About Me

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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Thursday, 20 February 2014

"The Attenbury Emeralds" by Jill Paton Walsh

I used to lover the Lord Peter Wimsey stories of Dorothy L Sayers so when  I learned that respected children's author Jill Paton Walsh had continued the series I jumped to read them.

At the start of this book the ageing Lord Peter tells his wife Harriet about his first case. It is 1921, Lord Peter is suffering from shell shock and faithful manservant Bunter decides that a gentle house party (with no shooting!) would be good for him. But (in a homage to the Moonstone by Wilkie Collins) a mysterious Indian has designs on a large emerald owned by the family which has a mysterious inscription on its back. Lord Peter explains how he solved the case.

Back in 1951 the emeralds rear their ugly head again. Somehow two nearly identical emeralds have been switched. Peter delves back into the history of the appearances of these gems: every time they come out of the bank there is some drama and often somebody dies. Who is the serial murderer and what is their motive? Can anyone seriously have planned a crime that takes place over thirty years?

Whilst all this is going on we learn, in the best traditions of fan fiction, how the characters have developed since we saw them last. The great thing about Sayers' books is that they form an unbroken narrative from the early days of Lord Peter through to his wooing and marriage of Harriet. Now Walsh updates us on the kids. Dramatic things also happen to the family: Lord St George has been killed in the War leaving the Duke of Denver without an heir of his body: Peter is the next in line. Denver's wife, the Duchess, is unspeakably snobbish about low-born Harriet and the Dowager Duchess, Peter's mother, is wonderfully loquacious, her stream of consciousness full of joyous misuses. We meet other firm favourites from the past including Freddy Arbuthnot and Charles Parker who was a sergeant in 1921 (who read Origen), married Peter's sister and is now a Commander of Scotland Yard.

Paton Walsh has done all this admirably; I scarcely noticed the join. There are other moments when I could enjoy her craft: I especially loved the two cockney sisters who had an understated but characteristic grammatical style of their type.

What I didn't like was the plot! You may argue that some of the original plots were massively far-fetched but this one was especially difficult to believe in and the solution and the villain were not especially credible.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book, galloping through it in a couple of days, and I am looking forward to reading the next.

February 2014; 338 pages

Also read The Late Scholar

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

"The Plantagenets" by Dan Jones

This is the history of the kings of England from Henry II (although it actually starts with a sort of prologue explaining how Henry I's son was killed in the wreck of the White Ship and how this led to anarchy as Stephen and Matilda tussled to stalemate for supremacy) up to Richard II. The essential theme is that the Plantagenet kings were at their greatest when they ruled England as the embodiment of law and at their weakest and most corrupt when they subverted law for their own profits. Thus John (with Magna Carta), Henry III (with the early Parliaments of Simon de Montfort), Edward II (deposed by Roger Mortimer and Richard II (deposed by Henry Bolingbroke were all bad kings.

To be honest, this does not reflect well on royalty. For every good king (Henry II, Edward I although his wars bankrupted his son, Edward III until he went senile) there was at least one bad king.

Another perspective on this history which Dan Jones does not really explore is that this period was throughout a tussle between the barons and the king. At the start of the period the rules of inheritance were less obvious than they are now. Thus, of the Norman kings, William was a bastard, William Rufus was a second son (and Henry I his younger brother) and Stephen was elected King over Henry's daughter Matilda. And if the king could be chosen rather than merely born then he could be deposed.

And the big problem facing all these kings was how to finance the almost continual wars they had to fight. They needed to persuade people to pay tax. Much of the growth of parliamentary representation came because the barons and later the commons demanded concessions in return for their cash.

Another theme is the regular appeals of the Kings, especially when being crowned, to the pre-Norman past. Edward the Confessor was seen as a golden age and the new kings would regularly offer charters which referred to this Saxon past.

This book is a spirited romp through 246 years. At 600 pages it is just over 2 pages a year. It cannot be other than a skim of the surface. Thus it was not really the book for me because I have read much about this period (including biographies of Edward I, and Roger Mortimer and Dan Jones' own account of the Peasants' Revolt). It is also probably too long for a casual reader who merely wants the briefest overview to the subject. In some ways a book like this has been overtaken by wikipedia in which you can start with a story and pursue it according to your own interests. Nevertheless it is well written and enjoyable.

