About Me

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I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019 and I am now properly retired and trying to write a novel. 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

Sunday, 19 January 2020

"The Prince who would be King" by Sarah Fraser

This is the biography of Prince Henry (1594 - 1612), eldest son of King James I (of England) and VI (of Scotland) who died as Crown Prince and Prince of Wales at the age of 17 before fulfilling any of the promise he showed (though "he could be bumptious and immature at times"; C 20). His death led to the succession of his younger brother Charles as King Charles I.

As with many biographies, it is of most interest because of the other people who were around at the time. Prince Henry's coterie included:

  • Thomas Coryat: a traveller and travel writer who introduced the fork to England and the word umbrella; he died in India and is memorialised by Robin Lloyd-Jones in the unjustly forgotten novel Lord of the Dance), 
  • Sir Thomas Chaloner: who was friends with alchemist and magician John Dee and discovered alum on his Yorkshire estate and exploited it
  • Thomas Harriot, Henry's tutor, who as scientist and mathematician advanced navigation, created a phonetic alphabet for the Algonquin tribes he encountered in North Carolina while visiting Sir Walter Raleigh's ill-fated Roanoke colony , discovered Snell's Law before Snell, developed algebraic symbols, and used a telescope to observe sunspots
  • George Chapman who dedicated his translation of the Iliad to Prince Henry
  • Cornelius Drebbel who later went on to test the world's first submarine in the Thames
  • Ben Jonson who wrote a number of masques for Henry and also wrote plays such as the Catiline which criticised the "giants of the earth" who "asset-strip the whole earth for their personal gain" (C 24)

Memorable moments:

  • Quoting James I & VI: "The highest bench is the sliddriest to sit upon" (C 4)
  • "Extreme Calvinism and the idea of a contractual, not absolute, monarchy often went hand in hand." (C 5)
  • "Tacitus ... concluded that men in positions of power must exercise Stoical self-control ... [but] what Stoics thought of as their own moral constancy might lead to a high-minded fanaticism and an even worse tyranny" (C 16)
  • "How could the people enjoy their liberties when they were left too poor to act?" (C 24)
  • "Yearning to soar above the grey compromises necessary to everyday life, he was a glory-hunting young man. He risked developing the affliction of visionaries and heroes, who can become inhuman in the pursuit of their vision." (C 29)

This was a well-written history whose short chapters kept the pace up. It cast light upon an era about which I was unfamiliar but which is just as interesting as any other time and deserves my further study.

January 2020; 266 pages

Friday, 17 January 2020

"My name is Lucy Barton" by Elizabeth Strout

This starts with a simple story about a woman in a hospital bed in New York whose mother comes to see her. They talk about the people they have known. The narrator grew up in tremendous poverty; at first the family lived in a garage.

At some point the narrator becomes a writer and, in an early writing class, she shows the beginnings of this story to her writing teacher who says (almost exactly at the half way mark, as if this is the perfect fulcrum around which the tale is to be told): "This is a story of a man [the narrator's father] who has been tortured every day of his life for the things he did in the war. This is the story of a wife who stayed with him, because most wives did in that generation, and she comes to her daughter's hospital room and talks compulsively about everyone's marriage going bad, she doesn't even know it, doesn't even know that's what she's doing. This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter. Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly."

The writing teacher encourages the narrator to be honest. But this is problematic because this is also a story about abuse. But the abuse is never detailed. We get the feeling that there might have been something that happened in the first half of the book but these are only vague suspicions. At the half way mark the writing teacher confirms these. But then the narrator dodges the bullet. We know about her husband dressing up in female clothing and parading through their village; this is a family secret she has told only to her husband. Is this, and the subsequent bullying of the brother, the abuse? But later, when her mother tells her about a man who had a breakdown and then walked around the house masturbating, the narrator says: "I had never before heard ...of this Thing - as I called it to myself - happening as it had happened in our home." Two pages later she talks of "the disgust I had had for him [her father] most of my life" and when her father dies her response is "Daddy, stop it! Stop it, Daddy!" But the clearest indication that something happened is one night when she is with her mother in the hospital and her mother touches her foot through the sheet: "I squeezed my eyes shut - Don't you fucking cry you little idiot - and I squeezed my leg so hard I almost could not believe how much it hurt. Then it was over." This sounds like a relived experience of abuse and the next morning the doctor notices the mark on her leg but doesn't say anything. The trouble is that these clues really don't tell us very much about the abuse she suffered and who inflicted it upon her. So I'm not sure how much the writing teacher's advice about honesty was heeded.

