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

Saturday, 31 July 2021

"Robert Peel: A biography" by Douglas Hurd

 Hurd traces the life and career of the first 'Conservative' Prime Minister, a man whose career started in the days of Rotten Boroughs and a monarch (George IV) who played an active part in government to the beginnings of the party system with mostly-contested elections and manifestos and a monarch (Victoria) who was soon sidelined after her initial meddling. And on the way he helped ensure that Roman Catholics could become MPs, he created the first organised police force, he reformed a chaotic penal code, he sorted out the US-Canada border, he helped the Whigs bring in the Great Reform Act, he reformed working conditions for women and children in mines and factories, and, during the Irish famine, he repealed the Corm Laws which imposed tariffs on imported corn, keeping the price of bread artificially high. In order to get this last piece of legislation through he had to battle against his own right wing; he split his own party and carried the vote with the help of the Whigs and Radicals in opposition. He was therefore remembered in two ways: as a turncoat who twice (Catholic emancipation and the Corn Laws) abandoned earlier principles and the self-interested principles of his own party and as a man who put the well-being of the ordinary people, particularly those who had no vote, before the interests of faction.

Unfortunately, Hurd is writing in 2007. He assumes that the Tory hard right (the 'Ultras' as Peel called them, the 'sour right' as Hurd labels them) are a self-destructive lot who will never win power as mainstream Conservatives; in the aftermath of Brexit we now know that to be wrong. He also assumes that Peel's repeal of the Corn Laws, a unilateral abandonment of a key tariff, was the first step in an unstoppable journey towards globalisation and free trade. In the aftermath of Brexit this is another conclusion that now looks unsupportable.

Some great moments:

  • "The Conservative Party will always include within its ranks those who in Peel's time were called the Ultras - men, and now women too, who instinctively resist change and pine for a golden age that never was." (Introduction)
  • "If a man was clever and not ashamed of it, then it was thought almost certain that he was using his cleverness for manoeuvres and deceits from which decent men should recoil." (Ch 7)
  • "Croker though Canning should be Prime Minister, but believed 'he could hardly take tea without a stratagem'." (Ch 7)
  • "The second and smaller group of Ultras are the sour Right. There is nothing warm or nostalgic about their politics. Many of them are intelligent and sincere; but there appeal is to the prejudices and cruelty which are part of human nature." (Ch 7)
  • "Politicians are often in a state of outrage. They find it a convenient condition for a day or two. They usually recover quickly and get on with the other pleasures of life." (Ch 9)

A well-written and eminently readable biography of a politician whose multiple achievements deserve to be better known.

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

July 2021; 397 pages

Wednesday, 28 July 2021

"Reflections on the Psalms" by C S Lewis

The Psalms are a mixture of poems in the Bible. They contains praises, laments, and curses. C S Lewis provides a series of non-scholarly reflections on them. As usual, there are moments where he makes contentious statements without backing them up (because the only evidence he needs is what is for him self-evidence: that his version of Christianity is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth) but in this volume they are more than balanced by the very real insights he gives.

He points out that the Psalmists concept of God as Judge is different from that of nowadays: a modern Christian tends to see himself as the defendant in a criminal court being judged for his sins whereas the Psalmists see themselves as self-righteous plaintiffs in a civil case, calling on God to judge in their favour: “The Psalmist is the indignant plaintiff. He is quite sure, apparently, that his own hands are clean. He never did to others the horrid things that others are doing to him.” (C 2)

Many Psalms involve curses. For example, Psalm 137 which starts with the lament “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, and wept; when we thought about Zion” goes on in verse 9 to say to the Babylonians “Happy be they, who shall take hold of thy little children; and hurtle them against a stone”. Lewis points out that the writers of the Psalms are “much more vindictive and vitriolic than the Pagans” (C 3) and explains this by suggesting that the Psalmists feel more deeply and are thus morally ‘higher’: “It is great men, potential saints, not little men, who become merciless fanatics.” (C 3) It seems to me that this argument not only endeavours to excuse hatred but to do so by expressing contempt for (a) ordinary people and (b) pagans.

He points out that the Psalmists accepted death as the end, in stark contrast to many of the religions around them, eg the Egyptians who saw life as a preparation for the afterlife.

