Archive for the ‘novels’ Category

The Baltic city of Gdansk and the Literacka restaurant

August 21, 2019

A two week break in the blog as we were in the south of France for a week, meeting friends from Australia. We spent a day in Gdansk on our trip to the wedding in Poland and it is a very impressive city. When you walk around some parts of Gdansk, you feel as if you could be in Amsterdam as you look at the narrow buildings in some of the streets. The photo below shows one of the decorated set of flats in one of the main streets in Gdansk. It looks as if it might have been slotted in between the two wider houses on either side.

Colourful building in Gdansk (click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

Farther down this street, you come to the magnificent Town Hall – Ratusz in Polish – which was built in the late 14th century and its tower and spire dominate the city skyline. As you can see in the photo below, the tower is a magnificent site and is all the more remarkable as it was mostly destroyed in 1945 and rebuilt. The building now houses a museum which charts the history of the city. You can climb up the tower to a balcony just above the clock, although we passed on this as there was a large queue.

The tower of the Town Hall in Gdansk

If you keep walking on this street, you come to a gateway which would have, at one time, separated the port from the rest of the city. The Vistula River goes into the sea at Gdansk and part of the river side has been transformed into a row of restaurants on one side and hotels on the other. The side with the restaurants is very similar to the port side in Copenhagen. One of the most famous landmarks in this area is The Crane (good photos) which is a 15th century structure formerly used to load and unload cargoes and also insert masts on to ships. As you can see below, it is a magnificent sight when viewed across the river and would have completely dominated the harbour area in its functional days.

The Crane in Gdansk

From this side of the river, you also get superb views of the Gdansk skyline with its many spires and towers, as well as the Dutch looking buildings – old and new – across the river. The newer buildings are aesthetically pleasing with their traditional shapes and attractive glass. On the river itself, there is a constant flow of cruise barges and boats. The city was jam packed with tourists in some areas but there are also many quieter back streets to stroll along.

Gdansk skyline from the riverside

Parallel to the main Dluga Street, with its rows of restaurants, street performers and sellers, is the Ulica Mariacka which is a much quieter and narrower street, and during the daytime it is filled on both sides with little stalls selling amber goods. You can see some of the stalls at the bottom of the photo below. At the top of the photo is the tower of St Mary’s basilica. We noticed a promising looking restaurant at the end of the street and returned there in the evening – a very good choice. The Literacka (good photos of the inside) is a wine bar and a restaurant with a difference. The name of the restaurant means literary in English and the very helpful waitress explained that the building was formerly known as The House of Poets, as it was used by writers and poets in the Polish Writers’ Association. The food was excellent and we had (phone photo below) beautifully cooked sea bass on snow peas, with potato puree and a jug of delicate sauce. The cost of the main course was about £10 each, so excellent value, given the service, the tasteful interior decoration, white table cloths and friendly service.

Sea bass at the Literacka

When we had finished our meal, the waitress brought the bill in this book (photo below) and told us that each person paying the bill got a different book – what a brilliant idea! I told the waitress that I had two books by Cesare Pavese the famous Italian author of the 20th century. I looked up the title in Polish and it means beach in English. I checked my shelves and the 2nd photo below shows my copy – an English translation of the same book, so a neat connection. The restaurant is well worth visiting if you are ever in this strikingly attractive city.

Plaza by Cesare Pavese in Polish
Novel by Cesare Pavese
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Malcolm Mackay novel and Peebles revisited

July 9, 2019

Having taken a few weeks to read Milkman (previous post), I read Malcolm Mackay’s How a Gunman Says Goodbye in a week. This is a crime novel – which won the Scottish Crime Novel of the Year Award – with a difference. In most crime fiction, the police are the main characters and the focus is on their thinking and their procedures and (mostly) how they solve the crime. In Mackay’s novel – the 2nd in a trilogy about the Glasgow underworld – the focus is on the criminals themselves and in particular, on Frank MacLeod who has spent his adult life as a gunman or hit man for organised crime in the city. Mackay takes us very convincingly into the mind of Frank (as he is referred to in the novel) and his boss Peter Jamieson, who runs legitimate bars and nightclubs but is also involved in drug dealing. The novel is written in short sentences and short chapters but this adds to the quality of the writing, rather than detracting from it e.g. “People [other gunmen] get surprised by something and freeze. Never happened to Frank”. There is an excellent array of characters with some deep insight into the mindset of Frank, a young gunman Calum and Jamieson. The plot moves with alacrity and the reader is constantly wondering what will happen next. My attempts to second guess Mackay all failed. Frank MacLeod is obviously a bad person, who has killed many people to order, but the reader will have some sympathy with Frank’s dilemna – no spoiler here – around which the book is shaped. We should not sympathise with such a character, but we do. There are policemen in the book but they are on the sidelines. So how does a gunman say goodbye? You will have to read this highly recommended book. There is a very good interview with Malcolm Mackay here.

