About Me

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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Tuesday, 29 December 2020

"Three hours" by Rosamund Lupton

A blindingly well-written police procedural.

Gunmen attack a school in a wood on the coast of Somerset. The headteacher is shot and badly injured. He and some pupils are barricaded inside the library; other pupils are in an isolated pottery classroom, some are rehearsing Macbeth in the theatre, others are in classrooms. Rafi, a refugee from Syria with PTSD, is searching for his little brother; he also wants to keep his girlfriend safe.

It is snowing. The police are trying to find out what is happening and the parents are concerned for their kids.

It isn't perfect. I guessed the major twist well before the half-way mark. The insistent comparisons with Macbeth were sometimes intrusive. The author's message steered perilously close to propaganda and, for a moment, broke us out of the story; it wasn't needed to make the point. And it was clear from the manipulations of the plot that Rafi and Basi would have to be confronted by a gunman together as close as possible to the end. The hero was just a touch too perfect; the villains had no redeeming qualities.

But what the heck. I loved it.

It is a nail-biting page-turner which had me pacing the floor; towards the end I had a damp-eyed moment. I was never certain whether the end would be happy or sad.

Thrillers don't get better than this.

"The word 'shot' lodges in her mind, cruel and bloody, making her nauseous. 'Shot' isn't written down or spoken so she can't cover it up with her hand or shout it down and she wonders what a mind-word is if it can't be seen or heard. She thinks that consciousness is made up of silent, invisible words forming unseen sentences and paragraphs; an un written, unspoken book that makes us who we are." (1.1)

"She absolutely believes in purgatory now, knows first-hand all about purgatory, and it has a linoleum floor and Formica tables and no windows and a phone that doesn't ring." (1.10)

December 2020; 305 pages

Rosamund Lupton has also written Sister.

The writer of this review, Dave Appleby, 
is author of the novel Motherdarling

Monday, 28 December 2020

"Love and Other Thought Experiments" by Sophie Ward

 What an unusual book. It is an attempt to explore in fiction some classic philosophical speculations, such as:

  • Pascal's Wager: it is better to bet that there is a God because you will then gain eternal happiness and all you are staking is a finite lifetime
  • The Prisoner's Dilemma: a mathematical 'game' which compares the costs and benefits of two essentially selfish entities co-operating
  • The Ship of Theseus: made famous in the sitcom Only Fools and Horses as 'Trigger's Broom': Trigger, the road sweeper won an aware for having the longest lasting broom on the street ... but it had had new heads and new shafts so was it the same broom as it had been at the start?
  • And a variety of problems about how we know who we are (am I me dreaming of a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming of me?), such as the Brain in a Vat.

The book does this by means of linked short stories. The previous book I read and reviewed on this blog, Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, also did this and the same structural issues apply with this book: the reader has to keep track of an ever-growing cast of characters in a set of tales in which there never seems to be the time taken to develop any single character; the result is that the narrative is more tell than show and weighted in favour of the plot. This book kept a tight rein on the cast but the narrative was fundamentally driven by the philosophy which meant a plot that contained inconsistencies. Notably, a character that had died returned to life (as in that other staple of philosophical fiction, Voltaire's Candide).

For me, the result was a book that was interesting as an exploration of ideas (although I found it difficult to connect the philosophy with the narrative), but never enthralling as a novel. 

So what happens?

Rachel, in bed with her wife, Eliza, believes that an ant has entered her eye. As a result the pair decide to activate Hal's frozen sperm and have a child. Arthur is born and Rachel, still complaining about an ant in her brain, dies of a brain tumour. We then learn about Turkish Ali who drowns, or perhaps does not drown, while swimming off the Cyprus coast, and who becomes (if he didn't drown) Rachel's father after a holiday romance with her mother. Most of the characters have a chapter including Rachel's mother, her wife, Arthur's father's boyfriend Greg, Arthur as an adult space rocket pilot, the ant in Rachel's brain, and Arthur's on board and personal but not implanted computer Hal. We journey from the domestic everyday into space travel and a world dominated by artificial intelligence.

There are some chapters I adored (eg the first, with Eliza and Rachel in bed, the second with Ali in the sea, the third with Rachel's wonderfully characterised mother, at war with everyone) and some which were much more difficult, mainly the one's that took me away from familiarity, such as the ant's perspective, the computer's perspective and the future world parts at the end).

Some of my favourite moments:

  • "Where the cicadas sang he knew he was safe from snakes." (C 2)
  • "Thirty-five years of marriage had encouraged him to believe that socks, like sex and good humour, were liable to become available without any prior notice. You just had to hold your nerve." (C 3)
  • "The sunbeds were decorative, a promise of something. 'Melanoma', her husband said." (C 3)
  • "It's a question of scale that keeps you from walking through walls." (C 5)
  • "The way he saw it, human nature was stupid enough to almost destroy itself, and clever enough to survive." (C 7)
  • "If you were made of remembrance and your memories changed, did you, who remembered, change too?" (C 8)
  • "You do not know what gods know, you do not not feel what we do not feel." (C 9)

It is a tour de force of the imagination and a brilliant way of exploring philosophy. 

December 2020; 251 pages

This review was written by Dave Appleby the author of Motherdarling

Friday, 25 December 2020

"A Visit from the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan

 The narrative of this book is divided into connected short stories. In the first Alex and Sasha have a date, Sasha works for Bennie who stars in the second story; the third story whizzes back in time to when Bennie was in a band with Scotty ... and so it goes, like literary tag. This is great for a story but it does mean that you only get a little of each character so it is difficult for the author to develop them fully and reader wonders whether it is worth investing the time to get to know the character. Then people began to recur and meet up in different combinations. Now the reader has to remember the characters which they may not have paid full attention to in a previous story. And the cast of characters ended up quite large, and the reader had little guidance as to which characters were important and would recur and which were transient.

A similar technique was used by Tommy Orange in There, There.

This creates a fascinating interweaving of narrative but it was difficult to keep up with. Especially as the first half went backwards in time and the second half forwards. And then we leap even further forward, into the future and the last story you have to start picking up on new technologies and ideas and vocabularies. 

In some ways this was a narrative tour de force that reminded me of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. But Mitchell had considerably larger chunks and rather fewer characters. I suppose narrative energy is like light. Spread it over a large area and it is dim but focus it and it becomes concentrated and bright.

But there were some great things about this book which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2011. I loved the character of Bennie, a respected (but perhaps past his best) record producer who felt repeated twinges of shame for things he had or hadn't done: we all get embarrassed but how often is that reflected in fiction. I was also utterly impressed by the second to last section which is presented as a slideshow instead of prose. There were also some brilliant lines:

  • "She could tell that he was in excellent shape, not from going to the gym but from being young enough that his body was still imprinted with whatever sports he had played in high school and college." (A-1)
  • "In cold weather he shivers like someone is shaking him." (A-3)
  • "When she feels the booze hit she takes a long breath, like she's finally herself again." (A-3)
  • "Rich people like to hostess, so they can show off their nice stuff." (A-3)
  • "Everything is ending ... but not yet." (B-7)
  • "Kitty came towards him slowly - poured toward him, really, that was how smoothly she moved in her sage green dress, as if the jerking awkwardness of walking were something she'd never experienced." (B-8)
  • "Which one is really 'you', the one saying and doing whatever it is, or the one watching?" (B-10)
  • "Is a person who sells oranges 'being bought'? Is the person who repairs appliances 'selling out'?" (B-13)
  • "Those metaphors - 'up front' and 'out in the open' - are part of a system we call atavistic purism. AP implies the existence of an ethically perfect state, which not only doesn't exist and never existed, but is usually used to shore up the prejudices of whoever's making the judgments." (B-13)

December 2020; 349 pages

Other Pulitzer Prize winners reviewed in this blog include:

This review was written by Dave Appleby the author of Motherdarling

Tuesday, 22 December 2020

"American Psycho" by Bret Easton Ellis

 A controversial novel which was made into a very popular horror/ slasher movie.

