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, 31 January 2018

"The fall of Troy" by Peter Ackroyd

Ackroyd is a prolific and talented writer of many works of fiction and many non-fiction books. Here are some that I have read, with links if they have been reviewed on this blog.

  • Hawksmoor: stunningly brilliant; spooky; dark
  • The Last testament of Oscar Wilde
  • Chatterton: flitting in between London 1770 and London 1856 this is a thoroughly enjoyable read about reality and forgery, plagiarism and originality, truth and lies
  • The House of Doctor Dee: a timeshifting novel that didn't quite work for me
  • Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem
  • The Lambs of London: very enjoyable with some beautifully subtle dialogue
  • The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein: an interesting conceit but rather heavy going though with a nice twist at the end.
  • Milton in America: a strange but fun account of the great man travelling.

Non fiction:
  • Thames: an immense tome: great as reference but not to read (there are several pages just listing all the St Mary's churches on the banks of the Thames!)
  • Dickens: a superb biography
  • Blake: an immensely thorough yet at the same time readable and indeed enjoyable biography
  • Chaucer
  • Wilkie Collins: a brilliant bijou biography
  • Newton

The central character of this novel.is Herr Oberman, a famous archaeologist who has made a fortune as a merchant and now is spending it on his passion, trying to prove that the site he is excavating is Homeric Troy. But his methods allow for no alternative interpretations of the evidence and if you doubt his word, even when it is evident that he is lying, things happen. Thus, when an American archaeologist disputes his dating and attacks his methods the man sickens and dies and his body is disposed of without investigation. And when an English paleographer discovers inscriptions that prove that the inhabitants of this city wrote in a pre-Greek script the young man is in peril.

A bit of a slow burner. The character of Oberman, a compelling and dangerous fantasist, drives the story. As it progresses he dominates more and more. He even browbeats the authorities into accepting as unfortunate a suspicious death. Soon we are convinced that anyone who stands in the way of his monomaniacal vision of the truth will be destroyed. And so by the end of this book I was hooked by the incredibly exciting question of whether Oberman's young wife, the protagonist, would be killed by this man who was being revealed as a psychopath. Intrigue at the start turned into unputdownability.

Some great lines:

  • "What is truth?
    • I can't answer that. But I do know what is false." (p 84)
  • "The universe is a chameleon?" (p 135)

Brilliant and, by the end, a real page-turner. January 2018; 215 pages

Books by Peter Ackroyd reviewed in this blog:
Historical fiction


Tuesday, 30 January 2018

"Days without end" by Sebastian Barry

Thomas McNulty leaves famine torn Ireland for America where he and another boy, handsome John Cole, become dancers in a saloon bar before joining the U.S. Cavalry to fight against Indians. They also become lovers. This last fact is given with extraordinary subtlety with a simple paragraph on page 33 "And then we quietly fucked and then we slept." How fabulously matter of fact.

Narrated by Thomas, this is a gay love story set against the background of the endless prairies of the wild west and the killing grounds of the American Civil War.

And there is extraordinary language and extraordinary descriptions which paint the prairies with vivid and original colours and explore the puzzlement of what it means to be a human. The quotes that follow are a poor selection:

  • "Children may seem epic and large to theyselves and yet be only scraps to view." (p 5)
  • "He was beginning to give giraffes a run for their money, height-wise." (p 14)
  • "pride is the fool's breakfast." (p 31)
  • "Some brave bugler bugled reveille but damn it we were all reveilled by then." (p 49)
  • "You coulda used John Cole for a pencil if you coulda threaded some lead through him." (p 55)
  • "Soldiers coming out of winter have those swimming rheumy eyes of drinkers. Their skins is pale from poor eats." (p 82)
  • "Here was the sockdolager of goddamned feminine mystery." (p 87)
  • "A man's memory might only have a hundred clear days in it and he has lived thousands." (p 88)
  • "The bow is drawn back and the bowman tries to hold it as taut as he can and then when he is satisfied with the position of his prey he can let the arrow loose. There is a fierce strange moment when the arm can no longer hold the pulled string, and nothing will do but to let it fly, so the bowman must know all the staging posts of his task, or make a bloody hames of it." (p 91)
  • "He never said a thing that wasn't pickled with cusses." (p 92)
  • "That he was a filthy bad singer I have said before ... I do pray that in heaven the singing will be confined to the angels." (p 93)
  • "God's work! Silence so great it hurts your ears, colour so bright it hurts your staring eyes. A vicious ruined class of man could cry at such scenes because it seems to tell him that his life is not approved. The remnant of innocence burns in his breast like a ember of the very sun." (p 94 - 95)
  • "the horses got to be quiet which ain't always in the rulebook of horses." (p 96)
  • "Our suppers greatly desire to travel back up our throats." (p 131)
  • "in a bad mood they might knock you down and stomp on your head till they feel better but you won't." (p 148)
  • "Small man wouldn't be much good for fighting but he good for tightening those screws that start to come loose on the engine of a man when he's facing God knows what." (p 151)
  • "Some bombs fall so low they want a path through us too and many fall in our lines as a missile forges a bloody ditch through living men." (p 155)
  • "A frantic weariness infects our bones." (p 155)
  • "You're belching and the food comes up your gullet like it wants to say hello to the world again." (p 165)
  • "The first cousin of an order is chaos." (p 165)
  • "Beauty lives in the faces of youth. No going round that. Never was a hag yet that man desired." (p 208)
  • "I know I can rely on the kindness of folk along the way. The ones that don't try to rob me will feed me. That's how it is in America." (p 300)

If I gave ratings on this blog this book would have the full five wows.