Excellent crime novel (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

At the weekend, we had a visit from my friend and ex-colleague Bob, on a visit from Australia, who has been to Dunbar a number of times but had never visited Peebles in the Scottish Borders. We had a walk along Peebles’ attractive High Street with its late Victorian architecture and I took Bob down a close (Scots for alley or vennel) to see the door of what is still a painter’s and decorator’s business. In the photo below, you can see that this ornate leaded window on the door shows the much wider extent of the business in former times. A gilder was “someone whose occupation was to apply an overlay of gold or gilt” according to one dictionary. The firm also installed windows – glazier and painted signs for businesses – sign writer. A bellhanger turns out to be what it says on the tin – a skilled tradesman who hung bells, presumably in churches.

Windows on a door in Peebles

We then had a 4 mile walk (good photos) along the River Tweed which runs through Peebles. It was a sunny day and there were excellent reflections of the trees across the river. In the photo below, you can see how the reflections slightly blur the image of the trees, but still give you a double view of the trunks and extensive branches of the trees that line the river bank.

The River Tweed in Peebles

Further on in the walk, we looked up to see Neidpath Castle and the website cited contains a very good aerial view of the castle at this time of year. I took the photo below in the winter time, so the trees are bare, but this gives you a clearer view of the castle itself. The castle has a long history going back to the 12th century and it is described as “rubble-built” i.e. mainly of rough stone and you can see this from the ruined section to the left of the castle.

Neidpath Castle near Peebles

The walk then passes a very impressive bridge along which the railway used to run. The photo below – again taken in the winter on another visit – shows the structure of the bridge, which has eight arches and in the column at the side of each arch, there is a cross., the significance of which I could not find. Above the arches, you can see the cast-iron railings which are another attractive feature of what is called the Neidpath Viaduct.

The old railway bridge near Peebles

The walk continues to another bridge which we crossed and made our way back to Peebles over the hill and along the side of the extensive forest.

Milkman by Anna Burns and poppies at the side of the railway

July 1, 2019

I have just finished reading Anna Burns‘ Man Booker Prize winning novel Milkman (good review). It was a controversial winner of the prize as some reviewers did not enjoy the intensity of the book, which features many long paragraphs describing the feelings of an 18 year girl growing up in an unnamed country in the 1970s. There is no doubt that Burns has created a character – whose name we never discover – with a unique voice, relating to family troubles, her relationship with “maybe boyfriend”, her stalking by a local “renouncer” and her reflections on being an unusual late-teenage girl with conflicting feelings about herself, her environment and her family. We are quickly aware that we are in 1970s Northern Ireland, possibly in Belfast, where Burns grew up. There is a universal aspect to this claustrophobic society, where rumour is rife and controls what people think of each other.

It is also a controlled society, with the powerful state on one side, represented by an oppressive army and police force. These forces – we assume them to be the British – harass the girl’s community ( not stated but clearly Catholic) and support the people “over there” (not stated but clearly Protestant) in the city and “over the water”. There is also internal control by the “renouncers of the state” – the IRA – who rule the girl’s home area and mete out severe punishments on suspected informers. The protagonist, only known as “middle sister” or “daughter” or “maybe-girlfriend”, is seen as unusual as she does not conform to unstated and unwritten rules of her community.

The book can be difficult to read at times – it is occasionally repetitive about this closed society – but Burns manages to move the story on and include some dark humour to illuminate a potentially gloomy plot. It is certainly a different kind of novel but one well worth buying. I read it in small chunks and it might be more rewarding to make a more sustained effort to get the best effect.

An intriguing novel (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

We seem to have had an extended period of wind from the east this year – and that means cool to cold around here – so I have been cycling in that direction for a while now. The route takes me on the road to the local cement works, where I join a cycle path. At the moment, the countryside is full of growth. The once green barley now has multi-grained heads and has turned slightly yellow, as it sways in the wind. The sprout plants which looked pale, forlorn and unlikely to survive, have now blossomed into more substantial and healthy looking plants, although they still have a lot of growing to do. The potato fields are now in flower as are the fields of peas, which must be profitable this year as there are many more stretches of pea-green to be seen. On the side of the fields, there are scatterings of poppies, some bright red, some pale red and a few purple heads can also be seen.