When he list the many times when the Psalmists tell their listeners to shun wickedness, Lewis points out an interesting moral conundrum: "How ought we to behave in the presence of ... very bad people who are powerful, prosperous and impenitent. If they are outcasts, poor and miserable, whose wickedness obviously has not ‘paid’, then ... Christ with the woman taken in adultery ... is our example.” (C 7)

Finally he asks whether God's demands that we should praise him reveal a weak character: “We all despise the man who demands the continued assurance of his own virtue, intelligence or delightfulness; we despise still more the crowd of people round every dictator, every millionaire, every celebrity, who gratify that demand.” (C 8). He points out that “The world rings with praise - lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favourite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favourite game - praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars.” (C 8) He concludes that praise adds to our pleasure: “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.” (C 8) So God commands us to praise him because he wants us to enjoy him to the full. “In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.” (C 8)

This is a thought-provoking book ... but it hasn't converted me from atheism.

Special moments:
  • Our generation was brought up to eat everything on the plate; and it was the sound principle of nursery gastronomy to polish off the nasty things first and leave the titbits to the end.” (C 1)
  • The humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious, minds, praised most, while the cranks, misfits and malcontents praised least. The good critics found something to praise in many imperfect works.” (C 8)

July 2021; 115 pages

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

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

His science fiction trilogy
Literary criticism:
Of course he wrote the Narnia children's books as well.

Biographis of C S Lewis reviewed in this blog:

Tuesday, 27 July 2021

"The Cave" by Richard Church

 A young lad, staying with his doctor uncle and ex-nurse aunt during his summer holidays, discovers the entrance to a system of caves and, with four friends, decides to explore them. It must have been written in a time when such breath-taking foolhardiness was tolerated, even the uncle merely gives advice. But the character of each of the lads is tested to the full as they get into difficulties. 

Memorable moments:

  • "It was the kind of fear which seldom takes you in everyday life. It comes in dreams, in those nightmares when desperate things happen and you are the last living creature in a world that is breaking up and the fragments falling into bottomless chaos. Fear like that is something solid. It is made of steel, and has a razor's edge. At the same time it is cast and vague, shapeless as fog, and it smothers you with its horror. It is shameful, too; it breaks your pride and makes you crave to hide yourself away from your fellow men like a leper." (Ch 8)
  • "He seemed to have got so far beyond the stage of being sorry for himself, that other people had to be sorry for him." (Ch 14)

This is a boys' adventure story which is very strong on describing the cave system and very good at showing the interactions of five young lads and pretty good at talking about some very fundamental human emotions.

An interesting historical note: In Chapter 16 John talks about the Piltdown skull and clearly considers it authentic. It was exposed as a forgery in 1953 but this book was published in 1950.

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Monday, 26 July 2021

"Klara and the Sun" by Kazuo Ishiguro

 Klara is a robot who has been designed to have empathy so that she can be an Artificial Friend to a child. She is solar powered, so she has a key relationship with the Sun. We first meet her in the store, where she observes the world from the shop window. Will she be chosen or left on the shelf? And if she becomes a pet, will she be 'just for Christmas'?

Ishiguro takes us right into the mind of an android. This is a brilliant achievement. We even perceive the world through Klara's pattern recognition software, which sometimes resolves the world into cubist paintings, all disconnected shapes which sometimes fuse into a more rounded portrait than a conventional perception. Sometimes Klara doesn't really see as seamlessly as a human but often she is more perceptive than I am. But there is innocence as well: Klara doesn't understand some of what she sees and some misunderstandings lead to superstitious beliefs, for example about how she can influence the magic of the Sun. This aspect of the book is breathtakingly well written.

For example: "The sky from the bedroom rear window was ... capable of surprising variations. Sometimes it wasd the color of the lemons in the fruit bowl, then could turn to the gray of the slate chopping-boards. When Josie wasn't well, it could turn the color of her vomit or her pale feces, or even develop streaks of blood. Sometimes the sky would become divided into a series of squares, each one a different shade of purple to its neighbor." (Part Two, p 52) Klara's perceptual system often divides the seen environment into overlapping squares. More importantly, this passage shows that Klara's perceptions are influenced by how healthy her owner is: I think this is Ishiguro saying something powerful and important about how emotion colours our perceptions and influences our rationality.

