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

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

"Saturn's Daughters" by Jim Pinnells

Set in 1880ish in Russia, a group of revolutionaries invent the concept of terrorism. Although there are poor people among them, including Rakhel the Jewish prostitute, many of them are from privileged backgrounds, although many of their families live in genteel poverty.
Evgenya is the daughter of such a family. She is a bit of a tomboy who romps around the locality knickerless with the five brothers of her friend, Valentina. But when mining student Vitya comes to lodge whe falls in love with him. But he is a member of revolutionary group The People's Will and Evgenya gets drawn into their activities.

Sonya runs the group with a rod of iron; Countess Anna helps to bankroll them; Popov is an ex-chef who executes their traitors. And Evgenya learns about lesbian love with Anna, about posing naked for artist Albrecht, and about sex and prize-fighting and killing (the women fight bare knuckle and bare) from Popov. Her schoolgirl crush on Vitya somehow gets lost in her journey into her personal depths of eroticism and sadism.

As the People's Will slowly gets tracked down by the secret police, in part due to their own amateurish incompetence, the idealists slowly metamorphose into psychopaths.

I found this a very well written book. The understanding of the author for his subject was overwhelming. The mix of violence and eroticism was addictive. And the way that the author mixed the high ideals and revolutionary dramas with the minutiae of everyday life was perfectly judged:

  • As Sonya warns Evgenya that her affection for Vitya might interfere with her loyalty to the organisation they are moving furniture: "They were turning an awkward corner in the stairs. Sonya seemed more concerned with the trunk than with Vitya's feelings. 'Lower your end,' she said sharply." Perfect pathetic fallacy!
  • "She's a normal, healthy young woman - she likes violent men. Killers, I should think, she finds irresistible." (And when the speaker Anna is challenged on this being normal and healthy she points out that girls love a soldier; the only difference seems to be the uniform.)
  • "'I'm beginning to understand why they call us nihilists ... because we achieve absolutely fucking nothing.'"
  • "Damp as a dungeon and cold as an orphanage."
  • "She fell silent, a long declaratory silence which brought her closer to Vitya than she'd ever been before."

A bit of a romance but a damn good read. November 2016; 400 pages

Friday, 25 November 2016

"The Popes" by John Julius Norwich

Written in 2011 and therefore missing out the resignation of Benedict XVI and the new Pope Francis, this covers 265 men over 2000 years in 450 pages; few popes receive more than a few paragraphs and judgements necessarily lack nuance. The overall impression is that the incumbents of the papacy are either holy men, wholly unsuited to the tasks of leading a church, or that they believe the propaganda about infallibility and become authoritarian despots with no ability to understand that alternative perspectives from their own might exist let alone be valid, or that they are crooks and probably corrupt to boot. It seems that out of 265 only a handful have managed a consistently good job.

The other impression is that, certainly in the days before antibiotics and decent medical care, electing an old man to a job was a recipe for instability. Given the average papal reign is less than eight years long and given the human predilection for voting next time for the opposite of what you have got, it seems miraculous that the church still exists.

But these are superficial impressions. The other thing about this book is that there are a lot of fascinating characters and papal history is a lot of fun. Although some of the theological disputes are so abstruse and difficult to understand that even JJN finds it difficult to explain them. Has Christ two separate natures, one human and one divine or only one and if so is it human or divine and if not can the two both coexist or does one (and which one) predominate? I'm still confused as to what 'monophysite' means and what the doctrinal differences are between the Catholic and the orthodox, not to mention Copts, Nestorians and the rest.

There was one moment which I hated: "Attila, like all his race, was incorrigibly superstitious": even if you can assign a 'race' to Attila it can surely not be correct that every last member of that 'race' is superstitious let alone incorrigibly so. Please lose this lazy thinking if another edition is to be prepared.