I stopped my bike on the cycle path next to the railway on one side and the muddy tracks of the cement works on the other, to admire a mass of poppies. In the photo below, you can see that when you get closer, you are looking at more than poppies, as scattered amongst the swaying redheads are a variety of wildflowers and thistles.

Poppies at the side of the cycle track

I last posted on poppies in 2016 and quoted the poet Sujata Bhatt and her poem which describes wild poppies as “a living flame of love” and as “a wildfire / by the roads”. The poet sees “how their sheerest silks glisten in the sun” and if you look close at poppies, you see their silk-like heads. I took a video on my phone of the scene and you can see the contrast between “the living flame” of the poppies and the green of the ivy.

Poppies at the side of the tracks near the cement works

One of the photos of a large poppy head in my garden in 2016 was used in that blog post. You can see in the photo below that the petals do have a silky sheen and that the centre piece could be mistaken for some kind of tarantula, either real or mythical.

Inside a poppy head

As I was scrolling through photos of this year, I came across this close up of a tulip head and it has a striking similarity to that of the poppy head, but with a different species of 6 legged creature in the middle. They are both exquisite examples of design in nature which provides inspiration to poets and artists alike.

Tulip head with tarantula centre

Robert Crais crime novel and late Spring evening sky

May 30, 2019

I recently finished reading Robert Crais‘ entertaining novel The Wanted (link contains video of Crais discussing the novel). The book features Crais’ thoughtful but sometimes troubled detective Elvis Cole and this is the 17th Elvis Cole novel. Crais is an established and well respected crime novelist – see this Guardian interview – and I have been impressed by the depth and quality of previous novels by this writer. This book, which was published in 2017, has an excellent plot and some very tense moments. The reader also feels that s/he has a better insight into Elvis Cole, the book’s protagonist. You can see a “but” coming here and it is that The Wanted is Robert Crais lite. It seems to me that Crais had a great time writing this novel, especially the two villains in the novel Harvey and Stemms, whose dialogue is both jokey and evil-intentioned at the same time. I found their meant-to-be-witty conversations unconvincing, but many other people may not. The two hired killers are trying to find a computer which has potentially damaging information on it. The laptop has been stolen by three fairly well off but bored teenagers in a series of raids on rich Hollywood homes. The baddies discover that Tyson Connor – one of the three teenagers – knows where the computer is and the book is a tense chase between Elvis Cole and his partner Joe Pike and the ruthless killers.

There is some very good characterisation in the book e.g. Connor’s mother, who hired Elvis Cole after she found a very valuable wristwatch in his bedroom. It is also a very good story and Crais is a master of building up tension and the ending is unpredictable. The Wanted would make a great read on a holiday flight but for a more weighty book, some of Crais’ other Elvis Cole novels would be much more satisfying.

Crime novel by Robert Crais (Click on all photos to enlarge)

As regular readers of this blog will know, we get some great skies over the town and sea in the summer months here in Dunbar. It’s not officially summer here until this weekend in the UK, but last week gave us a taste of summer, with some dramatic skies. The photo below (enlarge for best effect) shows a promise of what was to come later in the evening. There was a beautifully layered sky with many shades of blue and a hint of pink over Belhaven beach on our walk there. The photo looks towards the beach on the left and over to Winterfield Golf Club on the right. On the horizon, looking like a battleship, is the Isle of May (good photos)

Early evening sky at Belhaven beach

Back home, just after 9.30pm, the setting sun took over and shot its colours into the clouds to tremendous effect. At first, in the next photo (best enlarged) the glow was mainly over the town, with the outline of the buildings and their chimneys making it look as if the town was one huge castle, with many battlements. The clouds were tinged with orange and it was an eye-catching sight, but better was on its way.

Setting sun over Dunbar

Gradually, although over the space of only about 15 minutes, the colours changed to deep pink and then red. In this photo (best enlarged), I like the contrast between the blackened town, the light blue sky, the darker cloud at the top and the reddening clouds at the bottom right, which were changing before my eyes.

Brilliant sunset over Dunbar

The final photo (best enlarged) highlights the sky itself. Look at the dazzling shapes of the clouds and the interweaving of the clouds, which actually appear to be in motion even in this still photograph. It was as if molten metal had been poured into the sky at various points. I watched this mesmerising view for ten minutes before it took fright and disappeared into the darkness, never to return in exactly the same formation.

