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

Thursday, 27 February 2020

"Child of Fortune" by Yuko Tsushima

Koko, a single parent, has a job she doesn't really enjoy and an eleven-year-old daughter with whom she has a fractured relationship and who is presently living with Shoko, Koko's sister, who seems to want to adopt her. Then Koko discovers she is pregnant. The story is told from the point of view of Koko in an interwoven mixture of dialogue, experiences, memories and dreams which gives it an unearthly quality (reinforced in the final pages when Koko pretends to be an extraterrestrial).

The style of the prose is mostly straightforward and matter of fact which makes the dialogue sometimes seem over-formal. Perhaps this is a Japanese 'style'. It reminded me of what Cixin Liu is talking about in The Three Body Problem"Chinese brush paintings are full of blank spaces, but life in Qijiatun had no blank spaces. Like classical oil paintings, it was filled with thick, rich, solid colours." I wondered whether this feeling of 'style' was linked to this. But in chapter two Tsushima describes the night thus: "It was still raining, a viscous, opaque rain. The steamy windows reduced the street scene to blurred shadows. The street lamps ... were circled by spreading blots of violet light." This felt very much like the "thick, solid colours" of westernised oil painting. Nevertheless, with this book and The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe, another Japanese writer, there is a feeling of minimalism in the prose.

It is a short novel and the narrative seems unstructured; it is sometimes difficult to tell where memory ends and present day returns; Koko believes the father of her foetus is Osada on page 5 but since this is the only mention of him until well over half way through the book I wondered whether I had misunderstood and whether another of Koko's lovers, Doi, was the father.

Spoilers: There is structure. Koko's preganancy is revealed almost immediately but she doesn't tell her sister until just over the half-way mark and she doesn't discover that the pregnancy is imaginary until just over the 75% mark.

  • Some of my favourite moments:
  • "You have to compete with your own kind. If a bird imitated a fish, it would only drown." (C 2)
  • "It was she who'd trampled her relationship with Doi underfoot - under the dirty feet of respectability." (C 2)
  • "Lately she was more convinced than ever that there was no point in worrying what people thought. She would soon be thirty-seven. The only person watching Koko at thirty-seven was Koko." (C 2)
  • "Over a dizzying span of years the universe repeats its rhythm of birth, collapse, and regeneration. ... The world is just a great illusion flowing emptily by; we mustn't be deceived.  Where, then, should we seek the truth that passes into eternity? Hidden in the present, in a single instant, is the power to shatter the illusion. In this single present instant the eyes of eternity open, eyes that can penetrate the secrets of the movements of the cosmos." (C 2)
  • "Her hands had melted into the baby's flesh as if squeezing an overripe banana." (C 5)
  • "Why did she go on living still? There was no justification, none. ... whichever way she looked at herself, there wasn't a single redeeming feature to be found. They were wasting the food and clothes they gave her, and the place at school. The more she thought about it, the less reason she saw to carry on. Yet she made no attempt to die, and this very fact added to her humiliation. Dying was too frightening, after all, to be seriously contemplated." (C 7)

An interesting exploration of life in Japan. February 2020; 153 pages

Another elegant novel by Tsushima (with a very similar theme) is Territory of Light.

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

"Veniss Underground" by Jeff Vandermeer

This novel seems to be a cross between Dante's Inferno and the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice set in a 28(?)th century city with at least 10 levels underground and skyscrapers at least 67 storeys high. The city has become divided into zones, each patrolled by 'police for hire', lawlessness and chaotic free enterprise rule. Bioengineering has resulted in a variety of deformed life forms. In particular Quin has provided the city with Ganeshas as security police) and meerkats (with hands and language) who act as servants and bodyguards (and assassins).

Nicholas is a holo-artist whose creations have been burgled; he seeks a meerkat so he goes to Quin and offers to work for him in exchange (selling his soul to the devil?). He disappears. His vat-twin Nicola searches for him and is provided with a rather sinister servant meerkat. When she too disappears Shadrach, who was born underground but allowed to come up top as a result of winning a lottery, who used to be Nicola's lover but now works for Quin, goes to seek her and bring her back.

He therefore descends into the underworld. I recognise glimpses of other afterlifes in literature. For example, from the Odyssey(?): "A thousand lost souls populated the land along the shore, condemned to wander until death." (3.7). I wondered to what extent there were echoes of the Gilgamesh story too.

This is the sort of science fiction novel in which the world-building is important and Vandermeer builds a convincing world of anarchy and nightmare described in passages of free-wheeling description which teeters on the edge of the baroque without ever tumbling into purple prose. Vandermeer himself describes it as an "unabashedly, decadent, phantasmagorical novel." Indeed, unabashed if not self-indulgent. There was a great deal of invention but in the end I didn't really care which of the warped creations survived and which failed.

