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

Monday, 27 February 2017

Moses Ascending" by Sam Selvon

This is the sequel to Selvon's The Lonely Londoners whose narrator, Moses, has moved out of his basement flat to buy a ramshackle house on a short lease and become a landlord. To this end he hires a 'Man Friday', white Bob from Ashby-de-la-Zouche who not only manages the other tenants but also acts as butler to Moses whilst Moses writes his memoirs. But gorgeous black girl Brenda sets up a Black Power office in the basement and Faizal and Farrukh are using the house as part of their people-trafficking business.

The narration voice of Moses is a wonderful mixture of Caribbean patois and literary English including Shakespearean and Biblical quotes, misspelled words and malapropisms. But this book lacks the gritty authenticity of Lonely Londoners. Where it wins is in the wonderfully subtle humour; after Moses has been asked to suggest some newspaper headlines Brenda tells him: "Stop making up alliterations. Concentrate on something thoughtful, tense, taut and telling."  (p 136) There is a lot in this vein.

  • "You does wonder what crime this country commit that it have to punish so with this evil weather." (p 7)
  • "Every now and then a fleck of spit flying out of his mouth which I dodge when I see it coming." (p 16)
  • "Whereas he was like a lion, he went out like a lamb." (p 32)
  • "I had to peddle my own canoe for survival." (p 51)
  • "It's the sheep that should be praying." (p 73)
  • "You could fool a white man with any shit if he believe it will prolong the sexual act." (p 76)
  • "The hero will gird his lions, and after a series of breathtaking adventures, successfully overcome the forces of evil." (p 84)
  • "When you crooked you bend." (p 87)
  • "Kay sir rah, sir rah, as the Japanese say." (p 88)
  • "They say the world is round, but a donkey shit square." (p 140)

Great fun. February 2017; 185 pages

Friday, 24 February 2017

"The Return of the Soldier" by Rebecca West

What a wonderful book. So much beauty and truth and sadness squeezed into 148 pages. Wow!

When Chris returns from the trenches of the First World War he has lost the memory of the last fifteen years. He is still in love with first love Margaret, an innkeeper's daughter, despite the fact that she has gone to seed and is now a decidedly lower class housewife. He has forgotten all about his own wife Kitty, who tries to rationalise her situation as that of a wife whose husband is having an affair with a chorus girls, and tries to use clothes and jewellery and high-class taste to reseduce her husband. The story is narrated by a third woman, his cousin Jenny, who has always loved Chris and whose refined and massively snobbish tastebuds cannot bear to see him so besotted by someone so common. Jenny is a magnificently cruel narrator. She is horrible about the lower class, more or less blaming them for their poverty because of their inelegance. But as the book winds on and Jenny witnesses the tenderness between Chris and Margaret, and compares it with the marriage of manners between Chris and Kitty, Jenny sees the ugly, dowdy Margaret more and more as an angel, and she sees the pretty refined Kitty as cruel and false.

And the three women have to decide whether to let Chris continue, happy but deluded, or whether truth is more important than happiness.

Although the soldier has physically returned at the start of the book, it is only at the very end that Jenny looks at Chris and sees him as "every inch a soldier".

There are some strong lines in this and some beautiful characterisation.