Blue, pink and red sky over the sea at Dunbar

Fever by Don Meyer and two SOC artists

April 1, 2019

My first experience of the South African writer Deon Meyer was his novel Icarus (blog review here) and I was very impressed. I have just finished reading his dystopian book Fever (review). The story is set in South Africa after a deadly virus – the Fever of the title – has destroyed the world, with only a few people surviving in each country. Willem Storm and his son Nico are the main protagonists of this well written and well plotted novel. Willem Storm takes his son to set up a new town called Amanzi in rural South Africa and they are joined by a variety of fellow survivors. There are some very tense scenes as the town is attacked by motor cycle gangs whose only aim is to plunder. There is also the story of Nico’s teenage years as a member of the Amanzi “army”, led by a powerful presence in the book called Domingo. The town expands and prospers but has to be constantly vigilant. Philosophical and religious differences emerge amongst the community and Willem Storm’s presidency comes under threat. It is an intriguing and often exciting tale of survival and progress. Like other reviewers, I found the ending unconvincing but not everyone will take this view. It’s a long book – over 500 pages – and very well worth reading as Meyer is a consummate story teller, who brings his characters to life extremely well. Buy it and see what you think.

Meyer’s post-apocalyptic novel (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The latest exhibition at the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club in Aberlady features 4 artists, two of which I feature here. The exhibition finishes on 10 April and a visit is highly recommended because of the quality of the art and the spread of styles. The first work below is by Carry Akroyd who is a painter and printmaker and the show includes some of her stunning work. The piece below is a clever depiction of terns in flight as well as wind turbines in motion. The terns are displayed in full colour but also in white (like the turbines) with a small dab of black. There is a superb feeling of movement in this work and the streamlined birds look elegant and effortless in their flight – maybe in contrast to the more laboured motion of the concrete turbines. The variety of colours is also attractive in what is predominantly a happy picture. There is another version of this print which is a postcard entitled “Big Turns and Little Terns”.

Arctic Terns by Carry Akroyd

The second artist is Babs Pease, who is an artist, illustrator and printmaker. This print is simply entitled Swans and it is a very impressive piece of art when you see it in the exhibition in full-size. What intrigued me about this piece was the artist’s decision to show the swans not in their natural white but mainly in various shades of delicate blue. I liked the way in which the swans are taking up different postures and are facing different ways, as are the reeds in the background. The rivers of colour in the birds’ plumage take your eye across the birds and down to their solid dark grey feet. You then notice the splash of orange in their beaks. The curves and patterns in the birds and the reeds give it a hint of surrealism – like swans in a dream. The poet Yeats saw his swans ” All suddenly mount / And scatter wheeling in great broken rings / Upon their clamorous wings”. In the poem The Wild Swans at Coole, Yeats describes the swans as “Mysterious, beautiful” and Pease’s swans meet those criteria. We often see and hear swans as they fly past the house – Yeats ” The bell-beat of their wings above my head” – or, as yesterday, float serenely on the nearby sea.

Swans by Babs Pease

There is much pleasure to be had by visiting this exhibition if you can or by watching our for these artists in the future.

Don Winslow’s The Force and historic hotel in Dunbar

March 7, 2019

I have just finished reading The Force by the US author Don Winslow. To say that this book has been well received is an understatement. The Daily Telegraph – “This stands out by a mile.. uncommonly exhilarating”. The Times Literary Supplement – “Shocking and shockingly convincing …sinewy, flexible, raw…”. The New York Times – “A stunner of a cop novel .. devastating plot”. It is certainly a well written novel, with caustic dialogue and reveals corruption at the heart of not only the New York police but of the whole political system. The protagonist – a very flawed “hero” – is Detective Sergeant Denny Malone, who is in charge of The Force – a small group of policemen whose main task is to keep the lid on potential violence in the black communities in the city. Malone is portrayed as a kind of Robin Hood as he protects the Manhattan North community from local gangs, while at the same time ensuring that the drug trade can continue but without a surfeit of hard drugs. It quickly becomes clear – no spoiler here – that Malone and his team are corrupt BUT see themselves as involved in low grade corruption, to protect their families. This is a very masculine book, with many violent incidents which are well written and not overly dramatised. The women in the book are mainly in the background and I wonder if female readers may find this off putting. There are a number of plots involving Malone’s relationships with his two closest colleagues, with drug dealers, with gangs, with lawyers and with politicians. Some readers may think that there is a moral vacuum at the heart of this novel – corruption is everywhere – but in interviews, Winslow argues that his research revealed that corruption was indeed rife in New York. For fans of crime novels, Winslow’s big book will be a welcome addition to the genre.

New Don Winslow novel (Click on all photos to enlarge)

One of my roles as a committee member of Dunbar and District History Society is to update the Resources section of the Society website each month. This month, we are featuring hotels in the town which have changed their names over the years and some have closed down as hotels. The photos and newspaper clipping below come from the Society archives. One of the hotels caught my interest as there is some social history attached to it.

