About Me

My photo
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, 30 June 2020

"Death on a Shetland Isle" by Marsali Taylor

Number seven in the Shetland Sailing Mysteries starring Cass Lynch. This is another voyage of the tall ship Sorlandet on which Cass is in charge of a Watch made principally of trainees. A new officer enlists ... and Cass recognises him immediately as Alain, an ex-boyfriend who went overboard in the Atlantic years ago. But he has a new identity and appears not to recognise Cass. There are some other trainees who cause concern to Cass; as the voyage progresses strange things begin to happen. Then, when they land on Fetlar for an international hnefatafl (Viking chess) competition, one of the trainees disappears. Gavin, Cass's detective boyfriend, takes charge of the search. Has someone died? (Of course they have, this is a murder mystery and the title has already given this away.) Whodunnit? And will the ex-boyfriend drive a wedge between Cass and Gavin?

This book is a little slower-paced compared to the others; she is moving away from straight detective fiction and making room for more Shetland tourist information. But this book is even better than the others for the lyrical beauty of some of the descriptions. For example:

  • "This was what I was made for: this great sweep of water all around me, with the wind gentle on my skin, the ship creaking, the water curling under her forefoot and pulling away along her sides in a long V of foam." (C 2)
  • "It was dark outside, but the crescent moon made a white pathway on the shifting water.
  • The sails were ghostly in the sliver of moonlight, their ropes a forest of darker black against the glinting sea." (C 4)
  • "The sun shone on the scrubbed decks, drying the last corner pools of water, and on the creamy sails, bleaching them to cloud-white. On land, it was harvest time, with rectangles of lime-yellow standing out in the green sweep of hill, either combed with the dulled green of drying hay, or dotted with black plastic bales like a giant’s chequer pieces waiting to be moved. The rumble of machinery drifted towards us: a shining green tractor trailing a whirl of gulls." (C 5)

Other bits I loved:
  • "The blue watch scurried for their jackets, and mine drittled to their places on deck." (C 3)
  • "The taxi air freshener (pine forest) overlaid his natural smell of Imperial Leather soap." (C 6)
  • "I’m not taking fashion hints from any man who thinks cabbage green is a colour." (C 8)
  • "If they’re speaking about you, they’re leaving someone else alone." (C 17)

The other brilliant books in this series, in order, include:

Great fun. June 2020

Sunday, 28 June 2020

"The Historian" by Elizabeth Kostova

This is a weighty tome of 700 pages. The narrator is an elderly woman, recalling events when she was a teenage girl. She discovers a strange book and her father, a diplomat, takes her to different cities and slowly tells her the story of how he found his mysterious book and how his dissertation supervisor had discovered his mysterious book. It's all to do with Dracula still being undead.

This is a silly novel with a B-movie plot and sometimes B-movie prose: "Helen held the cross right over his nose, and he began to sob again. 'My master', he whimpered." (C 21). It involves ancient orders of Turks fighting against Dracula since the 1450s, handing on their knowledge to their eldest sons. Dracula's own 'Order of the Dragon' seeks to recruit mostly historians and librarians by biting them. The whole thing is laughable.

It is made worse by the pace. At some stage Kostova must have encountered William Empson's advice in Seven Types of Ambiguity: “A dramatic situation is always heightened by breaking off the dialogue to look out of the window, especially if some kind of Pathetic Fallacy is to be observed outside." (p 19) A brilliant example of this is deployed by Harlan Coben in Gone for Good when a revelation is just about to be made in a diner and the waitress comes and takes the order, slowly. But these tension-heighteners are meant to last a few paragraphs at most. Kostova spins out her thin story by ensuring that every nugget of information is surrounded by irrelevance. Her characters travel across Europe and everywhere they go they eat and drink and take in the historical sights. Perhaps these activities add verisimilitude (much needed in a horror story, especially one as unconvincing as this) but the net result was that the book became a travelogue, more about sight seeing and restaurant reviews than Dracula.

The narrative therefore creeps (and not in a creepy way). This could have been written in half the words or fewer (though the paucity of the story-telling might then have been exposed.

Is it just me? Other reviewers loved it. The Sunday Telegraph is quoted as saying "Told with a compelling intensity" which was the direct opposite of my experience. The Observer states that "Kostova is a whiz at storytelling and narrative pace"; not for me. In Aspects of the Novel, EM Forster states that “Long books, when read, are usually overpraised, because the reader wishes to convince others and himself that he has not wasted his time.” (p 165). I felt that I wasted my time.

There are great moments:

  • "skilled with a feather duster and clumsy with teenagers" (C 1)
  • "My father's library had probably once been a sitting room, but he sat down only to read, and he considered a large library more important than a large living room." (C 1)
  • "My father hated planes, which he said took the travel out of traveling." (C 1)
  • "His English was ferocious and sure, strong, loud." (C 5)
  • "His feet in their pathetically worn socks twitched and were still." (C 53)

I feel guilty about putting this book into a charity shop. It needs to be buried with a stake through its heart. June 2020; 700 long pages.

Another, somewhat better, book from the New York Times Bestsellers list is Friction by Sandra Brown

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

"In the Footsteps of Orpheus" by R F Paget

This books was written in 1967 about amateur archaeologist's Paget's own excavations of tunnels at Baiae, near Naples. He concludes that these are the tunnels on which Vergil based the visit to the underworld of Aeneas in book 6 of the Aeneid. Certainly Aeneas is said to have visited Cuma, to visit the Sibyl there, and Lake Avernus; both of these locations are enormously close to Baiae. Peget concludes that the tunnels he excavated were used in Orphic rites in which a suppliant was led to an underground river (identified as the Styx) fed by thermal springs.