Some of my favourite moments:

  • "I'd be bored - and not even to death, unhappily, just to near death." (2.1)
  • "On his way to hell, Shadrach stopped at his apartment." (3.1)
  • "His father: a silent giant of a man who caved in on himself over the years until it seemed the flames had devoured him, a sad husk who had done the best he could for his family. His mother skipped from job to job with a flexibility and ease that was frivolous next to his father's stoic centredness." (3.2)

I have read a number of this type of novel. Others might include:

I suppose that for me these books sink or swim firstly by the strength of their characters and secondly by their ability to convince me that their fantasy worlds convey to me a message about the real world, in other words to what extent they succeed as an allegory.

February 2020; 248 pages

Sunday, 23 February 2020

"The Ballad of Peckham Rye" by Muriel Spark

Written and set at the start of the 1960s, the Ballad of Peckham Rye is the story of Dougal Douglas (or perhaps Douglas Dougal) who gets a job at a manufacturing company in Peckham. He is a strange person (he himself suggests he is a minor demon and invites a friend to feel his skull where he says he had his devil's horns removed) around whom things start to happen. Written in very straightforward 'no nonsense' prose with a fair amount of repetition and a good ear for dialect, this short novel makes the everyday bizarre seem very straightforward. As Dougal observes: "All human beings who breathe are a bit unnatural." (C 5)

The turning point of this novel comes just after the halfway mark.

Of course this book is all about the character of Dougal. He is sinisterly manipulative and sometimes frankly awful as in this conversation:
"'Dougal, I've had a rotten life.' 
'And it isn't over yet,' Dougal said ... 'There might be worse ahead.'" (C 7)

The other characters are far less important. Mr Druce, Dougal's boss, is having an affair with Miss Coverdale, head of the typing pool. Trevor, the antagonist, is leader of a rather pathetic gang which includes the barely adult Collie and the 13 year old Leslie. Dixie is saving for her wedding so hard that she has become mean and has forgotten how to have fun, her two jobs leave her too tired for pre-marital sex with fiancee Humphrey.

The background of the story is also one of the characters. Cafes, pubs and dance halls, typing pools and factory floors, wannabe gangsters and juvenile delinquents, boarding houses and respectful local bobbies. This is a beautifully told 'ballad'.

Some great moments:

  • "We used to have open-plan ... so that you could see everyone in the office without the glass ... But the bosses wanted their privacy back, so we had the glass partitions put up." (C 3)
  • "Leslie stopped chewing for an instant and stared back at Dougal in such disgust that he seemed to be looking at Dougal through his nostrils rather than he eyes." (C 3)
  • "At your age I was putting all my wages what I had left over after paying my keep on my back." (C 3)
  • "As an accepted thing, any of the girls might break off in the middle of a sentence, should a young man approach her, and, turning to him, might give him her entire and smiling regard." (C 4)
  • "Beauty walked off on her own, with her high determined heels and her model-girl sway, placing her feet confidently and as on a chalk line." (C 4)
  • "Consider the story of Moses in the bulrushes. That was a crafty trick. The mother got her baby back and all expenses paid into the bargain." (C 6)

Delightful. February 2020; 141 pages

Thursday, 20 February 2020

"What If?" by Randall Munroe

A weird science geek sort of book which takes hypothetical scenarios and uses science to predict what would happen. "If you suddenly began rising at one foot per second, how exactly would you die?" That sort of thing. The question about what would happen if all your DNA disappeared, whilst fanciful, did at least spark a discussion of chemotherapy which is designed to interrupt cell division thus targeting rapid dividers such as cancel cells ... and the cells that line the stomach and hair follicles which is why you get nausea and your hair falls out. (p 135) But when he calculates Yoda's power output based on the size of the plane he lifts from the marsh and how high and how fast he lifts it, and finding the appropriate planet's gravity from the fan site Wookiepedia (p 144), I start to realise that there are geekier geeks than me.

Some of these scenarios are interesting (though almost all are incredibly unlikely if not impossible). As with all books such as this one I discovered random nuggets of gold:

  • Following the ice age species returned to New England at different rates: "when Europeans arrived in New England, earthworms had not yet returned." (p 17)
  • "It seems reasonable to assume that however the human story plays out, in a million years it will have exited its current stage. ... Our most lasting relic will probably be the layer of plastic we've deposited across the planet." (p 21)
  • "If your phone has a barometer in it ... you can download an app and actually see the pressure difference between your head and your feet." (p 74) although I tried this and with the app and phone I was using there was no difference. Perhaps I'm too short (1m85).
  • All the hard drives in the world used to store the data on the internet could fit into a single oil tanker. (p 87) That was reassuring.

Some clever stuff but ...

February 2020; 295 pages

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

"Anita and Me" by Meera Syal

Meera Syal is a writer, comedian and actor; she came to prominence in the comedy sketch show Goodness, Gracious Me.

This is a semi-autobiographical novel about the author's childhood, born to Indian parents and growing up in a small town outside Wolverhampton. Narrator and protagonist Meena is a little girl who has trouble telling the truth. She hero-worships Anita, top hen in the farmyard of local girls; Meena wants to be part of Anita's gang. Given the background of endless Aunties and Uncles (mostly unrelated fellow Indian immigrants), the poor working people of the ex-mining town, and the whiplash of racism, Meena's negotiation of the culture clash was never going to be easy.