  • "She looked so like a girl on a magazine cover that one expected to find a large '7d' somewhere attached to her person." (p 6) Kitty. And of course she is. And this is all she is.
  • "Just because our performance had been so brilliantly adequate, how dreary was the empty stage." (p 13)
  • "She was repulsively furred with neglect and poverty, as even a good glove that has dropped down behind a bed in a hotel and has lain undisturbed for a day or two is repulsive when the chambermaid retrieves it from the dust and fluff." (pp 15 - 16)
  • "That mysterious human impulse to smile triumphantly at the spectacle of a fellow creature occupied in baseness." (p 17)
  • "Strangeness had come into the house and everything was appalled by it, even time. For the moments dragged." (p 39)
  • "And as he spoke her warm body melted to nothingness in his arms. The columns that had stood so hard and black against the quavering tide of moonlight and starlight tottered and dissolved. He was lying in a hateful world where barbed-wire entanglements showed impish knots against a livid sky full of booming noise and splashes of fire and wails for water, and the stretcher bearers were hurting his back intolerably." (p 63) This is a brilliant piece of writing. There have been several paragraphs of romance as the love affair reaches its height. Then there is the sentence about the columns which seems to suggest how male sexual desire ends in limpness. And suddenly we are back in the squalor of the trenches where the sound of the guns and the explosions are counterpointed against the cries of those injured. A stunning descent from passion into pathos, from romance into the brutality of the muddy world, from power into feebleness. Magnificent.
  • "It was a town of people who could not do as they liked." (p 69)
  • "Not so much digging as exhibiting his incapacity to deal with a spade." (p 71)
  • "He was a lank man with curly grey hairs growing from every place where it is inadvisable that hairs should grow, from the inside of his ears, from his nostrils, on the back of his hands." (p 74)
  • "This was no place for beauty that has not been mellowed but lacerated by time." (p 85)
  • "But that she was wise, that the angels would of a certainty be on her side, did not make her any the less physically offensive to our atmosphere." (p 86)
  • "Grief is not the clear melancholy the young believe it. It is like a siege in a tropical city. The skin dries and the throat parches as though one were living in the heat of the desert; water and wine taste warm in the mouth and food is of the substance of the sand; one snarl's at one's company; thoughts prick one through one's sleep like mosquitoes ..." (p 97)
  • "A tree that had been torn up by the roots in the great gale last year, but had not yet resigned itself to death and was bravely decking itself with purple elm-flowers." (p 98) This is a stunning visual metaphor for the destruction of the world in the aftermath of the Great War and for the destruction of the family occasioned by the return of the soldier.
  • "A slut sits at the door of a filthy cottage, counting some dirty linen and waving her bare arms at some passing soldiers." (p 103)
  • "The splendid house which was not so much a house as a vast piece of space partitioned off from the universe and decorated partly for beauty and partly to make our privacy more insolent." (p 109)
  • "She was the sober thread whose interweaving with our scattered magnificences had somehow achieved the design that otherwise would not appear." (p 109)
  • "The mental life that can be controlled by effort isn't the mental life that matters. You've been stuffed up when you were young with talk about a thing called self-control - a sort of barmaid of the soul that says, 'Time's up, gentlemen', and 'Here, you've had enough'. There's no such thing." (p 124)
  • "She had always nourished a doubt as to whether Chris was really, as she put it, practical; his income and his international reputation weighed as nothing against his so evident inability to pick up pieces at sales." (p 125)
  • "You don't notice how little there is in the Bible really till you go to it for help." (p 134)
  • "A once prized pet that had fallen from favour and now was only to be met whining upward for a little love at every passer in the corridors." (p 135)

I could have picked more gems. And this is not a Wildean novel of scattered epigrams. These are thoroughly in character as the narrator realises the shallowness and inauthenticity of the world in which she lives, as the story travels towards its tragedy.

This is a stunning short novel. How is it that I have never read such a consummately brilliant author before? Indeed, I had scarcely heard of her, except in connection with H G Wells, with whom she had an affair. Everyone had heard of HGW. Well, Wells writes well but on this evidence West was so much better.

February 2017; 140 pages

Thursday, 23 February 2017

"Play to the End" by Robert Goddard

Toby Flood, lead actor in a touring production of a lost Joe Orton play, comes to Brighton where his soon-to-be-ex-wife requests his assistance with a man who seems to be stalking her. As with all Robert Goddard thrillers, one thing leads to another and the past is very much raked up. Murder and past murders ensue as Toby becomes embroiled in more than he bargained for.

I've read a lot of Goddard's. The early ones are brilliant. Some are poor. This is easily in the better half. Although events got a bit hectic in the third quarter, when reality seemed to be hiding behind the sofa, I kept turning the pages and the end was satisfying complex.

