About Me

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Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. 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

Saturday, 27 February 2021

"Swallows and Amazons" by Arthur Ransome

 The book that started it all, for me. I read all twelve books in this series, which starts with this one, when I was a child. If anything turned me on to reading, these did. And now, returning after more than fifty years, what do I find?

John, Susan, Titty and Roger are on holiday in the Lake District. Their parents (Dad is a naval officer serving abroad) allow them to camp on an island in the middle of the lake, sailing a dinghy called Swallow. They encounter Nancy and Peggy who sail in the Amazon and adventures occur.

The characterisations are easily accomplished:

  • John is the adventurous boy, a keen and accomplished sailor and a very pukka sahib. He swims all around the island but he gets into a bit of a stew when he is called a 'liar' and when he realises that sailing at night is foolhardy.
  • Susan is the home-maker who mothers everyone and cooks all the meals.
  • Titty is the dreamer. She reads books and makes up the stories of pirates and adventure which add a romantic colour to everything the children do.
  • Roger is the little boy who provides a comic effect.
  • Nancy is an adventurous tomboy whose piratical phrases ('Shiver my Timbers') add verve and fun.
  • Peggy, the Amazon equivalent of Susan, is over-talkative and frightened of thunder; she is Nancy's stooge.

These and the minor characters reflect the expectations of people at the time (it was written in 1929). John says that he and Roger will one day join the Navy; this is assumed as inevitable. The girls will be home-makers. The children are from privileged families: Nancy and Peggy have a cook at home; when they encounter a policeman (Sammy) they tell him off and boss him around (he is working class). The boats are hierarchically arranged: Captains John and Nancy, Mates Susan and Peggy, Able-Seaman Titty and Ship's Boy Roger: there are a lot of 'Aye Aye Sirs'. 

A lot of the imaginary adventures involve the implicit assumptions of racist colonialism. Thus, the children are intrepid explorers; adults are referred to as 'natives' or 'savages' who might be cannibals. 

My pre-teen self in the early 1960s noticed none of this. 

There is a surprising amount of technical detail in the book. Very early on, well before the adventures proper have started, the children have to learn how to step the mast and hoist the sail of Swallow and this is explained in detail. As a writer I would hesitate to start the narrative so slowly. As a young reader I don't think I even noticed this bit; I certainly didn't understand it (I still don't). I suppose it adds verisimiltude; it makes me feel that Ransome is talking about a particular dinghy whose idiosyncracies were known to himself; it grounds the story in undeniable authenticity and it lends a sort of depth to the narrative that a musician might achieve with a bass line that nobody apart from fellow musicians would notice. 

But it is a big book and it starts very slowly. The first chapter involves them getting permission (by a telegram from absent father containing the immortal words 'better drowned than duffers if not duffers won't drown'; words I have remembered for over fifty years) to go on their adventures; the second the details about preparing the ship and the tents and the stores, so they don't actually set sail until 10% of the book is already finished. In terms of the Hero's Journey this gives the 'ordinary world' of the heroes, the status quo ante, which grounds the heroes in reality and makes the reader identify with them. But it is a slow start.

The structure of the book is classic. The Swallows encounter the Amazons almost exactly at the 25% mark, the adventure that acts as the focus of the book begins at the 50% mark; the resolution of the problems with 'Captain Flint' starts promptly at the 75% mark; the culminating discovery is almost precisely at 90%.

One of the main stories (the Captain Flint subplot) is beautifully foreshadowed. The final few pages also seem to foreshadow several of the other books in the twelve book series.

Some memorable moments:

  • "Somehow there was always more time to do things when you were alone." (Ch 18)
  • "It is never safe to say that nothing more can happen." (Ch 20)
  • "Never any of you start writing books. It isn't worth it." (Ch 29)

I suppose it enchants primarily because of its subject. Like all classic children's adventure stories it promptly gets rid of the grown-ups. And what could be more exciting than camping on an island and sailing your own boat.

February 2021; 360 pages

This review was written by
the author of Motherdarling

The Swallows and Amazon series contained twelve books:

  • Swallows and Amazons: Children camping on an island in a lake have sailing based adventures
  • Swallowdale: More sailing adventures are threatened when the Swallow sinks
  • Peter Duck: The Swallows and Amazons and Captain Flint sail on a big yacht  into the Caribbean in search of pirate treasure; pirates pursue
  • Winter Holiday: the lake freezes allowing a sledge-based expedition to the 'north pole'; the 'D's are introduced
  • Coot Club: The Dd join the Death and Glory kids in the Norfolk Broads but the excitement is just as great when birds have to be protected from rowdies.
  • We Didn't Mean to go to Sea: The Swallows accidentally find themselves at sea in a yacht they scarcely know: for my money this is the most dramatic and exciting book of the series.
  • Secret Water: The Swallows are joined by the Amazons in an expedition to map some tidal mud-flats
  • The Big Six: The Death and Glory kids have to be cleared of accusations of crime; the Ds help.
  • Missee Lee: The Swallows and Amazons and Captain Flint are shipwrecked near China and captured by a lady Chinese pirate with a taste for Latin.
  • Pigeon Post: The Swallows and Amazons and Ds search for gold in the hills above the Lake; one of my favourites
  • The Picts and the Martyrs: The Ds have to hide in the hills when the Great Aunt comes to stay with the Amazons
  • Great Northern: The Swallows and Amazons and Ds and Captain Flint are protecting birds in the far north of Scotland.

Other books by this author:



Thursday, 25 February 2021

"The Problem of Pain" by C S Lewis

In Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, the hero Yossarian gets angry at the thought of a God who has created a world in which there is pain: "Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who found it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of creation? What in the world was running through that warped, evil, scatological mind of His when he robbed old people of the power to control their bowel movements? Why in the world did He ever create pain? ... Why couldn't He have used a doorbell instead to notify us, or one of His celestial choirs? Or a system of blue-and-red neon tubes right in the middle of each person's forehead? Any jukebox manufacturer worth his salt could have done that. Why couldn't he?

