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

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Love, Simon" by Becky Albertalli

Originally published as Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda,

This is a YA novel set in an American High School and thus comparable to The Fault in Our Stars and, especially, Paper Towns both by John Green.

There is a great hook right at the start. Martin has read Simon's emails to Blue and discovered that Simon, 17, is secretly gay. Martin proceeds to blackmail Simon into setting Martin up on a date with Simon's friend Abby. But Simon has another problem too. He is falling in love, by email, with Blue who, he has deduced, also goes to the school. But he doesn't know who Blue is.

At which point there are a number of scenarios. Blue could be some old pervert tricking Simon into these emails and intending to lure him into a compromising situation and even rape. Blue could be Martin himself, twisting Simon round his little finger, or some other member of the class out to tease and humiliate Simon. Blue could (Simon hopes) be Cal who is stunningly hot.

Simon's other problem, of course, is giving Martin enough for Martin not to expose him. And of course he has to negotiate the pitfalls and perils of teenage sexuality complicated by the need to 'come out' (which means talking about his sex-life with his parents, gross) not to mention all the other problems that a kid at school growing up routinely has.

It's a great little story which twists and turns and keeps you hooked to the very end.

Great lines:
  • People are like houses with big rooms and tiny windows.” (p 18) 
  • The whole point of everything is to find a shore worth swimming to.” (p 18) 
  • My mum was the one who got obsessed with the idea that I had a girlfriend even though I had never had one before. I don't know why that came as such a freaking surprise to her, since I'm pretty sure most people start out never having had one.” (p 55) 
  • It's a little fucked up that teachers think they get to dictate what you think about. It's not enough if you just sit there quietly and let them teach. It's like they think they have a right to control your mind.” (p 108) 
  • Straight people really should have to come out, and the more awkward it is the better.” (p 147) 
  • My dad invented the concept of Simon logic ... it means wishful thinking supported by flimsy evidence.” (p 151) 
  • My heart is a pinball” (p 204) 
  • A couple of the girls put some junk in my hair to make it messy, which is basically like putting high heels on a giraffe.” (p 214)
March 2018; 303 pages

Sunday, 18 March 2018

"The End of Everything" by Megan Abbott

Lizzie and Evie are best friends growing up and experiencing the hormones of puberty that have started to make them see boys as more than nuisances. They share everything. So Lizzie thinks. Till Evie disappears.

Lizzie turns into the key witness. She identifies the car she saw and she knows who drives it, the father of a school friend; he too has disappeared. She finds the cigarettes he smoked as he was stalking Evie. She even breaks into the Shaw house to search for evidence the police haven't found.

Lizzie's amateur sleuthing stretched credibility. Were the police really so stupid firstly to believe Lizzie's often improbable lies which could so easily have been checked and secondly not to be a little more observant of the perpetrator's wife? And could we really believe that a thirteen year old girl, often clad in little more than a tee shirt and knickers, could spend so many nights roaming around a neighbourhood in lockdown after an abduction? Lizzie's mother seems repeatedly negligent and Evie's mother is almost a complete non-entity as is  Mrs Shaw; mature women in this story are faintly drawn to the point of invisibility.

At the same time she is always around Evie's house, comforting her father in a relationship which, from Lizzie's point of view although she does not necessarily recognise it, is swiftly developing into love. And there is the complicating factor of Evie's elder sister Dusty, the one that all the teenage boyts adore, the one who ought to be abducted if anyone is.

Told from Lizzie's point of view this is an interesting exploration of the love between young girls and older men. Lizzie's feelings were intense and sometimes slightly repetitive but always kept away from melodrama. The feelings of the other characters, which the narrator had to surmise from their words and actions, sometimes reaching different conclusions from the immature protagonist, were drawn with deftness and subtlety. At the end the precise natures of the relationships between Dusty and Evie and their father, and the feelings of Evie's dad for Lizzie, are always open to alternative interpretations.

  • "We were that close. Sometimes we blinked in time." (p 27)
  • "It felt like she knew her own zig-zagging heart, and I was just killing time." (p 27)
  • "An old velvet poster that said 'Mott the Hoople', which I always thought was a Dr Seuss book." (p 70)
  • "The awkward slouch of boys who grew so fast they themselves seemed bewildered by it, faintly dazed in their own skin." (p 73)
  • "You can't ever know anyone's private darkness." (p 148)
A haunting exploration of the feelings of a newly pubescent girl. March 2018; 246 pages

Thursday, 15 March 2018

"The Snow Kimono" by Mark Henshaw

A retired Parisian police inspector, Jovert, meets the retired Japanese professor who lives in the room underneath, Tadashi Omura. This man tells him about the daughter who was never his but whom he raised, the daughter who went off to meet her father when her father was released from jail. The father, once a brilliant novelist Katsuo, was Omura's childhood friend. And Omura tells of their lives and of the women Katsuo loved. It all got rather complicated.

