1980s Historical Fiction Uncategorized

Familiar Wars by Julietta Harvey

Familiar Wars Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Five words from the blurb: Greek, boy, massacre, uprooted, family

Familiar Wars was originally published in 1987, but was re-released last week to coincide with the publication of the sequel, One Third of Paradise. I hadn’t heard of Julietta Harvey until review copies of these books fell through my letter box, but I quickly released she is an author I want to follow.

Familiar Wars begins in 1922 and follows Gregoris, a young Greek boy who flees the Turkish massacre in Smyrna.  I loved the way the book combined historical fact with vivid descriptions to create an atmospheric story. Julietta Harvey was born in Greece and her love and knowledge of this country was evident throughout. I knew very little about this period of history, but everything was explained so I could understand the details of this conflict.

The writing quality was excellent and many aspects of the novel reminded me of my favourite book, A Fine Balance. I especially loved the way the descriptions included the sounds and smells of the area, as these added a wonderful depth that too many writers ignore:

But they knew how to eat! The shop flooded with new appetising smells. Hunger for the delicacies appearing behind the counter caught him unawares: it gripped him, he was in tears with sudden total desire. Large green olives swimming in herbs and spices, pickled cabbage fragrant with aniseed, baby aubergines stuffed with dill and basil, pink octopus tenderised in spiced wine, potted prawns as big as mackerels and as fresh and sweet smelling as the sea at dawn, caviar from the Black Sea, each egg as big and juicy as a grape, pastourma – the flower of the Karamanli genius wrapped in layers and layers of cayenne, and underneath, the meat, red and moist and tender, begging to be eaten, ready to melt in the mouth.

The vivid detail meant that some scenes were disturbing, but these were necessary to show how brutal this period of history was. They also helped to show how communities can overcome hardship, harnessing resilience to rebuild a happy life.

The only real negative was that the story contained too many characters. I frequently struggled to remember who some of the peripheral characters were, but in the end I decided this didn’t really matter as the central characters were so strong. 

This is an impressive book which highlights an important period of history. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the way conflict affects ordinary people, especially if you have an interest in this area of the world. I look forward to reading the sequel soon.





Books in Translation

Soufflé by Asli Perker

Souffle Translated from the Turkish

Five words from the blurb: cook, family, freedom, loss, people

Soufflé is a multi-generational story, packed with a passion for cookery. Set in New York, Paris and Istanbul, the novel looks at family relationships and shows how cookery can help to heal emotional wounds.

The book has three main protagonists: Lilia, who is struggling in an unhappy marriage; Ferda, who is looking after her elderly mother; and Marc, who is grieving for his wife. All three discover that food can bring joy back into their lives.

I initially struggled with the number of characters, as the peripheral ones were fully developed and I didn’t realise who the central trio were for a while (I don’t read blurbs when I start a book, for fear of spoilers). But after about 70 pages everything clicked into place and I connected with them all. The emotions felt realistic and I developed a deep sympathy for their problems.

The novel was packed with beautiful descriptions of food. I especially loved the multi-cultural aspect, as many of the flavour combinations were unfamiliar to me. I found myself writing down the names of new dishes; longing to taste the things mentioned.

No, there was no extra ingredient in the bread Ferda baked; her friends were wrong about that. The delicious taste came from the organic wholemeal flour she used, which wasn’t purchased from the supermarket but came straight from the countryside. Her tarhana soup smelled different, of course, because the pepper she used it in had come from Urfa, one of the Eastern cities. What made her meat stew more delicious than other people’s was the lime tree leaf she always added to it. Anyone who ate this stew relaxed instantly and then went on to discover the love in their souls.

I also liked the way the characters struggled with the cooking, showing the mistakes they made and how they improved with practice. It inspired me to try cooking soufflés – I’ll be interested to see if I have better luck than the characters in the book!

My only complaint was that the different settings of the book often felt the same. There was little difference between the scenes set in Turkey and those set in New York. I’d have liked to have seen some more atmosphere, so it was instantly obvious which country the characters were in.