January 2018; 300 pages

By the same author:
The Secret Scripture: another book full of stunningly poetic prose

"The thirteenth apostle" by Michel Benoit

A novel based on M Benoit’s research carried out whilst he was a monk.

Father Andrei has discovered something about the Bible which is a secret many of the RC hierarchy would kill to keep a secret ... and he is thrown from the window of a train. Father Nil, his best mate at the monastery, attempts to follow in his footsteps, reconstructing his research from a cryptic note he found clutched in his friend’s dead hand (which the French scene of crime officers had somehow overlooked). With the mysterious Society of St Pius V, a gang of 12 high placed clerics who have been prepared to murder for the church and a blond, scarred Mossad agent who also happens to be a concert pianist and the best operative of the secret service of Moslem Hamas not to mention an ex-Nazi cardinal all trying to prevent Father Nils from uncovering the secret (though mostly prepared to let him find it provided he dies immediately afterwards) this is one of the less credible imitators of the Da Vinci Code.

As if worried that the thrills of modern day conspiracy ridden Rome will be insufficient the author intersperses his narrative with the power struggle following the death of Jesus (apparently Peter disembowelled Judas) and some of the shenanigans of the Knights Templar.

An enjoyable easy to read thriller but the blurb on the back compares it with The Name of the Rose which is so much better. 

On the other hand, the author's research is clearly interesting. It is probably fair to say that at this distance and given the evidence we have at present there is no possibility of knowing more about the beloved disciple. This lack of evidence and necessary inconclusiveness might leave other people frustrated, hence the need to novelise the story. But for me I think I would have preferred the mystery.

The most interesting thing I learnt was that, according to the author, there is no evidence that Nazareth as a place existed in the time of Jesus and that all translations of Jesus of Nazareth should probably be read as Jesus the Nasorean referring to sect of Judaism linked to the Essenes.

January 2018; 354 pages

"The virgin suicides" by Jeffrey Eugenides

This is a strange book in many ways. It reminded me of The Chronicle of a Death Foretold in three ways: first it lets you know from the first page that all five sisters are going to kill themselves, secondly it is written as if a report many years after the event and includes the relation of interviews with some of the key players in the tragedy, third there is a sense in which the whole community is to blame for the events. However, it takes place over a year rather than a day and, crucially, rather than being written by a single narrator who was involved on the sidelines in the events it is written as if on behalf of several teenage boys (the author uses the first person plural) which is quite disconcerting (it reminded me of Then we came to the end by Joshua Ferris).

The story starts with the unsuccessful suicide of the youngest of five sisters; on her return from hospital the parents host the first ever party for the five sisters and the neighbouring kids but during the rather stilted festivities the youngest goes upstairs to throw herself from her window onto some railings. Things are more or less normal for a while: the remaining girls go to school and the boys fantasise about them. Then there is a high school prom and the four sisters are allowed out with strict restrictions; when the eldest returns home late the girls are immured within the house. No more school. No more anything. Total imprisonment. And the fantasies of the boys outside grow stronger.

It is a strongly written book. There is a great deal of pathetic fallacy; even the house, like the House of Usher, decays. But the power of the writing lies in the accuracy and the detail of the descriptions of this normal suburb outside post-industrial town.

In the end it is more about teenage boys growing up in modern suburbia than about the girls.

There is so much great writing that this can only be a modest selection:

  • "That was in June, fish-fly season, when each year our town is covered by the flotsam of those ephemeral insects." (p 4)
  • "The aping of shared customs is an indispensable step in the process of individuation. "(p 22)
  • "Her eyes watered and she was a foot taller than any of her sisters, mostly because of the length of her neck which would one day hang from the end of a rope." (p 26) It isn't exactly subtle foreshadowing but these foreshadows chill.
  • "The majority of dying had happened during the Second World War when we didn't exist and our fathers were impossibly skinny young men in black-and-white photographs" (p 35)
  • "We knew the pain of winter wind rushing up your skirt, and the ache of keeping your knees together in class, and how drab and infuriating it was to jump rope while boys played basketball." (p 43)
  • "As the diary progresses, Cecilia begins to recede from her sisters and, in fact, from personal narrative of any kind. ... Her precocious prose turns to impersonal subjects, the commercial of the weeping Indian paddling his canoe along a polluted stream, or the body counts from the evening war." (p 44)
  • "He hadn't suffered the eternity of the ring about to be picked up, didn't know the heart rush of hearing that incomparable voice suddenly linked with his own, the sense it gave of being too close to see her, of being actually inside her ear." (p 80)
  • "Their stiff hairdos ('hairdont's', ... the beautician said)" (p 118)
  • "He had never noticed her bifocals before. They cut her eyes in half." (p 120)
  • "Once they're out of you, they're different, kids are." (p 143)
  • "a white spermicide she referred to as 'the cream cheese'" (p 149)
  • "Occasionally she sufficed with her 'Australian method', which involved shaking up a Coke bottle and hosing down her insides." (p 149)
  • "A bedside clock became a hunk of molded plastic, telling something called time, in a world marking its passage for some reason." (p 158)
  • "His lost look of a man who realized that all this dying was going to be the only life he ever had." (p 160)
  • "But that was in the days when they expected perils to come from without, and nothing made less sense by that time than a survival room buried in a house itself becoming one big coffin." (p 163)
  • "We had never dreamed the girls might love us back." (p 198)
  • "Something sick at the heart of the country had infected the girls. Our parents thought it had to do with our music, our godlessness, or the loosening of morals regarding sex we hadn't even had." (p 231)
  • "the outrageousness of a human being thinking only of herself." (p 248)

