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

Monday, 29 March 2021

"Swallowdale" by Arthur Ransome

 In this classic children's adventure book, written in 1930. the Walker children (John, Susan, Titty and Roger) and Nancy and Peggy Blackett, who sail the Amazon, continue their adventures in the Lake District. When their sailing dinghy, Swallow, is shipwrecked, the Walkers have to camp ashore and the Amazons are being forced to behave like young ladies by the visit of their Great-Aunt. But there is still room for lots of adventures including climbing the highest hill, getting lost in the fog both ashore and afloat, and racing. 

It is very much of its time in that colonialist attitudes are ingrained. These are privileged white upper-middle-class children. The role of Susan as home-maker is also potentially sexist: "That was Susan's strong point. She never allowed excitements such as sleeping in the open half-way up a mountain, or a naval battle, or a dangerous bit of exploring, to interfere with the things that really matter, such as seeing that water is really boiling before making tea with it, having breakfast at the proper time, washing as usual, and drying anything that might be damp. Really, if it had not been for Susan, half the Swallows' adventures would have been impossible." (Ch 26) But the other girl characters include Titty, the imaginative dreamer who turns their everyday adventures into magic by drawing on her knowledge of story-book pirates and explorers, and Nancy, a larger-than-life tomboy who is a match for 'Captain' John in every way. 

There are some great moments:

  • "They found, like many explorers before them, that somehow, in their absence, they had got into trouble at home." (Ch 4)
  • "'You needn't mind now', said Nancy, looking at John. 'It isn't as if she was at the bottom of the sea'." (Ch 6)
  • "Just think what it would have been like if you had had to swim ashore in the Arctic, in winter, with no sun and no wood to make a fire, and nothing but snow and seals and polar bears. There'd have been some proper shivering of timbers." (Ch 9)
  • "Never take off too much. If you take off too little you can always take off a bit more, but if you take off too much you can never put it back." (Ch 15) Advice I have always remember (too late) throughout my long and disastrous career in DiY.

Swallowdale isn't usually remembered as a S&A book but to my mind its careful story-telling make it one of the best.

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 Ds 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:

Friday, 26 March 2021

"Fingersmith" by Sarah Waters

Sue, brought up among thieves, is sent as a maid to a posh house as part of a plan to steal the fortune of an heiress. Set in mid to late Victorian times and with settings of a thieves' kitchen, a stately home and a lunatic asylum, there is a very Dickensian feel to this novel. It is big and slow-moving, taking time to build the characters, all of whom and beautifully drawn (in contrast to Dickens whose eccentrics are more picturesque but less convincing). The thoroughness of the story-telling meant that, for me, the story dragged a little in the second part (when the events of the first part are more or less repeated from the perspective of a different protagonist and so there is little 'new' stuff). But the ending of the first part had a twist which was entirely unexpected.

There are moments of pin-point-perfect description: "The moon struck the rushes of the further bank, and made spears of them, with wicked points ... I saw the oars dip and rise, and scatter coins of moonlight." (Ch 6) 

There are moments straight out of Dickens: "You think you've torments ... Have these knuckles for an hour - have these thumbs. Here's torments, with mustard on. Here's torments, with whips." (Ch 14) 

There are some astute moments of social commentary: 

  • "Do you suppose that when that money was first got, it was got honestly? Don't think it! Money never is. It is got, by families like hers, from the backs of the poor - twenty backs broken for every shilling made." (Ch 1)
  • "Servants grow sentimental over the swells they work for, like dogs grow fond of bullies." (Ch 3)
  • "Your heart - as you call it - and hers are alike, after all: they are like mine, like everyone's. They resemble nothing so much as those meters you will find on gas-pipes: they only perk up and start pumping when you drop coins in." (Ch 5)
  • "Not the commonplace subjection of a wife to a husband - that servitude, to lawful ravishment and theft, that the world terms wedlock." (Ch 8)

Other great moments included:

  • "John laughed. 'I likes to see her cry', he said. 'It makes her sweat the less'. He was an evil boy, all right." (Ch 2)
  • "Her husband had been a sailor, and been lost at sea. Lost to her, I mean. He lived in the Bahamas." (Ch 2)
  • "Country roads aren't like city ones. There are only about four of them, and they all go to the same place in the end." (Ch 2)
  • "I thought, if that wasn't love, then I was a Dutchman; and if it was love, then lovers were pigeons and geese, and I was glad I was not one of them." (Ch 4)
  • "She will be like everyone, putting on the things she sees the constructions she expects to find there." (Ch 8)
  • "They were no more nurses than I was, they only got that work through being stout and having great big hands like mangles." (Ch 14)

A large and slow-moving book with a very Dickensian feeling for the period. 

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize. 

Other books by Sarah Waters reviewed in this blog include:


This review was written by
 the author of Motherdarling


Sunday, 21 March 2021

"The Copper Nail" by C J Lambert

A story of buried treasure which packs an enormous emotional punch.

I read this  book when I was a kid, over fifty years ago. The ending made me cry then; it makes me cry again. 

Pedro is a poor Chilean with an Incan heritage whose family scratches a living in a small-holding in the Andes. He is rescued from poverty by Father Domingo and goes to live with the monks, learning to read and write, but when he discovers that the Incas buried their treasure in the farm above his parents,  he leaves the monastery to work for the cruel and racist Don Silva. Forced away from here he goes to seek work in the city but he always dreams of returning to find the tree with the copper nail which will guide him to the treasure.

It is hugely innocent. The racism in the story is gently explored, with constant reminders that Pedro is "the son of a proud race which has lived here through the centuries" (Ch 2). But sex is absent. As he is growing up "many girls had tried to win his affection but he laughed off their obvious intentions" (Ch 9). Pedro is pure and trusting. Even when, destitute and sleeping rough, and handsome, "The butcher smiled, and patted his knee. 'I've taken a fancy to you, and I think we shall get on well together'." (Ch 8), which to a modern eye looks like the sinister start of gay paedophilia, there is no suggestion of sex. 

It is a strangely structured story: most of Pedro's adventures occur in the first half. Perhaps this is the secret to the incredible power of the denouement. It is almost an inversion of the classic story structure in which the central act involves ever greater trials and tribulations after the mid-point until the three-quarters mark when the hero starts to fight his way to success. In this tale the final trial, and it is a severe one, is left until almost the last page. By then you have completely built in to the reality of Pedro and his family and you are rooting for this charming young man all the way. And then ... pow.

Some memorable moments:

  • "The boy gasped as he flirted the icy river water over his face and neck." (Ch 2) I hadn't encountered the word' flirted' with such a meaning before. 
  • "After making two piles of the fruit, Father Domingo asked Pedro to choose which he fancied. 'It's the only way to make a fair division,' he said, smiling. 'One divides and the other chooses'." (Ch 2) I have remembered this all my life and have always tried to follow its precept. As a philosophy it is brilliant and I wish it was more widely practised in the world.
  • "It was easy to pray when everyone around you was doing it too, but it hadn't seemed so worth while since. Most people seemed to pray when they wanted something badly; it wasn't so easy to remember when things were going well." (Ch 13)

The last few pages were difficult to read. I was weeping and gulping for air. A superb read.

March 2021; 158 pages.

This review was written by
the author of Motherdarling


Friday, 19 March 2021

"The Friend" by Sigrid Nunez

 A teacher of creative writing inherits a dog from a life-long friend and colleague who has committed suicide. The book, not so much a novel as a gentle ramble, follows the developing relationship between woman and dog as she learns to care for it (a great Dane is an small apartment) and simultaneously to grieve for her friend.

