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, 24 June 2012

"Second honeymoon" by Joanna Trollope

When actress Edie's last child leaves home she gets a dose of empty nest blues. On the other hand, husband Russell (a theatrical agent) looks forward to discovering his wife again. So when his daughter Rosa gets the sack and finds herself in debt and asks to come home he says no. Then elder son Matt breaks up with high-powered business woman girlfriend Ruth and returns home, Edie gets cast in an Ibsen play and offers her son on stage a room in her house and soon the house is full again. But a house full of resentful rent-paying adults isn't quite as comfortable as a family home and tensions rise.

Essentially a well written Mills and Boon saga without the muscles and heaving bosoms and with one or two of the characters nicely drawn. It lacks depth but it certainly kept me turning the pages.

June 2012; 382 pages

Sunday, 17 June 2012

"Single and Single" by John Le Carre

John Le Carre's latest book starts with an English lawyer being shot dead on a Turkish hillside. It cuts to adivorced children's entertainer in a depressing seaside town. Linking these two is the private bank of Single & Single whose proprietor, Tiger Single, launders money and does dodgy development deals with Russian, Polish, Turkish and Georgian gangsters. Meanwhile British customs hunts the Hydra, the corrupt organisation at the heart of the British establishment.

This is Le Carre's stylish answer to what happens to the spy novel when the Cold War ends. Harking back to his classic work, Single turns pages.

June 2012; 335 pages

"The monk and the hangman's daughter" by Ambrose Bierce

This novella purports to be a rewrite of a translation from a German original which allows Bierce to create an archaic romantic tale. Told in journal form in the first person by a young monk who has been sent into remote mountains to test his vocation before ordination as a priest. Here he meets a hangman's daughter. She is shunned by the community and by the church (she is not allowed to be baptised) because of her parentage. He champions her to the point of tragedy.

It is one of those books where the reader is one step ahead of the narrator. Thus we realise that the monk has carnal desires for the girl before he does.

The story also allows Bierce to subtly criticise religion. We are outraged with the monk that the church has cast out the girl even when she has no sin (and there is a scene where she is wrongly punished). There are also sly digs: at the end of the first chapter the monk says that the Lutherans believe that faith can move mountains but, looking at the mountains he is about to climb and from the perspective of a Roamn Catholic, "I greatly doubt it." Later, when climbing the mountains, he doubts the belief that the Lord has a purpose for everything since stones "are a blessing to neither man nor beast".

Although the structure of the book is transparent and we are always several jumps ahead of the narrative (except right at the end when Bierce plays with your expectations about the identity of the victim) this is a charming little book and well worth the very little time it takes to read.

June 2012; 93 pages

Friday, 15 June 2012

"Death of Kings" by Bernard Cornwell

This historical novel is set in the last year of Alfred the Great's reign and the year after that. The Danes of the North are ready to invade Wessex as soon as Alfred pops his clogs. Alfred's brother's son is ready to challenge Alfred's son for the throne of Wessex. The Ealdorman of Cent wants to be King of Cent rather than Alfred's son Edward. The Mercians want Mercia to be independent of Wessex. And into all this steps Uhtred of Bamburgh, a pagan Saxon born in Northumbria but fighting for Alfred, lord of a poor manor near Buckingham in the part of Mercia the Saxons hold.

Uhtred journeys down the Ouse past Bedford to fight the Danes at St Neots. Then he travels to meet a prophetess and burn Danish long ships in Nottingham. He is a sort of Dark Age James Bond, fighting the Danes and protecting the Saxons, even though they don't much care for him. I didn't like him very much either, he is casually brutal, hanging prisoners without a thought, and he has sex with any women he wants although love is reserved for the King's daughter (much to the annoyance of her husband). He has about as muh three dimensionality as James Bond too; he kills and he fucks, he has no personality.

And the plot is complicated by the fat that every other Saxon is called Aethel-something. There is almost too much history and insufficient wonder.