The book is unusual in the extent to which it talks directly to the reader and the way it rambles, reminding me a little of The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford.

Great moments:
  • "I am suddenly filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep that a sound might escape from my mouth, and I will step into the nearest clothing store and talk with a stranger about the shape of sweaters newly arrived" which is to some extend how she meets her writing teacher so this seems to be a metaphor for writing helping us to cope with the darkness. 
  • "In spite of my plenitude, I was lonely. Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me."
  • "It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it's the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down."
  • "It has been my experience throughout life that the people who have been given the most by our government - education, food, rent subsidies - are the ones who are most apt to find fault with the whole idea of government.
  • "The women only took little steps while the men danced with much commotion."

Books by Elizabeth Strout reviewed in this blog include:

January 2020; 191 pages

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

"Dragons of Autumn Twilight" by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

This is the first of the DragonLance Chronicles. It is a fantasy novel in which a group of companions gather at an inn and then travel on a quest, first to protect a magical stick, then to acquire some disks, and finally to defeat a dragonlord in his fortress. 

So far, so Tolkien. We have the full cast here. The companions include a half-elf, a dwarf, a Knight, and a mage. And a kender, who is the classic thief from the Dungeons and Dragons games. Their early adventures invole a forest where the dead walk, unicorns, centaurs and flying horses. And dragonmen who turn to stone and then dust when stabbed, and evil hobgoblins and a giant slug.

My favourite characters were the dwarf, who was grumpy, a delightful and forgetful mage who repeatedly accused trees of attacking him, and the kender who couldn't help helping himself to the possessions of others and was the epitome of an ADHD child. The other characters were cliches, fulfilling stereotypical roles.

In the second half of the book other characters seemed to be added according to the needs of the plot. When love interest flags, add a barmaid and a long-lost lover. When you need a traitor add two characters so we aren't sure which it will be.

There was a cataclysmic scene when all seemed hopeless but by then I was past caring.

The best thing about it was that there were sometimes flashes of humour.

  • "If every man wearing red robes  was a magician, this country'd be overrun with rabbits." (B2 C2)

Other good moments:

  • "Why is it ... that you are called half-elf and not half-man?" (B1 C7)
  • "Our lives are measured not by gain but by giving." (B1 C11)
  • "The silver moon and the red cast twin shadows that made things seen from the corner of the eye unreal and distorted." (B1 C16)
  • "It was a good plan ... and probably worth about as much as smoke on the wind." (B1 C17)
  • "Well, I'll be an ogre's hind end." (B1 C17) It amused me that the dwarf's curse should be so prissy.
  • "It's too dark a night to walk with your eyes closed." (B2 C7)

January 2020; 369 pages

Monday, 6 January 2020

"The Family Way" by Tony Parsons

A book about women and babies by a man is a little unusual.

Cat looked after her sisters. Jessica and Megan, from the age of 12 when her mother left for another man and her soap actor father was simply never around much. Now they are all grown up. Jessica, who had an abortion when she was sixteen, is a housewife trying desperately and somewhat grimly with car-salesman husband Paulo to have a baby. Meanwhile the youngest, Megan, is a trainee GP who gets pregnant after a one-night stand with Australian dive-instructor Kirk. Cat has a relationship with older divorced karate instructor Rory who can't have any more children after having a vasectomy shortly before his wife got pregnant by another man and left him.

From this set up the story evolves. Will IVF deliver for Paulo and Jessica? How will Megan balance work and childcare as a single mother ... or will Kirk return to her? Will Cat decide to have children and, if she does, can she persuade Rory to go through fatherhood all over again?