February 2014; 601 pages

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

"The Snow Child" by Eowyn Ivey

In 1920s Alaska, an ageing farmer and his barren wife are struggling to survive the long winter on their farmstead. They are beginning to despair. Then they make a snow girl and encounter a real girl who lives out in the snow. Is she a real child or is she a fairy they have conjured up? And what will happen when their neighbour's son falls in love with her?

This is a weird fairy tale which never quite decides whether reality or magic is in charge. But it comes alive in the three dimensionality of the characters and in their contradictory and mutating responses to the snow child. And it becomes wonderful in the breath-taking descriptions of Alaska: "The sun had slipped behind a mountain, and the light had fallen flat .... the flutter of moth wings on glass ... and the way dawn threw itself across the cow pond." It becomes wonderful in the compassionate treatment of childlessness and in the understanding of the hopes and fears of an ageing man pitted against an unforgiving landscape, uncertain whether he will have the strength, the power and the endurance to survive. Even faced with disaster, the couple bicker because they are too proud to admit defeat or to ask for help; sometimes too proud to be gracious when they cannot avoid being helped. And it reaches perfection in the response of the man who is not a father to the possible dishonouring of the woman who is not a daughter.

A beautiful book. February 2014; 404 pages

Sunday, 9 February 2014

"Tender is the night" by F Scott Fitzgerald


"Tender is the night, and haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne" wrote Keats in his Ode to a Nightingale. But who in Fitzgerald's complex novel is the nightingale who "wast not born for death"?

Is it the hero, the intriguingly-named Dick Diver (Fitzgerald has quite a lot of sometimes crude phallic imagery), who is the master of ceremonies and trend-setter at the Riviera beach in the opening scenes but whose infatuation with film starlet Rosemary Hoyt (who starred in Daddy's girl and is contractually and temperamentally unable to grow up) and the cares and worries imposed by looking after his wife Nicole (who is schizophrenic as the result of her father raping her when she was a little girl)  lead to his problems with alcohol, his eventual social death and final disappearance? Certainly Dick is the only who who seems to grow old in the novel. And so Dick represents the real world while the bright young things frolic in France.

Perhaps Dick is also Fitzgerald himself, worn down with his care of Zelda, and unable to fulfil the promise of his early work (Dick writers a medical text book as a young man which is a big hit but his muse deserts him and his work becomes an endless rearrangement of his first magnum opus).

If this is Dick's tragedy and he is the tragic hero, where did it all go wrong? His sin was, as a psychiatrist, to fall in love with a patient. As a father figure this is another reiteration of the incest theme. Does he have a tragic flaw? Perhaps it is that he allows himself to be bought too easily. There is a moment, in Paris, when he appears to have money troubles: he has to find the right bank teller to cash his cheque. But he seems to live his charmed and gilded life off his wife's money although Fitzgerald seems clear that this was not what prompted him to marry her. 

Did I enjoy the book? I found it difficult. It starts with meaningless people leading meaningless lives on a beach in the South of France (bizarrely, there is a duel fought) and then it moves to Paris where Rosemary, the perpetually reinvented virgin, throws herself at Dick and where there are two unexpected murders. The book then flashbacks to Dick meeting Nicole and rushes forward to their life after the South of France; Dick pursues Rosemary and ends up in jail. In part three Dick, urged on by Nicole, makes an appalling social gaffe, bribes two women out of a French jail, and becomes old. Since the society has no use for an old man he is thrown aside.

I adored the way Fitzgerald weaves colour into the narrative. On page 1 he mentions rose, pink, cream, purple, blue and pink again. The Riviera sea is described as agate, cornelian , green, blue and, in an obvious tribute to Homer, wine-dark. 

I was a little disappointed when I discovered that Dick "stripped off his clothes and dove literally into a heavy sleep" but perhaps this is the first use of the word literally to not mean literally. There are also clear moments of racism typical of the period when the book was written: "No mature Aryan is able to profit by a humiliation" for example. And Dick refuses to treat a homosexual although there seems to be an implicit assumption that homosexuality is a mental disease.

'Tender is the night' is a mature novel with a fascinating character at the heart of it but I found it neither a page-turner nor a great read. 

February 2014; 338 pages

Also reviewed on this blog:
Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon: still enigmatic but a little more straightforward; unfinished alas