It's a fascinating theory marred, as so often in the work of non-academics, by fleshing out facts with flights of fancy. Thus towards the end Paget reconstructs a suppliants journey from the account of a ceremony at another Oracle, as if it applied to these tunnels. Leaps of faith include:

  • "we and everyone that we have taken down the Oracle, has immediately recognised the Entrance to Tartarus, the River Styx and the Gates of Ivory and of Horn, just as they were described by Vergil" (p 159)
  • The speech of Anchises proves the Vergil was a devout Orphic.” (p 157)
  • We just knew we were sitting on the banks of the River Styx. We both drank some of the water, and found it was potable." (p 114)

One of the most serious flaws is that he uses Homer Odyssey as if it recounted a real voyage by a real man and further assumes that it is evidence of Odysseus visiting Baiae in his voyage to the Underworld. Paget ignores or is unaware of the body of work that places the land of the dead in Homer outside the Pillars of Hercules, ie in the Atlantic rather than the Mediterranean (eg Ulysses Found by Ernle Bradford). He assumes that the Perpetual Mist of which Homer speaks is in fact fumes from the volcanically active region around Naples. He then goes on to use this purported voyage as a dating reference.

Another flaw with Paget's book is that he tends to divorce the archaeology, with its measurements and angles and careful descriptions, with the interpretation. I would have liked to have seen the evidence for each Vergilian reference to be linked with the archaeological evidence.

These weaknesses perhaps explain why Paget's discoveries, which should have been historic, are more or less unknown.

The thesis in this book needs to be treated with extreme caution , but it is full of fascinating ideas.

June 2020; 199 pages

Also read:

Monday, 22 June 2020

"The Year of the Stranger" by Allan Campbell McLean

When I was a little lad, Allan Campbell McLean's young adult stories set in Skye were among my favourite novels: these were The Hill of the Red Fox and The Master of Morgana. These had contemporary settings. The Year of the Stranger is set in 1877.

Callum Og is, like so many of ACM's young heroes, fatherless. He is being brought up by his strict Kirk Elder uncle and his strict, humourless mother, his elder sister is a maid in the Factor's Lodge. The folk of this Skye village live on the seashore after being evicted from their glen which the Factor turned over to sheep. So their life is poor and hard. This is the context for a story of magic and transformation.

Half-way through the book a poor tinker is strapped to heavy yoke in the crucifix position and sent out of the village. Callum finds him dead in the quarry. But when he takes the adults to the scene, the tinker has disappeared, leaving his cross. Shortly after this, ACM gives us the image of a boat beached on the sand: "It always came fresh to me the sight of the old schooner lying beached on her side, her black, dripping flanks exposed, helpless as a stranded whale. And I always got the foolish notion that she was slowly dying as the sea left her. Not that it was all that foolish a notion, because you could see her coming back to life as the sea returned, her timbers groaning loud as she shifted with the incoming tide; and it was as if she breathed again as she finally came clear of the shore and floated free." (C 11) This is a beautiful metaphor for death and rebirth, tangled with the sea and the ebb and flow of life, and promising freedom at the end.

Immediately after crucifixion, death and resurrection, a stranger comes to the village with a musical pipe (is he the pied piper?) and a monkey. He charms the children of the town and uses them to build a fish trap on the shore. A heavy harvest of fish are taken. Very biblical. But when the stranger invites the local tinkers to share the feast, the townsfolk refuse and throw stones at the tinkers.

This is a story of a call, a refusal of the call, and the bitter retribution that it brings.

It is wonderful.

I adore the way that ACM makes you hear the Gaelic speech patterns:

  • "I am telling you, boy, you should be down on your knees quaking and trembling at the thought of the everlasting fire that awaits the the wicked. What a bed is theirs to lie on; no straw to ease their bones, but fire; no friends, but furies; no sun to mark the passage o' time, but darkness - fire eternal, always burning, never dying away. Who can endure everlasting flame, boy?" (C 3)
  • "You would need to chain him to a wall - and a strong wall at that - to keep him away from the kirk on the Sabbath." (C 3)
  • "Mr Ferguson's heavy studded shoes and Mata's bare feet, unprotected among the clattering tackets of the well shod, padding silent as the tread of a cat." (C 3)
  • "She was sleeping, the same one, sleeping like a dead thing." (C 5)
  • "There were more than Mata with ears fit to hear the grass growing." (C 5)
  • "He had questions ... that would have drawn sweat through the thick hide of a donkey." (C 6)
  • "That was the way it was with us after the night of the storm ... I mind well when we first saw the sun again." (C 10)
  • "He would say that there is always a place for the right shaped stone, and that you had to build that way, not taking the first stone that came to hand, and trying to make it fit - that would put the wall out of true, and it would not endure." (C 13)
  • "It seemed to me that we were not just building a fish trap. With every stone that went into the wall of the cairidh, we seemed to be weaving a web that bound us ever closer to the living world" (C 14)
  • "We will have a great fishing, I know it." (C 14) This echoes the great catch that the disciples had when fishing on the Sea of Galilee
  • "The turf dyke at the bottom of the crofts was the boundary between the believers and the unbelievers, although, in truth, my own belief was ebbing as fast as the tide." (C 14)
  • "It is great how old men do not like to be beat, always making out that nothing can compare to the great days of their youth." (C 14)
  • "But the moment I was into the water, the flood was greedy for my legs." (C 16)

Beautifully written. June 2020; 192 pages

Saturday, 20 June 2020

"Dragon Slayer" by Rosemary Sutcliff

This is a retelling of the story of Beowulf, "for children of ten years and over." It is a short book, as befits the original, and the story is beautifully told. I was intrigued that the author makes no concessions in terms of language. She makes assumptions that the reader will be able to understand, for example, that a 'targe' is a shield. Furthermore, she deigns to dispense with adjectives and adverbs, so that her prose is as rich as poetry. Perhaps this is only possibly in a short form such as this - perhaps that is how poets get away with it - but the result is a simple tale, told with beauty.

