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Going Dutch

The Miniaturist

by Jessie Burton


“The funeral is supposed to be a quiet affair, for the deceased had no friends. But words are water in Amsterdam, they flood your ears and set the rot, and the church’s east corner is crowded.”

My daughter gave me The Miniaturist as a Christmas present and when I began reading I had no idea what to expect. It is one of those novels which you struggle at the outset to place in any single category of fiction. Set in Amsterdam in 1686/7, it is certainly a historical novel. It is a mystery too, with hints of fantasy, but it also has the feel of literary fiction. Jessie Burton writes in the present tense, which does not always work and which some readers still consider experimental and affected, even arrogant.

It works here. The immediacy of the tense makes Amsterdam seem more wintry, its watery landscaspe bleaker, the contrast between rich and poor starker. The uncanny reflections of the real world in the tiny creations of the miniaturist, the dogma-driven prejudices of the masses, the horrors of seventeenth century justice and the occasional uncomfortable reminder of the inequality of the sexes all put the reader right in the centre of the action.

Petronella (Nella) Oortman arrives at the house of her rich merchant husband Johannes Brandt to be met by his sharp-tongued sister Marin. Johannes is away from home. The rest of the household comprises the maidservant Cornelia, the black African Otto and two dogs. Meantime, a large consignment of sugar belonging to Frans and Agnes Meermans sits unsold and deteriorating in Johannes’ warehouse.

When he does return from a foreign trip, Johannes is distant with his new wife. However, he presents her with a dolls house replica of his home which Nella immediately begins to fill with miniature furniture and figures. When the miniaturist sends pieces that she did not order, and continually does so, Nella  is at first annoyed then curious. There is something unnatural about the way in which the tiny figures are predictive of future events as if their creator had a crystal-ball view of the Brandts’ business and personal life.

A tiny spoiled loaf of sugar, representing the consignment that is beginning to rot in the warehouse; the tiny dog with a flack of blood on its head; the miniature of a woman with swollen belly; the replica of the English boy with a stab wound; the empty parakeet cage; are these accidental flaws, lucky guesses or products of some devilish foreknowledge? Nella has to find out, but the miniaturist remains hidden, unreachable behind the walls of the house in Kalverstraat ‘at the sign of the sun’.

“This is not a small baby … Nella thinks of the little cradle in the cabinet house and a shiver runs up her body. How did the miniaturist know about this?”

As the predictions of the miniaturist become more sinister, the household approaches a crisis, one that neither money – nor love – will be able to avert. And as we reach the climax of the plot, the question posed by the first two sentences of the prologue comes back to haunt us. Just whose funeral are we attending?

The Miniaturist is an unusual, suspenseful story of love and hate, of prejudice and injustice. The relationships are not always what they seem. And in the open ending, there is a crumb of hope that out of tragedy and loss may come something good and lasting. Burton knows how to use words to create atmosphere; she is good at surprises. I enjoyed the book and might read it again soon to pick up nuances of style and character missed on the first reading.

Banks Don’t Change!

A Dangerous Fortune

by Ken Follett

Banks and bankers are in the news a lot. Usually it’s bad news: the directors and presidents get obscene bonuses; they manipulate the tax system; they crash and leave millions of people out of pocket. Rarely do the newspapers carry stories about the  honest bankers and their shareholders – the employees who work pretty hard for a modest salary, the shareholders who expect a little bit of income when the bank does really well in the markets.

I’ll get off the political soapbox now! I’ve just finished reading a novel about banks and bankers, so that short paragraph was by way of introduction to my review. Mr Follett kindly sent a copy of the book to me because I had bought the hardback version of his latest novel  Edge of Eternity -see https://bookheathen.wordpress.com/2014/11/20/the-day-the-earth-stood-still.


A Dangerous Fortune is set during the second half of the nineteenth century and features an English banking family called the Pilasters. The story begins with a mysterious drowning at the boys’ public school attended by Edward and Hugh Pilaster, who are first cousins. Hugh is the poor relation, his father having broken with his relatives to set up on his own before going bust in a recession and committing suicide.