Late 1980s (the novel was published in 1991). Patrick Bateman, narrator and protagonist, is a 26 year old man with a private fortune who 'works' at an investment form on Wall Street; his life mainly revolves around eating at expensive restaurants in Manhattan while debating the finer points of food, etiquette, fashion and music. It is an utterly hedonistic lifestyle. He is angered and horrified by the beggars on the streets, often insulting them, sometimes teasing them by offering them money only to snatch it away. To compensate for the meaninglessness of his lifestyle, Bateman fantasises about extreme violence: another part of his life is his obsession with renting videotapes of hardcore pornography and slasher movies. These fantasies initially only intrude slightly into his long monologues: "For an appetizer I ordered radicchio with some kind of free-range squid. Anne and Scott both had the monkfish raguot with violets. ... Scott and Anne insisted that we all order some kind of black and medium-rare redfish, a Deck Chairs specialty which was, luckily for them, an entree on one of the mock menus that Jean made up for me. if it hadn't, and if they nevertheless insisted on my ordering it, the odds were pretty good that I would have broken into Scott and Anne's studio at around two this morning - after Late Night with David Letterman - and with an ax chopped them to pieces, first making Anne watch Scott bleed to death and gaping chest wounds, and then I would have found a way to get to Exeter where I would pour a bottle of acid over their son’s slanty-eyed zipperhead face. Our waitress is a little hardbody who is wearing gold faux-pearl tasseled lizard sling-back pumps. I forgot to return my videotapes to the store tonight and I curse myself silently while Scott orders two large bottles of San Pellegrino.” (Deck Chairs) These fantasies become more obtrusive and eventually degenerate into episodes of sex and violence getting progressively worse: a threesome with two prostitutes that ends in Bateman hurting, perhaps maiming them,  the murder of a fellow worker with an ax, the attempted strangulation of another (Bateman is put off when this man assumes that this is an attempted homosexual pickup), the blinding of a beggar, the torture and murder of a girlfriend, the torture and murder and cannibalism of another girlfriend, and a multiple shoot-out involving a street busker, policemen and bystanders. 

These scenes are graphically described and horrific and I understand why some publishers and booksellers have refused to deal with this book. The question always has to be: is the sex and violence gratuitous or does it serve an essential part of the artwork? The film toned down some of the most gruesome aspects. I suspect that there could have been considerably less detail without having a negative impact on the quality of the book.

But the graphic details are how the author achieves verisimilitude. This is also achieved by the inclusion of real people (Tom Cruise lives in Bateman's apartment block; they meet in the lift; Bateman is in the front row of a U2 concert and his women guests are propositioned by bouncers on behalf of the band; bizarrely Donald Trump, who never actually appears, is Bateman's idol) and real contexts. It is further developed by the minutiae of cultural references: Bateman describes the clothing worn by everyone he meets (see the description of the waitress above) in obsessive detail, especially when describing brand names. There are also a number of music artists whose life work is reviewed by Bateman, again in minute and obsessive detail.

And, paradoxically, this was the point at which I began to suspect a rat. No one could know quite so much about what someone was wearing. Its attempt at hyper-realism itself seemed unrealistic. 

Other details began to niggle. Bateman complains to a laundry that they haven't properly cleaned his blood-stained clothes. As his crimes begin to mount up, there seems to be no hue and cry. He lugs bodies down elevators, unnoticed. He slashes the throat of a boy in the zoo and then pretends to be a doctor caring for the dying boy, unsuspected. His flat is covered with blood and body parts and his cleaner just scrubs away stoically. One of his victims appears to have been seen alive. Although the film treated Bateman's episodes of violence as fact, I began to suspect that they were psychotic episodes in which fantasy replaced reality and that Bateman was a highly unreliable narrator.

At which point the book begins to look a lot more like an extended metaphor for American society. Bateman represents yuppies, or perhaps Americans in general. His lifestyle is the ultimate in hedonism and he is obsessed with the minutiae of etiquette, and fashion, and food. But Bateman isn't happy. There is a deep emptiness when it comes to the meaning of life: this book is fundamentally nihilist. His pursuit of pleasure becomes more and more frenetic and he experiences huge anxieties when, for example, he can't book a table at one of the poshest restaurants, or when someone else has a higher credit rating than he has.  His descent into psychotic violence could be seen as a metaphor for capitalist America exploiting, raping and destroying the environment. And, there is a fundamental lack of consequence. Bateman repeatedly gets away with one crime after another; even a confession is ignored and joked about.

Which makes it scary that Donald Trump is seen by the author in 1991 as the ultimate idol for psychopathic hedonists. Prophecy?

The book doesn't really work in terms of individual moments because it achieves its effects by long paragraphs. But:

  • "Outside Texarkana a cheerful black bum motions for me, explaining that he's Bob Hope's younger brother, No Nope." (Paul Owen)
  • "It's not the seals I hate - it's the audience's enjoyment of them that bothers me." (Killing Child at Zoo)
  • "lately I can't help noticing them everywhere - in business meetings, nightclubs, restaurants, in passing taxis and in elevators, on line at automated tellers and on porno tapes ... they are prey." (Chase, Manhattan)

If this is an allegory, this is a hugely important novel about the state of America in the late 1980s (and now?). But I don't think the sex and violence needed to be so horrid or so lovingly described.

December 2020; 384 pages

Bret Easton Ellis has also written:

This review was written by Dave Appleby the author of Motherdarling

Thursday, 17 December 2020

"The Other Side of You" by Salley Vickers

 The narrator is a psychiatrist, whose elder brother died in front of his eyes when he was a little boy. He is now the therapist for a woman who had attempted suicide. In the course of their conversations they achieve a mutual understanding of the difficulties involved in continuing to live after bereavement; they also appreciate Caravaggio.

It shows the insight into the human condition which is typical of books by Salley Vickers although it never achieved the transcendence of Miss Garnett's Angel (another book about life, death, spirituality and art) or Mr Golightly's Holiday (in which God visits the England). But she writes beautifully.

Lots of great moments:

  • "Living in the world is hard enough, but if you see through it, yet lack the resources to deal with that keener vision, it can be a whole lot harder." (1.2)
  • "She was saved by one of those chances that make you believe in a beneficent providence. I don't know why there shouldn't be one: there's plenty of evidence of the baleful kind." (1.2)
  • "It can take years to understand in your head what your gut knows from the start." (1.3)
  • "The worst thing about ageing is not the physical diminishment. My belief that I am equal to ordinary events and encounters is beginning to be eroded. I am apprehensive now over matters that would have been unimaginable to me" (1.3)
  • "As with many of his other associations, Gus appeared to have some informal access to the mind of God." (1.7)
  • "A peeling leather armchair that put me in mind of a rhinoceros with dermatitis." (1.9)
  • "It's naive to pretend that life for many people isn't pretty wretched much of the time." (2.4)
  • "We never make anyone happy who does not make us happy." (2.4)
  • "On the map of human choice, there are highways and byways, crossroads and narrow tracks, and cul-de-sacs. And along these routes are to be found abodes of graciousness, citadels and hovels, palaces and boltholes. And there are the houses of shame into which we creep because we feel we are worth no better." (2.4)
  • "When you feel you have made true love, you believe you've found a back door into eternity and cannot afford the notion that it may not be open to you on your return." (2.5)
  • "What's wrong with bad behaviour?" (2.7)
  • "The desolating atmosphere of a polite suburb of Hell." (2.8)
  • "Clergy tend to attract transferences the way psychiatrists and analysts do, but they aren't as a rule so prepared for them." (2.8)
  • "I have no idea what precise words I used; I can only say they seemed to issue unedited from my disencumbered heart." (4.2)

A slow burner with little in the way overt excitement, but worth it by the end.

December 2020; 262 pages

Also by Salley Vickers: The Cleaner of Chartres

This review was written by Dave Appleby the author of Motherdarling

Tuesday, 15 December 2020

"A Chapter in the History of a Tyrone Family" by Sheridan Le Fanu

 This delightful piece of Gothic horror was written in 1839 by a master of the genre. It includes a number of elements of the plot for Jane Eyre which was published in 1847; Milbank (2002, 151; The Victorian Gothic in English novels and stories. In: J. Hogle, ed, The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, pp. 145-166) recognised the "imprisoned foreign first wife, as well as the veil and the mirror.