Here is an example:
"In single file, for the track was too narrow to walk abreast, Beowulf and his comrades followed the old Warden on his horse up from the head of the fjord,a grey mailed serpent of men, the forged rings of their battle-sarks ringing as they moved. On the crest of the ridge where the wind-shaped trees fell back, the track changed abruptly into a paved road, and there they checked, with the sea wind humming against their mailed shoulders. Behind them was the way home, the fjord running out between its nesses to the open sea, and the war-boat lying like a basking seal among the brown sea-wrack and the drift-wood on the high tide line." (C 2)
In this paragraph we have a multiplicity of words that a ten year old might encounter for the first time: fjord and battle-sark and nesses and sea-wrack. We have long sentences with multiple parts. We have the wonderful word-play of rings and ringing anmd the super description of the trees as wind-shaped and the wind as humming. It offers no concessions and it achieves beauty.

Also interesting is the pacing of the story. There is a brief introduction, explaining the peril, and then the hero sets off on his journey. But the meat of the story, the battles against the troll-ogre Grendel and his Dam, is quite early on. In the final story, the battle between the old Beowulf and the fire-dragon, the pace is more leisurely. Once the author knows she has hooked her audience, she can take her time to weave her charms to hold them spell-bound.

Other memorable moments:

  • "Before even a King makes merry, it is as well that he should know who may hear the laughter in the dark outside." (C 1)
  • "The years went by and the years went by, bringing as they passed great changes ... Fifty times the wild geese flew south in the autumn, fifty times the birch buds quickened in the spring." (C 8) Showing the intelligent use of repetition; also, I think, synecdoche.
  • "Heat played over its scales so that they changed colour, green and blue and gold, as the colours play on a sword-blade heated for tempering." (C 9): A metaphor belonging perfectly to the context of this story.
  • "For ten days they laboured, building it high and strong for the love that they had borne him, and on the tenth day the great howe of piled stones stood finished, notching the sky." (C 9) I love 'notching'

A superb introduction; now I want to re-read the original.

June 2020; 108 pages

Friday, 19 June 2020

"Royal William" by Doris Leslie

This is a fictionalised biography of King William IV. The third of George III's sons, William served from the age of thirteen as a midshipman in the Royal Navy; he was in New York during the American Revolution (George Washington planned to kidnap him) and her served as a captain under Nelson, attending Nelson's wedding. After leaving the sea he settled down at Bushy House near Teddington with actress Dora Jordan by whom he fathered ten illegitimate children. During the regency and after the death of the Prince Regent's daughter, William married Princess Adelaide in an attempt to father a legitimate heir. George III's second son died during the reign of George IV so when he died William became King. Since he failed to father a legitimate child, on his death the throne passed to Victoria, the daughter of George III's fourth son.

Queen Adelaide sounds interesting. Her dad was a genuinely reform-minded German sovereign: "He permitted entire freedom of the press ... He interested himself in education. He founded schools. He was a connoisseur of art and something of a poet. He invited Schiller and Paul Richter to his table." (3.1) She wanted to be a painter. Judging from the number of Queen Adelaide pubs in Britain she became extraordinarily popular in Britain; she was even a devoted step-mother to her husband's illegitimate children.

Doris Leslie's book is divided into three parts: Sailor, Squire and King. She sees William IV as a real man of the people and the first democratic monarch. In her eyes he lived his life teleologically: his everyday experiences as a midshipman (including a night in gaol after a brawl in Gibraltar) and his everyday experiences as a squire and father fashioned his behaviour as King ... even though he resisted the Great Reform Bill to the point at which the London mob attacked his carriage and wounded him with a stone.

The book has been thoroughly researched and then fictionalised. This can be comic. Dora Jordan never loses her cod-Irish brogue and there are some scenes of melodrama. It is of its time (1940); no doubt our own drama documentaries will seem stilted and forced in another fifty years.

While Claire Tomalin in Mrs Jordan's Profession has made Dora Jordan a superwoman, talented and hardworking who combines a successful career with motherhood of a large family, accepting the shadow world of being a royal mistress, Doris Leslie makes her into rather a scheming bitch who is finally jettisoned by her caring prince when he discovers evidence that she has been having an affair with one of his brothers.

Doris Leslie also falls for the incorrect notion that the ballad The Lass of Richmond Hill was written about George III's morganatic wife Mrs Fitzherbert.

She also suggests that the ageing William had tinnitus. (3.3)

She quote Macauley as saying: "I only know two ways in which society can be governed - by public opinion or - the sword." (3.3)

Great moments:

  • "The secrets of the alcove ... had revealed their mysteries to many younger than himself, but the tree of knowledge that is free to all of Adam's sons was denied to the son of the King. Only his Eden lacked an Eve where Eves were plentiful. At the entrance to those luscious groves stood gentlemen whose orders were as adamant as any flaming sword." (1.2)
  • "The Queen's middle-aged ladies-in-waiting were as handsome as a row of turnips and as dull." (1.3)
  • "In that underworld, as far removed from the palaces as Hell from Heaven, there where hunger stalked and man did not so much exist as he fermented in his rags and his starved flesh." (1.5)
  • "Byron had loosened an outburst of revolt in 'Manfred', and the men of the workers were learning to read. ... Very soon all men would read. There was talk of education for the masses." (3.1)
  • "What did this democracy portend? A state controlled by working men who had not only learned to read, but to think for themselves." (3.1)

Fun as fiction, not to be taken as history. June 2020; 373 pages

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

"Me Before You" by Jojo Moyes

Utterly working-class Lou gets a job caring for posh ultra-rich boy Will, a quadraplegic. But will she persuade him not to end his life at Dignitas?