January 2018; 249 pages

Saturday, 27 January 2018

"The testament of Mary" by Colm Toibin

This is a wonderful novella. The aged Mary, close to death, is reflecting on the terrible events that led to the crucifixion and death of her son. The son whom she sees as the flesh and blood little boy she bore, nursed, weaned, nurtured, and in whom she took such joy. The boy who died.

Now she is being 'looked after' and closely supervised by two men who ask her questions, hoping that the story she tells will corroborate their beliefs that her son was the Son of God.

A great story and told with beautiful detail. But what marks this tiny fiction out as extraordinary, leading to a Booker prize nomination in 2013, is the perfection of the prose. Toibin writes like an angel.

  • "The bride and groom more like a couple to be sacrificed, for the sake of money, or status, or inheritance" (p 27)
  • "And there was a hushed holding-in of things, no wind, no rustling in the leaves of trees, no animal sounds. Cats moved out of sight, and shadows - even the very shadows - stayed as they were." (p 30)
  • "Death needs time and silence. The dead must be left alone with their new gift or their new freedom from affliction." (p 31)
  • "They would have done anything to divert the stream, make it meander on the plain and dry up under the weight of the sun." (p 32)
  • "When he took his last breath, when he was fully part of the sea, an invisible aspect of their rhythm. And during those days then, as river water slowly took on the taste of salt and they buried him and he lay fresh in the earth." (p 32)
  • "A man filled with power, a power that seemed to have no memory of years before, when he needed my breast for milk, my hand to help steady him as he learned to walk, or my voice to soothe him to sleep." (p 54)
  • "There are times in these days before death comes with my name in whispers, calling me towards the darkness, lulling me towards rest, when I know that I want more from the world. Not much, but more." (p 97)
  • "The world has loosened, like a woman preparing for bed who lets her hair flow free." (p 104)

Beautiful. January 2018; 104 pages

By the author of Brooklyn

Thursday, 25 January 2018

"The Keeper of Lost Things" by Ruth Hogan

I thought the idea for this book was brilliant. Following her divorce from obnoxious Vince, Laura goes to work for Anthony, an author, who lives in a delightful Victorian villa writing short stories about the lost objects he has found. After he dies leaving her the house she sets to work with a special teenager and the gorgeous gardener to find the people who have lost the collected things and bring them back together. The lost things in the keeper's collection each provoke a short story which helps to showcase the author's ability to write short stories. These puncture the narrative.

The interleaved story is that of Eunice who works for Bomber, a publisher, who loves dogs.

Each character is introduced with a potted biography as if they too are the subjects of short stories. Why waste a good back story?

There is a lot of humour in the book. Perhaps it aspires to be "a searing satire on the saccharine cliches of contemporary commercial fiction" (p 248). But it reminded me more of a sitcom from the 1970s, perhaps Are You Being Served, with the stock characters, the cliched situations and the rather obvious humour. A lot of the time she makes fun of the 'lower orders', especially those who are less well educated. The pretensions of the local pub and its customers are mocked with withering scorn. Sometimes the humour moves from biting to spiteful.

The men in Laura's life illustrate class warfare at it most snobbish. Having had a scholarship to a "local girls' school" (presumably private) Laura met unsuitable Vince who sold cars. She divorces him after he has an affair with "Selina from 'Servicing'.  Her next love is Anthony who writes short stories and lives in a  delightful Victorian house with a study. He is so much more her sort of thing. After he dies she pursues Freddy who is only the gardener (but he used to have an IT business so he's a bit brighter than he seems). Vince is essentially an unpleasant oik and is given the full comeuppance treatment when he rocks up half way through the book. In a few pages he whirls from angry to wheedling to sleazy to desperate to infuriated to sneering; he's clearly unstable and so undignified. His reward, in a scene of pure slapstick, is having rancid milk splashed over his "designer polo shirt" and being hit in the face. These are not nuanced characters.