Ben Elton describes it as a cross between Tom Sawyer and Cider with Rosie but for my money the biggest influence is To Kill a Mockingbird, another novel about racism, in which the feisty young heroine is eventually rescued by the demonised and mysterious stranger in the Big House.

The big turning point is the village fete which occurs at the 60% mark. This is the point when the village bad boy, hero-worshipped by the young Meena, reveals himself as a racist and when Nanima (her mother's mother) arrives like a magical Mary Poppins.

Some of the great moments:

  • "I'm really not a liar, I just learned very early on that those of us deprived of history sometimes need to turn to mythology to feel complete, to belong."
  • Following an exposure to Midlands dialect: "Just because the English can't speak English themselves, does not mean you have to talk like an urchin. You take the best from their culture, not the worst. You'll be swearing and urinating in telephone boxes next." (C 3)
  • "the tinnitus of conscience forever buzzing in my ears." (C 3)
  • "The sun was just beginning its slow, lazy descent and I could see the glittering sliver of a fingernail moon hanging over the rooftops." (C 3)
  • "We all have obligations, no one is born on their own." (C 3)
  • "This was what love meant, both people thinking they were the lucky one." (C 4)
  • "that awful organ music, like a donkey in pain." (C 5)
  • "false modesty was an expected response to any social request ... 'No' alweays  meant 'Yes, I want to really but you will have to ask me at least five times before I can give in graciously and not look like a big fat show-off." (C 5)
  • "We both agreed there was no point putting so much energy into posturing and looking mean if you didn't have some others around to applaud or take the blame when things turned nasty." (C 6)
  • "Living in the grey area between all categories felt increasingly like home." (C 6)
  • "We were discussing Othello and Mr Williams had asked where the Moors came from, and I had put up my hand and answered confidently, 'Yorkshire, sir'!"(C 8)
  • "Sherrie's dad was so sinewy he had muscles in his earlobes." (C 8)
  • "I learned that darkness is not one colour, that there are shades upon shades within black - midnight-blue black on the horizon, pearly opaque black encircling the moon, the heavy wet green-black of a stormy night sky." (C 13)
  • "The alley was empty and she had somehow walked the length of it without the trace of an echo." (C 13)
  • "The place in which I belonged was wherever I stood and there was nothing stopping me simply moving forward and claiming each resting place as my home." (C 13)

A good story with some genuine laugh out loud moments. Febraury 2020; 328 pages

Saturday, 15 February 2020

"Life with Ionides" by Margaret Lane

This is a beautifully written biography of an extraordinary man.

Ionides was the nickname of an Englishman of Greek descent brought up in Brighton who went to East Africa and spent time there as an ivory poacher, a big game hunter, and a game ranger before becoming famous as a hunter and trapper of snakes. Margaret Lane, an established biographer married to the sixteenth Earl of Huntingdon, went to live with Ionides for some months and produced this charming and beautifully descriptive memoir.

The historical context is of an East Africa transitioning from British colonial rule into independence and the narrator is probably as empathetic as she could be given her privileged English background but there are still colonialist and racist overtones which make the book a little difficult to read. Ionides is unsympathetic to the colonialists who feel they are thrust aside; "Protests about the best years of one's life and the ingratitude of Africans leave him contemptuously cold. ... Those who claimed to have dedicated themselves to an alien people, and expected gratitude, had failed to observe nature. In the human as in the animal world, ingratitude was the rule." (C 5)

Ionides is trenchantly fascist: he goes through a list of great men and their main characteristic seems to be that they came from very humble backgrounds and ended up killing (or having killed) a lot of people. He has unrepentant Darwinist views of nature, seeing the occasional fisherman lost to a crocodile as keeping a balance of nature which would be lost if the crocs were killed. "He cannot bring himself to agree that the tribes around him are happier or better off than in the days when their prime occupation was tribal warfare. 'These people have been largely emasculated ... Their splendid virtues have been driven out of them; it isn't their fault if we've turned them into a rather second-rate lot.'" (C 9) He denies that he has a magical power to curse, as some of the villagers seem to believe, but "I've had a bit of luck on several occasions. Twice, when I happened to have been really angry with certain people, each time the man was shot with a poisoned arrow  very soon afterwards." This seems a sinister use of the word 'luck'. (C 9) His is a fascinating character but not a comfortable dinner party guest.

It seems to me that books about nature and wildlife such as Gerald Durrell's corfu trilogy My Family and Other Animals, Birds, Beasts and Relatives, and The Garden of the Gods, perhaps even documentaries (David Attenborough), promote high description. This book starts as it means to go on. Its first line is: "The first sounds of morning, long after the frogs had finished and the silence had become total, were disagreeable: no dawn chorus of birds or papery rustle on wind in the banana leaves, but the sudden scrape of a chair on the concrete floor, a broom banging the table legs, Makanga's sniffs which were like the tearing of calico, and immediately, as though it had been long held in suspense for these permissive signals, the slow, painful crescendo of Ionides' coughing." (C 1) What I particularly like about this beginning is the way it immediately debunks the thought that this is some simpering evocation of noble savages in a rural paradise: it is actually a kitchen-sink-sober portrait of a man making a living in the bush.

