Lessons by Ian McEwan

“Lessons” is a fictional memoir of Roland Baines, a boy of great promise, a man of negligible achievement.

His story spans his lifetime, the second half of the twentieth century, and bears ongoing references to the historic events of that period. Many of those events have an immediate effect on Roland’s life, in some cases derailing it, in others only forcing him to change the direction of travel. His story begins in Libya where his stern Scottish father, Sergeant  Baines, is posted, and traverses through the aftermaths of WW2 in divided Germany, the Suez Canal crisis, the Cold War, Chernobyl disaster and the dawn of New Labour, to mention a few.

The two pivotal events for Roland are the Cuban Missile Crisis and the fall of the Berlin War. These two events intervene directly in his personal life and in the choices he makes that will irreversibly distort his future. The theme of history and political changes on the global scale making life-changing incisions into individual lives is convincing, even compelling.

It is a memoir but it doesn’t present a linear sequence of events in Roland’s life in a conventional way. Two events cast a long shadow over his story and they keep re-appearing to haunt him, to provide justification and generate further questions, and to make him revisit and re-examine them. The first event is his juvenile affair with his piano teacher, passionate and obsessive on both sides. It is instrumental in transforming a promising young musician and academic into a wayward drifter, addicted to sex and averse to permanency and commitment. The second event is his abandonment by his wife Alissa who leaves him and their son in order to pursue a literary career unhindered by family and duty. One can’t help wondering if Roland is not only hurt by her departure, but also in some way jealous that it is her and not him who is able to detach herself so completely from the mundanity of the ordinary, pedestrian life he is obliged to live in order to take care of their son Lawrence. But perhaps that is Roland’s ultimate saving grace. Something that roots him in reality. “Lessons” is an intelligent, deeply introspective and emotionally loaded book. It has made me stop and think at every corner, at every twist and turn of Roland’s private life and its contemporary context.  

Isaac and the Egg by Bobby Palmer

The day Isaac and the Egg popped up on my twitter feed I knew straightaway that I had to take a closer look at the pair of them. The premise of the book was intriguingly bizarre and that meant that it had the potential to join the pantheon of my favourite if rather surreal books of last year, which included Piranesi and The Porpoise. I am delighted to say that Isaac and the Egg have lived up to their potential.
The story starts with almost an ending as Isaac Addy hovers over the parapet of a bridge, readying himself to jump to his death. He gives one last, gut-wrenching and harrowing cry of pain – and is answered by one of equal, gut-wrenching and harrowing quality. And so Isaac and Egg find each other, or rather Isaac finds the egg.
This is a surreal tale, just about tittering on the edge of reality, but that does not detract from its raw emotional authenticity. Both Isaac and Egg are lost and confused, frightened and grieving the loss of what each used to consider their whole world. Their friendship is built on their mutual need for each other and their joint discovery of what lies beyond bereavement, because there is always something out there to live for.
I don’t know what tragedies life has thrown at the young author to drive him to write this book, but, by golly, he knows what he’s talking about. Isaac is palpably throbbing with emotions and Egg is like a big, fluffy plaster to cover the open wounds and make their ragged edges come together in the end.
But what a crazy journey it is before that ending arrives! I wept, I gasped, I sniffled, and I laughed, too. Yes, you will laugh too because as much as this book is poignant and vivid in its description of loneliness and pain, it is also incredibly funny. The gentle humour makes it all so much better for the reader, for trust me, you as a reader will need your heart rescuing by the book’s subtle comedic quality.

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

Solaris was first published in 1961. It is older than most of its readers, but the story has not aged in the least. It is perhaps because it doesn’t rely on trickery, gadgets and mimicry. Its concept is utterly original and reaches beyond the confines of its sci-fi genre.
A psychologist, Kris Kelvin arrives at the space station on the planet of Solaris shortly after one of the scientists based there takes his own life. Immediately upon his arrival, strange things begin to happen. He sees a naked, athletic black woman who cannot possibly be there. Soon, Rheya, his long gone lover, makes an appearance, and will not leave his side. She too cannot be real but all his senses, and his memories, tell him that she is. Two other resident-scientists experience similar … hallucinations? encounters? relationships? It’s difficult to define.
This “resurrection” of the long-dead lovers can only be attributed to the planet of Solaris, and more specifically to the ocean that inhabits it. The ocean covers the entire surface of the planet. It appears to be a living, organic form which has evolved to such an extent that it is capable of thinking, creating, understanding and probably penetrating into man’s mind to retrieve his memories and to use them to recreate people from his past. This doesn’t seem entirely innocent – it may be that those “visitors” are spies or even assassins, although they claim to be benign and act innocently enough. They cannot be killed or sent away – they keep coming back. And more importantly their personalities evolve and they are able to form genuine relationships with “their” humans.
“Solaris” explores not only the depths of the universe and the diversity of matter/creation, but even more intriguingly the depths of human mind, its secrets, memories and its self-awareness. The book is about the new and unexplored frontiers, our soul being the most remote and the hardest to comprehend.
Brilliant, intelligent book!