Other Goddard novels reviewed in this blog include:

"Novelty did not lend enchantment to the experience." (p 35)
"Death's the biggest absolute of all. Strange, then, that we can be so vague about the moment of its arrival." (p 117)

February 2017; 332 pages

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

"The Horologicon" by Mark Forsyth

A 'book of hours' in which every hour is illustrated with weird words from the farthest shores of the English language. But what makes this book special is intimate scrutiny of everyday life and the number of words for things you didn't know you needed a word for. Thus he lies awake before dawn and worries (uhtceare); dawn can be low (the sun on the horizon) or high (when it first appears later, above clouds) and the first sun is the dayening, lightmans, day-peep, or early bright.

There are far too many interesting words to list them all in a blog entry. Even keeping track of all of Forsyth's little jokes would be exhaustive. For he is an extremely witty man. Therefore I disagree with the critic  who suggests he was tempted to read this book in a single go. On the contrary, I found it extraordinarily putdownable. And then pickupable. This is a book that demands that you read a few pages every day until, the end. It is brilliant, eccentric, hilarious and wonderful, but like a damn good meal you need to take your time to allow your digestion to work. Otherwise you would feel stuffed instead of satisfied.

Below are just a few of the many moments of brilliance:
  • "The world is, I am told, speeding up. Everybody dashes around at a frightening pace, teleconferencing and speed-dating ... like so many coked-up pin-balls." (p 2) 
  • "Any slipper than can double up as a weapon with which to spank godlings has to be a good idea." (p 20)
  • The word 'bumf' meaning paperwork is a short version of 'bumfodder' meaning toilet paper! (pp 24 - 25)
  • "Of the seven deadly sins only three are enjoyable: gluttony, sloth and lust balance their lethality with fun." (p 96) 
  • "Sinhala ... means 'blood of a lion', which is odd as there are no lions in Sri Lanka." (p 131) 
  • "In the ancient Near East ... if you sat down to have a nice supper with a sinner, that made you a sinner too. It is this ... that makes Jesus' sitting down with the wine-bibbers and tax collectors such a prickly point in the gospels. A man could be judged by the company he kept at table." (p 149) 
  • "If you drink alone it is much harder to avoid buying your round." (p 176) 
  • "The tongue is often merely the thin end of the wedge." (p 210)
  • And a wonderful story about philosopher A J Ayer, heavyweight chanmpion Mike Tyson and supermodel Naomi Campbell

Wonderful. February 2017; 238 pages

What is it with my mate Fred? Doesn't he read any books which are bad or even average? This is the latest in a strong of fantastic recommendations which have included:
  • A Time of Gifts: a wonderful travel book about a man walking through Europe between the wars; beautifully written 
  • The Mighty Dead: a superb analysis of the Iliad but an authro who writes like a dream 
  • Dynasty: the story of the first Roman emperors by the wonderful historian Tom Holland 
  • The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller 
  • Defying Hitler, a superb memoir written by a German about the period between the first and second world war

Monday, 20 February 2017

"Room at the Top" by John Braine

Sometimes it is scary how quickly books can age. First published in 1957 but looking back perhaps ten years, it seems doubtful that this book could be published today; in one paragraph it manages to be homophobic and sexist simultaneously. It is set in a world where there is still rationing after the second world war, where northern towns are still dominated by the mills of the textile industry, where it is the norm for a young man to move in as a paying guest with a family, meals included, where most people travel by bus and where drink driving is an acceptable norm.

Joe Lampton arrives in Warley to work as an accountant at the Town Hall. A working class lad orphaned by a bomb, he is desperate to escape the grim northern town in which he grew up (Warley, it seems, is a far more acceptable northern town) and equally to escape his working class roots. He has a massive chip n his shoulder regarding class (he was only a sergeant in the RAF) but desperately snobbish about those who he sees as lower class than himself; this hypocrisy is extended to women when he has a massive strop about with the woman with whom he is having an affair because she once posed nude for an artist. He isn't exactly a blushing virgin. All in all he is not a very nice chap. He isn't supposed to be. But I'm not 100% sure the author himself doesn't share the double standards of his narrator.

