About Me

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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, 30 December 2012

"The unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry" by Rachel Joyce

Wow! This was a powerful novel. I cried.

Harold Fry is trapped in a loveless marriage with wife Maureen; only son David no longer lives with them. A letter arrives from an old colleague, Queenie Hennessy. She is dying of cancer in Berwick on Tweed. Harold writes a brief reply and walks to the letter box to post it. But he keeps going. He decides to walk, in his yachting shoes, from his home in Devon to Berwick.

On the route he thinks about his marriage and why it went wrong, of the debt he owes to Queenie, of his mother who walked out on him and his alcoholic father, and of his failed relationship with his son. And his abandoned wife thinks her thoughts too.

I related so very well to the early descriptions of walking. Every year I go for a walk, on my own. I have walked along the Thames, from Oxford to Cambridge, from St Paul's to Canterbury, along the Lea Valley, and along the South Coast from Brighton to Folkestone. I understood when Harold felt that walking was so much more intense than driving; when you walk you are a part of the landscape rather than travelling through the landscape. I empathised with the feeling of embarrassment at being the only person in the guest house on their own. And how I winced with every blister!

But I also wanted so much to understand what had gone wrong with Harold's life. What happened to alienate him from his son? Why had he drifted apart from his wife? And why did he owe Queenie such a debt? These puzzles had me racing through the book when I wanted to talk, step by step.

Will he make it? And if he does, how will he ever go back to being 'normal'? And will Queenie die?

Terrific human drama. Possibly the best book I have read this year. Superb! December 2012; 296 pages

It has subsequently been pointed out to me by another reader that the book loses a little in  the middle part when Harold is joined by a motley collection of hippies and other supporters who publicise and try to take over the purpose of the 'pilgrimage'. This reader suggested that the narrative lost its way at this point (although, like Harold, it found its way again later). I agree that a little momentum was lost here although I understand the point of trying to show how publicity can warp purpose. Perhaps the story would have been better had it been a little leaner and had this sub-plot been excised. Let the readers decide!

"Shopping, seduction and Mr Selfridge" by Lindy Woodhead

I haven't read a book about retailing since, I think, 1967 when I read "My Store of memories" by Rowan Bentall which was published to coincide with the centenary of Bentall's in Kingston Upon Thames.

This book was brilliant.

It starts by describing the retail environment of nineteenth century Chicago where Harry Gordon Selfridge cut his teeth working for 25 years at department store Marshall Field. I was particularly interested by the boom that accompanied the 1893 World Fair, which I have also read about in "The Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson which intertwines the story of the World Fair with that of the serial killer H. H. Holmes and is well worth a read. I loved the names that Woodhead dropped, people Selfridge knew: Levi Leiter whose daughter Mary married Lord Curzon, Florenz Ziegfield whose son founded the eponymous Follies, skyscraper architect Louis Sullivan, and the father of body-building Eugen Sandow.

Selfridge gets tired of working for other people; he tries retirement and then moves to London to found his own store. His showbiz ways trump the more established retailers (such as Harrods, which began in Stepney of all places!) But as he becomes more successful he becomes increasingly distracted by life outside retailing. He becomes besotted with aeroplanes, exhibiting Bleriot's channel-hopping machine the day after the channel was hopped. He gambles, heavily. And he pursues a string of mistresses, combining passions in the heavily gambling Dolly Sisters. His life becomes connected with aristocracy and politicians and writers especially Arnold Bennett. He seduces Syrie, wife of pharmaceutical entrepreneur Henry Wellcome, before they both lose her to Somerset Maugham.

Then, as the Second World War starts, he is forced to give up his shop to pay his enormous debts. He becomes a shadow, an old man who takes a bus from his Putney flat to Oxford Street to shuffle past the windows he made famous.

A true tale of triumph to tragedy. Fabulous! December 2012; 261 pages

This is the book that inspired the ITV series Mr Selfridge which is returning for a second series early in 2014.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

"Everything is illuminated" by Jonathan Safran Foer

This very strange book starts with a miracle and ends with a suicide, swaps narrator and jumps back and forwards in time. The author appears as 'the hero' in sections narrated by another person.

The modern part is mostly narrated in hilariously broken English  by Ukrainian Alexander aka Sasha the son of Alexander aka Father the son of Alexander aka Grandfather. It tells of the journey of 'the hero', Jonathan Safran Foer, who is seeking his Augustine, the woman who saved his Ukranian grandfather. JSF is accompanied by translator Sasha, their driver who is Shasha's blind grandfather and Sammy Davis Junior, Juniro the seeing eye labrador bitch. They are searching for Trachimbrod, sometimes called Sofiowka after the mad masturbating squire, the shtetl where Augustine lived but which was obliterated by the Nazis.

And the story goes back to the day when Trachim B's waggon overturned in the Brod river and the only person who was saved was a newborn baby girl who was named Brod and became the ancestor of JSF. The tale tells of her childhood with disgraced usurer Yankel and her tempestuous marriage to the Kolker and it jumps to JSF's grandfather who had a withered arm and, as a result, from the age of ten, a string of affairs with widows and virgins and in one case a virgin widow.

