2018 Grateful 52

If I told you that this author has received numerous awards for their writing and holds not one but twelve honorary doctorates from universities in Europe and North America, or that they have a CBE for services to literature from Her Majesty in the UK and were also another by the government of Botswana for services through literature … would you know of whom I was talking? Yep – and I bet it was the Botswana bit that gave it away.

I first came across Alexander McCall Smith when I picked up a copy of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency many many moons ago. I thought it delightful. I loved the characters and the setting and promptly added Botswana to my list of places to visit. I read the first ten books in the series and passed them on to friends all over. I now see that McCall Smith didn’t stop writing when I stopped reading – I have another eight to go.

His protagonist is 34-year-old Mma Precious Ramotswe. After her dad dies and leaves her some money, Mma Ramotswe ups sticks and moves to the capital of Botswana, Gaborone, where she buys a house for herself and finds an office for her new detective agency. She gathers a cast of regular characters around her, each one quirky and interesting in their own right. Her cases are often more about the people than their problems and her constant reference – a book by Clovis Andersen on the Principles of Private Detection – is sometimes hilarious in itself.

Last year, while in Geneva, I picked up a DVD of the TV series at a church fete – the first series. Last week, I finally got around to watching some of the opening episodes. I felt a rush of nostalgia for a time when simplicity was fashionable, when movies and TV shows didn’t need car chases, sexual exploits, and gruesome murders to keeps us engaged. I felt myself morphing into the adult I swore I’d never become, reminiscing of times long gone where things were cleaner, simpler, and more humane. Ah, back in my day…

Maybe it was the stark contrast in ways of life – Botswana could hardly be more different from Budapest. Or perhaps it was the colours of Africa juxtaposed with the goose-laden greys of winter on the Kis-Balaton. Or maybe it was the growing need in me to get back to where it all used to matter. Whatever it was, Mma Ramotswe and her mates made an impression and in their tender, unsophisticated, pragmatic way, gave me the kick up the arse I needed to start 2018. And for that I’m grateful.

My plan for this year is to live simply, to spend my time wisely, and to make whatever it is I do worthwhile.



Travel books and tour guides

Plenty has been written about the differences between tourists and travellers. I’m usually a traveller and very occasionally a tourist – and yes, it definitely depends on who I’m with. I’m not a great fan of guide books that give me the Top 10 things to see and do, all neatly packaged. Such lists come with the implied suggestion that I have to tick off each one before I can claim to ‘have done’ Paris, or Timbuktu, or wherever.  [Not that I would EVER use the expression – ‘I’ve done wherever’. I’ve been to Malta about two dozen times at least and I still haven’t seen everything there is to see on the island. I defy anyone to say they’ve done Malta.]

I dislike rankings, TripAdvisor being a case in point. Without knowing these people, how can I trust their opinion of what is worth seeing? It’s all very objective. Things needs context. I don’t have much faith in numbers. But that’s me.

I rarely do any prep work in advance of a trip. I don’t have a set list of things to see or do in my head. I have my usuals – I want to find a local market, I want to spend a few hours in a local cemetery, and if there’s a museum that deals with man’s inhumanity to man, I’ll be there. I like to cash in on the three wishes I get each time I visit a church for the first time, so they’re always a possibility. And I like to eat like the locals do – I’d take street food and neighbourhood caffs over posh restaurants any day.

But for that sense of place, that background of culture, that familiarity of people, for those I go to novels set wherever I’m headed.

I was in New Orleans back in 2001. I was driving around the southern states and it was my start and end point. I liked it a lot. And now I want to go back. Not because I have any lasting impression of the place from when I was there, but because I’m in the middle of the Skip Langdon series by Julie Smith.

I’d read the second book first and liked it enough to go back to the start – and I’m glad I did. New Orleans Mourning explains the essence of Mardi Gras and the French Quarter. [I didn’t know that a string of Mardi Gras beads is referred to as a ‘pair of beads’ – and I had no idea that NOLA was such a class-conscious city.] Smith develops each character’s strengths and insecurities and uses this to give her whodunnit context. By the end of the first two books, I was sold. I’m happily kindling through the rest of them and want to go back to see it all for myself, using Skip as my guide.