A book that is rooted in reality.

But there is a lot of story to get through. Each baby takes nine months (if all goes well) to hatch. It was also contrived (and it felt a little contrived) so that we could explore the full range of possibilities. Thus, Paulo's brother Michael who already has a wife and baby feels excluded from the mother-daughter relationship and so begins an affair with receptionist Ginger. Someone has to have a miscarriage. One baby is born prematurely. Adoption and abortion are explored. Men are unreliable for every possible reason. We have to discover the realities of doctoring to the underclass, multiple sclerosis and the life of an actor. This is a broad canvas and as a result Parsons often has to tell rather than show; sweeping brushstrokes are needed. He is telling a story and so his characters sometimes feel like puppets of the plot. It was breadth and I wanted a little more depth. In this respect it reminded me a little of Victoria Hislop's The Thread.

But it was well told and I turned the pages over quickly.

Some great moments:

  • "Nobody sets out to be a single parent." (C 1)
  • "Family life meant nothing in the fridge, a mother gone, Jessica crying and baby Megan squawking for 'bis-quits, bis-quits'. Family life was their father away working, the au pair shagging some new boy out in the potting shed and not a bloody bis-quit in the house." (C 1)
  • "She used to drive him crazy. Now he acted as though sex was an exam he hadn't prepared for." (C 1)
  • "The terrible knowledge that she had been born to give birth in her turn, and that she might never fulfil that destiny." (C 4)
  • "They were already lost in the banal materialism of their TV show. Big cars, white mansions, bikini-clad babes by the pool. At least we dreamed of freedom, Cat thought. When did the dreams of children become the same as the dreams of middle-aged men?" (C 6)
  • "This was the womaniser's  bitterly ironic fate - to be the father of an adored, beautiful baby girl." (C 15)
  • "Nothing puts you in touch with your mortality like having a kid. The future belongs to her, not you." (C 18)
Plot structure: beware of spoilers:

  • 25%: Megan goes for an abortion but decides against it.
  • 50%: Jessica and Paulo buy a big new house and give up on trying to have a baby; Kirk meets Megan again
  • 75%: Cat, new pregnant, leaves her job; Megan and Kirk decide to go abroad; Jessica and Paulo visit an orphanage in China
  • 90%: Paulo loses his business; Cat reconnects with Rory; Megan leaves Kirk to return to London

January 2020; 359 pages

Friday, 3 January 2020

"Cityboy" by Geraint Anderson

Perhaps a memoir, perhaps a roman a clef, Cityboy recounts the progress of a young man who started working for a bank in the City of London in 1996, became arrogant, hedonistic and wealthy, fuelling his success with a cocaine addiction and enormous amounts of alcohol, while understanding that he was nothing more than a gambler in a casino whose stake was supplied by others. It is a classic Faustian tale (it starts: “Everybody sells their soul to the devil ... I just decided that I'd get a damn good price for mine.” C 1) except that the narrator manages to escape the hell into which he has fallen. 

