NEVER LET ME GO by Kazuo Ishiguro

It is a very strange book this, not particularly likeable or enjoyable, but certainly thought provoking, disturbing and weird. I read it because some in my book club had read it, found it challenging, said it was worth a read. So I did. Was it worth the time and effort? For  me, no.

On line reviews warned of spoilers, so I was careful what I read. Getting closer to the end of the book, page by page waiting for the big twist, waiting, waiting, nothing. The premise behind the plot is disclosed fairly early on, and my expectation of some even bigger reveal was disappointing.

The story is narrated by Kathy, a woman in her early 30s, who is a medical carer. Without ruining the plot for readers, although there is plenty on line about the plot, it is suffice to say that there are no happy endings here. I think this is the big twist I was waiting for. Kathy has grown up at a school,  Hailsham House. It is a very protective and isolated school, well away from public eyes, and the reader senses immediately that things are not quite right as we know them. There are no parents, no siblings, only guardians. Her closest friends are Ruth and Tommy and a sort of love triangle evolves over the years, although they are so sheltered and hidden from the real world, they don't really understand love and relationships in quite the same way as the mainstream population.

The story is narrated entirely by Kathy, looking back on her life as she is about to enter the next phase of it.  She is trying to make sense of her life, the life they have all led, what is it all for, looking for some sort of identity, where they have come from. It is extremely peculiar trying to make sense of your purpose when it is a life led in a totally different way, and it makes for uncomfortable reading. I wouldn't go as far as saying this is a dystopian novel or even sci-fi. But it is certainly an intriguing, frightening and disturbing topic that is being written about. Hitler would have loved it. 

THE SIXTEEN TREES OF THE SOMME by Lars Mytting

It's a big book, a story that will take you from Norway to the Shetland Islands, to the Somme, but what a cracker of a novel it is. I loved this, its complexity, the unusual characters, the bleak landscapes so well evoked that contribute to what is really quite a bleak story. But it is the plot, so unusual and intriguing that really grabbled me. I really had no idea almost all of the time where this story was going, and the ending was still a wonderful surprise. It has been translated from Norwegian - the author is very successful in Scandinavia - and at times it does read slightly differently from how we perhaps would write/say the same thing in English. It is not a problem at all, and has no impact on the story, but the odd turn of phrase lends the narrative a bit of an edge.

It is the early 1990s, a small farming community in Norway. Edvard Hirifjel is in his mid 20s, living with his grandfather on the family farm. He knows very little about his parents, as they died in strange circumstances in a remote area of France near the Somme when Edvard was only three years old. He had been with his parents and was found a few days later in a town some distance away. He has no recollection of this time, although every now and again hazy sorts of images will float across his mind. He has been brought up by his grandparents. He comes across as being a loner, old before his time - I can't really believe he is so young - shaped by the deaths of his parents, the isolated existence he lives with his grandfather, his destiny on the farm, married to a young woman he has known since childhood.

Then his grandfather dies. A beautifully made coffin had been delivered at some time in the past, which was to be used for the grandfather  - the handiwork of Edvard's uncle Einar. But Einar is supposed to have died in France during the war. Going through his grandfather's possessions and papers, trying to unravel the mystery of the origins of the coffin,  he finds things that lead him to question what did happen to him, his parents, and to Einar. Over the course of the months Edvard finds the young man inside himself, he learns about himself, what he is capable of, his curiosity propelling him forward. In the end, he does answer all the questions, it is satisfying, uplifting, and well concluded.

Trees, wood, a love of the outdoors, the land, craftsmanship, having and taking time to do things, to think things - this is set in the time before email, internet, texting, social media. So there is a heavy reliance on telephones, letters, leaving notes, even having a real conversation.  We often need time and space to process things, this story would not have been the same in our 'now' society. Edvard's search for answers takes him to the Shetland Islands, once owned by Norway and where apparently many words in the local dialect are of Norwegian origin. The WWI Battle of the Somme is central to the story, and is depicted in the most graphic horrifying way.

It has stayed with me this story, it makes me want to go to the Shetland Islands, and even to the memorials at the Somme, to see for myself the places described and to feel the atmosphere the writer has been able to conjure up. 

MY NAME IS NOBODY by Matthew Richardson

My favourite type of book - Spies! Espionage! Double Agents! Red Herrings! This has it all. I read a review that this is a cross between a Robert Ludlum and John Le Carre and would easily agree with that summary. Not as sophisticated, intricate as Le Carre, but every bit as thrilling as a Ludlum, this is a great book. We are beyond the Cold War days so beloved by writers of this genre, the more modern theme of Islamic terrorism central to this story. Solomon Vine is the MI5 operative who has found himself suspended after a shooting that takes place while he is interviewing a suspect in Istanbul. Not long after the head of the Istanbul post, old friend and rival Gabriel Wilde, goes missing. Solomon is called in by his old boss to unravel the puzzle.

