About Me

My photo
Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. 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

Sunday, 19 September 2021

"The Three Edwards" by Thomas B Costain

 The third in the "Pageant of England" tetralogy, a sequel to The Conquering Family and The Magnificanet Century.

Not so much the Whig view of history as a no-holds-barred Tory view in which the 'greatness' of a country is measured by military success. Thus Edwards I and III were great Kings and Edward II a disastrous weakling. There are heroes (Robert the Bruce and William Wallace, the Black Prince, John Wycliff etc) and there are villains (Piers Gaveston and the Despensers, Alice Perrers and John of Gaunt and any number of dastardly foreigners). And Costain loves a good story. Although he sometimes points out the lack of evidence for some of his tales, all the classics are here, such as the presentation to the Welsh lords of the first Prince of Wales, a child who spoke no English (because he was the recently born King's son). This is myth retold as if it were history and told for the purpose of encouraging patriotism. It is about great men and wicked men and matters such as economic conditions and complex characters are downplayed. It is racist ("There have always been forces at work in the world which over-ride justice. The sufferings that the defeated Saxons endured for two centuries were gradually forgotten in the fusion of the two races. Who will say that the Indians of North America should have been allowed to keep the continent for themselves?"; I, 9.1) and sexist ("She might have glanced slyly out of the corner of a starry eye at stout London aldermen and swished her scented wiliecoats at court receptions, but this was no more than the habitual exercise in mass subjugation in which beautiful women indulge"; II, 6.3) It is, in short, simplistic. But not naive. Not innocent. I think Costain understands the propaganda value of his stories. 

Selected quotes:

  • "Used at first for decoration only, on books and purses and scabbards as well as clothes, the button began to prove its utility in holding clothes closer to the body, thereby providing greater warmth and accentuating (where the ladies were concerned) the gentle curve of the figure." (I, 6.1) He really can't resist a sexist aside.
  • "Even opportunities for reading were limited, the royal library consisting of three books." (I, 6.2)
  •  "He remained single all his life because he had no time for matrimony and perhaps also because of an admiration for the fair sex so general that he could not find one to exclude all others from his mind." (III, 16.2)
  • "The battlefields where great warriors died are so encroached upon by modern villas and so befouled by the rotting remains of motorcars and the staves of oil barrels that they do not always repay a visit." (III, 17.2)

September 2021; 467 pages


This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Thursday, 16 September 2021

"A Long Dark Rainbow" by Michael Tappenden

 An absolutely wonderfully delightful story about love between two old people.

Alex has never really fulfilled his potential. He felt inadequate as a young art student and abandoned drawing to become an art historian; he had an academic career but never became head of department. His love life lies far in the past and he now doubts his potential virility. Nevertheless, he talks to a statue of Dionysus and gains sufficient confidence to pursue Samantha, a divorcee, who is herself convinced that her her body can no longer attract men and that her days of romance are over. Can these two old people, emotionally and physically marked and shaped by their experiences, find shared sexual satisfaction and love?

There is a certain amount of plot involving people from Alex's unhappy past who threaten his present and future happiness but the core of this story (perfectly paced with turning points precisely at the quarter, half and three-quarter points) is an intense exploration of the developing relationship between the two protagonists. Towards the end there were even flashes of Lady Chatterley's Lover!

I was captured right from the start by the brilliantly drawn character of Alex who has an inner monologue that is fundamentally self-deprecatory and at the same time can be astute and sometimes very funny:

