About Me

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

Monday, 26 July 2021

"Klara and the Sun" by Kazuo Ishiguro

 Klara is a robot who has been designed to have empathy so that she can be an Artificial Friend to a child. She is solar powered, so she has a key relationship with the Sun. We first meet her in the store, where she observes the world from the shop window. Will she be chosen or left on the shelf? And if she becomes a pet, will she be 'just for Christmas'?

Ishiguro takes us right into the mind of an android. This is a brilliant achievement. We even perceive the world through Klara's pattern recognition software, which sometimes resolves the world into cubist paintings, all disconnected shapes which sometimes fuse into a more rounded portrait than a conventional perception. Sometimes Klara doesn't really see as seamlessly as a human but often she is more perceptive than I am. But there is innocence as well: Klara doesn't understand some of what she sees and some misunderstandings lead to superstitious beliefs, for example about how she can influence the magic of the Sun. This aspect of the book is breathtakingly well written.

For example: "The sky from the bedroom rear window was ... capable of surprising variations. Sometimes it wasd the color of the lemons in the fruit bowl, then could turn to the gray of the slate chopping-boards. When Josie wasn't well, it could turn the color of her vomit or her pale feces, or even develop streaks of blood. Sometimes the sky would become divided into a series of squares, each one a different shade of purple to its neighbor." (Part Two, p 52) Klara's perceptual system often divides the seen environment into overlapping squares. More importantly, this passage shows that Klara's perceptions are influenced by how healthy her owner is: I think this is Ishiguro saying something powerful and important about how emotion colours our perceptions and influences our rationality.

It also means that Ishiguro can adopt a 'Man from Mars' approach to observing the world and in particular human social interactions. For example: 

  • "She ... held Josie in an embrace that seemed to go on and on, until the Mother was obliged to introduce a rocking motion to disguise how long it was lasting." (Part Two, p 92)
  • "I saw more insects hovering before me in the air, nervously exchanging positions, but unwilling to abandon their friendly clusters." (Part Three, p 156 - 157)

Even the way she talks is Klara-like, although it has to be said that most of the characters speak in quite well-composed segments of dialogue, though it is often difficult for Klara (and the reader) to recreate the thoughts that lead to the dialogue. Sometimes, therefore, the dialogue sounds a little stilted. And the humans trust Klara to an alarming degree: Rick and the Father both help Klara accomplish her spiritual quest without ever knowing what she wants, just because they believe in a robot. I found this difficult to swallow.

The way that Ishiguro drips clues into the story, so that the reader has to piece together what is happening, is fantastic. We learn quite quickly that Rick has not been 'lifted' but it is only much later in the book that we understand what this means.

The science fiction element of this novel reminded me strongly of Ishiguro's masterpiece: Never Let Me Go. But the spiritual side was very reminiscent of his The Buried Giant. There are many layers of mystery in Klara's quest which reminded me of Gilgamesh.

Some moments of magic:

  • "My cello-playing, even at its glorious best, sounded like Dracula's grandmother." (Part Two, p51)
  • "What was becoming clear to me was the extent to which humans, in their wish to escape loneliness, made maneuvers that were very complex and hard to fathom." (Part Three, p 113)
  • "It became normal for me to remain during Rick's visits, even though he sometimes looked towards me with go-away eyes" (Part Three, p 117)
  • "Not only was her voice loud, it was as if it had been folded over onto itself, so that two versions of her voice were being sounded together, pitched fractionally apart." (Part Three, p 179)
  • "Mr Capaldi believed that there was nothing special inside Josie that couldn't be continued. He told the Mother he'd searched and searched and found nothing like that. But I believe now he was searching in the wrong place. There was something very special, but it wasn't inside Josie. It was inside those who loved her." (Part Six, p 306)

A beautifully written book by a master. Well, he has won a Nobel prize for Literature.

I am a little bemused by the use of American spellings. The book may be set in USA, but that is not clear. Perhaps the author uses American orthography. But my copy of the book was published in London, UK in 2021.

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Also by Ishiguro and reviewed on this blog:

Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize in 2017. Other Nobel Laureates reviewed in this blog include:

"A change of seasons" by Khurram Elahi

So many books nowadays are fantasy or scifi or thrillers that it is refreshing to read a novel that, like Love on the Dole, is grounded in the drama of everyday life.

In the first half of the book, recently divorced warehouseman John is awaiting, with dread and nightmares, a heart bypass operation. The book explores the stories of others in the ward: fellow patients and two of the nurses. We also learn about John’s early life.

But if the story is a commonplace one, its treatment is not. Lyrical descriptions colour the narrative. The author is not afraid to tackle the less rational aspects of normality. The prologue is John’s dream of heaven which segues into a ‘memory’ of being punished by his headteacher at school by being hanged in the stationery cupboard. Furthermore, John has been haunted since childhood by a voice in his head called The Jester whose teasing goads - “Oh, you’ve found time to give yourself a sauna, Johnny. Cause you’re gonna be roasted alive tonight young man.” - are my favourite moments of the book.