It is written as a frame fiction in order to increase verisimilitude; the author who allegedly writes down the dictated story of the narrator and protagonist ("I find that I have taken the story down as she told it, in the first person, and, perhaps, this is as it should be.") even includes a couple of footnotes, a technique also used by Byron. The first section of the tale seems disjointed from the rest: it describes how the narrator's sister goes away to be married and the apparent arrival of a supernatural coach as a harbinger of the sister's death. Then we move to the marriage of the protagonist and the story proper begins. The newly married wife is allowed to roam her husband's castle anywhere except for the back part (he even refers to Bluebeard as he says this): "You must promise me, upon your sacred honour, that you will visit only that part of the castle which can be reached from the front entrance, leaving the back entrance and the part of the building commanded immediately by it, to the menials, as also the small garden whose high wall you see yonder; and never at any time seek to pry or peep into them, nor to open the door which communicates from the front part of the house through the corridor with the back". She sees mysteriously disappearing swathes of black cloth which, on old family servant tells her, are a portent of bad things a-coming: "Whenever something—something bad is going to happen to the Glenfallen family, some one that belongs to them sees a black handkerchief or curtain just waved or falling before their faces". Then she is accosted by a blind Dutchwoman who claims to be the first (and only true) wife of the husband. One night the narrator is lying in bed when the Dutchwoman comes into the room. "The mirror, as if acting of its own impulse moved slowly aside, and disclosed a dark aperture in the wall, nearly as large as an ordinary door; a figure evidently stood in this; but the light was too dim to define it accurately." The narrator is paralysed with fear as the Dutchwoman takes a cut-throat razor and goes across to the husband before returning to the narrator and attempt to cut her throat. In the ensuing scandal the Dutchwoman is tried and convicted and hanged. Subsequently the husband begins behaving strangely, claiming to have conversations with the Dutchwoman in the next room. 

Some of the more gorgeously Gothic bits:

  • "nothing was to be seen but the tall trees with their long spectral shadows, now wet with the dews of midnight."
  • "What has he done to alarm you? he is neither old nor ugly." I was silent, though I might have said, "He is neither young nor handsome."
  • "Once, nearly twenty years ago, a friend of mine consulted me how he should deal with a daughter who had made what they call a love match, beggared herself, and disgraced her family; and I said, without hesitation, take no care of her, but cast her off;"
  • "I cannot conceive anything more unreasonable or intolerable than that the fortune and the character of a family should be marred by the idle caprices of a girl."
  • "Indeed I do not recollect that I was even so romantic as to overcome my aversion to rats and rheumatism, those faithful attendants upon your noble relics of feudalism; and I much prefer a snug, modern, unmysterious bed-room, with well-aired sheets, to the waving tapestry, mildewed cushions, and all the other interesting appliances of romance; however, though I cannot promise you all the discomfort generally pertaining to an old castle, you will find legends and ghostly lore enough to claim your respect"
  • "The gay, kind, open-hearted nobleman who had for months followed and flattered me, was rapidly assuming the form of a gloomy, morose, and singularly selfish man."
  • "I was wakened, after having slept uneasily for some hours, by some person shaking me rudely by the shoulder; a small lamp burned in my room, and by its light, to my horror and amazement, I discovered that my visitant was the self-same blind, old lady who had so terrified me a few weeks before."
  • "He had a wife living, which wife I am."
  • "There was something in her face, though her features had evidently been handsome, and were not, at first sight, unpleasing, which, upon a nearer inspection, seemed to indicate the habitual prevalence and indulgence of evil passions, and a power of expressing mere animal anger, with an intenseness that I have seldom seen equalled, and to which an almost unearthly effect was given by the convulsive quivering of the sightless eyes."
  • "I was within the reach of this violent, and, for aught I knew, insane woman."
  • "The horror and dismay, which, in the olden time, overwhelmed the woman of Endor, when her spells unexpectedly conjured the dead into her presence, were but types of what I felt."
  • "As I have never taken the opinion of madmen touching your character or morals, I think it but fair to require that you will evince a like tenderness for me."
  • "I heard a voice close to my face exclaim as before, "There is blood upon your ladyship's throat." The words were instantly followed by a loud burst of laughter."
  • "Quaking with horror, I awakened, and heard my husband enter the room. Even this was a relief."
  • "Whenever my eyes wandered to the sleeping figure of my husband, his features appeared to undergo the strangest and most demoniacal contortions."

December 2020

Le Fanu later reworked this story as The Wyvern Mystery. Written in 1869 after the best-selling success of Jane Eyre it included more Eyre-like features, such as an orphaned heroine, thus becoming an unusual example of a story which is influenced by the story that was influenced by it.

Sheridan Le Fanu was a massively popular novelist in his time and helped develop the prototype for much of the horror genre. in Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers the narrator Harriet Vane considers writing a dissertation on Le Fanu but decides it will be thought too mainstream.

Le Fanu's works include
  • Uncle Silas, a locked-room mystery
  • Carmilla, featuring a lesbian vampire
  • Spalatro, whose Italian bandit hero seems to be a dead ringer for Anne Radcliffe's The Italian except that he has a necrophiliac passion for an undead blood-drinking heroine.
  • The House by the Churchyard (1863), a historical novel referenced by James Joyce in Finnegan's Wake

This review was written by Dave Appleby the author of Motherdarling

Friday, 11 December 2020

"Gaudy Night" By Dorothy L Sayers

 The eleventh Lord Peter Wimsey whodunnit principally starring Harriet Vane, whodunnit author and Lord Peter's lover interest. Harriet goes back to her Oxford College who are experiencing an outbreak of poison pen letters and vandalism. Can Harriet track down the culprit before something serious happens?

It is very much of its time. The women's college is a claustrophobic place where a Senior Common Room of the stuffy Misses endlessly debate whether a woman should be a wife and mother or an academic virgin. The pre-war rules by which they govern the students reflect old-fashioned sexist and puritanical mores. One must wear gowns to Hall and never ever ever bring a man into the college. A period piece.

Meanwhile the male undergraduates are represented as a set of irresponsible fools intent on climbing trees for wagers and driving fast cars and drinking expensive vintages.

The actual crime element takes third place behind the discussions of social and academic values and the on-off romance between Peter and Harriet (sorry! Lord Peter and Miss Vane). As a result, Gaudy Night is rather longer than it ought to be (even allowing for the fact that the Wimsey mysteries are significantly longer, on the whole, than equivalent whodunnits). Furthermore, the actual crimes committed seem trivial and the cast of suspects is long and (given they are all unmarried females) confusing. As a result, this is not as good as the other Lord Peter books. 

And there are a couple of fragments written in Greek and one or two Latin quotations ... including a whole four line part that is actually a clue. Does the author really think her readers are fluent in dead languages or is she simply showing off?

Still good though.

Some of the best bits:
  • "As one grew older, as one established one’s self, one gained a new delight in formality." (C 1)
  • "The mouth was the mouth of one who has been generous and repented of generosity; its wide corners were tucked back to give nothing away." (C 1)
  • "As any student of literature must, she knew all the sins of the world by name, but it was doubtful whether she recognised them when she met them in real life." (C 1)
  • "It was as though a misdemeanour committed by a person she knew was disarmed and disinfected by the contact." (C 1)
  • "The fact that one had loved and sinned and suffered and escaped death was of far less ultimate moment than a single footnote in a dim academic journal establishing the priority of a manuscript or restoring a lost iota subscript." (C 1)
  • "It’s a matter of a + b, you know. Only there happened to be an unknown factor.’ ‘Like that thing that keeps cropping up in the new kind of physics,’ said the Dean. ‘Planck’s constant, or whatever they call it.’" (C 2)
  • "there is no chance assembly of people who cannot make lively conversation about drains" (C 2)
  • "Authority as such commands very little respect nowadays, and I expect that is a good thing on the whole, though it makes the work of running any kind of institution more difficult." (C 3)
  • "A plough share is a nobler object than a razor. But if your natural talent is for barbering, wouldn’t it be better to be a barber, and a good barber – and use the profits (if you like) to speed the plough?" (C 3)
  • "If you’d spent your time washing and cooking for a family and digging potatoes and feeding cattle, you’d know that that kind of thing takes the edge off the razor." (C 3)
  • "Haunts of ancient peace were all very well, but very odd things could crawl and creep beneath lichen-covered stones." (C 3)
  • "one of the innumerable women with ‘school-teacher’ stamped on their resolutely cheery countenances" (C 3)
  • "She had begun to take Wimsey for granted, as one might take dynamite for granted in a munitions factory" (C 4)
  • "It’s surprisin’ how few people ever mean anything definite from one year’s end to the other." (C 4)
  • "when men put their public lives before their private lives, it causes less outcry than when a woman does the same thing, because women put up with neglect better than men, having been brought up to expect it." (C 9)
  • "She resented the way in which he walked in and out of her mind as if it was his own flat." (C 14)
  • "he was ready for mischief as a wilderness of monkeys." (C 17)
  • "there is only one kind of wisdom that has any social value, and that is the knowledge of one’s own limitations." (C 17)
  • "principles have become more dangerous than passions. It’s getting uncommonly easy to kill people in large numbers, and the first thing a principle does – if it really is a principle – is to kill somebody." (C 17)
  • "The Universities are always being urged to march in the van of progress. But epic actions are all fought by the rearguard – at Roncevaux and Thermopyl√¶." (C 17)
  • "What is the use of making mistakes if you don’t make use of them?" (C 18)
  • "Heroics that don’t come off are the very essence of burlesque." (C 18)
  • "as understandable and pleasant as daily bread." (C 23)
December 2020