It is well-written. There are some fabulous moments of pathetic fallacy and he paces beautifully. On the first page the narrator names himself and is then named by another character in dialogue so subtly that it is almost invisible; there is a perfectly placed telephone call at one stage which just pauses the plot and keeps the tension just wound up.

There are some lovely images:

  • Yesterday's drinks have left "a carbonated-water sensation in my nostrils" in only the second paragraph. Joe's face is "not innocent exactly, but unused" (p 8) 
  • Her "smile was perhaps the result of long practice; she hardly moved her mouth." (p 8)
  • "The sensation ... of having more than one's fair share of oxygen." (p 26)
  • "The black cobbles splashed green and yellow and red with squashed fruit and vegetables ... the bells of the parish church striking the hour sad as Sunday" (pp 28 - 29)
  • Whisky: "It left a warm glow inside my stomach after it had for a split second dried my mouth and sent a little rush of air up my throat." (p 73)

There are reflections about life:

  • "I was still young. I'd lots and lots of bounce left in me." (p 108)
  • "It's already difficult to remember the days of rationing, but I'm sure of one thing: one was always hungry ... for profusion, hungry for more than enough, hungry for cream and pineapples and roast pork and chocolate." (p 139)
  • "Time, like a loan from the bank, is something you're only given when you possess so much that you don't need it." (p 142)
  • "If you're hungry and someone's preparing a good meal, you'll naturally angle for an invitation." (p 35)

But his biggest comments are reserved for social class:

  • "it was as if all my life I'd been eating sawdust and thinking it was bread." (p 10)
  • "It's astounding how often  golden hearts and silver spoons in the mouth go together." (p 19)
  • "The rich were my enemies, I felt: they were watching me for the first false move." (p 81) 
  • "The others [pubs] weren't exactly low, but even in their Best Rooms you were likely to see the overalled and sweaty" (p 92)
  • "I'll marry her if I have to put her in the family way to do it. I'll make her daddy give me a damned good job. I'll never count pennies again." (p 149)

A very dated novel but well-written with an intriguingly flawed anti-hero as narrator and protagonist. Well worth reading. February 2017; 256 pages

Monday, 13 February 2017

"The Lonely Londoners" by Sam Selvon

This is a novel about the experience of West Indian immigrants in London in the 1950s, when there were still signs saying'No blacks', when racist employment practices were common, when prices for black men were always a little higher than for the indigenous population.

Moses has been living in Water (Bayswater) for a long time now (ten years by the end of the book) so he is the one the others turn to as fixer. He goes down to Waterloo Station to meet new boy Galahad from the boat train; Galahad stays the night in his rented room and then goes to the Labour Exchange in the morning. Then the canvas broadens to include other characters: Tolroy with his Mum and Tanty, Cap the Nigerian who never ever works but lives by scrounging from others ad always manages to have a girl, Lewes who beats wife Agnes every night until she leaves him, Five After Midnight who always disrupts the parties that Harris arranges. Wonderful characters, loose plot. But what makes the book brilliant is the fabulous mixture of English and patois in which Selvon writes.