The irrationality is ramped up In the second, post-op, half of the book. As the seasons change (it is no coincidence John’s surname is Winters), John experiences strange symptoms in his body and exhibits even stranger behaviours, culminating in a shocking act of violence.

It is a very atmospheric book. There is good use of foreshadowing techniques. I thought perhaps the first half had too many characters to keep focused; the author is always ready to explore another person’s point of view. The rich use of an extensive vocabulary gives a suitably baroque texture and I enjoyed those occasions when the author added playful twists to cliches:
  • He walked towards his maker, or taker, helpless, with every step lasting a lifetime.“ (Prologue)
  • If there was a sandwich on a table comprising life and death, John would most certainly lift up one half of the bread to see what was inside, no doubt expecting it to be off.” (C 1)
  • That’s what they say when you’ve had a heart operation of this nature. You’ll feel a new man when you get out. Well, he certainly felt a new man, just not one he could not recognise.” (C 26)
  • The peripheral hum of local factories expelling pollution with productivity” (C 39)
This is a promising start by a new author whose website can be found here: https://www.khurramelahi.com/

This review has been published in Kent Bylines: https://kentbylines.co.uk/book-review-a-change-of-seasons-by-khurram-elahi/

July 2021; 304 pages

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Thank you to The Conrad Press for giving me a free review copy of this book.

Thursday, 22 July 2021

"The Second Sleep" by Robert Harris

A well-written, pleasurable yarn.

The plot is almost impossible to describe without a spoiler alert. The first words are "Late on the afternoon of Tuesday the ninth of April in the Year of Our Risen Lord 1468" which makes one assume that it is a historical novel set in the mediaeval period. Towards the end of chapter three I learned, with a wholly unexpected shock, that this was the 'second sleep', the second mediaeval period following the apocalypse (later dated to about 2025 when all the computer driven infrastructure failed and society across the world collapsed, with mass starvation). This is therefore a post-apocalyptic novel and, predictably, the church is on top having forbidden 'scientism' and antiquarianism as heresies. Christopher Fairfax, a young priest, rides to Adcot to conduct the funeral of the parish priest. But while there he discovers that the late incumbent had a taste for antiquarianism and was, perhaps, on the verge of a (forbidden) archaeological discovery when he was, perhaps, murdered. Throw in a seductive widow in a decaying stately home and a thrusting, ruthless mill-owner always alert to the possibility of profit and wooing said widow, and two antiquarians and we have the makings for a slightly strange dystopian fiction.

It is definitely better than the much lauded Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel which has the ridiculous premise that, following a global pandemic, not only do most of the cast of an acting troupe coincidentally survive (must be the luvvie genes) but also they benefit the world by touring the countryside offering plays and concerts which is so much better than the benighted heathens nearby who believe that the most useful cultural knowledge to preserve is a knowledge of physics so that they can reassemble electric motors and engineered civilisation again. But if you like dystopia I would recommend:

  • The Book of Dave by Will Self, a similar concept in which the world has reverted to mediaevalism following global warming
  • Ape and Essence by Aldous Huxley, a sex-obsessed fantasy following a nuclear holocaust
  • Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, a 'last human' novel 

Memorable moments:

  • "The corpse was long and thin, packed in sawdust and bound up tight in a papery white linen shroud, like a chrysalis ready to hatch." (Ch 2)
  • "How grief ages us, he thought, with sudden pity; how vulnerable we are, poor mortal creatures, beneath our vain show of composure." (Ch 2)
  • "Not for him the fanaticism of some of his fellow younger clergy, with their straggling hair and beards and their wild eyes, who could sniff out blasphemy as keenly as a water hound unearths truffles." (Ch 3)
  • "ragged, skinny, weather-coarsened country folk, drably dressed, with an ugly scattering of disfigurements that told of hard births, heavy work and poor diets." (Ch 4)
  • "Thirty years ago, the average British household contained enough food to last eight days; today the average is two days. It is no exaggeration to say that London, at any time, exists only six meals away from starvation." (Ch 6)
  • "All civilisations consider themselves invulnerable; history warns us that none is." (Ch 6)
  • "He wished he could unsee what he had read, but knowledge alters everything, and he knew that was impossible." (Ch 6)
  • "History was a patchwork of voids." (Ch 8)
  • "The forge was set back from the road at a crossroads. A horse in the forecourt stood tied to a wooden pole that was perhaps twelve feet high, from the top of which, suspended by chains, hung a large yellow plastic scallop shell of great antiquity, battered and much-repaired." (Ch 9)
  • "‘So Church and state should be separate?’ ‘It would be best for both.’ ‘Then surely we would arrive at a place where the Church would have morals without power, and the state would have power without morality." (Ch 11)
  • "It’s your Church I don’t believe in, sir. Your God I treat with respect." (Ch 18)
  • "Faith that cannot withstand the truth is not a faith worth holding." (Ch 19)
  • "Fairfax took his hand. It was hard and calloused, a cudgel of flesh." (Ch 19)
  • "Quycke spread his hands – an overly emphatic gesture, Fairfax thought, such as might be made by an actor on the stage to convey sincerity." (Ch 22)

A quick easy read, which kept me turning the pages without being hooked.