The plot progression is predictable as Lou's oddball (natch) behaviour begins to change Will from a despairing anger to someone who can laugh, sometimes. But will that be enough to keep him from Switzerland? The plot may be predictable and the cast list certainly is: Lou has a totally unsuitable boyfriend, of course, and a sister who seems awful but is caring underneath and a couple of heart-warming parents who are the utter opposite of Will's posh but seemingly distant parents. But somehow, somehow JJM keeps us guessing what will happen almost to the last page. Not only that but she can take a stock character and make it come alive. Lou's family are real people and I LOVED what she did with mum by the end.

But the plot might be predictable and the characters stock but I cried near the end.

The plot structure is classic (spoilers here):
  • We find out that Will wants to end his life and Lou has six months to change his mind as more or less exactly 25%.
  • Lou's birthday party, at which Will meets Lou's boyfriend Patrick, is just before the 50% mark.
  • Lou breaks up with Patrick at almost exactly the 75% mark
  • Will announces he intends to die at 85%
And the brilliant thing about JJM is the fun you have along the way. The disastrous day at the races is wonderful as is the episode when they go to Will's ex's wedding. There are also a huge number of sly one-liners of which these are a poor sample:

  • "Maybe he talks through one of those devices. Like that scientist bloke. The one on The Simpsons." (C 2) Poor Stephen Hawking. Better known for diability than his scientific breakthroughs and best known for being on the Simpsons!
  • "I felt like a Mafia victim must do, watching the concrete slowly setting around their ankles." (C 3)
  • "It's not as if they've never seen a girl nibbling a bloke's collar before ... we should both just be grateful that it wasn't in your trousers." (C 12)
  • "Her hand went to her hair, always a good sign with my mother. It was a shame she hadn't remembered to take an oven glove off first." (C 13)

Other great moments:

  • "I hadn't thought that as well as the obvious fears about money, and your future, losing your job would make you feel inadequate, and a bit useless." (C 1)
  • "Spring arrived overnight, as if winter, like some unwanted guest, had abruptly shrugged its way into its coat and vanished, without saying goodbye." (C 7) That's a great metaphor
  • "One of the boys I knew at school had taken a round-the-world trip and come back somehow removed and unknowable, like he wasn't the same scuffed eleven-year-old who used to blow spit bubbles during double French." (C 11) I love 'scuffed'.
  • "Why do women always have to go over and over a situation until it becomes a problem?" (C 17)
  • "It felt like I was living a life I hadn't had a chance to anticipate." (C 17)

I have also read and reviewed on this blog:

  • Jo Jo Moyes's Sheltering Rain
  • Let Go My Hand by Edward Docx, another, perhaps more thoughtful, book about a man taking his father to Dignitas on a cross-European road-trip

A page-turner. June 2020; 497 pages

Monday, 15 June 2020

"Conrad Monk and the Great Heathen Army" by Edoardo Albert

Those missing the great liar, coward, braggart and politically incorrect cad Harry Flashman as chronicled in the novels of George MacDonald Fraser might like this book. Conrad is a coward whose fear of sharp steel is even greater than his love of bright gold who does his best to cheat and charm his way to stay alive and profit while the Vikings are invading the England that will soon by ruled by Alfred the Great.

Some great moments:

  • He’s a heathen,” I said. “A heathen from the Great Heathen Army, who has just been pillaging a monastery. How much more heathen can you get?” (C 1)
  • "Hope is what gives people reason to rise from their sleep and face another day of toil." (C 1)
  • "Hope is what keeps fools going." (C 1)
  • "Curiosity has always been my besetting sin. Well, no it hasn’t; cupidity, concupiscence and cowardice have warmer places in my heart, but I preferred to have a quaternary of errors rather than a trinity of faults" (C 3)
  • "I stopped thrashing around. I could have been lying there naked, humping a hog, and no one would have noticed." (C 4)
  • "I would have to come up with a better plan than swipe and ride." (C 5)
  • "Skill, strength, courage: none of them mattered a jot in battle compared to fortune’s favour. And the greatest favour fortune could bestow, and one with which I co-operated wholeheartedly, was to avoid battle altogether." (C 5)
  • "His body slowly subsided to the ground, like a candle with an untrimmed wick burning down on one side." (C 6)
  • "I would only fight the Danes if the odds were four to one in my favour and I could hide at the back." (C 9)
  • "Which was when I realised what that emotion was: gratitude. The reason for my failure to recognise it became clear. I had not seen gratitude directed towards me very often." (C 15)
  • "Really, the only joy of riding with a defeated army is the knowledge that you have not been left for the ravens." (C 18)


June 2020

Saturday, 13 June 2020

"The Seven Sisters" by Margaret Drabble

Candida Wilton, mother of three daughters, newly divorced from Andrew, has moved to a flat in Ladbroke Grove. She studies Virgil's Aeneid and enjoys going to a health club. Her London diary, as she slowly recovers from the trauma of her divorce, spreads her wings and meets new friends (Mrs Jerrold the Latin teacher, widow of a radio presenter who new all the old poets and musicians, the exotic Anais, and Cynthia Barclay, married to a rich homosexual) and entertains old ones (schoolfriend now best-selling novelist Julia, and fat, patronising, neurotic, virginal social worker Sally), forms the (slightly slow) narrative of the first half of the book. Much of the remainder involves the Italian trip she embarks upon with six companions, to visit the cave of the Sibyl at Cuma and to see Naples.

