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All men are islands: Michelle de Kretser revisited


Questions of Travel, by Michelle de Kretser

Published by: Allen & Unwin, $39.99

It’s no secret that I am a huge Michelle de Kretser fan, and would love to see Questions of Travel win the Miles Franklin Award this year. De Kretser is the bridesmaid of literary fiction, and though she’s won many prizes, has been passed over for major awards like the Man Booker and what used to be known as the Orange.  What I love about her work is the scope of her literary landscapes. She tracks down concepts, themes and ideas like a hungry hunter; satirical one moment, reflective the next, her prose is witty and elegant, her characterisations delve deep. And she respects her readers, offering them intelligent observations that make them think and question long-held values and assertions.

Questions of Travel was extensively reviewed when it appeared last year. The lives of its central characters, Ravi, who seeks asylum in Australia, and Laura, a compulsive nomad, are set out in dual, episodic narratives, each covering a similar timeline.  Laura travels the world, first just another Australian backpacker seeking new experiences, and then with increased emotional disconnectedness; Ravi longs to see the world and escape from the instability of war-torn Sri Lanka. Their life paths cross briefly when IT specialist Ravi and editor Laura work at the same travel publishing company in Sydney, then just as quickly spring apart. And though both experience the death of loved ones, longing and loneliness, this is not a conventional love story. So what is Questions of Travel about?

What strikes me on reading the reviews is that the novel resonates in many ways. For some it is a musing on the differences between the Third World and Australia; some approach it as an exploration on the nature of travel itself: does travel broaden the mind and our connectedness to others or simply reinforce cultural stereotypes? Others believe the work dissects changing patterns of society from the 1960s to 2004.

It is all of those things, of course, and more. The book’s two, seemingly contradictory, epigraphs offer a clue. The first is taken from a 1956 poem by Elizabeth Bishop: “But surely it would have been a pity/not to have seen the trees along the road/really exaggerated in their beauty.”  The second, from EM Forster’s Howard’s End: “Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle.”

De Kretser seems to favour an anti-pastoral, anti-Romantic view – arguing that the spectacular wonders of the world can be appreciated from a distance but offer little consolation in the ebb and flux of contemporary life. The expanse of the novel and its motley collection of characters, uncovers  violence, terrorism and murder, the plight of refugees, the  shallowness of modern sexual relationships, the snide humour of office politics. In London, Laura falls in love with Theo, a quintessential Romantic, the gay, self-destructive  son of German refugees who surrounds himself with kitsch objets trouvés and faux antiques, as a barricade against the passing years. In Sri Lanka and Australia, Ravi meets fellow-countrymen whose ambition and drive harness the Internet for commercial success.

It is within the world wide web that history and geography finally meet: arguably the most spectacular technological development of the 20th century, the Internet facilitates extraordinary freedom for virtual travel across time and space – yet its pathways are littered with abandoned websites, forgotten blogs and the flotsam and jetsam of dotcom failed start-ups. Questions of Travel suggests that our individual flight paths are equally littered with the debris of the human heart.

Read it: for intelligent, multi-layered narrative and superbly crafted prose.

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May’s Pageturners podcast now online!

The latest Pageturners podcast can now be heard. In this episode, I review a forgotten American classic—Mrs Bridge by Evan S Connell—and John Collins looks at the fate of local publishing houses. Plus Krissy Kneen, author of the darkly Gothic Steeplechase joins me in the studio. Listen on

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Echoes Across Time: new fiction by Khaled Hosseini and Tim Hehir


Published by Bloomsbury, $32.99


              Pictured: Khaled Hosseini and the cover of his anticipated new novel

It’s been six years since Khaled Khosseini’s last novel but he has not been idle. His new book And the Mountains Echoed is in his own words “a multi-generational family story… revolving around brothers and sisters, and the ways in which they love, wound, betray, honour and sacrifice for each other.”

Hosseini’s earlier works, The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, have sold over 38 million copies in more than 70 countries. A tireless chronicler of the tragedy that has beset Afghanistan, the country of his birth, Hosseini has turned this time from tales of best friends, fathers and mothers which featured strongly in the earlier novels, to the undying bond between two siblings.