Other great descriptions include:

  • "The roads are deep in sand and full of holes, the bush paths overhung with thorns which scrape us as we pass, the hard tracks broken with eroded gullies, so that the boxes and the metal grab-sticks leap and crash as we lurch along, breathing the dust which rises from every crevice and settles softly in our hair and clothing." (C 2)
  • "The head [of the snake] ... revealed itself as thick and spade-shaped, with steady topaz eyes underlined and emphasized with a cunning cosmetic stroke. The face had a curiously mild and dog-like look, and the tongue ... was moist and brilliant, a tendril of pink and black." (C 3)
  • "The muzzle and the throat, I saw, were pale as ivory, and the spread hood, making the high-shouldered outline of a sitting hawk, was marked with moth-like patches of black, flushed with a tint which varied from cream to rose. The face was startlingly bird-like, accipitrine, flat-headed, the eye as deeply bright as polished jet." (C 8) I looked up accipitrine: it relates to hawks.
  • "I could recognize the grey, dusty appearance of the skin ... which distinguishes a child suffering from malnutrition, and also, at this hungry time of year before the harvest, the gingery bloom on the hair which is another symptom." (C 8)

There were other things I learned:

  • The locals wear kangas which are embellished with mottoes like our tee-shirts. "The mottoes ... were originally the speciality of prostitutes who favoured distinctive slogans on their garments such as 'Come sir, I am ready', and other less translatable invitations." (C 2)
  • "Death from a gaboon viper is singularly unpleasant: the venom's haemotoxic and neurotoxic - haemorrhages, constricted breathing, bleeding from all the orifices of the body and from old scars." (C 3)
  • "The snake must be sexed ... an assistant must grasp the thrashing tail and turn the vent upwards, massaging vigorously with a thumb until the sexual organs, powerless even in this humiliating posture to resist the stimulus of friction, moistly emerge from a neat aperture" (C 3)
  • "Conversion to Christianity implies monogamy, all male converts being required to return the surplus wives and stick to one, with the results that in the villages where Christianity has made progress there is also the greatest number of prostitutes." (C 5)
  • "The sadistic beatings endured at school were certainly a shock They taught him fear, but he sets a value on fear, and if one can accept the paradox, is not afraid of it." (C 6)
  • "The driving force behind his single-mindedness ... a lifelong thirst for intensity of experience." (C 6)
  • "He is a connoisseur of fear ... It is not a sensation he enjoys, but he is familiar with its features, has marked its curious ebb and flow in the presence of danger, and in the aftermath of languor and satisfaction which followed the most intense of his hunting experiences accepts it as having been a prime ingredient." (C 6)
  • "The average hunter goes through four distinct stages of experience. In the beginning he's nervous and apprehensive, even over-careful. Then he learns that in normal conditions, with the wind right, very great liberties can be taken. He takes them, with impunity, and tends to get rather reckless. ... Then he gets ... a narrow escape ... and learns to be intelligently careful. ... The fourth and last stage is when he's getting old, and thinks his reactions are still as quick as they were ten years before." (C 6)
  • "Every moment of pause ... you should relax and rest, even if it's only for a second, so that you don't become nervously exhausted. Carelessness on these occasions is entirely due to nervous exhaustion." (C 6)
  • "One feels practically no fear when the animal charges. When it's all over, of course, that's a different matter. Trembling, lassitude, coldness" (C 6)
  • "There was a 'white man's hut' in those days in every village, exceedingly comfortable you know, a roof and everything." (C 7)
  • "There are no absolutes. Surely we all live ... on the principle of 'You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours." (C 9)
  • "One must never expect too much of human beings. Always expect people to act as self-interest dictates, and you won't be unduly embittered when you're let down." (C 9)
  • "It makes me sick to hear Europeans complain ... of being let down by Africans; one frequently hears of the base ingratitude of these people. What have they got to be grateful for? ... An African may be your paid servant, but his first loyalties are to his wife and family." (C 9)

This is a fascinating and wonderfully described portrait of a fascinating person. February 2020; 180 pages

Other trivia:
This is the first book not linked to the subject that I have ever read that mentions Joanna Southcott (in the context of her false pregnancy rather than her preaching or her box).

