Reading the classics – Russian literature

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has galvanised most of the rest of the world in a way that one suspects Vladimir Putin did not expect. Economic sanctions have been imposed, Ukraine is being supplied with large scale weaponry to help it defend itself and organisations everywhere are questioning the participation of Russians in sport and the arts. Wimbledon will not be welcoming Russian and Belarussian participants this year. The Royal Opera House cancelled performances by the Bolshoi ballet scheduled for the summer. I read a news article this week about how Ukrainian citizens have been pulling down statues of Russian historical figures and renaming streets named after them, making their own views about Russian culture pretty clear. Days before Russia invaded Ukraine, I had just started to read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. After 24th February, I asked myself whether I should be setting the book aside.

Fyodor Dostoevsky (or is it Dostoyevsky?) 1821-1881

Dostoevsky’s work pre-dates modern Russian history by some margin: he was born in 1821 in Moscow. He travelled widely in Europe and was for some time addicted to gambling, running up significant debts as a consequence. He died of a pulmonary haemorrhage in St Petersburg in 1881 aged 59. He is undoubtedly one of the greats of world literature and was writing at the time of what is considered to be the golden age of Russian literature; he was a contemporary (or near-contemporary) of the likes of Gogol, Pushkin, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. Dostoevsky is perhaps one of the greatest novelists ever and Crime and Punishment (first published 1865-66) is perhaps one of the greatest novels ever. That surely makes it a must-read whatever the geopolitical situation.

Dostoevsky has always been celebrated in Russia although his own politics are not easily defined. He was sentenced to penal servitude in Siberia at one point in his early life, for speaking out against the Tsar. This got him a sentence of four years, whereas Raskolnikov, the central character in Crime and Punishment , gets a mere eight years for a brutal double murder! Dostoyevsky was a Christian and decried the decline of ‘true faith’ in Europe in the nineteenth century in favour of secular constitutions.

My edition – with the old-fashioned spelling!

Raskolnikov manages to flee undetected, and the blame for the crime is pinned on a decorator working in the building at the time (he confesses!). But Raskolnikov is unable to live with his culpability. I use this term deliberately because it is clear that what our perpetrator feels is somewhat short of guilt, and certainly not remorse. Large parts of this novel are extended internal debates Raskolnikov has with himself, justifying his actions, but also fearing capture. He is paranoid about being caught by the wily police investigator Porfiry Petrovich. He becomes gravely ill (somatic sickness triggered by his mental torture) and is cared for by his loyal friend Razumikhin, as well as his long-suffering mother and sister.

Raskolnikov is not a likeable character and the devotion of his friend, mother and sister seem misplaced. The book is littered with other unlikeable characters, also of dubious moral fibre, from Dunya’s cold-hearted fiance Luzhin, to the drunk Marmeladov, who spends all his money at the tavern while his wife and children starve, to the malevolent Svidrigailov who lusts after Dunya and tries to blackmail Raskolnikov after overhearing him confess to the saintly Sonya (step-daughter of Marmeladov). Raskolnikov wants us to see his crime as merely on a spectrum of immorality; all men are bad, and he is not really that much worse.

The novel is profound and interesting and examines the state of mind of a particular type of criminal in a particular setting. A highly self-absorbed and entitled young man who cites poverty as the main reason for his actions. It so happens that I have also just finished reading Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka, a contemporary novel which also explores the mind of a killer. The central character there, a damaged young man who never really recovers from feelings of abandonment by his mother at a young age, also philosophises on his actions and invites us to consider how much worse he really is than others. Look out for my review of that shortly.

So, yes, we should still be reading, watching and listening to the giants of Russian culture because these are rooted in a history and reflect a people that is entirely separate from the present regime in Russia. The likes of Dostoevsky were established as great long before the present Russian leader came along and will remain so long after he is gone.

I will be reading Ukrainian classic Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov next. Waterstones is donating the proceeds of all sales of this book to Oxfam’s Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal.