The photo below of Kerridge’s Hotel shows a building which still stands today, albeit with extensions both left and right. It became the Bayswell Hotel after Kerridge’s and retains that name today locally, although it appears to have been renamed the Bayswell Park Hotel recently. The hotel was built in the 1890s and in 1903, Slater’s Commercial Directory presented a list of Dunbar hotels including “Kerridge’s Family Hotel (facing the sea) (Mrs J Kerridge proprietress) Bayswell Park, Dunbar”. The Scottish Military Research Group site, referring to the Dunbar war memorial quotes a source stating “Intimation has been received in Dunbar by his relatives that Private Louis Kerridge of the Cameron Highlanders, has been killed in action. He had been out of the trenches on eight days leave and on the day in which he returned, he was killed. A postcard was received from him by his children which bore the words ‘Be good. And God bless you’. Deceased was the son of Mrs Kerridge of Kerridge’s Hotel, and at one time a prominent player in the Dunbar Football Club”. In another source, a person doing research on the Bayswell Hotel states that “The hotel was known as Kerridge’s Hotel. In 1901 Jane Kerridge was Hotel Keeper. She was a widow aged 61”.

Dunbar Hotel in the 1890s/1900s

I found a newspaper cutting – from the Haddingtonshire Courier (now the East Lothian Courier) referring to the hotel. There is no date on the cutting but it will be from the 1890s. The cutting is shown below and is interesting in that it refers to the “New Esplanade” which is the promenade – built in 1894 – near the hotel. The strapline states that the hotel provides “Good stabling and baths” indicates that people staying there may have brought carriages with them. It also implies that not all hotel accommodation at the time provided residents with a bath. Nowadays, hotels often do not have baths either, but walk-in showers instead. It would appear that Mr Kerridge died before 1901 and Mrs Kerridge took over.

James Lee Burke’s “Robicheaux” and countryside frost

January 29, 2019

I have just finished reading Robicheaux by the noted US author James Lee Burke. This book is classified as a crime novel and indeed, there is much crime and many criminals to be found in the book, but Burke is such a lyrical writer, especially when describing the bayou settings in the novel, that it should be a novel first and a crime novel second. The titular hero Dave Robicheaux, has featured in many of Burke’s novel and is now semi-retired – officially – but he becomes fully involved in an investigation of a series of murders which involve police on the take, corrupt politicians, gangsters and a terrifying psychopath. Burke has always been a social commentator in his novels, although he never preaches. The book highlights the social tensions in US society between rich and poor, black and white, moral and amoral. One of the key characters in the book is Jimmy Nightingale, a populist politician who plays on the racist and anti-immigrant prejudices of many of his constituents, and is running for the senate, with hopes of higher office. Sounds familiar.

Robicheaux himself is a complex character, who is a recovering and occasionally lapsing alcoholic and Vietnam veteran. His fight is against criminals and the corrupt, but also against himself and his sometimes violent tendencies. His best pal is Clete Purcel, another complicated man whose view is that injustice is best served via violence against the perpetrators. Robicheaux tries to help Purcel and Purcel tries to keep his friend sober. Burke’s dialogue is one of his great strengths and it can be humorous. The pair meet in a bar and it looks like Purcel may be on a bender. Robicheaux asks “Why not put your brain in a jar and give it to a medical school”. The reply is “I did that five years ago. They gave it back”.

This is a mainly male-dominated novel but some of the female characters are well developed, such as Robicheaux’s female boss. Burke has always been a superb story teller and he keeps a complex plot moving and provides the reader with intriguing possibilities as to who might be behind the crime wave that is emerging in the county. Another character is the bayou itself and Burke has many poetic descriptions of the environment in which Robicheaux has his home. For example: “The coastline was a heartbreaking green inside the mist. Flying fish broke from the bay’s surface and sailed above the water …. The salt spray breaking on my bow was cold and fresh and smelled of resilience”. Reading Burke’s novel, you get a sense of the beauty and the danger (e.g. crocodiles) of the natural world, as well as the human world. This is a pacy thriller – but much more than that.

James Lee Burke’s captivating novel (Click on all photos to enlarge)

We now go from the heat and humidity of the Louisiana bayou to the cold and frost (but beautiful blue skies) of south east Scotland. On a recent Sunday morning, we drove 2 miles up country and parked the car at Oswald Dean, locally known as Oasie Dean and went on a circular walk. There was a heavy frost at our house and it was even thicker up the country, but there is a startlingly bright beauty about a frosted scene, such as this one, looking over the bridge at Oasie Dean. The trees, bushes and grass are all whitened and make the blue of the burn more outstanding than normal. The burn interrupts the imposed stillness of its surroundings.