This review was written by Dave Appleby the author of Motherdarling

I have set myself the task of reading all the Lord Peter Wimsey novels (mostly again) in order. The ones I have read and reviewed in this blog so far include:
  • Whose Body in which my Lord and his manservant, Bunter, are introduced
  • Clouds of Witness in which Lord Peter must sleuth to get his brother Gerald, Duke of Denver, off a murder charge; Bunter assists; policeman Parker falls in love with Peter's sister Mary
  • Unnatural Death which introduces another Wimsey sidekick: Miss Climpson; Bunter is involved
  • The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club; Bunter is involved as is Miss Climpson
  • Strong Poison which introduces Harriet Vane, a detective writer who becomes Lord Peter's love interest; Bunter realises Lord Peter's affection first
  • The Five Red Herrings; Lord Peter in Scotland; Bunter in the background
  • Have His Carcase: Harriet and Peter investigate the death of a gigolo with dreams; Bunter has a small supporting role
  • Murder Must Advertise: Peter goes undercover at an advertising agency; Bunter plays a very small role; policeman Parker has married Mary and they have sons
  • The Nine Tailors: Peter investigates the discovery of a body in someone else's grave in a small fenland village. Floods and campanology.

There are also Wimsey books written since the death of DLS by Jill Paton Walsh. These include:
  • The Attenbury Emeralds in which Lord Peter, in 1951, recalls the circumstances of his first case, the Attenbury Emeralds, which have gone missing again.
  • The Late Scholar: in which Wimsey returns to Oxford

This review was written by Dave Appleby the author of Motherdarling

Tuesday, 8 December 2020

"Making Beds in Brothels" by Adam Brock

Following a horrendous childhood, in which he was regularly beaten and possibly sexually abused by his father, a man who exhibited symptoms of mental illness, Adam was raped as a young teenager in a gay mar in Manchester. He became a child prostitute before working as a rent boy in brothels in Amsterdam and London. Somehow he survived. 

In this memoir, Adam reserves his strongest condemnation not for the clients who hired him. “I dislike categorising all those who pay for sex as somehow predatory or deviant; they are drawn from as wide a pool as any other group of humanity.” (C 17) He has compassion even for Mitchell, a long-time friend, who stole from him: “what kind of person steals the crutches from a man with a broken back?” (C 23). He feels that, as a child, he was repeatedly failed by the system. “Three times I went to the austere police station in the centre of Mobberley and reported that my father was abusing me. Three times nothing was done. No social workers were called, no review or check by the police, not a single investigation. All that happened was that each time I was returned to my father, and later received the beatings of my life as a result.” (C 5)
The youth leaders of his gay teenager group encouraged them to go to the bar where he was raped and, later, rented. A teacher refused to discuss his sexuality with him (it was illegal at the time for teachers to 'encourage' homosexuality under section 28 of the Local Government Act). Still well underage, he plied his trade unchallenged: “I regularly worked on the streets, between the age of fourteen and seventeen, and was never once stopped and asked what I was doing by a police officer, not a single time. And I was doing it in broad daylight, in a public area for the entire world to see, often under high spec surveillance cameras.” (C 9) “After escaping my father and moving to Manchester, aged fourteen, I was placed in local authority care with ‘Mad Anne’. Anne had a different man home every other night. Then, at sixteen, there was the city homeless shelter at Downing Street, a square red brick building with dormer roof, long demolished. I was a small, vulnerable kid living with city down and outs; the insane, the hopeless. My abiding memory of that place was simply how scary it was.” (C 13)

Many memoirs suffer from their 'one thing after another' structure (as opposed to novels in which the novelist is able to shape the narrative so that it grows and swells and creates meaning). I didn't notice it so much with this book, perhaps because of the shocking nature of the subject. It isn't strong on the detail of the sex, perhaps because Adam has become a born-again Christian; if you want to know about what goes on between a rentboy and his client I recommend Street Kid by Ned Williams. Both Adam and 'Steven' were sexually abused by their fathers; both identify as gay. Adam has a considerably longer career as a sex worker than 'Steven', perhaps because he spends most of his time in the more controlled environment of the brothel. But he ends up more damaged; 'Steven' starts his narrative with a nostalgic return to the streets and bars where he plied his trade.

The last part of the book describes Adam finding God. It makes interesting reading if you are concerned about the Problem of Evil, the idea that God cannot be both omnipotent and good because people suffer: 
  • There seems no need for a fiery hell elsewhere anyway, because many of us already dwell in it” (C 24)
  • there is a causality between God and sinfulness. Not that God inspires sin, but rather that we are of God and the world is of God, and sin happens through the sinner’s own freewill.” (C 24)
  • Sometimes my relationship with God seems to mirror my relationship with my father. Why does the omnipresent Deity, who ultimately oversees everything, allow me to suffer so much? If I deserve it and I’m being punished, are the words we are fed about a compassionate God who is radically forgiving, meaningless, empty promises meant simply to placate us? Presumably you can’t be both loving and drive someone into an early grave.” (C 27)
  • God says, I oversaw your abuse, you inevitably strayed due to the damage and de-normalisation of childhood trauma, now I’m going to punish you, perhaps till the strain becomes too much. But this is okay, this is the way to your redemption.” (C 27)
  • If hell is redemptive, as someone once told me, then it’s a bitter cup for all of us who have already suffered it.” (C 27)
There are some great moments:
  • Mobberley struggles along the bottom of a narrow valley, the town clawing unsuccessfully up the sides of the Pennines. The terrain halts the spread of development and the town remains low, dense and grey” (C 2)
  • It was a tough, unattractive place, hard on the lungs. You tasted the toxins in air, which gave the atmosphere a soupy, viscous quality that caught in the nostrils.” (C 2)
  • he grinds his strong white teeth into my face, pushing my head hard against them.” (C 3)
  • We didn’t learn the normal ways of regulating anger that children do. We didn’t throw tantrums or disobey in the normal way, everything was suppressed for fear of retribution.” (C 3)
  • for all the religion in that house there was an absolute absence of God.” (C 4)
  • He claimed that during the time he spent at his grandparents, he was aware of the dead that his grandmother invoked and that they tormented him in the dark.” (C 4)
  • Sometimes she forgot to fry the eggs, the yolks floating in viscous clear whites on your plate, frying the peas instead and boiling the chips.” (C 7)
  • Why did I keep going back after he had done so much? Because I was lonely. Because there was security in our familiarity. If I’m honest, I had no one else.” (C 7)
  • It may seem unlikely but If you want to know about good and bad people, ask prostitutes. A prostitute who doesn’t develop a nose for people’s hidden character – for what they are not telling you, or what they actually want as opposed to what they are saying they want – isn’t going to survive very long.” (C 10)
  • I once knew a man, a regular in the Old Reform bar in Manchester, who told me he purposefully supplied his lovers with drugs till they eventually become addicted, and then took pleasure in watching their lives fall apart. What he did was promote behaviour that might lead to these young men’s death; playing with their lives. He justified himself by saying that the men deserved it in some way: that they were using him and this was his means of revenge.” (C 10)
  • Both of us had been handed the sticky end of the lollipop and felt the world owed us something but we owed it nothing.” (C 10)
  • The Earl’s Court of my recollection smells of dust, the stink of the cars. Dust clings heavy to the buildings, trees, streets with the tenacity of lint, like static adhered to laundry.” (C 13)
  • Every surface is covered with thrift store tat” (C 13)
  • “Her perfume is her most memorable feature. It is mixture of patchouli, cannabis, stale sweat and the yeasty scent of body parts best not thought of; your nose knows of her presence long before your eyes” (C 13)
  • Would I know if I was dead? How do we know which of us are restless spirits that seek to undo what has been done, to untangle the Gordian knot of our lives?” (C 13)
  • One day you are young, the party is in full swing, then you blink, and everyone has left, and you are forty-nine, working reception in a doss house.” (C 13)
  • This was a business where not taking care of the product, in other words ourselves, was counterproductive. If I was going to survive and thrive, I had to take self-care seriously.” (C 15)
  • Commodification of the individual makes it possible to regard ourselves as any other product that is influenced by supply, demand or quantity.” (C 16)
  • I objectified myself as a means of meeting market requirements; I adjusted my appearance and persona.” (C 16)
  • A good scenario could reduce the time of the ‘massage’ considerably, the customer often becoming overwhelmed by the excitement.” (C 16)
  • We were the equivalent of a gourmet hot dog. Street enough to make the men feel as if they were buying into the ghetto fantasy, but without the risk of developing salmonella.” (C 16)
  • When you were in the sex-worker bubble, you ... lived, slept, socialised and worked in a very small area, so it was easier sometimes just to stay in character. The risk is, that you inevitably lose yourself to a greater or lesser degree, when you live a lie over an extended period of time.” (C 16)
  • There is a click and the room is suddenly brightly lit. The glass door in front of us, which initially looked like smoked glass, becomes an impenetrable mirror, through which we can see nothing other than our selves reflected back. In the darkness of the hallway, however, the customer can see each of us clearly under the bright spot-lights. We pull in our stomachs, pout our lips, predicating the duck face of the ubiquitous selfie by decades, as we try to make ourselves irresistible. A few moments pass. There is a sharp tap on the window, and the lights go out.” (C 17)
  • Being the first is almost talismanic, for it means you can relax – anything else will be gravy. Once you have that first client out of the way, everything will be all right. The anxiety is always that you won’t work that day.” (C 17)
  • There is an old saying about prostitutes, two great years, two okay years and two shit years.” ( 21)
  • My needs were always immediate. The immediate need for accommodation, for money or food. I needed drink and drugs to suppress the inevitable anxiety.” (C 21)
  • I needed to polish off entire bottles of neat whiskey to bring myself down from the drugs long enough for a few hours’ sleep.” (C 23)
  • That morning, suffering from drug-induced psychosis and under the impression I was under attack from demons waiting outside my door, that something that I could hear laughing and cajoling me with murderous intent in their voices was about to enter the room and consume me, I defenestrated myself, in spectacular fashion, hurtling myself out of the third story window, and falling in a shower of broken glass. I felt no fear as I flew through the air, toppling towards the concrete below.” (C 23)
  • “I was surrounded by voices of the dead who screamed into my ears, arguing whether I should live or die. I swear that, at that point, I felt as if I was overhearing a conversation taking place around me. That these spirits and others would decide my fate.” (C 23)
  • The most painful lesson you will ever learn is to understand that it is you yourself who is often the chief architect of your own misery.” (C 24)
  • Perhaps death has a quota that needs to be met, and my chance survival has put me on death’s list of escapees.” (C 24)
  • for years I had socialised with those who contributed to my exploitation. I saw these men walking down the street and rather than rushing over to them and screaming in their faces, striking them with my fists, I did nothing. I would sit next to them in a bar, and even nod acknowledgement to them. This normalisation now strikes me as perverse and it’s that normalisation that allows it to continue.” (C 25)
  • when you are hopeless you cling to any possibility that life will improve.” (C 27) Except he didn't. At one stage he tried to kill himself.