The plot hinges on what Alex's gradnfather did in the war.

Confusion, fantasy and family history intertwine in this novel. At times it is hilarious, at times sad. Both JSF and Alex send their narratives to one another and discuss whether they are true or not.

We are beguiled with truths, half-truths and non-truths in this book about humanity and deception. "Everything is illuminated" means 'everything is made clear' which, in the end, it isn't. I'm not sure whether it is a good book or a great book but it is remarkable for its inventiveness.

December 2012; 276 pages

Saturday, 15 December 2012

"Commander" by Stephen Taylor

This is the biography of "Britain's greatest frigate captain" Sir Edward Pellew. Rising from an ordinary seaman with a particular acrobatic ability in the tops, Pellew's early naval career matched that of his near-contemporary Nelson. Following service fighting Americans in their War of Independence he became captain of a frigate, the Indefatigable, and trained both ship and men to become the most successful prize-winning ship of the time. His later career as captain of a Ship of the Line and later as Rear-Admiral and then Commander-in-Chief in the Indian Ocean kept him away from Trafalgar and led to anti-climax. However, his last fight against the slavers of Algiers restored his reputation.

This is Hornblower stuff. A number of Pellew's exploits (rescuing men from a sinking ship in surf and landing marines at Quiberon Bay) seem to have inspired C. S. Forester. Yet the facts are as compelling as the reading and Taylor has created a brilliant page-turner which encapsulates this brilliant but flawed exponent of the Age of Sail.

Thrilling and fascinating. December 2012; 310 pages

Thursday, 13 December 2012

"Forty years catching smugglers" by Malcolm Nelson

Nelson has been a customs officer for (nearly) forty years from Rummager to Assistant Collector and this autobiography is based on the fifty or so talks every year he gives about his career. The oral flavour is preserved intact. It rambles.  The writing is poor both grammatically and stylistically. It has not been proof read.

I struggled to the end because it does have some interest. I guess we are all fascinated by smugglers and I have a tangential interest in his self-promoting stories of management as well. But I would have been embarrassed to write it.

Other memoirs reviewed in this blog include (in order of how much I enjoyed them, favourites first):
  • Memoir of the Bobotes: by Joyce Cary: a brilliantly written memoir of the author's time as a medical officer during the Balkan Wars (pre World War I): the writer became a novelist and his craft shows; full of humour and keen observation
  • My Family and Other Animals (and the sequels) by Gerald Durrell: Beautiful descriptions and hilarious accounts of an eccentric family living on the Greek Island of Corfu between WWI and WWII
  • A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble: a well-written, frequently humourous account of Pacific paradise
  • Bus Stop Symi by William Travis: the account of three years spent on the remote and at the time unspoilt Greek island of Symi: well-written, charming and amusing
  • Surprised by Joy by C S Lewis: an account of the famous author's life, mostly from the perspective of his Christianity: beautifully written
  • A Death in the Family by Karl-Ove Knausgard: the first volume of a series in which the author, in the guise of writing novels, portrays real people with real names: the writing is brilliant
  • Beautiful People by Simon Doonan: The story of a young gay man: well-written with moments of marvellous humour
  • Teacher Man by Frank McCourt: the third volume in the series that started with Angela's Ashes
  • The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice by Polly Coles: a reasonably well-written account of a year spent living in Venice
  • A Detail on the Burma Front by Winifred Beaumont: a nurse's story from one of the theatres of World War II: more compassion and humour: reasonably well-written
  • Life in exotic islands:
  • Whatever Happened to Margo: Margaret Durrell's account of running a boarding house in Bournemouth: sometimes muddled but often funny
  • Rabbit Stew and a Penny or Two by Maggie Smith-Bendell: an interesting and reasonably well-written account of a Romani Gypsy childhood
  • Not for the faint-hearted by John Stevens: the autobiography of a senior police officer; probably best for those most interested in this sort of story
  • Forty Years Catching Smugglers by Malcolm Nelson: the memoirs of a senior customs officer; probably best for those most interested in this sort of story

Saturday, 8 December 2012

"The Summer Book" by Tove Jansson

Tove Jansson is the lady who also wrote the Moomin series of children's books. This was for adults.

Sophia is a young girl who lives in the summer with her father (who is a very shadowy characters who works at his desk and fishes from his boat) and her grandmother who has problems with her balance. Her mother is dead. She roams the island, swimming and playing and talking with grandmother. Because she is a little girl she does not understand everything, she is frightened of things like sleeping alone in a tent, she is petulant and shouts at her grandmother. Her grandmother is wise, although she too can be petulant and selfish.

This is a beautifully written book about growing up with nature and about the relationship between members of the same family.

Lyrical and thought-provoking. The foreword is by Esther Freud who wrote that other wonderful tale about a child's relationship with her mother: Hideous Kinky.