It’s chilly and wet outside right now, but the sun is supposed to come out later, although it won’t warm up much. We’ve been spoiled recently with sunny, Spring-like weather, but of course it’s still April and we need the rain. I’ve been baking up a storm this morning, and have slices of both freshly baked Date Bread and Banana Bread to go with my steaming cup of chai, which totally makes up for the crummy weather.
I have two books to tell you about today. The first is Fragrant Harbour by John Lanchester. I read Lanchester's The Wall recently and really enjoyed it, so I went to my library catalogue to see if they had any other books by this British author, which is how I came to be reading this fabulous novel. Intertwining four lives and spanning nearly seventy years, Fragrant Harbour follows Tom Stewart as he leaves England on a ship bound for Hong Kong in 1934. Along the way, he meets several characters who will change his life, most notably Sister Maria, an uncompromising Chinese nun. He ends up settling in Hong Kong, and we are treated not only to his story, but to an account of the changes and growth there between 1934 and 2000. Dawn Stone is a British journalist who ends up working in Hong Kong, where she discovers what she really wants and how to get it. Matthew Ho is a young entrepreneur whose business is faltering and he must make some tough decisions, which are further complicated by actions taken and choices made long before he was born, but which threaten his very livelihood. This novel was so engaging that I couldn’t put it down. The longest part of the book is narrated by Tom, which brought to mind W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, mainly because of the narration. In both books, the narrators are involved in the plots but relate them in a way that implies they are somehow emotionally detached from the main stories. There were plenty of coincidences, perhaps too many to be believed, but these were necessary to bring the narratives together, so I could forgive Lanchester for this indulgence. There was so much information about the history of Asia in general and Hong Kong in particular that it seemed much longer than 299 pages, which means every page was packed with plenty of details. I don't know anything about Asian history or politics, but that didn't stop me from being carried along on the waves of good writing and captivating plots. I'm not sure that I would recommend this book to just anyone, but I really enjoyed it.
And I finished listening to my favourite narrator, John Lee, read A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre. I rarely read non-fiction, but I love Macintyre’s books. This one focuses on Kim Philby and his relationships throughout his years as a British double agent. From the 1930s to the 1960s, Philby was a high-ranking spy with MI6 while also serving a Soviet master, and he cultivated friendships to gain information whenever he could. He befriended fellow Cambridge graduate Nicholas Elliott who also moved up the ranks in the British Secret Service, as well as forming a close relationship with American operative James Jesus Angleton, who went on to head up the CIA. These friendships, though, were based mainly on deception and the quest for information. Did Philby even know what true friendship and loyalty were? His friends, his colleagues and his wives were all collateral damage in his duplicitous life. I can’t praise this book, and so many others by Macintyre, highly enough. The narrative carried me along, the research was thorough and detailed, the story was fast-paced and interesting, and I felt that I learned so much about the history of Philby and the Cambridge spy ring, the British Secret Service, and Soviet double-agents. The narrator did an amazing job of bringing the characters to life and really capturing the spirit of the book. If you like British spy stories, you can’t go wrong with Ben Macintyre.
That’s all for today. The sun is coming out and I should get out for a walk before settling in to start my next book.Bye for now… Julie