A Twist of Sand by Geoffrey Jenkins

The star of this book is the treacherous Skeleton Coast where the action takes place at two different periods in history, in the 1950s and during WWII.

Geoffrey Peace is the skipper of a large fishing boat called the Etosha who works in these unpredictable waters. When visiting a friend in Swakopmund, a strange incident with a German tourist leads the story to go back to WWII, where Peace is the commander of a submarine HMS Trout who is given an onerous, top secret assigment to destroy a brand new type of U-Boat in the waters off south-western Africa.

When the story returns to the 1950s, Peace and his crew on the Etosha are chartered by a sinister man who wants to be put ashore on the coast so he can find an onymacris beetle in the nearby mountains. The man brings along a female scientist and a sinister bodyguard who it turns out is the only survivor of the destroyed U-Boat.

Peace is kidnapped as he and a member of his crew take their three passengers ashore. The sunsets, the currents, the vicious tides, and the wrecked ships of this part of the world are described in great detail as the drama unfolds amongst the sand and bare rock of the unforgiving mountains. Giant lions, stampeding zebras, and stinking hyenas are just some of the dangers as only one of the five humans survives to tell their tale.

The Tenth Man by Graham Greene

Graham Greene wrote The Tenth Man in 1944 when he was under a two-year contract with MGM. The manuscript lay forgotten in their archives until 1983 . It was published two years later.

This story starts with 30 men in a German prison cell in occupied France. As a reprisal for three murders by the local resistance, three of these 30 will be shot the following morning. They draw lots. One of the unlucky three is a rich lawyer called Lewis Chavel who has a failure of nerve and offers his worldly belongings if someone will take his place.

Someone does so they can pass on the money and property to their family.

After the war and in disguise, Chavel goes back to the place he called home to see what became of his property.

The Storyteller Essays by Walter Benjamin

These are interesting essays by Walter Benjamin who is now considered to have been the most important German literary critic in the first half of the 20th century.

Born into a prosperous Jewish family, Benjamin studied philosophy in Berlin, Freiburg im Breisgau, Munich, and Bern. He settled in Berlin in 1920 and worked as a literary critic and translator. Benjamin eventually settled in Paris after leaving Germany in 1933 upon the Nazis’ rise to power. He continued to write essays and reviews for literary journals, but when France fell to the invading Germans in 1940 he fled southward with the hope of escaping to the United States via Spain. Informed by the chief of police at the town of Port-Bou on the Franco-Spanish border that he would be turned over to the Gestapo, Benjamin committed suicide.

The book comprises short essays, short stories, and parables. The reason I give this book 2/5 stars is not so much the content but the editing standards of the New York Review of Books. An essay on the Lisbon earthquake gets the date wrong (by 20 years) and in another essay Scott and Stevenson are referred to as ‘English’ writers (from a country of origin perspective).

Also, if you didn’t know about the Tale of Psammenitus the King of Egypt captured by Cambyses the King of Persia, and how he reacted when seeing his daughter dressed as a servant, his son being led to execution, and an old retainer being led away as a captive, before you read the book then you will know the story off by heart by the time you complete this book as the story is mentioned 5 times in 107 pages.

The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoevsky

This is a compelling novel about The Gambler, Alexey Ivanovitch, who is working in the household of a Russian General – he was only promoted to this rank on his retirement – who is staying in a hotel in the fictional town of Roulettenburg. The others in the General’s party include the Frenchman Dr Grieux, The Englishman Mr Astley, The General’s niece Polina, and a French lady called Mademoiselle Blanche who is hoping to marry The General but only when he becomes richer than he currently is. Along with The Gambler they frequent the town and its casino where Alexey wins some money only to lose it all and more.

The General is hoping to hear from Moscow that his Auntie, Antonida Vassilyevna Tarasyevitchev called Granny by most people, has passed away leaving him her considerable inheritance. That is what everyone is waiting for until one day she arrives unannounced with a considerable entourage and installs herself at a hotel. She has lost the use of her legs and is carried everywhere by chair. They make their considerable presence felt in the casino where Granny becomes addicted to betting on the zero on the roulette table. She wins and wins and goes back again to play after a rest but then loses more than she won. The General and his party can see his future draining away in front of their eyes.

All this time Alexey Ivanovitch has failed to understand Polina has fallen for him. Instead, he’s bet on Mademoiselle Blanche falling for him. In order to help Polina and The General pay a debt to Dr Grieux, Alexey goes to the casino and has an extraordinary run of luck allowing him to win four times the debt. Polina in a fit of pride declines the money so Alexey heads to Paris to allow Mlle Blanche to set herself up so she can marry The General.

There are a number of plot points that aren’t expanded upon – Alexey insults the Baron and Baroness Burmerhelm at the behest of Polina and although The General sacks Alexey from his entourage, there’s never any comeback from The Baron. Alexey also threatens to fight Dr Grieux but never does.

Another item for traditionalists of ‘how to write a novel’ is that the appearance of The General is not described until Page 163 and the rules of roulette are only briefly explained on Page 140.

Pan by Knut Hamsun

This book was published in 1894 and is set in the Northern wilderness of Norway. The book tells the story of a summer relationship between Lieutenant Thomas Glahn who is spending time on holiday in a hut with his dog Aesop and Edvarda Mack the daughter of the local rich man.

Glahn and Edvarda have a very strange way of interacting, seemingly loving and caring about one another on one day and then the next time they meet, either one or both of them insults the other because they’re not behaving in the way that’s expected. It’s a very controlling way of treating people. Glahn is rude and obnoxious, and seems to shoot anything that moves at any time of day or night no matter where he is.

I found it very difficult to relate to any of the characters in the book.

Glahn eventually engineers an explosion that kills another woman he was supposedly keen on, but no one seems to bat an eyelid and he gets away with murder, but then you think ‘well he killed everything else he came into contact with, so perhaps at least his behaviour is consistent’.

As you might have gathered, I didn’t enjoy this book.

There’s also the fact that Hamsun openly supported Hitler and Norway’s post-invasion Nazi puppet government though this was long after this novel was published. Even so, he was veering politically to the right for many years and found a natural home with the Nazis.

I know I’m supposed to admire the convoluted, contradictory, and brutal machinations of the human mind and heart that produced this “psychological” novel, but someone as obnoxious as Glahn doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously even as a fictional character.

The Figure in the Dusk

John Creasey wrote more than six hundred novels using twenty-eight different pseudonyms during his career as a novelist.

This is one of the Chief Inspector Roger West books known alternatively as ‘A Case for Inspector West’ in the UK.

Members of an extended family are gradually being shot dead in their cars and houses in The Home Counties, Yorkshire, and the West Midlands. CI West has a suspect in mind but he seems more interested in having relationships with women and sponging money off them than killing their male relations. The plot is suspenseful, moves along quickly, and involves putting together a picture from various clues that makes a jarring, fractured image. Eventually another shooting results in the shooter being arrested, however the truth dawns that not all the victims were shot by the same person…

The Death of Ahasuerus by Par Lagerkvist

This book is rather different from other books you’ll read.

It’s the third novel in a series that began with Barabbas and The Sibyl.

Ahasuerus is mentioned in certain Old Testament books such as Esther and numerous scholars have proposed theories as to who Ahasuerus represents – most identify him with Xerxes I. However the Ahasuerus of the title of this book is meant to represent the Wandering Jew, a mythical immortal man who in the original legend taunted Jesus on the way to the Crucifixion. Ahasuerus was then cursed to walk the Earth until the Second Coming.

In this novel the pilgrim Tobias, bound for Jerusalem / The Holy Land meets the mysterious title character in a pilgrim’s hostel where there’s also a former lover of Tobias’s called Diana. After some painful reminscing between Diana and Tobias and a night’s rest, the three set off on the remainder of their journey.

Diana saves Tobias’s life but is herself killed by an arrow. Ahasuerus and Tobias arrive at a port where the last ship of the year has just sailed for The Holy Land. Tobias uses the last of his money to pay his way on a yawl crewed by a bunch of villains which is sailing to The Holy Land. Ahasuerus remains behind and finds shelter in a monastery.

Not on Any Map

These places will NOT be found on any map or in any atlas.

This book describes a large number of little-known tourist sights from around the world. A book for the discerning traveller who has been everywhere else.

Read about the earwax museum called Monsieur Tussauds in London and the unhappy beaches of The Maldives. Discover small islands in the Pacific, Atlantic and Mediterranean. Read reviews of little-known museums in England and Canada.

East Uist, just to the West of South Uist, is a mysterious place. In amongst the peat bogs, crow-filled craggy peaks and lochans, archaeologists have found evidence of stone circles and cromlechs that were built on artificial platforms about two inches in height. The theory is that the people of East Uist were practising their skills gradually and learning from their mistakes on smaller projects, before heading off to the Orkney Islands where much larger and higher platforms were required.

This book is available at a discount between 17th – 24th April.

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

This novel is set in a small town in Ireland and follows the thoughts of Bill Furlong, a coal and timber merchant who is married with five daughters. He works hard but life is still a struggle and it seems to him that he is existing rather than living.

The essence of Bill Furlong is that he’s a good person, good in an unobtrusive way, in an elusive way, giving his loose change to people in need of a few pennies and providing them with some logs for the fire at Christmas. He does these deeds without a thought and without expecting something in return, it’s natural to him.

One day he delivers some coal to the local convent and without a nun to meet him, he goes looking for one and finds a young teenager locked in a coal shed. Everyone claims she’s the victim of a prank but Bill understands what’s going on when she asks him to take her to the river and that she’d like to see her baby.

The convent is a Magdalen laundry and the thought of the girl in the coal shed doesn’t leave Bill and at Christmas Eve he decides he has to do something to help her.

This is a superb book without the use of any flowery, descriptive language, there’s no waste of words and no hint that the author is pleased with themselves.

The last Magdalen laundry closed in Ireland in 1996 and it’s shocking to think that almost everyone knew what was going on but no one really tried to do anything about them as the laundries were really a collusion between The State and the Roman Catholic Church.

Time Traveller’s Diary

The Greeks were going to use a real horse at Troy until…

This is the diary of a time-travelling health and safety executive who tries to stop accidents through history before they happen.

If Dr Who can travel in time then why can’t a Health and Safety Exec do the same? The Exec influences the Greek carpenter Epeius not to use a real horse to hide the soldiers in and to use an anatomically correct wooden horse instead as this will allow the free passage of air through the soldiers’ working environment.

When Wyatt Earp is shooting people “full of lead”, the Exec points out to Earp that lead is poisonous to people and that he should use silver instead.

In Arthurian England, The Lady of the Lake is chastised for not wearing a rubber diving suit for her watery job of distributing swords to passers-by.

Attila the Hun is warned to let women and children escape from the villages he is burning to the ground.

All of these stories will be available at a discount until 24th April.