In this book C S Lewis attempts to show why pain is not only necessary but good, from a theological point of view. He argues that God uses pain to shake us out of our complacency. When we are happy and content, we tend not to think of God. But when we are suffering, we seek God as a comfort. “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” (Ch 6)

Fundamentally CSL believes that the ultimate human happiness lies in submission to God. He uses the analogy of a man with a pet dog: “The association of (say) man and dog is primarily for the man’s sake: he tames the dog primarily that he may love it, not that it may love him, and that it may serve him, not that he may serve it ...man interferes with the dog ... In its state of nature it has a smell, and habits, which frustrate man’s love: he washes it, house-trains it, teaches it not to steal, and is so enabled to love it completely. To the puppy the whole proceeding would seem ... to cast grave doubts on the ‘goodness’ of man: but the full-grown and full-trained dog, larger, healthier, and longer-lived than the wild dog ... would have no such doubts.” (Ch 3)

Another analogy, often used in Christianity, is of God as father. But CSL's ideal father is fundamnetally authoritarian: “Love between father and son ... means essentially authoritative love on the one side, and obedient love on the other. The father uses his authority to make his son into the sort of human being he, rightly, and in his superior wisdom, wants him to be.” (Ch 3)

Pain is therefore the way God whips us into obedience, using the pretext that it is good for us in the long run. This sounds like a classic justification for tyranny. 

CSL is aware of this: “These Divine demands which sound to our natural ears most like those of a despot and least like those of a lover, in fact marshal us where we should want to go if we knew what we wanted. He demands our worship, our obedience, our prostration.” (Ch 3)

On the whole this is not the sort of God one would choose, if one had a choice. 

But presumably to a man like CSL, an Oxbridge don, cocooned in multiple privileges, this is the perfect God because he is the perfect excuse for authority, the authority of the master over the slave, the man over the dog, the father over the child, the husband over the wife, the boss over the worker. Pain and suffering can be justified because it props up the status quo. The only true sin is rebellion.

It wouldn't be so bad if I could feel that CSL's arguments were unanswerable. After all, he was regarded as an expert in three fields: theology, fiction, and mediaeval literature. So it is shocking to discover how clumsy his arguments are.

He has a habit of introducing hypotheses as if they were fact. For example, he states: “Now the proper good of a creature is to surrender itself to its Creator” (Ch 6) This statement is unevidenced. But he never makes clear that it is an assumption that could be challenged. He then bases his arguments upon this statement. But there are alternatives! You could instead say: ‘The proper good of a creature is to fulfil its potential’. This would lead to radically different conclusions. Such a use of unacknowledged hypotheses suggests either that he is insufficiently imaginative to conceive of alternative points of view, or that he is using rhetoric in place of reason.

He also enjoys offering dichotomies. This is another rhetorical technique which allows a propagandist to bolster a weak argument. For example, he describes Jesus and says “only two views of this man are possible. Either he was a raving lunatic of an unusually abominable type, or else He was, and is, precisely what He said. There is no middle way.” (Ch 1) Which is an absurd statement. There are lots and lots of middle ways. Jesus might have been sincere but mistaken, for example. He is deliberately narrowing down the reader's choices to two alternatives so that by demolishing one, you are forced to accept the other. And notice how the work of demolition is packaged into the choice by his description 'unusually abominable'. 

In another example he says that our experience of the Numinous (eg dread as opposed to fear) can be explained in only two ways: “either it is a mere twist in the human mind, corresponding to nothing objective and serving no biological function ... or else it is a direct experience of the really supernatural.” (Ch 1). Of course this is not the only choice. And again, he blackens the path he dislikes, with the adjective 'mere' and the qualifier 'nothing objective and serving no biological function'. (I would argue that dreams are natural but potentially numinous and that dread and wonder could easily have a biological function, as does curiosity.)

There are some thought-provoking moments:
  • I liked his limitation of omnipotence to "all that is intrinsically possible” but not to intrinsic impossibilities such as self-contradictory concepts: “All things are possible with God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities.” (Ch 2)
  • Our prehistoric ancestors made all the useful discoveries, except that of chloroform, which have ever been made. To them we owe language, the family, clothing, the use of fire, the domestication of animals, the wheel, the ship, poetry and agriculture.” (Ch 5) I'm not sure I agree, however.
  • Adam and Eve “wanted ... to ‘call their souls their own’. But that means to live a lie, for our souls are not, in fact, our own. They wanted some corner in the universe where they could say to God, ‘This is our business, not yours’. But there is no such corner. They wanted to be nouns, but they were, and eternally must be, mere adjectives.” (Ch 5) Accept your subservience. Do not rebel.
  • We regard God as an airman regards his parachute; it’s there for emergencies but he hopes he’ll never have to use it.” (Ch 6)
  • The terrible necessity of tribulation is only too clear. ... Let him but sheathe that sword for a moment and I behave like a puppy when the hated bath is over - I shake myself as dry as I can and race off to reacquire my comfortable dirtiness, if not in the nearest manure heap, at least in the nearest flower bed.” (Ch 6) 
  • “If a game is played, it must be possible to lose it.” (Ch 8)
  • The intrinsic evil of the animal world lies in the fact that animals, or some animals, live by destroying each other.” (Ch 9) He is saying that animals are fundamentally evil because some of them are predators.
  • If all experienced God in the same way and returned Him an identical worship, the song of the  Church Triumphant would have no symphony, it would be like an orchestra in which all the instruments played the same note." (Ch 10)

But overall I was appalled at the attitudes revealed in this book and even more shocked at the lack of academic rigour in the arguments. At least it was short.

February 2021; 123 pages

This review was written by
the author of Motherdarling.

C S Lewis also wrote:
CS Lewis was also the author of: these books reviewed in this blog:

His science fiction trilogy
Theology:
Literary criticism:
Autobiography:

Of course he wrote the Narnia children's books as well.

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

"Shampoo Planet" by Douglas Coupland

It took me a little while to get into this book but having finished it I am impressed. I think it is better than his debut novel whose title caught the zeitgeist and labelled a culture: Generation X.