It doesn't really have a plot, as such. It is the study of a character. The narrator is an old lady facing old age; there is a sense of hopelessness and gentle despair, a sense of pointlessness. Human beings are not meant to live so long, one of the characters reflects. All Candida's purpose was to produce children: she has three daughters and she is estranged from them; so she has nothing to give her life any meaning except for her pastimes. And why go to the health club; what is there to be healthy for? It is the pilgrimage to Cuma that gives her life a little meaning, and that is manufactured from the poetry of a man who has been dead for nearly two thousand years. The book is gently bleak and gently nihilistic. What is point of all of this? it asks:
  • "Do Good, do bad, do Nothing. I do nothing. Fainéant." (p 73) [Fainéant means idle or ineffective; but she is not idle.]
  • "They sing in the dark and shore up the ruins. They play with tragic brilliance the endgame." (p 83)
  • "She sits there waiting for God to call her home. I think her God never even noticed that she existed." (p 253)
  • "There are a lot of nice middle-aged and elderly women about, at a loose end, and they are good at setting up little support groups for themselves. Not many of them end up in the canal." (p 267)
  • "Our little, pitiful, feeble struggles. Sparrows and farthings, farthings and sparrows. Oh, we are the small change, and we know that." (p 267)
The sad old ladies theme reminded me of Anita Brookner's Brief Lives.

The author hints that the book involves some sort of Epic Simile: I kept trying to see how it paralleled Book VI of the Aeneid which describes Aeneas descending into the Underworld but I couldn't quite catch the metaphors. Perhaps the narrator, abandoned by her husband for another woman, is supposed to be Dido.A pre-pilgrimage visit to Mrs Jerrold the Latin teacher seems to  confuse her with the Cumaean Sibyl [prophetess]: she is described as having "the look of a gypsy or of a sibyl" (p 104) but this seems too obvious. After Candida has walked to the Sibyl's cave there is a section in which we learn about the narrator's death and funeral; later (spoiler alert) the narrator resumes the narrative since she hasn't died after all; this presumably symbolises Aeneas travelling down to the Underworld and then returning. The Seven Sisters travel on a ferry from Tunis to Naples: is this Charon's ferry or (ostensibly) the ships of Aeneas? In London, Candida (whose name is that of a yeast-like fungal parasite, is that in any way relevant?) sees mistletoe in the local cemetery and reflects: "The mistletoe ... is magical.  ... It protects against witchcraft and the Evil Eye. .... When its sap dies, its dry leaves turn bright gold in death. The doves of Venus perched upon the mistletoe. It is the Golden Bough that leads us safely to the Underworld. These strange plants ... are life, and they are death. I neither live nor die." (p 125). Lots of Virgilian references but I couldn't make them coherent.

It ends unresolved. As Candida says: "There cannot be a happy ending. There is nothing but the next effort, and then, after that, the next." (p 286)

There were lots and lots of memorable moments:
  • "Reiki, aromatherapy, yoga, shiatsu. I don't even know what they are, but I distrust them." (p 6)
  • "In those days I loved him, and one tends to overestimate the value of a loved object." (p 15)
  • "Bodies are made for sex too, aren't they?" (p 35)
  • "The amorous blackmail of grief." (p 49)
  • "I am not the kind of person to have close friends who pop in, but I think I wish I were that kind of person, and the illusion of being it is better than nothing."
  • "From time to time I looked at my watch, but the hands did not move. They had stuck. Time had come to an end." (p 127) I love, 'from time to time'; this experience, while walking through the rain, mirrors an experience she has in a sauna which she describes as a near-death experience in which she dozes off and wakes up to find that the grains of sand are no longer trickling through the sauna hourglass; they too have stuck.
  • "The human heart is black, so kindness cannot have been the explanation for my deeds." (p 151)
  • "She remembers Julia's contempt for those who make of marriage a Procrustean bed, and chops off their limbs to fit into it more neatly. They make marriage, said Julia, into a bed of blood. Instead, said Julia, of buying a new and bigger bed, or getting a different husband." (p 221)
  • "I'm fond of Clyde, and I think he is fond of me, but nobody can pretend that what goes on between us is normal. It isn't abnormal, but it isn't normal. It's just, I suppose, inadequate." (p 266)
  • "The irony is that as we near death, there are fewer people left to be sorry, fewer left to miss us. Nobody would care, nobody would mind." (p 276)
  • "The cloying dead smell of menstrual waste in the unemptied bins of a public lavatory." (p 278)
  • "Women are supposed to go on looking sexy when they are into their sixties. That's all very well for people like Julia, who like that kind of thing, but it's not very good for the rest of us, is it?" (p 278)
  • "My body was lonely, and it never found company." (p 278)
June 2020; 307 pages

Margaret Drabble has written many novels and this, to my embarrassment, is the only one I have read. So far.

The Seven Sisters was written in 2002.

Her sister is the novelist A S Byatt who wrote (reviewed in this blog):

Friday, 12 June 2020

"Have His Carcase" by Dorothy L Sayers

Another in the sequence of Lord Peter Wimsey murder mysteries. Mystery writer Harriet Vane, walking along the beach, discovers the body of a man with his throat cut; the blood is still flowing. By the time she can raise the alarm the tide has come in and removed the body. But she has the photographs and the razor used. Was it suicide or murder. Harriet's wannabe fiance, Lord Peter Wimsey, travels down from London to investigate the death of a gigolo with hopes.

Classic murder mystery stuff with a very clever twist at the end. But beware, there is some complicated code-cracking and a family tree and these require illustrations. My kindle edition failed to download the illustrations.

Great quotes:
  • "I always drive more mellowly on a pint of beer." (C 4)
  • "All work has its tedious moments, which are repaid by those that are more agreeable." (C 7)
  • "That is the gigolo. He is not a man, he is a doll stuffed with sawdust.' He is bought, he is sold, and sometimes there is an unpleasantness." (C 7)
  • "Ce n'est pas rigolo que d'être gigolo." [It isn't fun to be a gigolo] (C 7)
  • "Listen, mademoiselle, you must not think that because we are the dolls that are bought and sold we have neither eyes nor ears." (C 7)
  • "As disproportionately surprised and pleased as if he had picked up a sovereign in the streets of Aberdeen." (C 13)
  • "The halcyon period between the self-tormenting exuberance of youth and the fretful carpe diem of approaching senility." (C 13)
  • "As useful as a rain-coat under machine-gun fire." (C 13)
  • "You don't want either to give or to take. You've tried being the giver, and you've found that the giver is always fooled. And you won't be the taker, because that's very difficult, and because you know that the taker always ends by hating the giver." (C 13)
  • "We'll all be having a little white stone over us before long and it don't matter so much how or when." (C 15)
  • "There is undoubtedly something irritating about the favourites of fortune." (C 17)
  • "Therefore, by the second law of thermo-dynamics, which lays down that we are hourly and momently progressing to a state of more and more randomness, we receive positive assurance that we are moving happily and securely in the right direction." (C 22)
  • "The Inspector grunted and tripped over a packing-case as they emerged into the purlieus of Wardour Street." (C 23)
  • "As somebody says, 'the glitter is the gold.' That sounds like relativity physics, but it's psychological fact." (C 31)
June 2020

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 are introduced
Clouds of Witness in which Lord Peter must sleuth to get his brother Gerald, Duke of Denver, off a murder charge
Unnatural Death which introduces another Wimsey sidekick: Miss Climpson
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
Strong Poison which introduces Harriet Vane, a detective writer who becomes Lord Peter's love interest
The Five Red Herrings; Lord Peter in Scotland
Have His Carcase: Harriet and Peter investigate the death of a gigolo with dreams

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

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

"Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla" by Marc J Seifer

Tesla was, to say the least, eccentric. Perhaps he was "the quintessential mad scientist" (C 45). Perhaps he was a misunderstood genius; perhaps he was a charlatan. In this odd biography Seifer attempts to write  "the biography of a genius."

Born a Serb in Croatia, Tesla studied in Serbia and Paris before making his way to New York to work for Edison. He was fascinated by electricity, in particular by electromagnetic induction in which a changing magnetic field induces electric current to run through a wire. This is the fundamental principle used in generating electricity, it is used to transform voltages up and down, and it is used in creating electromagnetic waves which enable you to send electrical signals from transmitter to receiver by electromagnetic waves, including radio waves.

When he arrived in New York he was a pivotal player in the 'battle of the currents': Edison championed direct current (dc) electricity; Westinghouse was in favour of alternating current (ac); the great advantage of ac is that it can be easily transformed to very high voltages which can be transmitted with negligible loss of power over great distances and then transformed down to safe usable voltages; it is the basis for most modern grid systems. Tesla had realised as a young student that ac had an advantage over dc in that an ac  generator doesn't need a component called a commutator as a dc generator does. Tesla was therefore an ac convert and his invention of three-phase ac, after leaving Edison and setting up as an independent inventor,  was the key component of the Westinghouse victory.

One of the grisly side-issues in the battle of the currents was Edison's attempt to brand ac as more dangerous than dc by having it employed to execute prisoners. An Edison associate called Brown manufactured electric chairs and experiment on electrocuting animals and sought employment as a prison executioner. The first prisoner to be capitally punished by electrocution was subjected to a drawn-out, much bungled affair. (C 6)

This led to fame and fortune for Tesla who began a lifetime habit of living in hotels, hobnobbing with rich and famous (John Jacob Astor III (as well as being one of the richest men in the world at the time he was a bit of an inventor including "a bicycle brake ... a storage battery, an internal-combustion engine, and a flying machine"; C 17), John Pierpoint Morgan and many luminaries of the science world), working all hours to come up with even more exciting inventions and writing patents, and fighting patent litigation battles against other inventors he claimed were pirating his patents (or those who claimed they had priority over him). The intricacies of the patent battles, fully described in the book, are a bit of a yawn.

As a very young man Tesla invented the Tesla coil, a coil of wire used to produce high-voltage high-frequency ac electricity and a key component in the early wirelesses. Thus, he claimed priority over Marconi, who used a Tesla coil in his early wirelesses. Tesla also claimed to have invented the ability to transmit much further using ground waves. Marconi's triumph in their endless battles over patents and priorities embittered Tesla and, perhaps, turned him from eccentric to madman. As a succession of investors discovered before pulling out, Tesla's Leonardo-like inability to focus on a single project to completion and his inability to produce something merely good, led to a succession of never-actually abandoned projects. His work degenerated into showmanship and endless promises of revolutionary new designs and world-beating systems which were incomparably better than anything yet seen but never actually materialised. This was the polar opposite of the Edison system of 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration (Tesla criticised Edison by saying "If he had a needle to find in a haystack he would not stop to reason where it was most likely to be, but would proceed at once with the feverish diligence of a bee, to examine straw after straw"; C 4) and Tesla, for all his genius, for all his spent his mature years dodging from hotel to hotel, his bills unpaid, sponging off friends, pleading for funds, and feeding pigeons.

