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

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

"The Trowie Mound Murders" by Marsali Taylor

This is the second book in the Shetland series starring intrepid sailor and part time sleuth Cass Lynch, her blond Norse God Anders and his pet Rat, DI Gavin Macrae and old Shetlander Magnie and all the other villagers, some good, some sinister. It follows the excellent Death on a Longship and precedes the utterly brilliant A Handful of Ash

Two mysterious boats come to the marina at Brae. David and Madge in the magnificent but unnamed motorboat annoy Cass and arouse her suspicions with all their questions; Peter and Sandra in the yacht want to investgate the archaeology of the Trowie Mound, and ancient neolithic earthwork. But Peter and Sandra go missing and then, one night, their yacht sails off into the night and disappears and Cass hears the haunting cry of the Selkie out at sea. Somehow all this is linked to the theft of artworks from houses which are being exported via Shetland to the Faroes and further afield. And who is making the pornographic films at the deserted house?

A brilliant murder mystery with a completely logical solution and a chase at the end. It is the realism of the characters that really makes this series stand out from others. When Cass is shut up in a dark space you can really feel her fear of the dark. The police share with her what they can but the reader can share with Cass the thrill of working out whodunnit without any artificial separation between forensic evidence and psychology. But best of all is the thorough grounding in the Shetlands. The scenery is beautifully explained and the people are real. Major characters have mixed motives and flaws. Kids are kids and grown ups are kids grown up. The pain of bereavement is honestly felt. As the book nears its climax we go to an agricultural show and it is just like any other agricultural show and the things that happen there are trivial and real and powerful and true.

Some moments:

  • A great first line: "'I know how you got that scar', the boy said, eyes travelling along the ragged indentation that ran across my cheek." (p 1)
  • "It was ill luck to go round against the sun in Shetland." (p 159)
  • "A blackbird shrilled his alarm call from the twisted sycamore at the back of the house." (p 160)
  • "I let out a relieved breath that I hadn't known I'd been holding." (p 161)
  • "I think you are half-mongoose, like the old English stories by the grandfather f the man who makes the cakes." (p 193)
  • "A west Highlands-style burn tumbled down the hill, wooded by spiky-branched electricity pylons." (p 201)
  • "The yellow boots fidgeted like a pony who's been asked to stand still." (p 214)

Some of the chapters are introduced by a Shetland proverb of which my favourites were (which I have translated into English):

  • A silk Monday makes a canvas week.
  • The stone that lies not in your path breaks not your toes. (Mind your own business)
  • It's not for the rabbit's good to be over friendly with weasels
  • What's foreborne should always be forsworn
  • He's the main string of the fiddle
  • Angry folk are always worse than angry cattle
  • Seldom comes a dove from a crow's nest

A wonderful book. July 2017; 327 pages

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

"When you are engulfed in flames" by David Sedaris

This is a book of short, humorous, essays which reflect on the oddnesses in the way we humans interact with one another. In some ways these are like the scripts for a stand-up comedian of the 'observational humour' variety. There aren't many jokes, the humour depends on a slow build. I heard Sedaris read one of these stories on the radio and I laughed aloud several times. Although so far as I can tell what he read was word for word identical with how it appears, I only laughed aloud once or twice at all the other stories in the book. I guess it is the way he tells them. Or perhaps reading is different.

Given the nature of the stories it is difficult to select single lines that give any idea of how funny Sedaris can be but here are a few:

  • "A bow tie announces to the world that you can no longer get an erection." (p 57)
  • "I wanted my first time to be special, meaning that I would know the other guy's name" (p 65)
  • "Mess with me, and I'll stick my foot so far up your ass I'll lose my shoe." (p 79)
  • "'Most people, most humans, receive a present and say thank you', I told her
  •        'Not when they get garbage like that, they don't'" (p 95)
  • "here the pathologists used hedge clippers to snip through rib cages." (p103)
  • "It's funny the things that run through your mind when you're sitting in your underpants in front of a pair of strangers." (p 113)
  • "One gets an idea of the tireless, hardworking immigrant who hits the ground running - or, more often, driving." (p 162)
  • "Take the crows that descend each winter on the surrounding fields and pluck the eyes out of newborn lambs." (p 170)
  • "If it played non-stop in a skanky-smelling dorm room, he's got it." (p 173)
  • "I could light a cigarette without thinking. Now I don't light it and think so hard about what I'm missing that there isn't room for anything else." (p 283)

"I can't make out the list of ingredients, but they taste vaguely of penis" (p 287)

July 2017; 22 stories; 310 pages

Saturday, 15 July 2017

"That's what brothers do" by Derekica Snake

Teenage Brant offers himself to the loan shark that wants to make his sister into a prostitute because their father has fallen behind on loan repayments. As Brant embarks on five years as a porn star and rent boy he comes to fall in love with his pimp. After his apprenticeship Brant starts to work for the Organization but his beauty and talents soon endear him to the chief gangster whose sex toy he becomes.