This book shares many similarities with The School of Essential Ingredients and I think anyone who enjoyed Bauermeister‘s book will appreciate this one.

Recommended to people who enjoy reading about cookery.


Orange Prize

Honour by Elif Shafak

Honour Longlisted for the 2013 Women’s Fiction Prize

Five words from the blurb: Turkey, London, traditions, mistakes, families

Honour is the story of a Turkish family who are haunted by their mistakes. Pembe and Adem Toprak move to London in order to start a new life, but Turkish traditions are never far from their mind. Maintaining the family’s “honour” is vitally important, but this book questions how far a person should go to protect it.

The book started really well with the introduction of some fantastic characters. I was instantly engaged in their story, keen to work out what was happening. It was a little confusing at first because the book jumped forwards and backwards in time, but each chapter was so vivid that I didn’t mind this.

The most impressive thing about Honour is the way it portrays both Eastern and Western cultures with sensitivity and respect. I didn’t know much about Turkish tradition, but this book introduced their beliefs in a way that was easy to comprehend. I understood the dilemmas they faced in maintaining their public image and found the way this impacted on their life in London fascinating.

In England things were topsy-turvy. The word couscous, though ordinary, was treated with reverence. Yet the word shame, though substantial, was taken quite lightly.

Unfortunately I lost interest in the story towards the middle of the book. Everything came together and I felt as though I knew where the story was heading. Luckily I was wrong, but I still felt this middle section was overly long and lacked the sparkle of the rest of the novel.

I ended the book with mixed feelings, expecting to award it 4 stars. But this is one of those rare books that improves with time. On reflection it kept getting better – an impressive number of issues were raised and it is only with hindsight that I realised how clever some of the earlier scenes were. I’m sure that even more would be revealed on a re-read, making this a strong contender for the shortlist.

It is one of my favourite books of the year so far and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys character driven novels that investigate how culture impacts on our lives.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

Note: I couldn’t find a bad review for this one!

Personally, Elif Shafak looks set to be my favourite author. JoV’s Book Pyramid

I love Shafak’s style of writing – it is lush and hints at magic realism. Winstonsdad’s Blog

It continues to make you read it even after you have closed the last page. Just a Word

2000 - 2007 Books in Translation Nobel Prize

Snow – Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006

Translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely

We don’t get much snow in England, so the moment I saw the first few flakes falling I decided it was time to dig this book out of my TBR pile. I am really pleased that I did as this is the perfect read for a cold Winter’s day. The icy atmosphere is prevalent throughout and having a layer of snow outside my window increased my enjoyment of this book.

If he hadn’t been so tired, if he’d paid more attention to the snowflakes swirling out of the sky like feathers, he might have realised that he was travelling straight into a blizzard; he might have seen from the start that he’d set out on a journey that would change his life for ever; he might have turned back.

Snow begins with a poet returning to Turkey after living in exile for twelve years in Germany. He travels to the remote town of Kars, where he poses as a journalist supposedly investigating the large number of suicides that have occurred there recently.

I loved the first third of the book – the character development, plot foreshadowing and snowy atmosphere created the perfect opening. Unfortunately the book went downhill for me in the middle, as it started to focus on politics and religious debate – subjects which I don’t enjoy reading about.

This is a very well written book, with a complex, multi-layered narrative. It used some interesting plot devices, including the introduction of the author, Orhan Pamuk, as a character. I’m sure this is a book which others would enjoy reading again and again.

I noticed many similarities with 2666, so I’m sure that if you enjoyed one book then you’d like the other. I’d love to know if Bolaño had read this before writing 2666, as certain aspects, especially the large number of deaths in a remote town, were very similar.

Overall, I’m really pleased that I read this book and even though my eyes started to glaze over when I read some of political discussion there was more than enough to keep me interested.

I recommend this book to all lovers of literary fiction, particularly those who enjoy political discussion.


Have you read anything written by Orhan Pamuk?