  • "And this sort of thing was happening at a time when the English people starting to make rab about how too much West Indians coming to the country." (p 2)
  • "whatever the newspaper and the radio say in this country, that is the people Bible" (p 2) 
  • When newcomer Galahad observes vapour coming from people's mouths in the cold winter, old-timer Moses tells him "Sometimes the words freeze and you have to melt it to make the talk." but Galahad is sharp enough to realise he is being teased (p 15)
  • "It all well and good to play boldface in a small place like Trinidad" (p 20)
  • "You try to fool people that you know everything, then when you get lash you come bawling" (p 20)
  • "It ain't have no place in the world that exactly like a place where a lot of men get together to look for work and draw money from the Welfare State while they ain't working. Is a kind of place where hate and disgust and avarice and malice and sympathy and sorrow and pity all mix up. Is a place where everyone is your enemy and your friend." (p 27)
  • "In the world today, a job is all the security a man have. A job mean place to sleep, food to eat, cigarette to smoke. ... when a man out of work he like a fish out of water gasping for breath." (p 27)
  • "Yet is so things does happen in life. You work things out in your own mind to a kind of pattern, in a sort of sequence, and one day bam! something happen to throw everything out of gear, what you expect to happen never happen, what you don't expect to happen always happen, and you have to start thinking all over again." (p 40)
  • "Things does have a way of fixing themselves, whether you worry or not. If you hustle, it will happen, if you don't hustle, it will still happen. Everybody living to dead, no matter what they doing while they living, in the end everybody dead." (p 52)
  • "London is a place like that. It divide up in little worlds, and you stay in the world you belong to and you don't know anything about what happening in the other ones except what you read in the papers." (p 60)
  • "People get tired after a time with who poor and who rich and who catching arse and who well off, they don't care any more." (p 61)
  • "You might meet them hunch-up in a bus-queue." (p 61) 
  • "All he know is that a tanner fall in the road, and he had to watch it else it roll and get lost." (p 62)
  • "I meeting that piece of skin tonight" (p 71) 
  • "Lord, that is life for you, that is it. To meet a craft there, and take she out some place." (p 73) 
  • "The summer night descend with stars, they walking hand in hand, and Galahad feeling hearts." (p 81)
  • "He walking upright like if he is alone who alive in the world." (p 103)
  • "Next thing you hear, the wife horning them and the marriage gone puff." (p 129)
  • "It was a summer night: laughter fell softly: it was the sort of night that if you wasn't making love to a woman you feel you was the only person in the world like that." (p 139; last sentence).

Magical and important. February 2017; 139 pages

The adventures of Moses are continued in the sequel: Moses Ascending.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

"The Sins of Jack Saul" by Glenn Chandler

John Saul, aka Jack, aka Dublin Jack, was a blond, beautiful and stunningly well endowed young man who became a rent boy. This is his biography.

 He started part-time as a young boy, walking out with soldiers in Dublin in the 1870s when sodomy but not homosexuality was illegal. High profile friends got him a respectable job in service with a Dublin doctor. But he was caught in what appears to have been an attempted burglary. He was acquitted (it seems that the people he stole from were unwilling to come forward, perhaps because they had had sex with him) but lost his job and his good name so went to London where he became, like so many runaways since, a rent boy in Piccadilly Circus.

He was obviously rather good at his trade.

Early in his career he attracted the attention of a pornographer who persuaded him to write a 'memoir'. The Sins of the Cities of the Plain became notorious. The British Library copy is the only remnant of the 250 strong first edition although it has since been republished.

Shortly afterwards he was taken back to Dublin to testify against two former customers who were accused of sodomy. His evidence was never used, probably because it related to encounters prior to the time frame of the charges. But the 'Dublin felonies' became a major scandal in the aftermath of the Phoenix Park murders.

He returned to London and resumed his profession. By now homosexual relations had been made illegal. One day he attracted Lord Euston (I was at school with a later Lord Euston) and brought him back to the male brothel at 19 Cleveland Street where he worked. Other famous people using the brothel (if not Jack) included Lord Arthur Somerset, Equerry of the Prince of Wales, and a banker whose family bank later became Barclays. Royalty knew these people and there are persistent rumours that Prince Albert Victor, eldest son of the Prince of Wales who later became Edward VII, famed dissolute and one of the many Ripper suspects, attended the brothel. As well as Jack and a number of professional 'Mary-Anns' there were some part timers who worked as telegraph boys at the Post Office. One of these was caught and confessed; Inspector Abbeline (of the Ripper murders) investigated but his superiors refused to bring prosecutions (too many important clients), a paper found out and published names, Lord Arthur Somerset fled abroad (and lived out the rest of his days in exile in the south of France) and Lord Euston sued for libel. The only person prepared to testify against his noble lordship was Jack Saul. The Cleveland Street case became a cause celeb.