I also found the numbers for the coronation feast for Clement VI inbelievable. There were three thousand guests. According to the quoted source they ate, each one, on average, one third of a sheep, three hens, half a goose, fifty cheeses, and seventeen tarts and cattle, calves, kids, pigs, and pike as well and drank at least four litres of wine. I just don't believe that possible.

But there were moments of wonder.

  • French King John II was captured by the English at Poitiers and released pending ransom in exchange for hostages including his son; when his son escaped he voluntarily returned to captivity. That's chivalry!
  • Deposed as ruler of Naples by Urban VI, Joanna was imprisoned by her replacement, papally sponsored Charles, and suffocated.
  • Once there was a pope and an antipope, one in Rome and one in Avignon, some cardinals decided to resolve the situation by declaring them both deposed and electing another. This led to three popes. The new one (JohnXXIII) was an ex-pirate who, while papal legate to Bologna, "seduced 200 matrons, widows and virgins, to say nothing of an alarming number of nuns". "As Edward Gibbon delightedly noted, 'the most scandalous charges were suppressed: the Vicar of Christ was only accused of piracy, murder, sodomy and incest." Having eventually been deposed they made him a Bishop!
  • Pope Pius II as a young man was caught in a storm on a voyage to Scotland; having pledged a pilgrimage to the nearest Virgin Mary shrine if he was spared "he duly trudged over the frozen earth to the holy well at Whitekirk" which, although only 5 miles "he found that he had lost all sensation in his feet" and suffered arthritis for the rest of his life.
  • Sixtus IV, a Franciscan monk who loved poverty, changed completely on becoming Pope. "He spent money like water" and to fund it had to sell offices: "He bestowed the see of Milan on an eleven-year-old and the archbishopric of Lisbon on a boy of eight." But he was the one who built the Sistine chapel.
  • A church council in Milan in 1511 "was openly ridiculed to the point where a local chronicler forbore to record its proceedings because, he claimed, they could not be taken seriously, and anyway he was short of ink"
  • Leo X had a catamite who was a singer, the son of a Turkish Prince. This Prince had lived for years in the Vatican having fled Istanbul after attempting a coup against his brother, the Sultan. Gay Leo was the Pope who gave Henry VIII the title of Defender of the Faith, a title the British monarch still flaunts.
  • There were two expeditions to reclaim Crete from the Turks in 1668 and 1669. The first "consisted largely of aristocratic young Frenchmen who fought only for their own glory; in their opening battle they showed considerable courage, but when it was over the survivors could not get out fast enough" The story of the second was "much the same, but without the courage."
  • Gregory XVI's (1831- 1846) "mind was totally closed to progress, or indeed to any innovation"; he "banned the new railways - which he called chemins d'enfer"
  • John Paul II "surprised everybody ... in his berserk canonisations of everything in sight ... he canonised no fewer than 483 new saints, more than had been made in the previous five centuries."
An interesting book. November 2016; 450 pages

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

"NW" by Zadie Smith

Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan all went to the same comprehensive school in Kilburn, NW London. Now Irish, red-headed Leah is a university educated charity worker married to black French beautiful Michel and living in a council flat with a shared garden, black Natalie (used to be Keisha) is a barrister married to a banker, Felix is a recovering alcoholic with a.complicated love-life and Nathan is a drug pusher and pimp. The lives intertwine again with fatal consequences.

This book has an uneven structure. The first 95 pages are Leah's story. It starts with her being scammed by an old school mate and it follows her through her guilt about her weakness and about her friend, reduced to begging and cheating. Husband Michel desperately.wants children but Leah, who used to.be lesbian, doesn't and secretly takes contraceptive pills and has an abortion. At the end of this section we find out what happened to Felix. We then go to Felix and spend 70 pages following him through the last day in his life. After this we go back to when Natalie was only 4 years old and we find out.about her.life to.date in 185 separate sections ranging in length between a paragraph to several pages over 122 pages. Finally Natalie spends 20 pages on a crisis ridden night with Nathan and there is a 10 page coda when Natalie and Leah confront their demons without resolving them.