As the novel progresses and the characters develop, it becomes clear that Hugh is the one with a real talent for banking while Edward is something of a wastrel, under the influence of his domineering mother, Augusta, and his sinister South American friend, Micky Miranda. Augusta is ambitious both for herself and for her son and continually devises schemes to bring Hugh down. Micky is at the beck and call of his gangster – and would-be president – father, Papa Carlos, who needs money for guns to start a revolution.

A second group of characters are represented by the Robinson family, reduced to poverty as a result of the Pilaster bankrupcy. When their father loses his job, Maisie Robinson earns a living as a trick rider while Danny, her brother, emigrates to America. When Hugh falls in love with Maisie, Augusta finally sees the opportunity to rid herself of Hugh for good.

Several murders and several marriages later, the truth of that school tragedy finally emerges and [so it seems] the various heros and villains get their just desserts.

A Dangerous Fortune as a historical novel does not have the scope of Follett’s Century Trilogy but already one can see in it an embryo Fall of Giants. The author is not afraid to address social, religious or sexual issues. Here, he deals with anti-semitism, prostitution and social class in ways that do not detract from the thriller/mystery element of his work. I’ve said in other reviews how much I like Follett’s writing and this novel was no exception. I don’t always agree with his political stance but that does not prevent my enjoying the journey.



An Appetite For Wonder

The Making of a Scientist

by Richard Dawkins









Professor Dawkins is one of the few dedicated scientists who can write about the most complex subject and make it both interesting and comprehensible. In An Appetite For Wonder, the first part of his intended two-part autobiography, we do not have to worry too much about the comprehension and can concentrate on the interesting bits. Born in Nairobi, Dawkins spent a large part of his childhood in East Africa before moving finally to England in 1949. Considering his well publicised views about religion (publicised to the detriment of his scientific writing!), it came as a surprise (or perhaps not!) to learn that his paternal ancestry includes seven generations of Anglican vicars.

After a few years at ‘preparatory’ school – [American friends may well ask, as does Dawkins himself, what such schools prepare you for] – he was enrolled at Oundle Public School in Northamptonshire. [American friends read ‘Boys’ Private School’]. Now, I know Oundle quite well, not so much the school as the town, because I live close by, and was fascinated by his description of his life there in the 1950s. His account is laced with dry humour concerning long abolished practices such as fagging, – [a peculiar English public school custom] – being examined intimately by the school matron and having baths in water already soiled by fourteen other members of the school rugby team. Things are very different now; for several years now, Oundle has admitted girls, so I guess customs HAD to change.

From Oundle, Dawkins went to Oxford University, where he read [studied or majored in] Zoology, while learning to programme computers, which he is remarkably good at doing. After his marriage in 1967 to Marian Stamp, also a research scientist, he took up an offer of an assistant professorship at UCAL Berkeley, where he seems to have become an active anti-Vietnam War campaigner. The couple returned to Oxford in 1969 to work on various research projects. Then , in 1973, Dawkins began work on his first book The Selfish Gene, which was published in 1976.

Professor Dawkins is not a modest man. He is proud of his achievements, and this comes over in his writing. However, he is not a boastful man either and is equally ready to admit his mistakes and regrets. Although he argues with passion, his reputation as a ‘militant’ is ill-deserved, even – it seems to me anyway – in the religious debate. I have heard him speak and he is always polite and respectful to his audience and argues his case with reason and logic. Perhaps it is – as is often the case with people of strong opinions – he attracts fanatics, who latch onto a few remarks as total justification for their more extreme views.

An Appetite For Wonder is worth reading for a picture of a man very much in the public eye, often for the wrong reasons, and for a nostagic and often humourous glimpse of academia in the days before personal computers.