A decent yarn but lacking in depth.

June 2012; 335 pages

Friday, 8 June 2012

"The Black Spider" by Jeremias Gotthelf

This bucolic allegory was written by a Bernese pastor. A charming rural farming community are celebrating a baptism. Much is made of the celebration: it revolves around multiple meals of vast proportions and everyone politely urging everyone else to gluttony. At considerable length, after lunch, the grandfather tells a tale of the village in mediaeval times when the peasantry were oppressed by the knights in the castle on the hill. Impossible demands led them to despair and then to making a pact with the devil. But then they try to trick the devil out of his side of the bargain (an unbaptised child) and he visits a spidery scourge upon them.

This novella is flawed in two ways. Morally it is horrible that so many people should die as a result of one person making an agreement with the devil, especially when that person was under tremendous pressure. Admittedly the rest of the village (except the priest, who also died, but his was a good death) went along with the satanic bargain but the multiple death sentence seems vastly out of proportion even for a smug Vistorian pastor. The second flaw is literary. Apart from the jolly godmother who is repeatedly obliged to eat more than she professes to want and is deadly scared of forgetting the baptismal name all the other characters are two dimensional goodies or baddies with nothing to round them.

Very much a book of two halves, the beautifully observed christening (which has no function in the narrative) and a straightforward folk tale of devilry.

June 2012; 109 pages

Thursday, 7 June 2012

"The state of Africa" by Martin Meredith

This is a comprehensive study of Africa since independence. It travels, more or less chronologically, from country to country, starting with Ghana as Kwame Nkrumah makes the jump from political prisoner to Prime Minister in a single day. We travel to Afrique Noire as France reluctantly releases its hold on Dahomey, Niger, Upper Volta, Cote d'Ivoire, Chad, the Central African Republic, the French Congo, Gabon and Senegal in a single month, August 1960. It was even more reluctant to release Algeria. We learn of the difficulties faced by the new countries as they tried to recover from colonialism with a minimum of infra-structure, almost no skilled workforce, and national boundaries that ignored traditional ethnic and tribal divisions. It talks of the Big Men such as Hastings Banda in Malawi who was a South London GP until he was 60 when he returned to Nyasaland and led it to independence, ruling it for another 30 years. We hear of Mobutu and Gadaffi and Nyerere and Idi Amin.

Africa's misfortune was to be colonised. Then it suffered from an era of dictators who plundered whatever resources they could. First they nationalised everything so they could get rich from controlling revenues and bribes. Most of the nationalised industries were incredibly inefficient; ghost jobs were created for friends and family and those who paid bribes. The industries were propped up with state loans or foreign aid. Then the Big Men  privatised everything so that their cronies and their families could get their hands on state assets cheaply.

 Then they fought wars. They fought for oil fields and diamond fields. They fought civil wars to control the government so they could divert government revenues into their own pockets. They fought to placate political interests at home. They fought to even old tribal scores. And they fought as proxies for the cold war superpowers.

The superpowers and the old colonial masters made things worse. Even after the genocide was a matter of public knowledge, France intervened in Rwanda on the side of the Hutu who were killing the Tutsis. The US regularly backed Mobutu even against African leaders who were relatively good guys. International aid kept Biafra fighting enabling Biafra's leaders to cynically sacrifice even more of their population.

Even now most of the Big Men have gone the democratic regimes replacing them have mostly been deeply corrupt. And now we have the scourge of AIDS. In Botswana, uniquely peaceful and democratic since independence, 37% of its 1.6 million people have HIV; life expectancy is 27. AIDS kills teachers faster than they can be trained.

This is a deeply gloomy book. Africa has so many natural resources and is mired in such endemic poverty. Aid and debt relief are wasted or stolen or used to maintain armies. There seems to be no solution.

Sad. But a beautifully written  book. Very readable.

June 2012; 688 pages