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

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

"Chaotic fishponds and mirror universes" by Richard Elwes

This is a whistlestop tour through some of the more interesting uses of mathematics. As usual with such things, it left me wanting more depth. You could not ask for more breadth! From economics to correcting errors in digital communication, from astrophysics to topology, from electoral systems to significance to social networks to double-crossing spies, this book has an extraordinary range. Mostly it is well written so that I understood the maths although Elwes has an infuriating tendency to use different (often undeclared) bases for his logarithms. Sometimes he offers results without backing them up sufficiently (at least for my taste). But I am not a general reader and I think that, for the general reader, this book will provide a brilliant introduction to the ubiquity of maths.

Breathless. June 2015; 363 pages

Sunday, 28 June 2015

"Oscar Wilde and the murders at Reading gaol" by Giles Brandreth

Following his release from prison, Oscar Wilde is in exile in France when a Dr Quilp prompts him to tell the story of a series of murders that took place while Oscar was inside. Oscar had solved these, using the techniques of his good friend Conan Doyle. Thus the stage is set for an interesting murder mystery with the background of the utter dejection and appalling treatment meted out to prisoners in Victorian gaols under the notorious 'separate' system.

The whodunnit element is a little flawed because the murder weapon of choice requires specialist knowledge not offered to the reader, more in the tradition of Holmes than Poirot. But there is a clever twist at the end.

The tone of the book is classically Wildean, veering from clever epigrams to self-absorbed emotional grand opera. There are insertions from Wilde's prison literature, both De Profundis and the Ballad of Reading Gaol. These insertions were also in the Wilde tradition: they lack subtlety and one can feel the self congratulation 'look what a clever boy am I' of the author.

To echo the quote on the front of the book from Alexander McCall Smith: this book is "intelligent, amusing and entertaining'. I read it in two days. It left me eager to reread the ballad and De Profundis.

June 2015; 302 pages

Thursday, 25 June 2015

"The infernal desire machines of Doctor Hoffman" by Angela Carter

Desiderio tells this story as an old man, a war hero, looking back.

Doctor Hoffman has invented machines which can turn reality into fantasy. He attacks the city, threatening the supply of mundane things such as bread and milk, and a war breaks out. Desiderio, assistant to the Minister, is sent out into the countryside to track Doctor Hoffman down.

But Desiderio is haunted by a woman he has met in his dreams and who shifts her shape: Albertine, the Doctor's daughter. So his quest is to find Albertina. He embarks upon a picaresque journey through fantasy landscapes and has fantastic sexual adventures: in the Mansion at Midnight he sleeps with a woman who then turns up dead so he is arrested for murder; escaping he travels with the River People who find him a child bride but plan to eat him at the wedding; he is buggered by nine Moroccan acrobats (twice each) and so on. In the end, it transpires that the source of the Doctor's power is eroto-energy generated by cages of copulating couples.

This is classic 1960's fantasy; fairgrounds and ethnic peoples and centaurs and all obsessed with sex.

I found it very wearying.

She writes with enthusiastic description but there isn't much of a story.

It reminded me of Candide in the way our hero embarked on a remarkably improbably adventure which led to sex and death and mutilation and at the end of each chapter enjoyed the most improbable escape. At least no characters actually came back to life. But, in a way that those of us who remember the 1960s with affection still regret, it ended with a remarkably naff parody of a James Bond film as our hero outwits the man who wants to rule the world.

There were several bits that made me sit up and think although these were not in the end adequate recompense for the silliness of the story:

  • "I used to think that the Faust legend was a warped version of the myth of Prometheus, who defied the wrath of god to gain the prize of fire."
  • "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear."
  • "the Procrustean bed of circumstance"
  • "Your bill will be presented on departure sir" (there's a metaphor for life!)

Carter has wonderful descriptive powers and a brilliant imagination but perhaps she would have done better in short stories (like Jorge Luis Borges?. I preferred her Heroes and Villains which is 100 pages shorter than this and I much preferred her collection of short stories based around retold fairy tales: The Bloody Chamber.

June 2015; 271 pages

Sunday, 21 June 2015

"Phineas Finn" by Anthony Trollope

This is the second of Trollope's political 'Palliser' novels and forms a stand-alone sequel to Can You Forgive Her?

Phineas Finn, the son of an Irish doctor, training to be a barrister in London, is encouraged to become an MP. Unfortunately he has no money. This is a double problem since MPs are unwaged and since it costs them money to fight an election. Fortunately he finds a rotten borough which is in the gift of a Lord and is elected to that; his father pays him an allowance to survive. The obvious solution is to find a rich woman to marry; he becomes friendly with several. However, each of the ladies to whom he is attracted has other suitors one of whom pips him to the post and another challenges him to a duel. Through all of this he has to learn parliamentary business and face the ordeal of giving a maiden speech. But he prospers and is chosen to become a very junior minister (unfortunately this requires him to resign his seat and then stand in it again which costs him more money). Through all of this a Reform Bill is being enacted and he votes to disenfranchise the rotten borough he represents (he does this twice eventually).

Truly the path of becoming an MP when you are penniless and of marrying a suitable woman whom you actually love is not easy!

A standard, if long-winded, Victorian romance distinguished by the character of Violet Effingham who mercilessly teases her guardian aunt and who refuses to marry without being in love. As in Can You Forgive Her? there is a woman who is trying to manipulate her best friend into marrying her brother, a rather unsuitable and violent man, and there is a woman who marries for money and regrets it. The sadness of this marriage is very well portrayed although it would be nice if the dour Scot of a husband had some redeeming features.