A loose plot then. The joy of this book lies rather in the strength of the characters all of whom are given perfectly pitched dialogue. Smith is Dickensian in the way she evokes London and better then Dickens in her characters. There is Leah.s mum Pauline who loudly broadcasts her Daily Mail views to a bus crowded with Londoners of every ethnicity. There are two wonderful lads who arrange with a woman to have a threesome but haven't really thought it through: they don't want to see one another naked and would much rather watch the internet. There is Jamaican Lloyd who fathered Felix at 17 and now sponges off him.
Great lines from this brilliant book included:
  • "His belly stayed concave, a curtain sucked through an open window." p100
  • "The man can't satisfy the woman, right? Don't matter how much he gives." p109
  • "The girl's little dark face pulled tight like a net bag."p118
  • "the sort of nightclub where you leave your clothes - and much else - at the door." p132
  • "Felix collided with a real live young man ... Felix touched the guy gently on the elbows, and the stranger, with equal care, reached back and held Felix where his waist met his back." p 136: In view of what happens to Felix this beautifully choreographed dance of mano a mano tenderness is all the more poignant.
  • "We all know he [her twin] wished he'd gobbled me up in the womb."
  • "That she should receive any praise for such reflexive habits baffled the girl, for she knew herself to be fantastically stupid about many things" (p 178)
  • "Just because you can't locate the fathers, doesn't make them all immaculate conceptions." p 260
  • "You can't dream my dream. What you eat don't make me shit." p 316
  • "If you had any real self-respect, or self-esteem .... one person asking you to put a cigarette out in a fucking playground would not register as an attack on your precious little ego" p 283

An odd book. What is the point of the story? Is there a message? But as a celebration of the people who live in the greatest city in the world NW is brilliant.

By the author of White Teeth and Swing Time, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed, and The Autograph Man which I didn't really.

November 2016; 333 pages

Thursday, 10 November 2016

"The Girl on the Train" by Paula Hawkins

Rachel commutes to London. Every day her train stops at a signal and she looks into the lives of the 'perfect' couple living in the house. Then one day she sees something that destroys the happy picture.

This is the story of three women: Rachel "a barren, divorced, soon-to-be-homeless alcoholic", Anna the new wife of her ex-husband, and Megan whose art gallery has just failed. One of them disappears. What has happened to her and who is responsible?

In many ways this is a standard thriller with a major change in the progress of the plot exactly half way through. Some of the reviews make much of the device of using an alcoholic as an 'unreliable narrator' except that she isn't in the usual sense of the term (a narrator who, deliberately or otherwise, deceives the reader). The alcoholism is used to create a hole in Rachel's memory of the night when something happened and to cast doubt on whether it is Rachel herself who is responsible or whether she witnessed something critical.

Rachel becomes obsessed by the characters in the drama and starts doing her own sleuthing. This meant that she is always returning to the scene of the crime and talking to the suspects, even after she has been warned off by the official police investigators. This is a key part of this sort of story where the suspense is maintained by doling out the clues in tiny slivers, partly to extend the tale and partly so that they can be reconstructed in a variety of patterns. The key to successfully doing this is to make the reader suspend disbelief sufficiently to allow independent investigation.

The character of the alcoholic also allows for a classic story structure in which there can be a moment of enlightenment in the centre followed by a number of backslidings. But repetitive behaviours of any kind can get boring and the author must be careful not to impose too much on the reader's patience. I actually found the character of Anna the new wife more interesting, especially her dilemma near the end of the book.

There were some clever reveals throughout the story.

There were some nice lines:

  • "Life is not a paragraph and death is no parenthesis." (I'm not convinced I understand what the author means about death. A parenthesis can be an explanation, an afterthought or an interlude. Umm??)
  • "I always feel like a guest at the very outer limit of their welcome."