In the Fortress of the Assassins

First Love

Today, I’m posting another extract from my novel The Tiger and the Cauldron 


Two figures detached themselves from the shadows of the lower terrace and climbed the steps towards him.
‘Hassan.’ It was Sayyid’s voice. ‘The Captain has commanded me to relieve you.’
‘An hour, no more, Sayyid,’ said Doquz who accompanied him. She too wore a horse blanket round her shoulders. ‘Another should take your place. It’s too cold for extended watches when we have fifty able to undertake the duty. Come with me,’ she said to Hassan. She led him down the steps and across the courtyard, stopping and bending down to rub her hands together by one of the dying fires. ‘You are in need of some warmth.’ She unsheathed her scimitar and hooked it through the handle of a kettle that lay in the embers. Then, taking him by the arm, she drew him into the shelter of one of the rooms, which was empty save for a burning candle and yet another blanket that had been laid as a bed. There she set down the kettle. She took off her helmet and gave it to him. With the blanket edge protecting her hand she lifted the kettle again and poured its contents into the helmet.
‘Drink,’ she ordered.
Hassan raised the helmet to his lips. The aroma of warm wine mixed with spices drifted into his nostrils and he sipped the liquid gratefully. His chill abated.
‘That was good,’ he said.
‘In the Zagros winter, it was a most welcome beverage,’ said she. ‘Who would have thought it would prove equally so in the Alburz summer? In the fortress of Alamut?’
She drank what remained of the wine, threw the helmet aside and sat down on the horse blanket. She undraped the one that covered her shoulders, loosened her corslet and extended both her arms towards him. The candle flickered.
Hassan knelt and took her hands in his. ‘Doquz …’
She pulled him down beside her. ‘I cannot pretend you were the first, Hassan,’ she said. ‘Does that trouble you?’
‘That, no. It troubles me only that I could not please you.’
‘Then I was the first for you, as I thought. Truly you did not bed your Luciana?’
‘Not my Luciana!’ Hassan felt his cheeks burn, but if she had not guessed the whole truth he was not now going to confess it. ‘I could not love her as she wished.’
‘Yet with me you were gentleness itself.’
‘I beg you do not tease me.’
‘I do not tease, Hassan. You are young, but there is more to manhood than most men learn in a lifetime. With you …’ She did not finish the sentence but reached up and kissed him full on the mouth.
Hassan allowed his lips to linger on hers before breaking free to pose the question that had haunted him since Maragha.
‘Then I did not displease you?’
‘How could you think that? My life had become so grim and, before that night, I had not thought to find such love again.’ She paused to kiss him once more, this time fiercely, her mouth open and her tongue seeking his. When it seemed to Hassan that neither could any longer draw breath, she released him. Her lips found the lobe of his ear. ‘No, indeed, it was more, Hassan,’ she whispered. ‘The other was a childish fancy. I know that now. It excited and thrilled, but did not satisfy.’
Once more Hassan was gripped by a fever of excitement. He felt he ought to respond in some way but found he could not speak without stumbling over the words.
‘The last few nights,’ he began. ‘… when we camped in the hills … I would have come to you. I wanted to come to you … when you cried out in your sleep. Yet you sent me away …’
‘It would not have been proper. You must know that.’
She bit the lobe of his ear, very gently, and encircled his neck with her arm – the left – and only then did Hassan notice she no longer wore the bandage.
‘I know.’
‘Then let us lie together now while we have the time, my Hassan,’ said Doquz. She pulled him even closer, then down beside her on the blanket. The ground beneath his elbow was hard but he scarcely noticed.
‘My breasts are warm,’ she breathed. ‘Feel my heart; ‘tis beating so fast. Come to me again. In case there are soon to be no more tomorrows for us, I want to know your love one more time.’

The Cuckoo’s Calling


I knew before I even opened this book that the author, Robert Galbraith, was actually JK Rowling of Harry Potter fame. I think everyone knew that, almost from the day it was published. My hesitation and delay before reading it stemmed from my disappointment with The Casual Vacancy. That just wasn’t my thing at all.  See https://bookheathen.wordpress.com/2014/08/25/its-not-harry-potter/

The Cuckoo’s Calling is quite a different sort of novel, a detective story featuring a PI who steps out of the pages like the bomb that took off part of his leg. Cormoran Strike is ex British army, over-weight, broke and has been dumped by his girl friend. He is also the illegitimate son of a famous rock star.

The mystery, and the first case for a while that’s likely to help Strike with his debts, concerns the death of a celebrity model called Lula Landry, who has apparently committed suicide by jumping from the balcony of her luxury appartment. Lula, we learn early on, was adopted, and it is her brother John Bristow, also adopted, who engages Strike to find out the truth. Assisted by his temporary “secretary”, Robin, Strike embarks on his search for evidence that Lula was murdered, and to find the killer. His investigation takes us on a tour of London, from the fashionable West End to the colourful world of designers, models, film producers and pop stars, and into the less glamourous lives of wannabees.

Strike is a cerebral detective, Robin an efficient and intuitive assistant. The other players we meet in the course of the novel are brash, self-opinionated, camp, frivolous, sad or just plain funny. Lula, whom we never meet except as a dead body, is described as having a ‘drive towards self-destruction, a tendency which seemed to have revealed itself first in early adolescence, when her adoptive father … dropped dead from a heart attack. Lula had subsequently run away from two schools, and been expelled from a third, all of them expensive private establishments.’

Among the possible suspects for the crime is designer Guy Some, whose face ‘contrasted strangely with his taut, lean body, for it abounded in exaggerated curves: the eyes exophthalmic so that they appeared fishlike, looking out of the sides of his head.’ Another is model Ciara Porter who, ‘attenuated and angular, with milk-white skin, hair almost as fair, and pale blue eyes set very wide apart … stretched out her endless legs, in platform shoes that were tied with long silver threads up her calves, and lit a Marlborough Light.’

Then there’s film producer Freddie Bestigui – ‘… tiny eyes between pouches of flesh, black moles sprinkled over the swarthy skin’ and Lula’s mother, cancer-ridden Lady Bristow, whose ‘death was an almost palpable presence in the room, as though it stood waiting patiently, politely, behind the curtains.’

Ms Rowling has an eye for detail, a flair for characterisation and a wonderful bizarre sense of humour which, I think, is best demonstrated in this kind of story. I enjoyed reading The Cuckoo’s Calling and will quite happily read the next book in the Galbraith series when I get the opportunity. Strike, who seems rather sad at the beginning, improves as we get to know him better. Another book and we might actually get to admire him.


Gosho, Geisha and Gion

Memories of Japan (Part Four)

From the eleventh floor of the Isetan department store in Kyoto station, you can see the whole city. Its rectilinear boulevards of clean, modern buildings – shops, offices and hotels – stretch away into the haze of the hills that surround it on three sides. Criss-crossing them are neat, narrow lanes lined with boutiques and traditional teahouses that speak of an age long gone, when Kyoto was Japan’s capital and the geisha was queen. Here and there, a temple roof peeps out from a verdant cocoon of maple and pine, while patches of sakura, the much-vaunted cherry blossom, make an unlikely appearance midst the jungle of garish neon signs.


Kyoto – Ginkakuji – the silver temple

To the north and somewhere in the centre of this panorama lies the Imperial Palace, the Kyoto-gosho, a complex of buildings set amid stunning gardens, with avenues of acer, cedar and azalea. There are streams crossed by dainty, arched bridges, and well-stocked ornamental ponds. This site was the official residence of the Japanese emperors for five hundred years, though most of the original palace that stood here has long gone, damaged by fire beyond repair. The present buildings were completed only in 1855, just thirteen years before the move to Tokyo. Kyoto had been the capital of Japan for more than a thousand years.


Kyoto – Kinkakuji – the golden temple

Apart from the palace, the city boasts one castle of note, the early seventeenth century Nijo-jo, built by a powerful Shogun, but now public property. It too is set in magnificent gardens. Nijo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

tea ceremony

Tea Ceremony

Kyoto abounds in gardens, havens of peace and tranquillity in the Zen tradition with ancient stones laid in symbolic patterns, arboreta of shapely conifers and mirror pools that teem with enormous carp. Sometimes there are pavilions with walls of paper and wood, their floors laid with tatami. There you can squat and, for little more than the price of a downtown coffee, be served with a bowl of green tea and a cake by a kimono-clad waitress in a ceremony that is as old as Kyoto itself.