The book has some advice on writing:

  • "Because it's all about the rhythm, you said. Good sentences start with a beat." (Pt 1)
  • "The mother's old fur coat is the kind of detail writing teachers like to point out to their students, one of those telling details ... that are found in abundance in life but are mostly absent from student fiction." (Pt 1)
  • "It's become entrenched, hasn't it. This idea that what writers do is essentially shameful and that we're all somehow suspect characters. ...Can you imagine a dance student feeling that way about the New York City Ballet? Or young athletes despising Olympic champions?" (Pt 11)
  • "To become a professional writer in our society you have to be privileged to begin with, and the feeling is that privileged people shouldn't be writing anymore ... because that only furthers the agenda of white supremacy and the patriarchy." (Pt 11)

It also has some poignant insights into live, death and the love of dogs:

  • "The dead dwell in the conditional tense of the unreal." (Pt 1)
  • "That's what age is, isn't it? Slo-mo castration." (Pt 1)
  • "Graffiti on Philosophy Hall: The examined life ain't worth it either." (Pt 3)
  • "He doesn't like having his paws touched, though the brat in me keeps trying." (Pt 7)

A meander through life and death, dogs and writing. March 2021; 212 pages

This review was written by 
the author of Motherdarling


Thursday, 18 March 2021

"Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" by Hunter S Thompson

 The classic story of a drug-fuelled trip to Las Vegas. It starts: "We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like 'I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive ...' And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car

HST was the proponent of 'Gonzo' journalism, described in wikipedia as "an energetic first-person participatory writing style in which the author is a protagonist," The writing is breathtakingly brilliant. This book reads like a combination of William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. It is one heck of a rush. HST and his Attorney, assisted by cannabis, mescaline, LSD, cocaine , "a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers" and tequila, rum, beer, ether and amyls, funded by a generous expense account and assorted credit cards, drive fast cars, trash hotel rooms and indulge in riotous behaviour (including infiltrating a national law enforcement drugs conference) in a Las Vegas that seems staid and outdated. 

It certainly didn't encourage me to take drugs. The acid trips were horrendous, the encounter with adrenochrome in which the narrator is, bit by bit, paralyzed, uncertain whether his breathing will stop but unable to do anything, not even to move his eyes, is terrifying, and the repeated episodes of the Big Spit (vomiting) were enough to put me off drugs for life. The book also depicts the squalor and desperation of the drug-addict's life. Not to mention the fact that he could have gone to prison for ten or more years for what was in his luggage, not to mention the repeated fraudulent use of credit cards.

But I am old and over-cautious. Isn't it odd that the older you get the more risk-averse you get. The young have so much to lose and I comparatively little but I am a bigger worrier than I was when I was young.

  • "Luck is always important, especially in Las Vegas ... and ours was getting worse." (Ch 6)
  • "Here there were more than a thousand top-level cops telling each other 'we must come to terms with the drug culture', but they had no idea where to start. They couldn't even find the goddam thing." (Ch 7)

Wow. March 2021; 202 pages

This review was written by 
the author of Motherdarling


Tuesday, 16 March 2021

"Deacon King Kong" by James McBride

This book was chosen by Barack Obama as a favorite read of 2020. Man must have good taste.

Why does 'Sportcoat', the drunk deacon of a church in Brooklyn, shoot Deems, his one-time teenage protege and now the neighbourhood's drug dealer. Set in a housing project in New York in 1969, when the area is changing from predominantly Irish and Italian to  African American from the southern states, and when the old-time dock-side smugglers of cigarettes and white goods are under threat from the new wave of organized crime based around heroin?

This brilliant novel has fantastic characters, many of whom seem to have walked out of the pages of Damon Runyon's Guys and Dolls, like Sportcoat, always talking to his dead wife Hettie, and his pal Hot Sausage, who has intermittent but incredible sex with Sister Bibb the voluptuous church organist, Potts the honest cop, 'the Elephant' bachelor crime lord and his gardening mother, Earl the incompetent enforcer of the drug's gang boss, centenarian Sister Paul, and the Haitian Sensation:

  • "Reverend Gee was a handsome, good-natured man who liked a joke, though at the time he was fresh off scandal himself, having recently been spotted over at Silky's Bar on Van Marl Street trying to convert a female subway conductor with boobs the size of Milwaukee." (Ch 1)
  • "The funeral director, old white-haired Morris Hurly, whomn everybody called Hurly Girly behind his back because, well ... everybody knew Morris was ... well, he was cheap and talented and always two hours late with the body" (Ch 1)
  • "Sister Bibb, the volutptuous church organist ... was coming off her once-a-year sin jamboree, an all-night, two-fisted, booze-guzzling, swig-faced affair of delicious tongue-in-groove licking and love-smacking with her sometimes boyfriend Hot Sausage, until Sausage withdrew from the festivities for lack of endurance." (Ch 1)

The prose is brilliant. My favourite moments came when the author put out an idea and kept elaborating it, often in a single breathless sentence, such as:

  • "If your visiting preacher had diabetes and weighed 450 pounds and gorged himself with too much fatback and chicken thighs at the church repast and your congregation needed a man strong enough to help the tractor-trailer-sized wide-body off the toilet seat and out onto the bus back to the Bronx so that somebody could lock up the dang church and go home - why, Sportcoat was your man." (Ch 2) 
  • "The young white social worker with bog boobs who couldn't clap on beat and wouldn't have known a salsa rhythm if it were dressed up like an elephant in a bath tub, but whose wide hips moved with the kind of rhythm every man in the Cause could hear a thousand miles away." (Ch 10)

There are also some wonderful similes:

  • "To get within sight of the cheese and then to witness the supply run out was akin to experiencing sudden coitus interruptus." (Ch 1)
  • "They sounded like a diesel engine trying to crank on a cold October morning." (Ch 10)
  • "You looks like a character witness for a nightmare." (Ch 24)

And some brilliant, if sometimes obscure, proverbs:

  • "Better to be a fat man in a graveyard than a thin man in a stew." (Ch 10)

And it keeps giving with more magical moments:

  • "Why would you do that? That would be the smart thing to do, which you is allergic to." (Ch 17)
  • "You get to know a man after you seen his straight and narrow." (Ch 17)
  • "Young girls who had once waved at him had matured into unwed drug-addict mothers." (Ch 21)
  • "Through the blisters of thought, he saw Elefante watching him." (Ch 21)
  • "One of those guys who dies at twenty and is buried at eighty." (Ch 21)
  • "At least I ain't got enough wrinkles in my face to hold ten days of rain." (Ch 24)

Brilliant, vibrant, alive. March 2021; 370 pages

This review was written by
the author of Motherdarling


Thursday, 11 March 2021

"Hamnet" by Maggie O'Farrell

 This roman a clef focuses on Agnes and the death of her son Hamnet who live in Stratford-on-Avon at the end of the 1500s CE. 

The story alternates between two narratives. One describes the courtship of Agnes, a country girl who falls in love with her brothers' Latin tutor, persuading him to get her pregnant and then marry her; it continues through the birth of Susannah, followed by the twins Judith and Hamnet; she also deals with her husband's depression by getting him to go to seek his fortune in London. The second story describes the sickness of Judith and Hamnet who get the plague while the husband is away making his fortune in the theatre; it continues as Agnes grieves for Hamnet.

Both narratives are told in the present tense, from the perspectives of Agnes and Hamnet. The style of the prose reminded me of that employed by Hilary Mantel in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy of Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and the Mirror and the Light. This book is written from a close-up psychological distance such that you were inside the coherent thoughts of the narrators and yet they were in the third person. The atmosphere is built up by the accumulation  of acutely observed details which gave massive verisimilitude and a rich and deep texture. We were immersed in the everyday life of a late-Elizabethan household. 

I thought that the male characters were quite stereotypical. John, the father-in-law, was a drinker and a violent bully. The husband was artistic and therefore impractical, a dreamer (with a heart of gold), who gets depressed and has to go away to work, becoming an absent husband and father. The brother was the rock-solid giant of a farmer with no nonsense about him. The son, Hamnet, was the golden boy, bright, intelligent and lively, the only male whose portrayal wasn't largely negative; this was probably because he never grew up.

Contrast this with Agnes, the ultimate supermum. A creature of the forest, whose own mother is virtually a forest spirit, she is gifted with second sight (the supernatural element is alive and well; this is a hugely romantic novel). A supreme manager, both of people and the house, this flawless wonderwoman also provides herbalist healing (which, it is implied, is more effective than the official male-provided medical service).

My sister, who teaches English, has pointed out to me that it is not only the male characters (and Agnes) who are stereotyped: the step-mother is a classic wicked step-mum. I think this reinforces what I see as a limitation on the book.

Still, stereotyped or not, O'Farrell's layering of detail upon detail means that these characters have a life of their own.

I found the anonymity of the husband a little distracting. I have used the technique myself (in The Kids of God, to be published soon); my intention was to highlight the self-centredness of a character who never names his wife. I suspect O'Farrell feared her central character would be over-shadowed if her husband was named as William Shakespeare ... but we know he is anyway so I'm not sure that it worked.

But it packs an emotional punch at the end. And the prose is magnificent.

Some great moments:

  • "The doused, drenched feeling of fury, of impotent humiliation, in the long minutes of a beating." (p 32)
  • "She watches the two points of the ladder judder with his every step, then fall still." (p 78)
  • "And now there is this - this fit. It is altogether unlike anything she has ever felt before. It makes her think of a hand drawing on a glove, of a lamb slithering wet from a ewe, an axe splitting open a log, a key turning in an oiled lock. How, she wonders, ... can anything fit so well, so exactly, with such a sense of rightness." (p 80)
  • "The spine a long indent down the back, a cart-track through snow." (p 157)
  • "It is like the embroidery on his father's gloves: only the beautiful shows, only the smallest part, while underneath there is a cross-hatching of labour and skill and frustration and sweat." (p 282)

March 2021; 367 pages


This review was written by
the author of Motherdarling


Sunday, 7 March 2021

"Look Who's Back" by Timur Vermes

Adolf Hitler, Rip van Winkle style, wakes up in Berlin in 2011. Still dressed in his uniform and instantly recognisable, he is assumed to be a comedian on the satire circuit: he soon gets a TV show and a huge You Tube following. But he plans to revive his political career.

As a book, this plot enables the writer to make lots of 'man from Mars' style observations about modern German culture. This, for me, was a major part of the humour of the book (regular readers of this blog will know I am not an aficionado of 'funny' books). 

It is more difficult to discern a structure to the plot. Initially I thought I could see a classic four-part structure. He is 'discovered' one-seventh of the way through and his first 'comedy' rant is 40% of the way through, so close to the classic half-way turning-point. He receives hate mail just over half the way through, which suggests a possible serious turn, again appropriate as a turning point. But after that I felt that things meandered and the 'not with a bang but a whimper' ending felt as if the author had run out of ideas, or was positioning himself towards a sequel. 

There were, however, some funny bits, one or two of which make me chuckle out loud.

Some of the best bits include:

  • "We all know ... what to make of our newspapers. The deaf man writes down what the blind man has told him, the village idiot edits it" (Ch 3)
  • "Political parties existed again, with all the infantile, counter-productive squabbling this entails." (Ch 3)
  • "I had also noticed the occasional passer-by whose Aryan ancestry was questionable, to put it mildly, and not only four or five generations back, but right up to the last quarter of an hour." (Ch 5)
  • "I detected barely any correct syntax; it sounded more like a linguistic tangle of barbed wire, furrowed with mental grenades like the battlefields of the Somme." (Ch 11)
  • "As far as I can make out press photographers seem to wear the ragged cast-offs of television cameramen." (Ch 17)
  • "They shrieked with laughter and tried to say something, but a lack of consonants rendered their babble unintelligible." (Ch 31)
  • "Some of these young pupil-like characters wore expressions of such intellectual frugality that one could scarcely imagine what useful activity they might one day be able to perform for society." (Ch 11)

March 2021; 365 pages

This review was written by
the author of Motherdarling


Thursday, 4 March 2021

"A Fatal Facade" by Linda M James

This fast-moving thriller involves murder, religious obsession, fine art, jazz, sex, drug smuggling, prostitution, and the tabloid press. When a playboy and art collector is found dead, ex-DCI Jack suspects foul play. But few of the people involved are what they seem and the crime can't be solved until all of the multiple interconnections have been unravelled. 

It's told from the multiple perspectives of many of the people involved, jumping backwards and forwards in time in a no-frills style and short chapters which really kept the pace up; I read it in a couple of evenings. It has all the classic ingredients of the genre and some bonus features. I particularly liked the fact the the investigator-protagonist was not an alcoholic loner but a happily married man with a son: his family problems stemmed from his wife's terminal illness and made him seem thoroughly human as a result. I also loved the vivid and realistic description of the disposal of a body: "She had to find the strength to get the body into the car. She had to! Her Lexus was parked outside the kitchen; she started dragging the body again. It took her another half-an-hour to reach the kitchen door. She sat down at the kitchen table to rest and thought how she could lift him into the car. The boot was high. It was impossible!"

Other great moments included:

  • "If Alan was a plant, he’d be ivy, Jack thought. Strangling everyone with ambitious tenacity." (Ch 1)
  • "a face so crumpled it looked as if people had been drying their hands on it." (Ch 3)
  • "watching the greedy sea gobbling up the shore" (Ch 6)
  • "Had men falling at my feet all the time. Most of them were drunk, of course." (Ch 6)

Great fun to read.

March 2021

This review was written by
 the author of Motherdarling


Tuesday, 2 March 2021

"First Light" by Peter Ackroyd

 An astronomer works nights in an observatory in Dorset. Nearby an archaeologist with a crippled wife excavates a tumulus around which strange shapes flit. A retired TV comedian whose act is based upon the innocent malapropisms of his wife seeks a cottage he remembers. And are the local yokels comical or sinister?

It is written in the past tense, head-hopping between the PoVs of a number of characters in very short chapters.

In some ways this is typical of much of Ackroyd's work: normal life encounters a supernatural element. There are some extravagant, almost Dickensian characters (the city-living representative from the government who pretends to be wildly enthusiastic about everything as a PR technique was my favourite) and the exuberance of the portrayal more than compensated for the stereotyping (of, for example, the farmer, the camp antique dealer, and the comedian). There were some jokes. But the plot seemed very hackneyed: archaeologists disturb ancient and occult powers; it reminded me of the ancient TV show 'Raven' starring Phil Daniels but also of countless similar novels. And the prose was sometimes very dense. Given the Dorset connection I wondered whether John Cowper Powys (eg Wolf Solent) or Thomas Hardy had been influences.

Some memorable moments:

  • "Everything has to end ... All we're doing is waiting for the end." (Ch 32)
  • "They say that suffering is noble. But it's not. It's a mean thing. A petty thing. It crushes the meaning from you." (Ch 32)
  • "I was dazzled by my own madness, like a man upon an operating table who looks up and sees the lights at the same moment as he shrieks with pain." (Ch 45)
  • "But everything was left unsaid. There were avenues of silence down which they walked by mutual consent" (Ch 48)

March 2021; 328 pages

This review was written by
the author of Motherdarling

Other novels by the prolific and talented Peter Ackroyd include: 

He also writes some pretty brilliant biographies including: