About Me

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Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. 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. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

"Secret Water" by Arthur Ransome

 Another classic Swallows and Amazons adventure. This time the children are camping on muddy tidal islands, tasked with creating a map of the archipelago. They discover another gang of sailing kids (the 'Eels') complete with a shy lad called the Mastodon who lives in a wreck. The muddy adventures include being caught on a tidal causeway with the water getting deeper by the minute ...

Great moments: 

  • "It was as if they had come across a skeleton and on looking at the skull had been greeted with a wink." (Ch 8)
  • "He woke with a queer feeling of gloom. It was like waking on the day after he had written parvissimus instead of minimus in an examination paper." (Ch 29) What a wonderfully sated concern that seems to us now!

A great yarn if suffused with colonialist attitudes. May 2021; 373 pages

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God



The Swallows and Amazon series contained twelve books:
  • Swallows and Amazons: Children camping on an island in a lake have sailing based adventures
  • Swallowdale: More sailing adventures are threatened when the Swallow sinks
  • Peter Duck: The Swallows and Amazons and Captain Flint sail on a big yacht into the Caribbean in search of pirate treasure; pirates pursue
  • Winter Holiday: the lake freezes allowing a sledge-based expedition to the 'north pole'; the 'D's are introduced
  • Coot Club: The Ds join the Death and Glory kids in the Norfolk Broads but the excitement is just as great when birds have to be protected from rowdies.
  • We Didn't Mean to go to Sea: The Swallows accidentally find themselves at sea in a yacht they scarcely know: for my money this is the most dramatic and exciting book of the series.
  • Secret Water: The Swallows are joined by the Amazons in an expedition to map some tidal mud-flats
  • The Big Six: The Death and Glory kids have to be cleared of accusations of crime; the Ds help.
  • Missee Lee: The Swallows and Amazons and Captain Flint are shipwrecked near China and captured by a lady Chinese pirate with a taste for Latin.
  • Pigeon Post: The Swallows and Amazons and Ds search for gold in the hills above the Lake; one of my favourites
  • The Picts and the Martyrs: The Ds have to hide in the hills when the Great Aunt comes to stay with the Amazons
  • Great Northern: The Swallows and Amazons and Ds and Captain Flint are protecting birds in the far north of Scotland
The internal logic of the series suggests that Secret Water comes immediately after We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea and also after Pigeon Post and probably after The Picts and the Martyrs.

Tuesday, 11 May 2021

"We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea" by Arthur Ransome

 Another sailing adventure with the Swallows. John, Susan, Titty and Roger are crewing for Jim in the sailing yacht Goblin near Harwich under strict orders from Mummy to stay in the river and not to pass the Beach End buoy which marks where the sea begins. But when Jim goes ashore for petrol the ship drags its anchor in a fog and before they know it the children are out at sea, on their own, in a storm.

This is my favourite Swallows and Amazons adventure. There are repeated moments of enormous tension (like the bit where they turn back ... and the bit with John ... and the bit with the steamer ... but I'm not spelling them out because that would spoil things) and some real tear-gulping bits at the end (like the bit where the pilot shouts 'Nodings' ... and the bit in the cafe ... and the bit with the customs officers ... but again I'm keeping shtum). 

Some great moments:

  • "It was as if she had swallowed an apple whole and the apple was trying to get back and finding her throat too narrow for it." (Ch 11)
  • "Lonely? It was as if he was outside life altogether and wouldn't be alive until he got back." (Ch 12)
  • "Can't go far wrong with soup and steak ... You never know what you get when you try something with a fancy name." (Ch 23)

It is difficult to imagine a more perfect adventure story for boys. May 2021; 333 pages


This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God


The Swallows and Amazon series contained twelve books:

