Current Affairs, Review copies

All That I Am – Anna Funder – 6/10

“Hans, who was shy speaking to the English, spoke of them as they fitted his preconceptions: a nation of shopkeepers, tea drinkers, lawn clippers. But I came to see them differently. What had seemed a conformist reticence revealed itself, after a time, to be an inbred, ineffable sense of fair play. They didn’t need as many external rules as we did because they had internalised the standards of decency.”

all that i am

(from the blurb) When Hitler comes to power in 1933, a tight-knit group of friends and lovers become hunted outlaws overnight. United in their resistance to the madness and tyranny of Nazism, they must flee the country. Dora, passionate and fearless, her lover, the great playwright Ernst Toller, her younger cousin Ruth and Ruth’s husband Hans find refuge in London. Here they take breathtaking risks in order to continue their work in secret. But England is not the safe haven they think it to be, and a single, chilling act of betrayal will tear them apart.

Often a book seems driven by one of three things to me – plot, characters, or beautiful writing. This seemed a half-and-half study of plot and characters. The plot moved at inconsistent speed (and jumped around – but more on that later), but while we stayed in one place and time, particularly in the early 30s in Germany and then in the mid 30s in London, it was well-crafted and progressed. A level of tension is well-maintained without being exhausting. I didn’t see the plot twist coming at all. I was surprised when it came, who it was that was responsible, and the effects.

I already protested about the back-and-forth perspective, the way we flick from Ruth as an old woman, to Ruth as a young woman during the Nazi years, to Ernst Toller at the start of the war, and back again. I still maintain that Ernst’s story served no purpose at all – it was necessary that some of the information about Dora came through him, but that was really it.

Young Ruth was my favourite character (I suspect this is Funder’s intention); gentle and idealistic, committed and loving. I found Dora more difficult; headstrong, impetuous, strangely unconcerned with consequences. Ernst was sanctimonious and selfish, and Hans was strangely nothing. He was inspired and gregarious as a young man, but he petered out into nothingness in a new country. I loved old Ruth’s observations on Bev (her carer) – a little comic relief in the other timeline.

This is such a depressing book. So naturally I read it on holiday in Rome in the sunshine. But still. I can’t decide whether it needed heavier editing, redirecting, or whether I was never going to like something so dark.

One thing this book did teach me was the experience of living in 20s Germany. At school we only heard about the rampant inflation and needing a wheelbarrow full of cash to buy a loaf of bread; this book managed to convey the joy and freedom and idealism and optimism of the early 20s. No mean feat.

Not bad, and others will enjoy it more than I. But so, so depressing.

Additional info
Copy borrowed from the Book Accumulator quite some time ago. Now finally I can return it. 
Publisher: Penguin, 363 pages (paperback)
Order All That I Amfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting
Current Affairs

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine – Alina Bronsky – 5/10

“As my daughter Sulfia was explaining that she was pregnant but that she didn’t know by whom, I paid extra attention to my posture. I sat with my back perfectly straight and folded my hands elegantly in my lap.”


Rosa’s mentally hindered daughter Sulfia announces a pregnancy. Despite Rosa’s best folkloric efforts, Aminat is born, and from that moment Rosa employs every fibre of her cunning, strength, effort and money into wrestling her away from Sulfia, claiming Sulfia is an unfit mother. When a travelling German writer becomes fixated on Aminat, Rosa sees her escape to the West.

Wow. Just wow. Rosa is a seriously devious, evil character. Can understand why she makes it onto a few villain lists (to quote Literate Housewife: “Rosa Achmetowna makes Scarlett O’Hara look like a Girl Scout and perhaps even Mother of the Year. Her story should be compulsory reading for every teenage daughter who thinks her mother is the worst mother in the world. Very few mothers will retain monster status in comparison”). But I had to keep reading as the horror of the situation spiralled further, while Rosa believed she still has it all totally under control. She does remind me of a much less pleasant Emily Gilmore.

We never really establish what’s wrong with Sulfia, which I found frustrating; not being able to escape Rosa’s psychotic brain does leave quite a few puzzles unanswered. Similarly, Aminat is an interesting character and I would have liked to have spent more time with her. A dual approach would have been interesting here – alternating chapters written by Rosa and Aminat? The men are pretty dire – which is a trend I’m finding in my reading at the moment. Although in this case, the women are dire too so it’s not poor writing of male characters… What I couldn’t understand was the fact that every man tolerated Rosa’s bizarre behaviour!

Plot wise? There’s no great rush – it’s the tension and movements in the power struggle between the three generations of women that propel us towards the end. Thus the plot feels haphazardly timed; for a long time nothing really happens, then suddenly there’s a rush for Israel. Then nothing happens again for a long time, then Germany. I suspect that I didn’t get on with this because the humour didn’t do anything for me; the blurb suggests that it is “told with sly humour and an anthropologist’s eye for detail… women whose destinites are tangled up in a family dynamic that is at turns hilarious and tragic.”

All in all – odd. Definitely a book I’ll remember for a while, and unlike anything else I read this year. However, not a pleasant experience – the humour fell short for me.

Additional information:


The Girl on the Stairs – Louise Welsh – 4/10 (DNF)

Jane finds herself heavily pregnant in a new city, unable to communicate effectively, and with a partner who works too hard and isn’t home enough. When a girl in a red coat crosses her path and she hears raised voices next door, she becomes concerned for her young neighbour’s safety; a little too concerned for her own good.

I found the characters in this too extreme, and I suspect the author has a political agenda. The protagonist was both lesbian and pregnant, and consistently putting herself in danger with her obsession with the safety of the girl next door. She was in a foreign city; annoyed because her partner’s career had not been curtailed by pregnancy and her partner was travelling off to Vienna; her German is not very good, so she is quite isolated in her new city. Somehow, her vulnerability and difficulties were over-emphasised, and I struggled to believe her willingness to go walking about a creaky, potentially haunted apartment block in a foreign city while very pregnant.

Maybe my reaction is a sheltered one, one of a person who likes characters to fit into certain boxes, and Welsh is trying to provoke a reaction and shock the reader out of their prejudices. Well, that may be, but I don’t think I am a reader who is all that easily shocked, and this felt political. In which case – fine, but advertise it; I felt ambushed, as I did by “Christian fiction” a few times in the past where a book with a strong agenda was dressed up as a middle-of-the-road thriller.

I found all of the characters slightly overdone, like I was watching a film from the perspective of a character on drugs which amplify all the sensory inputs (that took longer to write than I intended; either you will know the cinematographic trick that I mean, or you will not!). Petra is very businessy, very German (I have a strong link to Germany. “Very German” is not a negative comment!), very unemotional. The old neighbour downstairs has hallucinatory Alzheimers. The priest is very judgemental. The girl next door is aggressive. No one is just a person who serves a plot purpose.

Berlin, as a location, is done well. The buildings with facades hiding derelict courtyards and shameful histories, the underground train stations with a slight sense of menace, the openness of residents once you get past the initial aloofness; all are captured well. What is not conveyed is the energy and positivity of the city, but you don’t want that in a horror novel, do you?!

Quite spooky. If you don’t mind the LGBT agenda smacking you over the head every few pages, and you like Gothic horror stories, this might work for you. It was too much for me.

Additional information:
Copy kindly provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Publisher: John Murray, 288 pages (paperback)
Order The Girl on the Stairs from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting
Fluff, Thriller

The Charlemagne Pursuit (continued) – 2/10

Having abandoned it, I was then unable to
look at my to-be-read pile without a guilty feeling, so I steeled myself and
tried again. The sub-optimal reading environment of the Underground provided a
good setting for something so Dan-Brown-esque (I haven’t found my adjective of
choice for the genre yet!).

As I said before, it’s a not terribly subtle thriller involving an ancient German dynasty, Nazis, retired USA Special Forces members turned booksellers… and Antarctica. Mostly everyone dies.

Finished with no great relish… ok for the Tube, but that’s not a terribly high standard.