  • "Fear. Embarrassment. Ignorance. What effective contraception they had been." (Prologue)
  • "It was as if his brain and key parts of his body were no longer talking to each other. Not that that was anything new. In the past they had often ignored each other, preferring instead to go their separate ways, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Maybe now, they were sulking."  (Prologue)
  • "From flaccidity to awareness to virility to ignorance to repression to chronic masturbation to lust and fever to permitted access and more ignorance to mutual disappointment to adultery to abstinence and back to flaccidity. That’s how it was destined."  (Prologue)
  • "Coming up to seventy. Didn’t feel like it though. As long as he kept clear of mirrors and passport booths and didn’t bend to stroke pets. Sometimes he forgot his own age."  (Prologue)
  • "Sometimes he would talk to younger friends or relatives, see them laugh and chatter and wonder if they would be at his funeral. Which ones wouldn’t get the time off? Which ones would have the flu? Which ones would just make excuses?"  (Prologue)
  • "It’s all in there. He tapped his head. Just a bit reluctant to come out."  (Prologue)
  • "‘That’ll be seven pounds please. Special rate for senior citizens today.’ Oh God. Is it that obvious? You could have lied. Pretended you couldn’t tell. Charged the full amount and hoped my vanity would pay it." (1. In the Beginning)
  • "Bloody memory. You spend your life filling your brain. Hour after hour after hour, learning and understanding, feeding its voracious appetite, packing tons and tons of knowledge into the bottomless pit of brain cells and then later, when you want something back… nothing. Maybe his brain was now feeding on all that information piled inside it and would only let you have the scraps it doesn’t want, like bacon rind and cherry pips. Maybe it was simply composting." (1. In the Beginning)
  • "And that jaw – once it had the clean, sweeping lines of a racing yacht. Now look at it, bumbling around the coast, lumpy with barnacles." (1. In the Beginning)
  • "Do I need to find my higher self? If I’m honest, I’m having enough trouble with this lower one." (2. Samantha and the Wolf)
  • "Courting? That sounds so old fashioned. Do they still do that, or do they simply go to bed and conduct a road test?"   (6. Journeys)
  • "No wonder old people don’t smile much. Not because they’re miserable. Just trying to keep it all taut." (7. Steam)
  • "I just walked about following what felt like a permanent hard-on. It was an obsession that stirred me constantly. An all-consuming driving urge. I felt like a permanently on-duty pole vaulter."  (8. Tantra)
  • "They seemed to have wall-to-wall foreplay crackling in their minds. It had nothing at all to do with age or having a young, smooth body. It was like being in the middle of a permanent Cole Porter song laced with liberal doses of Viagra." (12. Sad News and a General)
  • "Now, however, he felt as if he was learning again, learning to swim again. Not convinced he wouldn’t drown. Still needing to hang on to the pool side." (14. Clues and Confession at last)

The author is particularly good at using actions and observations to represent a character's thoughts. For example, when Alex draws, his drawings represent his manhood. For example, he looks at some sketches he made when he was younger and he thinks: "This was a different me. So confident, so strong, so aware. Suddenly he felt a wave of panic wash through him. I can’t do this anymore." (6. Journeys) Later, he decides: "It will come back. Maybe the line, the marks I make will be different, not so confident but maybe I’ll see things differently now, after all this time."  (6. Journeys) And Samantha wonders: "Did his pencil, long and hard and penetrating, really represent much more to him?"   (6. Journeys)

Even furniture and washing up can be used to trigger thoughts regarding the effort required to start up an new relationship: "Samantha’s chair was quite different. Soft, young, excitable, waiting for the next walk in the park. Welcoming? Yes, or was that devouring? And now I’ll have to learn it all over again."  (6. Journeys) "On the large oak table were the remains of their meal. She stood and looked for a while. Those were the clean, bright plates she had proudly carried in, to be enjoyed. All now stained and cold and empty. She moved to the sink, turned on the tap and placed the plates and cutlery in the hot soapy water. Something ticked nervously in her throat. She picked up the plates and slowly washed them clean; washed away every trace, made them new." (5. Secrets and Understanding)

Other selected quotes:

