The Lamplighters

I bought myself this book for my birthday this year, having seen it in a bookshop and unable to ignore the blurb. I am fascinated by lighthouses – I believe it stems from having spent my childhood at airports, playing in and aound closed terminal buildings, under the watchful gaze of air traffic control towers. They would have a beacon, and my earliest memories involve countine to 10 in between every sweep of the beam of light.

In adulthood, I have visited a few lighthouses, but there are my top three – the lighthouse at Kaup Beach near my university town Manipal, the one at Ardnamurchan Point in Scotland and the Portland Bill lighthouse in Dorset. Anyway, author Emma Stonex has captured perfectly the thrill and mystery surrounding lighthouses in this ‘locked room’ thriller, based on the disappearance of the lighthouse keepers on Eilean Mor.

Three keepers vanish mysteriously, the table is set for dinner, the lighthouse is locked from within and there is no way anyone could have gone in or out. They leave behind families – wives, children and a girlfriend. The investigation of their disappearance yeilds nothing – no bodies, no clues, nada. Decades pass and then an author decides to do some more digging, beginning with interviews of the family.

The plot is watertight and Stonex builds up the pace brilliantly. And her style of writing is excellent, with every chapter like peeling away the layers of an onion, revealing more and more. However, I feel the author does herself a disservice towards the end by merging fact, fiction and imagination. To the point where it becomes hard to figure out who killed who, when and why. There are so many people with so many motivations, but somehow it doesn’t quite come together satisfactorily. I’d still recommend this book, for the journey rather than the destination. Enjoy!

Hiraeth

Hiraeth is written by Haydn Wilks, and it is the account of the Covid times, a lockdown ovel written by a millenial. Millenials have had an interesting journey – from a childhood without internet, to the dawn of the new millenium and the financial crash, followed by a recession, a global pandemic, and another recession. Our generation has seen remarkable peace and prosperity in large parts of the world, with the threat and horrific ravages of war in other parts.

In Hiraeth, Wilks presents a snapshot in time, a period of 18 months that represented the peak of the pandemic in the UK. The author presents a picture of society interspersed with his own personal journey. From travelling in the far east just as Covid starts to break out, Wilks is forced to spend the first round of lockdown with his father in Wales. The anecdotes here are great and will resonate with all those who found themselves in unfamiliar multi-generational living arrangements.

As the pandemic rages on, the world slowly opens up and we find ourselves in amongst the author’s group of friends, who are an irreverent and eclectic bunch. Through their collective experience, there is a social commentary on various aspects of the pandemic – the mass surveillance of people, the upheavals of the economy and how people went through compliance and non-compliance of the lockdowns.

Overall this book will appeal to those who wish to look back on this period and reflect on the times they’ve led through the lens of the author. The writing style is alternative and stream-of-consciousness, with a fair bit of swearing involved. It’s meant to be read in bursts, I guess, sort of like how Covid unfolded in the UK. So if you’re a fan of this style and topic, be sure to give this book a go this summer.

The Snow Leopard

I was fortunate to return to the Himalayas earlier this year. Even more special was the fact that, after 4 days of travelling through the clouds and haze, when the Kanchenjunga range appeared for a brief 30 mins, I was able to enjoy the view with one of my closest friends. It was breathtaking, as the Himalayas always are.

This novel is the 1978 book by Peter Matthiessen, and describes his two-month journey into the highest valleys of the eastern Himalayas in search of the snow leopard with naturalist George Schaller. Accompanied by sherpas and porters, they go up into the mountains through Nepal, in late autumn. This book, in some ways, is of its time. There are no crowds, the villages are remote, and the people, untouched by mobile phone and internet communication are isolated.

My favourite part of the book is in some of the initial chapters, as the party climbs along the lower reaches of the Kali Gandaki river. This is the deepest river gorge in the world, partway forming the boundary between Nepal and Tibet. Mountains on either side are the Dhaulagiri (8,167 m or 26,795 ft) on the west and Annapurna (8,091 m or 26,545 ft) on the east. Anecdotally, I learnt that this is where the holy Hindu shaligram shila is found (used quite commonly in many rituals as an embodiment of Lord Vishnu).

As the group gets higher, there are some interesting incidents that happen amongst the party. But I found the human stories less interesting in comparison to the description of quiet nature and the quest for the elusive snow leopard. I can’t tell you if the animal is ever spotted. For that, you must read the book.

Some photos here

Around the World in 80 Trains

I love train travel. When I was a kid, we lived in a different city to my grandparents and so multiple times a year I would get on a 2-day long train to go stay with them. Even after I grew up, when most of urban India had switched to low cost flight travel, my family and I took many trains across the country – visiting places like Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh. In the UK, I have also taken so many trains, most notably the LNER service between London and Edinburgh once a month for many months.

The author Monisha Rajesh seems to be my ‘kindred spirit.’ She takes train travel to a whole new level by taking 80 trains around the world. There are 3 trains in particular that have been on my own list for years – the train to Lhasa, Tibet, the train across Canada and the Orient Express in Europe. She describes her travels with her fiancee on all these trains and many more.

An account of people, places and cultures; but more importantly this book is an account of the author’s own impressions. She meets a remarkable number of characters along the way and particularly in more curtained parts of the world like North Korea and Tibet, these people jump off the pages to tell their stories.

I must admit, I have not read her book about Indian train travel yet, and it’s gone on my tbr now. But as she says in her book, worldwide, train travel means so many things to different people. To some it is a form of escapism, to others a unique way to see the world. And again to some, it is just a way to get from Place A to B. But whatever it is, it is impossible to deny the thrill of a carriage and the gentle lull of the sounds of wheels on tracks. A wonderful read, and I will finish by sharing my favourite rail poem.

From A Railway Carriage (1885)

Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
And charging along like troops in a battle,
All through the meadows the horses and cattle:
All of the sights of the hill and the plain
Fly as thick as driving rain;
And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.

Here is a child who clambers and scrambles,
All by himself and gathering brambles;
Here is a tramp who stands and gazes;
And there is the green for stringing the daisies!
Here is a cart run away in the road
Lumping along with man and load;
And here is a mill and there is a river:
Each a glimpse and gone for ever!

The Mucker Revolt

Sci-fi meets fantasy in the first book of the The Aneksaria series by author Chris Maries. Cullin and his fiercely independent companion Sara set off on a journey at the start of the novel. They are the Muckers and the subtext of their journey is that Cullin must win the approval of his father. As they journey together, they must stick together against the tyranny of the Frame. The Frame, along with aimu (who are minions of the Frame) are overlords of this fictioal Universe. To help their governance, the Frame has also put in place the Divines, a sort of ruling elite.

Classism and hierarchy play a deep role in this novel. In every chapter, the reader is balancing the relationships in the storyline. As the book progresses, these shift a little. But they form a central theme and they reminded me of the social caste structure in Hinduism. Over millenia, this social structure has decided the role of an individual in society.

Maries does a nice job of explaining the journey. However, as a reader I found myself wanting the author to slow down and describe the surroundings in greater detail, particularly in places where my LOTR radar was on. As an example, the travellers approaching the ‘Gullet’, the most treacherous mountains of Garvamore, was like the approach into Rivendell, and I’d have liked a slower pace.

Eventually, to overhtrow the thousand year dominion of the Frame over Inalsol, the Muckers must head into battle. And so they do, at Dundoon, the forces clash. And of course, the Muckers must fight the Frame and the aimus. But to truly defeat the Frame, they must strategise against the Divines. The battle chapters are thrilling and the author’s attention to detail shines through – not only in the creation of entire worlds but even their artillery.

Fans of the ‘Immortals of Meluha’ will enjoy the battle scenes. And, as you’d expect, the last chapter leaves the door open for the sequel. The book could do with some more proofing and pace changes. But overall, for a debut, it is a unique and thrilling read.

The Island

I really love Victoria Hislop. I like her style, the fact that she writes about Greece, Spain, Cyprus; and just the way she spins stories. They are stories about everyday people in remarkable situations typically set against a period of historic significance.

The Island had been on my TBR for a while, but I saved it until I got to THE island. Yes, read the book while on a vacation to Crete and a visit to Spinalonga, the 20th century leper colony that housed so many people plagues by leprosy. It’s a disease that has faced so much stigma and shame historically, that a person contracting it is instantly shunned by society.

The story really is Alexis’s grandmother – Eleni, who is a mother to two daughters, Maria and Anna and wife to Georgio. When a trip to the doctor alters her simple life, she must face her tragic reality. The reader is instantly drawn into the lives of the daughters, their contrasting personalities, and their aspirations in life.

Simple village life on Crete takes on larger proportions through themes of love, passion and ultimately the human spirit against challenges. Such a wonderful read, no surprise that it is prize winning and has sold millions of copies. Here is mine in the Cretan sun.

Again. again and again.

Matt Freese is a retired psychotherapist and in his latest work, he turns the focus towards himself. Putting his life under the lens of examination, he writes with passion and transparency of his journey through life. This book cannot be called a true autobiography but it is certainly autobiographical. In any case, Freese does speak of himself in third person a lot, in his stories.

Almost all of these stories have a theme or backdrop. Some of these are highly nuanced, interesting and will be a takeaway for most readers. Take, for example, the story of Michaelangelo’s Moses and the subsequent essay by Freud on it. The author peels away layers of history, mistruths and linguistic farce to talk through the experiences of his own life.

I also enjoyed the running thread of mental health throughout the book. The author examines questions of the state of mind of a writer who is writing. Does a writer have to be inherently serious? But then again, is seriousness perceived by some as depression, as his housekeeper later reveals her opinions? These and more thought provoking analyses fill the pages of musings.

As an indie work, this book stands on its own, or with Freese’s other prior books. In reading through them all, it is possible to get a sense of the man himself, but also the nature of man. And in that, lies the success of this work.

The Return

As far as lightweight summer reading goes, Victoria Hislop is one of my absolute favourites. She writes in a beautiful, natural way, her stories have a nice flow, and the books are so easy to read. In The Return, the reader is transported to Granada, in Spain, during the Spanish Civil War.

Our modern day protagonist Sonia, trapped in a marriage with a man she doesn’t even recognise anymore is hoping to let her hair down on a trip to Spain with her childhood friend. But a chance meeting with a stranger in a cafe will lead her into the past. Here she will discover the incredible story of the Ramirez family as they live in a war torn Spain, and the remarkable journeys they go on.

Of all the places I have been to in Spain, Granada has always tugged at my heart. The Moorish quarters, the winding streets of the Albycin, the impenetrable majesty of the Alhambra – it is a city with magic. It also has an incredible history as one of the foremost cities of Andalusia and of great importance in medieval times. Hislop manages to lift these scenes of the pages through the stories of the past.

The reader is completely drawn into the tale of the Ramirez children and the story of this family, as it is brought to the brink of extinction by the Civil War. The backdrop is terrific and really shows that democracies that we take for granted in the modern day were one day, bitterly fought for and snatched from the greedy mouths of dictators.

This is a wonderful book and I very much recommend as a summer read if you are looking for one this year.

Just the Plague

Just the Plague by Ludmila Ulitskaya is set in 1930s Russia. Stalin is at the helm. And in a small town, Maier, a microbiologist, is slogging away developing a plague vaccine. Nothing particularly dramatic happens until he is summoned to Moscow to give a progress update to the powers that be. As Maier struggles with what to actually report, things take a darker turn.

A plague like disease suddenly begins to spread, leaked from a lab. Little by little, it transpires that more people are affected. The primary way to contain the disease is to quarantine anyone who catches it, which stops the virus from spreading to others. State machinery kicks in, aggressively tracing contacts of patients displaying symptoms, and taking them into quarantine. To guard against panic, State officials are only giving basic information to those being rounded up.

For the citizens’ greater good, the State puts controls in place. But do people really want their State officials to turn up at their door at any hour, demanding that they drop everything immediately and accompany them? What are the limits of personal freedom vs the boundary of the State? Where do we draw the line? These and other themes, in this novella, far ahead of its times and uniquely prescient, is Ulitskaya’s masterpiece written in the 1980s. Must read.

The Cat Who Saved Books

This beautiful book was on sale at my local store. Since it had two of my beloved things on the cover – cat and books – I had to read it. Turns out, book is also handily sized, so it came with me to two of my long weekend trips in Europe. And it was a great book to carry around, here’s why.

This book’s protagonists are a tabby cat that talks and a young boy who has recently lost his grandfather, thereby inheriting an old and crumbly bookshop. The cat appears one day, out of nowhere, to present the quiet Rintaro of Natsuki Books with a challenge – to save books that are stuck in various labyrinths. These books have come unto the possession of people, who through good intentions or bad, aren’t able to care for books as they should. And so Rintaro must intervene.

What follows are the tales of the journeys themselves, this boy and this talking cat on their mission. The book forces us to think of our own relationships with books – those we own, those we read and those we love. Through introspection it makes us reveal what it is we value about books, and also a great deal about our own ego.

Of course, Rintaro has a lady friend, and she somehow gets embroiled in this tale too. It is very cute. I really loved reading this book. It has all the hallmarks of modern Japanese writing – a quiet protagonist, a cat, a moral somewhere in there and feelings you cannot quite put your finger on. And magic realism, which I love.