Tuesday, 15 December 2015

On The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Lesley Downer / Into The Fire by Manda Scott / The Heart Of A Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov

On the Narrow Road to the Deep North by Lesley Downer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Buy the ebook from Amazon.co.uk

I downloaded a copy of On The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Lesley Downer when I saw it mentioned in an Endeavour Press newsletter. Like Richard Flanagan's similarly titled Burma railroad novel, The Narrow Road To The Deep North, Downer's book owes its naming to Matsuo Basho's ancient travel memoir. The famous Japanese poet inspired her to follow in his footsteps across the rural north of the country and this fascinating book is her record of the journey.

I love the idea of visiting Japan myself, especially the country outside of Tokyo which is completely different to the ultra-modern city. On The Narrow Road To The Deep North reveals some of the mysteries of the culture and also describes important historical events that took place in the places Downer visits. I appreciated the clever intertwining of the three main journeys: that of Downer herself, Basho and his companion Sora some three hundred years previously, and the almost mythical heroes Benkei and Yoshitsune in whose footsteps Basho himself was following. The inclusion of Basho's haiku is an inspired touch. I don't think I had read any of his work before and enjoyed the dual visions of places which often had hardly changed in the intervening centuries. This book is a great history lesson as well as a travel memoir.

A Western woman travelling alone is an incredibly unusual sight in rural Japan so we readers get to see the varying local reactions to their visitor. I was amazed at the poverty of these village communities as I had believed all of Japan to be an affluent nation. The landscapes, once away from the concrete towns, sound incredibly beautiful and I was frequently envious as another footpath sign pointed out into the mountains. Downer's writing really brings her journey to life and her love for Japan shines through. I would highly recommend On The Narrow Road To The Deep North to travellers, walkers, poets and history buffs.

On The Narrow Road To The Deep North is on a Kindle Countdown deal at the time of writing this blog post. It's just 99p instead of £2.99 for the next six days so buy it now!

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Lesley Downer / Biography and memoir / Books from England


Into the Fire (Capitaine Inés Picaut, #1)Into the Fire by Manda Scott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Buy the ebook from Amazon.co.uk
Buy the hardback from Waterstones

I won a huge hardback copy of Into The Fire, signed by its author, Manda Scott, through a Twitter giveaway over the summer. Thank you @followthehens! Being posted meant it took a while to get to me and I thought I would save it until we were well into France. Into The Fire is set in Orleans, miles from our current Pyrennean base, and it has a good sense of Frenchness about the writing, particularly in the early stages of the modern day crime story.

Scott develops two stories alongside each other - one being a police procedural set in political circles in 2014 Orleans, the other taking us back to fifteenth century France and the military campaigns of Jehanne d'Arc. For the first half of the book I really enjoyed both stories. The political intrigues of both are interesting and well described. The characters are realistic and Scott has a talent for concisely portraying her scenes to enable easy imagining without slowing the pace with too much description.

However, once the modern day story steps up a gear, I found it headed swiftly into unbelievable events with the characters losing all sense of themselves. It was as if they were merely following a bad Hollywood action screenplay where all realism is sacrificed for relentless action. There is even a random unprofessional romance flung in for no good reason and, of course, the whole plot is centres personally on the chief investigator because that's the way these thrillers always pan out. By contrast, the historical storyline stays strong and fascinating, but I found the modern day shenanigans so distracting that it was hard to keep focused. I would far rather Scott had made this purely a historical novel and not tried for the dual aspect. The two stories are only tenuously linked so Jehanne's tale would easily have stood alone and the book would be the better for it.


Heart of a DogHeart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Buy the ebook from Amazon.co.uk
Buy the paperback from Waterstones

In some ways, the life of Mikhail Bulgakov is as odd as his writing! A Russian satiricist, his work was banned during the Soviet era leading him to appeal directly to Stalin for assistance - and getting a positive response. The Heart Of A Dog was written in 1925 but not published until 1968, after Bulgakov had died. In the sublime novella he imagines the result if, say, a progressive scientist and doctor was to implant the testes and pituitary gland of a man into a stray dog. The resultant chaos may be scientifically impossible (or at least extremely unlikely!), but it makes for a fabulous read.

We first meet stray dog Sharik as he is near death, shivering in a doorway and badly hurt from being scaled by boiling water. We see the heartless city through his eyes and experience his joy when a stranger shows him a tiny kindness. Back at the stranger's luxurious apartment, old Russia is still very much in evidence despite the best efforts of the Soviet management committee who are charged with further subdividing all the flats for communal living. One of the committee is even a Woman! What horror!

As the mad experiment turns Sharik from naughty dog to disruptive human, Bulgakov manages to use his surreal scenario to not only poke fun at the best efforts of the new Soviet regime, but also to deliver moral life lessons - kindness will always succeed over terror. Sharikov's efforts to assert and educate himself are poignant and I love the bureaucratic stubbornness of Shvonder. Fabulous set pieces such as the cat in the bathroom are hilarious and make The Heart Of A Dog one of the best novellas I have read.


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