This novel is essentially gay porn doubling as wish fulfilment. The hero Brant is both beautiful and intelligent. There are explicit sex scenes. There are some very mixed-up emotions. Brant is beaten and whored out by a vicious gangster; Brant adores him. Most of the characters are brutal thugs or victims; Brant is usually submissive victim but can turn thug. The author's psychological insight seems to be that people can be trained like unruly puppies and that when, once beaten or cowed into submission, they lick the hand that feeds them the expression in their eyes is one of love.

It is a self-published book and it suffered from the lack of a good copy editor: there were misspellings and some sentences that didn't make sense. And perhaps curtail the author's use of the expression 'toasty warm'.

There were some haunting scenes:

  • The confrontation in which Brant offers to be a prostitute in the place of his sister
  • The family reunion where Brant's past is revealed to those of his sisters who were unaware of it; their shocked reactions.
  • The lovers' tiff after which Brant is left in the street: "Now, I think I know what a family dog feels like when it gets dumped off on the side of the road." (p 58)

There were also potentially brilliant scenes:

  • Brant's first porn film. Up to this point, so far as the reader is aware, Brant has never experienced gay sex. In the film he is penetrated both orally and anally. This must have been a traumatic experience yet the author is more interested in the plot.
  • The family reunion. His sisters have just found out that Brant has been a male whore for five years so that they could live normal lives. Yes, they might be disgusted but this should have been a lot more grand opera than the little tiffs we had here.

All of the mixed up morals needed far more exploration than given here.

I did at one stage think that this was a retelling of the Faust story. Perhaps it was. It could have been a fantastic story; I read it on the basis of the premise and the premise is great. But I was too disappointed by the potential not met to enjoy it properly.

With a less perfect central protagonist and a slower telling of some of the key moments this could have been a great book.

July 2017, 250 pages

Friday, 14 July 2017

"Portrait of a Man" by George Perec

Quoted from  Michael Leiris 'Manhood': "Like many men, I have made my descent into Hell, and, like some, I have more or less returned from it."

What a stunning start: "Madera was heavy. I grabbed him by the armpits and went backwards down the stairs to the laboratory. His feet bounced from tread to tread in a staccato rhythm that matched my own unsteady descent, thumping and banging around the narrow stairwell. Our shadows danced on the walls. Blood was still flowing, all sticky, seeping from the soaking wet towel, rapidly forming drips on the silk lapels, then disappearing into the folds of the jacket, like the trails of slightly glinting snot ... I let him slump at the bottom of the stairs, right next to the laboratory door, and then went back up to fetch the razor and to mop up the bloodstains before Otto returned." (p 29 but it's the first paragraph).

Gaspard forges art works for Madera and Rufus; he has been their forger for twelve years. But this last commission, the Protrait of a Man, the Condottiere, has driven him to question what hhe has been doing. Can he stop being a fake, a creator of fakes, and find authenticity? In murder?

Some great lines:

  • "Behind you are masks. In you there is nothing. A desire to carry on living. A wish to die." (p 51)
  • "Everything you do has a price, you should know that. ... Everything has to be paid for and the cost is often high." (p 52)
  • "Wasn't it the case that all he had done for years was to glide over the surface of things?" (p 55)
  • "The bedazzlement of life." (p 60)
  • "His wrinkled and calloused hands lay on the arm of the chair and sometimes shook a little." (p 74)
  • "the appallingly slow agony of living a life that was no longer of any use." (p 75)
  • "He had pushed his plate away with a gesture of great weariness." (p 76)
  • "The life that for a moment he had thought he held in his hands, that compact, dense sum of collected memories, his quest, had shattered into a million pieces, into self-directing meteorites, each with its own life from now on, maybe still connected to his own but ruled by mysterious laws whose constants he did not know. Once again memories sharpened and then sometimes suddenly exploded and split up into a myriad impressions, into fragments of life it would have been fruitless to try to make sense of, give direction to, or separates from each other. Splinters and shreds. As if the landscape of his past life had just suffered a cataclysm. As if he no longer had the world in his arms. Did not yet have the world in his arms." (p 85)
  • "This deep chaos was like the chords played by an orchestra before the conductor mounts the podium." (p 85)
  • "In the half-light, to begin with, he had used each hand to put the glove on the other." (p 87)
  • "Blood, black and warm, as alive as a snake or a squid, trickling between the chair legs." (p 88)
  • "The tally was easy. Zero plus zero. That's all." (p 107)

Densely written beautiful prose. July 2017, 169 pages

Monday, 10 July 2017

"The Colour of Blood" by Brian Moore

On the very first page there is an assassination attempt on the Cardinal of a communist-controlled Eastern European country. Narrated from the Cardinal's viewpoint, the reader follows the Cardinal as he is arrested and escapes. But who has arrested him? And who is trying to kill him? And why? And why now? And what has this to do with the proposals from some of his priests that the church should be organising protests against the regime.

A brilliant, fast-paced thriller deep in Graham Greene and Hitchcock if not Kafka territory.