It’s Afghanistan, 1952. Abdullah and his younger sister Pari live with their father and step-mother in a poor village. Brother and sister are inseparable. But the family is struggling, work is scarce and the seasons harsh. In despair, their father sells Pari to a wealthy, childless couple in Kabul. As Abdullah and Pari are torn apart, the novel splits into a journey across continents and time-lines, weaving intricate plot-lines and character studies, to tell Abdullah and Pari’s lifestories, and those of friends, acquaintances and extended family who cross their path.

Hosseini is a born storyteller and paints his characters with a vivid brush. Whole worlds are condensed into this book as it crosses from Afghanistan to Paris, to San Francisco, Greece and back again. Choices beget consequences to be savoured or regretted. Bonds are forged, broken, soldered anew. Children re-evaluate parents on reaching adulthood, sometimes for the best, often for the worst. There’s a bitter-sweet flavour to the novel and its trajectory is similar to that of the refugee who travels far and wide seeking shelter and a sense of place, never quite shaking off the shackles of the past. As in Hosseini’s previous novels, happy endings are qualified, life is a series of compromises. And the core of the novel remains bloodied, blistered Afghanistan, still, somehow, managing to survive because of the inner strength of its people, who can never forget their mother country, no matter where they call home.

Read it if you: Relish a master craftsman at work making a family saga his own.



Published by: Text,  $19.99

The tag “Young Adult fiction” has become increasingly blurred. Many writers, from Harper Lee and  J.K Rowling to Mark Haddon, Melina Marchetta  and Markus Zusak, appeal equally to adults as those in the hard to define 12-20 age group targeted by YA literature.

Tim Hehir’s Julius and the Watchmaker is definitely aimed at the late tween to mid-teen market. His debut novel  is a cross between Oliver Twist, Back to the Future and Doctor Who and demands an audience who are looking for fast-paced action. In this, Julius and the Watchmaker does not disappoint.

Set in 1837, the hero, Julius delivers books to customers of his grandfather’s bookshop when he’s not at school or running away from street bullies. A sinister clock collector called Springheel asks him to find the diary of a watchmaker, John Harrison. It turns out that the diary is actually an instruction manual for building a time-machine. Before long, Julius is set on a time-travelling odyssey in which he encounters doppelgangers, flying machines, monsters called Grackacks and somehow obtains the poet Shelley’s pocket watch.

There’s no doubt Hehir can write. This is a rollicking yarn and a Dickensian universe of ruffians and mayhem provides a sound basis for a novel. However, there are a number of jarring elements.  It’s not just the fact that Hehir’s 19th century characters say “Wow”, “Okay” and “Shut up” (wince-making though this may be). For a novel that deals with time, there is little sense of the 19th century being fully present. In writing this, I am completely conscious that I’m in the wrong demographic;  yet I wasn’t as immersed in this as I was expecting.

Read it if you: Are aged 12-18 and enjoy sci-fi, with imaginative history thrown in.

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10 Words Derived from Books

One of the pleasures of blogging is developing a sense of community with other bloggers from around the world. I’m hoping to cite some of my favourites as I continue my blogging journey.

Dr Oliver Tearle from Loughborough University in the UK is now following BOOKS NOW! and in turn, I am following his fascinating blog, Interesting Literature ( Oliver’s kindly allowed me to cite one of his most recent posts on the origin of  10 now common words, which I’m reproducing here. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it as much as I did and consider subscribing to his blog. I have a sneaking suspicion Oliver works late into the night, as my email to him must have reached him at about 10.30pm UK time and I received an almost immediate reply. This would no doubt account for the breadth, depth and scholarship of his delightful blog, which I now dip into regularly for a quick “oh, I never knew that!” fix.


1. Nerd. From a 1950 book by Dr Seuss, If I Ran the Zoo. In the poem, a nerd is one of the imaginary animals the narrator claims he will collect for his zoo. The word is first used to mean ‘geek’ shortly afterwards, later in the 1950s.

