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

Friday, 28 May 2021

"Great Northern?" by Arthur Ransome

The Swallows, Amazons and Ds are cruising in the Hebrides on the Sea Bear with Captain Flint. On an island in a loch, Dick discovers what he thinks are Great Northern divers nesting ... but the bird books say they don't nest in the UK. Innocently checking his facts with a bird expert, he discovers that the man is an egg-collector who wants to shoot the birds and 'blow' the eggs for his collection. The race is on. Can Dick photograph the birds on their nest without letting the egg-collector know where they are? Add mysterious Gaels complete with comic bagpipers and ghillies and you have an adventure to the last page.

Some great moments:

  • "Nancy's plans always did work, even if sometimes they meant that a lot of other people had to work too." (Ch 18)
  • "It was as if he were an astronomer looking  for the first time at a new planet." (Ch 23) The first chapter of all the S&A adventures is entitled 'The Peak in Darien' from On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer by John Keats and this phrase pays homage to that poem also: "Then felt I like some watcher of the skies/ When a new planet swims into his ken;/ Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes/ He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men/ Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—/ Silent, upon a peak in Darien." The poem, written in 1816, is often thought to refer to the 1781 discovery of Uranus by William Herschel using a telescope from his back garden in Bath, the first discovery of a planet since the naked eye astronomy of the ancients.
  • "Keeping still is very dull work unless you are asleep, when it does not seem to matter." (Ch 25)
  • "The piper had been skirling and droning on in a wild, elaborate, endless tune. The tune had been cut off short in an unhappy wail. A minute later it had gone on again from where it had left off. At least ... you couldn't be sure of that, but it went on making the same kind of noise as before." (Ch 26)
  • "There is one noise that can make itself heard over any other noise whatsoever, and that is the noise of the bagpipes played by a determined and indignant piper." (Ch 26)

The brilliant thing about Ransome is that he can enthrall even when taking a holiday from the plot. The scene in which the Sea Bear enters a bay in a thick mist is enormously exciting and could be cut without making any difference to the overall story. But it's great writing.

May 2021; 361 pages

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God


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
The Swallows and Amazons adventure series in a logical chronological order:
  • Summer holiday: Swallows and Amazons
  • Next summer holiday: Swallowdale
  • Following winter holiday: Winter Holiday
  • Next Easter: Coot Club
  • Following summer holiday: Pigeon Post
  • Following Easter holiday: We Didn't Mean to go to Sea followed by Secret Water at the same time as The Big Six
  • Following summer holiday: The Picts and the Martyrs
  • Final summer holiday: Great Northern?
  • Peter Duck is a fantasy yarn supposedly spun by the Swallows and Amazons in between Swallows and Amazons and Swallowdale.
  • Missee Lee is out of time but presumably comes after Peter Duck
A very personal (and difficult) rank ordering of the adventures from my favourite to my least favourite.
  1. We Didn't Mean to go to Sea
  2. Pigeon Post
  3. The Picts and the Martyrs
  4. Secret Water
  5. The Big Six
  6. Winter Holiday
  7. Swallowdale
  8. Coot Club
  9. Great Northern?
  10. Swallows and Amazons
  11. Peter Duck
  12. Missee Lee


Tuesday, 25 May 2021

"The Picts and the Martyrs! by Arthur Ransome

 Dick and Dorothea are staying with Nancy and Peggy, the Amazons, at Beckfoot. But the Great Aunt comes to visit and she mustn't know the Ds are staying so they go to camp in an old hut in the woods, learning to tickle trout and to skin and cook a rabbit. Meanwhile Timothy is staying in Captain Flint's houseboat and needs Dick to burgle Beckfoot to get important chemicals. In many ways this is one of Ransome's best: the story-telling is mature and he spins a classic adventure yarn from a simple summer holiday. As always the characters are perfect, with the portrayal of Nancy being at its best. You even empathise with the Great-Aunt before the end.