And at the same time Jovert has been contacted by a woman claiming to be his daughter, born to him in Algeria after he had left the country, where he did secret work during the time of French colonial rule. And there are a number of women who impinge on Jovert's life.

All these stories are woven together like a Japanese jigsaw. "They are the so-called himitsu-e puzzles, puzzles so cunningly made that they either have an infinite number of solutions or solutions which are mutually contradictory." (p 44) This tapestry made with simple threads of haiku-like simplicity.

Of English jigsaw puzzles:

  • "No matter where you start ... you always end up in the same place. And you always know beforehand." (p 46)
  • "There's another way of looking at it ... it doesn't matter where you start, if you keep going, you will always find completion. What is important is that you start." (p 46)

Other memorable lines:

  • "If you want power over people, you have to go inside them, find out what they are afraid of. Be them." (pp 84 - 85)
  • "You-are-just-a-footnote, he said. A footnote. To-my-life. You-are-a-nothing, a zero, a meaningless cipher. He spat the words out. You're what happens when history blinks. Don't you see? You don't exist. Except as a function of me." (p 145)
  • "How many times have they sat on the terrace at night looking down at the jewelled city, or in the darkness of the lit garden, listening to the frogs, the slow tock, tock, tock of the water clock, the strings of a shamisen?" (p 192) I love the contradiction in the darkness of the lit garden.

A strange but compelling story. March 2018; 400 pages

Sunday, 11 March 2018

"Generation X" by Douglas Coupland

Belated teenage angst is to the fore in these three characters: Dag, Andy and Claire, who live in bungalows around a swimming pool in Palm Springs, California, paying the bills by tending bar. They could have been yuppies but they have turned their backs on all that for the sake of authenticity. And their parents don't understand them.

Three twenty somethings have dropped out of “The endless stream of pointless jobs done grudgingly to little applause" (p 14) to tend bar and live in a Californian bungalow with a swimming pool. The problem is that their previous lives were meaningless but there isn't a lot more meaning in this one. They hate their consumerist society but they love the good things that money brings: "I sat there and babbled and ate the food, which, I must say, was truly delicious: a celery root remoulade and John Dory fish in Pernod sauce.

Perhaps it was intended to be a Decameron: posh people fleeing from the plague of consumerist nihilism tell stories to one another in the desert. But who wants to listen to the whinges of the spoiled?

I felt:
  • (a) they were a bit old for teenage angst
  • (b) they were fake and false and spoiled! (I sound so old!!!!) 
It is as if life isn't worth living but she is still going to floss.

It was all just a little bit too comfortable. They are not struggling to make ends meet; Andy flies home for Christmas. They work and they party. Perhaps this is a pattern in American tales of troubled youngsters. Holden Caulfield, a genuine teenager in The Catcher in the Rye, might be lonely and depressed and haunted by the sense that everything is false but he goes to private school, stays in a hotel in New York, rides around in cabs, goes to restaurants. Suicidal Conrad Jarrett in Ordinary People has a rich lawyer father who gives him a car for his birthday. Perhaps only rich Americans have the time to spare for angst.

There were many moments of beautiful writing (“This is the same sun that makes me think of regal tangerines and dimwitted butterflies and lazy carp. And the ecstatic drops of pomegranate blood seeping from skin fissures of fruits rotting on the tree branch next door - drops that hang like rubies.”, p 10) and many more moments that really made you think:
  • Most of us only have two or three genuinely interesting moments in our lives, the rest is filler, and that at the end of our lives, most of us will be lucky if any of those moments connect together to form a story that anyone would find remotely interesting.” (p 29)
  • Marketing is essentially about feeding the poop back to diners fast enough to make them think they’re still getting real food. It’s not creation, really, but theft, and no one ever feels good about stealing.” (p 33)
  • After you’re dead and buried and floating around whatever place we go to, what’s going to be your best memory of Earth? ... What’s your takeaway?”(p 104)
  • I had a quick Scotch to grab a buzz.” (p 115)
  • My friends are all either married, boring, and depressed; single, bored , and depressed; or moved out of town to avoid boredom and depression.” (p 166)
  • When someone tells you they’ve just bought a house, they might as well tell you they no longer have a personality.” (p 166)
  • The only times I’ll ever get” (p 175)
  • We’re all lapdogs; I just happen to know who’s petting me.” (p 185)
  • But hey - if more people like you choose not to play the game, it’s easier for people like me to win.” (p 185)
It made me long for the days when Americans really dropped out, like the works of the immortal Jack Kerouac (On the Road etc)

