About Me

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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Friday, 19 October 2018

"Witness the Night" by Kishwar Desai

A detective story set in Jalandhar in the Punjab in which courageous "professional but unsalaried social worker, rudely called an NGO-wali (and a rather amateur psychiatrist)" Simran battles to clear the name of Durga who had been accused of the murder, by poison and stabbing, of virtually her entire family. Apparently in the Punjab a Chief of Police can ask a friend of his from college to befriend a young girl who appears bang to rights and somehow this person has sufficient influence to be allowed to wander around the scene of the crime picking up missed clues.

Each chapter begins with an italicised section in which Durga, the young girl who survived the family massacre but was apparently raped, gives some account of what happens. These are carefully written to preserve the mystery of what happened and whodunnit to the end. The rest of the story is told from the point of view of the amateur sleuth (who drinks heavily but has a heart of gold).

There are moments when the writing jars:

  • The very first section is intended as the hook and is a detailed account of the massacre: "The thick bile of sadness oozing from their hearts has regurgitated into their throats and blocked their voices, their pale shadowy hair seems like seaweed, green and stringy, floating in the air. Yet, all around their collapsed bodies is the scarlet odour of fresh killing, the meat at their feet is newly shredded for the dogs, which are peculiar and never bark. They do not even nudge the meat." I thought this prose too purple.
  • There are some clunky moments of dialogue: "Listen, before we go in, no matter what happens, let me just say I really like you and thanks a lot. I was angry with you earlier, said a lot of things, I know - but you were doing your job, just as I am doing mine now. This sounds like a foolishly heroic statement, so I hesitate to say it, but if we can save her somehow. ..."
  • There are some errors. The word 'somersault' is not spelled "summersault". The "Indian Made Foreign Liquor" shop's name is presumably an oxymoron rather than an "anachronism". I loved the "rickshaw puller's skinny legs peddling [sic] away" although I suspected they should have been pedalling.

The author is at her best when bringing us into the world of the Punjab. It is a world of unbridled patriarchy in which illegal abortion and infanticide is practised for girl children. It is a corrupt world in which the rich people can bribe the police to turn a blind eye. It is a world where poor girls can be bought to be sex slaves for rich boys. The author manages some nice moments of local colour:

  • "We called all women older than us 'aunty' in Punjab. And all older men were called 'uncle'. Earlier we had more complex terms to describe relationships, but with the coming of the colonizers and the angrezi craze, much of the descriptive terminology, such as phoopi or taayi, had been junked." (p 167)
  • The railway station "specialized in announcements made in Swahili which came on after the train had left." (p 116)

There are moments of insight:

  • "In many cases it is difficult to distinguish the criminal from his circumstances, and then you understand that life can really be unfair." (p 9)
  • "Surprising how even death - or a terrible disease like cancer - does little to mellow some people. They still carry their burden of destruction with them ... seeking to annihilate others before death snaps them in its jaws." (p 170)
  • "If you live in a lake you don't antagonize the crocodiles."
  • "It is said that if everything goes well, the wrath of the gods descends on you, so you have to put a black mark somewhere on your body to deflect misfortune." (p 40)

This is a debut novel which, despite some rather flat characters and the occasional poor writing, has some excellent moments, especially with the scene-setting. October 2018; 243 pages

Thursday, 18 October 2018

"Force of Nature" by Jane Harper

This follows on from Federal Detective's Aaron Falk's first outing in The Dry, a great whodunnit.

Five women from an accounting firm are on a team survival course in the Australian outback. Four return. The missing woman is Alice Russell, being used by Falk  as an informant in an investigation into money-laundering by the firm. Has one of the others murdered her? Or has she been attacked by the son of Martin Kovac, a serial killer who specialised in raping and murdering blonde young women. The only clue seems to be a message left on Falk's phone of which the only words that can be distinguished are "hurt her". This uses a classic whodunnit formula backed up by the dangers of the Australisn bush.

Some great writing:

  • "He seemed about to say something else, then changed his mind." (p 39)
  • "She'd cracked the shits. Gone off on her own." (p 39)
  • "He hated the way men in plush offices were able to wash their hands at arm's length" (p 53) although it makes me wonder where else they would wash their hands.
  • "You've met my fiance. I literally had to put 'no denim' on the invitations for his side of the family." (p 227)
  • "A woman with the distinctive look of a community social worker." (p 343)

October 2018; 421 pages

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

"The Heart Goes Last" by Margaret Atwood

Atwood is best known as the author of the Handmaid's Tale but this is her 25th novel; also reviewed in this blog are Oryx and Crake, Hag Seed, and Bodily Harm.

In this dystopian tale set in a very present reality, Charmaine and her husband Stan have lost their jobs and their home and are living in their car, sleeping in scary parking lots, continually threatened by low-lifers who threaten to steal their few possessions, gang-rape Charmaine and murder Stan. So they sign up, for life, to join an enclosed model community in which every resident spends alternate months in (a comfortable) prison and in their own home. For the first few months they enjoy this lifestyle. In jail Stan looks after chickens and Charmaine works in Medical Administration although one of her duties includes giving injections. But then Charmaine starts an affair with another resident. And things start going pear-shaped.

I adored the first section of the book   when S & C are sleeping in their car; it was horribly real. I bought into the premise of the community (something between a cult and a monastery with homage to the present US penal system of slave industry) and Charmaine's affair and Stan's reactions. At the dead centre of the book Charmaine has to make a critical decision: I was extremely excited and wanted to know what she would choose because it could really have been played out in several ways. This was the high moment of the book when I was turning the pages as fast as I could. It was difficult to see how anything could match that. And the book then became less real, even whimsical, as the narrative seemed to be sidetracked into satire.

A book therefore of two halves with the first half exploring crucifyingly real human dilemmas and the second half trying to resolve the irresolvable.

Nevertheless, there are some brilliant moments. Atwood is magic when it comes to debunking the magic and romance of our sexual behaviour:
  • Charmaine required nothing more than a closed door and a bare floor to release her inner sidewalk whore.” (p 136)
  • Holding this thought keeps Stan going during his sexual command performances with Jocelyn, which are a good deal more like tenderising a steak than anything he finds purely pleasurable.” (p 137)
  • Will she tire of treating him like an indentured studmuffin, of hotwiring his mind and watching him jerk around like a galvanized frog.” (p 138 - 139)
  • She's been a distraction for him, but not a necessity of life. More like a super-strong mint: intense while it lasted but quickly finished.” (p 196)
  • You can peer right down their fronts, which is what Stan is doing, but you can't blame him, because what's a shelf display for except to be looked at?” (p 401)

There are some profound insights:
  • Most people are good underneath if they have a chance to show their goodness.” (p 4)
  • Comedy is so cold and heartless, it makes fun of people's sadness.” (p 22)
  • She occupies her mind by painting her nails, which is a very soothing thing to do when you're anxious and keyed up. Some people like to throw objects, such as glasses of water or rocks, but nail painting is more positive. If more world leaders would take it up there would be less overall suffering, in her opinion.” (p 322)
  • Nail biting is calming: it's repetitive, it imitates meaningful activity, and it's violent.” (p 125)
  • Not that he gives much of a flying fuck about freedom and democracy, since they haven't performed that well for him personally.” (p 226)
  • Put two eyes on anything and basically it looks like a face.” (p 262)

And there are other moments when Atwood uses language in an original and touching way:
  • He can lean to the mean when he's irritated, but he is a good man underneath.” (p 4)
  • He'd heard the impact as she did a vertical face-plant onto the floor.” (p 214)
  • It's a memento, and memento means something that helps you remember. She'd rather have a forgetto.” (p 230)
  • Food has been appearing and disappearing out of that fridge like it has a bad case of gnomes.” (p 344)
  • I can see that the two of you had a playdate in the liquor cabinet.” (p 356)