Fortune’s Hand, the triumph and tragedy of Walter Raleigh by R.N. Morris

Fortune's Hand: The Triumph and Tragedy of Walter Raleigh by [R.N.  Morris]

Fortune’s Hand, the Triumph and Tragedy of Walter Raleigh isn’t a biography in the conventional sense of the word. It is all together something different and much, much more exciting.

It is, of course, about the meteoric rise and an equally spectacular fall of the Elizabethan adventurer, privateer, courtier and solider, Walter Raleigh. But you will find that R.N. Morris isn’t just writing about the man – in the course of the book, he becomes the man. I was astounded, as I tread deeper into his story, by how comprehensively the author managed to get inside Raleigh’s head. Or perhaps it was the other way around – perhaps it was Raleigh who possessed the writer’s mind? However it happened, the personality acquisition was complete, seemingly on a molecular level.

The fact that the book is written in the first person abets this author-to-protagonist metamorphosis. Norris is intimate with Raleigh’s innermost thoughts, his desires, his ambitions and calculations. As a reader, I trusted Norris’s interpretation of Raleigh as a rogue and chancer but also Her Majesty’s most loyal servant, brutal executioner but also a foster carer of his enemy’s disabled son, reckless hell-raiser but also a cunning political strategist.

Other characters are portrayed with similarly keen insight into both their psyche and physicality: the Queen (her manner, her scent, the sounds and vibes surrounding her), the obnoxious Lord Oxford, dr John Dee, the hostile new king, James I – a whole plethora of Elizabethan players brought to life.

Events aren’t described linearly, but in carefully selected sections that are put under a magnifying glass and dissected before the reader’s eye. Some of them are drawn in such intense and lyrical prose that you will feel as if you are swept into it and drown in it, only to be catapulted to the surface. The language is raw in places, and thus authentic without being pretentious.

Fortune’s Hand By R.N Morris has been quite a discovery for me, prompted by a friend’s recommendation for which I cannot be grateful enough. If you enjoy all-encompassing historical tour de force this book is for you.

The Book of Sand by Theo Clare

The Book of Sand by [Theo Clare]

The Book of Sand starts as a story of two worlds – almost two different dimensions. There is the desert with shifting sands and dunes that are capable of burying whole cities; the nights are haunted by monstrous, blood-thirsty beings who are neither dead nor alive and who don’t seem to have a stable physical form. In that world a group of strangers is thrown together by fate or rather by mysterious design. The group – referred to as Family – travels by day in search of Sarkpont (a holy grail that has the power to end their apocalyptic ​desert trek). By night they cower in their shuck which is detached and suspended in mid-air to protect them against night-time perils. Spider, possibly of French heritage but that is only implied, is the focal character. We see the Family’s endeavours through his eyes.

In parallel to the desert world, there is the contemporary world of a teenage girl called McKenzie, a science geek, fascinated  with sand and desert ,who one day wakes up to find a lizard in her bed. Her world, though seemingly safe and ordinary, begins to undergo a strange transformation. Others can’t see what she is seeing and soon her mental health comes into question. 

You know that in time the two worlds will collide or merge in some way. The story leads that way. I found McKenzie’s story unremarkable at first, but soon it absorbed me and at some point took over from the fantastical world of the desert. Although you will have six hundred pages to plough through, this book is worth persevering with. Your time will be well invested.

The Book of Sand is a reflective and mesmerising tale set in a dystopian reality which tests man’s resilience. It is about interdependence and commonality of purpose.  It is about togetherness and the intrinsic value each of us represents. All in all, it is an exquisite and thought-provoking story. The ending will take you deep inside yourself, into your past and even your beginning.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

This wasn’t my first read by Susanna Clarke so I knew to expect something magical and otherworldly, but “Piranesi” surpassed my expectations. It isn’t about magic, but it certainly is otherworldly, and more. There is something profound, almost biblical about this book.

