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

Sunday, 30 March 2014

"The secret speech" by Tom Rob Smith

This is the second of the Leo Demidov trilogy about a former MGB officer in Moscow as Stalin's regime gives way to Khruschev. The title refers to the 'secret' speech given by Khruschev at which he denounced the state security systems for their brutal repressions under Stalin. At the start of the novel these are being distributed to former agents who either then kill themselves from remorse or from fear of what their neighbours will say or who are killed. This is a promising beginning: it offers the opportunity for menace to stalk the city in an atmosphere of moral ambiguity. Leo is, after all, the head of the Homicide Division and unbelievably good at his job, diagnosing that an apparent murder was a concealed suicide within a few minutes of seeing the body. Alas, any pretence at a whodunnit is swiftly abandoned as the Homicide Division is dissolved and the killer reveals herself by kidnapping Leo's adopted daughter in revenge for wrongs done to her by Leo in the past. The story turns into a thriller. Leo must travel to the Hungarian uprising via a prison ship and a Gulag in order to retrieve his daughter who has undergone a Patty Hearst style conversion and fallen for a young pickpocket.

This book has clearly been written with the intention of turning it into an action thriller film. Unfortunately it would be the sort of film that millions watch and I hate. A great deal of action is packed in: the story moves on relentlessly. Tank shells explode all around Leo and his family. Lesser characters are killed off with minimal grieving. Few scenes last longer than a few pages; some moments of potentially high drama last no more than a paragraph.

The characters are mostly shallow and unbelievable. The relationship between the boy who grew up as a pickpocket and became a thriller and the rebellious teenage girl is ludicrous. The transformation of the meek wife of a priest into a hardened manipulative criminal gang leader is justified by suggesting that she became embittered in the gulags. I just don't believe any of it.

Thrill-a-minute action with minimal depth. March 2014, 449 pages

Saturday, 29 March 2014

"Dedicated to..." by W. B. Gooderham

Mr Gooderham buys second hand books. Some of these have fly leaf inscriptions. Some of these he has recorded in this unusual little book. Thus Oscar Wilde's 'Ballad of Reading Gaol' was given to Mo in May 2005 and the donor, Claudia, has written: "Sometimes 'only when it is dark can you see the stars'." 'A Book of Surrealist Games' given to Ted is inscribed "My period is 3 days late." On Valentine's Day 1976, Ben explained that his gift of 'Papillon' "is not a text book of how to get out of the wedding." And Dad writes in the front of 'Bawdy Ballads' "Mum says it is disgusting: I say it may encourage you to learn the piano."

My favourite is the dedication in Jean-Paul Sartre's 'Words' (which quotes him on its cover as saying "I loathe my childhood and all that remains of it") which is "To Mummy".

A delightfully quirky little book. March 2014; 181 pages.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

"Fidel and Che: a revolutionary friendship" by Simon Reid-Henry

Fred gave me this hardback. It felt heavy and looked really dry. I put off reading it for a couple of weeks. I picked it up with the feeling that I was going to have to push myself.

But Che Guevara is such a romantic figure and Reid-Henry writes so well that I really enjoyed this book. From his youth motorbiking and hitch-hiking around South America to fighting as a guerilla in the Cuban Sierra the story rattled along. And it bounced backwards and forwards to the story of Fidel Castro who, if not so good-looking and less exciting still packed an awful lot into his early years staging an attempted coup, being imprisoned, seeking exile in Mexico and then leading the small group of men on a leaky boat who were almost wiped out on landing in Cuba but went on to defeat an army.

The book falters slightly in the early days of the new Cuban regime. It's difficult to thrill when describing the manoeuvrings of politicians although there is a fascinating narrative in the story of how the US repeatedly pushed the Cubans into the arms of the USSR despite the Cubans feeling terribly betrayed when Khrushchev backed down to Kennedy during the Missile Crisis. But the tale picks up again when Che, desperate to foment world revolution by repeating his Cuban guerilla success abroad, disappears from the Cuban stage. Rumours abound. Is he dead? Has he been put away by Castro? In fact he is fighting anonymously in the Congo from which he barely escapes with his life. After having hidden in the Cuban embassy in Tanzania for some time he then returns to Cuba briefly to move on to try his luck again in Bolivia. Another failure awaits him and he is finally captured and executed.

This book is a brilliant exploration of the enduring friendship of two different but very complimentary men. It is unlikely that either would have achieved all that they did without the other and the fact that they split at the end does not mean that they stopped being friends. Rather, Fidel supported Che in pursuing his dreams abroad. The difference was that Che was the idealist (which caused difficulties and tensions when they were finally in government together) and Fidel was the pragmatic politician, shucking and jiving to stay in power.

There is one brilliant photograph of the pair together in a Mexican prison before they set out to invade Cuba. Reid-Henry says it is the first photograph of the pair together. The unbearded Fidel is buttoning up his jacket; he looks rather like a natty dresser. Che stands to the side. He is topless with his hands behind his back; his trousers are undone at the top and the belt is undone. It looks for all the world as if Fidel is dressing after having enjoyed a rent boy. But what is stunning is how young Che looks. He too is clean shaven and his hair is quite short; he is no more than a handsome boy. He is 28. He looks 17. Within three years this pair will be the leaders of Cuba.

The book stops with Che's death before his fortieth birthday. The friendship is finished although Castro and Cuba continued to honour Ernesto Guevara.

I thoroughly enjoyed this revealing and well written joint biography of two fascinating men. March 2014; 382 pages

Saturday, 15 March 2014

"Child 44" by Tom Rob Smith

This thriller has sold over 1.5 million copies and has been shortlisted for or won over 20 awards. The cover proudly proclaims that it is NPR's (I understand that this is the National Public Radio network of the US) top 100 thrillers of all time.

Why?

The book starts with young Pavel and his younger brother Andrei hunting a cat in a Ukrainian forest to try to keep themselves from starving.

Twenty years later Leo is a war hero and an officer in Stalin's feared MGB. His job is to 'investigate' denunciations which really means to arrest suspects, arrange torture to extract confessions and arrange for their imprisonment or execution. The system must be perfect which means that once a man is denounced he must be guilty. This is the perfect system for Leo's jealous underling, Vasily, to win promotion by denouncing his boss's wife. Demoted and sent away from Moscow, Leo and his wife start to investigate a series of child murders.

Thus this book is set in the paranoid last days of the Stalin regime (and the Beria regime after his death and the early days of the Khruschev regime after Kruschev's coup) and there is a lot of backbiting and betrayal but somehow I never felt the atmosphere of the novel recreated the sense of paranoia and suspicion and mistrust and general darkness that there must have been. 'Nobody can be trusted' is therefore more useful as a plot device that an ethos. Equally, Leo and his wife fall out because his job entails arresting, torturing and executing mostly innocent people but you don't get the feeling that this is a major flaw in his own character.

The plot is standard. It is not a whodunnit in any sense of the word: there are no clever deductions by the detective: he works out, long after the reader, that the killer of many children in different towns often near railway tracks must be a man who has access to travel. All he then has to do is to work our which two factories regularly exchange people and scan their personnel files. He's still late. We have been introduced to the killer half way through the book. The odd peculiarities of the killer's MO are never properly explained and even the final twist I anticipated long before it came.

I also hated the writing. The author uses the word 'would've' with distressing frequency, not in a dialogue nor even as characterised POV narration but in the standard author voice.

This is a standard thriller; nothing special. I wish I hadn't bought the whole trilogy!

March 2014; 470 pages

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

"Perfect" by Rachel Joyce

In 1972 Byron lives with his perfect mother and his sister in a lonely house on the moors paid for by Byron's mostly absent banker father. Byron's mum drives him to his posh school in her new Jag. One day, taking a short cut through a run down council estate, there is an accident. And their perfect world, already stressed to breaking point, begins to unravel.

Forty years later Jim, newly released from the closed-down mental asylum, cleans tables in the supermarket cafe. Unless Jim performs his rituals, such as saying hello to everything when he gets home, something terrible will happen and someone will get hurt. The world rests upon Jim's shoulders. He is exhausted.

The two stories dovetail. Jim's mostly meaningless life provides a perfect counterpoint to the story of Byron lurching towards his inevitable doom.

The descriptions are wonderful. The posh world of Byron contrasts beautifully with the tatty world of Jim. The tautness of Byron's mum and her women friends was perfectly portrayed. I found more difficulty with the sordid world of the council estate. But the characters are nicely rounded. Byron's mother has a murky past - she had a show-girl mum - while her nemesis from the council estate is a vicar's daughter who seems to have few scruples about blackmail. Even Byron's dad, the control freak, is allowed a single moment of weakness. But Byron's friend, James Lowe, and his mother Andrea, a very one-dimensional. Worse, I found it difficult to believe in Byron. I couldn't work out his age. At times his naivete, and his young sister, suggested that he was about ten but the maturity of his language, his perception of underlying currents in social situations and the way he took control of situations with adults made him seem adult. At one point he becomes the carer for the family.

There is a twist on page 335. I spotted it coming before page 100. It knits the two narratives together though I found the link contrived.

This book has some wonderful prose and the sense of guilt twisting its knife to compound tragedy is classic. But it didn't quite work for me.

By the author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. March 2014; 361 pages

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

"Stoner" by John Williams

The Sunday Times call this 'The greatest novel you've never read'. Of course this put my back up straight away.

Stoner is a farm boy who goes to University in the early 1900s to study agriculture but is seduced by literature and becomes an assistant professor of English. This is his life. The book begins by telling you that when he dies he is quickly forgotten.

Stoner is the everyman who is a holy innocent, making his way through a world scorns him and does him down. His only weapon is his integrity. As he dies he thinks he is a failure.

In some ways this book reminded me of Herman Hesse's Knulp. Williams seems to suggest that there is a transcendence to everyday life.

It is beautifully written. There are moments of perfect description. The prose is lean and tight but each sentence appears to be just right.

The plot is carefully crafted. The characters shape the world in which they live and are shaped by their interactions with one another. What happens flows inevitably though purposelessly from what has happened.

Is it a tragedy? For the first half of the book,Stoner faces repeated trials. There is a sense of impending doom that makes it harder and harder to read. One can scarcely bear to discover what more pain can be inflicted on this patient stoic. Exactly half way through the book, Stoner's integrity and purpose as a teacher faces its greatest test. Happiness does not really arrive until two thirds of the way through; at the three quarters mark this happiness is inevitably snuffed out. But from this moment things get better, even when he faces his terminal illness.

Is it a great book. Certainly it is almost perfect. I did find it difficult to read quickly, in part because I was constantly expecting more heartache. It wasn't a page turner for me. But I think it is a book I will remember for a long time.

Beautifully crafted. March 2014; 288 pages