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

Tuesday, 29 June 2021

"Der Reizen" by E. Lynn Cormick

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

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

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

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

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

Some great moments:

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

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

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Saturday, 26 June 2021

"Fermat's Last Theorem" by Simon Singh

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

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

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

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

Fascination and wonderfully explained. June 2021; 345 pages

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Wednesday, 23 June 2021

"Seven shares in a gold mine" by Margaret Larkin

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

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

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

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

I have been a big fan of the Readers' Union books which I inherited from the shelves of my parents. They have included:
  • Life with Ionides by Margaret Lane: about a man catching snakes in East Africa
  • The Golden Isthmus: the history of Panama from its discovery by Europeans
  • The Incredible Mile by Harold Elvin: the travelogue of a journey on the Trans Siberian express
  • A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble: the memoir of a Colonial Officer on the Gilbert and Ellice Islands
  • Invasion 1940 by Peter Fleming: an account of Britain's unpreparedness and preparation for a Nazi invasion
  • Bus Stop Symi by William Travis: three years lived on the sometimes less than idyllic Greek island of Symi
  • A Memoir of the Bobotes by Joyce Cary: a memoir of time spent in the Balkan Wars (before the First World War)
  • The Great Trek by Oliver Ransford: a history of the formation of the Orange Free State and Transvaal by Boer farmers trekking from the Cape Colony

Monday, 21 June 2021

"Fire Over England" by A E W Mason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great moments:

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

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

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Saturday, 19 June 2021

"Banner in the Sky" by James Ramsay Ullman

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

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

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

The analyses of the plot contains spoilers:

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

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

Some great lines:

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

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

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

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 one 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)