Dana Stabenow does something similar with her Kate Shugak in Alaska. Peter May does it with Finlay McLeod on the Scottish islands. Timothy Hallinan does it with Poke Rafferty in Bangkok. And the list goes on. This is my sort of travel reading.

On the rare occasion I buy a guidebook, I buy local – something written by someone who lives in the area. Years ago in Venice, we wandered around with Tiziano Scarpa’s Venice is a Fish. More recently, in Košice, Slovakia, Milan Kolcun’s Details in Košice, a sequel to Wanders in Košice, was our guide – both purchased in the local tourist information office, both little gems, replete with backstories, insider tips, and context. Just what I like.

Prison chaplain John Jordan

I’m an addict. I’m addicted to that instant gratification that comes with being able to order the next book in a series I’m reading and get it minutes later. My kindle has revolutionised how I understand the word ‘series’. Instead of resting after one book and perhaps picking up whatever is lying on the shelf unread, I can now move straight to the next book in the series ensuring a steady diet of the characters and story lines for as long as it lasts.

I can’t remember how I stumbled across Michael Lister and his John Jordan series. I read No. 11 – Blood Oath – first and was so taken with the man and his life that I went straight back to Book 1 – Power in the Blood – and started over. And Lister had me up till Book 11. The one that had started out as a favourite. Then Jordan moved town and now I’m not so sure. Maybe it just takes time to adjust to the new situation. Book 12 – Blood Work – would have been great, had I not read books 1-10. And it is great. Lister at his best. It’s me…. I miss the prison.

John Jordan is a prison chaplain at a Florida state penitentiary. His dad is the local sheriff. His mum an alcoholic. His brother Jake is a cop, and his sister Nancy got out when the getting out was good. His best friend Merrill is as black as Jordan is white and is a prison officer at the same place. His high-school sweetheart Anna works there, too, but she’s married to someone else. His is a complicated lot, drawn as he is to his calling and to his innate investigative skills. He weaves the two professions into a tapestry that is both empathetic and pragmatic.

We are our stories. We are who we believe we are. .[…] And the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of ourselves and the world are all-powerful.

But, you might say, there are hundreds of clerical detectives out there (360 at one count). What has Lister done to make Jordan stand out from the discretion of priests, the converting of preachers, or the prudence of vicaries that enjoy a but of detecting on the side? [Bring back 15th-century collective nouns, I say!] For me, its the insight we get into prison life, into the the inmates’ psyche that is fascinating. The poverty of rural America, coupled with an inherent racism and small-town politics is equally so. Lister writes well. His characters have personalities that develop and age. His plots, though fictional, seem all too real. Author Michael Connolly, the man behind another favourite investigator of mine, Hieronymus Bosch, is a fan. So much so that Lister has Jordan’s dad working with Harry Bosch on a case and even has Jordan calling the great detective a few times for advice. Weirdly, this made it all the more real, as if one friend of mine knew another from a completely different part of my life. Yes there are those who question my grip on reality. Indeed, I’m the first to hold up my hand and say that the sky in my world is a peculiar shade of orange.

When I get into the grasp of a good series, I’m lost. Every spare minute is spent finding out what happens next. And with my Kindle, I can bookmark those lines that resonate most, that deserve second, third, and even fourth readings.

Man had come to the forest and money had come to town, and nothing would ever be the same for the land or the people of what once was the forgotten coast.

I wasn’t not overly impressed with Florida when I was there, but given that John D MacDonald placed Travis McGee [another all-time favourite detecting philosopher] in Florida, too, perhaps I need to reconsider.

Lister is generous with this signposting to other authors using John Jordan as a channel, like this quotation from author Tahereh Mafi (note to self made to explore more):

The moon is a loyal companion. It never leaves. It’s always there, watching, steadfast, knowing us in our light and dark moments, changing forever just as we do. Every day it’s a different version of itself. Sometimes weak and wan, sometimes strong and full of light. The moon understands what it means to be human. Uncertain. Alone. Cratered by imperfections.

I like John Jordan. I like how he thinks, how he expresses himself. I like what he has to say. I like that he’s far from perfect and that he never pretends a piousness that would make him less than credible.

To me, faith and devotion is far richer when mixed with a good dose of honest agnosticism.

