I’m a nightmare to buy books for. If I really want to read it, nine times out of ten I’ll already have it; if I don’t really want to read it…well, there’s always a permanent backlog of ones I really do want to read next to my bed.  I’m even worse when it comes to being lent a book. If I really want to read it, nine times out of ten, I’ll already have it…you get the picture.

So I decided to devote the final weeks of December to reading three books loaned to me many months ago – in one case, many years ago. No ratings this time; it just doesn’t seem right to rate books lent by friends.

The first is Willie and Maud: A Love Story by Barry Shorthall, a fictionalised account of the life-long (unrequited) love / friendship between Irish poet and playwright, W. B. Yeats, and Irish Nationalist, Maud Gonne. Gonne was the daughter of an English colonel but had become a revolutionary. She was extremely beautiful; Yeats fell in love with her at the age of 23 when he first met her.  But whereas Yeats used his pen in the cause of Irish Nationalism, Gonne wanted direct, violent action. She refused his repeated marriage proposals. The book was an interesting enough read – for instance I didn’t realise Yeats had purposely set out to create a distinctive Irish literature, or that he’d been awarded the Nobel prize for poetry – though perhaps overly sentimentalised at times. Still, it inspired me to retrieve my old copy of Yeats Selected Poetry from the bookshelf and add it to the pile near my bed.  

A Watermelon, a Fish and a Bible by Christy Lefteri is set over eight days from 20 July 1974, when the Turkish army invaded the town of Keyrenia in Cyprus. This is Lefteri’s first novel; her second is The Beekeeper of Aleppo. Tellingly the ‘praise’ on the book-jacket and inside it mostly refers to the latter. Lefteri is the child of Cypriot refugees who moved to England during the 1974 invasion, so she would clearly know her stuff, and she doesn’t shy away from including some violent scenes. Overall, though, (despite what it says on the blurb) this is brain-half-engaged-beach-read-romance with mostly one-dimensional characters and an unbelievable ending.

The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden is Jonas Jonasson’s second novel. His first, The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared, was a book I nearly bought on impulse simply because of its cracking title. (The one thing that stopped me was the thought of that pile of unread books next to my bed.) The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden begins in Soweto where the main character, Nombeko Mayeki, is 14 and working in a latrine office. By the time the story ends in Pretoria 35 years later there’s been diamonds, a drunken engineer, imprisonment in a nuclear bomb research facility, Israeli secret agents, three Chinese sisters who are expert forgers, twins who are officially one person, decades spent living in Sweden, a fortune improbably lost and made, meetings with Presidents and Prime Ministers (South African, Chinese and Swedish), and two Kings of Sweden. It’s a fairground ride in book form: fun, fast, and absolutely, totally, utterly bonkers.

Happy New Year!

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