The author is fond of alliteration:

  • "The house was untainted with the tinnitus of technology" (p 1)
  • "a mousey, middle-aged polyester Pamela to procure her prescription" (p 14)
I suspect I am not the target audience for this book. I like my literature to be challenging, to make me think. Many of the (often 5 star) reviews say that the book is heart-warming, whimsical, romantic and I agree that it is all of these. A great deal of life is represented here: a gay man, a man suffering from Alzheimer's, a Down's syndrome girl (who is psychic) and lots and lots of dogs. There are a lot of lovely cups of tea.

January 2018; 300 pages

Monday, 22 January 2018

"Sheltering Rain" by Jojo Moyes

Sixteen year-old Sabine is packed off to her grandmother's house in Ireland so that her mother can move in with yet another man. Sabine, without internet or much television or even telephone contact, buried deep in the countryside with an unbending grandmother, a dying grandfather and little else but mud and horses, struggles to cope. Will she run away or will she learn how to love an alien way of life?

Stable boys and family secrets abound in this story. But the plot is not really the point. There is a strong cast of characters: Joy the ironically named grandmother, ungainly and awkward as a teenager and stiff and buttoned-up as an old lady; Sabine the rebellious teenager with a particularly fine line in saying things that her others and then feeling ashamed and sorry; Kate the feckless mother, never able to hold down a relationship, not even with mother or daughter; Annie, with a special line in depression. The male characters are less convincing, acting mostly as opportunities for the women to develop. Thom is an impossibly wonderful shoulders to cry on despite his back-story, and grandfather just lies there dying, despite his. 

The unsolved mystery at the heart of the story is: since none of the family seem to do any work, how on earth do they fund the wages of all those who work for them?

Some great phrases:
  • She was seemingly covered in an ever-growing coat of spikes, like a glamorous, sulky porcupine.” (p 38)
  • The women were divided into sluts, who panted with ill-concealed lust over distracted  male heroes, who were just trying to get on with saving the world, or virgins, who panted with restrained longing as the same heroes skillfully seduced them.” (p 75)
  • Kate didn't point out that Maggie's much-referred-to culture was somewhat elastic, taking in trips to McDonald's with her sons, split-shift dining with her doctor husband, who worked erratic hours at the local hospital, and a devotional love of Coronation Street.” (p 110)
  • like a well-practised politician she would simply ‘mishear’ anything that didn't fit into her current world-view, and cheerful restate her opinions as if they had never been questioned.” (p 110)
  • They divided girls in her class into ‘drains and radiators’; radiators being those popular girls who gave out interest and enthusiasm, drawing people around them, and drains being ... well, drains.” (p 113)
  • She deserved it, didn't she? she told herself, desperately trying to rationalise the hurt she was about to cause.” (p 118)
  • Evil trolls masquerading as our children” (p 121)
  • The snot-and-shudder stage of crying” (p 166)
  • You can’t argue with a missing limb ... You can’t argue with anything missing.” (p 379)

This is a beautifully balanced novel with plenty of action, plenty of sadness, and plenty of humour.

Also by Jojo Moyes and reviewed on this blog:

Saturday, 20 January 2018

"The Myth of Sisyphus" by Albert Camus

This small book by the author of The Outsider. The Plague and The Fall is made of four essays:

  • An absurd reasoning
  • The Absurd Man 
  • Absurd Creation 
  • The Myth of Sisyphus

Camus starts by declaring that “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question.” (p 1) He points out that whatever we do we die; that whatever we do our place in the world and the traces that we leave behind are transient; that even Goethe will one day be forgotten; and that therefore it really doesn't matter whether we die now or linger on, suffering the insults of mortality. Perhaps it might matter if there was a God but the problem of evil (“Either we are not free and God the all-powerful is responsible for evil. Or we are free and responsible but God is not all-powerful.All the scholastic subtleties have neither added anything to nor subtracted anything from the acuteness of this paradox.” ; p 54) means that God is either amoral or largely impotent. So why not end it all now?

Very Hamlet!

This is a densely argued book with many assertions and little in the way of evidence but the questions he asks are important ones and deserve thought. I suppose my response has been, like many I suspect, to bury my head in the sand by refusing to seriously consider the possibility of personal extinction and just getting on with the mostly pleasant business of chugging through life. Going through the motions perhaps. Which, I think Camus would say, is an utterly absurd response.