And one of the wonderful things about Ransome is that he never talks down to his audience. This is a children's book: "I'll just hoist the sail for you. You take the halliard through the ring in the bows and it acts as a forestay. Up she goes. Sorry, Dick. Your head was in the wrong place. Spectacles all right? Make fast to this cleat. Then bowse down the tackle to cock the yard. Just till there are up and down ripples in the sail." (Ch 15)

Some great moments:

  • "It was like a moment in a game of hide and seek when a whistle blows far away and the hider knows the search has begun and that it is not safe for him to stir." (Ch 6)
  • "The trouble with Nancy's velvet glove is that it's usually got a knuckleduster inside it. And you never know who's going to get hit." (Ch 7)
  • "Real life was like one of those tangles of string where if you found an end and pulled you only made matters worse." (Ch 8)
  • "You know the funny thing about people is they always think they're doing right." (Ch 13)
  • "I expect the real martyrs were the same. The more the lions roared the less they let Nero or anybody see they cared." (Ch 13)
  • "No one who has not tried to take it off can know how firmly a rabbit's skin sticks to a rabbit. Part of it can be freed easily enough but the four legs and the head of the rabbit must have puzzled many a Pict. ... It's like a glove with fingers at both ends. ... It stuck, as sweaters often stick, with the head still inside." (Ch 17)
  • "Lack of this and lack of that made it impossible to follow exactly any single one of the recipes" (Ch 17)
  • "Timothy caught the painter and, like all landsmen, no sooner had the rope in his hands than he began to pull." (Ch 20)
  • "You bore a hole to take your cartridge. You bung him in, with a long fuse to him. You set a match to the fuse and leg it for the open. Eh, I need longer fuses these days than I did when I was a lad." (Ch 24)
  • "She has you in trouble with one foot, and before you can lift out you're oop to t'neck." (Ch 26)
  • "The Great Aunt was one of those people who could never have been young at all. She must have been a Great Aunt, and her sort of a Great Aunt, from the beginning of time." (Ch 28)
  • "'Do I understand?' the sergeant of police began again. 'I hardly think so,' said the Great Aunt." (Ch 29)

A beautifully written story. May 2021; 327 pages


This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God


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

Sunday, 23 May 2021

"The Colours We See" by Kaisa Winter

Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. A troubled girl flees from her domineering mother to go travelling in the USA. She becomes a singer with a touring band and falls in love with the troubled front-man. 

In many ways this is a classic 'Hero's Journey' novel with the flights to and from America representing the entrance into and exit from the magical realm where possibilities are boundless. The call (not very robustly refused) is to sing on stage and to join the rock group. The companions journey together through the land on the magical tour bus. There are trials (letters from the hero's mother, drug-taking, a funeral), there is a near-death experience and there is redemption. 

In other ways this has a classic three act/ four part structure with pivotal moments occurring at the 25% (Liam, rather symbolically, falls from the stage), 50% (an acid trip leads to an epiphany), and 75% marks; this makes the pace even and allows the story to enthral the reader throughout.

But mostly this is a brilliant character portrait of a troubled musician, seen from the point of view of a narrator with troubles enough of her own. 