And what a puzzle it is. Cryptic clues are everywhere, beginning with a copy of Ulysses' The Odyssey, translated by Gabriel into English, and delivered to Solomon after the former's disappearance. It is in this translation that Solomon eventually finds the phrase 'My Name is Nobody'.  What follows is an endlessly twisting path, both physically and metaphorically as Solomon, a mathematical genius by the way, looks to connect the dots between the shot suspect in Istanbul, Gabriel's disappearance, and whoever 'nobody' may be, doors firmly shut in his face at every turn. To complicate matters further, Solomon's ex fiancee, now wife to Gabriel, makes a reappearance, desperately trying to find her husband. Murky, tricky, smoke and mirrors, who can Solomon trust, are his instincts as good as they used to be when he himself was in the field. The ending is both surprising and not, as there are clues planted in the novel that if you are smart will lead you to the 'nobody'. Just remember a perceived red herring is not always a red herring.

Terrific stuff. What is also very refreshing is that the spy work is good old fashioned surveillance, walking or running the streets, decoding messages, listening, reading body language, looking for the nuances in language, and behaviour. A very modern old fashioned spy novel, if you see what I mean. 

PACHINKO by Min Jin Lee

The cover and the title provide no clue at all as to what this novel is about, so in opening it and beginning to read you are in completely uncharted territory. Taken out of the comfort zone of the expected - judging the book by its cover, not possible with this novel. There is lots to learn in this novel.

Set against the historical context of twentieth century Japan-Korea relations, this novel tells the story of a Korean family living in exile in Japan. In the early 20th century, Korea was 'conquered' by Japan, becoming a colony of Japan, which resulted in considerable hardship for the Korean population.

The story begins in 1932 with Sunja, a teenage girl living with her widowed mother, helping her in her running of a boarding house in Korea.  She becomes pregnant to a wealthy Korean man, Hansu, who seems to have made a successful life for himself in Osaka. But of course is married. Sunja is 'rescued' by a young Korean Christian missionary, who promises to raise  the baby as his own. They migrate to Osaka, to the impoverished and squalid part of the city where the Korean population lives, and like millions of migrants before them all over the world, begin the long hard slog to making a better life for themselves and their children. At all times, often unwanted, but always doing his best, is Hansu who still loves Sunja and her son, but can never know who his real father is.

The story chronicles the family - Sunju, her husband Isak, her in-laws, children Noa and Mozasu, their children, partners over the years from 1932 to 1989. It is wonderful, deeply engrossing and affecting. A lot of history is woven into the narrative, which provides the backdrop to the despair of the Koreans and the appalling discrimination by the Japanese toward them. I had no idea at all about any of this. I loved the characters, the love and compassion they show each other, the smallest of gestures and kindnesses making life worth living. Every day they get up, bravely facing another day of hard work, little money, doing their best for their families. It is inspiring and beautiful, lives and people lovingly written and described. This is a time and place in history I know nothing about- I learnt a lot. 

PERSONAL HISTORY by Katharine Graham

The movie 'The Post' with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks depicted how The Washington Post newspaper won the right of free speech competition with Richard Nixon's government of the early 1970s. This set the scene the scene for arguably the Post's most successful coup ever, the uncovering of the Watergate scandal which resulted in the impeachment of Nixon, retold in the movie 'All the President's Men'.

At the helm of the paper during these turbulent times was Katharine Graham, there really only by virtue of being the daughter of the man who bought the paper way back in 1933, and the wife of the man, Phil Graham,  who took over from his father-in-law. The reins were  inherited by Katharine on her husband's suicide in 1963. She stood down as publisher in 1979, her son, then great niece in charge until 2014 when it was was sold to Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame.

There was really nothing remarkable about Katharine, a very privileged, well educated young woman, who had been brought up to believe that a woman's place was in the home, tending to her husband and children, putting her own needs and thoughts etc second to those around her. From time to time she had dabbled in a bit of journalism, writing the odd column for the paper, but certainly no positions of management, leadership or decision making. Being thrust into the top dog role in 1963 at the age of 46, recently widowed in horrible circumstances, four children, was more than a baptism by fire. She had plenty of help of course: this book is riddled with Post staff at all levels of the organisation whose advice, guidance, and decision making probably contributed more to the survival and success of the paper than her own management did, but flourish indeed it did.