Lister has this to say about Jordan:

Running through all of the stories is the mystery of divine grace and the way it can penetrate even the darkest places. The stories are religious in the best sense of the term—open to possibilities. Jordan is a chaplain with more questions than answers, yet he recognizes that grace—the sign of God’s presence in the world—is capable of manifesting itself through the most unlikely people and in the most surprising situations.

If you’re in the market for a new series, this is one I can recommended.






My name is Mina

I read. If I’m not doing anything else, I’m reading. Few things in life come close to time spent with a good book. But it’s been a while since I’ve read a book that touched the very heart of me, one that I’d like to see on a prescribed reading list for anyone in need of some soul sustenance.

And no. It’s not a self-help book. It’s not a true-life-beat-the-odds inspirational one  either. It’s a little gem. Not since I put down Mr God, This is Anna about 20 years ago (an all-time favourite), not since then have I had such a book afterglow.

Billed as a middle-grade kid’s book (mmmm….), My Name is Mina is a jewel from the mind of David Almond. It begins:

There’s an empty notebook lying on the table in the moonlight. It’s been there for an age. I keep on saying that I’ll write a journal. So I’ll start right here, right now. I open the book and write the very first words: My name is Mina and I love the night. Then what shall I write? I can’t just write that this happened then this happened then this happened to boring infinitum. I’ll let my journal grow just like the mind does, just like a tree or a beast does, just like life does. Why should a book tell a tale in a dull straight line? Words should wander and meander. They should fly like owls and flicker like bats and slip like cats. They should murmur and scream and dance and sing.

Through the eyes of Mina, Almond deals with topics like death, old age, birth, fear, education, depression, social isolation, single parenting … and he does it with humour and creativity.

Weird how I can feel so frail and tiny sometimes, and other times so brave and bold and reckless and free, and . . . Does everybody feel the same? When people get grown-up, do they always feel grown-up and sensible and sorted out and . . . And do I want to feel grown-up? Do I want to stop feeling . . . paradoxical, nonsensical? Do I want to stop being crackers? Do I want to be destrangified? O yes, sometimes I want nothing more – but it only lasts a moment, then O I want to be the strangest and crakerest of everybody.

Mina gives the reader extraordinary activities to try, like making a circle of your thumb and forefinger and then looking through it at the sky to see what passes through your universe. Or filling a page with a sentence that doesn’t end. Or writing a poem that repeats a word until the word loses its meaning. It’s a joy.

If you’re a teacher – it’s a wonderful resource – and the Scottish Book Trust has done all the work for you. Mina herself is home-schooled and  through those lessons, we learn. I never knew that Wordsworth used to compose his poems as he walked – stepping the words apparently helped with the rhythm. I didn’t know that Picasso was a fan of Paul Klee and once said to his detractors something along the lines of it takes years to learn to paint as a master, but a lifetime to learn to paint as a child. And I didn’t know that birds descended from dinosaurs or that dust is mainly composed of particles of human skin. And there’s lots more.

It’s beautifully designed with telling chapter titles like: Ernie Myers, Rubbish, Dust, Metempsychosis & a blue car; or Sprouts, Sarcasm & the Mysteries of Time. If you’re in need of some cheering up, treat yourself.



2017 Grateful 36

My first baseball game was watching the Padres at Murphy Stadium in San Diego. When the crowd stood at the top of the seventh to sing Take me out the ball game, I thought I’d passed into a parallel world. I don’t pretend to know the rules, even if some of the lingo crept into my vocabulary while I was Stateside – home stretch, third base, in the ball park, batting zero.

Stuck for something to read last week, I picked up the first in Troy Soos’ Mickey Rawlings booksMurder at Fenway Park. If you like whodunits and you’ve a thing for baseball history, this is just what you’ve never known you’ve always wanted to read. Lightly written, Soos explains the nuances of the game without preaching, describes the wonder of it all without waxing, and paints a realistic picture of what it was like to live back in the day. It’s 1912. Fewway Park has just opened. And Ty Cobb is the man everyone is talking about.

