even after they’re dead and gone.  For I still love you with the whole of my heart, Prabaker.  I still love you.  And sometimes, my friend, the love that I have, and can’t give to you, crushes the breath from my chest. Sometimes, even now, my heart is drowning in a sorrow that has no stars without you, and no laughter, and no sleep.”

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Book 67: Robert Harris – An Officer and a Spy

This was my book club book for September chosen in part as it was the 2014 Sir Walter Scott Prize Winner.  I was really looking forward to reading it as I loved the 2013 prize-winning novel “The Garden of Evening Mists.”  This book was not in the same realm and through out the book I kept wondering why it had been chosen as the 2014 winner.  This question was also asked when the book was discussed at my book club at Mainstreet Trading in St Boswells.

That said I did enjoy An Officer and a Spy.  It is set in 1895 in France and focuses on the famous Dreyfus affair.  A Jewish officer  who was wrongly convicted as a traitor.  The novel focuses on Picquart an officer who is brought into the intelligence unit and while there starts to uncover the corruption surrounding the conviction.  There were three main reasons why I did enjoy this book.

Firstly I studied history at University and much of it was focused on the First and Second World Wars and although I did study some late 19th century history it is not an era I am well read on.  With the anniversary of the outbreak of the First World war it was fascinating in this book to read about the tensions and hostility between France and Germany at this stage following the Alsace wars.  And why France had aligned herself with Russia.  You can see clearly in 1895 that the First World War was starting to be inevitable.

Secondly much of the book is about the rife anti-Semitism in France at all levels of society and the venomous way they treated their Jewish citizens.  So often today due to the Second World War we view Nazi Germany as being anti Semitic.  The truth is that the whole of Europe was and had been for some time .  Perhaps its easier on our conscience to think that but the plain truth was that there wasn’t a country in Europe who was exempt.

Thirdly this book shows corruption in Government and the scary ways that governments take to ensure that their corruption and mistakes are not discovered.  It’s easy sometimes when reading history to think that was then this is now.  But I have always believed that history repeats itself over and over again.  As societies rarely learn from their mistakes.  Through out the novel I did shiver at points when the main character’s life is turned upside down as he believed in the truth and justice and wondered how many people today in this country and across the world are facing the same issues.

After a slow start I did enjoy an Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris and did take a few hours out to finish it as the tension in the story built.  I am now going to read his famous novel “Fatherland”.  I just didn’t think it was an award-winning book but who am I to say?

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Books 64, 65 and 66 of 2014 Enzo Complete

As I have mentioned many times in this blog I love Peter May’s Lewis trilogy.  I recently got asked to say what me favourite books of all time were.  No question one of Peter May’s had to be in.  I love all three of the Lewis books but for me Lewis man is my favourite for it’s story line and also for its various locations across the Hebrides and Edinburgh.  So I started his Enzo series when I was on holiday on Harris.  Read the first three very quickly and I knew that once I started I needed to finish them so read the last three in one greedy gulp.

The Enzo books are set in France great to read them as this time of the year as the warm weather means that you can readily imagine yourself there.  Reading in order the next one up was Blow Black when Enzo is told that he’s terminally ill and then his daughter is nearly murdered.  This is a real page turner as you want to know who is attacking him and his family.  Mixed with this is a Madeline McCann child abduction which tells the story of a boy taken from his parents and what happened to him once he grew up.  There were parts of the plot I guessed but many I didn’t it was a very exciting book that had me on edge must of the time.

The next book was called Freeze Frame this was set on a island of the Brittany Coast.  A unsolved murder where the murder victim left clues in his study as to who the killer was but its now many years since the murder happened.  Enzo is appointed by the daughter – in -law of the victim.  This story has a Nazi link though who, what, why and how it takes till the end to find out keeping you again turning that page.

Finally Back Light Blue set in the world of French Cuisine again an old murder the murder of a top French chef just outside his restaurant.  Enzo ropes his daughter in to help so she is working in the kitchen while he has been appointed by the family to solve the murder.  You will find yourself hungry at many points as the food served is amazing as does the wine which also plays a central part.  I guessed the ending on this one though that did not disappoint.

I enjoyed the Enzo books.  I am still not convinced that I like Enzo and he is a terrible womaniser.  But I do like his family and that draws me back to find out what happens to them and also to see what happens in his love life.  I have heard that there will maybe be another book and if so will definitely read it.  As let’s be honest anything that Peter May writes I love to read.

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Books 62 and 63

I have read six books this month but have not caught up writing reviews for them on this blog.  Varied excuses.  One I have been juggling child care and work and two I have suffered most of the month with toothache which has dragged me down somewhat.  So have been doing the minimum to get by.  But kids back to school now.  Toothache not over but getting better.  So time to catch up with book reviews.

Book 62 is written by the historian who was on Restoration Man on CH4 Kate Williams.  She has just published her first novel set in the First World War called “The Storms of War”.  It is about a wealthy German Family living in Britain in 1914 and takes you through what happens to them over the course of the four years.  They regard themselves as British but they are not regarded as such by the Brits  and it was a very good insight into how that might have felt and how awful it must have been to be treated as a traitor when you weren’t.  The book takes you to the Front and Kate Williams doesn’t hide how awful and gruesome and brutal that was.  She also looks at internment on the Isle of Man and elsewhere and finally how life was for women at the home front.  As she is a historian you know it is very accurate.  Many of the characters including the main female lead I didn’t warm too but in some ways that didn’t matter.  It did what I wanted gave me a real insight into life 100 years ago.