There is a slight difficulty in knowing what moral stance to take. On the one hand the prevailing view today is that homosexuality should never have been made illegal. And today sex workers are thought to be victims rather than corrupters. So it becomes necessary to disapprove of their clients. But these men were homosexuals finding love where they could. So it becomes difficult to tell a story of good versus bad.

Chandler can be witty. I particularly liked the way he takes the rise from some of the euphemisms of the time, for example the idea that gay men are necessarily musical ("All of the witnesses seemed to be of a musical bent with good singing voices. They certainly used them."). My favourite line is the rent boy on the witness stand who testified "he had obliged Cornwall reluctantly and was disgusted, though he had gone back to his house to be disgusted on two further occasions" (p 103).

This was a fascinating account of male prostitution in Victorian London told by a man who can tell a good story and keep you interested. February 2017; 282 pages

Friday, 10 February 2017

"Strait is the Gate" by Andre Gide

This is another strange book by Gide who also wrote The Immoralist and The Vatican Cellars, neither of which seems to be a straightforward narrative conforming to standard story structure. But I far preferred them. Not sure I could recommend Strait is the Gate but I certainly can the others. Gide is an interesting writer although sometimes difficult. Strait is the Gate was, apparently, his first novel.

Jerome loves his cousin Alissa; she loves him. But she won't get engaged. Initially it seems that she believes that her sister Juliette is in love with him and she is ceding her place (although his friend Abel, later author of erotic best sellers Wantonness and The New Abelard has asked to marry Juliette). But when J gets married to a wine seller, Alissa realises that she won't marry Jerome because if she does he won't find God.


Not really my sort of thing.

And lots of purple prose.

My pet hate
In the present book the difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that the translator seems content to render Gide's prose into English but when Gide quotes another French author to leave it in French. This isn't too bad when we are talking about a pair of lines of poetry but when it extends to almost a page worth it infuriates me. If I could read French why would I read a translation? How do I know that I haven't missed out a crucial bit? Am I supposed to use Google Translate? This happens time and again in books. Why is it done?

  • "Do you think that death is able to part? ... I think that death, on the contrary, is able to bring together." (p 33) This reminded me of sentiments expressed by Jonathan Dollimore in his brilliant book Death, Desire and Loss in Western Culture
  • "The sky was orientally pure." (p 43)

February 2017; 128 pages

Thursday, 9 February 2017

"A spool of blue thread" by Anne Tyler

This book starts with a great hook: Red and Abby get a phone call from their son nineteen-year-old Denny who is travelling they don't know where to tell them he is gay (and then immediately to disconnect the call). There follows a brilliant dialogue between to two parents in which the wife blames the father for the way he handled the call, his failure to install caller id (and by the time they get round to last number redial someone else has already called), the way his manner drove Denny away etc. The wonderful start than moves to wonder about what is wrong with Denny, the child who never seemed to belong in the family, who got his girlfriend pregnant before his parents realised he had a girlfriend, who couldn't finish college or hold down a job, who drifted away and never told them where he was, who always seemed to harbour grudges and resentments. From there we find out about the family and it begins to drift through the generations.

So we learn about the kids and the grandkids and the parents and the grandparents. Each of them has their own particular story. I suppose a lot of it is about how life doesn't quite deliver what you thought it might.It is about strong-minded women make the running and how men are always trying to boss them about but in the end they always fall into line. In fact the women really do rule the roost, in little things and in big things. I was particularly struck how one matriarch fulfilled her childhood dream of having four children even if she had to resort to secret underhand tactics. And how another seduced her man when she was thirteen and he twenty six and then pursued him and captured him five years later. In many ways the men, so proud of their handiwork and so determined to be boss, were puppets in the hands of women who knew exactly what they wanted.

But there is no obvious plot, it just wanders around behind the interesting personalities without ever really going anywhere. I got excited when a very significant death occurs bang in the centre of the book (47.7% of the way through) so that I thought I had finally arrived at some sort of structure but then it meandered backwards and forwards through the generations and the predictions I was making about revelations to come never came true.

