Books to Look Out For in December 2019

Cover imageJust enough new novels in December to fill a post, two of them in translation beginning with Annette Hess’ The German House, set against a backdrop of the 1963 Frankfurt war crimes trials. The war’s a dim memory for 24-year-old Eva, keen to start her new life with her wealthy fiancé. When an American investigator offers her a job as a translator, she finds herself questioning both her family’s role in the horrors of the past and her own future. Hess’ novel is one of three published to launch, HarperVia, a new literature in translation imprint from HarperCollins. Always happy to see more of that and if It Would Be Night in Caracas is anything to go by it’s a list to keep an eye on. That’s a stylish jacket, too.

Anne Catherine Bomann’s Agatha was a bestseller in Germany, apparently, but was originally published in Denmark. A 71-year-old psychiatrist with no family or friends is eagerly awaiting retirement when a young German woman walks into his clinic and demands an appointment. He finds her fascinating, beginning a joint course of therapy with her which forces him to confront his fear of intimacy according to the blurb which sounds very promising to me.

Angela Meyer’s Joan Smokes is a mere 76 pages, apparently, more a short story than a novella although it won this year’s Mslexia Novella Award. Set in the ‘60s, it’s about a woman who arrives in Las Vegas determined to reinvent herself. Calling herself Joan, she gets to work on her appearance – choosing red lipstick and dying her hair – but turning her back on her past may not be so easy. ‘This city of flashing neon, casinos and shows is full of distractions. Finding a job will be quick and easy. Things to do. New people to meet. A clean sheet. She’s certainly not thinking about Jack, or … No. Not any more. Her new life starts right here, right now’ says the blurb. I rather like the sound of this one.

I’m finishing the last new title post for 2019 with Etaf Rum’s A Woman is No Man. Eighteen years Cover imageafter her mother left Palestine, betrothed within a week, Deva finds herself facing a string of suitors in Brooklyn, arranged by her formidable grandmother whose care she has been in since her parents were killed in a car crash. Shocking truths are revealed, apparently, forcing Deva to question everything she thought she knew about her family. ‘Three generations of Palestinian-American women living in Brooklyn are torn between individual desire and the strict mores of Arab culture in this heart-wrenching story of love, intrigue and courage’ say the publishers. The New York Times described it as ‘a love letter to storytelling’.

As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more. Paperbacks soon…

It Would Be Night in Caracas by Karina Sainz Borgo (transl. Elizabeth Bryer): Dystopia in the here and now

Cover imageVenezuelan writer Karina Sainz Borgo’s It Would Be Night in Caracas is one of three novels published to launch HarperVia, a new imprint from HarperCollins dedicated to publishing literature in translation. It sets the bar pleasingly high with its immersive story of a middle-aged woman, left alone after the death of her mother, who seizes a chance to escape the long and bloody revolution taking place on the streets of her country.

Adelaida has nothing left of her paltry savings after her mother’s burial. Her only family are her two aunts, now in their eighties, who she remembers visiting in their village as a child. She grew up against a backdrop of the Bolivarian Revolution which began two decades ago. Food shortages have become starvation for many and a source of wealth for others. Abductions are commonplace, gunshot frequent, medicine hard to come by and expensive. One day, Adelaida comes home to find her apartment taken over by a group of women engaged in their own version of state aid distribution. Aggressive and violent, they beat her up, refusing to let her in. Managing to break into her neighbour’s flat, she discovers Aurora’s corpse and with it an opportunity. Adelaida finds herself engaged in the unthinkable in a determined effort to escape the city’s mayhem.

Instead of funeral parlours, the city now had furnaces. People went in and out like loaves of bread, which were in short supply on the shelves but rained down in our memory whenever hunger overcame us.  

We’re so bound up in our political troubles here in the UK that we sometimes forget that the plight of others is far, far worse than our own. Syria comes to mind, from which our domestic media seems to have turned their faces, but Venezuela’s situation is also desperate as Borgo’s novel makes clear. She’s careful to remind readers of the inequities visited on a diverse society in the determined grip of a white middle class before the Revolution but brutality, corruption and degradation accompanied by galloping inflation and shortages seems hardly an improvement in a country rich enough in oil for everyone to live comfortably.

