Hastings District Libraries

Monday, January 26, 2015

Talking to Terrorists: How to end armed conflicts by Jonathan Powell

Terrorism has ripped at the heart of western countries like Australia and France, in recent months, provoking many different opinions on how to respond. Jonathan Powell is a political negotiator who believes that governments must engage in talks with terrorists. His is not a politically popular position, but as he explains, history bears witness to the fact that governments usually sit down and talk in the end.

But are these new terrorists in the same mould as previous groups, or, do we have to respond differently? As a veteran practitioner of political negotiation on behalf of the British government with the IRA, Powell has been party to many occasions when ideology has had to bend in order to secure practical solutions to peace. He sets out the various arguments that he has come across by those who believe governments should never talk to terrorists and looks at whether groups such as ISIL are similar in nature to previous groups. He argues that they are and that, finally, the West should learn the lessons from the past instead of engaging in useless rhetoric for political purposes.

This book is largely a detailed description of past political negotiations with a number of terrorist groups such as the Farc of Colombia, Tamil Tigers, IRA, ETA, and PLO. In the last chapter, Powell responds to claims that groups like ISIL aren’t like their predecessors, in that they don’t have specific political goals and concrete demands. He reiterates his position as an experienced practitioner that it is impossible to quash terrorism with force alone. Governments must talk, but talk with the right people (hopefully the more moderate). Today's terrorists have often turned out to be tomorrow's leaders (think Nelson Mandela suggests Powell). Starting a conversation is by no means appeasement and usually provides both sides with an insight into each other's viewpoint. Being able to step into the other side's shoes is usually the first step toward peace.

Reviewed by Spot

Catalogue Link: Talking to Terrorists

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey

Emma Healey has chosen a less trodden path to create a mystery by giving her narrator, octogenarian Maud, dementia. The missing pieces that will solve the puzzle are mixed up with the lapses of memory in Maud’s own mind. How can she put together the mystery of the past when she cannot remember if she has eaten lunch that day?

But dementia is a weird beast, and it seems the past is very much more real for Maud than the present. When Maud discovers a broken mirror in her friend’s garden it triggers recollections about the disappearance of her sister in the years just after the war. Married to Frank, a charming black-marketeer, Maud’s sister Sukey is warm-hearted and popular with all who know her, including Douglas, the awkward lodger at Maud’s parents’ home.

The broken mirror is a clue, but how did it turn up in the garden of Elizabeth, Maud’s best friend? Maud does her best to keep track of the things she needs to remember by keeping notes in her bag. Among these are several that say the same thing: that Elizabeth is missing. But Maud’s daughter only throws her hands up in despair when Maud asks her for help.

Slowly the missing pieces come together with an ending that is as much a surprise for the reader as it is for Maud and her daughter. With Maud as narrator, Healey has created a gem of a novel that is compelling from the first page and brilliantly captures the mind of someone with dementia. It is amazing to think that this is the first novel by a writer in her twenties. Very much recommended.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: Elizabeth Is Missing

Friday, January 16, 2015

This Night's Foul Work by Fred Vargas

Fred Vargas’s novel sees Paris cop, Commissaire Adamsberg, investigating a nasty serial killer with a very strange MO. It all begins when two men from the shady side of town are found murdered. The Drug Squad think the case belongs to them, but attractive police pathologist, Ariane Lagarde, is convinced the killer is a woman, and likely enough an elderly woman at that. Could this be the work of a former killer nurse, recently escaped from prison?

If that sounds bizarre, the case only gets weirder. Adamsberg encounters a group of hunters at a small town pub, disturbed by the barbarous killing of a stag, while nearby a church’s relics of St Jerome have been stolen. More peculiar crimes occur which only Adamsberg with that screw-ball intuition of his will see as linked with his double homicide.

But this story is a lot more than just an ingeniously mad-cap plot. There are all the quirky characters to enjoy, many of whom are in the Serious Crime squad itself. Recently, the team has been joined by Inspector Veyranc, with his two-tone hair and a tendency to break into Alexandrine verse. He has a score to settle with his new boss, which goes back to their childhood in the Pyrenees.

There are so many twists and turns in the story, such of lot of crazy chase scenes - one even involving the squad’s resident cat, The Snowball - as well as a mystery that is both original and logical. It all adds up to a read that will give you a whale of a time and plenty of chuckles. I would be happy if I read nothing else.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: This Night's Foul Work

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe

Nina Stibbe's first novel is a charmingly humorous story of a dysfunctional family set in 1970s England. When little Lizzie Vogel’s manufacturing tycoon father embarks on an affair with Phil in accounts, her mother throws a plate of food at him and the marriage is over.