  • Swallows and Amazons: Children camping on an island in a lake have sailing based adventures
  • Swallowdale: More sailing adventures are threatened when the Swallow sinks
  • Peter Duck: The Swallows and Amazons and Captain Flint sail on a big yacht into the Caribbean in search of pirate treasure; pirates pursue
  • Winter Holiday: the lake freezes allowing a sledge-based expedition to the 'north pole'; the 'D's are introduced
  • Coot Club: The Ds join the Death and Glory kids in the Norfolk Broads but the excitement is just as great when birds have to be protected from rowdies.
  • We Didn't Mean to go to Sea: The Swallows accidentally find themselves at sea in a yacht they scarcely know: for my money this is the most dramatic and exciting book of the series.
  • Secret Water: The Swallows are joined by the Amazons in an expedition to map some tidal mud-flats
  • The Big Six: The Death and Glory kids have to be cleared of accusations of crime; the Ds help.
  • Missee Lee: The Swallows and Amazons and Captain Flint are shipwrecked near China and captured by a lady Chinese pirate with a taste for Latin.
  • Pigeon Post: The Swallows and Amazons and Ds search for gold in the hills above the Lake; one of my favourites
  • The Picts and the Martyrs: The Ds have to hide in the hills when the Great Aunt comes to stay with the Amazons
  • Great Northern: The Swallows and Amazons and Ds and Captain Flint are protecting birds in the far north of Scotland

Monday, 10 May 2021

"Coot Club" by Arthur Ransome

The Ds (Dick and Dorothea Callum) whom we first met in Winter Holiday skating on the Lake with the Swallows and the Amazons, are in the Norfolk Broads, hoping to learn to sail. They meet the members of the Coot Club: Tom Dudgeon the doctor's son, the twins Port and Starboard, and the 'Death and Glory' pirates Joe, Bill and Pete, Tom casts adrift a motor cruiser full of noisy tourists (the 'Hullabaloos') because they are moored across a coot's nest and then has to flee from their revenge, taking refuge with the Ds. The Hullabaloos then hunt Tom through the Broads as he and the twins teach the Ds to sail. 

Lots and lots of yachtsmanship, therefore. The usual meticulous detail. And some wonderful Norfolk characters. But the excitement in this book comes principally from the boats: tidal rivers present dangers and challenges the Lake never did, such as lowering the mast to get under a bridge, hitting the bank or running aground, fog, or being caught by the tide and being swept into an obstacle and wrecked.

Some great moments:

  • "Takes all sorts to make a world, but fare to me as we could do without some of 'em." (Ch 8)
  • "When the 'Come Along' says "Come Along," they got to come along." (Ch 28)

May 2021; 346 pages

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God


The Swallows and Amazon series contained twelve books:
  • Swallows and Amazons: Children camping on an island in a lake have sailing based adventures
  • Swallowdale: More sailing adventures are threatened when the Swallow sinks
  • Peter Duck: The Swallows and Amazons and Captain Flint sail on a big yacht into the Caribbean in search of pirate treasure; pirates pursue
  • Winter Holiday: the lake freezes allowing a sledge-based expedition to the 'north pole'; the 'D's are introduced
  • Coot Club: The Ds join the Death and Glory kids in the Norfolk Broads but the excitement is just as great when birds have to be protected from rowdies.
  • We Didn't Mean to go to Sea: The Swallows accidentally find themselves at sea in a yacht they scarcely know: for my money this is the most dramatic and exciting book of the series.
  • Secret Water: The Swallows are joined by the Amazons in an expedition to map some tidal mud-flats
  • The Big Six: The Death and Glory kids have to be cleared of accusations of crime; the Ds help.
  • Missee Lee: The Swallows and Amazons and Captain Flint are shipwrecked near China and captured by a lady Chinese pirate with a taste for Latin.
  • Pigeon Post: The Swallows and Amazons and Ds search for gold in the hills above the Lake; one of my favourites
  • The Picts and the Martyrs: The Ds have to hide in the hills when the Great Aunt comes to stay with the Amazons
  • Great Northern: The Swallows and Amazons and Ds and Captain Flint are protecting birds in the far north of Scotland

Saturday, 8 May 2021

"Where sleeps the serpent" by Alexandra Peel

 Steam punk meets Bio punk in the first of the Beneath the Skin books.