It also means that Ishiguro can adopt a 'Man from Mars' approach to observing the world and in particular human social interactions. For example: 

  • "She ... held Josie in an embrace that seemed to go on and on, until the Mother was obliged to introduce a rocking motion to disguise how long it was lasting." (Part Two, p 92)
  • "I saw more insects hovering before me in the air, nervously exchanging positions, but unwilling to abandon their friendly clusters." (Part Three, p 156 - 157)

Even the way she talks is Klara-like, although it has to be said that most of the characters speak in quite well-composed segments of dialogue, though it is often difficult for Klara (and the reader) to recreate the thoughts that lead to the dialogue. Sometimes, therefore, the dialogue sounds a little stilted. And the humans trust Klara to an alarming degree: Rick and the Father both help Klara accomplish her spiritual quest without ever knowing what she wants, just because they believe in a robot. I found this difficult to swallow.

The way that Ishiguro drips clues into the story, so that the reader has to piece together what is happening, is fantastic. We learn quite quickly that Rick has not been 'lifted' but it is only much later in the book that we understand what this means.

The science fiction element of this novel reminded me strongly of Ishiguro's masterpiece: Never Let Me Go. But the spiritual side was very reminiscent of his The Buried Giant. There are many layers of mystery in Klara's quest which reminded me of Gilgamesh.

Some moments of magic:

  • "My cello-playing, even at its glorious best, sounded like Dracula's grandmother." (Part Two, p51)
  • "What was becoming clear to me was the extent to which humans, in their wish to escape loneliness, made maneuvers that were very complex and hard to fathom." (Part Three, p 113)
  • "It became normal for me to remain during Rick's visits, even though he sometimes looked towards me with go-away eyes" (Part Three, p 117)
  • "Not only was her voice loud, it was as if it had been folded over onto itself, so that two versions of her voice were being sounded together, pitched fractionally apart." (Part Three, p 179)
  • "Mr Capaldi believed that there was nothing special inside Josie that couldn't be continued. He told the Mother he'd searched and searched and found nothing like that. But I believe now he was searching in the wrong place. There was something very special, but it wasn't inside Josie. It was inside those who loved her." (Part Six, p 306)

A beautifully written book by a master. Well, he has won a Nobel prize for Literature.

I am a little bemused by the use of American spellings. The book may be set in USA, but that is not clear. Perhaps the author uses American orthography. But my copy of the book was published in London, UK in 2021.

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Also by Ishiguro and reviewed on this blog:

Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize in 2017. Other Nobel Laureates reviewed in this blog include:

"A change of seasons" by Khurram Elahi

So many books nowadays are fantasy or scifi or thrillers that it is refreshing to read a novel that, like Love on the Dole, is grounded in the drama of everyday life.

In the first half of the book, recently divorced warehouseman John is awaiting, with dread and nightmares, a heart bypass operation. The book explores the stories of others in the ward: fellow patients and two of the nurses. We also learn about John’s early life.

But if the story is a commonplace one, its treatment is not. Lyrical descriptions colour the narrative. The author is not afraid to tackle the less rational aspects of normality. The prologue is John’s dream of heaven which segues into a ‘memory’ of being punished by his headteacher at school by being hanged in the stationery cupboard. Furthermore, John has been haunted since childhood by a voice in his head called The Jester whose teasing goads - “Oh, you’ve found time to give yourself a sauna, Johnny. Cause you’re gonna be roasted alive tonight young man.” - are my favourite moments of the book.

The irrationality is ramped up In the second, post-op, half of the book. As the seasons change (it is no coincidence John’s surname is Winters), John experiences strange symptoms in his body and exhibits even stranger behaviours, culminating in a shocking act of violence.