The biography embodies the restless energy of Tesla, his chaotic lifestyle and his eccentric approach to life. I was surprised when, about half-way through, it moved from a conventional approach to quoting conversations verbatim; some of these are clearly 'reconstructed'; it is as if it has become a novel based on the life of Tesla at these points. For me the biography failed to make sense of the chaos of Tesla's life and it certainly failed to explain in a way I could understand and appreciate the physics behind Tesla's inventions (and I taught Physics for 33 years so I have some idea of electromagnetism). The moments it came alive were in the sympathetic portrayal of the character of the man, especially in old age, his triumphs forgotten, still working hard to pay his debts, still working hard to persuade investors of the value of his latest scheme.

In the end, Tesla was a bit of a loony. These tendencies started early when he seemed to be claiming that some of his nearly perpetual-motion systems used energy very similar to 'vril' the mysterious force invented by Lord Lytton in a work of fiction called 'The Coming Race' which became a favourite of occultists and led to a drink called Bo-Vril. When studying Hertzian electromagnetic waves he decided the Hertz was wrong and that radio waves were longitudinal. (C 11)His pursuit of perpetual motion disregarded the laws of thermodynamics; later he claimed to have invented particles and waves that travelled faster then light in defiance of Einstein's relativity: "the various discoveries and suggestions inherent in Tesla's theory violate not only accepted theories such as relativity and quantum physics but also, on the surface, common sense." (C 44)

This looniness went a bit sour when he became a devotee of eugenics: "Tesla supported the idea of 'sterilizing the unfit and deliberately guiding the mating instinct'." (C 46) He himself was. probably, celibate. "Tesla denied himself certain pleasures as a way to supposedly establish total control over himself. And yet Tesla was a complete slave to his idiosyncrasies and to a cauldron of phobias." (C 46)

There are also plenty of other weirdos, such as Abraham Spanel, an Odessan Jew who fled Russian pogroms in 1905 and ended up as president of the International Latex Corporation in Delaware, now Playtex.

Some brilliant bits:

  • "Other bogus inventors of the day included Gaston Bulmar who tried to sell General Electric (GE) special pills that turned water into gasoline." (C 7)
  • "Michael Pupin ... wanted to go to Cambridge to learn under James Clerk Maxwell, but he found upon his arrival that Maxwell had been dead for four years." (C 8)
  • "For exercise, the inventor would walk '8 - 10 miles per day' ... Later, Tesla would add to his repertoire the squishing and unsquishing of his toes one hundred times for each foot each night." (C 43)
  • Tesla said: "I'll never be rich unless the money comes in the door faster than I can shovel it out the window." (C 44)

June 2020; 470 pages

Friday, 5 June 2020

"Once Upon a River" by Diane Setterfield

A pub by the Thames in the late nineteenth century. The customers (a sort of Greek chorus of delightfully eccentric and innocent and altogether cute set of horny handed sons of toil) gather there every evening to sup their beer and tell stories to one another. Then one night, the winter solstice, a stranger with a gashed face enters, a dead child in his arms. He collapses unconscious and they call for local nurse Rita to treat his injuries and to see what killed the child. The nurse determines that the child is dead. And then she comes to life ...

A mixture of Victorian whodunnit and fairy tale.

The story is told from an omniscient viewpoint and with the rhythm and cadences of fairy tale: "So it was that after the impossible event, and the hour of the first puzzling and wondering, came the various departures from the Swan and the first of the tellings. But finally, while the night was still dark, everybody at last was in bed and the story settled like sediment in the minds of them all, witnesses, tellers, listeners." (1: The Story Travels); "The night closed over them and almost immediately wonderment came to an end." (1: The Story Travels); "Then nobody spoke, and they breathed the minutes in and out till they made an hour." (5: Jonathan Tells a Story). The fairy tale motif extends from the title of the book (Once upon a river) to the final chapter (Happily ever after). There are supernatural events such as the resurrection of the child and, as a repeated motif, the legend of Quietly, a Charon figure, a ghost in a punt who rescues those drowning and either takes them to the safe bank or to the other side of the river. The story takes place between two winter solstices, the turning point coming at the summer solstice, and it is made clear that there is often magic in the air: "As is well known, when the moon hours lengthen, human beings come adrift from the regularity of their mechanical clocks." (1: The Story Begins); "And as the borders between night and day stretch to their thinnest, so too do the borders between worlds." (1: The Story Begins). There is a lot of emphasis on story-telling, especially as the story-tellers in the pub construct and reconstruct stories from the events they have witnessed:

  • "A body always tells a story – but this child’s corpse was a blank page." (1: The Corpse without a Story)
  • "Telling a thing’s harder than I ever knew." (2: The Story Flourishes)
  • "There are stories that may be told aloud, and stories that must be told in whispers, and there are stories that are never told at all." (2: Some Stories Are Not for Telling)
  • "And though eventually there came a time when the man himself was forgotten, his stories lived on." (5: Happily Ever After)

There is some philosophy:

  • "Does the occurrence of one impossible thing increase the likelihood of a second?" (3: Philosophy at the Swan)
  • "What’s the value of happiness that can only come at the price of another person’s despair?" (4: The Wishing Well)

There are some wonderful descriptions:

  • "The cold sliced through her coat without resistance and sharpened its blade against her skin, but she scarcely noticed." (2: Things Don’t Add Up)
  • "Blustery rain that excited the surface of the river, turning it into an ever-changing ribbon of pattern and texture." (2: A Mother’s Eyes)
  • "The throng thickened to stagnation" (3: Songs)