The story is told through two alternating narratives:

The biopunk narrative follows the story of a serial killer in late Victorian Paris. It is written in long paragraphs containing many sentence fragments which sometimes use unconventional grammar, for example by dislocating subject and predicate; this creates a disjointed feel which echoes the violence of the murderer. Hugely imaginative, this narrative contains long descriptive passages in which the prose is only just this side of purple ("The crud and slime of the medieval quarter, a chaotic shambles of dreary, grubbily pale structures with their grimy, wan occupants, drinking and fighting, whoring and dying, thieving and conning, who he no more feared than a flame would a moth. Hard, grey faces staring from hard, grey doorways, retching gobbets of phlegm as he passed. Slippery-legged women raising their skirts for onion mouthed, oily haired bundles of belted coats. Cobbles of slime and weary abodes leaning to cover the sky give way to newer rubble. Upright apartments and shopping arcades of polished glass, where people of new money could press their powdered noses, and desire what the person standing next to them desired whilst wearing the latest flounced skirts and trimmed bonnets, turned collars and detachable cuffs. Boulevards running in straight lines as far as the eye could see. Black carriages drawn by horses of flesh and horses of iron flew along the fresh roads, clopping and sparking. Steam hissing from every metal orifice. Steam automobiles, steam trams, steam trains, steam horses, steam ships and steam airships. Carousels, public parks, squares and gardens and everywhere there were people, every space, every street, every room crawled with them. Cackling maws, sticky children, smiles and sidelong glances, lipstick laughs, longing looks, posing and leering and scented and stinking and jostlingandwantingandeatinganddrinkingandpissingandshittingand-breathingandlivingandlivingandli-vingand…") which resonates with the obsessive nature of these episodes. Obsession is also evident in the fact that all the 'killer' episodes are fundamentally the same (man meets girl, strangles girl), an ostinato which could easily prove tedious and the fact that the author manages to keep the reader going must be testament to the quality of the prose. It doesn't always work ("He watched and viewed and collected the sights with his irises";  "His white lab coat flapped angrily about him as he rented his hair, his clothing") but at its best, the 'killer' sections are reminiscent of Baudelaire: "Hello from the gutters of gay Paree, which are filled with scabrous dogs, vermin, mangy cats, the sick and the lame, foul men with moist trouser fronts, putrid whores and rank upon rank of the rank."

The steampunk narrative follows an airship courier as she and her crew transport a suspicious package across late Victorian India. This has a more conventional style. While the killer in the alternative narrative manufactures themselves to be a little more than human, the hero of the steampunk narrative discovers within herself superhuman powers (the subtext suggests that 'natural' = good and 'manufactured' = bad). In stark contrast to the biopunk narrative with its concentrated focus on just a single character, the steampunk sections have multiple characters, few of whom have the space to become fully developed.

The steampunk plot has a classic four-part structure. There are clear turning-points in the story at the 25% mark (when the protagonist first gets into trouble), at the 50% (when she discovers her superpowers) and at the 75% point when much of the conspiracy is explained. Towards the end of the book the two alternating narratives become intertwined but the final pages lead into the second part of what is a duology.

Some of my favourite moments:

  • "Chains glinted through scarlet waistcoat buttonholes, attached to pocket watches telling time in which the owners had no interest."
  • "His gaze pinned her – a lepidopterist tacking a butterfly."
  • "He was a monochrome man. He liked it that way."
  • "Kissing like a pair of addicts they found the bed."
  • "We have a stowaway.” They swivelled their eyes around the dining room as if they might see someone they had not noticed for a day and a half."
  • "He had the erect posture of a corseted parson."
  • "That time between twilight and dusk when the sky hinted at the coming dark."

May 2021

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God




Thursday, 6 May 2021

"Winter Holiday" by Arthur Ransome

 The fourth 'Swallows and Amazons' adventure and the first to include the Ds. Back on the lake, scientifically-minded Dick and storyteller Dorothea join John, Susan, Titty, Roger, Nancy and Peggy. They are city children and know nothing about sailing, so it helps that the dinghies have been laid up for the winter and that the lake is freezing: Dick and Dorothea are great skaters. The kids build an igloo and practice semaphore and Morse; an expedition to the end of the lake ('the North Pole') is planned. Then Nancy gets the mumps but the adventures continue with Captain Flint's houseboat becoming Nansen's Fram. And, at the end, a very real adventure.