Book 63 “A Possible Life” by Sebastian Faulks I thought also was about the war this time the second.  I love his books and the cover both front and back drew me to buy it.  But once I started reading the book I realised that it was a book of short stories.  I am not a short story fan they are in short too short for me to get into them.  And I felt let down as I thought it was a novel.  So though the first story was excellent though very sad.  I struggled with the rest and overall it was a huge disappointment though that said I do love his writing and ability to create fully formed characters.

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Book 61 – Cold Winter in Bordeaux Alan Massie

This is the third of the Alan Massie detective books sets in occupied France during World War Two.  I have read them all buying them each year at the Borders Book Festival.  I was really looking forward to this one and saved it until I got back from my holiday.  As I knew I would be I struggled when I got home with the return to routines and reality after probably the best family holiday we have ever had on Harris.

Now I know immersing yourself in World War Two is not for everyone.  But I do love a well written historical novel and I knew Alan Massie would deliver.  In addition I have waited some time to find out what happens to Inspector Lannes and his family.


In this book Inspector Lannes is trying to solve a murder of a woman found dead and naked in her bedroom.  Seems a simple pre war murder at first and then he discovers there is more to it than he first thought and that the  resistance is also involved which means that the German Occupiers also want to know what is happening.

The plot on this book was not the key reason why I enjoyed this book.  For me it was the way that Alan Massie in fiction form brought France in World War Two to life.  You see life in occupied France from all angles and points of view.   From those who collaborated  with the Germans.  To those who were part of De Gaulle’s resistance.  To those who were part of the communist resistance.  And for those who like Lannes wanted to survive with his family and make it through.   Who in 1943 are starting to believe that maybe just maybe France will get through this without being permanently  part of Nazi Germany.  And the French are just beginning to realise that something is awful is happening to the Jewish community.

I have enjoyed all of these books so far as they have taken me through from 1940 France to 1943.  I look forward to the next one which takes us to the end of the war and the consequences for everyone collaborators, resistance fighters and ordinary families who dared to hope that one day France would be free again.  Let’s hope its out to buy as a treat at the 2015 Borders Book Festival.


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Book 60 – The Silver Blade with Ruth Drane

I have read to my daughter since she was a baby.  She is now 13 and although she probably beats me in her reading prowess.  We do still enjoy reading together though we don’t seem to have as much time as we did when we were in the bed time routine of her early childhood.  We promised ourselves that over the holidays we were going to read together the prequel to The Red Necklace by Sally Gardner reviewed here  The prequel is set like the first during the French Revolution and is called the Silver Blade.

We started the book on Harris but finished it with speed this week on a few sunny nights in the garden both gripped by the storyline that we  needed to know what happened to the two hero’s Yann and Sido. I love history and have loved historical fiction since I was my daughter’s age.  If it’s done right it brings a period of history alive for you which is what this book and the Red Necklace does.  It brings the horror of the French Revolution to life.  Although a young adult book Sally Gardener tells the story of the guillotine and the awful and needless loss of life in detail.  At the start of this book Yann is in France and is the Silver Blade saving people from the guillotine and taking them to the coast and a boat to take them safely to England.  When he frees people he leaves a Silver Blade hanging behind and he has become a legend.  Sido meanwhile is in London with her aunt and uncle and struggling with her aunt’s hostility to her love for Yann who she thinks is an inferior class to her.  Thus bringing the issues of that age and the French Revolution to life.  In addition there is a parallel story which is more fantasy.  The sinister Count Kalliovski who died in the last book is now  ghost or is he?  He lives in a palace in the catacombs decorated by the bones of his victims.  He is after revenge.  This factual and fantasy approach actually works well and for me I began to wonder if the writer was actually describing purgatory.  Without giving any more away this is another great book by Sally Gardner.

I am hoping that I will read more to my daughter but if this is indeed the last book we share together it is a worthy book to finish with.  We have been from baby books, to Julia Donaldson, to the hideous fairy books.  To Enid Blyton.  To CS Lewis. To Harry Potter.  The wonderful Annabel Claridge who is now a friend and her Bo Books and many more beside it’s been a part of my reading life I have treasured.  As I have seen my daughter see the magic of books and re discovered some old favourites myself and read some new classics on the way.  Reading to your child is not a chore it’s an investment in their future but it also creates a memory bank that I will value for ever.

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Book 59 – The Critic Peter May

Couldn’t resist and bought the second of the Enzo Books set in France in this Peter May series. Well I needed a book for the last day and ferry trip and one that could make me forget the pain of leaving the Hebrides.

This book was set in South West France. Another unsolved murder of an American wine critic. Though before long there are more murders can Enzo solve the crime before someone else ends up in a wine vault?

Glad to see all the main characters were back and Enzo is a character you love but despise often too. I’m learning that he’s not always a good judge of character. And if you go with his first views of people you are lead down the wrong route.

I loved Peter May’ s Lewis books in fact helped sell The Black House at Tarbert Visitor Information Centre yesterday. These are for me not quite as good but that’s to do with the setting more than anything. I love the Hebrides. But I also love Peter May’ s writing and as soon as I’m paid will be buying the third in the series.

Did it help the pain? No not quite. Tears flowed as MV Hebrides left Tarbert. But they were happy tears for a wonderful holiday. Will be back in 49 weeks. And once out on the Minch. Peter May and Enzo pulled me in as the best books always do.

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