This is her story, all 700 pages of it, published in 1997 when she was 80 years old. And what a story it is. It is incredibly long; there are way too many names - harsher critics than me call it name dropping, they also call her a spoiled ineffective figurehead; I skim read much of the management stuff of the paper, her conflicts with editors, managers, labour issues. But as a story of the transformation a woman of her time made from being a wife/mother to being a person of influence and opinion in a very male-dominated world is marvellous, and what's more at a time when the feminist movement was beginning to hit its stride. Yes, there were set backs; yes, she was regularly vilified, parodied and insulted; yes, there were times she wanted to throw it all away. But she didn't and in her quiet, dignified and polite way (as she tells it), she ends up being a stayer. The paper won 10 of its 47 Pulitzer Prizes on her watch.

Much of this book is outdated now, but not only does it tell Mrs Graham's own personal story, it also chronicles much of America's social, economic and political history during the middle section of the last century. Well worth a read, and ties in very nicely with  the two movies 'The Post', and 'All the President's Men'. 

THE SECRET COUNTESS by Eve Ibbotson

This novel was intended by the author to be adult fiction when first published in 1981, but it found such a strong following among younger readers, that it has since been republished as young adult fiction. It is a credit to the writer, who would be 90 this year if still alive, that she has so successfully been able to place a foot in both camps.

The secret countess is 19 year old Anna Grazinsky, daughter of Count and Countess Grazinsky who lost everything with the Bolshevik uprising of 1916. Her father dead, Anna has fled Russia with her mother, brother, and countless other aristocrats, ending up in London and taken in by her former governess. Anna has courage, pluck, and plenty of smarts. She decides to get a short term job as a servant in order to contribute to the household's income, talking her way into a position at the country estate of an English aristocratic family.

What follows is fairly predictable for us older jaded readers, but this never detracts from the nicely paced story telling, the upstairs/downstairs characters, shenanigans, and various eccentric English people. Anna charms her way into the hearts of everyone, well almost everyone, never letting her secret out, determined to pay her way. The author is Austrian by birth, escaping to England in the early 1930s with her mother, making me suspect some elements of this are autobiographical.

I really liked this with plenty of action, easy to read, some depth and complexity, a good number of twists and turns, a most satisfying outcome, and I  can see why it appeals to both the younger and the older reader. 

THE MEMORY STONES by Caroline Brothers

"The Grandmothers are not afraid. The worst that could happen to them has already happened. Their voices challenge the military regime that continues to deny the existence of the disappeared" Strong words from the Grandmothers of the Plaza De Mayo, set up by a group of grandmothers in Buenos Aires in 1977 whose children were among the thousands of 'disappeared' following the military coup of 1976-1983. Among the disappeared were many young people, including what is estimated to be 500 pregnant women. They gave birth to their babies while imprisoned, were subsequently disposed of and their babies adopted out to military families. This powerful and heart wrenching  novel is the fictional story of one family, although if you do some on-line research, this story could be that of any one of the real families. To date 126 grandchildren have been located and identified, often bringing about considerable emotional shock and trauma for the grandchildren themselves, who had no idea at all of their origins. 

In this story, Osvaldo Ferrero, a surgeon, and his wife Yolanda, a teacher, have two daughters. Julieta has married and lives in Florida, while Graciela, still a student is engaged to Jose, who works with the city's poor, empowering them with jobs, education. Once martial law takes over in 1976, the reign of terror begins. Osvaldo is forced to flee Argentina as the result of a cartoon he draws which is published in a left wing paper. Jose and by association Graciela are taken away, never to be seen again. Yolanda is left, in total despair, fear and shock, to continue living in her ruined city. She joins the Grandmothers and so begins her search for her daughter and Jose. Meantime Osvaldo lives in exile in Paris, never to be a surgeon again. 

For many years, the rest of the world never really knew what was going on in Argentina, and so it is for Osvaldo and Yolanda. Osvaldo is consumed with guilt at deserting his wife and daughter, Yolanda is completely powerless in her role as mother and wife not being able to do either, Julieta cannot visit her mother for fear of not being allowed to return to Florida,  and Graciela, well, we pretty much know what happened to her. But nothing remains secret forever, and as the months and years pass, snippets of information come to the couple, and they are slowly able to piece together what happened to their daughter.  Over the course of 20-30 years, they come to terms with the shattering of their family, just one with hundreds of other families and in the end find a way to move forward. 

As you can imagine there is a lot of very intense emotion going on here, and the author is brilliant at capturing what is going on the hearts and souls of the characters. We have no idea really what it would be like to be in the situation of any of the characters, how we would feel, or behave, but the author makes it very easy for us to imagine the horror, the distress, the fear and awfulness of it all. I loved this book, it was a total page turner, although I feel it did drag a little in the middle.  Doesn't stop me giving it 5 out of 5. I couldn't help but become a little consumed with the fact that this only happened forty years ago, very recent history, and how quickly lives and a society can be ripped apart by the power crazy actions of a few.