A run-down manor in a small town becomes the new home of Lizzie, her big sister, little brother and newly-divorced mother. Mrs Vogel is stunningly beautiful – men fall in love with her when she shakes their hand – but completely disconsolate and unable to cope with running a family, doing laundry or providing meals. Instead she sun-bathes, dabbles in playwriting and takes tranquillisers.

Lizzie and her sister worry that they will be made wards of court so decide what is needed is ‘a man at the helm’. The two draw up a list of potential suitors – many of whom are already married – including the vicar, and even Mr Gummo, their gardener.

Stibbe has created a sort of seventies ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ with its whimsical language and steady supply of laughs. Her narrator, ten-year-old Lizzie, is wonderfully deadpan as she describes the hilarious scenes around her mother, the men in her life and their interactions with snooty villagers. Man at the Helm is a quick read, but intelligent too - perfect summer reading.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: Man at the Helm

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Pink Sari Revolution by Amana Fontanella-Khan

Sampat Pal was twelve when she was married off by her parents. As a low-caste Indian woman living in a poor rural area, she had little rights and minimal education, and her life consisted of domestic chores for her husband and in-laws. But Pal always had a thirst for justice and she first began her fight for the rights of others when she could no longer bear to listen to her young neighbour being beaten by her husband every night.

Over the years, she has established and grown a group of human rights supporters known as the Gulabi Gang. This group of largely low-caste pink sari wearing women has gained national attention in India. They intervene in cases of domestic abuse, police corruption, getting justice for rape victims, education for girls, and child marriage. Part social workers and part vigilantes, these baton wielding women are not afraid to use physical force if faced with violence, intimidation or indifference.

Since reading this book, I have been fascinated by the fate of Pal and want to find out what has happened to her and if she is still working with the gang. Pink Sari Revolution is an inspiring true story of people fighting for the rights we take for granted - it is well worth taking the time to read.

Reviewed at Young @ Heart Bookgroup

Catalogue Link: Pink Sari

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Friday, December 19, 2014

The Case of the Imaginary Detective by Karen Joy Fowler

Karen Joy Fowler’s novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, was a big hit this year, worthy of a place on the Mann Booker short-list. I had a look at one of her earlier books, The Case of the Imaginary Detective, a story featuring another damaged female character.  Rima is grieving after the recent deaths of her brother in an accident and her father from leukaemia. She holes up at the seaside home of her godmother, the acclaimed novelist Addison Early, famous for her series of Maxwell Lane mysteries.

Addison lives a secretive life with her oddball housekeeper, Tilda, and employs university students to walk her dachshunds, encouraging them to help Rima re-engage with the outside world. The other odd thing about Addison is the miniature dolls’ houses she creates, each one a grisly tableau of a different Maxwell Lane murder.

As Rima settles in, she can’t escape the urge to discover what caused the rift between Addison and her father many years ago. It's a puzzle that leads her back to the now derelict Holy City, once a religious community under the helm of the autocratic William Riker and the scene of a suspicious death.

The Case of the Imaginary Detective has plenty for the reader to enjoy – quirky characters with interesting pasts; mystery and clues galore; a sympathetic main character; the atmospheric setting of a seaside town in winter. All this comes together beautifully because of Fowler’s superb writing. Surely this author gets ten out ten for originality.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: The Case of the Imaginary Detective

Friday, December 12, 2014

Mr Mac and Me by Esther Freud

Charles Rennie Mackintosh designed some of Britain’s most endearing architecture of the early 1900s, but died in obscurity. He spent a short time in Suffolk as Britain entered the First World War, drawing and painting watercolours of the natural world around him. In Esther Freud’s new novel, Mr Mac and Me, we have the story of an imagined friendship between Mackintosh and thirteen-year-old Thomas Maggs, the son of a Suffolk publican.

The Maggs family have had their problems: a father who drinks and the deaths in infancy of Thomas’s six older brothers. But Thomas busily gets on with life, in spite of a club foot, dreaming of the sea and filling his schoolbooks with pictures of ships. His drawings attract the attention of Mackintosh and his wife, and Thomas does the couple odd jobs, while they feed him up and give him lessons in painting.

In the background, the war is shown through the eyes of a small Sussex town. Supposed to be over by Christmas, it has turned out to be more serious than ever imagined, with terrible casualties and loss of ships. The Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) has the locals on the look-out for spies with worrying consequences.

Freud has captured brilliantly a time and place through the eyes of her young narrator in a way that brings it all to life. Thomas is wonderful company – full of energy and determination, but also sensitive and interesting. Mackintosh’s character is equally complex and the art of Charles and his wife vividly brought to the page.

Mr Mac and Me is a well-crafted and original novel, describing tumultuous events within the world of ordinary people. Recommended.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: Mr Mac and Me