I think June is my favorite month for baseball. It’s late enough in the season so that the players are warmed up and their reflexes sharp, but early enough so that the accumulating aches and pains haven’t yet taken their toll. It’s the time of year when one can best appreciate the beautiful balance of the game. The warming weather has the pitchers’ arms loose, and gives them a more sensitive feel of the ball. But the batters have their hitting eyes honed, so the pitcher-batter matchup remains even. The legs of the base runners are limber, and they get quick jumps in their sprints to steal bases. But the catchers have developed snappier releases, so the catcher-runner duel also stays close. The critical matchups are ideally balanced this time of year, with all of the combatants at the peak of their powers, and every skirmish of mind and body a close and exciting contest.

But baseball and murders aside, one line really struck me:

I heard once that if you grow old with someone, nature has a charitable way of making you both always look the same to each other: as one of you gets more wrinkles, the other’s eyes get worse, so the aging is never noticed.

I spent the week looking at elderly couples wondering what they see. Do they see the person I see or the person they fell for so many years ago?

That I’m not too jaded to find such flights of whimsy fascinating is gratifying. This week is already promising to be a manic one. I’ve just unpacked from Barcelona with enough time to pack again for Belgrade. For the  chance to travel [even if I’d prefer to be motoring down the M7 to the village sooner than heading to the airport] I’m grateful, too. But more than anything, I’m grateful for a love of reading that makes even the most miserable of days worth living.


2016 Grateful 6

I bought a washing machine a couple of months ago and every time I go play scrabble, Facebook throws out an ad for a washing machine. I’ve been reduced to venting my frustration at the ineptitude of its advertising algorithms by screaming at my laptop: I’ve already bought a bloody washing machine. I don’t need another!

I checked on flights to Barcelona recently and now, when I read an article online, ads pop up for cheap fights to the city. I detest Google and Facebook and all those other online entities who take my data and then feed me stuff they think I should want to know. Back in 2012, I wrote a post for Diplomacy.edu entitled Google… stop thinking for me.  Today, 2016, Google still ain’t listening.

But occasionally, just occasionally, I get a result.

Had my e-book leak1nding library not compiled data on my preferences and tracked my reading patterns, I might never have met Adrian McKinty, an Irish novelist, born in Belfast in 1968. An obviously intelligent bloke – law at the University of Warwick and politics and philosophy at the University of Oxford – it comes through in his novels. After a spell State-side (Harlem, New York, and Denver, Colorado where he taught high-school English) he’s now living in Melbourne, Australia. I’d never heard of him. His name didn’t ring even the tiniest of bells. But everything else I was ak2looking for was taken so when one of his books popped up on a list of recommended reading, I checked it out. 

Three books, a train journey, and seven days later, I’ve finished the Dead Trilogy and have become quite partial to Michael Forsythe, the main character. I’ve learned more about the Troubles in Northern Ireland than I ever did from a history book. I’ve gotten an insight into the phenomenon of Irish gangs in New York. I’ve felt the senseless stupidity of exacting a grudge-like revenge. I’ve gotten some sense of the futility of life when ideology clouds reason and turns logic into the lyrics of a song that plays like a broken record.

I was born the year the Troubles began, in 1968. That world of violence was all I knew – people murdered, maimed, kneecapped, bombed. I don’t remember a time without a major atrocity of some kind every week.
I think if you grow up in a culture where the army is out on the street sighting you with rifles, it has to have some kind of psychological impact.

Told in the first person, the trilogy rings true. Quite possibly because McKinty is writing about a world with which he is all too familiar. The path Forsythe takes might well have been a path he could have taken himself, had things been different.

In the crime fiction section, you may just find a novel that talks about the place where you’re from and speaks to you about your life – or the life yours could have become if a little misfortune had come your way.

ak3Occasionally, the narrative skips ahead a few years, with Forsythe talking about what he would do in the future and far from annoying me and ruining the suspense, it alleviated the worry .Yes, of course, I knew it’s a trilogy and he had to be alive at least until the third one started, but these occasional reminders did the heart good as the battle raged.
The murals and the walls in Belfast now wear a different paint. Memories of a night in a Working Man’s Club in Andersonstown all those years ago came flashing back. Marion Coyle, Eddie Gallagher, Rose Dugdale, Dominic ‘Mad Dog’ McGlinchey – all household names in our gaff in the 1970s. The Sundays in July when my dad would head out in full uniform to Bodenstown Cemetery where the Republicans convened for their annual pilgrimage at Wolfe Tone’s graveside. It was all there but yet not there. Real but at the same time very unreal. A sense of unfulfilled anticipation for which we were grateful.
I love the trilogy form. I like the idea that you can establish a character in book one. And then in the second part, you can take the characters down to their darkest point. And then in the third part, you have total freedom either to give them redemption – or just to kill them.