The House, which is immeasurable and whose kindness is infinite, is the only world Piranesi knows. And it is that knowledge, or its limitation, that are pivotal here. For Piranesi a house of many chambers and vestibules, rising from the waves, filled with statues depicting real-life and mythical scenes, but otherwise devoid of our modern-day props, constitutes his whole universe. He recognises it as his creator, guide and protector – the House is God-like. The House defines Piranesi’s identity. He worships it, but he also explores and studies it. In a way, he reinvents it: its topography, its dead, its beauty and kindness. The whole premise of one man detached from reality but insistently scientific in his understandings, alone but not lonely, innocent through his ignorance of the existence of others is fascinating. His awakening and transition to the truth seems almost cruel although, despite his naivete, he deals with it admirably.  

“Piranesi” isn’t about action or relationships, at least not in the conventional sense, but it is utterly compelling and it will draw you in and make you forget about everything else.

A Little Poison by Tim Stretton

Estranged from his aristocratic family and impecunious, but defiantly irreverent, Lothar von Schnusenberg walks into a nest of vipers when he arrives in the duchy of Haskilde. His undercover assignment is to sway the duchy’s weak and elderly ruler into concluding an alliance pact with the Empire of Beruz. When the old duke dies, his young and seemingly psychopathic son, Valdemar, succeeds him. If the boy’s own degenerate inclinations weren’t enough, he is also surrounded by cunning rival power’s ambassadors and his own ruthless advisers, notably the notorious Fox. The nest of vipers is stirred into further frenzy when the Empire’s ambassador is murdered. Lothar is appointed his acting successor, and at the same time, stands accused of his murder. The vipers slither all around him, ready to execute the final and deadly strike.

Lothar is not entirely defenceless. Resourceful and clever, conversant with poisons and other low-key weapons of choice of any decent spy, he is in fact in his own element. But more significantly, he has friends. One of them is Torkild, navy lieutenant who is developing the duchy’s new secret weapon: naval steam warships. There is also the fiercely independent and intelligent Edda. And finally, Lothar’s romantic interest, Asta, who also happens to be Duke Valdemar’s governess. All of the characters are drawn with an assured hand and go on take on a life of their own as the story unfolds. They are very complex and dynamic. They will surprise you, entice you, deceive you and prove you wrong. You will grow to care for them, and in some cases, to despise them, but you won’t be indifferent to any of them.

Stretton’s world, of which he has laid foundations in “Bitter Sky”, expands and fully immerses you in “A Little Poison”. It becomes so intricately developed, with regions and nations fleshed out and geo-politically interlinked, that at some point you will feel that this is no longer fantasy but a real place somewhere there in the time-space fabric of your own universe.

The language, and particularly the dialogue, remain trademark Stretton. In a number of scenes revolving around personal relationships, I had a peculiar impression that Jane Austen stepped in to lend the writer her unique style.

All in all, an absolutely engrossing spy adventure with a dose of romantic intrigue and, of course, the inevitable flare of warfare. Loved it.

The First Day of Spring by Nancy Tucker

The First Day of Spring by [Nancy Tucker]

Eight-year-old Chrissie is a child-killer. She is pleased with her effort – it gives that fizzy, sherbet-like feeling in the depths of her stomach. She can hardly contain herself from telling others that it was her, but, being a neglected and unloved little girl and the poorest from an already very poor housing estate, she has a strong sense of self-preservation, so she keeps her secret to herself. Not to mention that she doesn’t really understand death – her da had been declared “dead” by her ma on a few occasions but always managed to come back. But Steven, the toddler Chrissie throttled, seems unable to rise from the dead and his death endures to Chrissie’s bemusement. Twenty years later, Chrissie has a new identity as Julie and a daughter of her own. She believes that she is undeserving of motherhood, and fears that her child will be taken away from her. Julie picks up where Chrissie has left off and embarks on a journey of re-discovery and cautious redemption. The narrative oscillates between Chrissie’s and Julie’s stories which complement each other perfectly.

This is a harrowing read, but one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone, whatever your reading preferences. It has a lasting resonance, a heart and a soul, and most of all – conscience. Chrissie’s voice is captured brilliantly. The little girl’s loneliness, despair, her everyday struggle for survival and love are heart-wrenching. Her anger is palpable. Each of her life’s raw disappointments hit me hard as an adult and member of the society that has made this child into what she is. Despite the bleak and gory subject there is a message of hope in this book: people aren’t born evil and they certainly don’t have to remain so. All it takes is for someone to care.

Other characters are also wonderfully observed and drawn: Chrissie’s inept mother, Chrissie’s best friend, the sister of the boy Chrissie’s has killed, Chrissie’s absentee-father… The commentary on our society is damning, but not the commentary on our humanity.

The End of Men by Christina Sweeney-Baird

The End of Men: The must-read debut of 2021 that everyone’s talking about, from a bold new voice in fiction by [Christina Sweeney-Baird]

The End of Men was already on my kindle (courtesy of the publisher and Netgalley) when I heard an interview with the author on Radio 4. In that interview Christina Sweeney-Baird mentioned that she had made references to The Power when submitting her manuscript. I was disappointed. I didn’t want another book about the male-female reversal of fortunes and about power corrupting women in the same way as it would men. I didn’t want another book where the pronoun he/him would be replaced with she/her. I almost didn’t read The End of Men.


I am so glad that I put aside my reservations and dug into it! Apart from the common denominator of men becoming vulnerable and women holding the balance of survival (and ensuing power) in their hands, The End of Men is nothing like Power. It is incomparably better, in my opinion.


There is subtlety and many different layers of emotions here as Sweeny-Baird explores a world where the male population becomes decimated (literally to the tenth of its original number) and women have to take over the reins. No cheap gloating, primitive vengeance or abuse of power ever enters the page. When the virus attacks their men, women go through what any human being of any gender would: initial disbelief transforms into an instinct of preservation and protectiveness, loss brings on immeasurable grief, the disintegration of the world inspires action, resourcefulness, survival and regeneration. Many women (and one man) narrate/are the protagonists in this book and each of them tells her (or his) own unique story of metamorphosis. The story of Amanda (the doctor who first discovered the virus and identified Patient Zero) and Catherine (the anthropologist who after an unsuccessful attempt at escaping and saving her loved ones, begins to research and record the events and their impact on individual lives) are the two leading threads. But there are many more characters, each with their own reactions to the challenge of the pandemic. There are personal, deeply intimate stories, but also wider events on a larger, geo-political scale tacked in this book. The book reads in places like a factual account – a dramatized real -life occurrence.


The End of Men rings true. Although it is a work of fiction, it touches on the subject of pandemic that changes the world and the traditional male-female roles beyond recognition. As we have all just gone through a life- and society-transforming pandemic, it is easy to believe in this tale and the possibilities it contemplates. But it isn’t just about the pandemic. After WWII in which many men died, women had to take charge of their families, communities, and the future of the world. Women took on new “masculine” careers. This sort of a challenge to the established traditional values of our society is not new. Sweeney-Baird treats it with great sensitivity and insight.

The Damask Rose by Carol McGrath

We meet Eleanor of Castille, wife of Prince Edward – the future king of England, as she is taken hostage by Gilbert de Clare, lord of Gloucester. It is the perilous time of the Second Barons’ War against King Henry III. The leader of the pack, Simon de Montfort, controls most of the country and holds the king and his supporters checkmated. Separated from her beloved husband, Eleanor is forced into penury and swears revenge. This is a dynamic and tense introduction to the heroine of Carol McGrath’s biopic novel, The Damask Rose.

The story of her life unfolds in dramatic episodes that defined her and Edward’s rule: the defeat of the barons, his coronation, a crusade and retaking of Acre, an attempted assassination and a whole array of political and diplomatic machinations on the domestic and international front. The main players of the era, such as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, enter the scene. The settings extend beyond the shores of Britain and into France and Italy. European socio-economic dynamics form the backdrop to Eleanor’s story.

McGrath is sympathetic towards Eleanor, but that doesn’t prevent her from being honest about who she was: a smart and tough businesswoman who accumulated an extensive property portfolio and handled it with cunning expertise. She was also a mother who wasn’t motherly, but then again the mortality rate of newborn and young children didn’t allow much room to form emotional attachments, at least not until her children were older. Eleanor of Castile did not bow to the stereotypical female models of the Middle Ages – her strong personality and life skills would stand her in good stead were she to travel in time to the twenty-first century. She could brave our reality with no difficulty, I imagine.

There is another heroine of this story, Olwen. She is a humble herbalist and Eleanor’s companion, confidante and on occasion even her spy. Her loyalty to her mistress is unsurpassed, but she also has her own story which flows in parallel to Eleanor’s but somewhat more idly and with greater intimacy. After all, Olwen doesn’t hold the weight of a whole kingdom on her shoulders.

The Damask Rose is written in beautifully stylised prose. I found myself fully immersed in the language and in Eleanor’s tumultuous life punctuated with many dramatic climaxes. The period detail and descriptions are totally absorbing. McGrath created a sense of immediacy with her heroine and took me on a journey of discovery that will stay with me for a while yet.