  • "The flame of the nearest candle, startled at his appearance, moved abruptly, and then settled, reassured."  (Prologue)
  • "The flotsam of kitsch washed up here." (1. In the Beginning)
  • "He had stared at the colourful students each dressed in their own non-conformist palette" (1. In the Beginning)
  • "I do try to be tidy and I am in my own way. Just… not your way. I do know where everything is, trouble is, it’s usually underneath something else." (5. Secrets and Understanding)
  • "there was that woman with the heavy make-up that stopped at her neckline. Undressed, it looked like a sunset over a polar icescape." (6. Journeys)
  • "Without doubt it was her, but it was not someone she had ever seen before. It was not the portrait of an old woman that she had expected but of a woman who had matured with experience and understanding. There was a strength that she never knew was there and yet a softness at the same time. A few marks, carefully selected, indicated the passing of time but in a way that was sensitive, almost celebratory and without flattering." (6. Journeys)
  • "He stopped and then very carefully ran his very fingertips over her shoulders, feeling the tiny blemishes left by the sun and wind and time that made her who she was. A human patina of priceless experience." (7. Steam)
  • "People see that and all the other blemishes as faults. Imperfections. But they are her journey. Her experiences. Bit like that old oak table downstairs. Full of cracks and knot holes and covered with age. And people love that in a table. But not when it comes to each other. How fickle. How strange." (8. Tantra)
  • "She could see the brown patch on his crown where his hair had retreated and red points on each elbow as if the bone was trying to push through."  (8. Tantra)
  • "‘Just be smart and relaxed.’ ‘I do have problems with both of those concepts.’" (11. Father and Daughter)
  • "Ejaculation City. Frequent visits but never stayed long.’ (13. Funeral and Suspicion)
  • "Above them, the same stars looked down on this man and woman, two incongruous bodies, creased and roughened, their bones and blood worn and weakened by time, learning at last to be themselves." (14. Clues and Confession at last)
  • "How easy it had been to get lost, to follow the stony path trodden by so many other elderly feet, not to query, simply to accept. He had wanted to move, heard the old stallion whinnying desperately but had ignored it." (14. Clues and Confession at last)

This was an utterly delightful character-driven look at love from a perspective that is all-too-often ignored. 


This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Wednesday, 15 September 2021

"One, Two, Three, Four" by Craig Brown

 A voluminous book about the Beatles. Brown's technique, already displayed in his book One on One,  is to assemble a collage of snippets, offering peeks into events in the history of the Beatles. These include comments from celebrity and non-celebrity fans, Brown's own experiences as a boy growing up to the background of the Beatles, and Brown's notes taken while on tours of National Trust properties linked to the Beatles. There are even some counterfactual pages. This can be quite endearing, and it is easy to read a few of the mostly short chapters and then put the book down, but I found it annoying in the end.

The author is clearly a wordsmith. He spends a great deal of time tracing the provenance of lyrics, sometimes explaining what they mean. He very rarely says anything about the music, except sometimes quoting often pompous musicologists. And yet these lads were, first and foremost, musicians. It seems an enormous blind spot.

Selected quotes:

  • "All night parties have become so popular among art students in  Liverpool that partygoers are expected to bring not just a bottle  but also an egg, for breakfast." (Ch 11)
  • "Their rooms are a hair's breadth from being en-suite, because the wall is paper thin, and on the other side is a toilet, also used by customers of the cinema." (Ch 13)
  • "It gave you some kind of new avenue of sexuality. It could be more cerebral. You didn't have to actually touch the person's acne." (Quoting Chrissie Hynde) (Ch 42)
  • "At their first American concert, at the Washington Coliseum, the screaming was so piercing that a police officer was driven to block his ears with bullets." (Ch 51)
  • "The first policeman on the scene of the crash [in which Eddie Cochran was killed] was a young cadet called Dave Harman ... he left the police force, changed his name to Dave Dee and formed Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich." (Ch 56, footnote)
  • "The song was further filtered through ... the poem 'The Walrus and the Carpenter' ... Beneath its merry rhythm lies a Hannibal Lecterish tale of two exquisite psychopaths." (Ch 105)
  • "This wizard was, of course, his new friend 'Magic' Alex Mardas, for whom no job was ever too large to be started or too small to leave unfinished." (Ch 110)
  • "Youth thinks itself wise, just as drunk men think themselves sober." (Quoting Anthony Burgess) (Ch 126)

Easy to read but how can one miss out the music?