Women’s Prize shortlist announced today

Each year the Women’s Prize seems to get bigger and better! The idea for this wonderful initiative was first conceived in the early 1990s when it became apparent that despite women authoring the majority of books published, they rarely achieved more than one or two places on the shortlist for the prestigious Booker Prize; in 1992, there was not even one woman writer on the shortlist. Author Kate Mosse was the driving force behind the prize and remains its Director. She is a formidable character and I am not surprised she was the one to get this going! The first winner was the late Helen Dunmore for her novel A Spell of Winter. Other winners have included Carol Shields, the late Andrea Levy, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Eimear MacBride, Ali Smith and Maggie O’Farrell.

Over the years the Prize has had a number of sponsors and has previously been named after them (the Orange Prize and the Bailey’s Prize), but since 2018 it has been known simply as the Women’s Prize and enjoys a range of joint sponsors. Its remit is not simply to award prizes for literary achievement, but also to support reading and creativity in the community more generally and to make a space in the literary world for women’s voices.

In many ways, the Prize feels more relevant than the Booker even, and I have particularly valued how, during the pandemic, the talks with authors, which often only took place in-person in London, came to Zoom, making the work and the writers more accessible.

The shortlist for the 2022 Women’s Prize was announced today and is as follows:

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead – I’ve already read and reviewed this one as it was shortlisted for last year’s Booker, and it is AMAZING!


The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak – set in Cyrpus in 1974 at the time of the island’s division.


Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason – 40 year old Martha seems to have it all until her marriage breaks down and she has to move back to her dysfunctional family home. Can her life ever be ‘fixed’?


The Bread the Devil Knead by Lisa Allen-Agostini – Alethea is in an abusive marriage. She witnesses a woman murdered by her jealous lover and seems to see what her own future might be. Can she change her life’s trajectory?


The Sentence by Louise Erdrich – set in a Minneapolis bookshop during the tumultuous period November 2019 to November 2020 which is haunted by one of its now deceased customers. New employee Tookie must solve the mystery and make sense of events.


The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki – teenager Benny starts hearing voices after his father dies and his mother develops her own mental problems. He finds solace in the public library where he meets the characters who will help him through his grief.

This is a fascinating list of books and I would happily curl up on the sofa with any of them! I have long wanted to read Louise Erdrich’s work, so I think that may be the one I go to first.

Which do you fancy?

The winner is announced on 25 May and you can enter a competition to win copies of the shortlisted books by signing up to the the newsletter here.


Spring is here! Time for nature books

At last, spring seems to have arrived here in the north of England and it has felt like a long time coming. I love my garden but I could certainly not describe myself as a ‘keen’ gardener, nor have I a great knowledge about the subject. I like it to look nice though, and I like being in it. So, for the last few weeks, as the weather has got noticeably warmer and less damp, I have spent a lot of time in my garden, mainly cutting things back as it was already well-planted when we moved in and the shrubs just seem to grow and grow every year. I have barely touched the garden all winter, but as soon as buds start to appear on things, or spring blooms emerge, I am filled with a renewed gardening energy!

Nature more generally is rather different for me; I love being outside all year round and I find great beauty in bare trees in the winter months, when you can see the wonderful shapes and the intricate patterns of their branches more clearly. It can appear to some that everything is ‘dead’, but while much of it is indeed dormant, there is still a great deal going on if you care to look. Nevertheless, in the spring, so much of the work of nature is visible that it’s a good time of the year to think about nature books. I’ve picked out a few below, fiction and non-fiction, both classic and contemporary, that you might like to indulge in.

Classics on nature

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

I read this while at university for a module on American literature, and I’m afraid my 20 year-old self found it very boring! It is, however, a classic of the genre. Written in the 1840s, when the author was in his late 20s, it is his account of living in the wilderness (for two years), beside Walden pond in Massachussetts, observing the changes in the natural world around him and contemplating the virtues of the simple life versus a more materialistic one. I would like to come back to this book sometime soon, to see if I feel any differently about it!

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

This is a book I’d never heard of until fairly recently. It is now regarded as one of the early warnings on climate change. Carson was a research biologist and became increasingly concerned about the use of pesticides in particular, and how they then infiltrated the food chain, and more generally about the way man was exploiting nature in a way that would have disastrous long-term (although short and medium term, as it turns out) consequences.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

The classic man versus nature novel. The whale represents existential threat to man’s self-perceived mastery and throws its protagonist into psychological turmoil. Spoiler: the whale wins.

Nature in contemporary fiction

The Overstory by Richard Powers

Moby Dick is one of my all-time favourite classics, and The Overstory is one of the best books I have read in the last ten or more years. It will become a classic. The secret life of trees is explored in awesome detail, woven into a plot about climate activism and the lengths that some people will go to to save nature. It draws on the classics of nature writing as well as new research. Powerful and brilliantly written.

The New Wilderness by Diane Cook

Like Carson’s Silent Spring, this 2020 Booker Prize shortlisted novel envisions a future where humans have prevailed and pushed nature to a point where life as we know it cannot be sustained. Dystopian fiction at its finest and most frightening, because much of it feels very close and entirely possible. If this does not spur you to action then nothing will.

The Last Bear by Hannah Gold

I recommended this in a post a few weeks ago, when I was looking at books out for young people. This book was the overall winner of the Waterstones Children’s Book prize this year and is at the top of my TBR list. Unlike many of the other books mentioned in this post where the subject is man versus nature, Hannah Gold’s book explores the special empathy that children have with animals and nature. A force for good which should surely be harnessed.

Nature in contemporary non-fiction

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

A brilliant book that has spawned a number of imitators. Published in 2014, it is a memoir of grief, but also a powerful evocation of the relationship between man and nature, again, this time in the form of a goshawk. The author’s father was a keen falconer and photographer who died suddenly. In an effort to reconnect with her memories of her father she acquires a young goshawk which she seeks to train. The landscapes she describes provide a perfect metaphor for grief.

The Snow Geese by William Fiennes

A beautiful and brilliant book by an English author who observes and recounts the epic migratory journey of these magnificent birds from the southern United States to the Arctic. Not a book about man versus nature, rather one about what we can learn about ourselves and human nature by observing animals.

Wilding: the return of nature to a British farm by Isabella Tree

Published in 2019 to critical acclaim and hugely popular to boot, Wilding is an account filled with hope of one couple’s decision to surrender their uneconomic 3,500 acre farm in West Sussex to nature, by introducing free-roaming breeds of animals and ceasing to manage the environment. In a few short years an extraordinary natural balance was restored. I have this book but have not yet read it, but I did listed to an adaptation on the radio which was inspiring.

I hope you approve of my selection. I would love to hear your reading suggestions for this verdant time of the year.

Book progress

A few weeks ago, I posted on here about the terrible flood events of January 1953 that devastated parts of the east coast of England and the Netherlands. In England over 300 people lost their lives in one terrifying night and in the Netherlands the death toll exceeded 1,800. This event is rarely talked about in England and I am not sure why as events which have caused much less loss of life and less destruction and which also took place a generation or more ago, command much greater pubic attention. Perhaps it is the ‘no-fault’ nature of the disaster – it was a natural event, not caused by negligence, corruption or malicious intent, unlike say the bombing of the Pan Am aeroplane over Lockerbie in 1988 (270 deaths) or the Aberfan colliery disaster in 1966 (144 deaths). I do not wish to ‘rank’ these events in terms only of death toll – the Aberfan disaster killing as it did mostly schoolchildren is particularly horrific – but I am simply somewhat surprised that it seems to have slipped from memory.

The morning after – Canvey Island after the devastating floods on 31 January 1953

The loss of life associated with the 1953 storms could not be said to be entirely ‘no fault’. Enquiries found a woeful lack of a meaningful communication system, and the fact that the events took place over the weekend (meaning that officials were not working) certainly contributed to the death toll. Perhaps it was the proximity of these events to the second world war that has contributed in part to the amnesia; tens of thousands of civillians died in the war that had ended only eight years earlier. It is also likely that the lack of investment in maintaining civil defences both during and after the weather contributed to the ease with which flood barriers were breached.

So, as you can see, I’ve been doing research! I’ve read pretty much all the main sources on the subject, and watched quite a lot of newsreel footage from the time. I’d like to tell you about one of the books I read, which had a section on the 1953 floods but which was about the tides more generally. Tide: The Science and Lore of the Greatest Force on Earth, written by Hugh Aldersley-Williams, a scholar of natural sciences, and published in 2017 is a brilliant read. I borrowed it from my local library, intending to read only the section relevant to my research, but I ended up working through the whole book, and thoroughly enjoyed it. The author is an intelligent and witty writer whose knowledge and authority on his subject is slightly concealed by his humour and deft use of language. It is scholarly work dressed up as an entertaining read, and there aren’t many serious works of non-fiction you can say that about.

The author looks at the link between the sea on earth and our moon, something I had never before understood fully. He also explores the cultural impact of the tides, particularly on nations like the United Kingdom which has such a long coastline relative to its size. Before clocks were invented, “measuring time” was meaningless. People lived their lives by natural phenomena such as the position of the sun, the phase of the moon, the behaviour of wildlife, and the ebb and flow of the tides. Clocks have largely inured us to these movements.

“The coast of the British Isles is one of the most tidally lubricated coasts anywhere in the world.”

Hugh Aldersley-Williams

Hugh Aldersley-Williams writes in detail about historical events that have been influenced by tidal flows, such as the cholera epidemic in London in the 1880s (construction of a sewerage system in the west end of the city meant that the tides of the Thames forced river water into the drinking water in the east of the city). The success of the D-Day landings in northern France in 1944 depended heavily on the accurate prediction of the tides. The author also travelled widely to investigate tidal phenomena all over the world and writes finally (and inevitably) about rising sea levels and the impact of the tides on low-lying coastal communities. Devastating flooding in Europe this last winter has given us a foretaste of this.

This book was an absolutely brilliant read and I recommend it highly.

Another book I read as part of my research and which I did not enjoy was Vulgar Things by Lee Rourke. I read it because it is set in Canvey Island, the location of my own book. However, I found that this book did not keep my interest – the plot was thin and the premise weak. I hope my own book portrays Canvey Island in a more positive light than Vulgar Things. I don’t like criticising books so I won’t say any more.

I recently attended an online writing class with Kate Mosse and Maggie O’Farrell. As writers of historical fiction they said that a book should wear its research thinly. We have all, I am sure, read books where the author is just dying to tell you everything they have found out about their topic! As a novice writer I need to be very careful about this. So, it’s the school Easter holidays and I am using this time to take a break between completing the research phase and beginning the writing phase of my book. Writing starts next week! I have cleared my diary for the next month or two and have high expectations of myself. There is danger to this of course; I could hit creative blocks, or plot problems, and will get myself in a panic about not hitting my daily word count! We will see.

Wish me luck!

Postcard from The Netherlands

We have been regular visitors to The Netherlands for twenty years now and have a small holiday home in the south of the country in the province of Zeeland. The southernmost part of the province (Zeeuws Vlanderen, or Zeelandic Flanders) is an area that has no land border with the rest of the country, being separated from it by the mighty Scheldt river, one of the primary waterways into the heart of Europe. When we first visited Zeeuws Vlanderen you reached it either by a very long detour via Antwerp in Belgium or a small car ferry between the ports of Vlissingen and Breskens. It made it feel remote. Then the opening of a 6km tunnel at the industrial town of Terneuzen transformed journey times and the economy of this part of the country. It has made Zeeuws Vlanderen more accessible and it certainly feels a little less remote these days. We tend to travel there via Calais in France, as it is less than 2 hours drive.

My daughters are both studying for exams this summer and we all needed a change of scene, so we decided to take a short break. The weather wasn’t great and the travel chaos was even less great, but it did us the world of good. This is such an under-rated part of Europe (the only visitors tend to be Dutch, Belgian or German), but for us it was like medicine for the soul!

Friday, 1 April

Bumper to bumper at the Eurotunnel!

We leave home straight after the end of school and drive to the Eurotunnel port at Folkestone, a journey of 275 miles. We make good progress, which stalls completely once we are diverted off the M20 (a section of which had been turned into a lorry park, under Operation Brock). The volume of traffic is such that the 2-3 mile journey from Eurotunnel motorway junction to the passenger terminal takes almost three hours! At least once we arrive in France, there is almost no traffic on the roads and we arrive at our destination in the early hours of the morning.

Saturday, 2 April

A long lie-in then a trip to the nearest supermarket in Breskens and a leisurely lunch, which must involve frites!

More vakantie apartements in Breskens

A stroll around this small town shows that since our last visit, more tourist developments have sprung up. I am happy to see this lovely place thriving, not least since it will benefit us, as we rent out our holiday home, but a part of me has mixed feelings; I’m not sure I want lots of tourists here!

Some of the lake’s permanent residents pay us a visit!

The weather is cold, colder than I have ever experienced here in the spring, but we are just happy to be away…and enjoying the wildlife.

One of our favourite things to do here is to take an evening stroll on the dyke beside the village. The views are always rewarding.

Sunday, 3 April

We take a trip to Brussels, to collect my husband from the airport, as he was unable to travel with us on Friday. It’s about 100km, or a 90 minute drive. I am nervous navigating the complicated ring road and finding city centre parking, but it is Sunday morning and therefore less busy. It is still cold, but it’s bright and sunny. Brussels is a beautiful city. It is also big. We stick to exploring the old town, which reminds me of Bruges minus the canals, and enjoy sipping coffee on pavement cafes, hearing clocks chiming the hour, wonderful shops, confectioners and more frites.

Monday, 4 April

No trip to Zeeland for us is complete without a day in Middelburg. This place is a hidden treasure – I’m almost afraid to mention it! This medieval town retains much of its traditional architecture and yet it has the atmosphere of an everyday working place. The quality of life here must be wonderful. My husband and I have often fantasised about renting a house here for a few months once our children have left home! There is a wonderful town square, with its spectacular town hall, edged by pavement cafes and restaurants, a museum, grand churches, picturesque canals and bridges, lovely shops, the best bookshop in southern Holland (De Drukkery), a student population and of course, coffee and frites! We often cycle here from our holiday home – we can bike to the ferry at Breskens and then cycle the 8km beside the canal, using the excellent Dutch cycle paths. But it is too cold and wet today, even for all but the hardiest of Dutch cyclists.

Tuesday, 5 April

The day begins with appelflappen from the village bakery. Then we decide to head to the smart Belgian coastal town of Knokke-Heist, an attractive seaside resort which seems to consist mainly of second homes. It is quiet on a Tuesday. Most of the residential buildings are apartments, weekend homes for a wealthy Brussels elite, most likely. There are many beautiful art galleries and expensive shops, most of which only open at weekends. It has a vast beach, much of which is taken up with beach huts and cafes and bars, and a wide and long promenade. Knokke is only 30 km from our house and we have visited it often over the years. One of our favourite things to do when the children were younger was to take the Kusttram which runs for 67 km along the coast from Knokke to De Panne. You can get on and off to explore the different towns and attractions en route. Today we stayed in Knokke and just strolled around, and sampled yet more frites and ice-cream.

Wednesday, 6 April

Our short break is over and it’s time to head home. The return journey is thankfully less eventful than the one getting here. We are astonished by the size of the queue of what appear to be thousands of lorries stranded on the M20, waiting to get into Dover. My heart goes out to those drivers, who have no facilities and only the food they will have brought with them.

I did not do much reading while I was away, it being primarily a family holiday with quite a bit more packed in than we had intended.

Book review – “Briefly Yours” by Cat English

A few months ago I read Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying and reviewed it on here. It was part of my 2021 reading challenge and for that month I’d set myself the challenge of reading some classic erotic fiction. The post must have got me noticed in certain quarters because shortly afterwards I was approached to participate in a book review tour. Now, this was my ‘first time’ so I agreed, rather excitedly! I may have been blogging for some time, but clearly there is a whole sector of book bloggers out there that I have never discovered before! They mostly inhabit Instagram and post short punchy reviews with lots of hashtags. (Note to self: must log into Insta again one day.)

Briefly Yours

Briefly Yours by Cat English is a non-fiction erotic memoir. ‘Cat’, her nom-de-plume and working pseudonym, is a call-girl, but she is no ordinary sex worker. It is very much a career choice which she has made in order to help fund her sister’s law degree and to support her passion, which is rescuing feral cats, feeding them, helping them to get well and arranging veterinary treatment, including neutering. Cat has worked in other sectors and in the book she takes time out from the sex work to try her hand at something more conventional, working in a department store. However, the lifestyle of the commuter and the bullying she is subjected to by her supervisor, are not worth the pitiful salary.

Cat’s life story is interwoven into her accounts of work at the parlour and many episodes of encounters with clients. She creates three separate worlds – the parlour, with the other women who work there, the clients and staff, a fun and credible cast of characters; her cat world, with all the feral creatures she names and cares for, with the help of her sister; and her family life, her mum, sister and brothers. She seems close to her family and they are aware of her lifestyle, even though she tries to keep it a secret generally from friends and neighbours. I would have liked to have had a little more sense of her sister’s gratitude – wow, what a sacrifice! Cat grew up on a council estate in the north west, so she is a down to earth girl who comes across as both deeply caring and pretty shrewd.

She deals with the issues around her sex work head-on. She invites the reader to set aside their prior assumptions and asks whether what she is doing is really any more exploitative than working for minimum wage in a dead-end job she hates. Whilst I was deeply uncomfortable with some of the issues she raised, it did open my eyes. It helps that she actually enjoys the work, both the sex and the customer service aspect (she meets people’s needs, and knows that she does it well). Some of the clients are ghastly, some are cruel and borderline violent (the set-up of the parlour brings with it a degree of protection), but Cat certainly feels like she has a degree of control. She has mixed feelings about the clients; some she really likes, others she has no respect for particularly if they have partners and children at home, but insisting their wives don’t understand them. There is a nice camaraderie in the parlour, but this is high-end, and therefore expensive. Even if you can accept prostitution at this level, one does wonder about the women who are doing it for much less, or to support a drug habit, or putting themselves at great risk on the streets. I found that quite difficult to get out of my head.

I suspect I am not the target audience for this book! I have to say though that I did enjoy it. It’s a light fun read. There is a lot of really bad erotic fiction out there, that is written for a certain kind of stimulation. I think this definitely better than most of the ‘written to a formula’ trash in that category. The sex scenes are very graphic (though not much more so than, say Luster or Queenie, even though those books would fall into a more literary category), but mostly they ring true. Cat writes well, actually, and with charm; she captures the array of clients really well and it feels authentic. I suspect she might not find the life of an author quite as lucrative as that of a call-girl, but I wish her well!

I was sent a complimentary advance copy of this book by Literally PR.

March in pictures

I missed out on this post last month – like much of the UK population I had Covid for the first time in February and so did not do very much or take many pictures!

What I was reading in March:

Plus more research for my book:

Sufficiently recovered from Covid to do the Heaton Park run with my son, but kept it to a 5k, while he completed his first half marathon!

And very happy to have a signed copy of Margaret Atwood’s latest!

Enjoying a bonus early spring warm spell at Dunham Massey, Cheshire.

Looking forward to April!

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