Tyler, the son of hippy mother Jasmine, wants to become an entrepreneur (his first memories are of Ronald Reagan). But he is growing up in Lancaster, an American town whose raison d'etre has been its nuclear processing plant, now closed. He studies hotel management at the local community college; his friends have dead-end jobs. His rich grandparents become homeless after their investment fund goes bankrupt; they start pyramid-selling a cat-food scheme. Nutrition involves the by-products of the oil industry or the processing of the unwanted and unmentionable bits of animals. This is a critique of American consumer culture by a narrator-protagonist who wants to be a part of it.

What helps is that the narrator is himself conflicted. He scorns the "sand candles" and "rainbow merchandise" of his Mum's hippy past. A visit to his natural father, living with two women and ten children in the wilds, has elements of nightmare. When visiting Europe he castigates Europeans for having no ambition. But when he goes to Hollywood he ends up working in a chicken reprocessing plant and then becomes a sidewalk artist. He is seduced by the future but all the time he lives among the wreckage of consumer culture:

  • "The Ridgecrest Mall was where my friends and I, all of us hyper from sugar and too many video games, feeling fizzy and unreal - like products that can't exist without advertising - shunted about in our packs: skatepunks, deathcookies, jocks, psueds, Euros, and geeks. ... I'm almost too old for malljamming now, and to be hoest, there's not much mallleft to malljam in. Today around us I see wounded shoe stores, dead pizzerias, plywooded phone marts, and decayed and locked-up sports stores." (Ch 31)

This American town past its best-before date reminded me of the town in The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold. 

The way in which the narrator describes his world using detailed lists of consumer items reminded me of American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis: "No seedy spider plants. No depressing sand candles. No gruesome rainbow merchandise. Just extremely tasteful black modular sofa units, a TV and CD sound system built into the man-high 'entertainment totem' (black), the incredibly tasteful nonshag carpet (gray), the futon (gray-and-white stripes), the aforementioned sleek Italian minifridge (gray), the computer (off-white - the catalog says 'oatmeal'), books and tapes, a clock (black), my collection of globes on the table near the window ... and a mirror featuring a bright red, totally desirable Porsche in the middle." (Ch 6) 

Another bit made me think of William Burroughs (the author of eg Naked Lunch): "Futuretowns are located on the outskirts of the city you live in, just far enough away to be out of reach of angry, torch-carrying mobs that might roam in from the down-town core. You're not supposed to notice futuretowns - they're technically invisible: low flat buildings that look like they've just popped out of a laser printer; fetishistic landscaping; new-cars-only in the employee lots; small back-lit Plexiglass totems out front quietly brandishing the strangely any-language names of the company housed inside." (Ch 48)

He can certainly turn a phrase, frequently adding modern concepts to describe something in an original way:

  • "an auto-mall rezoning both deleted and reformatted the landscape." (Ch 7) 
  • "Monkey-suit cocktail parties with the fashion-android wives." (Ch 9)
  • "Monique and her libertarian sexual mores, while not exactly sluttish, have a kind of unclean tinge, like a pack of white sugar that has burst, and is overflowing onto a supermarket aisle." (Ch 36)
  • "Parisians visibly wincing  with anticipation for their August holidays, like a man who has to pee badly." (Ch 22)
  • "unplugged computers dreaming of pie charts." (Ch 61)

Other memorable moments:

  • "You're young. Phone me in ten years. You'll know the limits of your talent by then; just watch doors slam shut all around you. You won't be so cocky then." (Ch 9)
  • "Daisy suggested that Grandma and Grandpa simply use one of those room deodorizers that function by anesthetizing your nose so you can't smell the smell.  'Kind of like Dan's personality' I added, triggering Jasmine to escort me to a weekend-long chiding seminar." (Ch 12)
  • "The new things just seem to erase the old things the way new scenery erases old scenery when you're driving down the highway." (Ch 12)
  • "When you arrive on the doorstep of Europe, you are given a pair of wings ... with which to fly backward in time." (Ch 20)
  • "Girls are like a restaurant, Tyler, with tay-rrible service. Girls will make you wait and wait and wait and wait and wait and wait and wait and just when you think you will scream and leave the restaurant , suddenly a merveilleux meal arrives, more fantastic than anything you had hoped for." (Ch 24)
  • "As you grow older, it becomes harder to feel 100 percent happy; you learn all the things that can go wrong." (Ch 27)
  • "Clean hair, clean body; clean mind; clean life. You could become famous at any moment and your whole personal history could be unearthed. And then what would they find?" (Ch 28)
  • "A few stores still thrive, commercial success being in direct proportion to the unnecessariness of the product being provided." (Ch 31)
  • "We scavenge the tapes from the backseat, which has degenerated into a jambalaya of bicycle shorts, cassettes, maps, and turkey-jerky wrappers." (Ch 48)
  • "Life is essentially the Vikings slashing your family to ribbons, then setting fire to your crops." (Ch 53)
  • "I've been dialling my inner phone so long now, if the other end answered, I'd probably blank out and forget who I'd called." (Ch 58)

I loved this book for the way the author set up the hippy vs consumer culture clash, enabling him to critique them both. His hero is a true Colin Wilson Outsider, being both seduced and alienated by a world that holds out so much false promise while delivering such a squalid reality.

He writes well too!

February 2021; 282 pages

This review was written by
the author of Motherdarling




Saturday, 20 February 2021

"The Almost Moon" by Alice Sebold

 "When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily." (first line) 

The protagonist/ narrator (a life model at a local college) murders her mother at the end of the first chapter. From there until the end of the first quarter, she is alone with the body. The police get involved almost exactly at the half way mark; the narrator goes 'on the run' with about ten per cent of the story to go. The plot is therefore mostly a classic three act structure plot.

The book is written in the past tense, from a consistent first person PoV. There are repeated flashbacks, mainly to the narrator's childhood: a large part of this book is an exploration of her relationship with her mother, a woman whose wants and needs dominated and controlled the lives of her husband and daughter. There is a huge amount of sadness here, in the portrait of an American suburb at the end of its life, filled with old people at the end of theirs, and the particular horror of the stifling atmosphere inside this family home. It is a bleak portrait of failure and waste and futility and the situation of the narrator, who has spontaneously murdered a woman who would soon have died anyway, seems inescapably grim.

The book is written in the typical American style with huge amounts of detail which works beautifully when she is murdering her mother; it certainly adds verisimilitude though it can be a little exhausting. 

Some memorable moments:

  • "The thing about dementia is that sometimes you feel like the afflicted person has a trip-wire to the truth." (Ch 1)
  • "Not all of us grew up in the great Northwest, with a rock edifice for a dad and an undulating waterfall for a mother. ... Some of us pushed up through asphalt." (Ch 10)
  • "The material consisted of an inscrutable pattern that seemed to adorn many women's bodies at middle age - a sort of dazzle camouflage designed to keep the eye from being able to focus on the actual shape inside." (Ch 11)
  • "Flexibility did not, in the end, trump gravity. I lived on the borderline between a Venus just holding it together and Whistler's mother in the buff." (Ch 11)
  • "Her house was spick and span and she had once pointed out to me that the best thing about having a cleaning woman was that they did what she called the 'first wave' and left her free to focus on the details." (C 15)

Although this is much less of a page-turner than Sebold's The Lovely Bones (another book with a murderous hook) the depressing portrait of the world is compelling. February 2021; 290 pages

The review was written by
the author of Motherdarling.





Wednesday, 17 February 2021

"A Perfectly Good Man" by Patrick Gale

Lenny, twenty and recently paralysed, commits suicide in the presence of his parish priest who, rather than seeking help, chooses to administer the last rites. 

Gale hops between the different characters (always narrating in the third person, in the past tense, as a reporter on them so at a slightly removed psychic distance) and backwards and forwards in time. This is the same bricolage-like technique that he used in Notes From An Exhibition (and indeed, some of the characters from that book reappear in this one, mostly as walk-on parts). This enables the reader to piece together what is happening whilst allowing Gale to control the information he is giving. Thus, for example, a key revelation occurs at exactly half-way through: this acts as a turning-point, changing one's understanding of the title character: Father Barnaby. 

It was also written so that the hero, Barnaby, and the villain, Modest, both make essentially the same mistake (almost at the same age) and yet their trajectories are quite different.

A beautifully paced book, exploring the nature of goodness through some very different, perfectly drawn, characters.

Some brilliant moments include:

  • "Adolescence was about discovering and flexing one's power over others, or learning to compensate for the lack of it." (Modest Carlson at 39)
  • "It was high summer, the sort of sticky August weather that brought out the crudest in everyone. Men paraded in nothing but Union Jack shorts. Every child seemed fractious and smeared with ice cream. Pubs spilled threateningly onto the pavements around them and the streets reeked of grilling, sweat and onions." (Modest Carlson at 39)
  • "He was ... like a considerate child who had begun performing a magic trick only to discover that the magic was real and possibly dangerous." (Modest Carlson at 39)
  • "It was like a fairground ride Jim had persuaded them all onto once, a kind of revolving circular room where the floor slowly fell away from under one's feet but centrifugal force held one stupefied in place against its whirling walls. Faith fell away and, surprise surprise, the world didn't end. Everything simply lost its meaning and savour and people looked increasingly dull and stupid." (Barnaby at 40) A beautiful analogy although the former physics teacher in me will insist that there is no such thing as centrifugal force; Gale means centripetal force.
  • "His having been hopeless with money was, in some ways, a myth to mask a sort of high standards alcoholism." (Barnaby at 29)
  • "There was no God. There was simply life followed at some entirely random point by death. There was, in fact, simply stuff and time. Nothing more. And the excitement, the beauty even of it was that stuff and time were still amazing." (Jim at 12)
  • "She was claimed by a gang of girls right after class. This was inevitable because she was new and pretty and he'd noticed how girls liked to collect girls who raised their own currency." (Lenny at 14 3/4)
  • "Veganism is time-consuming. If you go vegan on me, you're learning to cook." (Lenny at 14 3/4)
  • "Mothers were so glib about saying, 'oh, I'd give him my kidney' or 'oh I'd die for him, no question' but how many would by ready to reach for a smothering pillow or merciful syringe?" (Nuala at 56)
  • "His body was like the statues around Uncle James's garden, only with all its limbs." (Barnaby at 8)
  • "He hated making scenes or losing his temper. It was like running up a flight of stairs to find only a blank wall in the way; the only option was an ignominious return." (Barnaby at 8)

A thoughtful exploration of what it means to be human. February 2021;404 pages

Patrick Gale also wrote Kansas in August

This review was written by
the author of Motherdarling


Monday, 15 February 2021

"Me and My Million" by Clive King

 A young dyslexic boy, Ringo, is roped in by his elder brother Elvis and his mate Shane to be the getaway vehicle for an art heist. They hand him the stolen painting, in a bag of laundry, and he takes it by bus to a launderette to meet his contact. Unfortunately he muddles bus 14 and bus 41 and ends up in the wrong launderette, his subsequent travels take him on the Underground, to a hippy squat, to a crooked art dealer, a terrorist gang with guns, an old woman's flat and a canal boat. And then some.

A great little kids' adventure novel with some refreshing humour:

  • "The only thing to look at are these pictures ... and they're all about the olden days with people wearing a lot of old clothes or no clothes at all." (C 1)
  • "Don't trust anyone in a peaked cap, it's a good rule." (C 2)
  • "'Do you know anything about locks?' Big Van asked me. I said there were some you could open with a bit of bent wire, and some you could push back with a bit of plastic. 'Canal locks, I meant,' he says." (C 10)

Written by the author of Stig of the Dump and The Twenty-Two Letters.

This review was written by
the author of Motherdarling.


Sunday, 14 February 2021

"Meat Rack Boy" by Michael Tarraga

This is a very short memoir.

Abandoned as a baby by his prostitute mother, with his twin brother and two-year-old sister, Michael grew up with foster-parents who systematically abused him from before he was six: he was anally raped repeatedly by his foster-father while his foster-mother prevented him from screaming or struggling. As a child he was forced to have oral sex with his sister while being filmed. His foster-parents rented him out to other men including, so he claims, Ted Heath (before he became Prime Minister).

Unlike the two other rentboy memoirs I have read recently (I am researching a character in a novel I am writing), Making Beds in Brothels and Street Kid, Michael is straight and practises heterosexual sex since  escaping his abusive childhood; the remainder of this memoir (written at the age of 70 and dying from cancer) describes his failed marriages, his drug addiction, his working life, and his crimes.

Simply written.

Some memorable moments:

  • You know Peter, God loves you. But right now I don’t like you very much.” (Ch 5)
  • "We have been together for 11 years and have never had an argument, as we can’t be arsed to argue." (Ch 11)

February 2021

This review was written 
by the author of Motherdarling


Saturday, 13 February 2021

"How the Light Gets In" by M J Hyland

 A young girl is desperate to escape her poor Australian family. She has a one year student placement in the United States where she stays with a rich family. But the parents expect her to conform to some rigid rules, the daughter resents her and the young son wants to have sex with her. She struggles to fit in and her 'bad' behaviour has consequences.

Perhaps the fundamental problem is that back home there has been petty squalor while everything in the US is too perfect. She feels the pressure to be perfect while being aware that she isn't, and the world isn't. The few friends that she does make are other misfits: the sin-exploring Mormon, the drug-addled millionaire's son, the rebellious Russian chess-player. When she has the opportunity to shine in the 'perfect' world, landing a part in the school musical (by auditioning with the savagely ironic song 'Anything you can do, I can do better'), she needs alcohol to cope. She is the classic outsider (in the Colin Wilson sense): she can see the short-comings of the world and yet she desperately wants to be a part of it,

  • "The carpet is so threadbare you can see through to its veins." (1.2)
  • "As I lay there, I could smell the dirty dishcloth Mum uses to wipe the lino." (1.2)
  • "After years of exposure to this advertising frenzy, people must start to despise each other for being ugly, for having so much as a birthmark on their chin with hair growing out of it." (1.5)
  • "There are so many healthy, good-looking teenagers, that a few crooked teeth, or short, fat fingers, suddenly take on the proportions of deformities." (2.11)

As a metaphor for this, she has endemic insomnia. Something else that everyone can do which she can't (although she can sleep fine in other people's beds, just not in her own). And of course the metaphor is perfect because she can wander around the house at night and look at everyone else while they are sleeping, another outside seeing the rest of us sleep-walking through our lives.

  • "Within minutes of closing my eyes, my brain springs open, like a flick-knife." (1.2)
  • "The wave of sleep has washed up on the shore of my unhealthy skull." (2.15)
  • "It's like sitting down to a plate of food, only to find that you have no mouth to eat it with. Even worse than that, it happens when you are hungriest, when the food is of most use to you, and when you are quite sure you have a mouth. ... In fact, only yesterday, you were sure that your mouth was working very well indeed. You even saw it there on your face when you looked in the mirror." (3.20)

A classic tale of a teenage misfit.

Some memorable moments:

  • "A smile so tight and wide it must be hurting his face." (1.2)
  • "She moves her hands in her baggy pocket in an obscene and excited fidgeting, as though her bulging pinafore is about to give birth to something with too many knuckles." (3.20)

A beautifully-written classic tale of a teenage misfit. 

This was M J Hyland's debut novel. She has also written Carry Me Down about a young boy living in Ireland who also fails to fit in.

This review was written by
the author of Motherdarling

February 2021; 330 pages

Get the first few pages on kindle by clicking here.





Friday, 12 February 2021

"The Murdered Cousin" by Sheridan Le Fanu

A very short novella, scarcely longer than a short story, from a classic author who deserves rather more recognition than he has received. 

It starts with a locked-room mystery. The narrator's uncle is accused of murdering a guest in his house but cannot be prosecuted because no one can see how the crime could have been committed. 

Then the narrator's father dies and she is sent to live with her uncle who will be her guardian. He then proposes that she marries his brutish son. She realises that the pair are scheming to get their hands on her fortune ... and that the alternative might be to be murdered by them. And then one night ...

Rather neatly, the denouement of this clever book reveals the solution to the locked-room mystery.

This is stylish gothic romantic thriller fiction. Another of this author's work (A Chapter in the History of a Tyrone Family) is thought to have provided Charlotte Bronte with the 'mad woman in the attic' element of Jane Eyre.

Some memorable moments:

  • "The door had been double locked upon the inside, in evidence of which the key still lay where it had been placed in the lock."
  • "I have plucked the old baronet as never baronet was plucked before; I have scarce left him the stump of a quill."
  • "having been, so far back as she could well recollect, always rather strict, as reformed rakes frequently become, he had latterly been growing more gloomily and sternly religious than heretofore."
  • "he was a specimen of the idle, coarse-mannered, profligate 'squirearchy'.
  • "I'm reckoned rather hard to please, and very hard to hit. I can't say when I was taken with a girl before, so you see fortune reserved me—." 'I'm a catch' is never the best start to a proposal.
  • "such a consummation, though devoutedly to be wished, was hardly likely to occur" A nice quotation from Hamlet with a twist: the word being 'devoutedly'

Le Fanu describes one character as being like 'Sir Giles Overreach' a character in 'A New Way to Pay Old Debts' by  Philip Massinger written c 1625 

This review was written
by the author of Motherdarling


Thursday, 11 February 2021

"The Twenty-Two Letters" by Clive King

This is a children's book. It gives a fictionalised account of the birth of the alphabet in Gebal-Byblos, a historical town in Phoenicia on what is now the Lebanese coast where the alphabet does indeed seem to have begun. The invention is ascribed to an apprentice scribe called Aleph who is captured and enslaved and taken to the Sinai desert where he discovers that the Egyptian Pharaoh intends to invade Gebal. His brother Nun goes on a sea voyage to Crete, via the volcanic island of Thira (now Santorini) and learns on the way the secret of navigating by the stars. In Crete he takes part in the bull-dances and learns about the plans of King Minos to launch a sea-borne invasion of Gebal. His other brother Zayin, a general in the army, goes on a scouting mission north and learns the secrets of riding horses; also discovering that the horsemen of the north intend to invade Gebal. Will the three-pronged attack on their city succeed? And what about the disaster foretold by the mysterious Chaldean?

Despite a surprising amount of description, this has everything a good boys' adventure yarn needs. All three brothers are captured and have to escape if they are going to warn their home town. And the stay-at-home sister Beth also has a part to play.

I loved this when I was a kid and even re-reading it there was a moment of catharsis near the end when a lump came to my throat and tears to my eyes. If it can still do that to a cynical sexagenarian it must be a great book.

Some of my favourite moments:

  • 'Call yourselves soldiers!' Zayin jeered. 'I’ve collected eggs in the farmyard from creatures with more guts than you! I’ve seen them clip wool from animals with as much sense!'" (Ch 2)
  • "Calculations, to Nun, were a matter of fingers and toes or pebbles, or beads on strings; but the stranger seemed to be able to perform them instantly." (Ch 3)
  • "The two men exchanged looks in the obscurity, as soldiers do on the battlefield when a casualty occurs." (Ch 10)
  • I counted the trees, Father,” (Ch 11): the sniffle moment.

A much-underestimated masterpiece. February 2021

Clive King was an alumnus of my old college, Downing College Cambridge. His most famous book was Stig of the Dump.

This review was written 
by the author of Motherdarling


Wednesday, 10 February 2021

"The Inheritance of Solomon Farthing" by Mary Paulson-Ellis

In the dying days of the first world war a squad of British soldiers with orders to undertake a highly dangerous river-crossing wile away the days before the attack by gambling. A greenhorn lieutenant eager for his first taste of action sows dissent among the men. One of them is killed, his legacy a pawnbroker's ticket. The soldiers are all representative types: the 'old sweat', the gay couple, the captain weighed down by his responsibilities, the coward, the wide boy, 

In modern-day Edinburgh, Solomon, grandson of the officer in charge of the squad, tries to find the heir to an old man who has died in a nursing home, his clue being a pawnbroker's ticket. His search takes him to a foundling home in Northumbria. 

The story shuttles between these two narratives; there are also snippets telling what happened to some of the soldiers after the war.

I found the first world war storyline a very slow build. One knew at once that someone (maybe more than one) had died because that is given ion the very first page. This hook was necessary because the soldiers did nothing for a long time except gambling and worrying and squabbling. This was tremendously authentic and the interplay between the characters was fascinating, but it was slow.

The modern storyline was significantly more surreal, though narrated with everyday and sometimes gritty reality. A trio of women sitting around a coffin appear at the start and the end. Solomon, in debt to a loan shark, escapes prison because a police officer wants him to do them a favour; I failed to understand why, nor why he had been breaking and entering in the first place. On his journey south to find the heir he seems to have a charmed existence, turning up evidence wherever he goes and never questioning the most obscure clues. Characters from the first-world-war story keep cropping up in their descendants and coincidences abound, including resonances into his own murky past. Companions (a dog and a schoolboy) join him for portions of his quest. 

A Hero's Journey? (contains spoilers)

This, I think, is the clue to this part of the book. It is a quest, a version of the 'hero's journey'. This is a story structure archetypal to myth. The classic version contains twelve parts:

Ordinary World describes the status quo ante of the hero. Solomon is an Heir Hunter working in Edinburgh. His 'ordinary world' involves a night in the cells for 'breaking and entering'. The dismissal of the case leads to ...the Call to Adventure when the case gets dismissed but Solomon refuses the call & Meets the Mentor: by running off, filled with self-doubt, but he is picked up by the police officer involved in the case who is a sort of mentor.

He gains his first 'companion' on the quest (a dog) and begins the quest by leaving Edinburgh. This is the moment when he crosses the threshold, being followed by enemies (Duncan and Dodds) and encountering helpers (the genealogist in the church, Eddie Jackson and the boy archivist in the school). There is a feel, as we get further from Edinburgh, that we are entering a shadowland which isn't quite as real as Edinburgh. He is now supposed to undergo ordeals and tests. These may be his recollections of his father's death and his time at the foundling school, during which he is responsible for a boy who drowns (and is, perhaps, resurrected). These memories are, perhaps, his approach to the inmost cave, which includes a bear-death experience, in which he discovers at least a degree of self-knowledge. By now he understands the family relationships so he can return to Edinburgh to find the last relative of his quest which will enable him to claim his reward

But he now has to return to the house where he started, reencountering the three grieving women and the aunt who isn't an aunt (a very mythic title). He goes to the corpse and discovers that the money he has been chasing (a) originated with his grandfather (b) is 'blood money' (c) has gone missing and (d) when it does turn up it turns out to be in non-legal tender. This is the final encounter with the enemy in which enlightenment is finally given (the Return with the Elixir).

I;m not convinced I have mapped the plot correctly; I am sure that there are intended to by mythic resonances in this novel.

Soldiers story

The soldiers story might also be regarded in mythic terms. They are fighting a war but have arrived in a sort of pocket where the fighting ceases (although they still fight amongst themselves). More than once this is referred to as an 'Eden' and the tensions between them might be regarded as a type of fall, although there are no women. Furthermore, all these characters are, from the point of view of Solomon, dead so they are, as it were, already in heaven and therefore have purely spiritual presences.

In addition to this use of a mythic archetypal structure, the book is divided into seven sections (entitled) and is prefaced with the Solomon Grundy rhyme which are presumably meant to match.

Some memorable moments:

  • "Some men were born to give instruction and others to take it. That's just the way it is." (The Debt, 1918, 2)
  • "Heir Hunting was full of false trails, but Solomon knew from experience that there was never a dead end on a family tree, only another branch to explore." (The Pawn, 2016, 2)
  • "Edinburgh, a city in which one often reached the destination one wanted, without ever quite understanding the route." (The Bet, 2016, 3)
  • "What was it about a society that called them heroes ... when all it ever did was use boys as fodder for the guns." (The Charge, 2016, 1)

February 2021, 506 pages

This review was written
by the author of Motherdarling

This book was a present to me from Lucy and Alexa via The Beautiful Book Company

Saturday, 6 February 2021

"The Luck of Troy" by Roger Lancelyn Green

This is a children's book: it is an adventure story for boys.

A retelling of the last year of the Trojan war, from the 3rd person perspective of Nicostratus, the 12 year old son of Helen and Menelaus.  Extraordinarily true to its sources (the author boasts that he hasn't invented a single character) and brilliantly simplified so that it becomes rather clearer than the originals but nothing is lost. There are some brilliant villains: Paris is endlessly cynical about the honour of the old guard and full of victory schemes that involve a certain amount of dishonorable conduct; Deiphobus is a wonderfully bloodthirsty bully, Palamedes a lisping, sly traitor. 

On the whole the Greeks are goodies and the Trojans rather nasty oriental types; I suppose it is in the nature of a book about war to divide the world into us, the goodies, and them, the enemy baddies, and this will almost always simplify and divide over nationalistic if not racist lines; nevertheless I would love to find a story telling the Trojan war from the point of view of the Trojans - pace Vergil's Aeneid.

I must have read this book when I was about twelve and I dare say I utterly identified with Nico. I loved the Lancelyn Green oeuvre, including his Robin Hood, his King Arthur, and his Tales of the Greek Heroes. Looking back I can see he wrote this tales well, and the lack of character depth and complexity merely makes it suitable for the genre: boys' adventure stories.

From about fifty years ago I can still remember this paragraph: "'Now, Nicostratus!' he cried, exultantly. 'Look! I'll stab you just there, where it'll hurt most; and then there, where it means a slow but certain death; and there, so that you'll not be able to move from the floor. Are you ready? Look, my sword is drawn back for the first and cruellest blow -'" (Ch 8) What are the rules the creative writing classes teach you about dialogue? Use 'said' rather than anything such as ... 'cried'. Don't use an adverb such as 'exultantly'. Avoid exclamation marks! I have remembered this paragraph (and shuddered) for fifty years !!!!!

Another great line: "that old bore Nestor, who would talk the tail off a mermaid and then explain how they grew new ones when he was young." (Ch 4)

It's written for kids and I enjoyed it all over again.  Great writing.

I also enjoyed learning that Palamedes was King of Nauplia, a town I enjoyed visiting a couple of years ago.


The bay at Nauplia, March 2019


This blog was written
by the author of Motherdarling


Roger Lancelyn Green also wrote a biography of C S Lewis.




Friday, 5 February 2021

"The Place of Dead Roads" by William Burroughs

 All the usual hallmarks of a Burroughs novel: the young men having gay sex, the violence and mutilation, the weird chimeric monstrosities, recurring characters and episodes from other Burroughs novels, the fractured narrative, the sense that you are somewhere in between a trip on LSD (sometimes good, sometimes nightmarish), gay erotic fantasy and a 1950s science fiction B-movie. 

As the blurb says, Burroughs has a style that is "utterly unique in twentieth-century literature" though there are echoes of other writers:  

The fractured, chaotic narrative (although Place of Dead Roads has a more linear narrative than much of Burroughs's oeuvre) and the gay leitmotif remind me of Jean Genet, for example The Thief's Journal.

The inventiveness and the science fiction style fantasies remind me of J G Ballard, for example Millennium People or High Rise but especially The Unlimited Dream Company; J G Ballard was an admirer of Burroughs

The headlong reel of the narrative reminds me of work by Jack Kerouac, for example On The Road.

And other authors that seem to belong in this area include Tony Hanania (Eros Island, Homesick) and Alexander Trocchi (Cain's Book). 

What is interesting is the way that Burroughs reuses characters and events from other books, particularly in terms of some of his erotic and sado-masochistic fantasies.

The fractured narrative is a result of Burroughs use of a 'cut up' technique, as if he has taken a linear narrative and deliberately rearranged it. This gives it a sense of bricolage but also imparts qualities of madness. The obsession with magic and the paranoia of alien invasion add to the irrationality. It was written when the author was 69 at the end of a life repeatedly interrupted by drug addiction. It does not seem to be the product of a completely sane mind.

Which makes much of it virtually unreadable. The characters are about as real as they are in 1950s Hollywood science friction B-movies and, as mentioned above, there is no coherent narrative so it can scarcely be said to have a plot. There are rants against the church, the English, the class system ... 

So why bother? Because it is so different. And because there are occasional flashes of wonder:

  • "Slave Gods in the firmament." (Part One, p 19)
  • "There are signs that indicate the presence of a stranger in rural areas. Some are positive, like the barking of dogs. Other indications are negative, like the sudden cessation of frogs croaking." (Part One, p 20)
  • "Kim is a slimy, morbid youth of unwholesome proclivities with an insatiable appetite for the extreme and the sensational. His mother has been into table-tapping and Kim adores ectoplasm, crystal balls, spirit guides and auras. He wallows in abominations, unspeakable rites, diseased demon lovers, loathsome secrets imparted in a thick, slimy whisper, ancient ruined cities under a purple sky, the smell of unknown excrements, the musky sweet rotten reek of the terrible Red Fever, erogenous sores suppurating in the idiot giggling flesh." (Part One, p 23)
  • "Kim thought maybe he would study medicine and become a doctor, but while he liked diseases he didn't like sick people. They complained all the time. They were petulant and self-centered and boring." (Part One, p 25)
  • "The townspeople were antivaccinationists ... 'polluting the blood of Christ', they called it. Around the trun of the century there were a number of these antivaccination cults, a self-limiting phenomenon since all the cultists contracted smallpox sooner or later." (Part One, p 72)
  • "Kim now realises they they can take over bodies and minds and use them for their purposes. So why do they always take over stupid, bigoted people or people who are retarded or psychotic?" (Part One, p 92)
  • "Mary could say 'no' quicker than any woman Kim ever knew and none of her no's ever meant yes." (Part Two, p 113)
  • "'I didn't like his face,' Joe said. 'Missed your calling,' Kim told him. 'Should have been a plastic surgeon'." (Part Two, p 118)
  • "Should auld acquaintance be forgot ... In many cases, yes." (Part Two, p 121)
  • "It always happens, the big cattle men go soft in the outhouse." (Part Two, p 155)
  • "The porters are deferring to the signal presented by his clothes and luggage. They don't see him." (Part Three, p 169)

Mostly unreadable, and very similar to his other books, but there are some nuggets. February 2021; 268 pages

Other books by William Burroughs in the blog include:

This review was written
by the author of Motherdarling


Tuesday, 2 February 2021

"Let's Imagine" by Stevington Writers

This anthology of poetry and short fiction was written and published by writers in Stevington, Bedfordshire, UK; all proceeds from its sale are donated to the Bedford Food Bank.