Adelaida tells her story in her own voice, weaving childhood memories and scenes from her work as an editor through the events which unfold after her mother’s death. Borgo’s writing is visceral and vivid, her narrative gripping. Her novel effectively humanises the horrors taking place on the streets of Caracas through the story of one woman. In my ignorance, I was not entirely sure how realistic it might be but the chilling disclaimer at the end suggests that several incidents are based on actual events. Publishers’ lists are full of dystopian fiction, often depicting post-apocalyptic events, but if you want to see what a real dystopia looks like, this is it. In the here and now.

HarperCollins: London 2019 9780008359911 240 pages Hardback

To the Volcano by Elleke Boehmer: Stories of longing and loneliness

Cover imageI’d not heard of Elleke Boehmer before To the Volcano turned up, despite the five novels she has under her belt. She’s also the author of an acclaimed biography of Nelson Mandela not to mention editor of the bestselling 2004 edition of Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys. I knew about the latter from Waterstone’s Books Quarterly days but had failed to make the connection. Now an Oxford academic, Boehmer was born in South Africa which explains why so many of her stories emanate from the southern hemisphere.

The opening piece sets the tone for much of this collection with a tale of homesickness in which a young African student’s infectious laugh gradually fades away in an unwelcoming ancient British university town. Lise’s dream of visiting Paris, her backpack stuffed with French classics to guide her, is dulled by rain and unwanted attention which sends her thoughts heading for home in ‘South, North’ while ‘Evelina’, one of my favourites, sees a young Argentinian travel guide, due to join her fiancé in New York, lingering in the airport until the last minute, reluctant to board the plane. Closely linked to the yearning for home, ‘Supermarket Love’ is a tale of cultural confusion as a young Afghan Muslim shelf-stacker writes a letter in her head to an Australian agony aunt about her crush on a colleague, knowing she can never send it. ‘Synthetic Orange’ also calls to mind refugees when the gift of a bracelet made from the brightly coloured vests worn by migrants brings back memories of two shocking events for a woman on holiday in Spain.

Many of Boehmer’s stories are about people at a decisive point in their lives, a time to turn backwards or forwards, but several explore ageing a particularly poignant example of which is ‘Paper Planes’ in which an old woman sits in her nursing home bedroom playing with her grandson, or rather watching him play. ‘The Mood I’m In’ takes a rather different view of growing old as a widow, dry-eyed at her previous husbands’ funerals, finds herself in tears at the fourth.

These are insightful, intelligent stories full of characters pursuing their dreams but often meeting with disappointment, unable to make a decisive move, pulled back by a longing for home or an inability to escape their past and often left lonely as a result. An enjoyable collection, written with a quietly perceptive insight.

Myriad Editions: Oxford 9781912408245 177 pages Paperback

The Sunday Times/ University of Warwick Young Writer Award 2019 Shortlist

Sunday Times Young Writer Award 2019Last year I was lucky enough to be asked to shadow judge the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award along with Amanda, Lizzi, Paul and Lucy. It was such an enjoyable experience, both reading the shortlisted titles – all very different, all more than worthy of the award – and meeting other bloggers plus, of course, the authors. This year another five bloggers will be taking a turn and I hope their experience is as rewarding as ours. Announced yesterday, this year’s shortlist looks just as enticing, made up of two novels, one short story collection and one book of poetry. Here they are:

Cover images

The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus

Salt Slow by Julia Armfield

Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler

Testament by Kim Sherwood

It’ll be a tough choice for both the sets of judges, I suspect. If you’d like to keep up with what the shadow judges are up to you can follow their posts via the links below or on Twitter using  #YoungWriterAwardShadow.

Anne Cater at Random Things Through My Letter Box

David Harris at Blue Book Balloon

Linda Hill at Linda’s Book Bag

Clare Reynolds at Years of Reading Selfishly

Phoebe Williams at The Brixton Bookworm

The shadow judges will annouce their winner on 28th November followed by the judges a week later. The prize will be awarded at the London Library on Thursday, December 6th. Good luck to all and have fun!

Six Degrees of Separation – from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to Seven White Gates

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six others to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the titles on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month we’re starting with Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a book I’ve read many times as a child and as an adult.

Both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass are stuffed with riddles, puzzles, wordplay and a multitude of allusions which Martin Gardner helps elucidate in The Annotated Alice

I’m distinctly unkeen on annotations in novels but Jonathan Coe’s footnotes in The House of Sleep had me in hysterics.

Coe is best known for his state of the nation novels, a sub-genre I find hard to resist. A recent favourite was Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land which looks at the divisions between town and country through the story of Lottie, furious with the philandering Quentin but too broke to divorce him.

A particularly grisly murder brought Stella Gibbon’s Cold Comfort Farm to mind for me while reading Craig’s novel. A couple of pages later she pleasingly tips her hat to Gibbons with a quote.

Gibbons’ comic novel is widely acknowledged as a parody of the floridly romantic historical style epitomised by Mary Webb’s Precious Bane, set in Shropshire during the Napoleonic Wars.

Shropshire is the location for one of my childhood favourites, Malcolm Saville’s Seven White Gates which has some wonderfully atmospheric scenes on the Long Mynd.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from Alice’s adventures down a rabbit hole to a childhood favourite set in Shropshire. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

Faces on the Tip of My Tongue by Emmanuelle Pagano (transl. Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis): Interconnected lives

Cover imageI’m sure I’ve already made this observation here but I’ve yet to read a dud from Peirene Press. Their books are always thought-provoking and often beautifully expressed, a tribute to both writer and translator, or in this case translators. Clearly, Meike Ziervogel has a very discerning editorial eye and her own writing is quite remarkable, too: Flotsam is one of this year’s favourite books for me. Emmanuelle Pagano’s interconnected set of brief short stories, Faces on the Tip of My Tongue, is the last in Peirene’s Here Be Monsters series, exploring the lives of those who live a little outside society.

We can’t know ourselves, only catch hold of words and images in other people’s minds to try to see more clearly inside ourselves

The inhabitants of a French village, high up in the mountains, are no different from anyone else in that they have memories, families, friends, lives marked by the usual sadnesses and occasional outbreaks of joy, but some have suffered more than others. Every afternoon, a man stands on the bend of the road where his family was killed, as if to turn back time, then the road is diverted leaving him truly lost. A man is shamed by the childhood joke whose cruelty still lingers in the lives of the two women who were its victims. A hitchhiker finds himself picked up by a taciturn woman whose driving is so dangerous she seems intent on killing them both. A woman remembers the cousin she so closely resembled they were often mistaken for each other, convinced that her cousin committed suicide, while another thinks of the therapist obsessed with the fox she put out of its misery as a child shortly after her parents separated. These stories and many more are bookended with the childhood memories of a woman happy to read alone while listening to her cousins play and the reflections of another who discovers there’s much to learn about her fellow readers from her library loans.

When I borrow books, I take with me glimpses of their daily goings-on, all the little doings that fill our own stories and mingle with those in the books, sometimes to the extent of leaving their marks on the pages, the inside things and the outside things.

Pagano’s stories offer snapshots of the villagers’ lives through their memories and anecdotes. Many of her characters are alone or on the fringes of society. Their stories are often sad – suicide, grief and loss are frequent – but there’s also tolerance, gentle humour and small kindnesses. Each is told in the character’s own, distinct voice, unfolding their lives in simple yet striking descriptions:

This man, this man was a sort of landmark in the landscape, a silhouette of waiting, a man-comma who told us, with his hunched body, we’re here, at a particular place, it’s five o’clock.

Small details accrue, each one carefully stitched in until a vivid picture of a community emerges. Beautifully executed, it’s another Peirene triumph.

Peirene Press: London 2019 9781908670540 124 pages Paperback

The River Capture by Mary Costello: Madness, Joyce and obsession

Cover imageMary Costello’s Academy Street was one of my books of 2014. The story of one woman’s attenuated life, I loved it for its small canvas and pared back prose, including it in both my Man Booker and Women’s Prize for Fiction wish lists. It popped up again here earlier in the week as one of my Five Novellas I’ve Read. You can imagine, then, how much I was looking forward to The River Capture, slightly daunted when I read that it was an homage to James Joyce, but still keen nevertheless. Costello’s second novel is about Luke O’Brien, a teacher in his thirties who has taken a career break to write about his beloved Joyce but who seems to be getting nowhere.

Luke returned to the family farm four years ago. He’s alone apart from his aunt Ellen whose bungalow is within waving distance. Luke lives on the rent from the family’s fields, determined to drive a hard bargain with the farmer whose cattle now graze them. He does everything but write, turning over all manner of things in his mind, constantly returning to Joyce and his characters. He wanders into town for his shopping, visits his aunt, talks about their family, marked by tragedy, and looks after his adored pregnant cat. One day a young woman appears asking a favour. Her uncle can no longer look after his dog and Ruth has been told that Luke might take him in. They fall to talking, exchanging family histories, sharing lunch and a little wine. Ruth leaves Paddy with Luke, promising to come back soon. When she does, their connection deepens, Ruth a little taken aback at Luke’s frankness about his sexuality. Long emails are exchanged then a weekend away and Luke begins to dare to hope for happiness, even taking Ruth to meet Ellen. It’s after that meeting that a bombshell is dropped, a secret revealed, and an ultimatum delivered precipitating an episode of madness that seems to have been flickering at the edges of Luke’s consciousness for some time.

The River Capture was something of a curate’s egg for me, delicious in the main but with a long stream of consciousness section which veered away from the linear narrative I’d become absorbed in. I should mention that I’ve never managed to finish one of Joyce’s novels and I suspect therein lies the problem.

The first part of Costello’s book had me transfixed with its gorgeous word pictures of the countryside and its portrait of a man caught up in obsessions, skittering from idea to idea. Luke is firmly rooted in family, breaking off his university studies to nurse his sick aunt and then caring for his mother. The farm is freighted with memory which unspools in Luke’s mind as he walks the land and looks around his house. The passages in which he grapples with the awful dilemma with which he’s faced are full of memories, family history, abstruse knowledge – one thought triggering another, often on an entirely different topic. It’s unsettling to read, a vivid depiction of a disordered mind, but it’s a very long passage and I found myself getting lost in it. So, perhaps not quite what I was hoping for although there’s a great deal that I enjoyed. I suspect if you’re a Joyce fan you might think differently.

Canongate Books: Edinburgh 2019 9781782116431 272 pages Hardback

Five Novellas I’ve Read

I’m sure there’s going to be more than one of these posts, particularly  given Madame Bibliophile Recommends’ novella a day back in May 2018 , then this year’s selection lengthened my tbr list. The first task is to define a Cover imagenovella, something which varies from reader to reader, but for the purposes of this post I’m setting the limit at 200 pages which some may think is strict, others over-generous. Here, then, are the first five of my favourite novellas, all with links to a review on this blog.

I’ve sung the praises of Kent Haruf many times here. His writing exemplifies the stripped down yet beautiful style I most admire. Plainsong is the book I often mention when talking about him but for this post I’ve chosen his last novel, Our Souls at Night, a tender meditation on ageing and the joy it can sometimes bring along with sorrow.  Widowed and in their seventies, Louis and Addie have lived on the same block for years although they barely know each other. One day, tired of long, lonely nights, Addie knocks on Louis’ door and puts a proposition to him: she wants him to spend his nights in her bed. As Addie and Louis tell their stories, holding hands in the dark, we learn that neither of their lives has been quite what they’d hoped or expected them to be. Sweetly melancholy, this is one of the loveliest books I’ve read. If you haven’t yet come across Haruf, I hope I’ve persuaded you to get yourself to a bookshop and seek out his work pronto.

Mary Costello’s Academy Street is a fine example of the kind of Irish writing for which I have a weakness: elegant, understated and suffused with a quiet melancholy. Spanning almost sixty years, Costello’s debut begins, and ends, with a funeral. Left motherless at seven, Tess is a bright girl whose brush with sickness cuts short her education She longs to leave the family farm, training as a nurse then following her sister to America where she settles in New York City. Always a little outside of things, her life is an attenuated one, marked by a deep yearning for an affinity. Costello’s careful prose matches her subject perfectly; Tess’s sudden bright Cover imagemoments of empathy and understanding shine out from it like a beacon.

Towards the end of Academy Street Tess says ‘I could fit my whole life on one page’. The same could be said of Andreas Egger, the subject of Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life (expertly translated by Charlotte Collins), who leaves his Austrian alpine home just once to go to war in Russia. Egger is painted as a simple soul – he’s stolidly practical, feels adrift even a few miles away from his Austrian valley and finds women impossible to fathom – yet he is a great romantic. Seethaler’s style is wonderfully clipped and matter of fact, punctuated by the occasional philosophical reflection or lyrical descriptive passage. The tumult of change which swept through so many Alpine regions in the twentieth century, marking the pristine landscape with gondolas and ski lifts but bringing prosperity, is strikingly captured through Egger’s eyes and experience.

Like Eggers, the protagonist of Luis Carrasco’s fable-like El Hacho has spent much of his life in one place and is determined to stay there. Curro was born and raised on the Spanish olive farm his father and his father’s father cultivated for years. He lives in the old family home with his wife, farming the land alongside his brother but this year the south is in the grip of an autumnal drought. Jean-Marie is determined to escape their arduous life leading Curro to make an arrangement that will cost him dear. Written in simple, clean prose from which vividly evocative descriptions sing out, this is a remarkable debut, strikingly poetic at times yet stripped of ornament and all the better for it.

At first glance, I took Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat (translated by Eric Selland) to be one of those books lit on by shoppers at Christmas who can’t think what to get their feline-loving friends but it turned out to be a thoughtful, rather lovely piece of fiction. It’s narrated by a man who lives with his wife in the grounds of a large house. In their mid-thirties and childless, they both work at home, leading a quiet life, occasionally seeing friends and helping their landlady. Shy and a little skittish at first, their neighbour’s cat begins to visit them. The couple welcome her, making a little bed for her, and play with her, mindful of her need for privacy, but when their landlady tells them that she plans to sell the house, they know they must move. The beauty of this book is its elegant understatement punctuated by insights into the narrator’s life expressed in prose which is often very beautiful and a little melancholic.

Any novellas you’d like to recommend? Please feel free to quibble with my definition.

The Jewel by Neil Hegarty: A multi-faceted gem

It’s three years since I reviewed Neil Hegarty’s first novel, Inch Levels, describing it as ‘quietly impressive’. It’s a subtle, perceptive piece of fiction which I enjoyed very much but it’s often the case that second novels fall far short of debuts. Not so with The Jewel which not only met but far exceeded my expectations. Ostensibly the story of an art heist, Hegarty’s book explores the lives of the theft’s three principle players – the thief, the art historian charged with displaying the piece and the specialist called in to help solve the crime.

Painted on Irish linen by a once-obscure nineteenth-century artist, The Jewel is Emily Sandborne’s finest work, folded into her coffin at her request after her suicide then later disinterred. It’s gorgeous; the malachite set into its mounted subject’s armour glittering against the distemper which never seems to fade. This is the prize stolen from the refurbished Irish National Gallery on the eve of its reopening. Distemper is the medium, chosen by John – painter, self-confessed counterfeiter and thief – whose childhood Deptford home was demolished much to his mother’s disgust, reluctant to move to the council’s much-vaunted tower block. Roisin grew up in rural Ireland, escaping tittle-tattle and judgement to study art history in London but not the childhood tragedy which has left her feeling forever responsible. Ward works for an EU-funded agency, tasked with helping police solve art theft. Born in Dublin, he lives in London, seemingly locked into a dysfunctional relationship with his partner. The theft of Sandborne’s masterwork brings these three together, each with their own many-layered story to unfold.

The Jewel explores a multitude of themes through the stories of its three main protagonists, each of whose alternating narratives follows them from childhood to the early-hours theft. The result is a richly textured novel whose astutely observed characters have all endured tragedy and misfortune. The loss of home is a common thread, whether under duress or a need to escape what turns out to be inescapable. Each of the character’s narratives is anchored in a strong sense of place as if underpinning this loss, vividly evoked by Hegarty’s striking writing – the descriptions of Deptford are particularly atmospheric while the claustrophobia of small-town ‘80s Ireland is sharply portrayed. He’s just as smart in nailing organisations:

And the agency was just this sort of place: a bit bitchy, incestuous, like a university department, like the Borgias in the matter of rivalry and career development

As ever, writing about a book with which I’ve been so struck is much more difficult than reviewing one I’ve simply enjoyed. There’s so much to think about and to admire in this engrossing, accomplished novel that I’ve barely done it justice. Best just read it.