In short, I was impressed. This is an independently-published novel which is markedly better than a number of the commercially published books I have read recently. The author can write complex characters and she can create a story that interests all the way. The prose is well-controlled. There were moments when I worried that it might become purple but it never did. Instead, descriptions were infused with emotional import:
  • "I looked out over the fields that seemed to stretch forever around us, draped in the soft chartreuse of springtime." (Ch 1)
  • "The world felt wild and immeasurable, and here I was, free to partake in the dance. I didn’t have to be the person I had been." (Ch 4)
  • "I opened my mouth and my voice spilled out the way blossoms open suddenly at dawn, and floated through the air like a twirling satin ribbon." (Ch 9)
But the author was particularly good at using the minutiae of everyday life carry the story:
  • "I am shading a baby elephant poised over a watering hole. In the background, Mummy Elephant looms so large that I couldn’t fit her on the page." (Ch 7)
  • "I’m gonna fuck it up oh my god I HATE SHOELACES!" (Ch 8)
  • "It was all coming to an end. I turned my attention to the buttons on my sleeve. They seemed to have no purpose, just put there for decoration. I tugged at them until I noticed one was coming loose." (Ch 32)
She can also put an emotional issue succinctly:
  • "the sad fact is, everyone is broken. Everyone is mired in pain, and it spills over to their kids." (Ch 9)
  • And I get the feeling that in your story, you’re barely even the main character." (Ch 11)
  • "He felt like a shard from a broken vase; forever cut off from the shape he could have been a part of, unable to find his place in the great puzzle, his edges dangerously sharp." (Ch 17)
  • "If anything, my mother loved me too much, a love so overbearing it threatened to choke me." (Ch 21)
  • "using your child to feed your own ego, be that suffering artist or self-righteous saviour, that’s abuse. ... Loving your child only on a narrow set of conditions, that’s abuse. Emotional neglect.” (Ch 21)
  • "How typical, falling for the tragic anti-hero and neglecting to notice the wonderful boy-next-door." (Ch 22)
  • "Here I was, the ragdoll abandoned, stitches coming undone." (Ch 23) I think is an amazing image.
  • "I thought of all the Franks he had been in his lifetime. How many facets there are to a single person: one for each of our ages, one for each of our identities, one for each person who knew us. What a great black hole we leave behind when we go." (Ch 24)
  • "It was just too easy. And why have it hard when you can have it easy? But easy doesn’t always come cheap." (Ch 26)
  • "We’re still alive. Don’t we owe it to the dead to make the most of it?” (Ch 36)
Other great moments
  • "Did I have other plans? Umm, let’s see… Nope!" (Ch 9)
  • Musicians are like tigers. Too large to contain, too wild to tame." (Ch 17)
  • Art is just escapism ... It’s just a way to make life seem more beautiful than it actually is. To lend it some kind of meaning that isn’t really there.” (Ch 17)
  • "I looked at Lawson again, surveying his features. “Your eyes…,” I began. “Oh my god, are they still there?” He put his hands to his eyes, pretending to feel for them." (Ch 22) I liked this moment of humour ... which is brilliantly juxtaposed with a moment of high drama.
  • "the comforting scent of root vegetables and oil." (Ch 22) I've never seen this in print before ... and it is a very comforting scent.
  • If life is the universe divided, maybe death is the place where the opposites combine." (Ch 26)
A well-plotted, well-written story with a great character at the centre.

May 2021

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God



Thursday, 20 May 2021

"Pigeon Post" by Arthur Ransome

For my money this is the second best of the twelve books in the Swallows and Amazons series. The setting is the Lake in the north again but there is a drought and rather than sailing they are prospecting for gold on the fells. There is a full cast of Swallows (John, Susan, Titty and Roger), Amazons (Nancy and Peggy) and  Ds (Dick and Dorothea). This book, which won the inaugural Carnegie Medal in 1936, has carrier homing pigeons, water divining, charcoal making, gold mining and panning, and the ever-present threat of a single spark setting the entire fell alight. It is excitement from start to end. Each of the large cast of characters is well-drawn and most of them have pivotal parts to play in the plot. One of the great things about the S&A books is they are stories in which the heroes are exposed to potentially life-threatening situations in enormously realistic settings. 

Some great moments:
  • "But, barbecued billygoats!", cried Nancy. "Can't you see? They're pointing exactly here." (Ch 22)
  • "Roger, for once the leader, was the least hurried of the party. The others kept pressing round him, as if the nearer they kept to him the sooner they would see the place for themselves." (Ch 21)
  • "Well, I don't know," said Nancy. Nobody had ever heard her say anything like that before." (Ch 26)
  • "her spirits were going upstairs again three steps at a time." (Ch 35)

This is a book in which the excitement never flags.

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God


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


Tuesday, 18 May 2021

"Missee Lee" by Arthur Ransome

 A Swallows and Amazons adventure that hasn't aged well. The usual heroes (Nancy, Peggy, John, Susan, Titty and Roger) are sailing the Wild Cat around the world with Captain Flint when they are shipwrecked and captured by Chinese pirates led by a Cambridge-educated wannabe Latin teacher called Missee Lee. 