A caveat: Regular readers of this blog know that I don't really understand poetry (and I'm not much better at short fiction).

I thought this had a lot of remarkably good work. 

The poems
There were poems about memories (Baking memories by Ruth Ivey, Tethered by Tricia Lennie) 

There were, or course, poems about lockdown (The Succession by Robert Collins, Lockdown by Heather Eadie, Walk With Me by Fran Stone, Beyond the Bubble, The Fallout by Ruth Ivey and, I suspect, The Reunion by Robert Collins). I Choose Life by Stephanie Field incorporated a delightful multiple lliteration in the line "So many folk so fearful". Some of these were downright sinister:
  • The obsessive Possession by Ruth Ivey which starts with the wonderful stanza:
I want you,
Locked Down,
With the rest of humanity shut out 
and made me shudder with:
Shatter every duplicitous mirror,
For,
I want solely the reflection that I see in your eyes.
  • Opening Up, a sort of prose poem by Heather Eadie, spooky and mysterious, in which a disdainful woman arrives at dawn
  • Freedom from lockdown by Steph Field in which a woman watches the virus-wary people outside while looking down at the dead body of the man who had locked her down with his controlling ways.

There were poems that made me think such as Rebel, Rebel by Fran Stone and these:
  • Freedom to nibble by Robert Collins suggests that people who struggle to make their bodies conform to an idealised image are perhaps unhappier than those who are "free to nibble"
  • We are so lightly here by Fran Stone is about “Celebrating the ordinary” and ends with the brilliant line:
Does a kitten need a rope to abseil?
  • The Threshold by Tricia Lennie explores the dangers from con men and burglars that can come to a door, while the writer sits waiting for a loved-one to return late at night.
  • Creation by Fran Stone considered humans as collections of organs, as consciousnesses, and as part of a greater whole. It contained some lovely lines:
And this ego that we call me 
- where Angels sing sweet songs 
and the saxophone makes love



There were poems about climate change and pollution and other threats to the natural environment.
  • Endangered by Fran Stone has an interesting quasi-playscript nature and links Covid to the extinction of animal and plant species. 
  • Opening Up by Tricia Lennie compared walking along a beach then with now and had the lovely image of the beach being "seagull scavenged". 

There were celebrations of nature, such as My Small Pleasures by Steph Feild and these:
Hanging On by Jane O’Connor was about nature at sunrise. I particularly enjoyed the line:
Ermine moth more regal than robes
Bird Songs by Robert Collins used the folk description of a bird call to inspire a paragraph or two of prose. My favourite bit of this was "The charity in beams of early morning sun gives no respite to shivers felt from the damning call of the Woodpigeon."

One of my favourite poems was Tomatoes by Tricia Lennie which made me laugh when it started:
I often wonder why
The tomato is called the love apple.
Rows of unlikely suitors named
Sungold, Sweet Baby, Big Boy ...

The short prose
  • The reality by Robert Collins crams into a flash fiction format all the aspects of a short story, including the surprise at the end.
  • 1974 by Heather Eadie is a perfectly pitched vignette of summer love
  • The Key by Ruth Ivey, written in the present tense, describes a day being locked out of home with two young children: a trivial incident assumes great importance.
  • A place I love by Steph Field is bucolically descriptive, whereas It's not about me by Heather Eadie details the claustrophobia and frustrations of a visit to an old relative.
  • Dave Fitch's Lock Down Your Brothers has a Last of the Summer Wine vibe as four old men try to meet up during lockdown. I loved the mix of new technology and old language in: "Look at this selfie I've sent of myself - my girth's like a maid in the family way."
  • Not All About Me by Steph Field is a short philosophical musing on the illusion of our indispensability.
  • In Lunch is Served, Jane O'Connor remembers Sunday lunch when she was young: I loved her description of the gravy as "unctuous".
  • TV Times by Heather Eadie is the longest piece but it never flags as it gently recounts the relationship between a lonely and depressed woman and a young schoolgirl, starved of gameshows.
  • In Andromeda by Ruth Ivey, the title character's parents attempt to pimp her out to a slob.
  • Dave Fitch madly mixes literary sources in a pub history in The Red Lion in Winter Part Two 
  • Trica Lennie's Work In Progress has a wonderful villain: "Amelia 'I have my suits sprayed on' Carter"

And finally, a poem by 'RJC' supplies us with the title of the book.

A brilliant miscellany by some talented writers. January 2021; 59 pages

This review was written by
the author of Motherdarling



Monday, 1 February 2021

"The Family Upstairs" by Lisa Jewell

 Told in the present tense, head-hopping between three PoVs: 

  • On her twenty-fifth birthday Libby inherits a house on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea where she was found as a small baby ... with three dead adults downstairs.
  • In the south of France, Lucy is trying to keep her and her two children alive by busking.
  • And Henry is remembering what happened in the Chelsea house.

This had all the makings of a really fascinating story and there were moments when it lived up to that. But the characters, despite listings of their preferences, were shallow and many aspects of the plot were frankly ludicrous. Who paid for the maintenance of the house for twenty-five years? Was the original police investigation really unable to find the missing children and the other missing adults? (The French police are no more competent.) The explanations that are given at the end really don't pass muster. 

There were some good lines:

  • "So much teenage attitude, so many months yet to go before he turns thirteen." (Ch 13)
  • "I'll tell you for nothing that vegan food goes straight through you; nothing sticks to the sides." (Ch 42)
  • "She looked broken then, for just a split second. I felt as if I suddenly saw right inside her, right into the runny yellow yolk of her." (Ch 43)

February 2021; 449 pages

This review was written
by the author of Motherdarling