My parents were members of the Readers Union Book Club. They must have had a great person to choose the books. This is one of the many I have enjoyed and reviewed in this blog. Here is a list:

  • Life with Ionides by Margaret Lane: about a man catching snakes in East Africa
  • The Golden Isthmus: the history of Panama from its discovery by Europeans
  • The Incredible Mile by Harold Elvin: the travelogue of a journey on the Trans Siberian express
  • A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble: the memoir of a Colonial Officer on the Gilbert and Ellice Islands
  • Invasion 1940 by Peter Fleming: an account of Britain's unpreparedness and preparation for a Nazi invasion
  • Bus Stop Symi by William Travis: three years lived on the sometimes less than idyllic Greek island of Symi
  • A Memoir of the Bobotes by Joyce Cary: a memoir of time spent in the Balkan Wars (before the First World War)
  • The Great Trek by Oliver Ransford: a history of the formation of the Orange Free State and Transvaal by Boer farmers trekking from the Cape Colony

Friday, 14 February 2020

"Stories we could tell" by Tony Parsons

Parsons, who also wrote The Family Way, and My Favourite Wife, started his writing career as a journalist for the music paper NME interviewing The Sex Pistols, Blondie, The Rolling Stones and David Bowie amongst others. He therefore lived the background to this novel.

Stories we could tell tracks three music journalists over the course of a single night in London, the night the Elvis died. Ray has to get an interview with John Lennon if he wants to keep his job. Leon is on the run from the Dagenham Dogs who have taken exception to one of his reviews. Terry's girlfriend Misty has gone off for the night with rock star Dag. Written from the perspective of each of these three young men, their entwined adventures are set against a backdrop of live acts in basement night clubs, squats, drugs and sex.

The discipline of making everything happen on a single night and the undoubted depth of background knowledge made this book a more intense experience than The Family Way. Sometimes the dilemmas facing the characters are laid out in a rather too rational manner. For example, each of the young men encounters their father during the night and these meetings are used to explore the way in which the young rebel against their parentage; this feels a little too systematic, as if the plot has sprung from the author rather than the characters which of course it has but a novelist should more successfully hide behind the illusion they have created.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading this book and I turned its pages quickly. Parsons is particularly good at encapsulating character in an epigram:

  • "Sir, used like a weapon." (C 1)
  • "he could not stop himself from making his hotel bed in the morning." (C 2)
  • "Dag Wood looked like a recently deceased bodybuilder." (C 3)
  • "You think these people are going to change the world? Take a good whiff. They have trouble changing their socks." (C 4)
  • "the sound of the suburbs in her voice" (C 7)
  • "Sooner or later you have to decide if you're a writer, man, or just a groupie who can type." (C 12)
  • "In those brief moments of freedom that came your way, wou were always looking for a way to not be free." (C 12)
  • "The opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is irritation ... Did true love really have room in it for irritation?" (C 16)

One of the characters remembers seeing The Rolling Stones "at the club where they started ... The Station Hotel, Kew Road, Richmond" a hostelry in which I sometimes had a pint, though somewhat later than its glory days.

A good read. February 2020; 309 pages

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

"Raffles and the Golden Opportunity" by Victoria Glendinning

This is the biography of Thomas Stamford Raffles. the man credited with the transformation of Singapore from a fishing village into a bustling mercantile port and thereby founding the present city-state of Singapore.

His career was one of service to the East India Company in Malacca in what is now Malaysia and, after the Dutch were invaded by the Napoleonic French, he became the Governor in Java. Both his effective invasion of Java and his founding of Singapore happened despite the Company: "His way, which is the way of all impatient innovators, was to do something first and seek approval from the proper authority afterwards." (Introduction) Naturally this got him into trouble. He was censured during his career and the Company took swingeing revenge after Raffles retired.

As always with biographies, there are a host of other notables who cross the path of the subject. Raffles knew:

  • Princess Charlotte, the daughter of the Prince Regent who was presumptive heir to the throne before she dies in childbirth;
  • Charlotte's husband, Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who was "lodging over a grocer's shop in Marylebone High Street" (C 9) before his marriage and who subsequently was offered the throne of Greece (and turned it sown as being too turbulent) and the throne of the newly independent Belgium (which he accepted) and was uncle to both Queen Victoria and Albert the Prince Consort;
  • Sir Humphrey Davy the chemist and discoverer or laughing gas, sodium and potassium, and inventor of the Davy lamp (whose house he later leased);
  • John Barrow, whose later work promoting exploration into the Arctic and Africa is memorialised in Barrow's Boys by Fergus Fleming;
  • John Hunter, the distinguished surgeon;
  • Napoleon in exile in St Helena
As with most non-fiction books I learned something quite out of the way of the main subject. This book taught me that the word 'pukka' originally meant 'baked' and was used to describe the bricks that made the houses of British India and therefore something permanent. (C 2)

Raffles was in Java when Mount Tambora, on an island to the east of Bali, "exploded in the biggest volcanic eruption in recorded history" causing famine in England due to ash clouds blocking the sun in the "summer that never was"; Raffles collected eye-witness reports and sent them to the Royal Society (C 7)

The last few years of his life were marked with tragedy. He lost all but one of his children by his second wife (his first wife had an illegitimate child before she met Raffles but bore him no children), three of them within a devastating six months. When he retired the ship taking him home caught fire and he lost all his papers and a great deal of money and property; he was uninsured. The East India Company not only refused to compensate him and refused to grant him any pension but also charged him for wages paid while he was on leave and fined him for perquisites he had taken; he would have been bankrupted had he not died shortly after returning to England. The last few chapters are very sad to read.

Other great moments:

  • "He did not have a magpie mind, picking up bright bits and pieces. He had a mind like a magnet, drawing in what caught his imagination and taking it further." (C 3)
  • "The poor people of the Archipelago were like poor people everywhere. Their rules, like rules everywhere, varied between the wise and the moronic, in either case desirous of holding onto power." (C 3)
  • "Raffles ... observed drily that the 'safest principle' to be adopted was that 'every colony does or ought to exist for the benefit of the motherland'." (C 6) [I am not sure I should have described that as a 'great' moment but it clearly and succinctly expresses a point of view and shows that Raffles, if flawed from our perspective, was a man of his time.

Although sometimes a little slow and overdetailed for the general reader, this book delivered a good read and a lot of enjoyment. February 2020; 312 pages

Monday, 10 February 2020

"Cain's book" by Alexander Trocchi

Alexander Trocchi was a Scottish writer who published Henry Miller (who wrote Sexus, Nexus and Plexus) and Samuel Beckett (author of Waiting for Godot and the tetralogy of short novels:
The Expelled; The Calmative; The End and First Love) in Paris; he knew Norman Mailer (The Deer Park) in New York and Leonard Cohen in Canada. His other novels include Young Adam.

With such connections one can understand his work. Cain's Book was finished in New York in late 1959; the influence of Miller and Godot is clear as is the fact that Trocchi would influence the beat writers. The rush of the style reminded me of Jack Kerouac and the fragmentation of the cut-up technique of William Burroughs (himself another junkie responsible for Naked Lunch, The Wild Boys, The Soft Machine etc.) The language is rich and intricate. It is difficult to read something so intense, especially when the structure is disrupted; there is always the danger (and especially with a memoir such as this) that the prose will become purple and the content will appear self-indulgent. But when it is done well it is exhilarating and Cain's book is heading towards the classic standard of Kerouac. They don't seem to write them like this anymore (though I was reminded of Eros Island by Tony Hanania.

Cain's book is the barely fictionalised story of a young junkie in New York. He remembers his Glaswegian childhood; he works on a 'scow' (a cargo-carrying barge); he has sex and takes drugs. It is somewhat chaotic, reflecting Trocchi's life, but it is an honest and informative account of heroin addiction.

In many ways, the narrator and protagonist Jack Necchi (a very thinly disguised portrait of Alex Trocchi) is the classic outsider (in terms of Colin Wilson's The Outsider). He lives on a barge on the edge of the city, in a liminal world where the land meets the water. He is a drug addict. In a burst of anger almost exactly at the three-quarters mark he describes his outsiderness in terms of detachment and alienation: "I was heavy with the sense of my own detachment ... gaining in intensity at each new impertinence of the external world with which I had signed no contract when I was ejected bloodily from my mother's warm womb. I developed early a horror of all groups, particularly those which without further ado claimed the right to subsume all my acts under certain normative designations in terms of which they could reward or punish me. I could feel no loyalty to anything so abstract as a state or so symbolic as a sovereign. And I could feel nothing but outrage at a system in which, by virtue of my father's good name and fortune, I found myself from the beginning so shockingly underprivileged."  (p 119)

There are some wonderful pieces of prose:

  • "The mind under heroin evades perception as it does ordinarily ...perceiving turns inwards, the eyelids droop, the blood is aware of itself, a slow phosphorescence in all the fabric of flesh and nerve and bone ... the organism has a sense of being intact and unbrittle, and, above all, inviolable." (p 2)
  • "It is not possible to come quite naked to apprehension"
  • "Anger and innocence ... those virgin sisters again." (p 17)
  • "When a man fixes he is turned on almost instantly ... you can speak of a flash, a tinily murmured orgasm in the bloodstream" (p 17) I adore 'murmured orgasm in the bloodstream'!!!
  • "Talking to Fay you have the impression you are speaking to the secretary of her personal secretary. ... It's not that she doesn't reply. It's simply you have the impression you are in touch with an answering service." (p 19)
  • "The hysterical gymnastics of governments confronting the problem of the atomic bomb is duplicated exactly in their confrontation of heroin." (p 22)
  • "The sky was darkening indigo and shifty with thin cloud.  I thought: on such a night as this werewolves are abroad and the ambulances of death run riot in the streets." (p 26)
  • "Perhaps I was the stranger you watched apprehensively from your kitchen window." (p 29)
  • "Her beauty, I felt, would serve to put a frame round my own which, sad to say, had up till that time attracted the attention of few connoisseurs." (p 36)
  • "Hard work never hurt anyone, I was told, but it killed my mother." (p 161)

Moments of genius. February 2020; 164 pages

Thursday, 6 February 2020

"The Missing" by Andrew O'Hagan

I purchased this book from the fiction shelves of an Oxfam book store and persisted in believing it was fiction until I reached the first quarter point when, confused, I checked the back cover and discovered it is non-fiction. But even allowing for the fact that I misunderstood the nature of the beast, the book itself seems muddled about its purpose. It starts as a memoir of O'Hagan's ancestry, a section which culminates in the tale of a serial killer who hunted at a dancehall (Barrowland) where O'Hagan's mother danced. The second section tells us about O'Hagan's childhood in Glasgow and (mostly) nearby Irvine and a little boy who went missing from there. The third section is a journalistic inquiry into missing persons and the charities that try to care for runaway teenagers. The final section is about the victims of Fred and Rosemary West, the serial killers from Gloucester. So it appears as a very disjointed book.