There is a genius moment of pathetic fallacy:

  • "Collodion took them upriver to Rita’s cottage, slicing the water, creating a churn of noise and splash and leaving a long trail of turbulence in its wake." (4: The Wishing Well)

And there are many other great moments:

  • "The river had seeped into him and made his lungs marshy." (1: The Story Begins)
  • "‘I don’t think you’ll wake a dead man by tickling him,’ said a gravel-digger." (1: The Story Begins)
  • "If there had once been curiosity or placidity or impatience here, life had not had time to etch it into permanence." (1: The Corpse without a Story)
  • "But having witnessed one miracle, he now saw miracles everywhere: the dark night sky his old eyes had ignored thousands of times before tonight unfolded itself above his head with the vastness of eternal mystery. He stopped to stare up and marvel. The river was splashing and chiming like silver on glass; the sound spilt into his ear, resonated in chambers of his mind he’d never known existed." (1: The Story Travels)
  • "For the first time in a lifetime by the river, he noticed – really noticed – that under a moonless sky the river makes its own mercurial light. Light that is also darkness; darkness that is also light." (1: The Story Travels)
  • "Listen to the sounds between the splashes." (1: Mrs Vaughan and the River Goblins)
  • "She thought of the dead souls that are said to live in the river and wondered which ones were racing past her now, spitting at her." (1: Lily’s Nightmare)
  • "There must be a great many true things that weren’t in the Bible. It was a big book, but still, it couldn’t have every true thing in it, could it?" (1: Lily’s Nightmare)
  • "We all know the gently plummeting feeling that precedes falling asleep and gives it its name." (1: The Sleeper Wakes)
  • "A dull sensation that was the disappointment of his marriage." (1: The Sleeper Wakes)
  • "Margot nodded at the bargeman to close it behind them. No one had moved. Where the crowd had parted, a curved line of floorboards was still visible. After a moment of stillness when nobody spoke, there came a shuffling of feet, the clearing of throats, and in no time the crowd remassed and the boom of voices was louder even than before." (1: Is It Finished?)
  • "She was a woman who let life happen to her without troubling her mind about things more than was necessary. The events of her life, its alterations and meanders, had not been in any way the result of any decisive action on her part, but only accidents of fortune, the hand dealt by an inscrutable God, impositions by other people. She panicked at change, and submitted to it without question. Her only hope for many years had been that things would not get any worse – though generally they had." (2: Things Don’t Add Up)
  • "Sometimes I wonder whether I have imagined her … Or whether it is my longing that has – somehow – brought her back from whatever dark place she has been in. In all that pain, I would have sold my soul, given my life, to have her back again." (2: A Mother’s Eyes)
  • "It seemed to him that her face was the model from which all human faces were derived, even his own." (2: Which Father?)
  • "The way Mr Montgomery pictured the Thames, it was not a current of water at all, but an income stream, dry and papery, and he diverted a share of its bounty every year into his own ledgers and bank accounts and was very grateful to it." (2: Which Father?)
  • "‘It is like bone soup,’ said Beszant one night. ‘A smell to make your mouth water and all the flavour of the marrow, but there be nowt to chew on and though you take seven bowls of it you will be just as hungry at the end as when you sat down to the table.’" (2: The Story Flourishes)
  • "He stood in his long johns, and reflected that when in the early days of his widowhood he had contemplated the possibility of finding himself undressed in the company of a woman, this was not what he had imagined." (2: Counting)
  • "Difference was upsetting, and people armed themselves with aggression when they met it." (2: Gone! Or, Mr Armstrong Goes to Bampton)
  • "Some men went about in their armour every day and showed the blades of their swords to all." (2: Gone! Or, Mr Armstrong Goes to Bampton)
  • "When lust and scorn live alongside one another in the same heart, they make devilry." (2: Some Stories Are Not for Telling)
  • "On a summer’s day winter always feels like something you have dreamt or heard spoken of, and not a thing you have lived." (3: The Longest Day)
  • "Sometimes they could hear two at once and the notes bumped into and fell over each other in their ear." (3: The Longest Day)
  • "Words accumulate indoors, trapped by walls and ceilings." (4: Truth, Lies and the River)

This is an unusual book. It's Victorian feel extends into the Dickensian division of characters into goody goodies and evil baddies - there is no character of moral ambiguity - but it has beautiful prose.

A number of the motifs seem to echo those of George Eliot's Mill on the Floss, another novel with a river and ghostly boatmen.

Also read Bellman & Black by the same author

June 2020

Monday, 1 June 2020

"The True Story of Hansel and Gretel" by Louise Murphy

Poland in the last year of the war. Two Jewish children, fleeing the ghetto, using the German-sounding pseudonyms of Hansel and Gretel, are adopted by an old woman in a forest. But there is a Nazi major in the nearby village and a sinister SS commander arrives and the villagers are afraid that the old witch's new family might bring disaster on them all. As might the partisans.

This tale if so full of horror and cruelty and brutality and death that it was hard to read. Can they survive? And what will be the price paid if they do? Of course you have to keep going, to discover what happens to these two children in such a harsh environment. But there were times when I was so saddened that I wanted to put it down. But I was gripped.

Some of my favourite quotes:

  • "Wasting a little shows you believe in tomorrow." (p 17)
  • "God packed up and left Poland in 1939." (p 25)
  • "If you had to be killed, she thought, it wasn't such a bad thing to be killed by a horse. It was a death unspoiled by any ideas at all." (p 93)
  • "If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, he must have no pity." (p 187)

Mesmerising but terrible. 297 pages