But the best thing about it was at the bottom of every page there was either a bumper-sticker style slogan or a definition of a Generation X word such as “Hyperkarma: A deeply rooted belief that punishment will somehow always be far greater than the crime.

Many thanks to Danny and Mary who bought me this book as a gift.

March 2018; 208 pages

Thursday, 8 March 2018

"The Secret Scripture" by Sebastian Barry

I have recently read Barry's Days Without End and so enjoyed it that I wanted to read another by the same author. This came highly recommended and was the Costa Book of the Year in 2008. It has the same structure: a rather rambling account of the vicissitudes of a life; just as you think you're going nowhere all the threads begin to come together and there is an exciting climax. And it has moments of exquisitely beautiful prose in which he encapsulates ideas and images with startling originality:

  • "We are not wolves, but lambs astonished in the margins of the fields by sunlight and summer.
  • "She was like a painting with its varnish darkening, obscuring the beauty of the work."
  • "I will be like a sparrow without a garden.” 
  • Grief "is a voyage to the centre of the earth, a huge heavy machine boring down into the crust of the earth. And a little man growing wild at the controls. Terrified, terrified, and no turning back."

Lines such as these make me breathless with wonder.

Roseanne, once the most beautiful girl in Sligo, is one hundred years old and still with all her marbles and living in a decaying asylum in Roscommon. Dr Grene is the psychiatrist in charge and it is his responsibility to decide what is to happen to her: the asylum is closing down and the inmates are either moving to a brand new facility or being freed into the community with varying degrees of support. Dr Grene is further concerned that Roseanne's original incarceration might have been for reasons that nowadays no longer qualify as lunacy. There is a strong suspicion that she was locked up for her loose morals.

The narrative alternates between the autobiography that Roseanne is writing and hiding beneath her floorboards and Dr Grene's diary. The main thrust of the story, interrupted by Dr Grene's witterings, is Roseanne's life from being the daughter of the Sligo grave digger through to her marriage and beyond until she is admitted to the Sligo Mad House. The men in Roseanne's life include Presbyterians and Catholics, priests and policemen, and every shade of political opinion in an Ireland experiencing the civil war just after the Free State won independence from Britain, the backlash after the civil war as the de Valera government asserted control, the hard economic conditions and the fascist movements of the thirties and the neutrality of the Second World War. In many ways the turbulence of Roseanne's life mirrors the political turbulence of the young nation.

The prose can be awe-inspiring and insightful. This is from the first page:
That place where I was born was a cold town. Even the mountains stood away. They were not sure, no more than me, of that dark spot, those same mountains.
There was a black river that flowed through the town, and if it had no grace for mortal beings, it did for swans, and many swans resorted there, and even rode the river like some kind of plunging animals, in floods.
The river also took the rubbish down to the sea, and bits of things that were once owned by people and pulled from the banks, and bodies too, if rarely, ohl and poor babies, that were embarrassments, the odd time. The speed and depth of the river would have been a great friend to secrecy.
(p 3)
What a start!