August 2021; 627 pages


This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God


Tuesday, 14 September 2021

"Lazarus Rising" by Neil Thomson

 This novel is a cross between The Bourne Identity and the story of the Tichbourne Claimant. It is set during and after the Napoleonic Wars. A man arrives in the Kentish village of Stelling Minnis. He knows no more about his past, or his identity, than that he was pulled alive from a pile of corpses on the battlefield of Waterloo. At the same time the long-lost son of the Lord of the Manor returns to the village to claim his inheritance. But is he who he says he is? And who is the mysterious stranger? The story jumps backwards and forwards in time before racing to the final confrontation.

It is a great premise for a story and the pacing of the tale was perfect with major turning-points placed almost precisely at the 25%, 50% and 75% marks. It's a fairly short book at 180 pages, quick and easy to read. There's plenty of action and the story never flags. There is little moral ambiguity although the main character feels that he is a curse on others which allows the reader to wonder whether the ending will be happy or tragic. 

If you enjoy fast-paced straightforward thrillers, this is the book for you.

Selected quotes:

  • "The sun crept up the sky the way ivy grows up a wall, slowly." (first line)
  • "The river could mean salvation or death as he could not actually remember if he could swim." (Ch 19)
  • "In the end, a person is their memories." (Ch 23)

September 2021


This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God


Friday, 10 September 2021

"Carrasco '67" by Elaine Broun

Set in Uruguay, in 1967, in the heyday of the Tupamaros urban guerrilla insurgency, this fast-paced thriller has buckets of verisimilitude. There are huge amounts of detail about the procedures adopted in Uruguay in the 1960s to combat the Tupamaros; these vary from what seems to modern eyes strangely naive to hugely over the top. Similarly, the tactics of the villains, who smash bottles more often than they shoot guns, is much more in tune with the reality of the time rather than the hyped up version of fictional baddies. This book has the authenticity of a social document. 

In the same way, the characters are very down-to-earth and normal. Rather than the stereotypes of modern fiction - this misfit or the superhero - the protagonist is a very ordinary businessman with a very ordinary family life and much of the story's drama and tension was derived precisely from this mismatch between the threat and normal life. 

Furthermore, the pacing of the story also reflects the everyday experience with a slow build and some near repetitions. Nevertheless, the final twist is left to the very last moment.

The Prologue is a single line ("You might say it was destined to be or perhaps a mere coincidence, but for whatever reason, their lives were forever changed.") and that acted as a nice hook. Chapter One, an incident plucked from later on in the story, was a good further hook. 

It is always difficult to know where to strike the balance between saying too little (hopefully intriguing the reader, and engaging them by making them puzzle out things for themselves) and explaining too much (so as not to leave the reader confused and therefore alienated from the story). At the start of the book Broun explains a little too much, in my opinion. For example, we are told that Miguel is a psychopath; I think that should have been left to the reader to work out for themselves. On the other hand, the carefully enumerated details about, for example, how to keep unkidnapped when walking down the street, added massively to the realistic feel of the story.

When an author describes the action moment by moment, they can either bog the reader down in obsessive detail or they can add verisimilitude and make the story come alive. Broun got this beautifully right when Miguel breaks into the office block where he works, in chapter three. I was fully engaged. It was really quite creepy! The book really came alive at these moments, another example being when Peter is being chased down the street.

Written in short, sometimes very short, chapters, this book has the hallmarks of a classic thriller and  keeps the action going right to the end.

Selected quotes:

  • "He jabbed the cigarette into the ashtray, not quite putting out the fire but breaking little sparks that danced up a little before floating down." (Ch 32)
  • "The room smelled of cleaning supplies and that rancid smell that occurred when mops took too long to dry. Dr. Miller closed the door of the closet." (Ch 47)
  • "They were starving. Having skipped breakfast, no prodding for the kids to eat was necessary; this soon became a race to the last bite." (Ch 55)


This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Monday, 6 September 2021

"Bertie" by Jane Ridley

 This is a biography of Edward VII. Eldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and not as bright as his elder sister Vicky, Prince Albert Edward, known as Bertie, was bullied unmercifully by his parents and kept on such a short leash during his adolescence that, predictably perhaps, once he lost his virginity (probably quite late) he began a strong of liaisons. He soon grew into a playboy prince, smoking, drinking, and gambling, holidaying abroad and on his yacht, and having affairs, often with married women, even after his marriage. Because of Queen Victoria's longevity, Bertie was 59 before he became King. He still kept at least one mistress and travelled extensively, seemingly under the illusion that because he was the uncle of both the Tsar of Russia and the Kaiser of Germany, and related to most other European monarchs, he could prevent war. 

Jane Ridley's autobiography is well written and exhaustively detailed. However, she conforms to the not-quite-inevitable rule that biographers fall in love with their subjects. She repeatedly does her best to show Bertie in the best possible light during the playboy years. For example, she claims that there is only one illegitimate child whose paternity can safely be ascribed to Bertie; we are meant to infer that the numerous other claims are all false; this seems improbable. She uses the fact that Bertie was surprisingly discreet in his letters to women to imply that most of his liaisons were platonic: if he called for tea, he drank tea.  But even she must acknowledge that sometimnes his treatment of his discarded mistresses was appalling: "Harriet [Mordaunt] was bundled off to a villa in Worthing, where she was kept under virtual house arrest, an act of dubious legality which was sanctioned by Bertie's doctor William Gull" (Ch 8); the poor woman later went mad.

But it is when Bertie becomes King that the biography becomes a hagiography. According to Ridley, King Edward was an astute political operator whose frequently unauthorised diplomatic overtures left the democratically elected politicians looking foolish and flat-footed. Time and again she denigrates prime ministers. This absurd pretence that this pompous and opinionated man ("His Royal Highness is always ready to forget his rank, as long as everyone else remembers it."; Ch 8) was somehow more important than all the rest of his subjects reaches its absurd apotheosis in chapter 25 when she suggests that Bertie was "trying to keep the peace of Europe almost single-handed" which is a ridiculous statement. Not only was he pompous and obsessed with protocol, going repeatedly into rages if he was presented with someone wearing what he considered to be incorrect clothing, and endeavouring to order the British fleet to Malta to greet his yacht (Ch 26) but also he was extraordinarily meddlesome in politics making the assumption that cabinet ministers were his "confidential servants". He repeatedly attempted to manipulate cabinet appointments and came to the brink of refusing to create the extra peers needed by Asquith's government in order to facilitate the passage of Lloyd George's budget which had been rejected by the overwhelmingly Conservative House of Lords. It is not inconceivable that, had he not died, he would have provoked a constitutional crisis that would have seen the British monarchy swept away at the end of the First World War, which also saw the end of the Russian Tsar, the Austro-Hungarian Emperor and the German Kaiser.

This partiality shown by Ridley, even in the face of the evidence she herself records, spoiled what started out as a promising and readable biography.

Selected quotes:

  • "Her later claim that Alix made her a cup of tea seems improbably, to say the least (did Alix know how to make tea?)" (Ch 14)
  • "Anything less erotic than sitting in a cold and sticky champagne bath seems hard to imagine." (Ch 19)

September 2021; 495 pages

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Friday, 3 September 2021

"What's My Bias?" by Lee De-Wit

A book about the psychological reasons that underlie politics. This eminently readable book covers, among other things: 
  • our innate morality of fairness (and the different interpretations we have of what fairness means); 
  • fundamental aspects of personality such as openness to change, conscientiousness, extraversion, empathy and anxiety which govern our political choices;
  • cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias;
  • our tendency to vote for someone whose face suggests competence;
  • the way the media frame stories;
  • fake news (and fake science) and how to combat it;
  • and why people don't vote.
I really enjoyed it. It was well written and easy to read with plenty of anecdote to balance the academic stuff. I knew quite a lot of it already (I wrote about cognitive dissonance as part of my own PhD thesis) but that was combined with the new stuff in a way that frequently made me think.

And as a collector of expressions I loved 'astroturfing' and 'sockpuppetry'.