But there is some wonderful writing. There are two brilliant set pieces, one that discussion right at the start and the second a brilliant discussion in the aftermath of a family death. And the characterisations are fantastic.  In many ways it is a perfect reflection of life and, like life too, there are many threads left hanging.

  • "Trey thinks she hung the moon." (p 68)
  • "When she walked her hem fluttered around her calves in a liquid, slow-motion way that made every man stop dead in his tracks and stare." (p 97)
  • "Independent? Bosh. That's just another word for selfish." (p 172)
  • "It's stiff-backed people like you who end up being the biggest burdens." (p 173)
  • "We're young for such a small fraction of our lives, and yet our youth seems to stretch on forever. Then we're old for years and years, but time flies by fastest then. So it all comes out equal in the end." (p 211)
  • "Didn't anyone stop to reflect that the so-called old people of today used to smoke pot" (p 217)
  • "People never seem to bring liquor when somebody dies, have you noticed? Why not a case of beer? Or a bottle of really good wine? Just these everlasting casseroles." (p 227)
  • "She had assumed, till now, that her ultimate goal in life was a husband and four children and a comfortable house" (p 297)
  • "It wasn't only the disadvantaged that needed compassion." (p 298)
  • "He could shoot a splinter of sadness straight through her." (p 298)
  • "Most people who seem scary are just sad." (p 308)
  • "I might could tell you where you would find him." (p 387)
  • "Lord it over him, would she! She must really think she had his number!" (p 418)
  • "He didn't quite make the grade. And it was assumed to be his own fault, because he lived in a nation where theoretically, he could make the grade." (p 425)

Wonderful characters. What is particularly nice is their inconsistencies. It adds to their complexities.

Here are the answers to some of the questions asked at my reading group. Some spoliers here!
1. We don't learn the full significance of the title until page 350. How did this delay make the metaphor more powerful?
A spool of blue thread spills out of the sewing basket as Denny is mending Red's funeral clothes after Abby's death. Denny thinks this means that the spirit of his mum is trying to communicate with him. So is this thread a metaphor for the family line? But a key point is that the family line isn't a bloodline; to Abby who has 'bouhgt' the child, Stem is 'as much' her son as Denny is (although Denny clearly resents this fact and doesn't see Stem as having the entitlement of fully belonging to the family). So, as with much of this novel, the question is asked by the answer is mumbled.

2. How does Tyler use shifts in time to reveal character and change the reader's perception?
This must be to do with the way the book is pivoted around Abby's death which a chronological book couldn't. It is interesting that the document showing Abby's illegal and unprincipled 'purchase' of Stem comes so early in the book.

5. The family home as a character.
In many ways the family home is the principle character. Red's father schemed and possibly cheated to acquire the house he had built; to him it represented prosperity and security. But after Abby's death Red is content to leave it.

6. The novel opens and closes with Denny. Is he the main character?
I thought Abby was the main character. She is the centre pivot. But Denny's dissatisfaction with the complacent Whitshanks is important. He represents the antithesis of the house, the restless spirit struggling for freedom when the others all want security and prosperity. It was this that made me suspect that Denny was the son of Dane, the James Dean lookalike who is Abby's first love.

8. Why did Abby fall in love with Red when she saw him counting the tree rings?
Abby had to make a choice between bad boy boyfriend Dane who has asked her to spend the night with him and solid dependable Red and, like many women, she wants it both ways: the fun and sexiness of the free-spirited rebel and the safety of rich Red. This encapsulates the theme of the book.

10. On the train at the end, Denny sits next to a young teenage boy crying quietly. What is the significance of this scene?
Don't know, but it was a haunting image. I think it is Denny.

The reading group had an interesting discussion about this book. Two hated it, one because it was boring and one because it had no plot, it wasn't a 'story'. I can see the force of this argument although I have read a lot of great books which are really just character studies that ask questions about the experiences of living that we all share. It became very clear in the group's at times heated discussions that we really believed in the characters, some of us loving Abby and some of us hating her, Merrick being a "terrible woman" and Red being the quiet axle of the story. I argued strongly that the book did have a structure: Denny is the start and the end and the centrepiece is the death of Abby around which the whole book pivots. But the time shifting does indeed mean that it is not a 'story' in the conventional sense.