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Also by Robert Harris and reviewed in this blog:

Tuesday, 20 July 2021

"American Dirt" by Jeanine Cummins

 The book starts when eight year old Luca hears bullets, the sound of gunmen belonging to one of the drug-trafficking cartels in Acapulco murdering his entire family except for him and his Mum, Lydia, who manage to hide. 

Then Lydia and Luca, still in shock from the grief of their bereavement, are on the run from the cartel. It is difficult even getting out of the state. They can't fly - Luca has no id and neither of them had time to collect a passport - and they can't use cash machines, mobile phones or anything that might be traced. Mexico has no long distance passenger trains so they hitch illegal rides on freight trains with migrants from other central and south american countries. They join the long procession of migrants.

There are some good people who spontaneously help, feed, shelter and protect them. There is danger everywhere. The police, especially the migrant police, are corrupt and some of them are likely to be in the pay of the cartels. They join other migrants, all heading for the desert border with the US.

Every step of this appalling journey is brilliantly chronicled.

  • "Luca's eyes feel like sandpaper and he still can't find a way to loosen the joints of his body, but at least he's breathing again." (Ch 5)
  • "Her expression is one Luca has never seen before, and he fears it might be permanent. It's as if seven fishermen have cast their hooks into her from different directions and they're all pulling at once." (Ch 5)
  • "Newton's Third Law can resonate in a place like this: for every wickedness there is an equal and opposite possibility of redemption." (Ch 32)

One of the tensest books I have read in a long time. Two characters with whom one cannot not empathise. Gritty reality. Every moment there is the possibility of disaster. This is hugely emotionally involving. A gripping read. The pacing is perfect. A quarter of the way through Lydia learns about La Bestia, the freight trains that can take her and Luca to the border, if they can survive the incredible dangers involved with the ride. Exactly half way through, Lydia discovers the true motive for the cartel boss's murderous assault on her family. And exactly three-quarters of the way through the encounter the people smuggler. You can't get more perfect pacing than that,

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Friday, 16 July 2021

"Erebus" by Michael Palin

 Palin follows the voyages of HMS Erebus, the ship that, with HMS Terror, took James Clark Ross on his voyage of exploration in the Antarctic in 1839 - 1843 before taking Sir John Franklin on his doomed search for the North-West Passage 1845 - 1848.

My biggest problem with books of this kind is that I find it difficult to follow the journeys without reference to a map. There are several maps in this book: most of them are adequate but I found great difficulty when it came to the quite intricate details of the North-West Passage, especially when Palin was describing the multiple searches for Franklin. Repetition of eg Lancaster Sound and Bering Straits (especially as the latter didn't seem to be marked on the maps) and all the islands that might have been promontories just left me confused.

Some great moments:

  • "I love the idea of a medicine for hypochondria." (Prologue)
  • "In classical mythology Erebus, the son of Chaos, was generally taken to refer to the dark heart of the Underworld, a place associated with dislocation and destruction." (C 1)
  • "Boothia ... the only peninsula in the world named after a brand of gin." (C 2)
  • "the tallest wave ever recorded in the southern hemisphere ... was measured at 78 feet high." (C 6)
  • "Of all God's creatures, they [whales] seemed the least prone to hurrying. Their lives seemed to be the human equivalent of taking very long baths." (C 6)
  • "This description of a penguin 'walking away upright as a dart ... looking like an old monk going to mass'." (C 10)
  • "National confidence is precarious and needs to be fed a constant diet of achievement." (C 12)
  • "In Waterloo Place ... is a memorial to Captain Scott. His failure was to be beaten to the South Pole. Franklin's was to be beaten to the first sea crossing of the Northwest Passage. The man who beat Scott to the Pole was Roald Amundsen. The first man to cross the Northwest Passage by sea was Roald Amundsen. He has no memorial in London." (C 17)
  • "The shower in the bathroom is one of those where you have to run around to get wet." (Epilogue)
This book was great on the Antarctic explorations but for the North-West Passage I think Barrow's Boys and Ninety Degrees North, both by Fergus Fleming, are much better.

July 2021; 310 pages

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Monday, 12 July 2021

"The Book of Malachi" by T C Farren

Malachi, who has no tongue, is recruited by an organisation which is growing in and harvesting organs from prisoners convicted of murder. They sit naked in their cages; he trims their fingernails and toenails. His reward after six months will be a tongue transplant. Of course, he can't talk to them ... but they can to him and he begins to appreciate the horror of the prisoners' plight. But should he help them? His dilemma is exacerbated by flashbacks to the moment he lost his tongue and the terrible survivor guilt he suffers.

Set on a lonely oil rig in the middle of the ocean with a cast of morally-flawed people, both prisoners and their exploiters, this novel is a powerful exploration of ethical issues. But it is also gritty and hard-edged. Malachi's back story is carefully drip-fed so that the reader often has to puzzle out what happened. It is perfectly paced: important turning points happening around the 33%, 48% and 72% marks. The climax had me rushing through the pages; the jeopardy continued to the very end. And the descriptions were wonderful.

Some magical moments:

  • "The mirror has the skin disease mirrors get in gloomy rooms." (p 2)
  • "I have seen decapitation. The head disengages as if the spine is nothing. A mere rumour." (p 3)
  • "The agent's cinnamon breath disguises her predation." (p 5)
  • "It's like Jesus saying he has Weet-Bix for breakfast." (p 203)
  • "Jesus would never have had to fight off an erection, would he? But perhaps these are carnal truths the censors burnt." " (p 205)
  • "Even his dreadlocks lie down as if chastised, creating the beaten silhouette of a bedraggled thief." (p 206)
  • "Money is just paper with some ugly president's face on it." (p 206)
  • "One side of her parting looks like she has stuck her finger in a plug, the other half is the good twin, clinging and meek." (p 216)
  • "The yellow man lies loosely, like someone cut him from a cross." (p 320)

Thought-provoking and exciting. Brilliant.

July 2021; 324 pages

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Friday, 9 July 2021

"Venice" by Jan Morris

 Jan Morris writes beautiful prose. This hymn to Venice, from someone who has lived there, is, as you would expect, a lyrical and haunting evocation of the beauty of one of the world's most visited tourist destinations, and a fascinating history of a city state that was a republic and maritime empire throughout the middle ages, but it is also shrewd and practical and funny. 

This isn't a tourist guide. I have been to Venice as a tourist and I would not have packed this book. This is a piece of the best sort of travel writing, the sort where the traveller becomes part of an alien landscape and has deep interactions with the inhabitants and begins to struggle to an understanding of what it must be like to live in such a place. This is that perfect sort of travel book ... except that it focuses on a single place and it is all the better for that.

There are some fascinating bits about the Venetian language. The word 'Arsenal' which was the name for the Venetian shipyard which used assembly-line techniques (celebrated by Dante in the Inferno) to produce, at peak, a fighting galley every day, comes from the arabic 'dar es sinaa' which means 'house of art'. The Arabic word 'sikka' (a die) became 'zecca' (a mint) and thence 'zecchino' (a coin) which is the origin of the Venetian unot of currency, the sequin. (The City: 17)

It is enlivened with historical anecdotes:

  • "One bishop playing a double game with such conspicuous ineptitude that he was simultaneously excommunicated both by the Pope and by the Oecumenical Patriarch."  (The People: 9)
  • "The Grand Canal ... follows the course of a river known to the ancients as Rivo Alto - the origin of the Rialto." (The City: 11)
  • "The earliest of all state banks, the Banca Giro, was opened on the Rialto in the twelfth century." (The City: 19)
  • "The fashionable eighteenth-century priest who, though courted by the greatest families of the Serenissima, chose to live in a rat-infested garret, and collected spiders' webs as a hobby." (The Lagoon: 26)
  • "St Nicholas of Myra ... was particularly revered by the Venetians, if only because at the Council of Nicaea he had soundly boxed the ears of the theologian Arius, from whose very heresy, adopted by the Lombards, some of the earliest Venetians had fled into the lagoon." (The Lagoon: 30)
  • "The silver reliquary of St Nicholas [in Bari] ...has for nine centuries consistently exuded a liquid Holy Manna of such purity as to be indistinguishable from the purest spring water."  (The Lagoon: 30)

But the most remarkable thing about this book is the writing. The prose is like wonder washing over one:

  • There are stupendous descriptions:
    • "A mesh of nets patterns the walls of a fisherman's islet, and a restless covey of boats nuzzles its water-gate." (Landfall)
  • There are utterly original metaphors:
    • "An air of home-spun guile and complacency, as of a man who has made a large fortune out of slightly shady dealings in artichokes." (The People: 2)
    • "The gondolier ... utters a series of warning cried when he makes a manoeuvre of this sort, throaty and distraught, like the call of an elderly and world-weary sea-bird." (The City: 12)
    • "Other Venetian waterways ... have an average width of twelve feet, and the average depth of a fair-sized family bath-tub." (The City: 12)
    • "The modern Venetian ... examines the world's delights analytically, as a hungry entomologist might dissect a rare but potentially edible spider." (The City: 17)
    • "Sometimes a layer of snow covers the city, giving it a certain sense of improper whimsy, as if you were to dress a duchess in pink ruffles." (The City: 18)
  • The are profundities:
    • "It is a difficult world, is it not, and heavy with disillusionment?" (The City: 18)
    • "Do we not know them well, whenever we live, the aesthetic conservers on the one hand, the men of change on the other? Which of these two philosophies is the more romantic, I have never been able to decide." (The City: 22)
  • And there are other, unclassifiable, moments of joy:
    • "You will hardly ever see a girl dressed for pottering, in a sloppy sweater and a patched skirt, or in that unpressed dishabille that marks the utter emancipation of the Englishwoman."  (The People: 5)
    • "The lanes of Venice often have lovely names - the Alley of the Curly-Headed Woman; the Alley of the Love of Friends Or of the Gypsies; the Filled-In Canal of Thoughts; the Broad Alley of the Proverbs; the Furst Burnt Alley and the Second Burnt Alley ... the Street of the Monkey Or of The Swords; the Alley of the Blind." (The City: 13)
    • "It is astonishing to me how so drab a frame can contain so glittering a masterpiece." (The Lagoon: 26)
    • "No history seems to be attached to these places - they are not even surrounded, as an estate-agent once said to me of a peculiarly repellent half-timbered house, 'by the amenities of tradition'." (The Lagoon: 29)
    • "London has her own 'Little Venice, in Paddington, where a notice on one irreverent householder's gate warns visitors to 'Beware of the Doge'." (The Lagoon: 30)
    • "Other cities have admirers. Venice alone has lovers." (The Lagoon: 30)

This is a book of magic with enchantment on every page.

Jan Morris also wrote about the neighbouring Italian city of Trieste

Many thanks to my wonderful friends Danny and Mary for buying this book (and Trieste, above) for me. Other selections from the 'Mary and Danny' book club include:

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Sunday, 4 July 2021

"House of Thieves" by Charles Belfoure

 New York, 1886. A society architect is blackmailed into helping a gangster plan daring raids on banks and society mansions. The architect's entire family, one by one, discover the thrills of illicit activity.

The author has clearly done a lot of research about New York of that period. Some paragraphs, for example when describing the menus of a society dinner, sound as if he has transcribed his research notes. 

From this situation, the plot development is entirely cliched and predictable. The characters are predictably two-dimensional. Complex human emotions are described in a few definitive sentences (we are told, repeatedly, that George's gambling problem is a sickness). The amorality of the story is immense: bit parts are killed off in a few sentences and, although the architect is said to suffer remorse and horror about the murders he witnesses, the reader doesn't feel that. The entire story is plot driven.

And the plot is predictable, repetitive and boring. There's a heist. There's another heist. And then another. There's an informer. The architect's brother is a policeman.  There is gambling, drinking, prostitution, pick-pocketing ... There are society balls (and, of course, rigid moral codes: these are regarded as straight-jackets against which the crime spree seems like entrepreneurial free enterprise). This is a story that has been written many times before. 

Not my sort of tale.

July 2021; 413 pages

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Saturday, 3 July 2021

"Ex-Libris" by Ross King

Isaac Inchbold, a book-seller, becomes involved in the hunt for a rare manuscript in the early days of the reign of Charles II. His story is interwoven with that of Emilia, maid-in-waiting to Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia in the 1620s who, with Sir Ambrose Pennington and a Czech librarian, flees with the manuscript from Prague to London, pursued by three mysterious men.

This is a superbly researched historical thriller whose huge amounts of detail add much-needed verisimilitude to a plot that ranges from cryptography to Rosicrucianism to Sir Walter Ralegh's search for El Dorado. Although the Isaac Inchbold plot is more or less credible, with Isaac wandering around London and South East England in search of clues to this manuscript, the 1620s plot in which three characters are pursued by three extraordinarily sinister characters who never quite catch up with them is very repetitive and seems designed principally for the regular cliff-hangers that it produces. The protagonist asks, quite late on in the book, "How could a manuscript of fourteen pages – a few scraps of goatskin scribbled with a mixture of lampblack and vegetable gum – possibly be valuable enough for someone to kill for?" (3.2) and it is a question which more or less gets answered (before a cataclysmic ending worthy of Poe) but it is the fact that the pursuers are both so sinister yet repeatedly fail that I found far-fetched. That and the shipwreck in which all three protagonists and all three mysterious antagonists survive but almost no other 'bit part' despite the fact that the bit parts were all experienced sailors: that forfeited credibility.

Nevertheless, the author has a wonderful gift for description. The main character is memorably described as "a small man with dark garb and the morose, worried eyes of a puffin." (3.4) Other original descriptions, which are utterly of their period, include:

  • "I closed my eyes, and sleep, with its heavy die, pressed its seal across their lids." (1.4)
  • "The coach forded the thin stream, its wheels tossing curtains of water to either side." (1.7)
  • "after much truffling in one of the cupboards, presented me with a fat volume," (2.13)
  • "The walls of the corridor were lined with busts and marble figures like the ones in the garden of Arundel House, their ancient noses and lips obliterated like those of syphilitics." (3.5)
  • "He was on his haunches beside the cabinet, grunting and red-faced like someone at his close-stool." (3.5)

Other wonderful moments during the book: included:

  • "It is easier to find a labyrinth, writes Comenius, than a guiding path. Yet every labyrinth is a circle that begins where it ends, as Boethius tells us, and ends where it begins." (1.1)
  • "these books were doomed. This wasn’t a library so much as a charnel-house." (1.3)
  • "Quite amazing how determined kings and emperors have been to destroy books. But civilisation is built on such desecrations, is it not? Justinian the Great burned all of the Greek scrolls in Constantinople after he codified the Roman law and drove the Ostrogoths from Italy. And Shih Huang Ti, the first Emperor of China, the man who unified the five kingdoms and built the Great Wall, decreed that every book written before he was born should be destroyed." (1.3)
  • "fifty years ago the great Isaac Casaubon had demonstrated how the entire Corpus hermeticum – this supposed fountainhead of the world’s most ancient magic and wisdom – was nothing more than a fraud, the invention of a handful of Greek scholars living in Alexandria at some time in the century after Christ." (1.7)
  • "hundreds of documents inscribed in bizarre codes composed of astrological signs and other chicken-scratchings" (2.2)
  • "Trust, after all, is the mother of deceit." (2.9)
  • "where he urged me to sample a new beverage called ‘rumbullion’, or ‘rum’ for short. It was a hellish fluid that seemed to scald the gullet and cloud the brain." (2.11)
  • "I knew, of course, that greed was essential to a lawyer’s craft," (3.4)
  • "Learning was no longer being used for the improvement of the world: it had become instead the handmaid of prejudice and orthodoxy, and prejudice and orthodoxy the handmaids of slaughter." (Epilogue)

Beautifully written but a disappointing plot.

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Ross King is a brilliant historian of art who has written, among other books:

Tuesday, 29 June 2021

"Der Reizen" by E. Lynn Cormick

I'm not sure you can cram much more into a novel. In the real world there is a whodunnit element mingled with escape tunnels for Jews hiding from the Nazis. And then there is the parallel world of the Tiel, a declining world of elf-like creatures with High Councils and swords who speak in a "strange combination of German, Latin and Celtic".

After inheriting a house in rural Bavaria, Herta, a down-to-earth Canadian, discovers she has also inherited the position of Der Reizen, a sort of gatekeeper between this world and the world of the Tiel. The locals seem to fear her or hate her and a very good-looking lad wants her as his soul-mate. She is chased by killers and becomes a suspect in a suspicious killing. Then, with the help of the local priest and the policewoman sent to investigate her, she discovers what it's all about.

Herta is a fantastic heroine who literally laughs in the face of danger. Her life in Canada has given her many skills (for example, a self-hypnosis tape has given her the ability to block out mind control, she carries WD-40 in her 'survival kit' (!), ) but her most endearing quality is her stubbornness and her ability to get angry very quickly. 

There is a lot of everyday practicality about the book. After inheriting the house, Herta starts cleaning and arranging for a bank account and electricity and internet. These mundane things add verisimilitude and enable us to suspend disbelief when weird things begin to happen.

There is so much going on in this book that I have to admit to getting a little confused from time to time. But the action is unrelenting and what might otherwise be a kaleidoscopic plot is unified and carried by the wonderful heroine.

Some great moments:

  • "It was either seem rude and ignore him or be rude and belt him." (Ch 1)
  • "This man was chocolate on two legs," (Ch 4)
  • My thoughts were elsewhere.” He smiled. “But now that I’ve seen you, they will, I think, remain here. One so lovely should not be left alone.” (Ch 4)
  • "I find I must live in the filthiest hut in Christendom, I’m treated like something that crawled out of the sewers and to top matters off, I’m expected to be a pimp for vampires.” (Ch 6)
  • "She struggled out of the bed, relieved and oddly dismayed to see she was still dressed." (Ch 9)
  • Old hatreds don’t die. People do.” (Ch 10)
  • "Had she chosen correctly? Or had her big mouth just gotten both of them killed?" (Ch 22)
  • "Herta’s questions had questions but she asked only one." (Ch 23)
  • "This is supposed to be where the bad guy shows up and tells me his life story, right?" (Ch 28)
  • "This must be what it’s like to run into a beehive, she thought. Death by a thousand stings. She’d never been stung before, so she wasn’t sure." (Ch 28)
  • "The flapping fabric of her jeans rubbed against the bandages and the wounds beneath. As she carefully put one foot in front of the other, she deliberately focused on all the things that had happened. It helped to keep her anger alive and her thoughts away from self-pity and pain." (Ch 30)

A classic fantasy with portals between this world and another. June 2021

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Saturday, 26 June 2021

"Fermat's Last Theorem" by Simon Singh

This book makes mathematics both understandable and interesting! It is an incredibly well-told story about the nature of mathematics and mathematicians and the search for the proof of Pierre Fermat's last theorem. It explains what the theorem is and the nature of mathematical proof and it comes as close as imaginably possible to explaining how mathematical techniques and knowledge developed until a proof of the theorem could be devised.

Pythagoras's famous equation ("for a right-angled triangle, the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides") leads to a simple mathematical equation. Pierre Fermat, in 1637 or thereabouts, wondered whether you could have an equivalent equation using cubes rather than squares, or indeed any higher power. He claimed, in a marginal note, that "I have discovered a truly marvellous proof of this, which this margin is too narrow to contain". But in the ensuing 350 years no mathematician could prove 'Fermat's Last Theorem' (last because it was the last to be confirmed). Then, in 1993, Andrew Wiles claimed to have a proof. But did he?

There are some brilliant anecdotes, some wonderful curiosities from the world of mathematics, and the following:

  • "Mathematical logic ... a way of achieving truth which is beyond the fallibility of human judgement." (Ch 1)
  • "The growth of any discipline depends on the ability to communicate and develop ideas, and this in turn relies on a language which is sufficiently detailed and flexible." (Ch 2)
  • "Creating mathematics is a painful and mysterious experience. Often the object of the proof is clear, but the route is shrouded in fog, and the mathematician stumbles through a calculation, terrified that each step might be taking the argument in completely the wrong direction. Additionally there is the fear that no route exists." (Ch 3)
  • "Mathematics consists of islands of knowledge in a sea of ignorance." (Ch 5)

Fascination and wonderfully explained. June 2021; 345 pages

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Wednesday, 23 June 2021

"Seven shares in a gold mine" by Margaret Larkin

 "On Wednesday, September 24, 1952, a time bomb exploded in the forward baggage compartment of an airplane flying between Mexico City and Oaxaca." These are the first words of this true crime story. The author was on board the plane and recounts not only the immediate aftermath of the explosion but the ensuing police investigation. Seven of the passengers, poor people, had travel insurance for hundreds of thousands of pesos. It was clear that the explosion was deliberate. The investigation leads to charges and a trial. 

I read it years ago: it was a Readers' Union book club edition produced in 1960. I was fascinated then and the story gripped me again. It isn't just the crime itself, it is the insight it gives into what it was like in Mexico in the 1950s. For example, the capital was growing so rapidly that the landline telephone system couldn't keep up and the best way of getting a phone line was to buy shares in the telephone company. And the characters include the relationship between a Walter-Mitty-like no-hope dreamer and one of Mexico's leading opera singers. It would be great fiction and it is equally great fact. It reminded me of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.

"Perhaps he made his fictions convincing to himself by nailing them down with slivers of truth." (Ch 14)

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

I have been a big fan of the Readers' Union books which I inherited from the shelves of my parents. They have included:
  • 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

Monday, 21 June 2021

"Fire Over England" by A E W Mason

 Mason was a prolific and successful writer of boys' adventure yarns; he is most famous for The Four Feathers, a 1902 story set against the background of the war in Sudan in which General Gordon was killed in Khartoum. Fire Over England was probably his second best book and involves spying and derring do which leads to the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1902.

Robin Aubrey, the intelligent, good-looking and rich gentlemanly hero, is still a boy at Eton when he first comes to the notice of Queen Elizabeth and her devious spymaster Francis Walsingham. Four years later, shortly after he has met and fallen in love with the beautiful Cynthia at first sight, he is recruited to travel clandestinely to Spain to ferret out the secrets of Philip II's incipient Armada. But his own secret mission is to rescue his father who has fallen foul of the Spanish Inquisition. 

The plot's the thing and the characters are mostly pieces to be moved. As is typical of the time, the goodies are handsome and brave and intelligent and the baddies are ugly and sly and cunning. Thus the hero has "beauty and straight limbs and the clean look of race" (Ch 1) while the villain has "small. twinkling, reddish eyes and a little nibbling mouth ridiculous in a man; and ... a steep sloping forehead and a sharp receding chin, his face seemed to be drawn to a point at the end of a long nose." (Ch 1). It is a mystery to me how baddies ever escaped detection in the old days: since novelist invariably paired moral flaws with physical flaws one could just look at a person to know that they weren't to be trusted. The only rounded characters are the old men: Walsingham the spymaster and Santa Cruz the dying admiral.

Foreshadowing is carefully pointed out in an attempt to keep the reader going: "She was to remember ... that name of Carlo Manucci; so that great harm was done and great perils incurred" (Ch 5). There is little subtlety.