He is scathing about his (now former) profession. He and his colleagues lie and cheat and break almost all of the rules; he suggests that it is the system which both allows and encourages arrogance and recklessness and the easing of regulations has led directly to the market crashes. He concludes:
  • Money as the one true God and the Gospel according to Adam Smith became the only one that anyone now listens to.” (C 5)
  • Capitalist economies can only survive if they grow and that requires people to be dissatisfied because only people desperate for material betterment will buy that flashier car or that smarter jacket ... The trick is to make people as unhappy about themselves as possible so that they strive to spend the cash in the false hope that it will make me happy and sexy.” (C 5)
  • Our masters have successfully employed clever propaganda to feed our pathetic obsession with celebrities and so distract us from unjustifiable wars and hideous unfairness of our socio-economic system.” (C 5)
  • We live in a superficial bling bling society that is neither happy nor peaceful.” (C 5)
Yet, throughout, even while describing in remorseless detail his drug habit, his exploitation of friends and women, and his appalling lack of any sort of professional standards, one still roots for him. He is a lad and his misdemeanours are told to the accompaniment of laddish (sometimes nakedly sexist, if one is allowed that adverb in that context) laddish banter:
  • Stress will kill you quicker than a rabbit gets fucked.” (C 1)
  • To say I made a tit of myself would be to insult mammary glands across this planet.” (C 1)
  • Body from Baywatch but face from Crimewatch.” (C 2)
  • The chances of that happening are somewhere between slim and none, and as far as I can see slim left town a long time ago.” (C 2)
  • I didn't just look (and feel) like the living dead; I looked like the dead dead.” (C 3)
These are a very few samples from an enormous potential selection. There are many times when 'laddish' becomes uncomfortably misogynist. And yet ... he portrays himself as flawed but better than others; most importantly, he is the one who analyses the game he is playing as fundamentally destructive to the players and to the economy and the hard-earned pennies of the people who allow these greedy fools to play with their money. Perhaps his epiphany comes when he visits a prison in Bolivia: “In San Pedro money could literally buy you anything, but a lack of it meant you had nowhere to sleep and that you could lose your life at the drop of a hat. It was an existence entirely dictated by unmitigated market forces. There was no welfare state or NHS diluting true ‘dog eat dog’ capitalism here. It was the ultimate untainted capitalist state where the law of the jungle ruled ... and it was horrific. They were four murders a month and anyone without cash lived in a state of constant fear. ... It seemed to me that the elites of Western societies had cleverly ensured that the states we live in had the bare minimum of support mechanisms in place. They had done this so that capitalism would thrive, ensuring that their privileged life continued, but it was also not so unremittingly harsh that an underclass existed with so little hope that they would attempt mass insurrection.” (C 6)

Other great moments:
  • I was talking about some really important stuff like how great I was and he was refusing to participate in this extremely interesting discussion. In fact, he was banging on about some fairly pointless subject - something about how fabulous he was or some such nonsense.” (C 5) The self-obsession of those who have been snorting cocaine
  • They say you make your own luck but sometimes you ain't got nothing to do with it.” (C 6)
  • Watching corpulent buffoons wearing appalling sports jackets actually believing that the fit young totty they’re chatting to at dreadful clubs in Soho with interested in anything other than their wedge would be humorous were is not so tragic.” (C 1)
  • “In the country of the blind drunk, the one-eyed trouser snake is king.” (C 7)

January 2020; 419 pages

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

"An Awfully Big Adventure" by Beryl Bainbridge

Stella, a troubled but immensely innocent girl, gets an unpaid internship in a repertory theatre. She falls in love with the director, Meredith though the reader can see he is gay and therefore unavailable; most of the other men want to shag Stella. As the season progresses from play to pantomime (Peter Pan) Stella seems to prove a catalyst for disaster, even death. She loses her virginity but never her innocence (there is a hilarious scene in a cinema with a newspaper reporter in which he gets her to masturbate him and she hasn't a clue what bis going on). Throughout, Stella tells the truth, not understanding that what she is saying may have a destructive effect on the hearer.

One of the brilliant things about Bainbridge is that, in the context of a straightforward narrative, she can add layers of meaning. For example:
  • As for Cleopatra, she was an uneducated girl and deluded if she thought Caesar gave a pig's bonnet for her. It was Anthony whom she had enslaved, never Caesar. To Caesar all women were the same. There was always another one around the next pyramid.” (C 6) This is a wonderful metaphor for what is going on with Stella herself. 
  • A woman came up with a red balloon and asked him to autograph it, and he took out a fountain pen and commenced a squeaky signature. The balloon burst as he scrawled the last letter. The woman said it didn't matter. They both hunted through the debris on the floor to find that shriveled scrap bearing his name.” (C 10)
Bainbridge is also an expert at saying things which we know are important but whose importance we can't realise until later. For example, every so often she telephones her mother; these conversations always end with “Mother said the usual things.” It is not until the very end that we understand what those things are.I suppose this is a type of foreshadowing, although it is more obtrusive than that. It creates questions in the reader's mind - 'what's this all about?' - which make one want to read on further. It is a type of hook except it doesn't only happen at the start of the book. It reminded me a little of the way that Ford Madox Ford in The Good Soldier used unreliable narration to keep one guessing. 