As an adventure story it is full of drama from the shipwreck at the start to the thrilling escape at the end. But the ever-present threat of decapitation is rather weakened (perhaps necessarily so for a children's story) by the repeated failure of the children, especially Nancy, to take it seriously. 

Nowadays the main objection will be to the stereotypical portrayal of the Chinese characters (not one of them can pronounce the letter 'r') although each of the principal villains is a rounded character: I loved Chang the bird-fancier and the grumpy Amah. There is some consolation in that although Susan is the ultimate stereotypical girl (a housewife in the making) both Nancy and Missee Lee are very strong females. 

And it has a very colonialist assumption. It was written in 1941.

This book, along with Peter Duck, are fantasy yarns which don't really belong in the S&A canon proper and could easily be omitted.

Regular readers of this book will know how I detest foreign languages being used without translation. A key plot point revolves around a Latin verse which is untranslated: 'His liber est meus, testis est deus si quis foretur per collum pendetur' which I think means 'This book is mine: as God is my witness whoever should steal it will be hanged by the neck.'  Furthermore, one of the Chinese characters speaks pidgin and repeatedly uses the phrase 'speakee English bimeby' which had me flummoxed untiol a google search suggested that 'bimeby' might mean 'bye and bye' so the translation would be something in the region of 'you will be able to speak English to someone soon'.

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God


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

Sunday, 16 May 2021

"The Big Six" by Arthur Ransome

 The Swallows and Amazons series returns to the Norfolk Broads for the sequel to Coot Club. There is an outbreak of setting boats adrift at night and this seems to happen wherever the Death & Glory boys (Joe, Bill and Pete, easily the most working-class of all Ransome's heroes) are. Tom, the local doctor's son and the Ds (science minded Dick and story-writing Dorothea, to whom we were introduced in Winter Holiday) help the pirates to clear their name. Alibis and assistance are provided by when the lads fish for eels and for pike. As a detective story it is childishly easy to identify the real culprit but as always the real excitement comes from the sailing, the fishing and, of course, the thrill of living in your own boat. And the characterisations are superb.

Some great moments:

  • "No use putting good paint to be dewed." (Ch 1)
  • "It's that dark below you can't hit a nail more'n once in three and get your thumb the other two." (Ch 1)
  • "An oilskin coat floated down, slipping sideways like a huge bat." (Ch 3)
  • "I ain't walk under a ladder," said Bill. "Not since that time I do and fall in the next day." (Ch 12)
  • "There were two chairs, one of which was a safe one." (Ch 15)
  • "The old Reverend come round and say he's sorry you're in trouble and what can he do about it ... I tell him the best he can do is close his ears to evil tongues." (Ch 21)
  • "If they'd have had tails they'd have tripped on them." (Ch 32)

Another old-fashioned story with a slow build-up but the characters and the pitch-perfect observations and  the gentle humour make it a page-turned from the start. May 2021; 364 pages

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God



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


Saturday, 15 May 2021

"The Burning Chambers" by Kate Mosse

Kate Mosse is a best-selling author so I presume that she knows her audience and tailors her work perfectly to what they want. Her choice of subject - the French wars of religion in which Huguenots fought against Catholics with both sides responsible for terrible massacres - should be rich and fertile ground, full of potential. But Mosse has diluted and dumbed-down her narrative; I suppose she knows that her readers couldn't cope with anything better. Any hint of moral ambiguity has been discarded. 

That it is a historical novel is  shown by the use of old-fashioned terms such as "break your fast" for breakfast (Ch 2) and "pursuivants" for pursuers (Ch 7) but any true sense of period is completely undermined by giving the goodies modern moral sensibilities. For example, wife-beating (Ch 50) is regarded as normal by the baddie and abhored by the goodie. I'm not saying that wife-beating is at all tolerated and I am sure that in the 1500s there were many people who condemned it but it would have added interest and tension to the story if a goodie had condoned it. Our moral values are developed within the context of society and one of the functions of a historical novel should be to examine our present beliefs from the perspective of past societies or we risk making the assumption that then they were wrong, wrong, wrong and today we are right, right, right and in the future if they look back at us they will be amazed at how right we were. I suspect Mosse knows that her readers would be shocked if she allowed a goodie to say something controversial but it made for a very unsatisfactory novel.