And he did. All that. And more. McKinty has a lovely turn of phrase, a noir-type mastery of dialogue, and a bevvy of descriptives that beg a second savouring.So this week, for once, I’m grateful for the algorithm that coughed up this trilogy. Worth a read. Definitely worth a read.

If only we hadn’t missed that turn

Back in 2008 at a conference in Budapest, I discovered Thinkers50, a biannual global ranking of management thinkers billed as ‘the essential guide to which thinkers and which ideas matter now.’ When the list launched in 2001, Charles Handy held the No. 2 spot. He was in Budapest to mark the publication of two of his books in Hungarian. I had the pleasure of introducing one of them – The Empty Raincoat (Üres esőkabát) – at the launch. We discovered, in conversation, that he was born less than a mile from me at home, in the vicarage on the other side of the crossroads. How small the world.

Even though that was eight years and what seems like a couple of lifetimes ago, I still remember the ease with which Handy interwove management practices and philosophical theory. He’s a born storyteller, blessed with the innate ability to distill complex thinking into simple speak without losing any of the message’s inherent power. By introducing me to the concept of a portfolio career, he gave me the gift of a ready explanation for what I do, something that had been heretofore impossible to explain to those who wanted a phrasal answer to the question: So, Mary, what do you do for a living?

book-jacket-a-masodik-gorbe-borito-300-dpi1_easy-resize-comHandy was back in Budapest again last week, this time to launch the Hungarian translation of The Second Curve (A második görbe). He began his introduction with a story.

In Ireland, driving through the Dublin mountains, on his way to Avoca in Co. Wicklow, he got lost. He stopped to ask a local farmer for directions. The man pointed down the valley and up over the top of the next hill, telling him that when he reached the top and looked down, he’d see a red building in the distance – Davy’s Bar. But 1 km before that, he was to turn right for Avoca. He got to the top of the hill and saw the bar in the distance. On he drove. But there was no right turn. Then he realised what the man had meant: he was to take a right turn 1 km before he got to the top of the hill. The idea of the second curve was born.

(c) Elizabeth Handy

(c) Elizabeth Handy

As we set out in life, we have what Handy calls an education, investment, and preparation stage, the drive down into the valley. As we come up the other side, our lives progress, our careers blossom, we start making money. When we get to the top of our game, we inevitably start on the downward slope to Davy’s bar, home of the ‘if onlys’. What we need to do is to take the turn before we get to the top of the hill. We need to start setting up that second phase before the first one reaches its peak, so that when one curve starts its descent, the second curve begins its ascent. That 1 km represents about two years.

Each of us, he says, has three primary roles in life – to make money to live, to fulfil our duty to others, and to follow our passion. Once we have identified our passion, we can start setting up that second curve. And the third curve. And the fourth, depending on how long we live.  But too many of us miss the turn, so busy are we making money and doing our thing. Inside each of us, he believes, is a golden seed, a skill or talent that others might recognise before we do. The trick is to listen for it, to pay attention to it, to nurture it and set up that second curve, so that we’re don’t end up in Davy’s bar wallowing in ‘if onlys’. And the second curve applies not only to individuals, but to organisations and governments, too. World leaders, take note.

First published in the Budapest Times 18 November 2016

Junior Bender

I laughed out loud. Junior Bender? Not a teenager on a drinking spree but a first name and a last name? Junior Bender?

Predisposed to liking anything Timothy Hallinan might put on paper by virtue of his creativity in coming up with a name for his protagonist, I am in the throes of a love affair that will last five books (as that’s as far as the series has gone to date).

I read by author. I find someone I like and read everything they’ve written – or at least everything I can get my hands on. Usually I stumble over them. Occasionally I test Amazon to see if they really know what they’re talking about when they suggest titles they’re sure I’ll like… usually their algorithm is a tad skewed. I’m a member of a public library that has something similar and they’re far more accurate. They recommended Hallinan and chose well for me.

