About Me

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

Saturday, 19 June 2021

"Banner in the Sky" by James Ramsay Ullman

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

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

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

The analyses of the plot contains spoilers:

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

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

Some great lines:

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

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

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Friday, 18 June 2021

"A Moment of War" by Laurie Lee

Laurie Lee is best known for his memoir of childhood "Cider with Rosie" but for my money his later works deserve just as much attention. As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning records a journey he made through Spain in the 1930s, tramping and busking with his violin. In this book, dedicated "To the Defeated",  Lee returns to Spain to fight in the Spanish Civil War as part of the International Brigade. It is full of incident. He is arrested as a spy ... three times, each time being imprisoned and expecting to be shot. He describes the shambolic training he underwent and how the ragamuffin soldiers amused themselves during the long periods of inaction. He has several encounters with girls and at least one with a boy (provided by the guards on what he expects will be his last night in the condemned cell). He describes the casual killing of those suspected of being spies, fascists or traitors. During a battle he himself kills a man. So there is plenty of excitement.

But the descriptions. Lee was a poet: his descriptions are lyrical:

  • "The guards, in their heavy brown overcoats, began to steam like sweating horses." (Ch 1)
  • "I saw the landscape shudder into shape." (Ch 1)
  • "It was now about noon, with the sun at its low winter strength, and across the northern horizon the mountains caught it like broken glass, each peak flashing with blue and white light." (Ch 2)
  • "Her body met mine with the quick twist of a snake." (Ch 2)
  • "The long-forgotten juices of real home-cooked food, swimming aromas of tomatoes, dried beans, and garlic sausage, and boiled chicken peeling on the bone." (Ch 6)
  • "We ... were faced by a small brass band like a firing-squad. In the dead morning light they pointed their instruments at our heads and blew out a succession of tubercular blasts." (Ch 3)
  • "When a shell hit the ground and exploded near by, the snow rose in the air like a dirty ghost, and hung there spikily billowing, before collapsing into the ground again." (Ch 8)

 The magical moments in this book are even more than ordinarily miraculous:

  • "I was at that flush of youth which never doubts self-survival, that idiot belief in luck and a uniquely charmed life, without which illusion few wars would be possible." (Ch 1)
  • "He didn't like that kind of warfare - mostly hanging about in ditches, then massacre and panic." (Ch 1)
  • "the simple, voluptuous appetite of youth when taste was never jaded." (Ch 6)
  • "It was one of the coldest nights I could remember. I lay with my hands between my thighs, my clenched teeth chattering, my overcoat crackling with frost." (Ch 8)
  • "Under bombardment, the body takes over the mind; it stiffens and melts, the mouth floods and dries, and all one's senses rush to the back of one's neck." (Ch 8)
  • "I had killed a man and remembered his shocked, angry eyes. There was nothing I could say to him now. ... Was this then what I'd come for, and all my journey had meant - to smudge out the life of an unknown young man in a blur of panic which in no way could affect victory or defeat?" (Ch 8)
  • "It was like taking part in some surrealist chess, where pawns became Kings and Queens without warning, and the value of the pieces changed in mid-play." (Ch 9)

Fabulous. June 2021; 178 pages

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

This is even better than another great war memoir "Memoir of the Bobotes" by Joyce Cary.

Tuesday, 15 June 2021

"The Load of Unicorn" by Cynthia Harnett

 Bendy, a scrivener's son in London, 1482, is apprenticed to the arch-enemy, William Caxton, the first printer in England. Bendy's brothers, seeking to produce cheap hand-written books and seeing their market threatened, conspire to buy up all the available paper (only made abroad). This plot intertwinces with the story of how Caxton produced the first edition of Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory.

It is a beautifully written book. I read it immediately after Harnett's masterpiece The Woolpack. Here are two reasons why I preferred the Woolpack:

It has a single plot focused on the supply of wool whereas The Load of Unicorn has two plots, as described above, and though they are dovetailed it does seem that the focus has been diffused.

The denouement by which the protagonist discovers the truth is by the clever working out of the clues, whereas in The Load of Unicorn it is by being captured by the baddies and then over-hearing them reveal their wickedness, which is a bit of a cop-out, especially that the hero's escape is so easy, so unlinked to the hero's special qualities, a sort of deus ex machina without the god and without the mechanism.

But it's a great yarn. And there is a lot of history, easily digested, contained within it. 

Great moments:

  • "He began to see where the shoe might pinch." (Ch 6)
  • "In those crowds it would be possible to miss one's own shadow." (Ch 14)

June 2021; 249 pages

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Monday, 14 June 2021

"The Woolpack" by Cynthia Harnett

 Winner of the Carnegie Medal in 1951.