A robust thriller.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

"How To Be Both" by Ali Smith

The first half of this beautifully written book concerns George (Georgia), a teenager mourning her recently deceased mum. She is remembering her mum. One of the things she remembers is about going to Italy on a whim of her mum's to see a painting that her mum liked by an artist who was almost totally unknown except by a letter and a few wonderful paintings. George feels guilty about when she read text messages on her mum's phone: they seem to concern another woman having an affair with mum. George herself is helped through the grieving process by Helena who wants to be a little more than just friends.

In George's memory her mother is always posing conundrums: "Which comes first ... What we see or how we see? ... Do things just go away? ... Do things that happened not exist, or stop existing, just because we can't see them happening in front of us?"

Things George's mother says:
  • "This place is shaking loose everything I thought I knew
  • "You always know where you are after a kiss.
The second half of the book is narrated by the ghost of the Italian artist who is dragged back into the world by the obsessive interest George takes in their paintings. I really loved this section;  the artist is so visual and says things like: 
  • "thin for a scholar who're usually heavy and inadequate from all the nothing but books" (p 198)
  • "I'm good at the real and the true and the beautiful and can do with some skill and with or without flattery the place where all 3 meet" (p 199)
  • "there's a very pure pleasure in a curve like the curve of a buttock." (p 201)
  • "a curved line is a warm thing, good-natured, will serve you well if not mistreated." (p 201)
  • "Art and love are a matter of ... understanding the colours that benefit from being rubbed softly one into the other: the least that the practice will make you is skillful: beyond which there's originality itself, which is what practice is really about in the end." (p 273)
  • "Love and painting both are works of skill and aim: the arrow meets the circle of its target, the straight line meets the curve or circle" (p 273)
  • "eyes that can follow you round the room, cause those are God eyes." (p 305)
  • "A picture is most times just picture: but sometimes a picture is more" (p 307)
  • "when we paint the alive the alive must be alive to the very smallest part, each hair on the head or the arm of an alive person being itself alive" (p 343)
  • "Saints are all about death. It's prerequisite, for saints" (p 347)

On page 220ish we learn something about the artist that has been well bread-crumbed, especially in the George mourning her mother section, but which I never spotted. This was so well done!

There is a wonderful set piece which had me laughing aloud; a ceremony in which Justice is played by a boy balancing, teetering, on a float with a too-heavy sword in his hand. And when the crowd cheered "the dressed-up boys on the cart looked soaked through by the noise of the crowd like they'd just been driven through a waterfall." (p 261)

I think this book is about everything being connected. In Italy George's mother talks about where they were was ruled by a family who influences the art and music of its time which influenced Ariosto which influenced Shakespeare which influenced her and G: "nothing's not connected". After G's mum's death, G makes toast for little brother Henry and muses that "she can leave dregs of butter in whatever jam she likes for the rest of her life now". The dead Italian artist cried as a child seeing ripples disappear but was told: "The ring you saw in the water'll never stop travelling till the edge of the world."

Another theme is the inevitability of love. George understands true helplessness when Helena pushes her around a multi-storey car park in a shopping trolley. And after she flicks an insect of her hand she thinks: 
"It must have felt like being punched by a god.
That's when she sensed, like something blurred and moving glimpsed through a partition whose glass is clouded, both that love was coming for her and the nothing she could do about it.

A wonderful book. November 2016; 372 pages

Ali Smith also wrote The Accidental which I didn't like so much at the time but I am going to reread because this book was so good I must have missed the other. She has also written There but for the: a set of stories linked by a man who, at a dinner party, locks himself into one of the upstairs rooms of his host and refuses to come out. Try also the fascinating Artful, a fusion of literary lectures notes with a story about the narrator imagining that their dead partner is haunting the house.

Other brilliant books by the most original of modern English writers include:
  • Autumn: a collage type work
  • Winter, another collage type work which weaves the story of a Christmas Carol with Cymbeline and the Nativity and reflects on Britain following the Brexit referendum.