Mesmerising reading. December 2020

This review was written by Dave Appleby the author of Motherdarling

Sunday, 6 December 2020

"Wolf Solent" by John Cowper Powys

This is the first of JCP's four Wessex novels, described by A N Wilson as "four of the greatest ever to be written in our language." It was JCP's first critical success; it made his name as an author. It is long.

There are spoilers in the following review

The protagonist, Wolf Solent, returns to his Dorset routes after having had some sort of nervous breakdown (a 'malice attack') while teaching in a London school. He is hired by local gentry Mr Urquhart to write a history of the sexual shenanigans of Dorset, a job for which he is, perhaps, qualified because his father is buried locally having died in the workhouse after being disgraced following a number of affairs. Wolf swiftly gets involved with a number of characters with slightly mysterious pasts (most of the mysteries are easy to guess and soon resolved) including Selina Gault, a phenomenally ugly old maid and vegetarian who was one of his father's girlfriends, pornographic bookseller Mr Malakite who committed incest with his daughter, becoming grandfather and father to little Olwen, hatmaker Mr Smith who was cuckolded by Wolf's dad leading to the birth of Wolf's sister Mattie, alcoholic priest T E Valley, wannabe poet Jason and Mr Urquhart's gardener and confidential servant, the mysterious and threatening Roger Money. There is a Gothic air of menace; it is repeatedly hinted that Urquhart's former secretary Redfern was killed, or driven to suicide, by Urquhart and the demonic forces of Dorset.

Within a few days of meeting the incredibly beautiful Gerda Thorp, daughter of the local stone mason (and most 'fun' character), Wolf has seduced her (this carefully written passage is exactly 25% of the way through the narrative) and is soon to marry her. But beauty is not all he craves. He believes he has nmade a mistake because Gerda cannot fulfil him spiritually. Christie, daughter of Mr Malakite (but not the one he had sex with) is Wolf's dream lover.

Sounds promising. We have a Gothic mystery to unfold, we have some fantastic characters, there is lots of sexual naughtiness to uncover, and Wolf himself is torn between two women. What happens?

Not a lot. Wolf roams the countryside on long walks in a constant whirlwind of emotional and philosophical uncertainty. Is he going to have an affair with Christie? He comes to the cusp ... and then backs down. Is he going to refuse to write the book for Urquhart? He does ... and then changes his mind. Is he going to fling the cheque for doing the work in Urquhart's face? He does ... but the wind rescues it and he ends up cashing it. Is he going to drown himself in Lenty Pond? He reaches the edge ... and decides not to. He sees what appears to be a grave robbery (of Redfern's corpse) ... and then decides it is nothing. At the end of the book, having seen his wife sitting on another man's knee (proof of infidelity), Wolf has a long walk in a meadow for pages and pages and then decides to go back home and have a cup of tea, accepting that his fate is to be a teacher for the rest of his life.

As if that is the worst of fates. The protagonist is an utter cultural snob. He might have married the memorial mason's daughter but that was for her beauty; this low-bred girl obviously never going to be his intellectual equal; for that he will need Christie. He repeatedly thinks in terms of high culture: this is a vast demonstration of the protagonist's (and by extension, the author's) learning:
  • "Would his inner world of hushed Cimmerian ecstasies remain uninvaded by these Otters and Urquharts?" (C 2)
  • "He hadn't come to Dorsetshire to be oppressed by the ponderous labours of Royal Academicians." (C 4)
  • "her face had something of that lethargic sulkiness that is seen sometimes in ancient Greek sculpture." (C 4)
  • "Not Dante himself, when in the Inferno he heard a similar question from that proud tomb, could have been more startled than Wolf was at this extraordinary inquiry." (C 4)
  • "He loved the muslin curtains over the parlour-windows, and the ferns and flowerpots on the window-sills. He loved the quaint names of these little toy houses – names like Rosecot, Woodbine, Bankside, Primrose Villa."; C 4)
  • "Tisn't where a gentleman dies,' she responded, 'that makes the difference. 'Tis where he's born.'" (C 7)
  • "Am I like William of Deloraine, in Scott's poem, with the wizard's volume under my arm?'" (C 21)
  • "You write like a person who knows Greek,' he said gravely to Wolf. Wolf bowed. 'I know Greek too well,' he replied significantly." (C 21)
It would be readable were it not for the long-windedness. Wolf analyses every little moment of his life in interminable prose, punctuated by frequent exclamation marks:
  • "He recalled the figure of a man he had seen on the steps outside Waterloo Station. The inert despair upon the face that this figure had turned towards him came between him now and a hillside covered with budding beeches. The face was repeated many times among those great curving masses of emerald-clear foliage. It was an English face; and it was also a Chinese face, a Russian face, an Indian face. It had the variableness of that Protean wine of the priestess Bacbuc. It was just the face of a man, of a mortal man, against whom Providence had grown as malignant as a mad dog. And the woe upon the face was of such a character that Wolf knew at once that no conceivable social readjustments or ameliorative revolutions could ever atone for it – could ever make up for the simple irremediable fact that it had been as it had been!" (C 1)
  • "That was it! His normal attitude to life was just that – or nearer that than anything else! It was a worship of all the separate, mysterious, living souls he approached: 'souls' of grass, trees, stones, animals, birds, fish; 'souls' of planetary bodies and of the bodies of men and women; the 'souls', even, of all manner of inanimate little things; the 'souls' of all those strange, chemical groupings that give a living identity to houses, towns, places, countrysides ...." (C 4)
  • "His mind withdrew into itself with a jerk at this point, trying to push away a certain image of things that rose discomfortably upon him – the image of a countryside covered from sea to sea by illuminated stations for airships, overspread from sea to sea by thousands of humming aeroplanes! What would ever become of Tilly-Valley's religion in that world, with head-lights flashing along cemented highways, and all existence dominated by electricity? What would become of old women reading by candlelight? What would become of his own life-illusion, his secret 'mythology', in such a world?" (C 8)
  • "In the storm of her abandonment, the light irony that was her personal armour against life seemed to drop from her, piece by glittering piece, and fall tinkling upon the floor. Something impersonal rose up in its place, an image of all the stricken maternal nerves that had vibrated and endured through long centuries; so that it became no longer just a struggle between Wolf Solent and Ann Solent – it became a struggle between the body of Maternity itself and the bone of its bone! She broke now into desperate sobs and flung herself face down upon the sofa. But the demon that tore at her vitals was not yet content. Turning half round towards Wolf, and lifting herself up by her arms, she raised a long, pitiful howl like a trapped leopard in the jungle. 'Women ... women ... women!' she cried aloud" (C 14)
  • "His mother and Gerda had lost their separate identities. They had become the point of a prodding shaft of yellow light that was at the same time the point of Darnley's trim beard! This shaft was now pushing him towards another misery, which took the form of a taste in his mouth, a taste that he especially loathed, though he could only have defined it, even to himself, as the taste of salad and vinegar! But, whatever it was, this taste was Miss Gault. The shaft of yellow light that prodded him on had the power of thinning out and bleaching out his whole world, taking the moist sap quite away from it, leaving it like a piece of blown paper on an asphalt pavement. Between these two things – the blighting light and the corrosive taste – he felt an actual indrawn knot of impotence tying itself together within him, a knot that was composed of threads in his stomach, of threads in the pulses of his wrists, and of threads behind his eye-sockets!" (C 18)
  • "They would dissect love, till it became 'an itch of the blood and a permission of the will'; they would kill all calm, all peace, all solitude; they would profane the majesty of death till they vulgarized the very background of existence; they would flout the souls of the lonely upon the earth, until there was not one spot left by land or by water where a human being could escape from the brutality of mechanism, from the hard glitter of steel, from the gaudy insolence of electricity!" (C 25)
Even when he is reasonably short, he can be incredibly pompous:
  • "It seemed to Solent as though all the religions in the world were nothing but so many creaking and splashing barges, whereon the souls of men ferried themselves over those lakes of primal silence, disturbing the swaying water-plants that grew there and driving away the shy water-fowl!" (C 1)
  • "It was she alone who could give the bitter-sweet tang to reality, to his phantasmal life, and make the ground under his feet firm. ... it was she alone who made the world he lived in solid and resistant to the touch. He felt that without her the whole thing might split and tear – as if it had been made of thin paper!" (C 6)
  • "a whole region of interests and values that had nothing to do with love-making and nothing to do with romance. Was love itself, then, and all its mysteries, only a kind of magic gate leading into a land full of alien growths and unfamiliar soils?" (C 10)
  • "It was the kind of book the debased purpose of which is simply and solely to play upon the morbid erotic nerves of unbalanced sensuality." (C 19)
  • "At this moment it was given to him to taste those secret dregs of misery, cold as ice and black as pitch, that lie dormant under the lips of every descendant of Adam." (C 19)
  • "that was the way things worked out! Instead of either of the great clear horns of Fate's dilemma, a sort of blurred and woolly forehead of the wild goat Chance!" (C 20)
  • "The spiritual 'aura' emanating from the Weevil mansion attacked him like a miasma of desolation" (C 21)
  • "he got a glimpse of, beneath this man's gentlemanly mask, was something different from viciousness. It was as if some abysmal ooze from the slime of that which underlies all evil had been projected to the surface." (C 9)
  • "It was then that an incredibly sweet fragrance came in through the open window! It may have been only the hyacinths; but, as Wolf breathed it in, it seemed to him much more than that. It seemed to come from masses of bluebells under undisturbed green hazels!" (C 24)
One could argue that this is 'stream of consciousness' writing and that JCP's work (Wolf Solent was published in 1929) should be put on a par with Virginia Woolf (Mrs Dalloway 1925, To The Lighthouse 1927, The Waves 1931) or James Joyce (Ulysses 1922). I suppose that I felt the difference was that JCP's prose was too convoluted, too punctuated by those damnable !! and too long. I found it over the top. There was so much excitement that I became bored. It wasn't dramatic, it was melodramatic. More was less. 

There are moments when the s-of-c becomes lists and I thought that was better because of the multiplicity of images swiftly evoked. In these examples there is a simplicity to JCP's writing that disappears when he gets carried away.
  • "It was wont to appear in strange places, this city of his fancy ... at the bottom of teacups ... or the window-panes of privies ... in the soapy water of baths ... in the dirty marks on wallpapers ... in the bleak coals of dead summer-grates ... between the rusty railings of deserted burying-grounds ... above the miserable patterns of faded carpets ... among the nameless litter of pavement-gutters" (C 7)
  • "Upon every tiniest and least-important object he looked, that night, with a purged simplicity, a spontaneous satisfaction. The pine-wood boarding at the edge of the linoleum stair-carpet, the pegs where their coats hung, the handles of the dresser drawers, the rows of balanced plates, the cups suspended from the little hooks, the metal knobs at the end of their bed, Gerda's comb and brush, the candlestick still covered with grease, and two exposed soap-dishes on the washing-stand, one containing a small piece of Pears' soap and one containing a square lump of common yellow soap – all these things thrilled him, fascinated him, threw him into an ecstasy of well-being." (C 17)
If it is a modern novel (and it did remind me at times of the Parade's End tetralogy of Ford Madox Ford: Some Do Not, No More Parades, A Man Could Stand Up, and Last Post) it is so by its treatment of sex. On the other hand it reveals its Victorianism partly in its prolix prose and partly in the hatred of the protagonist for modern technology, represented by aeroplanes (trains seem to be OK):
  • "He was telling his pupils quite quietly about Dean Swift; and all of a sudden some mental screen or lid or dam in his own mind completely collapsed and he found himself pouring forth a torrent of wild, indecent invectives upon every aspect of modern civilization. " (C 1)
  • "He felt as though, with aeroplanes spying down upon every retreat like ubiquitous vultures, with the lanes invaded by iron-clad motors like colossal beetles, with no sea, no lake, no river free from throbbing, thudding engines, the one thing most precious of all in the world was being steadily assassinated." (C 1)
  • "The long, cold clutch of scientific discovery, laid, like metallic fingers, upon the human pulse, could not despoil the dignity of existence here" (C 18) Which, of course, is why characters die from pneumonia.
At least it starts as it means to go on, with a warning in the very first lines: "From Waterloo Station to the small country town of Ramsgard in Dorset is a journey of not more than three or four hours, but having by good luck found a compartment to himself, Wolf Solent was able to indulge in such an orgy of concentrated thought, that these three or four hours lengthened themselves out into something beyond all human measurement." (C 1) It is certainly an orgy of thoughts, and the hours certainly felt long.