Junior Bender is a Los Angeles burglar deluxe—a thief’s thief. But he also has a sideline: he works as a private eye. For crooks. When someone commits a crime against a crook, odds are good that the crook isn’t going to the cops. He or she is going to Junior Bender.

Not the most enticing blurb I’d ever read but I was hung up on the name.

TH1The first novel – Crashed – introduces Junior and his ex-wife, his daughter, his mates, and his lifestyle. He lives in motels – a different one each month. He’s intelligent. He’s articulate. And he’s funny. A modern-day take on Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, he’s just as lovable. And you know how much I rate Raymond Chandler. Any time I sit and read a book and find myself repeatedly thinking – I wish I’d written that – I know it’s going to be a good one.

She gave me the slow nod women use to indicate that they understand our pain, they admire the courage with which we handle it, and they’re absolutely certain that it’s all our fault.

TH2Junior educated himself by reading one book – The Recognitions, by William Gaddis – and then reading books on every subject Gaddis mentions.  The book, he says, ‘is about forgery and faith and between those things you can crowd most of life’. I read Crashed from cover to cover in one sitting. Hooked. I waited a few days to let it digest, to let me acclimatise. And then checked out Book 2 – Little Elvises – about all those hopeful, lookalike wannabes that ‘churned to the surface in the wake of Elvis Presley’.

Women fall in love with a man thinking they’re getting a ship that will take them somewhere, she’d said, but most of the time what they get is an anchor, and it drags them down.

He describes the ‘perfect picture of a guilty conscience at 3 am’. He tells how he ‘turned his ankle on a rock that nature had abandoned to sulk all by itself in the middle of nowhere.’ And his mate Louie can hold his own in the running commentary…

And you know women, they’re both back there turning it into the crime of the century. Planting it in a little garden in the center of their hearts and watering it with feelings. Talking about it, sharing it. You’re a cheat, you’re a heartbreaker, you’re like a museum exhibit, Everything That’s Wrong with Guys.

Junior likes his introspection. And within his insights are things we could all do with paying more attention to. Like when his 13-year-old daughter seemed to have found herself a boyfriend ‘who was so black it was as though he’d been set intentionally in front of me, a ring of fire through which I had to pass unburned in order to continue being the person I’d always thought I was instead of the boring middle-class bigot I seemed to have become.’ Beautiful.

TH3And, of course, the mystery is there. Superbly plotted and potted with characters who have a life of their own, each one unique, colourful, and someone I’d like to see for real. I’ve already borrowed Book 3 – The Fame Thief – but want to have one uninterrupted evening to enjoy it. I’m curious to see if Ronnie is still around and if Rina and Tyrone are still on track.

And although I know the words are from the mind and pen of Timothy Hallinan, he’s done an excellent job of losing the writer, and creating a character who speaks for himself. He himself splits his time between Santa Monica, CA, and Southeast Asia. He’s got two other series under his belt, both of which have skipped to the top of my must-read list – Poke Rafferty and Simeon Grist. September is shaping up to be a lovely month.

PS. I read somewhere that Eddie Izzard is supposed to be bringing Junior to life on the TV screen but so far that’s just a rumour. I live in hope.

2016 Grateful 32

I’m not stupid. I mightn’t have the greatest mind God ever created, but I’m not stupid. I might do stupid things occasionally, and even say stupid stuff, but I’m  not stupid. What I am is gullible.

I’ve stopped reposting Facebook stories because they usually turn out to be hoaxes – credible hoaxes but hoaxes nonetheless. I double-check the genre stamp on books I read to be sure that they are fiction and not true stories. And I usually ask for a second opinion in matters of any importance.

But Stephanie Barron – you got me.

JAI was given a series of books as a gift some time ago and am only now getting around  to reading them. In the first, Barron explains how she’d been asked to edit a collection of diaries by Jane Austen that had lain undiscovered in an old manor in Maryland for years and years and years. In her Editor’s note, she writes of how she’d visited her friends, the Westmorelands,  at Dunready Manor, as they were renovating. She gives details of the renovations and the work  that led to the discovery of the fragile yellowed papers penned by Jane Austen, ‘a distant relative of the Westmoreland line’. She even tells of discussions about donating the manuscripts to the Johns Hopkins University and how the Bodleian library in Oxford was also in the running. She had me from the git go.