The characters are mostly exactly the same underneath as they are on the surface. The only characters I became interested in (and mostly because they offered a slight element of comedy) were Aimeric the boy and Madame Boussay his aunt, the latter being the only character to show any sort of development. The others were names for stereotypes; the  goodies were good and the baddies were bad and no-one had a moral dilemma or changed in character. Even the love affair was love at first sight and enduring through thick and thin. There were repeated missed opportunities to develop the characters and this meant that the narrative tapestry woven was threadbare. They were as wooden as the chess pieces moved around the board and like bishops, knights and castles< Mosse's characters were totally subservient to the dictates of her plot.

In the end it was all about the plot. But even this didn't excite me. It lumbered along like a creaking medieval cart. Okay, a lot happened and there were twists and turns, but there was nothing that was not predictable.

It was, I suppose, a page turner but only because I had lost interest well before the half-way mark and was skim-reading to get to the end as quickly as possible.

Some interesting moments:

  • "She stretched the night from her bones" (Ch 2)
  • "My mind is overcharged with thinking." (Ch 36)
  • "It is sometimes safer to be taken for a fool and overlooked, than be considered wise and have your every word examined." (Ch 63)

I was bored. May 2021; 576 pages

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God


Wednesday, 12 May 2021

"Secret Water" by Arthur Ransome

 Another classic Swallows and Amazons adventure. This time the children are camping on muddy tidal islands, tasked with creating a map of the archipelago. They discover another gang of sailing kids (the 'Eels') complete with a shy lad called the Mastodon who lives in a wreck. The muddy adventures include being caught on a tidal causeway with the water getting deeper by the minute ...

Great moments: 

  • "It was as if they had come across a skeleton and on looking at the skull had been greeted with a wink." (Ch 8)
  • "He woke with a queer feeling of gloom. It was like waking on the day after he had written parvissimus instead of minimus in an examination paper." (Ch 29) What a wonderfully sated concern that seems to us now!

A great yarn if suffused with colonialist attitudes. May 2021; 373 pages

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God



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
The internal logic of the series suggests that Secret Water comes immediately after We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea and also after Pigeon Post and probably after The Picts and the Martyrs.

Tuesday, 11 May 2021

"We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea" by Arthur Ransome

 Another sailing adventure with the Swallows. John, Susan, Titty and Roger are crewing for Jim in the sailing yacht Goblin near Harwich under strict orders from Mummy to stay in the river and not to pass the Beach End buoy which marks where the sea begins. But when Jim goes ashore for petrol the ship drags its anchor in a fog and before they know it the children are out at sea, on their own, in a storm.

This is my favourite Swallows and Amazons adventure. There are repeated moments of enormous tension (like the bit where they turn back ... and the bit with John ... and the bit with the steamer ... but I'm not spelling them out because that would spoil things) and some real tear-gulping bits at the end (like the bit where the pilot shouts 'Nodings' ... and the bit in the cafe ... and the bit with the customs officers ... but again I'm keeping shtum). 

Some great moments:

  • "It was as if she had swallowed an apple whole and the apple was trying to get back and finding her throat too narrow for it." (Ch 11)
  • "Lonely? It was as if he was outside life altogether and wouldn't be alive until he got back." (Ch 12)
  • "Can't go far wrong with soup and steak ... You never know what you get when you try something with a fancy name." (Ch 23)

It is difficult to imagine a more perfect adventure story for boys. May 2021; 333 pages


This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God


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

Monday, 10 May 2021

"Coot Club" by Arthur Ransome

The Ds (Dick and Dorothea Callum) whom we first met in Winter Holiday skating on the Lake with the Swallows and the Amazons, are in the Norfolk Broads, hoping to learn to sail. They meet the members of the Coot Club: Tom Dudgeon the doctor's son, the twins Port and Starboard, and the 'Death and Glory' pirates Joe, Bill and Pete, Tom casts adrift a motor cruiser full of noisy tourists (the 'Hullabaloos') because they are moored across a coot's nest and then has to flee from their revenge, taking refuge with the Ds. The Hullabaloos then hunt Tom through the Broads as he and the twins teach the Ds to sail. 