There are moments of pitch-perfect description:
  • There were purple weeds blowing through the stonework of the smashed tower hanging in giddy steps beneath the sky. Uncle Vernon called it an eyesore ... She’d argued that the church was a monument, and that the shattered tower was a ladder climbing from the past to the future.” (C 2)
  • The flower-seller who kept a stall in the mouth of the granite arch leading to the subterranean tunnel into the street was bent over, dunking tulips in a galvanized bucket. Passing beneath the arch the children felt the slope beneath them and tumbled into a trot, the echoes of their stamping feet sending the pigeons plummeting from their perches. When the birds spewed out of the darkness the flower-seller flapped her great shawl like a matador to ward them off; they broke formation, circling the massive clock stopped at ten to ten, floundering upwards towards the whirling sky framed in the shards of glass set in the iron ribs of the shattered roof.” (C 4) Not a word out of place. 
  • They looked both sly and exhilarated, as though they were off to some party that would end in tears.” (C 5)
This book has many links to the J M Barrie play Peter Pan:
  • The title is taken from a line spoken by Peter when, trapped on a rock with the tide rising and unable to fly he speculates that "death will be an awfully big adventure." There are several deaths in the book.
  • The production of Peter Pan takes up the action for the second half of the book
  • There are a number of occasions when working in a theatre is contrasted with working in a bank. Mr Darling in the Peter Pan stories was a bank clerk. 
  • On a metaphorical level, Peter Pan is about a boy who refuses to grow up and Stella, the lead character, is a girl who preserves naive innocence despite the many piratical and reptilian men around her.

Other great moments:
  • He hadn't forgotten her histrionics following the removal of the half-basin on the landing. She had accused him of mutilating her past, of ripping out her memories. He’d had to bite on his tongue to stop himself from blurting out that in her case this was all to the good. There were worse things than the disappearance of basins. It had brought home to him how unreliable history was, in that the story, by definition, was always one-sided.” (C 1)
  • She had combed her hair so often in anticipation she imagined it had grown thinner.” (C 3)
  • A Soprano with legs that wouldn't have disgraced a piano stool.” (C 3)
  • St Ives and a woman he swore was his Auntie from Cardiff were discovered in matching pyjamas, he in the top and she in the bottoms.” (C 3)
  • You don't mention fat for nothing.” (C 3)
  • It was astonishing to Stella how fondly men remembered their darkest hours.” (C 3)
  • Penetration, from what she had gathered from library books, was inescapably painful unless one had played a lot of tennis or ridden stallions, and she hadn't done either.” (C 3)
  • She was the sort of girl who, if there had been a meadow handy, would have been out there in a flash picking cowslips.” (C 4)
  • I don't mind confessing that after a few honeymoon months we stalled more times then we took off.” (C 6)
  • She pondered on the differences in men's and women's clothing. Trousers, she now realised, were so designed not because their wearers had funny legs but because men were constantly worried that an essential part of them might have gone missing. They wanted instant access, just to make sure things were in place. What was more puzzling was why they needed everyone else to check as well.” (C 6)
  • The reporter ... shoved a handkerchief at her. She wondered whether she had been sniffing; it was true she had the beginnings of a cold. Suddenly he let out a huge sigh, as though the air was being forced out of him. He seemed to grow smaller; certainly his thingummyjig shrunk. almost at once he fell into a doze. She was left holding a jelly baby of shrivelled skin, her fingers glued together, webbed by a sticky emission.” (C 6)
  • Keeley said girls were unreasonable because they weren't any good at sport - they hadn't learnt any rules.” (C 9)
  • I can't eat when I'm with you ... I'd be sick. It's a compliment really.” (C 9)
  • In the end everyone expected a return on love, demanded a rebate of gratitude or respect. It was no different from collecting the deposit on lemonade bottles.” (C 10)
This was a superb read but I feel that I have missed many layers in this first read through. This is clearly a book to which I must return.

December 2019; 198 pages

Other brilliant Bainbridge books reviewed in this blog: