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, 31 May 2015

"The Miniaturist" by Jessie Burton

Nella, 18 and from the country, arrives in Amsterdam in October 1686 to move in to the house of her new husband, Johannes Brandt, who is one of the most successful merchants with the East India Company. The strange household is riven by secrets. Marin, sister of Johannes, rules them puritanical prayers and austerity. Johannes is away a lot and reluctant to bed his new wife. He is under pressure to sell a huge amount of sugar belonging to the wife of an ex-friend that he has somehow betrayed. Otto, the black servant, hovers between slave and member of the family; orphaned Cornelia is Queen of spying at the keyholes. Nella is desperately unhappy.

Johannes buys her a dolls' house, a replica of their own house, and Nella commissions a mysterious miniaturist to make models to go into the house. They are delivered by Jack Philips, a stunningly handsome English actor. But then models appear that Nella hasn't ordered. And then the models start to change as tragedies begin to occur.

The book is perfectly plotted with the shocking act of violence that is the twisting point of the story exactly half way through. The first half is dedicated to piling mystery upon mystery and tension upon tension; any light shed only serves to entangle the little family even further onto the edge of peril. In the second half, the tragedies start to cascade and though some of the mysteries are resolved, others are left hanging and on the final page the fate of those who are left is very much undecided.

In some ways the characters are not as full as they might otherwise be. Because of the need to leave so many things unsaid, aspects of character are only hinted at. Dialogue is rarely straightforward and often elliptical. There are hints and shadows; was that creak a footstep of the hall outside or is it just the old house settling into the canal?

The central mystery, of course, is who is the miniaturist? This is from the school of magical realism and the miniaturist is some kind of magician. She has a fully fledged pedigree, at one point we meet her father, but we never see her except i  glimpses as she rounds corners. Is she following the tragedies, using gifts of prophecy to warn Nella? Or is the dolls' house a sinister and malevolent talisman, which causes all the awful things that happen? Is the miniaturist some kind of God, a puppet master? Is she a good God or a wicked one? Or does she just watch, uncaring?

Beautifully researched, perfectly told, this is a great book which deserves to be a classic. May 2015; 424 pages

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

"The naked scientist" by Chris Smith

This is a compilation, or a miscellany, of scientific news and facts. Many of the individual items are very interesting, many of them reflect the latest advances in gene technology. But there are too many of these little bite-sized bits and the arrangement of them holds no pattern that I could discern. As a result the book appears to be cluttered, the scientific equivalent of noise. The nuggets are lost in the flood of new information. This book desperately needed some structure.

May 2015; 309 pages

Monday, 25 May 2015

"Can you forgive her?" by Anthony Trollope

The strange thing about the title of this first of Trollope's six Palliser novels is that it is quite easy to forgive Alice for her oscillating back and forth between two possible husbands (which is what Trollope wants you to forgive in her) but much less easy to forgive her for her hypocritical puritanical prudery. But I am getting ahead of myself.

This story revolves around three women (and Trollope is far better than Dickens at portraying real women).

  • Alice Vavasor can't decide whether to marry goody two shoes John Grey (there is a point at which Alice's father says that he thinks it is John's goodness that irks Kate and I nodded in agreement at this point) or scarred villain (straight out of melodrama) George Vavasor, her wicked cousin. George is busy ruining himself in his ambition to become an MP for a Metropolitan seat; the costs of the election are far beyond his means and he becomes increasingly wicked in his efforts to obtain money.
  • Lady Glencora wanted to marry handsome but impecunious devil Burgo Fitzgerald with whom she was head over heels in love but her important relations pressurised her into marrying dry stick MP Plantagenet Palliser, heir to the Duke of Omnium and a likely candidate to be the next Chancellor of the Exchequer. But Burgo keeps tempting her to run away with him and she is very unhappy in her marriage and contemplating ruining her reputation by becoming Burgo's mistress.
  • Mrs Greenow, Alice's Aunt and a wealthy widow, flirts with Mr Cheesacre, a rich farmer who can never avoid telling everyone how well-to-do he is and penniless and mendacious soldier 'Captain' Bellfield. This story ends differently from the other two and gives the novel a welcome counterpoint of comedy; a lot of humour is wrung from the rivalry of Cheesacre and Bellfield, particularly from the pretensions of the former.


So, the eternal dilemma for all women: bad boy to have fun with or nice boy for security?

This is a very weighty book. 770 pages takes commitment! But Trollope can write some brilliant nuanced characters (apart from Alice who is a pious pain in the posterior). Lady Glencora is a delight as a spoilt little heiress who chatters away endlessly, has tantrums, refuses to like people she dislikes (and tells them to their faces) and just longs to be naughty. I adored the trip with Plantagenet in which she opposes everyhting he proposes, just for the devilment of being awkward. George is a delight as he plans more and more moustache-twirling evil (whilst never straying too far from the paths of credibility) in his desperation to raise money: I particularly love his self-hatred as he is driven into the depths. Mr Palliser is a delight as he gradually becomes more and more human; at the start he has impeccable courtesy, he is dedicated to his politics and he is ridiculously honourable but before the end his sacrifices and sufferings have made him considerate (as opposed to just courteous) and thoughtful. Alice's father, widowed when Alice was a baby, resents having to work in the Court of Chancery signing papers for three days a week during term time for £800 per year (£500 pa is enough for a comfortable private income) but will not relinquish the job for a pension of £400 pa; he dines at his club every night so that Alice seems to have brought herself up. Lady Macleod keeps talking about the 'advantage' of knowing and being even distantly related to the nobility. And Mr Cheesacre, as I have written above, is a most marvellous comic creation.

There are moments of wonderfully dry humour. After Glencora's first trip to a casino, when Mr Palliser was very angry at Alice for allowing her to go, he agrees to accompany her a second time, at which Alice looks at him and says to Lady G: "Perhaps I shall be forgiven when someone sees how difficult it is to manage you."

It is well-plotted too. The first part of the novel is a little slow but once we have got the measure of the characters their intermingled stories keeps things going. There are 40 chapters in each of two volumes and almost every chapter has a neat dramatic arc. And the Greenow/ Cheesacre/ Bellfield comedy leavens the dough considerably. There were certainly moments when I didn't know what was going to happen next and could scarcely wait to find out.

Trollope wrote 47 novels (and other work)!!!! I have read The Warden, first in the Barsetshire tales of clerical sheenanigans, and now this. I enjoyed The Warden and now I very much want to read the rest of the Palliser series. Great fun. May 2015; 770 pages

I have now read and enjoyed the next books in the series:

  • Phineas Finn: a poor Irishman becomes an MP and tries to marry money to support this career
  • The Eustace Diamonds: Scheming, lying minx Lizzie Eustace tries to hang on to her diamonds and trap a second husband; a great female character
  • Phineas Redux: Phineas is tried for murder; Trollope writes his own spoiler and forfeits lots of possible tension.
  • The Prime Minister: Mr Palliser, now the Duke of Omnium, becomes Prime Minister and yet another scoundrel marries yet another gentlewoman; perhaps this book has the greatest rotter but again Trollope forfeits a great deal of tension by resolving the main plot too early.
  • The Duke's Children: Two of Mr Palliser's children threaten to make unsuitable marriages; will the Duke allow them?
But of all the books, Can You Forgive Her? has the best comic scenes.




Sunday, 17 May 2015

Silver: Return to treasure Island" by Andrew Motion

This is the sequel to one of the best adventure yarns ever: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. As such it was always bound to disappoint.

Jim is the son of Jim Hawkins who keeps a pub on the north bank of the Thames estuary. One day, Natty, the daughter of Long John Silver, turns up, takes him to her father and persuades him to steal the map of Treasure Island from his father and to get on a boat organised by her father to find the treasure that was left behind, an enormous cache of bar silver. Which he agrees to do. He feels very guilty about betraying his father and stealing from him but he seems to feel no fear whatsoever in obeying the summons and getting on board a boat with no-one he knows crewed by Captain Beamish.

I found this stretched my credulity too far. It is difficult for a book to redeem itself when one cannot believe in the first act.

When they get to Treasure Island (Natty now disguised as ship's boy Nat which continued to distort credibility) they discover that it is now inhabited. Adventures follow.

When I fist read Treasure Island it gave me nightmares. The secret was the brilliant characters: the smooth talking pirate Long John Silver with his single leg and the ex-buccaneer Billy Bones with his drunken rendering of the Captain Flint pirate song: "Fifteen men on a dead man's chest; Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum." The foolish too-trusting Squire Trelawney and the shrewd Doctor Livesey. The mad maroon Ben Gunn and the superbly sinister Blind Pew. And the adventures! Cross and double cross. Never being sure who was your friend and who your enemy; your life being saved by the arch villain. The reality of a pirate leader's life: deliver the gold or be torn apart by your crew. The threats and the brutality.

There was menace in this book. There were characters. But there was no betrayal. Goodies were goodies and stayed goodies, baddies were likewise constant. In some places there was a whiff of political correctness. The descriptions were beautiful and young Jim is very taken up by the floras and fauna of the island, even when heading into peril on an island of menace. But it really didn't gel.

It ended with as clear a presumption of a sequel as I have ever met, outside those books where they give you the first chapter of the next book as a taster.

Disappointing. May 2015; 404 pages


Friday, 15 May 2015

"Dead man in Deptford" by Anthony Burgess

This was the last novel written by Burgess before his death in 1994. Other great novels by this accomplished novelist include his first, the Malaysian Trilogy, A Clockwork Orange, The four Enderby novels, One Hand Clapping and what I consider to be his masterpiece, Earthly Powers.

This book is a fictionalised account of the life of Christopher Marlowe who wrote the plays Tamburlaine, Faustus, The Jew of Malta and Edward II; there is a suggestion in the book that he collaborated with a young Shakespeare on Henry VI part 1.

It is narrated by a young actor, who is blatantly not present for much of the action but doesn't actually enter much into the action which seems a rather pointless device. It is also written in Elizabethan English, spelt modern-wise in dialogue but Elizabethan-style when quoting written texts (eg the plays); this is sometimes a little difficult to understand (Burgess makes up a language in A Clockwork Orange called Nadsat based on Russian slang which is easier to read than this; my favourite example of an author immersing you in the language of a bygone age is Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd). There is a lot made of the fact that names are flexible, thus Marlowe is often turned into Marley or Merlin.

The life of Kit Marlowe offers a fascinating plot. He was an atheist and sodomite at at time when both of these were capital offences. He wrote world class plays and was an honourable predecessor to Shakespeare. He spied for Francis Walsingham (which might explain how he got away with the sodomy and atheism for so long) and was killed (murdered?) is a brawl in a tavern in Deptford. Burgess turns this is into a classic novel but I think something a little easier to read and slightly faster paced might have been even more exciting.

Nevertheless, every Burgess is a masterpiece. May 2015; 269 pages


Sunday, 10 May 2015

"Lewis Man" by Peter May

This is the second book in a trilogy; I haven't read the first but it seems to stand by itself. There was quite a lot of back story. I hope they weren't spoilers!

A body is discovered in a peat bog on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. At first it is assumed that the body is hundreds if not thousands of years old ... until they discover a tattoo of Elvis. Fin Macleod, retiring from the polis is Edinburgh, returns to his native home on the Isle to discover that the closest DNA match to the body is his first girlfriend's father. Unfortunately, the father, Tormold, has dementia and cannot tell what he knows.

This book is brilliantly evocative of the wet and windy Hebrides and the hardy people who hunker down in bungalows in the face of eternal gales. The people scratch a meagre living in the face of poverty and hardship but in the end they cannot bare to be torn away from the bleak and barren beauty of their land. It is brilliant on dementia: Tormold has little idea of what is happening to him and gets even his closest relatives confused but he has detailed memories of the past (although he rarely voices these aloud, leaving tantalising clues for his daughter). It is wonderful in describing the intermingled relationships in the close-knit community where everyone seems to have slept with everyone else, and betrayed everyone else, and fought everyone else. It is fascinating in its dissection of religion: a single isle can have five different warring Protestant sects. It is haunting in its sense of loss and in its description of the awful things that happened to orphans in Scotland in the not-too-distant past. And it is a pretty good whodunnit too (although I had it worked out about two thirds of the way through and I was a little disappointed at the ending which seemed to reduce a work of powerful literature to a thriller).

Definitely one to read. May 2015; 373 pages

Saturday, 9 May 2015

"The Conquering Family" by Thomas B Costain

This part of a three volume history entitled The Pageant of England tells the story of the Plantagenet Kings from Henry II (though it starts with the civil war between Stephen and Matilda) up to the death of King John.

Costain was a historical novelist and this book was written in 1949; it is very much of its time. The narrative is told in broad strokes with little of the modern historian's care for close examination of alternative sources. It reminded me of A Child's History of England by Charles Dickens: much of the tales it tells serve either a romantic of a moral purpose. He has affectations: low grade priests are regularly referred to as 'shaven-polls' and he loves giving the correct words for parts of armour. But it is a good read.

A more historical account of these times (and a deeper and more fulfilling need even if it does 300 years in 600 pages) might be found in The Plantagenets by Dan Jones.

May 2015; 344 pages

Sunday, 3 May 2015

"The Plague" by Albert Camus

A doctor in the Algerian city of Oran notices rats dying in the streets. Before too long, he and his colleagues are recording mysterious deaths. When the authorities realise that there is bubonic plague in town they seal off the city. Immediately, people are cut off from their loved ones, the doctor from his wife who is being treated for TB in a sanatorium; the only communication allowed being the telegram. And in the sealed off city, the death toll rises.

The reactions of the doomed inhabitants is recorded faithfully (not so faithful is the medical details; by the time of the setting it was known that bubonic plague isn't spread from person to person so quarantine is unnecessary and there were reasonably effective anti-plague serums). The narrative concentrates on a small group of acquaintances:

  • Dr Rieux who keeps plugging away at his job despite that he never heals anyone and the prophylactic measures he applies are of doubtful use;
  • Cottard who attempts suicide before the plague strikes but then flourishes on the fringes of the black market and the people smuggling trade;
  • Rambert who spends much of his time trying to find a way to escape the city;
  • Grand the clerk who has been repeatedly denied promotion and whose hobby is to write a novel whose first sentence he endlessly repolishes;
  • Tarrou who is the secular conscience of the group;
  • Father Paneloux the priest who, in a hell-raising sermon, tells the people that the plague is punishment for their sins (he likens the city to Sodom) although he dilutes this later after watching an 'innocent' ten year old boy dies

and there are a host of thoroughly believable minor characters as well. Although there are no Arabs. None at all. They don't even die.

Camus has a brilliant dead-pan style. He writes journalism although the point is to explore morality.  The full horror of the pestilence is given through the small details: the cinemas are full although they only have the same films which they show again and again; prison warders who die are recommended for the military medal but the military authorities object so a plague medal is proposed instead but it doesn't work because it is too easy to get. And I loved the explanation of the various ways in which a bureaucrat can say no.

This is a beautifully written and thought-provoking novel. But why no Arabs?