Two novels and a work of non-fiction which tells a story so amazing that The Independent’s critic called it ‘ripe for the IMAX screen’.
The first novel is Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child: published to great acclaim from reviewers this year, hotly tipped for the Man Booker Prize, and a jolly good read as well (not always the case with Booker choices….). A series of characters tries to discover the truth about a charismatic, upper-class World War 1 poet, Cecil Valance. Lovers, friends, admirers, servants – all tell us their version of the Valance myth, in four long sections which span most of the twentieth century. Superbly written and engrossing.
Less attention has been given to Jane Harris’s, Gillespie and I. Her first book, The Observations, was a critical and commercial success and was serialised on Radio 4. Gillespie and I is also a fantastic read – absorbing, gripping and intriguing – I actually laid aside the very good Anne Holt detective novel I had previously been reading, after picking up Gillespie and I and reading the first few pages. As a youngish woman of independent means, Harriet Baxter visits Glasgow to attend the Great Exhibition of 1888 and makes the acquaintance of artist Ned Gillespie and his family, gradually becoming more and more involved with them. In 1930s London, she looks back at this period and decides to put forward her own version of what happened. To tell more of the plot would spoil it (don’t read the newspaper reviews until you’ve finished it) – but I have to say that I think this would be a terrific novel for book groups to discuss. Catherine Taylor, writing in The Telegraph called it:
A rattling, incident-filled and witty Victorian mystery
and praises Jane Harris’s writing:
excitable, yet controlled, bawdy yet respectable. The fog and tenements of late 19th century Glasgow, the torpor of a Thirties summer, are keenly recreated.
(4 May 2011)
while Carol Birch in The Independent is also impressed, calling it:
Multi-layered, dotted with dry, black humour……. this skilfully plotted psychological mystery (6 May 2011)
Another BBC Book of the Week, Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff is subtitled ‘Escape From a Hidden World – A True Story’. In 1945, twenty-four American servicemen and women boarded a transport plane for a sightseeing trip over a beautiful and mysterious valley deep within the jungle-covered mountains of Dutch New Guinea. The pleasure tour became an unforgettable battle for survival when the plane crashed, killing most of those on board. The books tells of how rescue attempts were mounted to save the survivors who were injured and starving in an area which was home to spear-carrying tribesmen, warriors widely believed to be cannibals. The story is astonishing and the author, who, as one reviewer commented, must have been unable to believe his luck when he came across this extraordinary tale, uses army documents, radio transcripts, film footage, diaries and interviews to sketch the characters, historical events and tropical terrain vividly, while allowing the details to speak for themselves.
‘Lost in Shangri-La” is the most thrilling book, fiction or nonfiction, that I have read since I can’t remember when.’ (Roger K Miller in The Seattle Times)