Book review · Fiction

Book review: “A capital union” by Victoria Hendry

“A capital union” takes place in Edinburgh in the 1940s, and for that reason alone (as one born and bred there) it was of interest to me. Although the colours and design of the cover didn’t initially appeal to me, the Edinburgh landmarks were familiar and I was intrigued to know what might lie inside.

a-capital-union.jpg

The story follows the challenges faced by Agnes Thorne, 17 years old and newly married to Jeff McCaffrey. As part of his work on a new Scots dictionary, Jeff has been interviewing native speakers from across Scotland. When he comes across Agnes at her home in Ayrshire, he falls for her dialect and beauty and persuades her to marry him and set up home with him in Edinburgh.

Agnes’s troubles begin shortly after her arrival in the city, when she discovers the pitfalls of being married to a man who refuses to sign up for military service during the Second World War. As well as being a conscientious objector, Jeff is a staunch supporter of the Scottish independence movement and believes the British government has no right to enforce conscription on Scottish nationals.

As Jeff becomes more involved with nationalist politics and his views on independence become more extreme, Agnes feels a chasm growing between them. While this is going on, a German airman called Hannes, who has survived being shot down over Edinburgh, finds sanctuary in the empty flat above them. Initially, he’s helped by Mrs MacDougall, a cantankerous neighbour of Agnes’s, but Mrs MacDougall is keen to get Agnes to take over the responsibility of looking after Hannes. Agnes does her best to look after him, without admitting to her husband that she’s aiding the enemy.

The secret of Hannes is revealed, however, when he bursts into the McCaffreys’ flat after hearing Agnes scream. Jeff has been attempting to rape his wife and only Hannes’s timely intervention saves her. For Agnes, this behaviour by her husband is the final nail in the coffin of their marriage, but it isn’t until Jeff is jailed for refusing to sign up for military service that husband and wife are physically separated. Left alone, Agnes has to find a new life for herself, and vows to do whatever she can to help Hannes escape.

After all the foregoing drama, the novel could easily have fallen flat at this point in the story, but Victoria Hendry did a top notch job of keeping my attention and gripping me to the final page. She made me care about what happened to Agnes, and I found her characterisations strong throughout the book.

An unusual feature of this novel, and something I initially thought might irritate me, was the number of Scots words included in the dialogue. I was, however, pleasantly surprised by the mixture of English and Scots, and interested that some of the Scots words were words I’ve only ever heard spoken, never seen written down. There are also quite a few German words and phrases, and I would have understood more of the conversations involving Hannes if I’d realised at the beginning that every Scots and German word used is translated at the back of the book. The German translations were helpful for me and I daresay the Scots translations would be much appreciated by non-Scottish readers.

Rating this book in my 4Ps rating system, I gave it 18/20, with extra credit for what I call ‘poetry‘.

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Book review · Non-fiction

Book review: “A life without limits” by Chrissie Wellington

I picked up this book in the library, attracted by the title. I hadn’t heard of Chrissie Wellington and it wasn’t obvious from the front cover what she was a world champion in.

A life without limits by Chrissie Wellington
‘A life without limits’ by Chrissie Wellington with Michael Alywin (2012)

I soon discovered that her specialism was Ironman, a punishing endurance triathlon event consisting of a swim of 2.4 miles, followed by a bicycle ride of 112 miles, finishing off with a marathon-length (26.2 miles) run. These three components are undertaken straight after each other with no break, and the entire event is a race against other endurance athletes. The fact that anyone can do this is staggering to me, and Chrissie’s story is awe-inspiring.

Always a sporty child, Chrissie swam competitively at school and then at university, but it wasn’t until she was in her late 20s that she first tried triathlon. She immediately took to it, but despite her proven ability in the water, swimming proved to be her weakest component, which gives an indication of how good she was at cycling and running.

Even before turning professional as an athlete at the age of 30, Chrissie had achieved a great deal. After graduating from Birmingham University with a first class honours degree in geography, she travelled the world for two years before returning to the UK to do an MA in development studies at Manchester University where she graduated with distinction.

Following her studies she got a government job with DEFRA (Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs). Although she enjoyed the work, she became disillusioned with the bureaucracy, and took a sabbatical to do development work in Nepal. Nepal provided her with the opportunity to hone her cycling skills, with regular long, steep cycle rides up mountains – perfect training for the tough endurance events she would enter in later years.

After leaving Nepal she travelled to several other countries, including New Zealand where she took part in an event consisting of running, cycling and kayaking. To her astonishment, she came in second after a gruelling race of more than 13 hours. From there she went to Argentina, where she took part in a duathlon event of running and cycling. Much to everyone’s amazement, she beat off all the competition, which included renowned professional athletes, to win the race. By this time it had become clear to her that working at DEFRA was not how she wanted to spend the rest of her life. She returned to the UK and quit her job to become a professional triathlete.

Her professional sports career was nothing short of remarkable. The Ironman World Championships are held each year in Hawaii, and Chrissie won the competition four times. Her last World Championship win was in 2011, coming hot on the heels of an accident that should have kept her out of the race altogether. Alongside an undoubted talent for endurance racing, she constantly demonstrated incredible determination to overcome obstacles and maintained a strong belief in her own abilities.

In the Epilogue, she sums up her career with some inspirational words. For each of us, she says, our limits are often not be where we think they are. Even if we achieve our ultimate goals we often find we’re capable of more than we’d have believed possible. Many different things are required to make a world champion, but refusing to put limits on your abilities is clearly an essential key to success. Chrissie Wellington’s inspirational story is testament to that.

Book review · Non-fiction

Book review: “Lion” by Saroo Brierley

This book tells the astonishing true story of a young Indian boy who got lost after boarding a train on his own when he was only five years old. He ended up in Calcutta (Kolkata, as it now is), hundreds of miles from home, with no idea of how to get back to his family again.

For weeks he lived in and around the train station in Calcutta, foraging for food, sleeping on the streets wherever he could find shelter, and trying to find a way to get back home. He wasn’t sure of the name of his home town, and only had the word ‘Ginestlay’ to offer to anyone who tried to help him. This meant nothing to any of the people he spoke to, and the only other place name he had a vague recollection of was a common-sounding name that could have been anywhere in India.

Lion by Saroo Brierley

“Lion” by Saroo Brierley with Larry Buttrose (2013)

During the course of his time wandering around Calcutta, the young Saroo met people who helped him as well as those who meant him harm. He quickly learned to question people’s motives and developed the ability to judge whether or not he could trust them.

One day, a teenage boy befriended him on the street and took him home with him. The house offered a place of safety and Saroo stayed there for several days. The teenager then took Saroo to the police station. This frightened Saroo, but he trusted his friend enough to allow the police to take responsibility for him. They asked him lots of questions, but when they were unable to discover where he had come from, they took him to a children’s home full of hundreds of other lost or abandoned children.

Although the home gave him shelter and food to eat, it was over-crowded and Saroo often had to share a bed or sleep on the floor. He was bullied by older boys and disturbed by the distressing behaviour of some of the other children. After a month of living in the home he was handed over to an orphanage. The orphanage contained fewer children, most of whom were of a similar age to Saroo, and he felt much happier there.

Despite their best efforts to try and locate Saroo’s family, the people at the orphanage ran up against a brick wall. The best they could do, they told him, was to find him another family to live with. A few weeks later, a willing couple was identified. They were Australian and lived in Tasmania. He was shown photographs of the house he would live in, and the car his new family owned, realities that seemed unbelievable to him. With little idea of what his future held, he agreed to go to Tasmania.

At Melbourne Airport he met his new parents for the first time. He was shy and didn’t speak English, and they didn’t speak Hindi. It must have been very unsettling to be in a strange country, about to start a new life with complete strangers, but his ability to judge character no doubt helped him at this point. From the first time he saw them, he knew he could trust his new parents and immediately felt safe in their care.

It would be 25 years before he would stand on Indian soil again, as a 30-year-old Australian citizen attempting to find his birth mother. The story of how he traced his home town – using Google Earth to look for the few landmarks he could remember from his youth – is astonishing in its own right. I found his utter determination never to give up quite awe-inspiring.

His entire story is remarkable and I’m not surprised it’s now been made into a film. I haven’t seen the film, but it received six Oscar nominations and won two BAFTA awards.

Book review · Fiction

Book review: “The body on the beach” by Simon Brett

This is the first novel in Simon Brett’s series featuring Carole and Jude, neighbours in the fictional English village of Fethering.

I hadn’t read this book before, but having got to know the central characters from later stories I was interested to find out how they first met.

The body on the beach
“The body on the beach” by Simon Brett (2000)

While walking her dog, Gulliver, early one morning, Carole comes across the dead body of a middle-aged man lying on the beach. While Carole’s looking at the body, Gulliver runs off into the sea and comes out soaked in sea water and smelling of something unsavoury. When she gets home, keen to prioritise giving the dog a bath, Carole does that before attending to anything else. It’s only once Gulliver is clean and snoozing in the kitchen that Carole gets round to phoning the police.

While she’s waiting for the police to come and interview her, Carole notices her new neighbour beating the dust out of a rug in her front garden. Shocked that someone should carry out such a domestic chore at the front of the house, Carole makes negative assumptions about her new neighbour. Taking a brief rest from her beating, Jude turns and sees Carole looking out of the window. Carole is horrified by to have been caught watching but feels compelled to go out and introduce herself.

After a short chat that leaves Carole frustratingly bereft of answers to the many questions she has about Jude, the police call round and Carole turns her attention to telling them about her find on the beach. The police immediately rub her up the wrong way by appearing to doubt her tale. Carole prides herself on being eminently sensible and reliable and to have the police question her truthfulness is a dreadful slight. At the end of the interview they tell her that they went to the beach before calling in to see her, following her clear instructions about where she had seen the body. There was, they said, only one problem with her version of events: there was no dead body on the beach.

Later in the day, still upset about not being believed by the police, Carole opens her front door to a rough-looking woman who wants to know if she, Carole, found a body on the beach that morning. Curious to know who this woman might be, Carole invites her in. The woman, who seems a bit hysterical, demands to know if Carole saw anyone move the body. Carole does her best to stay calm, but when the woman pulls a gun out of her jacket pocket and starts raving at her, she concludes the woman is far from sane. She tells the woman she’s going to phone the police, but the woman threatens to shoot her if she does. Carole is wondering what to do when she’s saved by the doorbell.

When she opens the door she finds her new neighbour, Jude, standing there. Needing a break from unpacking, Jude has called round round to see if Carole fancies going for a drink at the local pub. While Carole’s busy at the front door the gun-toting woman disappears out of the back door, leaving Carole perplexed and needing very much to get things off her chest. She goes to the pub with Jude and, uncharacteristically, unburdens herself. Her neighbour proves to be a good listener and, unlike the police, she believes Carole’s tale.

While reading later books in the Fethering series, I had grown curious about how Carole and Jude had first got together to solve crimes, and why it was that they took things into their own hands rather than reporting things to the police. ‘The body on the beach’ answered my questions, and I very much enjoyed this story. Using my 4Ps rating system, I gave this book 17/20.

Book review · Non-fiction · Sport

Book review: “Rafa: my story” by Rafael Nadal with John Carlin

Having watched Rafael Nadal in Wimbledon tournaments for many years now, I was intrigued to learn more about what made him the champion he’s become.

This book gave me the insight I was hoping for, and was so well written and engaging I found it hard to put down.

Rafa
“Rafa: my story” by Rafael Nadal with John Carlin (2011)

Born in 1986 on the Spanish island of Mallorca, Nadal was coached from a young age by his uncle Toni. A gifted player himself, Toni had dreamed of being a big tennis star one day. Although undoubtedly talented, he discovered he lacked the strength and determination required to reach the very top. Instead, he threw himself into coaching youngsters in Mallorca, including his nephew, Rafa.

In the book, Toni recollects his early advice to the four-year-old Rafa: “First, hit the ball hard; then we’ll see about keeping it in.” Rafa, it seems, was an obedient and hard-working child even at that young age. His parents drummed into him the importance of having respect for others, particularly his elders, and instructed him to make a point of congratulating his opponents whenever they beat him at anything. Along with his Uncle Toni, they instilled in him the idea that however successful he might become, it was of paramount importance that he remain humble and keep his feet on the ground. Seen from the outside, the Nadal family seems unusually close and tight-knit. It is, apparently, the Mallorcan way, and it’s very clear from the book that Rafa highly values his family ties.

One of the things that has struck me about the tennis world is how often many of the top players change their coaches. It’s the opposite of how Rafa goes about his business. He has had the same team around him for years, and his Uncle Toni has coached him through 15 Grand Slam titles, making him the most successful tennis coach in history. (Things have in fact changed this year, six years after the book was published, with Toni retiring from Rafa’s coaching team; he now focuses on the Rafa Nadal Tennis Academy, coaching upcoming youngsters.)

The book is written in an interesting and unusual style, with every second chapter being told from the point of view of Rafa’s co-author, John Carlin, while the other chapters are written in Nadal’s own words. I enjoyed this chopping and changing between voices, because it allowed Carlin to make his own comments on Nadal and include quotes from the people who know him best, as well as giving Rafa the chance to tell his story in his own way. The majority of the chapters written in Rafa’s voice describe career-defining matches and the way he felt when he played them. Having watched one or two of these matches, most memorably the Wimbledon final he played against Roger Federer in 2008, it was fascinating to learn what Rafa was thinking and feeling during those critical moments.

I was expecting to enjoy this book, but I wasn’t anticipating such a rewarding read. It’s clear from the statistics that Rafael Nadal is an outstanding champion (only Roger Federer has won more men’s Grand Slam singles titles), but this book explains how he got to be so good. As he repeatedly says himself, his success would have been impossible without his incredibly supportive family and the close friends and advisers that make up Team Rafa.

As of now, Rafeal Nadal is 31 years old (four years younger than Roger Federer). Given that he won a record-breaking 10th French Open this year, you have to wonder what else he has in store. He currently holds 15 Grand Slam titles, to Federer’s 19. If Rafa stays fit and well over the next few years there’s surely every chance he could match, or even surpass, the great Federer’s amazing record.

Book review · Fiction

Book review: “The murder at the vicarage” by Agatha Christie

This is one of Agatha Christie’s detective novels featuring the brilliant elderly spinster, Miss Jane Marple. The story takes place in Miss Marple’s home village of St Mary Mead and centres round the murder of Colonel Protheroe, a prominent but not very likeable local magistrate.

One Wednesday lunchtime, irritated by Colonel Protheroe’s interferences in church affairs, the local vicar declares to his wife and nephew that anyone who murdered the Colonel would be doing the world a favour. On the following day, Protheroe is found shot dead sitting in the vicar’s study, waiting to see him for a pre-arranged meeting.

Agatha Christie The murder at the vicarage
“The murder at the vicarage” by Agatha Christie (1930)

The book has all the ingredients of an enjoyable murder mystery: an attractive setting, a number of possible suspects, various motives, a didactic police detective and an unassuming but astute observer on the sidelines who ends up solving the crime.

The novel is told from the point of view of the vicar, Len Clement, one of the few characters in the story who respects and appreciates Miss Marple’s skills from the outset. Each intent on getting to the bottom of things, Clement and Marple team up to solve the mystery.

Len Clement’s position at the centre of the drama gives him unique access to the investigation. People feel able to confide in him and several of the suspects unburden themselves to him throughout the story. Alongside this, Miss Marple’s shrewdness and understanding of human nature allow her to form theories that completely escape the police and help the vicar to make sense of what people tell him.

The setting, a vicarage in a small English village, is the perfect place to stage a murder mystery, with its old-fashioned appeal and restricted cast of characters. In her masterly way, Agatha Christie keeps the reader guessing whodunnit till the end, revealing the solution in a typically unexpected and satisfying manner.

I don’t know how many times I’ve read this novel in the past, but I look forward to reading it again some time in the future. Using my 4Ps rating system, I gave it 18/20.

Book review · England · Fiction

Book review: “Death on the downs” by Simon Brett

“Death on the downs” is the second of Simon Brett’s murder mysteries, based in the fictional English village of Fethering and featuring middle-aged amateur sleuths, Carole and Jude. I was pleased to find a copy of it going very cheap in a second-hand bookshop recently.

Neighbours in Fethering, Carole and Jude are similar in age but vastly different in personality and life experience. As with other literary detective duos, the contrast between them is what makes their partnership work.

Simon Brett Death on the downs
“Death on the downs” by Simon Brett (2001)

The story begins when Carole accidentally happens upon human remains. While out for a walk in the countryside one morning, she takes refuge in an old barn when it starts to rain. Inside the barn she accidentally tips over some fertiliser bags and a human bone falls out of one of them. When she gets back to her car she drives into the nearby village of Weldisham and phones the police from a call box to report her find. The police ask her to stay where she is until two of their officers arrive to speak to her and investigate her discovery.

One of the police officers, Detective Sergeant Baylis, takes her to the local pub for a chat. The pub hasn’t yet opened for the day but the manager lets them in. Baylis asks the manager to provide drinks, despite it being out of licensing hours, and tells him to put the cost on his tab, with a wink that makes the manager look distinctly uncomfortable. Ever observant and curious, Carole wonders what sort of a hold Baylis has over the publican.

A little later, when the pub opens up to customers, Baylis leaves and Carole stays there on her own, having been provided with another drink on Baylis’s tab. Sitting in the pub nursing her brandy, Carole observes several local characters who turn up and start chatting to the manager and each other. To her great surprise, one of them mentions the human bones found in the barn. Wondering how her discovery has become known about so quickly, she takes a particular interest in the man who makes the comment. Discussions amongst her fellow customers lead to the suggestion that the bones belong to a girl who went missing from the village some time ago.

When Carole gets back home she discusses her experiences with Jude, who by chance knows the girl the customers in the pub were talking about. From then on, Carole and Jude do their utmost to find out more about the mysterious bag of bones, but the more involved they become the more they have to watch their backs. Certain people are not pleased to find Carole asking questions in the village, but she feels she’s getting closer to solving the mystery and refuses to curb her investigating. Meanwhile, Jude is looking into the circumstances surrounding the girl who went missing and beginning to draw disturbing conclusions. When Carole fails to return home after a visit to Weldisham, and her car is found parked outside the pub with the keys on the ground beside it, Jude realises her friend’s life may be in danger.

Although some of the conversations and situations in this book were a bit far-fetched, I found it an easy and entertaining read, and possibly the most enjoyable of the Fethering books I’ve read so far. Having been reading the novels out of chronological order, I’ve now ordered the first in the series from my local library to find out how Carole and Jude started out on their detective partnership. Using my 4Ps rating system, I gave this novel 16/20.