It is a very atmospheric book. There is good use of foreshadowing techniques. I thought perhaps the first half had too many characters to keep focused; the author is always ready to explore another person’s point of view. The rich use of an extensive vocabulary gives a suitably baroque texture and I enjoyed those occasions when the author added playful twists to cliches:
  • He walked towards his maker, or taker, helpless, with every step lasting a lifetime.“ (Prologue)
  • If there was a sandwich on a table comprising life and death, John would most certainly lift up one half of the bread to see what was inside, no doubt expecting it to be off.” (C 1)
  • That’s what they say when you’ve had a heart operation of this nature. You’ll feel a new man when you get out. Well, he certainly felt a new man, just not one he could not recognise.” (C 26)
  • The peripheral hum of local factories expelling pollution with productivity” (C 39)
This is a promising start by a new author whose website can be found here: https://www.khurramelahi.com/

July 2021; 304 pages

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Thank you to The Conrad Press for giving me a free review copy of this book.

Thursday, 22 July 2021

"The Second Sleep" by Robert Harris

A well-written, pleasurable yarn.

The plot is almost impossible to describe without a spoiler alert. The first words are "Late on the afternoon of Tuesday the ninth of April in the Year of Our Risen Lord 1468" which makes one assume that it is a historical novel set in the mediaeval period. Towards the end of chapter three I learned, with a wholly unexpected shock, that this was the 'second sleep', the second mediaeval period following the apocalypse (later dated to about 2025 when all the computer driven infrastructure failed and society across the world collapsed, with mass starvation). This is therefore a post-apocalyptic novel and, predictably, the church is on top having forbidden 'scientism' and antiquarianism as heresies. Christopher Fairfax, a young priest, rides to Adcot to conduct the funeral of the parish priest. But while there he discovers that the late incumbent had a taste for antiquarianism and was, perhaps, on the verge of a (forbidden) archaeological discovery when he was, perhaps, murdered. Throw in a seductive widow in a decaying stately home and a thrusting, ruthless mill-owner always alert to the possibility of profit and wooing said widow, and two antiquarians and we have the makings for a slightly strange dystopian fiction.

It is definitely better than the much lauded Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel which has the ridiculous premise that, following a global pandemic, not only do most of the cast of an acting troupe coincidentally survive (must be the luvvie genes) but also they benefit the world by touring the countryside offering plays and concerts which is so much better than the benighted heathens nearby who believe that the most useful cultural knowledge to preserve is a knowledge of physics so that they can reassemble electric motors and engineered civilisation again. But if you like dystopia I would recommend:

  • The Book of Dave by Will Self, a similar concept in which the world has reverted to mediaevalism following global warming
  • Ape and Essence by Aldous Huxley, a sex-obsessed fantasy following a nuclear holocaust
  • Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, a 'last human' novel 

Memorable moments:

  • "The corpse was long and thin, packed in sawdust and bound up tight in a papery white linen shroud, like a chrysalis ready to hatch." (Ch 2)
  • "How grief ages us, he thought, with sudden pity; how vulnerable we are, poor mortal creatures, beneath our vain show of composure." (Ch 2)
  • "Not for him the fanaticism of some of his fellow younger clergy, with their straggling hair and beards and their wild eyes, who could sniff out blasphemy as keenly as a water hound unearths truffles." (Ch 3)
  • "ragged, skinny, weather-coarsened country folk, drably dressed, with an ugly scattering of disfigurements that told of hard births, heavy work and poor diets." (Ch 4)
  • "Thirty years ago, the average British household contained enough food to last eight days; today the average is two days. It is no exaggeration to say that London, at any time, exists only six meals away from starvation." (Ch 6)
  • "All civilisations consider themselves invulnerable; history warns us that none is." (Ch 6)
  • "He wished he could unsee what he had read, but knowledge alters everything, and he knew that was impossible." (Ch 6)
  • "History was a patchwork of voids." (Ch 8)
  • "The forge was set back from the road at a crossroads. A horse in the forecourt stood tied to a wooden pole that was perhaps twelve feet high, from the top of which, suspended by chains, hung a large yellow plastic scallop shell of great antiquity, battered and much-repaired." (Ch 9)
  • "‘So Church and state should be separate?’ ‘It would be best for both.’ ‘Then surely we would arrive at a place where the Church would have morals without power, and the state would have power without morality." (Ch 11)
  • "It’s your Church I don’t believe in, sir. Your God I treat with respect." (Ch 18)
  • "Faith that cannot withstand the truth is not a faith worth holding." (Ch 19)
  • "Fairfax took his hand. It was hard and calloused, a cudgel of flesh." (Ch 19)
  • "Quycke spread his hands – an overly emphatic gesture, Fairfax thought, such as might be made by an actor on the stage to convey sincerity." (Ch 22)

A quick easy read, which kept me turning the pages without being hooked.