Frosted meadow at Oswald Dean near Dunbar

Just across the road, on the wall above the neighbouring field, I spotted the frozen ivy leaves. The leaves and grass on this side of the wall remained white and stiff, while the leaves at the top and the yellow moss on the right of the photo below, had been restored to suppleness by the sun.

Frosted ivy and sun restored moss on the wall at Oswald Dean

On closer inspection (photo below), the ivy leaves appeared to be delicately dusted with frost, which served not to conceal, but to emphasise the delicate patterns of the veins on the leaves. Some were completely iced over and prickly-looking, while others were only fringed by ice and displayed what looked like a huge river, with tributaries on either side.

Frosted ivy leaves at Oswald Dean

We continued our walk up past The Doonery, now a collection of houses but formerly a farm, with an impressive chimney. Looking back at the Doonery (photo below) the edge of the path which was sheltered from the sun, was still frost-bound. I like the long straight lines in the photo, leading your eye to the bare trees and the former farm buildings.

Frosty pathside leading to the Doonery

Further up, this path has some magnificent trees which glowed in the bright blue winter sunlight. In the photo below, you can see the shadows cast by the trees. It looks like a man or woman is reaching up to pick something off the branches. The tress maybe leafless in January but they still impress with their sturdiness and shining trunks. Above the darker blue sea in the background, the sky goes from pale to a similar dark blue.

Trees on the path up to Doon Hill cast interesting shadows

We came back down the hill via Spott Farm which now appears to be open to walkers and runners, having been closed off for a number of years. The farm has many solid sandstone buildings and as you turn one corner, you see the farm clock (photo below), with its small campanile above. The roof had been partly in the sun, but the frost was still thick on the unwarmed sections.

We were walking down the driveway from the main Spott House building, when 3 deer leapt the fence to our right and bounced across the road into the next field. Seeing deer dash away from you, with their white rumps disappearing into the field, is always a pleasure to see. I managed to catch one of the deer (photo below) as it crossed the tree-lined driveway and the still frosted grass. Again, the trees cast shadows which left sunny rectangles on the road and the grass. A fine end to a very enjoyable walk.

A deer crosses over the road up to Spott House

Benjamin Black’s Holy Orders and Mount Maunganui

December 10, 2018

Holy Orders by Benjamin Black  (good video) is the 6th book in the 1950s Dublin-based series featuring the clever but self-doubting pathologist Quirke, his daughter Phoebe and his detective ally Hackett. Like the other Quirke novels, this may be classified as a crime novel, but this is a very well written novel, with a superb sense of place, an engaging plot and excellent characterisation, which has a crime as its centre. Benjamin Black is the pen name of Booker prize-winning author John Banville and this shows in some of the lyrical phrases which Black uses in the book to very good effect. You don’t read Benjamin Black for a page-turning potboiler, but you do read him for a story which will intrigue you as to which way it will turn. You also read him for his engaging characters, particularly Quirke who is often troubled by thoughts of his school days when he was abused by Catholic priests. In this novel, Black also fleshes out the character of his daughter Phoebe, whose journalist friend Jimmy Minor has been beaten to death and dumped in the Dublin canal. Quirke and Hackett set out to identify the killer(s) and there is a gradual build up to a satisfactory conclusion for the reader – no spoilers here. 

Black – like Banville – has some outstanding phrases in the book which stand out in the memory e.g. “In the fireplace, a dolmen of turf logs was smouldering sullenly”. A dolmen? The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as ” a group of stones consisting of one large flat stone supported by several vertical ones, built in ancient times “. Once you know the meaning, Black’s imagery is even more powerful. In describing Sally, Jimmy Minor’s sister, Black writes “Her hair shone like coils of dark copper”. Another powerful simile – “In Baggot Street, the trees shivered and shook like racehorses waiting for the off”. This is an impactful book in many ways and as the plot develops, more social issues in Ireland emerge and become part of the story. If you like well-written, well-plotted and sometimes drolly humorous novel, then this is definitely for you and it would make a great festive season gift. 

The 6th book in the Quirke series (Click on all captions  to enlarge photos)

On our trip to New Zealand, we visited my sister and brother-in-law in Tauranga (good photos).  Tauranga has a huge harbour with extensive docks which regularly house cruise liners and large container ships, such as the one below, heading for the harbour.

Container ship heading towards Tauranga harbour.