Cherry Blossom

Cherry Blossom

In the evening, the streets are swelling with people, shopping, dining or simply enjoying the spring air by the river. April is the time of the hanami – blossom viewing. The Japanese have a thing about the seasons, and they celebrate each in their own special way with ceremonies and festivals, some semi-religious and dignified, others sheer outrageous fun – an excuse for partying, fireworks and plenty of sake.

Women in kimono and obi are still to be seen gliding along in Gion among suited sararimen and teenagers with bared midriffs and bright red hair, but real geisha are comparatively rare. There are probably no more than two hundred in Kyoto today compared with ten times that number a century ago. They earn their living on the stage or in a semi-secret world the western tourist seldom penetrates. Perhaps it’s the secrecy that has led to western misconceptions. These women, more properly called maiko and geiko – have nothing to do with the sex trade. They are talented entertainers who sing, dance and play musical instruments for the delight of private, exclusive banquets and parties. At their own theatre in Gion, they perform traditional music and dance for the public at large. Their most famous and colourful presentation, the Miyako Odori. – the ‘Cherry Dances’ – is given in April at hanami time, when the Japanese often picnic under the blossoming trees.

Travelling around Kyoto is relatively simple. There are the underground train lines and, if you can come to terms with the station maze and master the ticket machines, they offer a speedy and comfortable way of traversing the city. The bus service is even more practical – and cheaper – once you pluck up courage to try it. For less than £1.50 sterling [about $2.00] *, it will transport you anywhere within the city limits. The main destinations and street names are displayed in romaji – English lettering – on an electronic board at the front of the bus, so the language isn’t a problem.

Like any city in the world, Kyoto also has its museums, theatres and cinemas. It has fashionable department stores too, but if you are looking for souvenirs, – real souvenirs – visit the smaller shops where specialist advice and personal service are the norm. You might even get a cup of tea. Often there is a price to be paid. Electronic goods – cameras, mobile phones and the like – are inexpensive and funky and you can buy a genuine Japanese fan for around 5,000 yen.
But if you want a kimono, better sell your car first!

* Current rates

Just an ordinary guy …

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

by Haruki Murakami

(translated by Philip Gabriel)


Straight off, I will say that I loved this character-driven story. Tazaki is just your average guy but he carries a lot of emotional baggage. He likes railway stations, he likes music, he plays sport and (we’ll come to this later because it has a lot to do with the plot) he likes girls. The biggest problem of all is his name; while his four best friends at high school have names that translate as colours, his does not! He sees himself as grey and uninteresting and has a very poor idea of his self worth.

One day, he takes a call from one of his friends, who tells him that none of the group wishes to see or have anything to do with him again. Instead of trying to find out why, he simply says OK and puts the phone down. He considers death and suicide but eventually decides to carry on with his life. Sixteen years later, he has become a competent engineer, building stations for a living. He begins a new relationship with Sara, a woman two years older than himself. Sara sees the worth in him but realises there are issues that need resolving before she can take their liaison to the next stage.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is one of those novels where to reveal too much of the plot would mean lots of spoilers. Suffice to say that Sara persuades Tazaki that he needs to find his old friends and ask them to explain why they rejected him. The answer, not unexpectedly, has to do with sex, and hinges on Tazaki’s relationship (real or imagined) with the two female members of his high school group. Regular readers of Murakami’s work may not be too shocked; he has a habit of weaving dreamlike fantasies into his novels. And in this case, though Tazaki is innocent of the charge brought against him, we (and he) are tempted to look for an explanation in the subliminal. However, despite subtle hints of some sinister force at work, Tazaki is driven to conclude that he is not such a colourless fellow after all.

To lovers of a nicely rounded romantic ending, the last chapter of the novel may be disappointing but I think it wraps up the character better than ‘happy ever after’ would do.

Whilst I’m sure that Mr Gabriel has made an excellent translation of the work, I do sometimes feel that Japanese literature does not translate well into English. There are complexities of the Japanese psyche, peculiar to their nation  – such as ‘face’ and ‘worth’ – that are not easily understood by Europeans. The concepts of colour and number too have more powerful emotional associations in their culture and language than they do in ours.


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