More moments of brilliance:
  • I was not indifferent to the boys ... I seem to remember thinking a sort of music rose from them, a sort of human noise that I did not understand. How I heard music arising from such rough forms I do not know at this distance. But such is the magicianship of girls, that they can transform mere clay into large and classic ideas.” (p 36) 
  • Such a small, clean man when crossed was like a scything blade, the grass, the brambles and the stalks of human nature went down before him.” (p 38)
  • As time goes on, as I am slowly like everyone else worn out, finding a tatter here and a tear there in the cloth of myself, I need this place more and more.” (p 46)
  • The trust of those in dark need is forgiving work” (p 46)
  • In a few years I will reach retirement age, and what then? I will be like a sparrow without a garden.” (p 46) 
  • For the life of me I did not know the soul of the person that stared back at me in my mother's mossy little mirror.” (p 57)
  • the devil's own tragedy is he is the author of nothing and architect of empty spaces.” (p 63)
  • She was like a painting with its varnish darkening, obscuring the beauty of the work.” (p 68)
  • A beard on a man is only a way of hiding something, his face of course. but also the inner matters, like a hedge around a secret garden, or a cover over a birdcage.” (p 102)
  • It is always worth itemising happiness, There is so much of the other thing in a life, you had better put down the markers for happiness while you can.” (p 148)
  • There are pits of grief obviously that only the grieving know. It is a voyage to the centre of the earth, a huge heavy machine boring down into the crust of the earth. And a little man growing wild at the controls. Terrified, terrified, and no turning back.” (p 172) 
  • We bury or burn the dead because we want to separate their corporeality from our love and remembrance. We do not want them after death to be still in their bedrooms, we want to hold an image of them living, in the full life in our minds.” (p 175)
  • We are never old to ourselves. This is because at close of day the ship we sail in is the soul, not the body.” (p 185)
  • The world is not full of betrayers, it is full of people with decent motives and a full desire to do right by those who know them and love them. ... We are not wolves, but lambs astonished in the margins of the fields by sunlight and summer.” (p 186)
  • “I once lived among humankind, and found them in the generality to be cruel and cold, and yet could mention the names of three or four that were like angels.” (p 277)
  • Is not most history written in a sort of wayward sincerity?” (p 289)
March 2018; 303 pages

Saturday, 3 March 2018

"Periplous" by Lesley Saunders

This is a single poem in twelve linked sections. It is poetic recreation of the lost account of the Greek explorer Pytheas from Marseilles who supposedly circumnavigated the British Isles in c325 BCE.

A periplous is a sort of navigational log which lists the landmarks and safe anchorages so that subsequent sailors can find their way.

Each section has five stanzas; each stanza contains six lines of indeterminate syllable count and no discernible rhyming scheme. There is a final single line at the end of the poem which (I think) links with the theme of the next section.

The punctuation is as prose. There are no capitals at the start of the line unless it coincides with the start of a sentence. There is plenty of enjambment, including running the sentence on to the next stanza.

The poet seems to rely on juxtaposing images. One moment we are talking about "a woman washing/ another woman's hair in a pail" and the next "the psychogeography of rapefields/ and scythe-wheeled clearings".  In the section about Slavery we have a list of "POWs from Scythia Phrygia Lydia/ Syria Illyria", slavery in the classical world, and then we jump to "Ghana Guinea Benin" African slavery. In "Imagining Albion" we leap from the Greek philosophers Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes to a British twentieth century seaside resort.

She also mixes in sources from here, there and everywhere. Her three wrecked ships are the vessel that perhaps inspired Shakespeare's Tempest to the ship in Moby-Dick to one of Vasco da Gama's ships. So fact and fiction, muddled. She takes snippets of Latin poetry and Greek poetry and Portuguese songs and a Carol King song and Sloop John B and lines from an Anglo-Saxon poem ... If the source is originally written in a foreign language she preserves that. At least she usually gives the translation in the Notes. It reads like an attempt to rewrite The Waste Land

Regular readers of this blog know how this infuriates me. I think writing, whether prose or poetry, should be an attempt to communicate with the reader, not a display of the writer's erudition. There were a lot of things I had to look up when I was reading this poem.

Lines I liked:
... the candle-end

of a soul. I wept then
for the spent match of my life.

A reference to slaves as "floggable goods

Out there alone, I swam alone,

no friends, lovers,
it felt as if I were part of the ocean.” 

... little despot-god

of rainbows and tsunamis
Let’s make a songbook of the drowned

The last line is
O did you ever see a wild goose sailin’ o’er the sea” 
Which is, I suppose, the poet teasing us that we have been on a wild goose chase.

Hard work.

March 2018; 29 pages

Friday, 2 March 2018

"The Seagull" by Ann Cleves

A disgraced, imprisoned ex-detective superintendent tells detective inspector Vera about a buried body. Vera and her team start to uncover the shady past of The Seagull, once Whitley Bay's premier nightclub, and the dodgy pasts of those associated with her, including Vera's own father and the mysterious man they called 'The Prof'.

Prostitutes, prisoners and property developers. A page-turner of a police procedural crime novel set in the North East of England and featuring Vera Stanhope.

Great line:

  • "The sunrise made an orange path over the water towards them." (p 112)

March 2018; 397 pages