Mount Maunganui  lies on the other side of the harbour and is described as a “holiday paradise”. It has a beautiful stretch of beach and on a sunny summer’s day, with the white waves easing themselves ashore from a deep blue sea, you can see why. Here is the beach with the Mount at the end. 

Mount Maunganui beach and The Mount.

Originally a separate village from Tauranga, “The Mount” as local refer to it, is called after Mauoa which is the remaining top of an extinct volcano. You can walk up and over the Mount or around it and the 360 degree views are spectacular from the top, from where you can see the harbour,  Motuotau (Rabbit Island) (good photos), out to the ocean and along the beach. Below is a photo taken from the top of The Mount and looking over Mount Maunganui and the beach. It is quite a strenuous walk to the top of The Mount but we did it in 30 min as we are pretty fit. The track is quite rough in parts and there are some very steep inclines. So it is a good workout as well a rewarding walk, given the views from the top. 

View over Mount Maunganui beach 

There is also an excellent walking track around the base of The Mount. It is a much easier walk but it gives you time to appreciate the surroundings more – the trees, the sheep and the vegetation. I mentioned the many tankers going into Tauranga Harbour as well as the cruise liners. On our last visit in 2011, we were walking around The Mount when we were passed by this huge liner. You can see the size of the vessel by looking at the people on the track. We had seen this same cruise liner docked at Circular Bay in Sydney just a few days earlier. 

Cruise liner heading for Tauranga Harbour

Donal Ryan’s All We Shall Know and Autumnal sunset

November 12, 2018

I have just finished reading Donal Ryan‘s excellent novel All We Shall Know. It has a dramatic opening – “Martin Toppy is the son of a famous Traveller and the father of my unborn child. He is seventeen. I’m thirty three. I was his teacher”. The book’s chapters follow the weeks of the pregnancy – 12 to 39 and introduce some very interesting characters. The narrator is Melody Shee – a troubled woman and at the start of  the novel, I thought this might end up being a misery lit novel as Melody is depressed and angry. This does not last however and although we do hear about Melody’s failed marriage, there are incidents from her childhood and  school days. Melody then meets Mary, a traveller girl who seeks refuge with Melody from her family. Mary is barely literate but is lively and has a sharp wit. Another key character in the novel is Melody’s father, who supports her through thick and thin. He is a charming, quiet man and a devout Catholic. He also has some Irish phrases that many will not have come across before. When Melody visits, he says “You’re as welcome as the flowers in Spring”. This reminded me of the Robert Burns song “You’re welcome Willie Stewart” which has the lines “There’s ne’er a flower that blooms in May, That’s half sae welcome’s thou art!”. Here is Eddi Reader singing that song.

Ryan is an often poetic writer – “As she turned away again and I admired the sway of her, the queenly straightness of her back, the sceptred sureness of her step”. He also gives an insight into the culture of the travellers in Ireland – their extended family ties, their  disrepute (often undeserved) in the general community, and their feuds, in one of which Melody and Mary become involved. The ending is plausible but not convincing, whereas the rest of the book is well plotted and full of well-developed characters. Ryan manages to capture the Irish humour with some captivating dialogue, but he never lapses into cliches. I will be reading more of Ryan’s work in the future and I encourage you to do so as well.

Donal Ryan’s captivating novel (Click on all photos to enlarge)

In the UK, the clocks have now gone back and it is now dark by 6pm and much colder, although this does not stop us getting rugged up, as the Australians say, and going for a walk after our evening meal under a bright, starry sky. Just before the time change, we had one brilliant sunset which turned the partly cloudy sky into a stunning array of pink. This photo  shows the still blue sky scattered with pink-ribbed clouds, in contrast to the dark landscape of the town, with scaffolding on the church at the bottom left, while the sea at the bottom right is also turning pink. The sky changed as you watched it, as the light faded. What I like about this photo is that the clouds appear to be moving upwards – away from the town, as if they had been released into the sky from a canon.

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Autumnal sky above Dunbar

In this photo, you can see more of the reflection of the pinks clouds on the sea  and the dramatic swirl of the cloud above the town, which is tiny in comparison. I also like the variety of colours in the sky – the different blues, reds and pinks.

Autumnal sky over Dunbar

In the final photo of the sky only, the sky was darkening and there is quite a contrast between the left and right hand sides of the photo, as it was still quite light in the west but as your eyes went east over the sea, the light was in shorter supply, although this does not diminish the stunning patterns made by the clouds.