But there are moments when O'Hagan waxes eloquent:

  • "Our worklessness can make all work look heaven-sent." (Clyde-Built)
  • "Old gangs never die - they just buy new suits, or pass on their old ones to younger gods with smarter troubles and haircuts."  (Clyde-Built)
  • "The wife's life - encumbered and enlightened by demanding kids who'd consume their mummy's prime then judge her ever after - was seldom charmed or light or funny."  (Clyde-Built)
  • "We started praying to [the Virgin] Mary at about the same time as we began to read. She wore a blue dress ... the sort of blue that stands for goodness and purity and not for Rangers." (Thin Ayrshire)
  • "At the head of his Salvationists in 1885, William Booth ...wanted to populate heaven from the accidental denizens of hell." (Mispers) Accidental denizens of hell is a brilliant description.
  • "Modern life is full of traumatized bystanders."  (Mispers)
  • "One of the things that you notice about the cornoner classes is how cheerful they are."  (Mispers)
  • "People may go missing within their own community, without ever leaving it. They may be lost, without going anywhere at all." (Mispers)
  • "Everyone was still preoccupied with the nature of the alleged killers; the nature of the killed was never of interest, it was never in much doubt. They were the victims." (Westworld)
  • "The clouds were black-bottomed as I walked up the High Street to meet Liz Brewer. It was a Saturday afternoon and it had that feeling - I could recall such days stuck in the house as a kid, away from the heathen weather, filling in picture books with scuzzy felt-tips. Our living-room, from the carpets up, would be a veritable colosseum of boredom. There'd be racing on Grandstand, or an old film on BBC2. It would always be Robin Hood or someone else filling the screen, looking much more colourful than it was right to be on a day like that."  (Westworld)
  • "As I stood there ... there was a flash of lightning outside, then a rumble. It's always a bit dramatic, that. The woman behind the counter was going on as if this, indeed, was the end of the end. Thunder and lightning often have that effect, making you feel as if you're being spoken to from somewhere above."  (Westworld)

February 2020; 241 pages

Wednesday, 5 February 2020

"Invisible Architecture" by Steven Kelly

This is a collection of three novellas set in Vienna.

It is a ritual
Set in the course of 24 hours, the narrator, an Austrian living on inherited wealth, plans and prepares a dinner party for his three friends: Cruise, a famous Yugoslav poet and communist who works as waiter, Leppard, a romantic anarchist and art critic from London, and Axel, a Dane. They eat and drink, arguing into the small hours; after two of Cruise's dodgy friends arrive they four friends go out on the town and drink and eat and enjoy themselves till dawn. Then comes the reckoning.

Great moments:

  • "I will sit by the windows overlooking the street and watch the shoppers go by ... as they fulfil their weekly duties, exploited as consumers just as they are exploited as workers the rest of the week."
  • "To appreciate sensual things fully, one has to be very quiet."
  • "It takes only the smallest iota of imagination to create a fiction substantial enough to draw the world into itself."

Breakfast was simple
Another multicultural group of friends: Medar, a Turk, Reid, an Englishman, Christa, his one-time-only Austrian girlfriend, host new arrival Feargal, an Irishman one of whose hands is a hook. They spring Franz, an old Jewish Austrian, from his care home by setting off the fire alarm and they take him to the zoo. There is a lot of discussion about violence and its links to romantic or classical culture: this dialogue seems staged. Reid is aware that the arrival of Feargal, who is to stay with Christa, will change the dynamic of their friendship: there is some jealousy but also some relief.

Great moments:

  • "Franz should have been squeezing his life dry, not allowing it to evaporate away."
  • "If the violence is too overt the romance is lost."
  • "The romantic is inextricably bound up with the violent."

There were rules
Reid reappears, and Franz, although this is a story from before Franz goes into the home. Reid is hunting for a painting by Schiele. Adele has secret rendezvous with bar-owner George where she and he get naked and she paints him. She is trying to recapture the Schiele painting which she owns; it hangs on her wall. Adele is Monika in the bar where she knows Reid. She needs to finish the painting before Reid finds the original.

This is a tale of art obsession in the same formal prose as the previous stories.

Great moments:

  • "Leopold had been born a victim, had lived and died a victim of the circumstances under which he came into the world. But he had killed for his art."
  • "You have to be so careful with words. Slippery things and they get slipperier the more you drink."

February 2020; 162 pages

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

"The Three-Body Problem" by Cixin Liu

A Chinese nanotechnologist discovers a countdown imprinted on developed photographs; he observes the cosmic background radiation flash. This is all linked to a computer game he has started to play, a sort of fantasy role-playing game set on a planet that has three suns which interact chaotically. It is also linked with an astrophysicist who was assigned to a secret military project during the Cultural Revolution and who has made contact with Trisolaris, the real planet with three suns, who is now sending its battle fleet to destroy the Earth.

This is the sort of science fiction that, like The War of the Worlds or  The Invisible Man by HG Wells and like the novels of John Wyndham, but unlike Hyperion by Dan Simmons, is firmly set in the real world.

The style is very alien. The author is utterly objective, detailing what happens, recording conversations, as if this is a scientific transcript. There is no drama, there are no emotions. There are murders but there is no fear, no guilt, no remorse. As a result I was unable to empathise with any character: they were no more than avatars in a computer game or bugs crawling about under my microscope. I found it difficult to care what happened.

Perhaps this is a cultural thing. Cixin Liu says: "Chinese brush paintings  are full of blank spaces, but life in Qijiatun had no blank spaces. Like classical oil paintings, it was filled with thick, rich, solid colours." (C 26) Perhaps I am trying to read a brush painting from the perspective of an oil painting.

I suppose one character, the detective, does come through because of the things he says (eg "I'm a simple man without a lot of complicated twists and turns. Look down my throat and you can see out my ass."; C 10). Perhaps this book employs the ultimate show don't tell and I am too blind to see what is being shown to me. Most of the characters I do see are cold to the point of psychopaths.

Some great moments:

  • "the new rebels were a pack of wolves on hot coals, crazier than crazy." (C 1)
  • "compared to the huge sky and open air of Inner Mongolia, the biggest cities in China's interior were nothing more than sheep pens." (C 2)
  • "Is it possible that the relationship between humanity and evil is similar to the relationship between the ocean and an iceberg floating on its surface? Both the ocean and the iceberg are made of the same material. That the iceberg seems separate is only because it is in a different form." (C 2)
  • "Can the stability and order of the world be but a temporary dynamic equilibrium achieved in a corner of the universe, a short-lived eddy in a chaotic current?" (C 6)
  • "The long years had ground away all the hardness and fierceness in their personalities, until all that was left was a gentleness like that of water." (C 8)
  • "A woman should be like water, able to flow over and around anything." (C 8)
  • "The universe was an empty palace, and humankind the only ant in the entire palace." (C 14)
  • "I felt like a libertine who has always fluttered carelessly from one woman to another suddenly finding himself in love." (C 16)
  • "Why does one have to save people to be considered a hero? Why is saving other species considered insignificant? Who gave humans such high honors?" (C 27)

Lots of plot and some intriguing science. February 2020; 424 pages

Saturday, 1 February 2020

"Five quarters of the Orange" by Joanne Harris

By the author of Chocolat.

Set in a sleepy french village by the Loire. An old woman buys an abandoned farm house and opens a creperie which wins accolades for its authentic food. But her relatives want the album of recipes her mother left her and they plan a campaign, involving a burger van, to force the album from her. And in the end, they know, and she knows, that if the village discover who she is and what happened during the Second World War when the Germans occupied the village, she will be hounded from the village.

A neat little story which interleaves the old widow's present-day experiences with those of her nine-year-old self. A story of collaboration, betrayal, and innocence. A story of misplaced love. And a story of a very naughty little girl who has always been at odds with her mother.

I particularly enjoyed the food writing which often made me long to experience the glorious tastes described. This was a well-written, well-plotted story with some superb characters.

Lots of great writing. Here are my favourite moments:

  • "for me, food is simply food, a pleasure for the senses, a carefully constructed piece of ephemera, like fireworks, hard work sometimes, but not to be taken seriously." (1.5)
  • "A metal staple stuck out from the side of each, bleeding tears of rust into the rotten stone." (1.8)
  • "My mother and I stalked each other, like cats staking out their territory. Every touch was a spark which hissed with static." (2.2)
  • "To her, these petty rules mattered because those were the things she used to control our world. Take them away and she was like the rest of us, orphaned and lost." (2.2)
  • "Drunkenness ... is a sin against the fruit, the tree, the wine itself. It is an outrage, an abuse, just as rape is an abuse of the act of love." (4.6)
  • "Wine, distilled and nurtured from bud into fruit, and then through all the processes that make it what it is, deserves better than to be guzzled by some sot with a headful of nonsense." (4.6)
  • "The music was hot and the heat burned off us like alcohol in a flambe." (4.8)
  • "More people were filing out of the church ... a handful of young men fresh from confession ... ogling the girls prior to reaping a new crop of sinful thoughts. More, if they could get it; harvest was the time for it, after all." (5.11)

A great story, beautifully told. February 2010; 363 pages