Great moments:
An absurd reasoning

  • I see many people died because they judge that life is not worth living. I see others paradoxically getting killed for the ideas or illusions that give them a reason for living.” (p 2)
  • Living, naturally, is never easy. You continue making the gestures commanded by existence for many reasons, the first of which is habit.” (p 4)
  • Mere anxiety, as Heidegger says, is at the source of everything.” (p 12)
  • During every day of an unillustrious life, time carries us. But a moment always comes when we have to carry it. We live on the future. ... yet a time comes when a man notices or says that he is thirty. Thus he asserts his youth. But simultaneously he situates himself in relation to time. He takes his place in it. He admits that he stands at a certain point on a curve that he acknowledges having to travel to its end. He belongs to time and, by the horror that seizes him, he recognises his worst enemy. Tomorrow, he was longing for tomorrow, whereas everything in him ought to reject it.” (p 12)
  • In reality there is no experience of death. Properly speaking, nothing has been experienced but what has been lived and made conscious.” (p 14)
  • This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of the irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart.” (p 20)
  • They have always been meant to defend the rights of the irrational. The tradition of ... humiliated thought has never ceased to exist.” (p 21)
  • The rose petal, the milestone, or the human hand are as important as love, desire, or the laws of gravity.” (p 25)
  • The absurd is “divorce between the mind that desires and the world that disappoints, my nostalgia for unity, this fragmented universe and the contradiction that binds them together.” (p 48)
  • "Death is there as the only reality. After death the chips are down. I am not even free either to perpetuate myself, but a slave, and above all a slave without hope of an eternal revolution.” (p 55)
  • Mystics ... find freedom in giving themselves. By losing themselves in their god, by accepting his rules, they become secretly free. In spontaneously accepted slavery they recover a deeper independence.” (p 56)
  • The slaves of antiquity ... knew that freedom which consists in not feeling responsible.” (p 57)
  • The Greeks claimed that those who died young were beloved of the Gods. And that is true only if you are willing to believe that entering the ridiculous world of the Gods is forever losing the purest of joys which is feeling, and feeling on this earth.” (p 61)

The absurd man

  • Everything is permitted does not mean that nothing is forbidden.” (p 65)
  • It is not through lack of love that Don Juan goes from woman to woman ... it is indeed because he loves them with the same passion and each time with his whole self that he must repeat his gift and his profound quest. ...Why should it be essential to love ready in order to love much?” (p 67)
  • Melancholy people have two reasons for being so: they don't know or they hope.” (p 68)
  • That smile of complicity that debases what it admires” (p 69)
  • There is significance in that favourite Scriptural word that calls the carnal act ‘knowing’.” (p 73)

Absurd Creation

  • All existence for a man turned away from the eternal is but a vast mime under the mask of the absurd. Creation is the great mime.” (p 91) This made me think of Buddhist sand pictures, laboriously created over weeks only to be swept away once completed.
  • From the moment when thought won over style, the mob invaded the novel.” (p 97, fn) For example, Dickens conceived Oliver Twist as charting a boy who, though born in the workhouse, was returned to gentility because of his pedigree. A 'blood will out' thesis. This is what makes Oliver one of the weakest characters in the book and, for me, fatally undermines the story. 
  • One recognises one’s course by discovering the paths that stray from it.” (p 110)
  • The thesis-novel, the work that proves, the most hateful of all, is the one that most often is inspired by a smug thought. You demonstrate the truth you feel sure of possessing.” (p 112)


January 2018; 134 pages

Books and plays written by Nobel Laureates that I have reviewed in this blog include:

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

"Gilead" by Marilynne Robinson

This book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005 and was chosen by the New York Times Book Review as one of the top six novels of the year. Her first novel was voted one of the 100 greatest novels of all time by the Observer.

An old preacher with heart disease is writing a letter to his young son. He recounts the story of his life and his family and tries to explain himself, while at the same time offering advice. 

His father was the preacher in town before him and his grandfather before that, though they were very different characters and almost always argued. He married and had a wife and child who died and then, in his sixties, married again to have the little boy to whom he is writing. His boyhood friend grew up to become preacher in a neighbouring church and have a rather larger family of whom was a boy of mischief with a bad reputation who got into trouble and had to leave town.

Then half way through the book this boy returns. And the narrator is afraid that this bad boy will, from pure devilry and spite, steal his wife and child after he has died.

A book which raises profound moral questions narrated by a saint who struggles to be good. 

I thought that it was beautifully written but not very exciting. There were mysteries that drove me on. What exactly was the nature of the feud between the narrator's grandfather and his father? What exactly had the bad boy done? It wasn't much to motivate but the reward was perfect prose.

And then, at the very end, in the only bit that is arranged as a separate chapter, we discover at least some of the truth. And in the last two pages there were tears in my eyes and it was sore to swallow. It was one of those books that had none of the superficial gaudinesses but will linger as a taste (and a lump) at the back of my throat for years.

There were so many beautiful lines that this small selection seems ungracious.
  • It is an amazing thing to watch people laugh, the way it sort of takes them over.” (p 6)
  • That's the strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry. People change the subject when they see you coming. And then sometimes those very same people coming to your study and tell you the most remarkable things.” (p 6)
  • There's a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness.” (p 7)
  • You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it. A man can know his father, or his son, and then might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.” (p 8)
  • It seems to me that some people just go round looking to get their faith unsettled.” (p 27)
  • He was always trying to help somebody birth a calf or limb a tree, whether they wanted him to or not.” (p 41)
  • “I've developed a great reputation for wisdom by ordering more books that I ever had time to read” (p 45)
  • “I don't know why I should expect to have any idea of heaven. I could never have imagined this world if I hadn't spent almost eight decades walking around in it.” (p 76)
  • These people who can see right through you never quite do you justice, because they never give you credit for the effort you’re making to be better than you actually are, which is difficult and well meant and deserving of some little notice.” (p 112)
  • Material things are so vulnerable to the humiliations of decay.” (p 114)
  • I remember in those days loving God for the existence of love and being grateful to God for the existence of gratitude.” (p 233)
  • The word ‘preacher’ comes from an old French word, predicateur, which means prophet.” (p 267)
  • As I have told you, I myself was the good son, so to speak, the one who never left his father's house ... I am one of those righteous for whom the rejoicing in heaven will be comparatively restrained. And that's all right. There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and then need not be .” (p 272)

Beautiful. 282 pages. January 2018

Saturday, 13 January 2018

"Homegoing" by Yaa Gyasi

A woman gives birth to two daughters in an African village an a land that will become Ghana. The sisters do not know of one another. Both are very beautiful. One is captured and sold to America as a slave. One becomes the 'wife' of the English slave trader. As the African proverb says: “separated sisters ... are like a woman and her reflection, doomed to stay on opposite sides of the pond.” (p 39)

This story alternates between the descendants of these two women. Each generation is given a chapter of about twenty pages. Thus the book is essentially made up of short stories, linked by the ancestry of the protagonists. This story is then intended to encapsulate the society in which they grow. Thus, on the American side of the 'pond', we have a slave, followed by a runaway in Baltimore whose wife is kidnapped under runaway slave legislation and reenslaved, followed by a convict working on a chain gang, followed by a gospel singer, followed by an angry young man who works for the NAACP and becomes a drug addict, followed by a failing PhD student. This makes the people become representative; they are icons. But it is extraordinarily difficult, in twenty pages, to introduce a character and give them a potted biography and link them to their parents and show how they reflect the history of their time and at the same time turn them into a meaningful character. At the start I was prepared to invest in the characters; they felt real. Towards the end the characters seemed just another shell rolling off the production line. They felt superficial and contrived. 

The story heads towards a resolution which, despite the little twist, one knows from almost the start that it will reach.

It is important to tell the history of colonialism, slavery and racism. Wicked things were done by ordinary men and women; terrible things were suffered by ordinary men and women. Somehow people survived. The problem with this book as fiction is that it became didactic. It was a little like watching a Brecht play. I wanted to become involved in the emotional life of the characters, I wanted to suffer with them, rage with them, triumph with them, love with them. But the instruction always kept me at arms length.

Some great moments:
  • Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you. Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.” (p 38)
  • They would just trade one type of shackles for another, trade physical ones that are wrapped around the wrists and ankles for the invisible ones that wrapped around the mind.” (p 93)
  • Anna said ‘there won't be no violence in this house’. Five minutes later, Daly kicked Eurias in the shins, and Anna spanked him so hard he winced every time he sat down that day.” (p 121) A rare moment of humour. There aren't many laughs in this book.
  • Who ever heard of sweeping dust from dust?” (p 179) 
  • Maybe the Christian God was a question, a great and swirling circle of whys.” (p 186)
A drama documentary in book form. January 2018; 300 pages

A review of the audiobook by the Book Chatter blog points out the two-part structure of the book in which "The first half reads like a fable. It is vibrant with the culture of the African people. The story-telling is itself true to the culture of these people, full of their belief systems. ... The second half becomes more straight forward in its manner of relating the stories of the characters, as we get closer to modern day."

But Book Chatter seems to love the book for its informative aspect: "Gyasi depicts a beautifully functioning African culture that becomes fractured by the slave trade. The horrors of slavery and it’s aftermath are put in perspective with this broadly sweeping novel. We are still dealing with the aftermath today, and Gyasi bravely posits the question of where will it end." Well, yes. As an academic work, as the PhD that Marcus is trying to write at the end of the book. But as a novel?

I discussed this book in my reading group. We identified the themes of fire (very explicit, although there were some mentions to its that some of us had overlooked) and scarring. There were a lot of characters with physical scars. There were clearly a lot of issues that could be discussed. But my reading group is made up of aspiring writers and what the book is about are of less interest to us than how it was written. We were intrigued how the prose changed from village rustic in the early chapters to more modern in the later chapters though we were uncertain whether we could distinguish individual voices. Despite the Book Chatter review mentioned above, we failed to appreciate why the book is divided into two halves except in so far as the American Civil War and the emancipation proclamation took place between the two halves. We agreed that there were passages which demonstrated that this young writer really could write. But our verdict was that she had set herself too large a challenge with the structure of this book. There were so many characters who were started but for whom there was insufficient opportunity to develop to their full potential. We wanted more depth.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

"The Dry" by Jane Harper

This is a murder mystery set in a drought-ridden small town in the back of beyond in Australia. Luke Hadler, his wife Karen and six year old Billy had been found head, gunned down. The evidence suggests that Luke, a farmer beset by debt, killed Karen and Billy (but not 13 month old baby Charlotte) before driving away and committing suicide.

Aaron Falk takes leave from his job with the finance police to attend the funeral of childhood friend Luke in the town from which he was chased twenty years ago following the death of a teenage girlfriend; he and Luke had both lied about their alibis. Was this crime anything to do with what happened twenty years ago? Falk and local bobby Raco start an unofficial investigation.

And the lack of water pervades everything.

This was a classic murder mystery with some delightful misdirection but clues were provided in time for the reader to work it out.

