From The Stacks Challenge

The Overdue Books Challenge came to an end on 31 January 2008. The idea was to read 5 books from those you had already purchased, had been meaning to get to and haven’t read before. There was to be no going out and buying new books and no getting sidetracked by the lure of the holiday bookstore displays.

The books I chose were:

Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie
Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bowers
The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson
Winter in Madrid by C J Sansom
The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers

On the first count I didn’™t do too well because I only read two of these books, namely The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson, which I wrote about on 13 December 2007 and Winter in Madrid by C J Sansom, which I wrote about on 30 January 2008.

Although I started off quite well it wasn’™t long before I began to buy more books so I failed dismally on the second count. Still, I’™m pleased that I did read at least two books from my To Be Read List, so I’™m counting it as a mini success and I will read the other books this year.

Winter In Madrid by C. J. Sansom

The devastation, desolation and waste of war had me in tears as I was reading Winter In Madrid. I already knew from reading his 16th century crime thrillers that C. J. Sansom is a master storyteller and this book exceeded my expectations. It is an action packed thrilling war/spy story and also a moving love story and historical drama all rolled into this tense and gripping novel.

Sansom vividly conveys the horror and fear of the realities of life in Spain during the Spanish Civil War and the first two years of the Second World War. The opening chapter dramatically sets the tone for the book with the brutality of the Battle of Jarama in 1937 then leaps straight into the bombing of London in 1940. Then Harry Brett, traumatised by his injuries at Dunkirk is sent to Spain to spy for the British Secret Service. He is plunged into the terrible living conditions in Madrid where people are starving, children are left homeless to fend for themselves and wild dogs roam the rubble of bombed houses.


He turned into a square. Two sides had been shelled into rubble, all the houses down, a chaos of broken walls rising from a sea of shattered bricks and sodden rags of bedding. Weeds had grown up between the stones, tall scabrous dark-green things. Square holes in the ground half filled with green scummy water marked where cellars had stood. The square was deserted and the houses that had been left standing looking derelict, their windows all broken.

Harry had never seen such destruction on such a scale; the bombsites in London were small by comparison. He stepped closer, looking over the devastation. The square must have been intensively shelled. Everyday there was news of more raids on London – did England look like this now?

This is a long and detailed book, but it moves along rapidly, with believable characters, including the bullying Ambassador, Sir Samuel Hoare, Alan Hillgarth, the chief of intelligence (both of whom are real historical figures), diplomats, Spanish Monarchists and Falangists and the ordinary Spanish people. Franco’s Madrid is shown as a place where fear, poverty and corruption stalk the streets; where hatred and suffering are paramount. It’s a chilling picture, but Harry finds love too when he meets Sofia and plans her escape with him to England after he has completed his mission.

The question is will Franco maintain Spain’s neutrality and enter the war in support of Hitler? Harry’s cover is as an interpreter, whilst his mission is to make contact with Sandy Forsyth, who he had known at public school in England, gain his confidence and discover the truth behind the rumour that gold deposits have been discovered in Spain, which would boost the economy making Spain less reliant on British support. Harry, a reluctant spy, soon finds himself in danger. He is plagued by memories of another school friend Bernie Piper, an ardent Communist who had enlisted in the International Brigades and had disappeared, reported killed at the Battle of Jarama. Barbara, an ex- Red Cross nurse, now Sandy’s girlfriend and Bernie’s former lover is convinced Bernie was not killed She appeals to Harry for help in finding Bernie, and so the story moves to its climax.

With its haunting themes of corruption, murder, the power of authority and heroism Winter In Madrid captivated my imagination. I expect it will be made into a film but I don’t think I could bear to watch it after enjoying this book so much.

Note: This book qualifies for the following Challenges – From the Stacks (I’ve had it unread for months), the Chunkster Challenge (it’s 530 pages) and What’s In a Name?

The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson

An intriguing book. This is the first book I’ve read for the From the Stacks Challenge.

I finished reading The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson at the end of November and have now got round to writing about it. I started it with great enthusiasm and found it a compelling book to read. It is a psychological mystery concerning the nature of belief, faith, and truth. It starts with an account of the disappearance and death of Gideon Mack and the discovery of a manuscript written by him shortly before he was last seen. It is clear right from the start that there is mystery and uncertainty surrounding his disappearance, death and the discovery of his body. The book centres on the manuscript with an epilogue containing ‘œnotes’ written by a journalist investigating the mystery, considering whether the manuscript was ‘œanything other than the ramblings of a mind terminally damaged by a cheerless upbringing, an unfulfilled marriage, unrequited love, religious confusion and the stress and injury of a near-fatal accident?’

Gideon Mack was a minister in the Scottish Church, even though he did not believe in the existence of God. He simply didn’™t discuss religion and discovered that ‘œit was possible to be a Christian without involving Christ very much’. He concentrated on works rather than on faith and threw himself into raising money for charity. One of his fundraising events was running in the London marathon and he found that running made him ‘œimmune to the world and its problems.’ Whilst out running in the woods he came across a standing stone that he was sure had not been there before. It is this stone that drew him further into the mysterious events that led to his disappearance. He took photographs of the stone, but they failed to come out. It is not clear whether the stone was actually there or not, any more than it is not clear what actually did happen to Gideon Mack.

Be aware:there are possible spoilers ahead.

As well as being a faithless minister Gideon was married to a woman whom he did not love and he was in love with Elsie, his best friend’™s wife. As I read the book I realised that it’™s just not clear whether Gideon’™s account is truthful and how much of it can be believed. Did he have an affair with Elsie or not? Did he see the standing stone, or was it just a figment of his imagination? Was he mad or deluded or what?

What is clear is that he fell into a ravine, trying to rescue a dog that fell into the Black Jaws and he was ‘œchurned and spun like a sock in a washing-machine, carried along by an immense, frothing, surging force.’ He thought that he ‘œcouldn’™t possibly have survived the fall’ but even if he had ‘œthe river would have killed’ him. He thought he must be dead. And it is at this point that he found he had been rescued by the Devil and spent three days with him before he eventually returned home. He claimed the Devil had healed his leg, broken from the fall, discussed the nature of belief and God with him and swapped his trainers for Gideon’™s shoes. Are the trainers proof that the Devil does exist? When Gideon saw the trainers they triggered his memory ‘“ but is his memory reliable? What is real, what is imagined and what is illusion?

The question of whether Gideon believes in God and the Devil as a result of his experience is not answered directly, although in remembering his near-death experience Gideon thought ‘œthere really is something good on the other side. I don’™t know what, but it’™s not the end.’

The book kept my interest to the end. I wanted to know what happened to Gideon, why he became a minister when he didn’™t believe in God, how he coped with living with the Devil when he had previously believed him to be a figment of his imagination, what was real, what was legend and are myths just metaphors. Like Surveillance this book is open ended. As Gideon said, ‘œYou either believe or you don’™t.’

The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson – the Opening Chapters

I’™ve just started to read ‘œGideon Mack‘ this morning and must write about it. I’™m enjoying it so much that I’™ve had to slow my reading down to make sure I read every word. I’™m reading this book as part of the From the Stacks Challenge, and cannot think why I haven’™t read it before now.

I first came across this book in my local library at the beginning of this year. It was on display on the ‘œQuick Choice’ stand. I started to read it and was enthralled. I was disappointed that I couldn’™t renew it as someone else had reserved it, so I had to take it back, largely unread. Because I liked what I had read, I decided to buy a copy. However, by the time I could get a copy I was well into reading other books (which ones I can’™t remember now), so ‘œGideon Mack‘ sat in a pile and gradually got further and further down until I almost forgot about it.

Thanks to the Challenge I remembered that this was a book that I’™d wanted to read, or rather had felt compelled to read. So when I finished The Great Fortune by Olivia Manning (post on this to follow when I have time) I picked it up. I’™m so glad I did. I’™m sure already that it’™s going to be one of those books that I’™ll be enthusing over for a while yet.

Just a small taster. Gideon Mack, a faithless minister is writing an account of what happened to him. Here he is describing how he feels about running:

‘œI was somewhere in between ‘“ an escapee from my professional hypocrisy, a minister off the leash, a creature neither wholly real nor wholly imagined, hurrying through an ancient landscape. Yes, even then I suspected what I now know to be true: that life itself is not wholly real. Existence is one thing, life quite another: it is the ghost that haunts existence, the spirit that animates it. Running, whether in the rain or sun, felt like life.’

There is so much on a variety of different themes that I’™m interested in packed into the opening pages of this book! References to other books (some I’™ve read and others I’d like to read); what is life and what is real; belief or non-belief in God; the nature and importance of evidence and facts, that can be misleading or just plain lies, and the slipperiness of truth; the pleasure to be found in the doing of something and not in its completion; reminiscences of one’™s early life; not to mention the pleasure of ‘œthe glide and flow of nib and ink on paper’ and the benefits of writing with a pen over writing on a computer!

I can’™t wait to get back to it.

From the Stacks Challenge

This Overdue Books Challenge is just what I need. The idea is that during the next three months you read 5 books from those you have already purchased, have been meaning to get to and haven’t read before. No going out and buying new books. No getting sidetracked by the lure of the holiday bookstore displays.

This should help me keep to my resolve not to buy any more books for a while – until at least after Christmas. After all, I’ve got lots of books that I haven’t read yet. My bookshelves are full too overflowingand the books are double stacked. There’s just no more room for another bookcase and there are piles of books on the computer desk and next to the chairs in the lounge, in fact there are books everywhere. When I bought them it was because I wanted to read them, not just to sit on the bookshelves and on the floor. So here’s my provisional list. It’s provisional because I could easily choose others and I want to give myself the option of not reading the ones I’ve listed. That may sound strange, but the odd thing is that previously when I’ve decided I’ll read this book and then that book I then find I resist reading the book. Contrary or what? I don’t know. Anyway here’s my list (in no particular order):

  1. Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie
  2. Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bowers
  3. The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson
  4. Winter in Madrid by C J Sansom
  5. The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers

I’m currently reading Cranford by Mrs Gaskell and thought of including it for this challenge, but as I have read it before when I was at school it doesn’t really qualify. I heard last night that the 5 part serial Cranford is starting next Sunday evening on BBC One. Although I did read it many years ago and remember the characters it’s like reading a new book so maybe it does qualify for the Challenge after all.