Many years ago, I taught Lee A-level Physics. He has since become an academic Psychologist (working at the same department of Psychology in Cambridge where I spent the third year of my undergraduate degree). He makes certain criticisms of his schooling (not enough education about politics). Sorry Lee!

Selected quotes:
  • "Political certainties are like the Berlin Wall. They appear to be concrete and immoveable, but they can crumble and fall almost overnight." (Introduction: The Political Animal)
  • "ultimately many political arguments come down to the morality of fairness." (1 It’s Not Fair!)
  • "if social animals are going to cooperate, they need to develop a keen sense of fairness – to prevent individuals taking advantage of others in the group." (1 It’s Not Fair!)
  • "do you attribute someone’s wealth to the actions of that individual or their circumstances in life?" (1 It’s Not Fair!)
  • "Absolutist thinkers are more likely to see something as inherently right or wrong, whereas contextualist thinkers are more likely to allow for circumstances that could have influenced someone’s behaviour." (1 It’s Not Fair!)
  • "if you have a business that transports goods, you didn’t build the roads; if you rely on educated workers, you didn’t educate them yourself." (1 It’s Not Fair!)
  • "You may well have worked hard, but that can’t explain success on its own, because there are plenty of people out there who work hard." (1 It’s Not Fair!)
  • "people who identify as left and right wing differ substantially in the way they see two key moral principles: group loyalty and respect for authority" (1 It’s Not Fair!)
  • "conservatives... display moral sensitivities about a wider range of topics." (1 It’s Not Fair!)
  • "the greater activity in the amygdala shows that conservatives have a different cognitive process for thinking about risk, making them more sensitive to potential threats." (2 Personal Politics)
  • "the political left rolls with the good and the political right confronts the bad" (2 Personal Politics)
  • "there is a close correlation between the extent to which people view the world as a dangerous place, and the extent to which they think things like group loyalty and respect for authority are important moral principles." (2 Personal Politics)
  • "liberals ... tend to respond more positively to change and uncertainty, which, in practice, might mean they are more likely to want to change what they perceive as social inequality, support minority rights and welfare, and be more tolerant of complexity." (2 Personal Politics)
  • "Conservatives ... might be more diligent and careful (e.g. in appearance, or in their work), with greater respect for convention and tradition, perhaps being more likely to defend the status quo and support religious and traditional values." (2 Personal Politics)
  • "when our feelings and the facts don’t match up, we’ll find some way to make them match." (3 Why You Always Think You’re Right)
  • "Experts – pundits, commentators, talking heads who get quoted in newspaper articles as experts, and so on – ...  are wrong more often than they’re right (and that applied to TV experts in particular). And ... they weren’t right any more often than an informed layperson would have been." (3 Why You Always Think You’re Right)
  • "viewing someone’s face for less than a second is enough for people to make a rating of their ‘competence’ ... the favoured candidate tends to win elections." (4 What’s In A Face?)
  • "we have a tendency to assume that people who are more attractive are also more intelligent." (4 What’s In A Face?)
  • "When we’re repeatedly exposed to something, its familiarity means we are more likely to be welcoming of it." (5 Making The Headlines)
  • "‘Astroturfing’, the practice of hiding the sponsors of a political, advertising, religious or any other kind of message to make it appear as though it originates from ordinary folk (creating ‘fake grassroots’), and ‘sockpuppetry’, the deliberate creation of false online identities to promote opinions – including fake news – have been rampant for years." (6 Faking It)
  • "if you want something to be effective in changing people’s behaviour, make it social." (7 Are You Being Nudged?)
  • "just realising you have control over something can be inherently rewarding in its own right." (8 A Silent Majority)
  • "voters in marginal constituencies are far more likely to be targeted by political parties, increasing the feeling that their vote counts, as opposed to voters in safe seats who frequently complain of being ignored and overlooked." (8 A Silent Majority)

This is an important book in the light of the new use of social media by political parties and the increasing polarisation of the electorate. It is also a good read, short and not at all heavy-going. It should be on your bookshelf!

August 2021

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God