Nicholas Fetterlock is the son of a Cotswold wool merchant in 1493.  During the negotiations for his betrothal, Nicholas and his bride-to-be try to find out who is stealing his father's wool and substituting rubbish; this has led to trouble with the Staple, the quasi-legal trade body that governs wool exports. Is it the mysterious bankers from Lombardy, led by the ultra-suave Messer Antonio Bari? 

I loved this book when I first read it at the age of nine, I have read it many times since. The final sentence always brings a lump to my throat. It has got an exciting mystery at the heart of it and all the historical colour that you could want. The characters are well-drawn and the pace is perfect (the first real clue is given exactly half way through). A children's classic.

"I'd rather have a devil clad in fiery scales than a devil clad in silk." (Ch 5)

June 2021; 238 pages

Harnett also wrote The Load of Unicorn

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Saturday, 12 June 2021

"Landslide!" by Veronique Day

Laurent, at fourteen, is a disappointment to his father so he is sent to supervise four younger children on holiday near Montpelier. A landslide traps the five kids in a house on the edge of a ravine. No one notices that they are missing for over a week. They have to use ingenuity to survive and try to escape.

The book is written in third person omniscient past tense and in a remarkably didactic form, even when giving dialogue. Here, for example, is Lauren (14) explaining to 6-year-old Daniel why the children won't be suffocated by the fumes in the next room: "The fumes will stay in a closed room, like water in the bottom of a basin. The gas is produced by burning wood and coal, and even by us when we breathe. Your body is, in fact, like a stove. Your lungs are a hearth that draws in clean air and throws off carbon dioxide. But here in this room there is nothing to worry about; I have left the rubbish-tip wide open and although it's not warm, we have fresh air." The six-year-old replies: "I see, thank you." (Ch 3) The book is full of practical things like this explaining how the children survive their predicament but the dialogue is farcically old-fashioned. And di Parisian parents really send their children off to stay over Christmas in a hotel by themselves as a character-building exercise for a young teenager?

I wasn't sold on the verisimilitude. The characters are well-drawn (especially naughty Bertille) but they all sound so much older than they are supposed to be. After a discussion about planting pine trees to prevent soil erosion, six-year-old Alexis observes, philosophically: "Some people demolish everything and others build it up again." (Ch 4)

But at the end, when Lauren says "You can tell Papa that the snail came out of its shell" I was sobbing. So even this matter-of-fact narration packed, for me, a punch.

I first read this in 1965, when I was 8. 

July 2021; 126 pages

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Friday, 11 June 2021

"Earthfasts" by William Mayne

Keith, the lawyer's on, and David the ultra-bright (and sometimes  scathingly so) David the doctor's son unearth Nellie Jack John, a drummer boy who has been underground in a time-shift for the last two hundred years. Mysterious events happen in their Northern moorland town on the edge of Westmoreland.

David is the hero, in many ways, but he is a bit too wonderful. The story is seen mostly from the perspective of Keith, the hanger on and admirer, and this is a strength because it enables the portrait of David to be drawn. Furthermore, it is Keith who grows and learns and develops through the story; he is the true protagonist. And why shouldn't the hero be the one who is overshadowed?

It was first published in 1956 and the two boys enjoy a privileged middle-class background. I found it difficult to tell their ages. They are both at school and the drummer boy, who would probably have joined up at about the age of fourteen, is about their size (and people were smaller two hundred years ago) and that would suggest they are in their early teens. But David is not only clever (he translates Horace's Odes and knows all sorts of things) but he is also wise well beyond his years, even before his adventures:

  • "It's a hire-purchase thought ... You think of it and buy it, and pay for it all the rest of your life." (1.5)
  • The Horatian ode he translates is #1.5 which starts: "Quis multa gracilis te puer in rosa perfusus liquidis urget odoribus, grato, Pyrrha, sub antro" (1.7) which Google translates as "What slender boy in a rose with liquid odors, Pyrrha, cave." My attempt: "Which slender boy, drenched in the liquid perfume of many roses, entreats you, Pyrrha, in your cave." Apart from showing that he can study Latin (as can David), why has the author placed this quotation in a children's book?
In the end I came to the conclusion that the two boys were late teens though still at school.