Darkening pink clouds over Dunbar

 

 

Peter Carey’s A Long Way From Home and the National Gallery of Ireland

October 11, 2018

I have just finished Peter Carey’s remarkable novel A Long Way From Home which features two very distinct voices of the main characters in the book. Peter Carey is one of Australia’s best known novelists and has won the Man Booker Prize twice, once with his truly original novel The True History of the Kelly Gang, which featured the remarkable voice of the semi-literate Kelly. In the current book, there are two distinct voices which dominate the book in alternate chapters. The first voice is of the feisty and diminutive (in height only) Irene Bobs who gets married to her car salesman husband Titch. Irene is determined to succeed and has refined humorous descriptions of events and people down to a fine art, for example in her dealings with her rascally father in law Dan. The second voice is of Willie Bachhuber, a very intelligent and thoughtful teacher, who is accident prone in life and love. He is dismissed for hanging a pupil, the son of a local villain, upside down outside a classroom window. He moves next door to the Bobs family and ends up being a navigator for their car in the famous Australian Redex Trial, a hair-raising race around Australia in the 1950s. You can get a flavour of the race in the video below.

This is the adventure story part of the book but the novel is much more than a rip-roaring tale. The family tensions within the Bobs family deal with love and emotion. The other major part of the novel deals with Australia’s history of ill-treatment (and earlier genocide) of the aboriginal peoples who once owned all the land. The story of Willie Bachhuber and his family background is often moving but never sentimental, and his teaching of aboriginal children – and learning from them – is inspirational. Carey carefully intertwines the stories of his characters, both white people and aboriginal “blackfellahs”, a term used by both races. This compulsive novel is by turns hilarious and heart-wrenching and contains Carey’s often poetic but always immaculately structured sentences. Some examples: “Mrs Bobs piloted with her nose just above the wheel, checking her mirrors left, right and centre. I was reminded of a sparrow eating”. “Clover was about my own age, tall and slender as a flooded gum”. “Doctor Battery [an aboriginal man] sang softly, with sufficient authority, it seemed, to lift the sun up from the sand, suck the shadows out across the plain”. Go out and buy this novel and the voices of the two main characters will remain with you for a long time.

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Peter Carey’s enthralling new novel (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The final experience of our trip to Dublin was a visit to the impressive National Gallery of Ireland which has an excellent range of Irish artists, as  well as works of the more famous such as Monet, Vermeer and Turner (click on links for examples of their work). My main aim was to learn more – and see examples of – Irish painting and portraiture, and I was not disappointed. The first painting which really caught my eye is The Sunshade by William Leech. The colours in the painting range from vivid to subtle and the sunlight on the woman’s top contrasts with the shadows created by the umbrella. The woman’s top veers from green at the top to bright yellow at the bottom. There is delicacy everywhere in this most attractive painting – in the fine lines of the umbrella, in the woman’s elegant neck and in her fine hands. What is she thinking as she stares into space and her fingers touch on the umbrella’s handle? I think that the artist would leave that for us as individuals to interpret.

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The Sunshade by William Leech

The second work of art is Carting Seaweed on Sutton Sands by Joseph Malachy Kavanagh. The information beside painting – done in 1895 – tells us that collecting seaweed on beaches near Dublin “for food, medicine and fertiliser” was a common practice, as it was elsewhere in Europe. There is so much to admire in this painting – the doleful horses waiting patiently to haul the ever-heightening load of seaweed; the ominous dark clouds, which may be moving away from their lighter and fluffier counterparts – or approaching them; the wet sand with puddles reflecting the wheels and the horses’ feet; the waves which make little impact on the shore; and the man who is busy collecting the seaweed in his rough clothes, with a tear in his waistcoat at the back. Part of the scene echoes Philip Larkin’s lines in To the Sea – “the small, hushed waves’ repeated fresh collapse”. As I live by the sea, paintings of beaches always intrigue me and this painting was no exception.

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Carting Seaweed on Sutton Sands by Joseph M Kavanagh

The final painting is by Sir John Lavery (many examples) some of whose works I have seen in the National Gallery of Scotland (example)The one I have chosen from Dublin is Return from Market, painted in France, as was the Leech example above. This impressionist work shows a mother and daughter returning from the market in a small rowing boat, although the girl is using the oar like a punt. This is quite a large painting, so you can stand back and admire the gentle reflections of the woods and the boat on the water. The leaves at the top and the beautiful water lilies at the bottom of the painting give the work a calming and perhaps dream-like quality. It is a rustic and timeless scene. I like the way the artist captures the serenity of the water lilies, just as they are about to be swept aside by the boat.

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Return from Market by John Lavery

The National Gallery of Ireland is in an impressive, modern building. The lay-out can be confusing but the staff were friendly, helpful and informative. It was a pleasure to visit.