Some memorable moments:

  • "You ought to hang out a notice for when you're not there." (Ch 2)
  • "You know what it's like. Dark at teatime and sleeping indoors: nothing ever happens in the winter holidays." (Ch 3)
  • "People oughtn't to be allowed to be brought up in towns." (Ch 27)
  • "He thought of Dick, who was full of good ideas but was nearly always thinking of the wrong one." (Ch 27)

A classic of children's literature. May 2021;333 pages

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God


The Swallows and Amazon series contained twelve books:

  • Swallows and Amazons: Children camping on an island in a lake have sailing based adventures
  • Swallowdale: More sailing adventures are threatened when the Swallow sinks
  • Peter Duck: The Swallows and Amazons and Captain Flint sail on a big yacht into the Caribbean in search of pirate treasure; pirates pursue
  • Winter Holiday: the lake freezes allowing a sledge-based expedition to the 'north pole'; the 'D's are introduced
  • Coot Club: The Ds join the Death and Glory kids in the Norfolk Broads but the excitement is just as great when birds have to be protected from rowdies.
  • We Didn't Mean to go to Sea: The Swallows accidentally find themselves at sea in a yacht they scarcely know: for my money this is the most dramatic and exciting book of the series.
  • Secret Water: The Swallows are joined by the Amazons in an expedition to map some tidal mud-flats
  • The Big Six: The Death and Glory kids have to be cleared of accusations of crime; the Ds help.
  • Missee Lee: The Swallows and Amazons and Captain Flint are shipwrecked near China and captured by a lady Chinese pirate with a taste for Latin.
  • Pigeon Post: The Swallows and Amazons and Ds search for gold in the hills above the Lake; one of my favourites
  • The Picts and the Martyrs: The Ds have to hide in the hills when the Great Aunt comes to stay with the Amazons
  • Great Northern: The Swallows and Amazons and Ds and Captain Flint are protecting birds in the far north of Scotland.
Other books by this author:

Tuesday, 4 May 2021

"Narcopolis" by Jeet Thayil

 The stories of the people (customers, workers, business partners) who frequent Rashid's, the best opium den in Bombay. They include Dimple, a hijra, who works as a prostitute before joining Rashid's as someone who prepares the pipes, the price of her entry being two antique Chinese opium pipes bequeathed to her by Mr Lee, a fugitive from Maoist China. The somewhat unstructured narrative, sometimes seemingly as chaotic as the city, explores through its characters the grubby underbelly of old Bombay.

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012

The narrative structure is odd. It starts with the narrator Dom and then dfrifts away from him to head-hop, telling the story from the point of view of whoever is most relevant, a little like the meandering thoughts of a drug user, perhaps, or like the narrative in Moby-Dick.

Some memorable moments:

  • "He spoke from deep inside a nod." (1.3)
  • "Christ, Bengali said, from the Sanskrit ghrei, to rub, which in Greek became Christos, the anointed." (1.3)
  • "Shuklaji Street was a fever-grid of rooms, boom-boom rooms, family rooms, god rooms, secret rooms that contracted in the daytime and expanded at night." (3.1)
  • "Only the uneducated set so much stock by education." (3.3)
  • "Dreams leak from head to head: they travel between those who face in the same direction, that is to say lovers, and those who share the bonds of intoxication and death." (3.8)

May 2021; 292 pages

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God


Saturday, 1 May 2021

"Time to be Gonagain" by A J Farrelly

 This was my first ever steam punk novel. It was a superb introduction to the genre. I must read more; I hope they are all as good as this. 

I was impressed by how well this first-time author avoided common pitfalls. Science fiction stories require careful 'world-building' (because the setting is unfamiliar to the reader) and many first time authors go over the top, explaining everything in huge chunks of prose, but Farrelly drip-fed the settings and left just the right amount for the me to puzzle out on my own. The story was told in the past tense from multiple perspectives and this 'head-hopping' can sometimes become confusing; it didn't in this case because Farrelly kept control of the narrative. The author must also strike the right balance between fast-paced page-turning action and story development and again I thought Farrelly was almost perfectly placed on this spectrum: there was plenty of action but that narrative was never spread so thinly that it became shallow. 