Lots and lots of yachtsmanship, therefore. The usual meticulous detail. And some wonderful Norfolk characters. But the excitement in this book comes principally from the boats: tidal rivers present dangers and challenges the Lake never did, such as lowering the mast to get under a bridge, hitting the bank or running aground, fog, or being caught by the tide and being swept into an obstacle and wrecked.

Some great moments:

  • "Takes all sorts to make a world, but fare to me as we could do without some of 'em." (Ch 8)
  • "When the 'Come Along' says "Come Along," they got to come along." (Ch 28)

May 2021; 346 pages

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God


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

Saturday, 8 May 2021

"Where sleeps the serpent" by Alexandra Peel

 Steam punk meets Bio punk in the first of the Beneath the Skin books.

The story is told through two alternating narratives:

The biopunk narrative follows the story of a serial killer in late Victorian Paris. It is written in long paragraphs containing many sentence fragments which sometimes use unconventional grammar, for example by dislocating subject and predicate; this creates a disjointed feel which echoes the violence of the murderer. Hugely imaginative, this narrative contains long descriptive passages in which the prose is only just this side of purple ("The crud and slime of the medieval quarter, a chaotic shambles of dreary, grubbily pale structures with their grimy, wan occupants, drinking and fighting, whoring and dying, thieving and conning, who he no more feared than a flame would a moth. Hard, grey faces staring from hard, grey doorways, retching gobbets of phlegm as he passed. Slippery-legged women raising their skirts for onion mouthed, oily haired bundles of belted coats. Cobbles of slime and weary abodes leaning to cover the sky give way to newer rubble. Upright apartments and shopping arcades of polished glass, where people of new money could press their powdered noses, and desire what the person standing next to them desired whilst wearing the latest flounced skirts and trimmed bonnets, turned collars and detachable cuffs. Boulevards running in straight lines as far as the eye could see. Black carriages drawn by horses of flesh and horses of iron flew along the fresh roads, clopping and sparking. Steam hissing from every metal orifice. Steam automobiles, steam trams, steam trains, steam horses, steam ships and steam airships. Carousels, public parks, squares and gardens and everywhere there were people, every space, every street, every room crawled with them. Cackling maws, sticky children, smiles and sidelong glances, lipstick laughs, longing looks, posing and leering and scented and stinking and jostlingandwantingandeatinganddrinkingandpissingandshittingand-breathingandlivingandlivingandli-vingand…") which resonates with the obsessive nature of these episodes. Obsession is also evident in the fact that all the 'killer' episodes are fundamentally the same (man meets girl, strangles girl), an ostinato which could easily prove tedious and the fact that the author manages to keep the reader going must be testament to the quality of the prose. It doesn't always work ("He watched and viewed and collected the sights with his irises";  "His white lab coat flapped angrily about him as he rented his hair, his clothing") but at its best, the 'killer' sections are reminiscent of Baudelaire: "Hello from the gutters of gay Paree, which are filled with scabrous dogs, vermin, mangy cats, the sick and the lame, foul men with moist trouser fronts, putrid whores and rank upon rank of the rank."

The steampunk narrative follows an airship courier as she and her crew transport a suspicious package across late Victorian India. This has a more conventional style. While the killer in the alternative narrative manufactures themselves to be a little more than human, the hero of the steampunk narrative discovers within herself superhuman powers (the subtext suggests that 'natural' = good and 'manufactured' = bad). In stark contrast to the biopunk narrative with its concentrated focus on just a single character, the steampunk sections have multiple characters, few of whom have the space to become fully developed.

The steampunk plot has a classic four-part structure. There are clear turning-points in the story at the 25% mark (when the protagonist first gets into trouble), at the 50% (when she discovers her superpowers) and at the 75% point when much of the conspiracy is explained. Towards the end of the book the two alternating narratives become intertwined but the final pages lead into the second part of what is a duology.

Some of my favourite moments:

  • "Chains glinted through scarlet waistcoat buttonholes, attached to pocket watches telling time in which the owners had no interest."
  • "His gaze pinned her – a lepidopterist tacking a butterfly."
  • "He was a monochrome man. He liked it that way."
  • "Kissing like a pair of addicts they found the bed."
  • "We have a stowaway.” They swivelled their eyes around the dining room as if they might see someone they had not noticed for a day and a half."
  • "He had the erect posture of a corseted parson."
  • "That time between twilight and dusk when the sky hinted at the coming dark."

May 2021

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God




Thursday, 6 May 2021

"Winter Holiday" by Arthur Ransome

 The fourth 'Swallows and Amazons' adventure and the first to include the Ds. Back on the lake, scientifically-minded Dick and storyteller Dorothea join John, Susan, Titty, Roger, Nancy and Peggy. They are city children and know nothing about sailing, so it helps that the dinghies have been laid up for the winter and that the lake is freezing: Dick and Dorothea are great skaters. The kids build an igloo and practice semaphore and Morse; an expedition to the end of the lake ('the North Pole') is planned. Then Nancy gets the mumps but the adventures continue with Captain Flint's houseboat becoming Nansen's Fram. And, at the end, a very real adventure.

Some memorable moments:

  • "You ought to hang out a notice for when you're not there." (Ch 2)
  • "You know what it's like. Dark at teatime and sleeping indoors: nothing ever happens in the winter holidays." (Ch 3)
  • "People oughtn't to be allowed to be brought up in towns." (Ch 27)
  • "He thought of Dick, who was full of good ideas but was nearly always thinking of the wrong one." (Ch 27)

A classic of children's literature. May 2021;333 pages

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God


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:

Tuesday, 4 May 2021

"Narcopolis" by Jeet Thayil

 The stories of the people (customers, workers, business partners) who frequent Rashid's, the best opium den in Bombay. They include Dimple, a hijra, who works as a prostitute before joining Rashid's as someone who prepares the pipes, the price of her entry being two antique Chinese opium pipes bequeathed to her by Mr Lee, a fugitive from Maoist China. The somewhat unstructured narrative, sometimes seemingly as chaotic as the city, explores through its characters the grubby underbelly of old Bombay.

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012

The narrative structure is odd. It starts with the narrator Dom and then dfrifts away from him to head-hop, telling the story from the point of view of whoever is most relevant, a little like the meandering thoughts of a drug user, perhaps, or like the narrative in Moby-Dick.

Some memorable moments:

  • "He spoke from deep inside a nod." (1.3)
  • "Christ, Bengali said, from the Sanskrit ghrei, to rub, which in Greek became Christos, the anointed." (1.3)
  • "Shuklaji Street was a fever-grid of rooms, boom-boom rooms, family rooms, god rooms, secret rooms that contracted in the daytime and expanded at night." (3.1)
  • "Only the uneducated set so much stock by education." (3.3)
  • "Dreams leak from head to head: they travel between those who face in the same direction, that is to say lovers, and those who share the bonds of intoxication and death." (3.8)

May 2021; 292 pages

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God


Saturday, 1 May 2021

"Time to be Gonagain" by A J Farrelly

 This was my first ever steam punk novel. It was a superb introduction to the genre. I must read more; I hope they are all as good as this. 

I was impressed by how well this first-time author avoided common pitfalls. Science fiction stories require careful 'world-building' (because the setting is unfamiliar to the reader) and many first time authors go over the top, explaining everything in huge chunks of prose, but Farrelly drip-fed the settings and left just the right amount for the me to puzzle out on my own. The story was told in the past tense from multiple perspectives and this 'head-hopping' can sometimes become confusing; it didn't in this case because Farrelly kept control of the narrative. The author must also strike the right balance between fast-paced page-turning action and story development and again I thought Farrelly was almost perfectly placed on this spectrum: there was plenty of action but that narrative was never spread so thinly that it became shallow. 

What most impressed me about the book was the lightness of touch. The tone was often playful and the humour such that I sometimes laughed aloud (and regular readers of this blog know how rarely I laugh even when reading so-called comic novels). 

For example, the captain always tells the crew to remember "rule number one"; this changes with the situation and this becomes a running gag:

  • Rule number one,” Gonagain had always said, was, “stay alive.” (Ch 5)
  • "He ran his mind through Gonagain’s long list of ‘Rule number ones’. “Rule number one, Bearnárd, always learn from other peoples’ mistakes.”" (Ch 5)
  • "Gonagain had broken rule number one – never sleep with one of the crew – but, he rationalised, she was only a temporary member of the crew and besides, the sex was phenomenal." (Ch 13)
  • "rule number one: no one gets abandoned.” (Ch 17)
  • "There was a pause whilst the crew tried to work out which specific rule number one was most appropriate for this occasion. Gonagain didn’t wait. “Rule number one is ‘No man gets left behind’.” (Ch 19)

One of my favourite moments was when Jao is trying to hide some pulsarnite. She explains to the captain what she has done:

So, let me get this straight,” he said, “The trunk we brought aboard belongs to Trustworthy?” “Yes.” “And it contained the biggest lump of pulsarnite I’ve ever heard of?” “Yes.” “But now it has a bag of sand in it?” “Yes.” “And you have the key, which you found in this cabin.” “Yes.” “But Trustworthy thinks she has the key in her underwear?” “Yes.” “But it’s really the key to your little trunk?” “Yes.” “And the pulsarnite rock is now in another trunk in your cabin? “Yes.” “And the key to that trunk is…?” “In my underwear.” Gonagain paused thoughtfully. “Show me,” he said eventually. Jao stuttered and blushed for a microday before regaining her composure. “Oh, you mean the pulsarnite.” (Ch 10)

Great characters too: an utterly reckless captain who always thinks of his crew (sometimes lustfully), a female engineer who can fix machines or people, a lady navigator who has learnt much through her long life, mostly from ex-boyfriends (think Ness from Gavin and Stacey), a dog, a robot ('Emily Tutu') learning emotions and a strongman. And assorted other crooks and spies and baddies. 

A criticism? Only that I felt that there were a number of storylines left unresolved at the end, and this was clearly because there is a sequel in the offing. I hope it comes out soon; I'll be reading it.

There were some moments of magic:

  • Where’s the undertakers?” Gonagain asked. “Black Horse Square.” The three of them looked at each other vacantly, then back at the storekeeper. “At the end of Longest Walk Lane.” Again, the three looked nonplussed. “Not far from the hospital.” “Which tavern is it near?” asked Bunty, a little impatiently. “The Vigil and Wake.” “Righty-oh, Skipper, let’s go!” (Ch 2)
  • "She had known people like this all her life. They were pretty enough, or educated enough, or Machiavellian enough to manipulate people into giving them what they wanted. Or worse they were just wealthy enough to buy whatever they wanted – whether they needed it or not." (Ch 4)
  • "there’s no denying that you’re pitch-perfect, but your voice has the timbre of… a parakeet… in a garotte." (Ch 4)
  • "if you can get a message to your navigator, you can tell him our exact location is the middle of flippin’ nowhere.” (Ch 5)
  • "That was going to go down like an osmium dirigible back at headquarters." (Ch 14)
  • "There was only one thing Gonagain hated more than being wrong, and that was having to admit being wrong." (Ch 14)
  • "He was unsure whether he needed to walk faster or slower than usual to be at the entrance at the right time. He ended up with an odd gait that betrayed his sense of urgency without actually adding any speed." (Ch 16)
  • "What’s the plan?” “Be careful and get him out.” replied Gonagain impatiently. “Not too much detail then – playing it by ear. Jolly good.” (Ch 17)
  • "Charlie emerged from Beagán’s cabin, pulling the gusset of Beagán’s breeches from between his buttocks as he went." (Ch 20) This was included because one of my wife's least favourite words is 'gusset'.
  • "a column of crystals which hung from the ceiling exploded into a pendulous chandelier at each floor." (Ch 38)
  • "He had vowed at his mother’s grave that he would never leave anyone he cared about again." (Ch 39)

 A beautifully written story. May 2021

This is the debut novel of A J Farrelly

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God