Many enjoyable moments and a first half that is as good as anything Atwood has written. October 2018; 416 pages

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

"Byron: A poet dangerous to know" by Geoffrey Trrease

This book is aimed at the younger reader and published in 1969 at which time young readers still needed to be protected from some of the details of the life of Byron, the poet who was famously described by one of his lovers, Lady Caroline Lamb, wife of future Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, as "Mad, bad and dangerous to know." Trease achieves his aim magnificently. Without shirking the established facts but without going into salacious details he makes it clear that Byron had affairs with a string of women; he even mentioned the (never proved) allegations of incest with his half-sister (although he doesn't mention the equally unproven but sometimes speculated homosexual relationships with his page Robert Rushton and various Greek boys). He also writes briefly and clearly and produces an excellent outline of the poet's life with some appropriate selections from his poetry.

He is especially good at using euphemism. For example, while future wife Annabelle was thinking she might marry and reform a man who, she thought "discouraged his own goodness", Trease records that “Byron was fully occupied in the months that followed, discouraging his own goodness with Caroline Lamb.” (p 70) Of Byron's susceptibility to a beautiful woman Trease writes “Women did throw themselves at him, and, with the reflex of an experienced sportsman, he was apt to catch them almost automatically.” (p 85)

Trease has a deep insight into Byron. For example:
  • One side of him was unconventional: he enjoyed shocking people. Another side of him was just as conventional: a young gentleman was expected to show his wild oats.” (p 43)
  • From childhood Byron had been fascinated by the Orient, that exotic world where sultans and pashas ruled unchallenged in their gorgeous palaces, with whole harems of beautiful women to be petted and punished at will. A man there did not worry his head about a woman's feelings. He did as he pleased.” (p 44)
  • His poems were really popular novels in verse, full of excitement, passion and horror. and he dashed them off as a clever thriller-writer today produces a best-selling paperback.” (p 71)
  • He quotes Byron as saying, in Belgium: “Level roads don't suit me. It must be either up hill or down. Imagine to yourself a succession of avenues with a Dutch Spire at the end of each, and you see the road.” (p 91)
There are a number of interesting facts that crop up in the book. For example:
  • A debtor could not be arrested on the Sabbath.” (p 11)
  • "Byron's mother was kin to the Duke of Gordon and descended from James the first of Scotland." (p 11)
Other great moments:
  • He enjoyed talking to the monks in bad Latin, riding a mule and learning to swear at it in Portuguese, and eating too many oranges.” (p 53)
  • He had long ago studded Italian, though he spoke it, he admitted, ‘more fluently than accurately’.” (p 102)
  • She ... died in 1817, and the Count mastered his grief sufficiently to go to the theatre the same evening.” (p 111)
  • He accordingly arranged to ... inspect Teresa. As the room was dark, and his sight not so good as had been, he took up a candlestick and walked slowly round the girl, ‘as if ... he were engaged in buying a piece of furniture’.” (p 112)

This well-written book is an excellent introduction to an important poet who is not so well-known today. It has done its job. I now hunger to learn more about the man and to read some of his poetry.

October 2018; 136 pages

Sunday, 7 October 2018

"Fools and Mortals" by Bernard Cornwell

Will Shakespeare and his company are rehearsing A Midsummer Night's Dream but someone is trying to steal the script and that of Will's new play Romeo and Juliet. Will's brother Richard, narrator and jobbing actor, desperate to stop playing women and to earn more money, is the first suspect.

This is a brilliant tale of Elizabethan London with all the squalor and violence, the sex and the protocol, the colour and the politics. Like the Dream, the tale itself takes a back seat to the telling, which is joyous. But it is beautifully written. I was torn between turning the pages as fast as I could and reading slowly to revel in the world Cornwell has created.

Cornwell is the author of the Sharpe novels and many more. I have only ever read one of his before: Death of Kings from the Last Kingdom series. I enjoyed it but wasn't hooked. This book has changed my mind. I need to read more of this author.

Some great lines:

  • "Simon Willoughby needs praise like a whore needs silver." (p 10)
  • "We are mere players and as far beneath the palace audience as hells' goblins are beneath heaven's bright angels." (p 14)
  • "He's smearing the sheets of some lordly bed." (p 17)
  • "Mothers are like that, boy. They think you mustn't rise too high in case you fall too far." (p 93)
  • "the box office, so called because the boxes that took the playgoers' pennies was emptied on the table inside." (p 224)
October 2018; 403 pages

Friday, 5 October 2018

"A Boy at the Hogarth Press" by Richard Kennedy

Aged 16 Kennedy failed to get into the sixth form at Marlborough and, despite being not very good at arithmetic or typing, through family connections (his family owned the house which Virginia Woolf used in To The Lighthouse), became an apprentice working for Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press. This very short and very amusing book chronicles his time there (about a year, before he got the sack). In this time he met all the key characters of the Bloomsbury set, watched plays and mingled with creative people, and did his best to pick up girls (including a failed encounter with a prostitute). As the introduction says:Kennedy was naif: few boys of 16... are not. He confused DH Lawrence with TE, eschatology with scatology, and when he asked Virginia Woolf what Proust was like he rhymed the word with Faust.” (p 10)

It's only a tiny book but it made me laugh several times. He is also very observant:
  • He does have a special way of talking which I think comes of the care he takes to say exactly what he means. It's a kind of drawl.” (p 23)
  • In a letter to a friend: “I know I described this place as the Revised Inferno ... Unfortunately,  your reply fell into the hands of LW who objects to Ma Cartwright and himself being referred to as Satan and Svengali.” (p 63)
  • Ernest Milton had just finished playing Othello. I asked him if the bed had made him sleepy.” (p 66)
  • When you ask LW a question he looks down at his toes. When you ask Uncle George something he looks up at the ceiling.” (p 84)
  • "LW says I can't be trusted to do anything but wrap up parcels and that I am the most frightful idiot he has ever had the privilege of meeting in a long career of suffering fools." (p 99)

Great fun! October 2018; 100 pages

Thursday, 4 October 2018

"That Hideous Strength" by C S Lewis

This is the third of the 'science fiction' trilogy by the author of the Narnia books). Ransom, the hero, travels to Mars in Out of the Silent Planet and to Venus in Perelandra; this book is set in a university town in the English Midlands.

In many other ways this is a very different book. Although it continues the exploration of Christian theology that is the underlying theme of the other books, rather than interplanetary excitements this book involves a struggle between the forces of good and evil involving a talking head and the discovery of Merlin, the magician from the Arthurian legends, who is not dead but sleeping underground.In many ways, therefore, this reminded me of one of the many children's books that have delivered this theme such as The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner.

The plot revolves around the development of NICE, a sinister research institute that promises to revolutionise scientific research. It is, essentially, the Nazi programme and comes complete with its own police force headed by Miss Hardcastle, who goes by the whimsical but unlikely nickname of Fairy. Mark, a fellow of Bracton College, is persuaded to join NICE and part of the story follows his attempts to join the inner circle of NICE, never quite realising their true evil. The other half of the story involves his wife, Jane, whom Mark has left behind in Bracton, who has visionary dreams and joins a strange religious commune; these are the goodies who are striving to discover Merlin before NICE so they can recruit him to their side.

The main trouble with the book is that the Goodies are good and the Baddies are bad and there are no shades of grey, no characters who move from one side to the other, in fact no character development at all. Even Mark, becoming embroiled in evil, is fundamentally innocent in the sense that he is ignorant of what is really happening. And having once depicted the boundaries of Good and Evil it therefore follows that everything represented by NICE, such as relativism and scientific progress must be Bad and everything represented by the Goodies, such as growing your own vegetables and speaking Latin, is Good. There are large and tedious chunks of theology in the book but they seem to boil down to the idea that the old ways are best (one of the problems the Goodies have is that Jane is Mark's wife and a wife must obey her husband even if he has gone over to the dark side) and that good old chaps such as English dons, country parsons and honest labouring men are the distillation of virtue while people who dispute the ordained social order must be sinister (almost at the end of the book Ransom compares the Goodies (Arthur, Milton, poets) with the Baddies (Mordred, Cromwell, shopkeepers). Shopkeepers?

The other main trouble with the book is the fundamental silliness of the plot. Merlin! A (Goody) bear called Mr Bultitude! The denouement takes place at a formal dinner (after the King's health has been toasted) and is accomplished by a cheap magic trick; one wonders why the Goodies needed Merlin and one wonders how the Baddies could pose such a threat if they could be vanquished so easily.

Nevertheless, there are some moments of magic:

There are some lovely descriptions:
  • He drove slowly - almost sauntering on wheels.” (p 306)
  • "There were the placid faces of elderly bons viveurs whom food and wine had placed in a contentment which no amount of speeches could violate.” (p 476)

There are philosophical insights:
  • "There are a dozen views about everything until you know the answer. Then there's never more than one." (p 87)
  • Does it follow that because there was no God in the past that there will be no God also in the future?” (p 241)
There are comments on life, in particular the relationship between men and women. Lewis has rather old-fashioned views:

  • Husbands were made to be talked to. it helps them to concentrate their minds on what they're reading - like the sound of a weir.” (p 93)
  • Men can't help in a job, you know. They can be induced to do it: not to help while you're doing it. At least, it makes them grumpy.” (p 224)
  • The cardinal difficulty ... in collaboration between the sexes is that women speak a language without nouns. If two men doing a bit of work, one will say to the other, ‘Put this bowl inside the bigger bowl which you’ll find on the top shelf of the green cupboard.’ The female for this is, ‘Put that in the other one in there’.” (p 224)
  • And this one, although it sounds the sort of thing that might be said today, is actually the author writing about something he condemns: “Men - complacent, patriarchal figures making arrangements for women as if women with children or bartering them like cattle. (‘And so the king promised that if anyone killed the dragon he would give him his daughter in marriage.’)” (p 152)
And there are just some interesting and even witty asides:
  • His education had had the curious effect of making things that he read and wrote about more real to him than things he saw. Statistics about agricultural labourers were the substance; any real ditcher, ploughman or farmer’s boy, was the shadow.” (p 109)
  • Everyone begins as a child by liking Weather. You learn the art of disliking it as you grow up. Haven't you ever noticed it on a snowy day? Grown-ups are all going about with long faces, but look at the children - and the dogs? They know what snow was made for.” (p 146)
  • It all slipped past in a chatter of laughter, of that intimate laughter between fellow professionals, which of all earthly powers is strongest to make men do very bad things before they are yet, individually, very bad men.” (p 171)
  • The whole Renaissance outburst of forbidden arts had, it seemed, been a method of losing one’s soul on singularly unfavorable terms.” (p 273)
  • Not all the times that are outside the present are therefore past or future.” (p 276)
  • From now onwards till the moment of final decision should meet him, the different men in him appeared with startling rapidity and each seemed very complete while it lasted.” (p 296)
  • One might as well have thought one could buy a sunset by buying the field from which one has seen it.” (p 502)
  • The laws of the universe are never broken. Your mistake is to think that the little regularities we have observed on one planet for a few hundred years are the real unbreakable laws; whereas they are only the remote results which the true laws bring about more often than not; as a kind of accident.” (p 513)
  • Shakespeare never breaks the real laws of poetry ... but by following them he breaks every now and then the little regularities which critics mistake for the real laws.” (p 513)
Disappointing. October 2018; 534 pages