There are some great set-pieces, my favourite coming just after the 25% mark, immediately after Wolf has seduced Gerda, and is in the pub. A number of the mysteries are resolved here (a bit early, in my opinion) and for once the conversation, including dialect spoken by the working-class characters, becomes real:
  • "tis wondrous for a man what works with chisel and hammer all day, to sit and see what folks be like who never do a stroke." (C 8)
  • "Mr Otter says Squire Urquhart have sold his soul to that black son-of-a-gun who works in's garden, and that 'tis bookseller Malakite here in Blacksod whose books do larn 'em their deviltries!" (C 8)
  • "thee'd best do as I do say, Mr Redfern Number Two, for thee's been clipping and cuddling our Gerda, 'sknow, and I be only to tell missus on 'ee, and fat be in fire." (C 8)

Other moments I enjoyed:
  • "He felt as though he were tightening his muscles for a plunge into very treacherous waters." (C 2)
  • "I'd like to get the sort of perspective on human occurrences that the bedposts in brothels must come to possess – and the counters of bar rooms – and the butlers' pantries in old houses – and the muddy ditches in long-frequented lovers' lanes." (C 3)
  • "The Lord gives beef, but us must go to the Devil for sauce" (C 5)
  • "although beauty, up to a certain point, is provocative of lust, beyond a certain point it is destructive of lust" (C 5)
  • "Directly they touch me I run away. I want them to want me. It's a lovely feeling to be wanted like that. It's like floating on a wave. But when they try any of their games, messing a person about and rumpling a person's clothes, I can't bear it. I won't bear it, either!" (C 5)
  • "Pity's the most cruel trap ever invented." (C 6)
  • "I don't know whether the Virgin Mary ever appeared to him; but I know he used to take her flowers, because he used to steal them out of our garden!" (C 6)
  • "the vein of amorousness in him, like a velvet-padded panther in a blind night, slipped wickedly past all the magic of yesterday's walk and caused his heart to beat at the imaginary image – for he had never actually seen that provocative picture – of the young girl astride the tombstone!" (C 6)
  • "the furtive unction of an official who had collected many threepenny bits in an embroidered bag weighed upon his stooping shoulders." (C 6)
  • "if you had pity and there was one miserable consciousness left in the universe, you had no right to be happy." (C 7)
  • "cider-sour human breath" (C 9)
  • "the very strength in his mother, which had been such security to him in his childhood, was the thing now with which he had to struggle to gain his liberty – that protective, maternal strength, the most formidable of all psychic forces!" (C 9)
  • "It's best to mind one's own business. That's what God's so good at ... minding His own business!" (C 9)
  • "His thoughts became complicated just at this moment by the teasing necessity of finding some place among those tents where he could make water." (C 9) How rarely in books do protagonists urinate!
  • "The acrid, ammoniacal smell of that casual retreat brought back to his mind the public lavatory on the esplanade at Weymouth, into which, from the sun-warmed sands, he used to descend by a flight of spittle-stained steps." (C 9)
  • "it's only the daft 'uns what'll serve for his cantrips – the girt bog-wuzzel 'ee is!'" (C 9)
  • "the vast company of clocks and watches all the world over, ticking, ticking, ticking – sending up, in tiny metallic beats, vibrations of human computation into the depths of unthinkable space." (C 10)
  • "what of all things he wanted most at that moment was just to make rough, reckless, self-obliterating love to her." (C 10)
  • "Life is short,' said the skeleton, 'and the love of girls is the only escape from its miseries.' 'It's not so short as all that,' retorted the son, ' and in every Paradise there is a snake!'" (C 10)
  • "they do play blasphemous play-actings out there, same as Lot's wife were salted for." (C 11)
  • "I lives in a God-fearing daily-bread town" (C 11)
  • "You got no more memory than a pig, Bob Weevil.' 'Depends who and what and when,' was the grocer's retort." (C 11)
  • "an immense solitude descended upon him, and he began to realize, as he had never realized before, how profoundly alone upon this planet each individual soul really is." (C 11)
  • "there came over him a deep, disturbing craving for Christie – a craving so intense that the vision of all the length of all the days of his life without her seemed more than he could bear. 'Only one life,' he thought to himself. 'Only one life, between two eternities of non-existence ... and I am proposing deliberately to sacrifice in it the one thing that I really want!'" (C 11)
  • "Gerda? ... Christie? ... What are they? Two skeletons covered with flesh; one richly and flexibly covered ... one sparsely and meagrely covered!" (C 11)
  • "it's better to be dead in death than dead in life." (C 12)
  • "Dolls – dolls – dolls!' thought Wolf. 'If we can slip out of reality, why can't they slip into it?" (C 13)
  • "it came over him with a wave of remorseful shame that this formidable being, so grotesquely reduced, was the actual human animal out of whose entrails he had been dragged into light and air." (C 14)
  • "What you have found out today, worm of my folly, I had outgrown when I was in the Sixth at Ramsgard and was seduced by Western minor in the headmaster's garden." (C 15)
  • "Tis a wonderful disposing of Providence, Mr Solent, when old men can flutter young ladies and make their hands fidget. 'Tis not been allowed to I, such privileges and portions. And yet I be a man, I reckon, what knows the road royal as well as another!" (C 16)
  • "It may be a good world,' he remarked sententiously, and 'and it may be a bad world, but it's the world; and us has got to handle 'un with eyes in our heads for landslides." (C 16)
  • "Tis a pond that would drown the likes of you and me, maybe. But they boys! Why, they'd bathe in Satan's spittle and come out sweet." (C 16)
  • "I never will believe, until the day Nature kills me, that there's such a thing as "reality", apart from the mind that looks at it!" (C 16)
  • "his nerves were so completely jangled by this time that he was just tinder-wood for any casual spark." (C 18)
  • "we all have to be bad sometimes ... just as we all have to be good sometimes" (C 21)
  • "We have to do outrageous things sometimes, just because we are lonely!" (C 21)
  • "There's only one thing required of us in this world, and that's not to be a burden" (C 21)
  • "Them whose brains be work-sodden have to guard theyselves from He. If 'twere only plagues and pestilences He showered down, it might be all one. 'Tis they lightnings, murders, and sudden deaths what send we to cover ... same as the poor beasties in field!'" (C 21)
  • "You think your ideas are wonderful, because you've got a great library." (C 21)
  • "You like good meals. You like watching boys bathe." (C 21)
  • "You think your life is grand and devilish, when all you are is a silly old man with a boy's death on your conscience." (C 21)
  • "only them as jumps the ditches goes dry to bed!" (C 22)
  • "I'm all in favour of honest bawdry myself; but why sing such a song about it? Natural or unnatural, it's nature. It's mortal man's one great solace before he's annihilated!" (C 24)

Intriguingly, it is the second book in a month I have read to have had a character with the far-from-usual name of Mr Malakite: the other was Warlight by Michael Ondaatje.

December 2020

This review was written by Dave Appleby the author of Motherdarling

Sunday, 29 November 2020

"The Nine Tailors" by Dorothy L Sayers

Widely regarded as the best of the Lord Peter Wimsey books. On New Year's Eve, Lord Peter and his man, Bunter, are stranded in the middle of the fens when their car goes off the road; they find shelter in the vicarage. We discover that one of Lord Peter's many talents is that he is a bell ringer and can stand in at the last moment for a ringer down with influenza on the night when a nine hour peal is to be rung. Sometime later a body is discovered (in someone else's grave) but for most of this book murder takes a back seat to the campanology (the art of bell-ringing) which informs almost every aspect of this book (including a fiendishly difficult cipher):
  • The art of change ringing is peculiar to the English, and, like most English peculiarities, unintelligible to the rest of the world.” (1.1)
  • By the English campanologist, the playing of tunes is considered to be a childish game, only fit for foreigners; the proper use of bells is to work out mathematical permutations and combinations.” (1.1)
Towards the end, even the bells take second place as the fens are flooded (again with minute detail about sluice gates and cuts. Nevertheless, Lord Peter satisfactorily solves not only the crime to hand but also one committed many years ago.

The Nine Tailors refers to the nine strokes of the bell that tolls (or tells ie counts, hence tailor) for the passing of a man (six for a woman, traditionally) to be followed by one toll for every year of his life.

I enjoyed it especially because one of my friends at university was Mike Wilderspin, descended from an early motor mechanic who was celebrated by DLS as Ezra Wilderspin, "the blacksmith – an excellent fellow.” (1.1) Mike was an excellent fellow too.

Some great moments:
  • The narrow, hump-backed bridge, blind as an eye-less beggar, spanned the dark drain at right-angles, dropping plumb down upon the narrow road that crested the dyke.” (1.1)
  • He spat upon his hands, grasped the sallie of Tailor Paul, and gently swung the great bell over the balance. Toll-toll-toll; and a pause; toll-toll-toll; and a pause; toll-toll-toll; the nine tailors, or teller-strokes, that mark the passing of a man. The year is dead; toll him out with twelve strokes more, one for every passing month.” (1.2)
  • When I was a lad, there wasn’t none of this myster’ousness about. Everything was straightforward an’ proper. But ever since eddication come in, it’s been nothing but puzzlement, and fillin’ up forms and ’ospital papers and sustificates and such, before you can get even as much as your Lord George pension.” (2.2)
  • Five minutes’ practice before the glass every day, and you will soon acquire that vacant look so desirable for all rogues, detectives and Government officials.” (2.3)
  • Bells are like cats and mirrors – they’re always queer, and it doesn’t do to think too much about them.” (3.2)

A detective story that becomes just a little bit more ... although most of the references to bells might as well have been written in Sanskrit.

November 2020

This review was written
by the author of Motherdarling

I have set myself the task of reading all the Lord Peter Wimsey novels (mostly again) in order. The ones I have read and reviewed in this blog so far include:
  • Whose Body in which my Lord and his manservant, Bunter, are introduced
  • Clouds of Witness in which Lord Peter must sleuth to get his brother Gerald, Duke of Denver, off a murder charge; Bunter assists; policeman Parker falls in love with Peter's sister Mary
  • Unnatural Death which introduces another Wimsey sidekick: Miss Climpson; Bunter is involved
  • The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club; Bunter is involved as is Miss Climpson
  • Strong Poison which introduces Harriet Vane, a detective writer who becomes Lord Peter's love interest; Bunter realises Lord Peter's affection first
  • The Five Red Herrings; Lord Peter in Scotland; Bunter in the background
  • Have His Carcase: Harriet and Peter investigate the death of a gigolo with dreams; Bunter has a small supporting role
  • Murder Must Advertise: Peter goes undercover at an advertising agency; Bunter plays a very small role; policeman Parker has married Mary and they have sons

There are also Wimsey books written since the death of DLS by Jill Paton Walsh. These include:
  • The Attenbury Emeralds in which Lord Peter, in 1951, recalls the circumstances of his first case, the Attenbury Emeralds, which have gone missing again.
  • The Late Scholar: in which Wimsey returns to Oxford

Friday, 27 November 2020

"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje

This is a strangely constructed book. The first half is a more or less chronologically straightforward account of the experiences of a fourteen year-old boy, left with his sister in the care of the lodger while his mother and father are supposedly in Singapore. The lodger has some strange acquaintances and young Nathaniel frequently skips school, has a number of part-time jobs, has sex in a series of empty houses with his first girlfriend, and gets involved in the fringes of criminality with The Darter. The second half jumps back and forwards in time as Nathaniel, now in his late twenties, tries to reconstruct his mother's wartime and post-wartime experiences in an attempt to understand why she abandoned her children.

I found the first half much more satisfying than the second. The second half seemed fragmentary. The character on Marsh Felon, while flagged up in the first half, seemed improbable but more to the point poorly integrated within the narrative. There were a number of mysteries that were never satisfactorily resolved, such as why Nathaniel made such an effort to track down the past of his mother but no effort to find out anything about his almost equally elusive father. And why were the children of what seemed to be such an eminent businessman so neglected and allowed to roam free? The first half really didn't reconcile with the second half.

But full marks for verisimilitude; it read just like a memoir. The author was two at the time the narrative starts.

And there is a wonderful, hooking first line: "In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals."

There were some other memorable moments:
  • "Ours was a family with a habit for nicknames, which meant it was also a family of disguises." (1, A Table Full of Strangers)
  • "Rachel and I crouched on the carpet working on a jigsaw puzzle, piecing together sections of a blue sky." This is a nice metaphor. (1, A Table Full of Strangers)
  • "Mahler put the word schwer beside certain passages in his musical scores. Meaning “difficult”. “Heavy”. We were told this at some point by The Moth, as if it was a warning. He said we needed to prepare for such moments in order to deal with them efficiently, in case we suddenly had to take control of our wits. Those times exist for all of us, he kept saying. Just as no score relies on only one pitch or level of effort from musicians in the orchestra. Sometimes it relies on silence." (1, Hell-Fire)
  • "Picasso as a youth, I’m told, painted only in candlelight, to admit the altering movement of shadows." (1, Hell-Fire)
  • "I rustle awake a lover from my teenage years." (1, Hell-Fire)
  • "with time the Fleet ended its life as a path for sewage. And when even those underground sewers dried up, their grand Wren-like vaulted ceilings and arcades became illegal meeting places beneath the city where people would gather during the night, in the no-longer-damp path of its stream." (1, Hell-Fire)
  • "a queue of dust-covered saints, some with arrows in their armpits, courteously lined up, as if waiting to register." (1, The Sinister Benevolence of the Lift Boy)
  • "one of those half-hour comedies where the humour depended almost totally on the repetition of stock phrases." (1, The Sinister Benevolence of the Lift Boy)
  • "Everything the ex-boxer did was at a precarious tilt, about to come loose." (1, The Sinister Benevolence of the Lift Boy)
  • “'Half the life of cities occurs at night,' Olive Lawrence warned us. 'There’s a more uncertain morality then'." (1, The Sinister Benevolence of the Lift Boy)
  • "Your own story is just one, and perhaps not the important one. The self is not the principal thing.” (1, The Sinister Benevolence of the Lift Boy)
  • "In youth we are not so much embarrassed by the reality of our situation as fearful others might discover and judge it." (1, Agnes Street)
  • "These were parts of the city that since the war were only partially lived in. We passed streets of rubble, now and then a bonfire." (1, The Mussel Boat)
  • "When I woke, a dog’s thin sleeping face was beside me, breathing calmly into mine, busy with its dreams. It heard the change in my waking breath and opened its eyes. Then shifted position and placed its paw on my forehead gently, either as a gesture of careful compassion or superiority." (1, The Mussel Boat)
  • "how do we survive that forty miles of bad terrain during adolescence that we crossed without any truthful awareness of ourselves?" (1, The Mussel Boat)
  • "You return to that earlier time armed with the present, and no matter how dark that world was, you do not leave it unlit. You take your adult self with you. It is not to be a reliving, but a rewitnessing." (1, The Mussel Boat)
  • "she had cleared her schedule to come and watch me dance, chaotic and Dionysian, at a Bromley jazz club with a girl she did not know, who leapt into and out of my arms." (2, Inheritance)
  • "When you attempt a memoir, I am told, you need to be in an orphan state. So what is missing in you, and the things you have grown cautious and hesitant about, will come almost casually towards you." (2, The Saints)
  • "She was organised, ardently neat, whereas he was the rabbit’s wild brother, leaving what looked like the path of an undressing hurricane wherever he went."  (2, The Saints)
  • "He always knew the layered grief of the world as well as its pleasures."  (2, The Saints)
  • You need to know not just how to enter a battle zone but how to get out of it. Wars don’t end. They never remain in the past." (2, Wildfowling)
  • Historical studies inevitably omit the place of the accidental in life,” (2, The Astral Plough)
  • "Felon stands beside a gathering of marble scholars and philosophers, turning quickly as if he might catch a look or a thought in them. He loves the permanent judgement on the faces of statues, their clear weakness or deviousness." (2, The Street of Small Daggers)
  • "We are foolish as teenagers. We say wrong things, do not know how to be modest, or less shy. We judge easily. But the only hope given us, although only in retrospect, is that we change. We learn, we evolve. What I am now was formed by whatever happened to me then, not by what I have achieved, but by how I got here." (2, A Walled Garden)
  • "I know how to fill in a story from a grain of sand or a fragment of discovered truth."  (2, A Walled Garden)
  • "They were in a busy life, where each farthing mattered, where every tube of toothpaste was bought at a specific price."  (2, A Walled Garden)
  • "We order our lives with barely held stories."  (2, A Walled Garden)

Two points of personal interest. First, part of the mother's wartime experience is in Chicksands Priory in Bedfordshire which was a radio listening post in WWII. Years later, when it was a USAF Air Base, I spent a night ghost hunting in the Priory. As I drove up there was a thunder storm, as if the heavens were greeting me in classic B -movie style. When the storm abated a fireman from the air base came to check that the fire alarm systems in the old Priory (a listed building) were in order. No one had told him about the ghost watchers and when I opened the door to greet him he had the scare of his life. I have never seen a big burly American fireman so frightened. We spent the whole night watching although the ghost was supposed to roam the building between midnight and two AM. At almost exactly one AM the dog whop was with us howled horribly. Apart from that, nothing.

The second is that a place in Naples called Posillipo (meaning 'break from sorrow') is mentioned; this is the name of a restaurant in Canterbury where I now live.

An uneven narrative but there are some moments of beauty. November 2020; 

This review was written
by the author of Motherdarling