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Also by Robert Harris and reviewed in this blog:

Tuesday, 20 July 2021

"American Dirt" by Jeanine Cummins

 The book starts when eight year old Luca hears bullets, the sound of gunmen belonging to one of the drug-trafficking cartels in Acapulco murdering his entire family except for him and his Mum, Lydia, who manage to hide. 

Then Lydia and Luca, still in shock from the grief of their bereavement, are on the run from the cartel. It is difficult even getting out of the state. They can't fly - Luca has no id and neither of them had time to collect a passport - and they can't use cash machines, mobile phones or anything that might be traced. Mexico has no long distance passenger trains so they hitch illegal rides on freight trains with migrants from other central and south american countries. They join the long procession of migrants.

There are some good people who spontaneously help, feed, shelter and protect them. There is danger everywhere. The police, especially the migrant police, are corrupt and some of them are likely to be in the pay of the cartels. They join other migrants, all heading for the desert border with the US.

Every step of this appalling journey is brilliantly chronicled.

  • "Luca's eyes feel like sandpaper and he still can't find a way to loosen the joints of his body, but at least he's breathing again." (Ch 5)
  • "Her expression is one Luca has never seen before, and he fears it might be permanent. It's as if seven fishermen have cast their hooks into her from different directions and they're all pulling at once." (Ch 5)
  • "Newton's Third Law can resonate in a place like this: for every wickedness there is an equal and opposite possibility of redemption." (Ch 32)

One of the tensest books I have read in a long time. Two characters with whom one cannot not empathise. Gritty reality. Every moment there is the possibility of disaster. This is hugely emotionally involving. A gripping read. The pacing is perfect. A quarter of the way through Lydia learns about La Bestia, the freight trains that can take her and Luca to the border, if they can survive the incredible dangers involved with the ride. Exactly half way through, Lydia discovers the true motive for the cartel boss's murderous assault on her family. And exactly three-quarters of the way through the encounter the people smuggler. You can't get more perfect pacing than that,

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Friday, 16 July 2021

"Erebus" by Michael Palin

 Palin follows the voyages of HMS Erebus, the ship that, with HMS Terror, took James Clark Ross on his voyage of exploration in the Antarctic in 1839 - 1843 before taking Sir John Franklin on his doomed search for the North-West Passage 1845 - 1848.

My biggest problem with books of this kind is that I find it difficult to follow the journeys without reference to a map. There are several maps in this book: most of them are adequate but I found great difficulty when it came to the quite intricate details of the North-West Passage, especially when Palin was describing the multiple searches for Franklin. Repetition of eg Lancaster Sound and Bering Straits (especially as the latter didn't seem to be marked on the maps) and all the islands that might have been promontories just left me confused.

Some great moments:

  • "I love the idea of a medicine for hypochondria." (Prologue)
  • "In classical mythology Erebus, the son of Chaos, was generally taken to refer to the dark heart of the Underworld, a place associated with dislocation and destruction." (C 1)
  • "Boothia ... the only peninsula in the world named after a brand of gin." (C 2)
  • "the tallest wave ever recorded in the southern hemisphere ... was measured at 78 feet high." (C 6)
  • "Of all God's creatures, they [whales] seemed the least prone to hurrying. Their lives seemed to be the human equivalent of taking very long baths." (C 6)
  • "This description of a penguin 'walking away upright as a dart ... looking like an old monk going to mass'." (C 10)
  • "National confidence is precarious and needs to be fed a constant diet of achievement." (C 12)
  • "In Waterloo Place ... is a memorial to Captain Scott. His failure was to be beaten to the South Pole. Franklin's was to be beaten to the first sea crossing of the Northwest Passage. The man who beat Scott to the Pole was Roald Amundsen. The first man to cross the Northwest Passage by sea was Roald Amundsen. He has no memorial in London." (C 17)
  • "The shower in the bathroom is one of those where you have to run around to get wet." (Epilogue)
This book was great on the Antarctic explorations but for the North-West Passage I think Barrow's Boys and Ninety Degrees North, both by Fergus Fleming, are much better.

July 2021; 310 pages

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Monday, 12 July 2021

"The Book of Malachi" by T C Farren

Malachi, who has no tongue, is recruited by an organisation which is growing in and harvesting organs from prisoners convicted of murder. They sit naked in their cages; he trims their fingernails and toenails. His reward after six months will be a tongue transplant. Of course, he can't talk to them ... but they can to him and he begins to appreciate the horror of the prisoners' plight. But should he help them? His dilemma is exacerbated by flashbacks to the moment he lost his tongue and the terrible survivor guilt he suffers.

Set on a lonely oil rig in the middle of the ocean with a cast of morally-flawed people, both prisoners and their exploiters, this novel is a powerful exploration of ethical issues. But it is also gritty and hard-edged. Malachi's back story is carefully drip-fed so that the reader often has to puzzle out what happened. It is perfectly paced: important turning points happening around the 33%, 48% and 72% marks. The climax had me rushing through the pages; the jeopardy continued to the very end. And the descriptions were wonderful.

Some magical moments:

  • "The mirror has the skin disease mirrors get in gloomy rooms." (p 2)
  • "I have seen decapitation. The head disengages as if the spine is nothing. A mere rumour." (p 3)
  • "The agent's cinnamon breath disguises her predation." (p 5)
  • "It's like Jesus saying he has Weet-Bix for breakfast." (p 203)
  • "Jesus would never have had to fight off an erection, would he? But perhaps these are carnal truths the censors burnt." " (p 205)
  • "Even his dreadlocks lie down as if chastised, creating the beaten silhouette of a bedraggled thief." (p 206)
  • "Money is just paper with some ugly president's face on it." (p 206)
  • "One side of her parting looks like she has stuck her finger in a plug, the other half is the good twin, clinging and meek." (p 216)
  • "The yellow man lies loosely, like someone cut him from a cross." (p 320)

Thought-provoking and exciting. Brilliant.

July 2021; 324 pages

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Friday, 9 July 2021

"Venice" by Jan Morris

 Jan Morris writes beautiful prose. This hymn to Venice, from someone who has lived there, is, as you would expect, a lyrical and haunting evocation of the beauty of one of the world's most visited tourist destinations, and a fascinating history of a city state that was a republic and maritime empire throughout the middle ages, but it is also shrewd and practical and funny. 

This isn't a tourist guide. I have been to Venice as a tourist and I would not have packed this book. This is a piece of the best sort of travel writing, the sort where the traveller becomes part of an alien landscape and has deep interactions with the inhabitants and begins to struggle to an understanding of what it must be like to live in such a place. This is that perfect sort of travel book ... except that it focuses on a single place and it is all the better for that.

There are some fascinating bits about the Venetian language. The word 'Arsenal' which was the name for the Venetian shipyard which used assembly-line techniques (celebrated by Dante in the Inferno) to produce, at peak, a fighting galley every day, comes from the arabic 'dar es sinaa' which means 'house of art'. The Arabic word 'sikka' (a die) became 'zecca' (a mint) and thence 'zecchino' (a coin) which is the origin of the Venetian unot of currency, the sequin. (The City: 17)

It is enlivened with historical anecdotes:

  • "One bishop playing a double game with such conspicuous ineptitude that he was simultaneously excommunicated both by the Pope and by the Oecumenical Patriarch."  (The People: 9)
  • "The Grand Canal ... follows the course of a river known to the ancients as Rivo Alto - the origin of the Rialto." (The City: 11)
  • "The earliest of all state banks, the Banca Giro, was opened on the Rialto in the twelfth century." (The City: 19)
  • "The fashionable eighteenth-century priest who, though courted by the greatest families of the Serenissima, chose to live in a rat-infested garret, and collected spiders' webs as a hobby." (The Lagoon: 26)
  • "St Nicholas of Myra ... was particularly revered by the Venetians, if only because at the Council of Nicaea he had soundly boxed the ears of the theologian Arius, from whose very heresy, adopted by the Lombards, some of the earliest Venetians had fled into the lagoon." (The Lagoon: 30)
  • "The silver reliquary of St Nicholas [in Bari] ...has for nine centuries consistently exuded a liquid Holy Manna of such purity as to be indistinguishable from the purest spring water."  (The Lagoon: 30)