What most impressed me about the book was the lightness of touch. The tone was often playful and the humour such that I sometimes laughed aloud (and regular readers of this blog know how rarely I laugh even when reading so-called comic novels). 

For example, the captain always tells the crew to remember "rule number one"; this changes with the situation and this becomes a running gag:

  • Rule number one,” Gonagain had always said, was, “stay alive.” (Ch 5)
  • "He ran his mind through Gonagain’s long list of ‘Rule number ones’. “Rule number one, Bearnárd, always learn from other peoples’ mistakes.”" (Ch 5)
  • "Gonagain had broken rule number one – never sleep with one of the crew – but, he rationalised, she was only a temporary member of the crew and besides, the sex was phenomenal." (Ch 13)
  • "rule number one: no one gets abandoned.” (Ch 17)
  • "There was a pause whilst the crew tried to work out which specific rule number one was most appropriate for this occasion. Gonagain didn’t wait. “Rule number one is ‘No man gets left behind’.” (Ch 19)

One of my favourite moments was when Jao is trying to hide some pulsarnite. She explains to the captain what she has done:

So, let me get this straight,” he said, “The trunk we brought aboard belongs to Trustworthy?” “Yes.” “And it contained the biggest lump of pulsarnite I’ve ever heard of?” “Yes.” “But now it has a bag of sand in it?” “Yes.” “And you have the key, which you found in this cabin.” “Yes.” “But Trustworthy thinks she has the key in her underwear?” “Yes.” “But it’s really the key to your little trunk?” “Yes.” “And the pulsarnite rock is now in another trunk in your cabin? “Yes.” “And the key to that trunk is…?” “In my underwear.” Gonagain paused thoughtfully. “Show me,” he said eventually. Jao stuttered and blushed for a microday before regaining her composure. “Oh, you mean the pulsarnite.” (Ch 10)

Great characters too: an utterly reckless captain who always thinks of his crew (sometimes lustfully), a female engineer who can fix machines or people, a lady navigator who has learnt much through her long life, mostly from ex-boyfriends (think Ness from Gavin and Stacey), a dog, a robot ('Emily Tutu') learning emotions and a strongman. And assorted other crooks and spies and baddies. 

A criticism? Only that I felt that there were a number of storylines left unresolved at the end, and this was clearly because there is a sequel in the offing. I hope it comes out soon; I'll be reading it.

There were some moments of magic:

  • Where’s the undertakers?” Gonagain asked. “Black Horse Square.” The three of them looked at each other vacantly, then back at the storekeeper. “At the end of Longest Walk Lane.” Again, the three looked nonplussed. “Not far from the hospital.” “Which tavern is it near?” asked Bunty, a little impatiently. “The Vigil and Wake.” “Righty-oh, Skipper, let’s go!” (Ch 2)
  • "She had known people like this all her life. They were pretty enough, or educated enough, or Machiavellian enough to manipulate people into giving them what they wanted. Or worse they were just wealthy enough to buy whatever they wanted – whether they needed it or not." (Ch 4)
  • "there’s no denying that you’re pitch-perfect, but your voice has the timbre of… a parakeet… in a garotte." (Ch 4)
  • "if you can get a message to your navigator, you can tell him our exact location is the middle of flippin’ nowhere.” (Ch 5)
  • "That was going to go down like an osmium dirigible back at headquarters." (Ch 14)
  • "There was only one thing Gonagain hated more than being wrong, and that was having to admit being wrong." (Ch 14)
  • "He was unsure whether he needed to walk faster or slower than usual to be at the entrance at the right time. He ended up with an odd gait that betrayed his sense of urgency without actually adding any speed." (Ch 16)
  • "What’s the plan?” “Be careful and get him out.” replied Gonagain impatiently. “Not too much detail then – playing it by ear. Jolly good.” (Ch 17)
  • "Charlie emerged from Beagán’s cabin, pulling the gusset of Beagán’s breeches from between his buttocks as he went." (Ch 20) This was included because one of my wife's least favourite words is 'gusset'.
  • "a column of crystals which hung from the ceiling exploded into a pendulous chandelier at each floor." (Ch 38)
  • "He had vowed at his mother’s grave that he would never leave anyone he cared about again." (Ch 39)

 A beautifully written story. May 2021

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God