2. Trilby. As in the hat. In 1895, George du Maurier – grandfather of the novelist Daphne du Maurier – published his novel Trilby, about bohemian Paris in the 1850s. The most famous characters in the novel are Trilby – the heroine – and Svengali, the magician and hypnotist. From this novel we got the name for the trilby hat (which was first worn in the stage productions of the novel, but doesn’t feature in the novel itself) and the term ‘svengali’, meaning a person who controls or manipulates another.

3. Mentor. This one is from ancient Greece, and the work of Homer – specifically, The Odyssey, the epic poem which recounts the adventures of Odysseus (so this same work also gives us the word ‘odyssey’, meaning an adventure). Odysseus took ten years to get home from the Trojan Wars, because of many mishaps and digressions (we’d heartily recommend reading this poem, which reads like an early fantasy novel and was used as the framework for one of the great novels of the twentieth century, James Joyce’s Ulysses). In Odysseus’ absence, the character of Mentor advised Telemachus, Odysseus’ son – hence the modern connotation of the word of ‘mentor’ as ‘adviser’.

4. Stentorian. This is also from Homer, but this time, it’s from his other epic poem, The Iliad. Stentor was a herald in the Greek army during the Trojan Wars, and had a loud, thundering voice. Consequently, he gave his name to the adjective ‘stentorian’, meaning ‘loud and thundering’ (of a voice). Simple, really. And a great word.

5. Malapropism. From Mrs Malaprop, a character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals. The word ‘malapropos’ is found in print from 1630 with the sense of ‘in an inopportune, inappropriate, or awkward manner’, hence Mrs Malaprop’s name, and the meaning of ‘malapropism’, namely the use of an incorrect word in place of a word of similar sound, e.g. ‘pineapple’ for ‘pinnacle’ in ‘He is the very pineapple of politeness’. In 2005 the New Scientist reported an amusing literature-related example of someone uttering a malapropism in place of the word ‘malapropism’ itself: an office worker had described a colleague as ‘a vast suppository of information’ (instead of ‘repository’), and, upon learning his mistake, the worker is said to have apologised for his ‘Miss-Marple-ism’ (instead of ‘malapropism’). Malapropisms are reasonably famous (or infamous), but what is less well known is that a malapropism is alternatively known as a ‘Dogberryism’, after an earlier literary character with this characteristic: namely, Dogberry, the chief of police in Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing and the one who (inadvertently) manages to resolve the confusion generated by villain Don John’s evil scheme. ‘Dogberryism’ is attested by the OED from 1836.

6. Syphilis. This word had its origin in a 1530 poem written by an Italian physician and poet, Girolamo Fracastoro. The poem recounts how Syphilus, a shepherd boy, is afflicted with the disease (which was commonly known at the time as ‘the French disease’).

7. Pamphlet. Pamphlets have a long literary history, with Daniel Defoe being a prolific pamphleteer, but what most people probably aren’t aware of is the fact that ‘pamphlet’ is itself a word derived from a literary work: the word comes from a comic love poem dating from the fourteenth century and written in Latin. The poem, ‘Pamphilus; or, Concerning Love’, somehow became associated with unbound booklets (we say ‘somehow’, because the word’s modern political connotations didn’t emerge until the seventeenth century). The name Pamphilus is actually from the Greek meaning ‘friend of everyone’ or ‘lover of all’.

8. Gargantuan. This word, denoting something very large, is from French writer Rabelais’ The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel, a long work full of bawdy and scatological references written in the sixteenth century. Gargantua, in Rabelais’ novel, is born calling for ale, and with an erection a yard long.

9. Serendipity. Horace Walpole, author of the first Gothic novel, coined the word ‘serendipity’ in the eighteenth century. It means the ‘faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident’. He coined the word in a letter of 1754, when recounting the ‘silly fairy tale’ (‘fairy tale’ is another term he is credited with inventing) of ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’ (Serendip being a former name for Sri Lanka).We have written about Walpole previously, and in more detail, here:

10. Robot. The word ‘robot’ has its origins in a 1920 play by Czech writer Karel Čapek, called R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The word is taken from the Czech for ‘drudge’ or ‘slave’. However, contrary to popular belief, Čapek did not coin the word. Or rather, Karel Čapek didn’t. The playwright was searching for a word to call the androids which featured in his play and was dissatisfied with labori (from the Latin for ‘work’). He sought advice from his brother, Josef Čapek, who suggested roboti. Science fiction author Isaac Asimov is credited with inventing the spin-off word ‘robotic’ – Asimov famously formulated the Three Laws of Robotics.

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Gatsby Returns

Carey Mulligan and Leonardo DiCaprio in Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby

Pictured: Carey Mulligan and Leonardo DiCaprio in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby

Book lovers the world over will be either anticipating or highly suspicious of next week’s movie release of The Great Gatsby, directed by Baz Lurhmann. Jay Gatsby, Scott Fitzgerald’s doomed dreamer, is an icon of 20th century fiction. A man perhaps more sinned against than sinning, he’s the epitome of the flawed hero, the bootlegger whose passion for the feckless Daisy brings about his own destruction. Fitzgerald not only coined the term the “Jazz Age” but brought it to life with keenly observed descriptions of lavish lifestyles, wild parties, rich and bored socialites in an age of excess. Those tempted to dismiss Fitzgerald as a chronicler of the privileged few, should look again and see how cynical the book really is in its portrayal of an American dream built on amorality and corruption. Fitzgerald was a consummate stylist and his exquisitely honed prose is unbelievably seductive: Gatsby is a book that begs revisiting more than once and Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections, says he reads it at least once a year for inspiration. Bringing Gatsby to the big screen is a big ask. In 1974, Robert Redford and Mia Farrow starred in the first movie, with a script by Francis Ford Coppola, directed by Jack Clayton. Although praised for its costumes and set, critics by and large dismissed the film as lifeless. Perhaps the most exciting interpretation and celebration to date has been American theatre company Elevator Repair Service’s marathon production GATZ last year, which staged an 8 hour complete reading of the novel. It’s toured extensively but alas isn’t scheduled for Australia, although it seems to me to be an obvious Arts Festival highlight. In the meantime, Baz Lurhmann has some pretty big shoes to fill!


A Meditation on Love and Loss

Pictured: Pat Kavanagh and Julian Barnes

Levels of Life, by Julian Barnes

Published by: Jonathan Cape, $24.95

In a recent interview on BBC Radio, Barnes said he found reviewers’ comments that books were “deeply moving” and “beautifully written” the pinnacle of cliché. Better an in-depth analysis or some thought-provoking viewpoint, he added witheringly, than resorting to the trite. Of course he’s right and I confess to having employed those hackneyed phrases myself once or twice. And yet both would apply very fittingly to his new, slight (only 118 pages) but very deep book.

Levels of Life is an elegy to Barnes’ late wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, who died in 2008. Hers was a fierce, sudden death from cancer. Not much more than one month passed between diagnosis and funeral. Barnes’ world was turned upside down. They had been married for 30 years and as a couple were a stalwart of the British literary landscape. As Barnes writes – two people come together and suddenly the world is changed.  But when “they” become “he” – how do you cope?

Barnes has always had a philosophical bent (he is after all the author of Flaubert’s Parrot and A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters), so it’s not surprising that he approaches the topic of grief with characteristic lack of sentimentality and profound reflexion. The novella is divided into three parts: the first is a concise history of ballooning; the second the tale of a 19th century British adventurer and balloonist in love with the actress Sarah Bernhardt. The last section concentrates on Barnes’ own thoughts and feelings arising from his wife’s death. Air, land and six feet underground. Three levels of life and love.

The disparate elements of Levels of Life at first seem uneasy bedfellows. Is the symbolism of soaring into the air and crashing to the ground below too obvious and at the same time, too obtuse? And yet somehow, the book comes together perfectly. The last section, “The Loss of Depth” , is especially affecting (note, I did not say “moving”). Here is love and a meeting of minds so strong, so death-defying that it brings a lump to the throat.  Barnes isn’t afraid to show his pain, nor his anger. Not for him the Five Stages of Grieving ending in acceptance. He is especially scathing when describing well-meaning friends who use euphemisms like “passed” or “lost” to describe the finality and pitilessness of death.