What does the book mean? I think it represented the battle within each one of us between the desire to be free and unencumbered, like Denny and the desire to have stability and prosperity, as represented by Red and the house. In the end they lose the house; this is a staple of the human condition: no matter how much security we achieve in the end we die. In the end our adolescent bid for freedom is, like Denny's, doomed; in the end we want to settle down. But the battle is in all of us. Junior, living from day to day and hand to mouth in the depression as a jobbing builder, dreamed of having a proper house in a respectable neighbourhood. Abby, torn between free spirit Dane and tree-ring-counting Red, chooses Red. Stem, the apparently orphaned little boy, has the stablest marriage of all of them.

February 2017; 465 pages

I have now also read Tyler's Vinegar Girl, a very funny observational comedy of modern life loosely based on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

"The Last of the Wine" by Mary Renault

Alexias is a beautiful young Athenian who becomes friend and gay lover of Lysis, a man about ten years older than him. Through these well-off young men, students of Socrates and later soldiers together on horseback and then at sea, we follow the story of the later days of the thirty year war between Athens and Sparta and the political upheavals in Athens. It's all here: competing in the Corinthian Games, learning logic at the Academy, fighting, seafaring, starvation under siege, modelling for sculptors, birth and death. And the cast of characters includes the greats: from walk on parts for the famous Olympic wrestler Sosotris to major characters such as Plato (first met as a wrestler, later as a wannabe playwright, still later as the kinsman of Kritias, one of Athens tyrants, a man who has tried to molest Alexias at a banquet) and Socrates; Alcibiades who is traitor, hero, playboy and victorious general all rolled into one; Xenophon; and fascinatingly Phaedo, title character of one of Plato's dialogues, who appears as a slave in a male brothel who uses his spare time to become a pupil of Socrates (and apparently this is true!).

I found the start of this book heavy going because there are a lot of characters thrown at you all at once and Athenian politics was always massively convoluted. But I was enjoying it by the quarter mark (the first kiss between Alexias and his lover comes at exactly the quarter mark) after which the soldiering starts and the athletics and the sailing and it becomes better and better. I found it unputdownable at the end (although it is still not as good as Renault's masterpiece, The Persian Boy or Madeline Miller's brilliant The Song of Achilles).

I definitely now want to read a 'proper' biography of Socrates and Alcibiades.

  • "There was a change in the sky; I turned and saw dawn smouldering." (p 15)
  • "war is sweet to the untried" (p 42)
  • "Let the body be hungry, or thirsty, or in desire, and what is his soul but the dog's nose that leads it to flesh?" (p 114)
  • "it had all become such a weariness and disgust as the oar is to the rower" (p 118)
  • "Truly love may be likened to the Sphinx of the Egyptians, with the face of a smiling god and a lion's claws. When he had wounded me, all my longing was to leap into his darkness, and be consumed." (p 133)
  • "He used to stand looking as if his face was something he had dressed in." (p 139)
  • "He began to tell his tale quite clearly; then he lost the thread of it, and became confused among things of no purpose ... A little later again he forgot I was there and sat looking before him." (p 163)
  • "Why does one walk in the City except to meet and talk?" (p 236)
  • "We must do the work of the season, as Hesiod says." (p 258)
  • "the hill behind the city was the colour of the skins of lions." (p 258)
  • "I was thinking ... of time, and change, and that a man must go with them as with a river, conforming to what is. And yet at last, if we are never so obedient, or if we call defiance, the last change is still to death." (p 258)
  • "it takes two to celebrate the rite of Aphrodite" (p 309)
  • "If Fate were moved by tears, men would offer gold to buy them." (p 346)
  • "What is there that will season salt?" (p 358)
  • "Must we forsake the love of excellence, then, till every citizen feels it alike?" (p 404)

A difficult start but well worth persevering. February 2017; 406 pages