I have a couple of niggles. Some incidents seem to come out of the blue. Phineas contracts a debt on behalf of a friend; this hangs over his head for some time making a nice pressure on him; then it is suddenly paid. An incident with some garrotters enables Phineas to save the life of a colleague; this is not fully exploited. Finally, about half way through and at a point when Phineas doesn't really need it, he inherits money which he then invests. But this is then forgotten when he has subsequent money troubles. It could have kept him going for some time but it lies unnoticed in a bank account.

On the other hand, Trollope really surprised me with his views which I hadn't expected in a Victorian, even one of a Whiggish/ Radical persuasion:

  • "How can there be honour in what comes ... by chance? ... Honour comes from the mode of winning it."
  • "I am not saying that people are equal; but that the tendency of all law-making ... should be to reduce the inequalities."
  • "The wish of every honest man should be to assist in lifting up those below him"

Trollope write a lot of books and he wrote quickly and this isn't great literature. But it is a good story, well told. June 2015; 873 pages

Also on this blog:

  • The next book in the series is about the scheming, lying minx Lizzie Eustace, a great character: The Eustace Diamonds
  • Phineas Redux: when Phineas returns to parliament and is tried for murder
  • The Prime Minister: another mugging in Hyde Park, another unscrupulous foreign adventurer seducing another English gentlewoman for her father's money
  • The Duke's Children: in which the children of Mr Palliser, now the Duke of Omnium, threraten to make yet more unsuitable marriages and test whether he can actually apply his Liberal principles to his own family. 

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

"The Countess de Charny" by Alexander Dumas

This is one of the many historical pot-boilers that Dumas penned. It centres around the attempted flight of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and their children and assorted others from Paris; they were apprehended by common people at Varennes. Dumas wears his historical knowledge like a strait-jacket which he pads out with exclamation marks !!!!  The only obvious addition is the mysterious figure of Count Cagliostro who is the immortal leader of the Freemason club that is agitating for the removal of the monarchy. There is also an episode in which Dr Gilbert uses hypnosis to send the countess of Charny on an astral journey in which she discovers what her son (by the wicked doctor) has been doing.

In short, this is absolute twaddle from beginning to end. I did wonder at one stage whether the indifferent translation was pitting me off and then I decided that the translator must have been as fed up by the bilge as I was.

One central mystery is why on earth is the book named after a character who has a cameo role near the strt and another cameo near the end but absolutely no role in the main story. It did seem that she had been forgotten. Certainly the sub-plot regarding her son is never developed after he is knocked down (but not killed) by a carriage in the street.

It became clear quite quickly that this is the sequel to another book about these characters and I think it would have been very useful indeed to have known about their stories before hand. Madame Nicole who is sometimes called Madame Oliva is a was in point: I has no idea why she was reduced to poverty nor whether it was at all important that she so closely resembled Marie Antoinette.

Dumas had a flair for telling a story which makes one forgive his appallingly romanticised prose and his obsession with honour. But in this book his story telling ability has deserted him. This is a great book for an aspiring author to read and to say: I can do better than that.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

"Shakespeare and Co" by Stanley Wells

The aim of this scholarly paperback is to show that Shakespeare was not a lone genius but worked within the context of other Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights, sometimes borrowing from their works and sometimes being borrowed from. He was unusual in that he spent his entire career working with one acting company; most of his colleagues were rather more promiscuous. He usually worked alone but from time to time he collaborated with others, for example with Middleton and Fletcher. In many ways, Shakespeare was the best of his contemporaries and sometimes he so overshadowed them that their reputations are undeservedly smaller as a result. In some ways, he was not as good as others: for example, he was much less likely to use satire to point up contemporary issues and he rarely wrote about the man in the London street.

Wells has dedicated a lifetime of scholarship to identifying the areas of collaboration. Much of the argument is to do with style: each writer leaves a signature in the way he writes whether it be in prose or blank verse of rhyming couplets or free verse; whether he regularly adds beats to the end of a blank verse line; whether his characters are logical on the build up of their arguments or more scatterbrained; whether the characters are ciphers or have lives of their own. Unfortunately, in a small paperback such as this, Wells has to assume a certain knowledge on the part of the reader which was often rather more than I possessed so I had to take some of his arguments on trust.

Although the focus of the book is always on Shakespeare, it probably works better as an introduction to the other playwrights. He is particularly good at explaining why certain scenes don't work. I found this fascinating and I learned about:

  • Robert Greene who wrote Pandosto which Shakespeare later transformed in A Winter's Tale; he also wrote Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay
  • Thomas Kyd, author of the the best-selling The Spanish Tragedy (which I saw in a brilliant production at the Old Red Lion Theatre in Islington) and of an early Hamlet
  • Christopher Marlowe who wrote The Jew of Malta (a tragedy which Wells believes needs to be played for laughs), Tamburlaine, Doctor Faustus, and Edward II
  • The almost unbelievably prolific Thomas Dekker who write The Shoemaker's Holiday and may have collaborated with Shakespeare on Sir Thomas More; he also worked with Thomas Middleton on London-based dramas The Roaring Girl and The Honest Whore
  • The agressive, murderous, and sexually promiscuous Ben Jonson who wrote great comedy including Volpone (which I saw in a memorable production at the Cockpit Theatre in London) and The Alchemist (which I saw some years ago at the National Theatre)
  • Thomas Middleton who wrote A Mad World, My Masters which was produced this year by the RSC (I watched it at the Barbican; it was brilliant), The Revenger's Tragedy, and probably collaborated with Shakespeare on Timon of Athens
  • John Fletcher, who often worked with Francis Beaumont and probably collaborated with Shakespeare on the lost play Cardenio as well as the Two Noble Kinsmen
  • John Webster who is most famous for The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi

Books about Shakespeare reviewed in this blog include:

June 2015; 231 pages