Levels of Life, like all Barnes’ previous works, is dedicated to Pat Kavanagh. Her name is not mentioned once in the novella, yet she is a constant presence. And on the dust jacket, there she is, her intelligent gaze caught half smiling in a small black and white photograph. Reunited again with Barnes, whose snapshot sits just above hers.

Read it if you: Enjoy literary fiction and memoir. Keep the Kleenex handy.

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Knox Memoir Banned

Publication of Amanda Knox’s memoir, Waiting to be Heard, has been banned in the UK because of fears of libel action. The book is published in the US.

Knox became famous after her conviction for the murder of Meredith Kercher in Italy and her subsequent acquittal. The sensational trial made headlines around the world and  HarperCollins paid Knox $4m for the story.

Nick Cohen in last Sunday’s The Observer ( points out that Article 10 of the Human Rights Act (UK) states: “Everyone has the right of freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority…”

No-one should libel anyone with impunity and it’s true that American libel laws are less draconian than the UK’s, however the fact that the American publishers appear to have had no such qualms and that you can still buy this book on Amazon shows the absurdity of the situation. The ghosts of the Lady Chatterley trial and the attempted banning of Peter Wright’s M15 memoir SpyCatcher loom.

No such problems exist in Australia and the book is available for $29.99.

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Six of the best: Books Podcasts

I rarely watch TV these days but I do listen to a great deal of radio, in particular music, arts and books podcasts. I’m like a kid in a candy store, and relish downloading a fresh week’s supply of programmes every Sunday.  I don’t always get time to read the TLS, Paris Review or New York Review of Books, but at least with podcasts I feel tuned in and switched on to what’s happening here and around the world. And the best thing is – they’re free. Here are some of my favourites:

ABC Radio National – Books and Arts Daily podcast: I’m a great fan of Michael Cathcart. He’s a warm and friendly host with a quick wit and an ability to make guests feel at ease. B&AD will interview the cream of the literary crop but the programme also noses around unseen nooks and crannies for the innovative, up-and-coming and unusual.

The Guardian Books podcast: Excellent journalism, succinct reviews and interviews presented by the Guardian’s literary editor Claire Armitstead and her team. This podcast rarely disappoints, covers all genres of fiction, non-fiction and poetry and though the focus is on the best of British, the podcast regularly features international guests. It also frequently hosts “specials”, such as last year’s wonderful Room for London series, where authors were invited to read an essay written after spending four days in a boat perched high above the South Bank Centre overlooking the Thames.

KCRW Bookworm: This LA-based podcast is presented by polymath Michael Silverblatt, who, I swear, has read everything. Silverblatt is a genial host, gently probing, amazingly erudite and his interviews are intimate, elegant conversations that slowly reveal the author behind the book. Always fascinating and enlightening, Silverblatt avoids best sellers and much mainstream literature, concentrating instead on hidden gems. Thanks to Silverblatt, I have come to know and admire writers I’d never heard of before such as Donald Barthelme, Luis Alberto Urrea and Lydia Millet. Unmissable.

France Inter – Le Masque et La Plume: I know. It’s French. Don’t judge me. As a French speaker, I do enjoy this date with Jérôme Garcin and his reviewers as they give updates on new French fiction (every three weeks, as alternating weeks cover theatre and film). Garcin and his team are like birds of prey, happily tearing books to pieces and though they can be fulsome in their praise, they can also be incredibly vicious by Australian standards. They’re funny too – this is high calibre radio with an intellectual bent. Très franҫais.

The New Yorker Books podcast: Each month The New Yorker’s literary editor, Deborah Triesman invites an author to pick and read a short story from the New Yorker’s archives to read and discuss. The result is a treasure-trove of fiction featuring some of the 20th century’s finest writers. I heard Shirley Jackson’s iconic story The Lottery here, and wonderful fiction by Updike, Cheever, Nabokov, Paley – the list goes on. The discussions after the readings are also insightful, after which it’s worth listening to the stories a second time – you get so much more out of them.

KCRW Selected Shorts: Recorded live at Symphony Space in New York City, Selected Shorts brings together some of America’s best actors who each week read two or three themed short stories by American and international authors. The programme used to be presented by the mellifluous-voiced Isaiah Sheffer, but he sadly died last year, depriving his fans of a warm and avuncular host. Nevertheless, the programme continues, now hosted by BD Wong. The content is a bit like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get – but you do know the acting will be absolutely first rate.

Do you have a favourite books podcast? Drop me a line, I’d love to hear from you.

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Two Australian Fiction Debuts



Published by: Text; $29.99

Everyone’s talking about Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project. Since its publication in February 2013, the book has had the international acclaim most first-time authors only dream about. Sold for nearly $2 million around the world, the film rights have just been purchased, and Simsion will write the screenplay. With so much hype, the question has to be asked: is it any good? Well, yes, it is. Really good.

Don is a professor of Genetics who cannot find a partner. This is not surprising, because for all his brilliance, he cannot empathise with people. Although it’s never stated, Don is either a high-functioning autistic or suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome. He takes things at face value, finds it impossible to understand irony or relate to the subtleties of everyday social interaction and  communication. Not surprisingly, he has failed miserably in love, but as he wishes to find a mate and reproduce (his words), he decides to create a 16 page questionnaire to find the right woman. Into his orbit comes Rosie, who needs his help to locate her biological father. Beautiful, self-opiniated and independent, Rosie ticks few of the boxes in Don’s questionnaire. But will they still get together?

Few books make me laugh out loud, but I was chuckling audibly when reading this and getting some strange looks from commuters on the train (watch out for a hilarious scene with a laboratory skeleton). Films such as Rain Man and novels like Toni Jordan’s Addition and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time  have  also focussed on heroes and heroines with disabilities. The reader immediately sympathises with them, despite their foibles and Don, for all his misguided views on life and love, is an endearing character.  The novel succeeds both as a delightful rom-com but also as an intelligent and perceptive narrative on the importance of compromise in personal relationships. Don and Rosie are both ultimately on a quest to find out who they are, and personal identity also means accepting the good and bad in those you love and the people you fall in love with.

Read it if you: enjoy well-written, fast-paced, feel-good comedy.

burial rites


Published by: Picador, $32.99

Hannah Kent has been mentored by Pulitzer-prize winning novelist Geraldine Brooks, which is reason enough to mark her as a writer to watch. Burial Rites won the 2011 Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award, and Kent is both a lecturer in creative writing at Flinders University and co-founded the literary journal Kill Your Darlings.

This is a remarkable debut and heralds a strong and individual literary voice. Kent turns to Iceland in 1829 for the novel’s plot, which is based on the true story of a domestic servant, Agnes Magnusdottir, who was beheaded after she was found guilty of murdering two men. Kent divides the novel into two voices: that of Agnes remembering her past, and Toti Jonsson’s, a young pastor who is sent to help Agnes repent of her sins before her execution. The storyline therefore moves both backwards and forwards in time, creating a satisfying and unifying narrative arc.

Burial Rites is reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace: in this novel too, the story of a servant who committed murder two hundred years ago, slowly unravels under the watchful eye of a man who wishes her well. Like Alias Grace, Kent’s novel is a tense psychological drama that builds page by page to create a mesmerising portrait of Agnes. Kent doesn’t falter, and artfully combines the thrill of a who-dunit with the keen eye for detail demanded by historical fiction. She’s excellent at capturing the language and mood of  isolated communities, their archaic superstitions and malicious gossip.

Kent calls Burial Rites her “dark love letter to Iceland” and indeed Iceland’s bleak, desolate landscape with its wild weather is a character in its own right. Kent is marvellous at describing the dogged self-sufficiency and determination of the peasants for whom every day is a battle for survival. And even though we know Agnes’ fate from the start, it says a great deal for Kent’s authority as a writer, that we’re still shocked at Agnes’ execution as the book draws to a close. I’m still thinking about this book two weeks after finishing it. Kent’s words linger.

Read it if you: enjoy literary and historical fiction, laced with a murder mystery and psychological drama.

What do you think? Drop me a line and listen to my book programme podcast, Page Turners on for more interviews and news on the world of books.