I read the first  – Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor – and from the opening lines I was convinced I was reading Austen.

When a young lady of more fashion than means has the good sense to win the affection of an older gentleman, a widower of high estate and easy circumstances, it is generally observed that the match is an intelligent one on both sides…

JA3Like Barron, I have little trouble believing that had Jane Austen been alive today, she’d be a right up with there with the best detective writers going. Her incisive brain, her wit, her independent streak, her caustic commentary on life all make for great observations and even greater stories. She was one smart lady.

JA2I laughed out loud. I bookmarked. I underlined. Again and again I marvelled at the choice of words and the wit. The Editor’s notes remind me of Jasper Fforde’s in his Thursday Next series – they both educate and enlighten. Not alone was the first book a great read and an excellent piece of detecting, it filled yet another gap in my history – the whole French/British thing of the early nineteenth century.

But Barron wasn’t editing original Austen diaries; she was channeling the words of the great lady herself. Or so she says. I don’t know what to believe any more.

So, one down. A second started. And  eleven more to go. What’s not to be grateful for? If I don’t return your call or show up for lunch or dinner, I’ll be out with Jane doing a bit of detecting.


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I’ve long since wondered at the difference between jealousy and envy. I can feel it, but I find it difficult to describe. I’ve read that envy is a two-person situation, for example, you have something I lack; and jealousy is a three-person thing, whereby I’m afraid you will steal someone (or something) from me.

Looking back over my life to date, jealousy paid me a brief visit just once back when I was in school. Laughable really. And completely forgotten about until I reread an old diary a couple of years back. Envy though is a more regular caller. It usually doesn’t stay very long but there are those occasions when it pops in, uninvited, and makes life a tad uncomfortable.

Right now, I’m envious of Luke McCallin. I never knew the man existed until a couple of weeks ago, when the Internet in all its glory decided we should meet. Obviously something in my Google search patterns made it think that I needed to get to know him.

The_Man_From_Berlin_cover-678x1024Born in Oxford, McCallin has worked as a humanitarian aid worker for the UN and now lives in France with his wife and two kids. Back in 2013, he introduced the world to Gregor Reinhardt, the protagonist in his first novel, The Man from Berlin

McCallin describes Reinhardt as a German intelligence officer, a former Berlin detective chased out of the police by the Nazis. Haunted by what he has seen, tortured by recurring nightmares, wearing the uniform of an army he despises, he has ever fewer reasons to live. The book, set in Yugoslavia, tells us of his struggle to fight for the few convictions he has left. As he works for the German Army, we glimpse the inner workings of his conscience and the tentative hold he has on a reality that is both horrific and compelling. One reviewer calls Reinhardt ‘that most elusive literary contradiction: the good German wearing a Nazi uniform’. 

My history classes missed out on the Ustaše. I don’t ever remember hearing about them before or else what I heard was so awful that I chose to forget. They were a right bunch of Bsd*&S&Ds. There was a lot of competition in those days to see who could be the most inhuman of humans and this Croatian fascist movement was definitely in the running. Through Reinhardt, McCallin has closed a gap in my education.

Pale HouseSo, green with envy after finishing McCallin’s first novel, I spent quite a while marvelling at how completely I had bought into Reinhardt. He’s on my list of fictional characters I would happily invite to dinner. Although McCallin  is a skilled novelist. I was a little worried that the sequel, The Pale House, might not live up to my expectations but if anything, it surpassed them. The Ustaše can see the writing on the wall and are making their post-war plans. Men, quite normal just six years previously, have turned into soulless embodiments of evil. The mind boggles at the scope of the atrocities and the randomness of the cruelty. At one stage, I was quite shocked by the hatred I felt. The thought that there might be circumstances in which I might actually condone any sort of cruelty really upset me. But such is the power of McCallin’s writing and such is the credibility of his characters.

And although green with envy at McCallin’s ability to write, I’m grateful for the education. A tad nonplussed that Google seems to be doing my thinking for me, I’m grateful too for the introduction to Gregor Reinhardt. The third in the series is due out in December, so you have time to catch up.

The Grateful series is now in its fifth year. For more on how it started, see the original post.