But the most remarkable thing about this book is the writing. The prose is like wonder washing over one:

  • There are stupendous descriptions:
    • "A mesh of nets patterns the walls of a fisherman's islet, and a restless covey of boats nuzzles its water-gate." (Landfall)
  • There are utterly original metaphors:
    • "An air of home-spun guile and complacency, as of a man who has made a large fortune out of slightly shady dealings in artichokes." (The People: 2)
    • "The gondolier ... utters a series of warning cried when he makes a manoeuvre of this sort, throaty and distraught, like the call of an elderly and world-weary sea-bird." (The City: 12)
    • "Other Venetian waterways ... have an average width of twelve feet, and the average depth of a fair-sized family bath-tub." (The City: 12)
    • "The modern Venetian ... examines the world's delights analytically, as a hungry entomologist might dissect a rare but potentially edible spider." (The City: 17)
    • "Sometimes a layer of snow covers the city, giving it a certain sense of improper whimsy, as if you were to dress a duchess in pink ruffles." (The City: 18)
  • The are profundities:
    • "It is a difficult world, is it not, and heavy with disillusionment?" (The City: 18)
    • "Do we not know them well, whenever we live, the aesthetic conservers on the one hand, the men of change on the other? Which of these two philosophies is the more romantic, I have never been able to decide." (The City: 22)
  • And there are other, unclassifiable, moments of joy:
    • "You will hardly ever see a girl dressed for pottering, in a sloppy sweater and a patched skirt, or in that unpressed dishabille that marks the utter emancipation of the Englishwoman."  (The People: 5)
    • "The lanes of Venice often have lovely names - the Alley of the Curly-Headed Woman; the Alley of the Love of Friends Or of the Gypsies; the Filled-In Canal of Thoughts; the Broad Alley of the Proverbs; the Furst Burnt Alley and the Second Burnt Alley ... the Street of the Monkey Or of The Swords; the Alley of the Blind." (The City: 13)
    • "It is astonishing to me how so drab a frame can contain so glittering a masterpiece." (The Lagoon: 26)
    • "No history seems to be attached to these places - they are not even surrounded, as an estate-agent once said to me of a peculiarly repellent half-timbered house, 'by the amenities of tradition'." (The Lagoon: 29)
    • "London has her own 'Little Venice, in Paddington, where a notice on one irreverent householder's gate warns visitors to 'Beware of the Doge'." (The Lagoon: 30)
    • "Other cities have admirers. Venice alone has lovers." (The Lagoon: 30)

This is a book of magic with enchantment on every page.

Jan Morris also wrote about the neighbouring Italian city of Trieste

Many thanks to my wonderful friends Danny and Mary for buying this book (and Trieste, above) for me. Other selections from the 'Mary and Danny' book club include:

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Sunday, 4 July 2021

"House of Thieves" by Charles Belfoure

 New York, 1886. A society architect is blackmailed into helping a gangster plan daring raids on banks and society mansions. The architect's entire family, one by one, discover the thrills of illicit activity.

The author has clearly done a lot of research about New York of that period. Some paragraphs, for example when describing the menus of a society dinner, sound as if he has transcribed his research notes. 

From this situation, the plot development is entirely cliched and predictable. The characters are predictably two-dimensional. Complex human emotions are described in a few definitive sentences (we are told, repeatedly, that George's gambling problem is a sickness). The amorality of the story is immense: bit parts are killed off in a few sentences and, although the architect is said to suffer remorse and horror about the murders he witnesses, the reader doesn't feel that. The entire story is plot driven.

And the plot is predictable, repetitive and boring. There's a heist. There's another heist. And then another. There's an informer. The architect's brother is a policeman.  There is gambling, drinking, prostitution, pick-pocketing ... There are society balls (and, of course, rigid moral codes: these are regarded as straight-jackets against which the crime spree seems like entrepreneurial free enterprise). This is a story that has been written many times before. 