Some great phrases:

  • "If Luke had a dollar, he'd spend two to make sure it was gone." (p 33)
  • "call me liberated, but I've got a key to my own house." (p 52)
  • "They'll make a gymnastics team, bending over backwards to prove their investigation was sound." (p 59)
Aaron Falk reappears in Force of Nature.

The Dry won the

This book won the Gold Dagger from the Crime Writers' Association in  2017. Other winners include:
January 2018; 400 pages

You can tell it's good when you catch yourself reading it when you should be doing other things.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

"The Fall" by Albert Camus

This strange story is told in the form of a monologue. Jean-Baptiste Clemence, lawyer turned 'judge penitent' does the Ancient Mariner thing with someone he meets in an Amsterdam bar and, over five nights, reveals the story of his life.

Despite its brevity (92 pages in the Penguin edition) it is quite difficult to read because it is a monologue and so the intensity is unrelieved. But the turning point in the life of Monsieur Clemence comes on page 44, thus conforming almost exactly to the 'turning point at the 50% mark' theory.

Intense as it is, there are many moments of profundity:

  • "Style, like poplin, all too often conceals eczema." (p 5)
  • "I always thought our fellow citizens were crazy about two things: ideas and fornication." (p 5) 
  • "Have you noticed that the concentric canals of Amsterdam are like the circles of hell? A bourgeois hell, inhabited of course by bad dreams." (p 10)
  • "A sense of legality, the satisfaction of being right and the joy of self-esteem: these, my dear sir, are powerful incentives to keep us on our feet and moving forward." (p 13)
  • "One could not meditate in cellars or prison cells (unless the later were situated in towers, with an extensive view)." (p 17)
  • "'Please accept my sympathy' comes right before 'now let's get on with something else'. It's the emotion felt by a prime minister or company chairman: you get it cheap after some disaster." (p 20)
  • "That's what men are like, sir: two-faced: they cannot love unless they love themselves." (p 22)
  • "servitude, preferably with a smile, is unavoidable." (p 29)
  • "sensuality alone governed my love life. I looked solely for objects of pleasure and conquest." (p 37)
  • "I did have principles, of course, one of which, for example, was that my friends' wives were sacred. It was just that, quite sincerely, I would stop being friends with the husbands a few days in advance." (p 37)
  • "not taking what you don't want is the hardest thing in the world." (p 40)
  • "Isn't that the finest of negative landscapes? Look, n the left we have that pile of ashes that they call a dune here, with the grey dyke on our right, the pallid beach at our feet and, in front of us, the sea, the colour of diluted washing powder, its pale waters reflected on the sky above." (p 45)
  • "There is no merit in being born honest or intelligent." (p 51)
  • "Because I desired eternal life, I slept with whores and drank for whole nights on end." (p 64)
  • He blames Jesus for the massacre of the innocents because, as God, he must have known it would happen because of His birth. (p 70)
  • "Someone I used to know would divide people into three categories: those who prefer to have nothing to hide rather than being obliged to lie; those who prefer to lie than have nothing to hide; and finally those who like lying and concealing at the same time." (p 75)
  • "they're putting make-up on the corpse." (p 76)
  • "beds that are so hard, and their immaculate sheets, it's like dying in a shroud already, embalmed in purity." (p 76)

His last completed novel, published the year before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature and four years before his death at 47.

Camus also write The Outsider

January 2018; 92 pages

Books and plays written by Nobel Laureates that I have reviewed in this blog include:

Friday, 5 January 2018

"Mythos" by Stephen Fry

Fry takes us through the earlier Greek myths, including the creation, but not including the labours of Hercules, the siege of Troy and its Oresteian and Odyssean aftermaths, or the story of Theseus etc. Perhaps there was just too much.

But what he has given us is his own retelling of some of the less-well-known stories. The ones that lurk in the corners of the cultural subconscious (or did for those of us with some sort of traditional British education). As such it enlightened many dark pockets of my ignorance. I had heard of Pygmalion, the sculptor who fell in love with the statue he had carved, the classical reference underpinning the GBS play that metamorphosed into My Fair Lady, but I had never read the story. I was dimly aware of the story of Hero and Leander, one of whom drowned swimming the Hellespont, but I knew no details. Again and again Fry fleshed out the bare bones of my knowledge. And told me how these stories had passed into our culture by, for example, citing the poems by Byron or Keats or the passages in Shakespeare that had referred to them.

There was a huge western European culture built around these ideas. Young people today are ignorant of much of it (although the themes are often reprised without their knowledge in computer games, sci-fi serials, and soap operas). It is sad that so much cultural heritage is slipping away although of course it was only available to the public-school educated elite and there is a great deal of wonderful culture that is replacing it. I was ashamed of my ignorance. After all, I am a few months older than him, we had similar educations (although I wasn't expelled) and our times at Cambridge overlapped. But I studied science and that is a huge culture in itself. Life is too short for everything.

The real joy of this book is the way that Fry writes. He retells these stories of Gods and mortals in the most human way possible. For example, Ganymede is such a beautiful youth that both men and women are lovestruck on meeting him. “When they got home they wrote and instantly tore up poems that rhyme ‘thighs’ with ‘eyes’, ‘hips’ with ‘lips’, ‘youth’ with ‘truth’, ‘boy’ with ‘joy’ and ‘desire’ with ‘fire’.” (p 306) It is the "instantly tore up" that makes the imagery so quotidian, so mundane, and so real you can touch it, poke it, prod it and squish it. These are humans. “A compound of village gossip, nosy neighbour and over-solicitous best friend, Echo found it impossible to hold her tongue.” (p 333) I know Echo. She lives down the street.

And then there is the erudition. Legend, we are told,  “derives from the gerundive of the Latin legere, meaning ‘to be read’. Interestingly, the absolute origin of the verb legere and its supine form lectum bears the meaning of ‘gather’ - as in ‘college’ and ‘collect’.” (p 403 & fn) This single example will have to suffice for the learning that is displayed on every single page of this brilliant book.

Other moments I loved:
Think of Chaos perhaps as a kind of grand cosmic yawn. As in a yawning chasm or a yawning void.” (p 3)
In time you will abandon your trousers - not yet, I hope - and they will rot down in a landfill or be burned.” (p 4)
It was a sickle. An enormous scythe whose great curved blade had been forged from adamantine, which means ‘ untameable’. (p 16)
Our word ‘hearth’ shares its ancestry with ‘heart’, just as in the modern Greek for ‘hearth’ is kardia, which also means ‘heart’.” (p 59)
If that makes her seem a spoilsport, well, sometimes sport needs to be spoiled and the children called in from the playground.” (p 67)
The blameless majority, whose lives were neither especially virtuous not especially vicious ... were guaranteed a pleasant enough afterlife: before they arrived they drink of the waters of forgetfulness from the River Lethe so that a blithe and bland eternity could be passed, untroubled by upsetting memories of earthly life.” (p 144)
In this story, as in so many others, what we really discern is the deceptive, ambiguous and giddy riddle of violence, passion, poetry and symbolism that lies at the heart of Greek myth and refuses to be solved.” (p 227)
Perhaps narcissism is best defined as a need to look on other people as mirrored surfaces who satisfy us only when they reflect back a loving or admiring image of ourselves.” (p 344)
Gods of this kind are created in our image, not the other way round.” (p 403)

There is only one thing missing from this book. All the other stories! Please, Mr Fry, let us have the stories of the heroes, Theseus and Hercules and Achilles and Ulysses and Oedipus and Orestes and Antigone and Medea and Jason and ...

And then perhaps you can move to the Viking gods who are just as much fun.

January 2018; 410 pages

I am delighted that the series has been continued with Heroes.

Monday, 1 January 2018

"London's Strangest Tales" by Tom Quinn

This is a compendium of stories, most of them one or two pages long, set in London. It is arranged historically, starting in 950 and ending in 2007, although the 2007 story seems to relate to 1665 and the 950 story could apply to 1705. I rather wish it had been arranged geographically so that I could have gone to the many places mentioned and read about them while watching.

Because it is mostly about places in London. He tells us about the reason Scotland Yard is so named, of the snuff obsessive who lined on Essex Street, and the entrance, near Waterloo, of the station to the railway of the dead. Many of these tales I didn't know and I would love to wander London armed with this book to guide me.

One bit annoyed me. Towards the end of the book the author goes on and on about the destruction of old buildings in the name of progress; he is positively rude about the men and women who have to make decisions about whether to allow demolitions to permit new growth. I respect the opinion of this author but I felt its repetition was out of place in this book.

The page numbers are placed in the margins rather than at the foot or head of each page. I quite like that!

Bits I enjoyed:

  • "Despite George Bernard Shaw's foolish quip - 'Those who can do, those who can't teach' - the whole future of each generation depends to a large degree on the skills or otherwise of the teaching profession." (p 56)
  • "When one of his fellow schoolmasters questioned [the head's] judgment, Busby sent a team of schoolboys with axes to chop down the staircase leading to the rebellious teacher's apartments." (p 56)
  • "In 1696 the law changed so that clergymen who married couples without first declaring the banns ... might lose their livings. Clergymen of the Fleet ... had no parishes ... so anyone who wanted to marry without their parents'; permission could do so only at the Fleet." (p 68)
  • Publisher John Murray's first offices were 32 Fleet Street, "the site of Wynkyn de Word's p[rinting press established in 1500". (p 95)
  • "The centre of London is located at a spot just behind the equestrian statue of Charles I at the southern edge of Trafalgar Square" where the old Charing Cross used to be , exactly half way between the cities of London and Westminster. (p 160)
  • "St Dunstan's Church in Fleet Street ... for many years provided a home to ... the Coptic Ethiopian Church, the Assyrian Church, the Romanian Orthodox Church and the Old Catholic Church of Utrecht." It was a centre of book publishing and the churchwarden was Izaak Walton who wrote The Compleat Angler, "the most reprinted book after the Bible" (p 210)
  • The is a network of secret tunnels under London, below the sewers but just above the water table, where tube trains and pipelines may not go. They are secret. (p241 - 242)

A very interesting book.

January 2018; 252 pages