The pacing of the plot is unusual. The first 20% of the book deals with the schoolboy at Eton and has the function of a prologue. The call to adventure does not take place until after the hero has fallen in love (creating tension, because he must leave his love behind) which is about 35% of the way through. The Spanish part of the story, the next Act if you will, starts at about 50%, and the fulfilment of the quest  (Robin finding his dad) is at nearly 90%. This then leaves only the journey home. In contemporary terms this is a very start-heavy story and it is a tribute to the author that the slightly melodramatic narration is able to keep one going. 

He never fails to add colour to the setting and the settings are often used to intensify the point he is trying to make.

There is a deliberate attempt on the part of the narrator to present a positive view of England in the 1580s. The narrator regularly breaks in on the story to provide a little homily on how good the English were and how bad the foreigners. For example, he defines Englishness (of our day, ie contemporary with the authro rather than the story) as: "English of our day - English in her distaste for cruelty, English in her inability to nourish rancour against old enemies, English in her creed that poverty needed more than the empty help of kindly words." It is complacent, self-congratulatory and imperialistic, offering a justification for Empire. It is of its time, but it is a little uncomfortable to read nowadays.

Great moments:

  • "He was in that tense mood which duplicates a person so that one self acts and speaks, whilst the other stands at his side, notes each gesture and word and accent and criticises or approves." (Ch 1)
  • "If I tell a story, however short, I am aware long before I have done that I am winding up some dreary dead thing out of a deep well." (Ch 3)
  • "Knowledge of the living tongues alone helps one to understand the diversity of men." (Ch 3)
  • "If he had wanted a feather for his cap ... he would have bought three bits of a feather at three different shops and sewn them together in the dark." (Ch 3)
  • "the old man's game of pretending that he was young" (Ch 15)
  • "Old men are for the dust-heap as all the world knows." (Ch 16)
  • "He was in that rare state when the billiard balls themselves made themselves his sycophants." (Ch 20)

Despite its limitations, Mason has a fantastic gift for story-telling and this is a classic of its kind. June 2021; 316 pages

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Saturday, 19 June 2021

"Banner in the Sky" by James Ramsay Ullman

This is a fictionalised version of the first ascent of the Matterhorn.

Rudi's father was a famous alpine guide killed while attempting the summit of unconquered mountain The Citadel and Rudi's grieving mother cannot bear the thought that her son might also die. But all Rudi wants to do is climb and he repeatedly truants from his job washing dishes in a hotel kitchen to climb lower slopes and plan an attempt on the Citadel. On one such jaunt he saves the life of a visiting mountaineer who has fallen into a crevasse; this man wants to take Rudi on his attempt to climb the mountain to the top. But can Rudi overcome his family objections, his impetuosity, his inexperience and the formidable mountain itself?

Although this is a children's book it goes into vast descriptive detail - it reminded me of the technical passages in the Swallows and Amazons books by Arthur Ransome which are just as challenging for the non-expert. Ullman was himself a mountaineer and he uses his deep knowledge of the subject. This makes the book incredibly realistic.

The analyses of the plot contains spoilers:

The plot is a classic example of the Hero's Journey. Rudi is a version of Luke Skywalker. The call to adventure is both from the mountain itself, calling to Rudi through the hotel window, and, more literally, from the mountaineer trapped in the crevasse. His boss in the kitchen used to climb with Rudi's father and plays the role of the ancient mentor (Obiwan Kenobe), repeatedly helping to clear obstacles from Rudi's path. There is also a spirit guide in the example of Rudi's dead father. Rudi has three sorts of challenge to overcome: his family, the mountain, but most of all his character.  There are repeated trials of his character and, true to hero form, he fails on the very first. But his final triumph lies in overcoming his selfishness and doing what his dead father would have done. 

The plot is also a classic four-part (three act) structure. Rudi's failure on his first challenge comes at exactly the 25% turning point. At 50% he has a chance to redeem himself and although he repeats the selfish behaviour that led to his first failure, this time he is successful. At the 75% mark his slender body means that he cannot climb with the men and has to be pulled up on a rope ... but almost immediately his slender body means that he can go where the men can't and so he turns the table to become the helper. The key moment of moral decision come at the 85% mark, almost exactly half way through the last quarter, and he makes the wrong choice but again he has the opportunity to redeem himself at 95% and he does, at the cost of failing to achieve his dream. There are only two pages to go when this apparent failure is redeemed with the words "It is Rudi's mountain", words which, even when writing this blog, make my eyes fill with tears.

Some great lines:

  • "You cannot put out a fire by wishing it. You cannot bottle the wind." (Ch 3) 
  • "His, he well knew, had been the worst of all sins that a mountaineer can commit. He had made others risk their lives to save his." (Ch 6)

A brilliant boys' adventure story. June 2021; 206 pages

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God