Not my sort of tale.

July 2021; 413 pages

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Saturday, 3 July 2021

"Ex-Libris" by Ross King

Isaac Inchbold, a book-seller, becomes involved in the hunt for a rare manuscript in the early days of the reign of Charles II. His story is interwoven with that of Emilia, maid-in-waiting to Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia in the 1620s who, with Sir Ambrose Pennington and a Czech librarian, flees with the manuscript from Prague to London, pursued by three mysterious men.

This is a superbly researched historical thriller whose huge amounts of detail add much-needed verisimilitude to a plot that ranges from cryptography to Rosicrucianism to Sir Walter Ralegh's search for El Dorado. Although the Isaac Inchbold plot is more or less credible, with Isaac wandering around London and South East England in search of clues to this manuscript, the 1620s plot in which three characters are pursued by three extraordinarily sinister characters who never quite catch up with them is very repetitive and seems designed principally for the regular cliff-hangers that it produces. The protagonist asks, quite late on in the book, "How could a manuscript of fourteen pages – a few scraps of goatskin scribbled with a mixture of lampblack and vegetable gum – possibly be valuable enough for someone to kill for?" (3.2) and it is a question which more or less gets answered (before a cataclysmic ending worthy of Poe) but it is the fact that the pursuers are both so sinister yet repeatedly fail that I found far-fetched. That and the shipwreck in which all three protagonists and all three mysterious antagonists survive but almost no other 'bit part' despite the fact that the bit parts were all experienced sailors: that forfeited credibility.

Nevertheless, the author has a wonderful gift for description. The main character is memorably described as "a small man with dark garb and the morose, worried eyes of a puffin." (3.4) Other original descriptions, which are utterly of their period, include:

  • "I closed my eyes, and sleep, with its heavy die, pressed its seal across their lids." (1.4)
  • "The coach forded the thin stream, its wheels tossing curtains of water to either side." (1.7)
  • "after much truffling in one of the cupboards, presented me with a fat volume," (2.13)
  • "The walls of the corridor were lined with busts and marble figures like the ones in the garden of Arundel House, their ancient noses and lips obliterated like those of syphilitics." (3.5)
  • "He was on his haunches beside the cabinet, grunting and red-faced like someone at his close-stool." (3.5)

Other wonderful moments during the book: included:

  • "It is easier to find a labyrinth, writes Comenius, than a guiding path. Yet every labyrinth is a circle that begins where it ends, as Boethius tells us, and ends where it begins." (1.1)
  • "these books were doomed. This wasn’t a library so much as a charnel-house." (1.3)
  • "Quite amazing how determined kings and emperors have been to destroy books. But civilisation is built on such desecrations, is it not? Justinian the Great burned all of the Greek scrolls in Constantinople after he codified the Roman law and drove the Ostrogoths from Italy. And Shih Huang Ti, the first Emperor of China, the man who unified the five kingdoms and built the Great Wall, decreed that every book written before he was born should be destroyed." (1.3)
  • "fifty years ago the great Isaac Casaubon had demonstrated how the entire Corpus hermeticum – this supposed fountainhead of the world’s most ancient magic and wisdom – was nothing more than a fraud, the invention of a handful of Greek scholars living in Alexandria at some time in the century after Christ." (1.7)
  • "hundreds of documents inscribed in bizarre codes composed of astrological signs and other chicken-scratchings" (2.2)
  • "Trust, after all, is the mother of deceit." (2.9)
  • "where he urged me to sample a new beverage called ‘rumbullion’, or ‘rum’ for short. It was a hellish fluid that seemed to scald the gullet and cloud the brain." (2.11)
  • "I knew, of course, that greed was essential to a lawyer’s craft," (3.4)
  • "Learning was no longer being used for the improvement of the world: it had become instead the handmaid of prejudice and orthodoxy, and prejudice and orthodoxy the handmaids of slaughter." (Epilogue)

Beautifully written but a disappointing plot.

This review was written by

the author of Motherdarling 

and The Kids of God

Ross King is a brilliant historian of art who has written, among other books: