BR: ‘Notes from a Small Island’ by Bill Bryson

This book is Bill Bryson’s account of his valedictory tour of Great Britain before he moves to start a new life in America. He travels from Calais to London, traversing the south coast before travelling up through the Midlands and finally Wales and Scotland. At times it made me laugh out loud; Bryson points out amusing quirks of the country which a Brit might overlook. It is also full of interesting facts about obscure towns and historical figures, which makes it perfect for lovers of trivia.

One of the most interesting things about the book is that it enables the reader to compare three different versions of Britain: the version Bryson remembers from his first visit in the 1970s, the one he sees on this trip in the 1990s, and Britain as the reader perceives it today. I’m not sure whether Britain has changed drastically over the past two decades, but I did think the places Bryson criticised for being ugly were odd – Oxford, Cambridge, Lulworth, Exeter – most of which are famed for being beautiful. His aversion to plate glass and chain restaurants did become tedious sometimes – I think we have to accept that, like them or not, these things are just part of the modern world.

However, all in all this book is a very entertaining and light-hearted read, and the enthusiasm with which Bryson enters into everything makes him an endearing companion for an armchair tour of Britain.

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Poem: Midas

One look at your face and I was sold
I’m flying now on mended wings
All that you touch you turn to gold.

A January day in the dark and cold
Like a startled bird, you made me sing
One look at your face and I was sold.

Apollo, Adonis, you fit the mould
I am the queen, Midas my king –
All that you touch you turn to gold.

You give me courage, you make me bold
More than a lonely winter’s fling
One look at your face and I was sold.

Clasp me tight in a ballroom hold
For a music-hall melody, saxophone swing
All that you touch you turn to gold.

Stay with me until I grow old
Remain my foolish, greedy king –
One look at your face and I was sold
All that you touch you turn to gold.

BR: ‘The Smell of Apples’ by Mark Behr

This is an unusual novel as, despite being aimed at adults, it is told through the eyes of a young boy, eleven-year-old Marnus, who grows up in an Afrikaans family in 1970s South Africa. At first his life appears ordinary, but as the story progresses the reader becomes aware of the hypocrisy, secrets and lies of the adults he looks up to as role models. The main narrative is interspersed with flash-forwards into Marnus’ future as a disillusioned soldier in the South African army.

‘The Smell of Apples’ is a very understated, subtle novel, with many things implied but nothing ever spelled out. One of the most disconcerting things about it is the sweeping statements Marnus makes, such as ‘the Masai never wash […] and they drink real blood’. It is difficult to tell whether he comes up with these things himself or is quoting from the adults who have indoctrinated him with their beliefs. Also disconcerting is the idea that ‘in life there is no escape from history‘, which adds a melancholy overtone to the book, as the reader knows that this naive, innocent boy will be unable to escape from the actions of his forebears. I thought Behr depicted childhood well; Marnus’ narrative voice seemed disjointed and blithe like a child’s, and his obsessions with things such as whales and fishing rang true.

One thing that I would have liked to find out was what happened to Frikkie and Zelda in the future, as we learned about the fortunes of Marnus’ immediate family but not much more – and, even then, Ilse was brushed over. I think this would have added a greater sense of closure to the story. Perhaps, however, the unsettled feeling I was left with at the end of the novel was the author’s intention. It is certainly not an uplifting or jolly story, but I would recommend it as an interesting if disturbing insight into the Afrikaner mentality, while the beautiful setting and lyrical account of childhood are good for escapism.

2016: My year in reading

Best classic book: ‘Emma’ by Jane Austen

Best non-fiction book: ‘Notes From A Small Island’ by Bill Bryson

Best historical novel: ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ by Philippa Gregory

Best thriller: ‘Into the Blue’ by Robert Goddard

Best mystery: ‘Good Girls Don’t Die’ by Isabelle Grey

Best contemporary novel: ‘Atonement’ by Ian McEwan

Best modern classic: ‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath

Best setting: 1930s Spain (As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning)

Bring on the new year!