Head of Zeus: London 2019 9781789541809 368 pages Hardback

Eight Days in Portugal and Two Books

It’s been quite some time since H and I went to Portugal even though we love it there. After skirting around the southern Alentejo, years ago, we’d promised ourselves we’d visit the area properly one day and this year we finally got around to it. I rarely write about the places we stay but the lovely Monte da Fornalha is so idyllic it deserves a sentence or two. Its gorgeous garden alone, full off artfully placed divans and comfortable seats in which to lounge, lit by lamps and candles at night, would be enough mark it out as special but the rooms – both public and private – are absolutely delightful, too, decorated with originality and flair. The overall effect is of casual, boho elegance thrown together with ease although a great deal of careful thought has clearly gone into it. Breakfasts were a treat, too. There’s nothing like being offered a persimmon ripe off the tree, carefully chosen by Fornalha ‘s generous owner, Orlanda. A blissful place.

Just as well as with temperatures in the low 30s on the first day we weren’t up for anything much beyond loafing, reading and a slow amble through cork and olive groves, looking at the fading vines whose fruit went into the delicious wines we drank with supper. I’ve always loved Portuguese wines but they’re hard to track down in the UK.

Our nearest town was Borba, the smallest of the three marble towns as they’re known. Marble is mined in the area and, despite its lack of grandeur, Borba is almost entirely built from the stuff. Even the kerbing stones are made of it. Close by is a second marble town – Estremoz, whose Saturday market we visited before nipping up to its pousada which incorporates the castle’s marble keep. For those who don’t know Portugal, pousadas are hotels sited in historic buildings, usually quite grand but happy for nosy tourists like us to enjoy a coffee which we did in the lovely cloistered garden. Vila Viçosa is the third marble town. Its palace, built by Jaime IV, Duke of Bragança in the sixteenth century but now a pousada, is quite breath taking in its splendour for what is essentially a small mining town, although its grand facade fronts a building just one room deep.

We did manage to drag ourselves away from Orlanda’s beautiful garden for a few days out further afield., My favourite was a trip to the pretty spa town of Castelo de Vide, its hill crowned with a carefully restored castle as are so many in this area close to the border with Spain. It’s also home to the oldest synagogue in Portugal, deep in the maze of streets of the medieval town, now a beautifully presented museum. After a steep climb up to the old city walls, we were rewarded with impressive panoramic views. At the much smaller and even prettier Marvão the views were just as spectacular, well worth the scramble up to the top. We drove back to the guesthouse through back roads, many lined with trees sporting autumn colours against a background of green, very different from the parched countryside surrounding the marble towns.

My other favourite day out was spent in Évora, a substantial hill town, topped by the remains of a Roman temple, quite busy with tourists like us but nevertheless unspoilt. Close to the temple, the Sao Joao Evangelista church has a magnificent tiled interior, mostly blue and white, some arranged to tell biblical stories but, interestingly, those close to the altar were more abstract, suggesting a Moorish influence. We wandered around the cobbled streets then into a park filled with peahens and their chicks. On the drive back to what I was beginning to think of as home, I spotted some black pigs rooting around in a cork grove no doubt looking for acorns.

And the books? More reading than usual on this holiday, but only two really stood out for me. I first spotted Kathy Page’s Dear Evelyn on Naomi’s blog, Consumed By Ink. It’s the occasionally funny, often poignant story of the ups and many downs in a seventy-year marriage which begins just before the Second World War when Harry goes off to the North African front leaving Evelyn in London. It reminded me of Addison Jones’ Wait for Me, Jack. Sally Rooney’s Normal People is also about a relationship, both different and similar to Harry and Evelyn’s. Rather like Conversations with Friends, I began it unsure whether I’d like it, not least because it kept popping up on almost every prize list going, but I grew to love this story of two young people from very different backgrounds whose on-again off-again relationship begins when they’re at school. Both Connell and Marianne seem as incapable of leaving each other alone as they are of  articulating their feelings to the other.

It was raining the day we left the lovely Monte de Fornalha which made our departure a whole lot easier not to mention preparing us for real life back home here in the UK. No more persimmons for breakfast for us. It’s back to muesli.