The book starts slowly, with several paragraphs about blackberry picking; modern stories try to go for the hook in the first few pages. One of its strengths is its observation:

  • "It was not a wind that closed eyes against specks and grit, but it did cover gutter water from washed pavements with a film of particles, and it made dogs look sideways at the corners of houses." (1.4)
  • "It was not pure nervousness but a sort of thin terror; something that went round inside them like some yellow acid, touching tender membranes and making inward parts recoil and tremble." (2.3)
  • "Both boys stopped. They had to, because their feet could not be lifted from the ground. Their muscles had tightened in some way that took all mobility from them." (2.3)
  • "The ground itself was dry and silent. When it is wet it always speaks." (3.3)
  • "Cigarette smoke lying like grey knitting round him in the still air." (3.4)

Another of the book's strengths is the very human predicament of the drummer boy who emerges into a world two hundred years after his time:

  • "He realized that no one could really imagine that there was a future longer than a lifetime, a future with no one in it you knew. From here and now time ahead was a hazy idea. It existed, yes, but completely without detail. Time went on, but straight into a wall. You could not even see a day ahead. Not to be here, now, was to be dead. The only thing you could hold on to at all was the actual present." (1.6)

Great moments:

  • "As you get older it is harder to know what to wish: a lot of wishing seems only selfish." (2.2)
  • "He understood, now that his face was put against it, ... that the lost places are in this world and belong to the people in it and are all that they have to call home." (3.4)

A beautifully written book, especially lyrical about the countryside. It deals with the huge theme of loss. It manages to make supernatural events appear real by describing them in remorseless detail and embedding them in an utterly mundane everyday. Its only flaw is in the two heroes. They are, perhaps, of their time: precocious intellectually and with the capacity to understand emotions but hugely underdeveloped in other ways: neither has the least hint of any sexual interest in either girls or boys. I think modern readers would find these two lads very hard to relate to. The social setting is also of its time. It is also quite slow to get going and somewhat patchy in its narrative: a major character seems to be abandoned about a quarter of the way through; the chronology, though always linear, travels at very different speeds in different parts; the major turning point arrives about two-thirds of the way through.

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

June 2021; 189 pages

It is most like the Alan Garner novels The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath.

Sunday, 6 June 2021

"Kit's Wilderness" by David Almond

 Kit's family has returned to the ex-mining community to look after his grandad, an ex-miner. Kit, 13, is a good pupil at his new school, swiftly earning the nickname 'Mr Watson'. But he is mystically connected with local bad boy Askew: their names are both on a memorial commemorating boy miners who were killed in a pit disaster long ago. Another friend, Allie, a wannabe actress, introduces Kit to the Game of Death, a 'dare' game played  in Askew's den in a piece of waste land known as the Wilderness. Both Kit and Askew can see ghosts and when Askew goes missing, Kit knows he has to find him even if it means risking his life and missing Allie's starring performance in the school's production of the Ice Queen.

The novel is heavily mythic with its cast of beautifully three-dimensional stock characters (the hero, the death force, the life force, and the worm), its repetition of key phrases, its descriptions of winter and the emphasis on the redemptive power of story-telling yet it is hugely realistic with its detailed reporting of the minutiae of school life and its wonderful use of dialect. I particularly loved the way in which the response to "Eh?" is invariably "Eh? Eh?

It is a beautifully crafted and written powerful exploration of death.

Great moments:

  • "You have come into this ancient place to play the game called Death." (1.1)
  • "Our ancestors were like that ... Stunted life, pain, then death." (1.3)
  • "The evidence of the pit was everywhere - depressions in the gardens, jagged cracks in the roadways and in the house walls. Lamp posts and telegraph poles were twisted and skewed." (1.3)
  • "That's the great thing you can say about everything - it'll pass." (2.1)

June 2021; 231 pages

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Friday, 4 June 2021

"Hotel World" by Ali Smith

 Five stories about five women associated with a hotel, all linked by a death, the first story being told by the ghost of the dead girl. 

Is Ali Smith the most experimental mainstream novelist of this generation? Tales told by dead people is not especially different (other examples include The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders) ) She plays with words and sentence structures and paragraphs to create texture for her tales. Thus, the first story starts:


More than this, Smith drills down into everyday life for her stories. She doesn't need exciting plots. We learn, in their own words, about the dead girl, about a homeless woman begging on the streets, about a receptionist who is off work through illness, about a superbly superficial and self-satisfied journalist, and about a punctuation-light school-girl and each of these pen portraits keep the reader interested through the twin techniques of revealing only just enough to make the reader have to work at piecing the jigsaw together and of total immersion in character. Thus the result is readable as well as being intelligent.

Some great moments:

  • "Beautiful dirt, grey and vintage, the grime left by life, sticking to the bony roof of a mouth and tasting of next to nothing, which is always better than nothing." (Past)
  • "Now that I can't just reach out and touch, it's all I want, is to." (Past)
  • "Happy is what you realize you are a fraction of a second before it's too late." (Past)
  • "Who needs one pence? Fucking nobody who is anybody. That's quite funny, the idea of fucking a nobody, just a space there where a body might be, and yourself flailing backwards and forwards against the thin air." (Present Historic)
  • "So many of the things on the street were close to people, intimate with them, even inside their mouths, before they ended up here." (Present Historic)
  • "That was the last time that my heart flew, and it flew inside me like a trapped bird, a blackbird caught in a living-room battering itself about above meaningless furniture." (Future Conditional)
  • "Lines were edging themselves into her face as she looked at her."  (Future Conditional)
  • "It's not that the council doesn't put a lot of money and effort into arts and things, the whole town's full of sculptures and murals, you walk through the pedestrianized area and you literally keep bumping into civic art. But, to be brutally honest, I can't sat it's made any difference whatsoever." (Perfect)
  • "We all know our dates of birth but ... every year there is another date that we pass over without knowing what it is but it is just as important it is the other date the death date." (Future in the past)
  • "When he used to sit in  the garden with his chest bare in the sun it was all loose folds round his neck & face like he was too small for his skin now it was folding in on him" (Future in the past)

Top quality fiction from a maestro. June 2021; 237 pages

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Other novels by Ali Smith reviewed in this blog

  • Artful: a sort of novel mixed with literary critique
  • How to be both: a novel in two parts, either of which can be read first
  • Autumn and Winter, part of a series which continued with Spring and Summer, yet to be enjoyed
  • There But for The: full of word play
  • The Accidental: I am rather embarrassed by my lacklustre review of this, the first Smith book I read. I don't think I then understood how brilliant she was. I must re-read and rewrite.

Tuesday, 1 June 2021

"Losing Nelson" by Barry Unsworth

 Charles is obsessed with Nelson. He hurries home to his basement to re-enact Nelson's battles on their anniversary ... to the minute. He believes that his life runs in parallel with Nelson's; that he is Nelson's dark shadow. He sees Nelson as the perfect hero. The only thing that worries him is Nelson's behaviour in Naples when he may have tricked some rebels into surrendering and then executed them. That and his new secretary, to whom he is dictating his book on Nelson, who prefers her men to be gentle and thoughtful and kind and sees Nelson as a vain serial killer, crippled psychologically as well as physically. Her opposition will bring Charles to a crisis in which he is forced to confront the truth about heroism.

It is a fascinating book, dissecting both obsession and the nature of heroism (which is a type of obsession). There are some amusing incidents, such as when the protagonist meets a writer who can be no other than a portrait of the author himself (and sees him as an obsessive). The characters of the protagonist and the antagonist (and can there ever have been a gentler antagonist?) are brilliantly written as are the settings of the book. The plot is perfectly paced: the talk Charles gives to the Nelson society is pivotal and half-way through the book. 

And not only did I learn a lot about Nelson but also my probable ancestor, Alexander Davison, Nelson's prize-agent, is mentioned in the book!

Great moments:

  • "Timing is the key to control and control is the key to concealment." (Ch 1)
  • "My father was a master of concealment, he kept it up so well that nobody knew just when he died" (Ch 1)
  • "I will say what I think angels are. They can be dark or bright, but they all have the gift of spontaneity, of creating themselves anew." (Ch 1)
  • "What else would an angel seem, out of his element, portrayed by mediocre men, but grotesque?" (Ch 13)
  • "The path of the hero cannot be smooth; he must show disregard for all restraints of prudence." (Ch 13)
  • "The quintessential act of heroic insubordination, the ultimate rejection of half-measures." (Ch 13)
  • "By this time I had begun to experience the usual symptoms of rage: a sense of impaired vision, a feeling that the skin of my face was too tight." (Ch 14)
  • "I had no friends at all. But of course it was the price on paid for being on the shadow side." (Ch 19)
  • "Many were crucified, but there is only one cross." (Ch 19)
  • "Nelson ... was always so ready to get people killed. If you look at it one way, he was a sort of serial killer." (Ch 21)
  • "He looked like a god glutted with sacrifice." (Ch 23)

Barry Unsworth won the Booker Prize in 1992 for Sacred Hunger.

May 2021; 313 pages

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Quoting Nelson:

  • "If a man considers whether he is to fight, when he has the power in his own hands, it is certain that his opinion is against fighting." (Ch 13)