"The chickens, pecking dementedly, darted this way and that with worried, nervous looks." (p 31)
"The sun rose in the sky behind a gauzy morning mist." (p 32)
"The Colonel did not finish the sentence but, instead, drew on his cigarette and expelled smoke in a burst as though he were miming an explosion." (p 38)
"A wish granted is a wish destroyed." (p 107)
"I am alone now: not hidden but hiding." (p 107)
"The truck driver's head and shoulders were silhouetted suddenly in the theatre of the opened truck doorway." (p 119)

Wonderful from start to finish. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, 1987.

July 2017; 191 pages

Saturday, 8 July 2017

"Death on a Longship" by Marsali Taylor

Chronologically the first Cassandre Lynch murder mystery. The first one I read was the third in the series: "A Handful of Ash" which is brilliant. I have now also read another stunner: the second in the series: The Trowie Mound Murders

Cass arrives back in Shetland as skipper of a replica long boat being used to make a film about Vikings; the star is doubled in the action scenes by her own twin sister who is having an affair with Cassie's dad who wants to cover Shetland with wind turbines. When Cass discovers a body on board her ship whodunnit? Was it someone from the film, or someone wanting to sabotage the film, or a wind farm protester, of Cassie's dad? And why had Cassie's handsome Norwegian shipmate deserted his watch on the night of the murder?

And will Cass, haunted by the death of a boyfriend, ever get a man?

My only problem with this book is that I read it out of order. When you have a series with long-running characters it is difficult to maintain a full list of suspects: those that appear in later books are more or less ruled out as the killer in an earlier book.

The wonderful thing about Marsali Taylor's work isn't the lyrical descriptions of Shetland scenery or the cleverly constructed plot but the reality of the characters. Cass is a character to whom we can all relate: coping with unparently parents, haunted by the past, half envying the settled life of her married friends but lured by the freedom of the sea, attracted to others but unwilling to commit. The only character I hated was Kenneth, the teacher (I used to be a teacher), about whom nothing good can be said: even he must have had a redeeming feature!

Some fantastic moments of misdirection too. I loved the Anders/ Michael relationship.

I have to source book 2.

Some great lines

  • "His nose was slightly skafe, as if he had fallen out of too many trees in his youth." (p 7) Who needs to have a translation? I just wondered if it was related to 'skew-whiff'.
  • "It wasn't a propitious week, with the silver disk of the moon draining away." (p 10)
  • "His sour mouth stretched into what, for him, could pass as a smile." (p 70)
  • "Her gaze drifted over my shoulder again, then sharpened to flint." (p 70)
  • "He had that annoying teacher's habit of repeating everything." (p 74)
  • "I heard their penguin cackle echo round the room." (p 100)
  • "I'd been too busy looking at rigging to distinguish ropes." (p 125)
  • "If you left him alone to work at his own pace, you could bet your last mooring rope on his answer." (p 127)
  • "That is like saying you do not need to listen to music. You will not die without it, but you may want to listen. Life is much more full with it." (p 136)
  • "He had the makings of a very good sailor if he managed to stay undrowned." (p 177)
An excellent book.

Friday, 7 July 2017

"The Yellow Dog" by Georges Simenon

Needless to say, a Maigret novel, atmospherically set in a French coastal town. The town is dominated by a quadrumvirate who meet in the local cafe every night and from time to time enjoy the services of the waitress: the Mayor, the Doctor (who doesn't practice), the ex-Journalist and the Wine Dealer. The last is mysteriously shot in the stomach and there is a yellow dog skulking around at the time. is it the vagrant with the larger feet who is to blame?

I think the appeal of Simenon is that he can use a few sentences to swiftly create a mood or a character:

  • "Here and there a scrap of paper scuttles along the ground."
  • "Maigret seemed to have the awkward manner of a petit bourgeois visiting an aristocratic house."

It is sparse and underwritten but that is how it achieves its bleak mood.

A nice bit of noir. July 2017; 134 pages

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

"Milton in America" by Peter Ackroyd

Peter Ackroyd is a prolific author of many, many books. Those I have read (links are to reviews in this blog) are:

  • Hawksmoor: stunningly brilliant; spooky; dark
  • The Last testament of Oscar Wilde
  • Chatterton: flitting in between London 1770 and London 1856 this is a thoroughly enjoyable read about reality and forgery, plagiarism and originality, truth and lies
  • The House of Doctor Dee: a timeshifting novel that didn't quite work for me
  • Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem
  • The Lambs of London: vary enjoyable with some beautifully subtle dialogue
  • The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein: an interesting conceit but rather heavy going though with a nice twist at the end.
Non fiction:
  • Thames: an immense tome: great as reference but not to read (there are several pages just listing all the St Mary's churches on the banks of the Thames!)
  • Dickens: a superb biography
  • Blake: an immensely thorough yet at the same time readable and indeed enjoyable biography
  • Chaucer
  • Wilkie Collins: a brilliant bijou biography
  • Newton
This is a strange book. The first half ('Eden') is narrated in part by Goosequill, a poor London boy whom Milton hires as secretary and guide (Milton being blind) and in part by letters from Milton to an English acquaintance: there is a certain amount of comic potential derived from the fact that Milton regards Goosequill as a clown and a fool whereas the reader sees Goosequill save Milton's life in a shipwreck and tenderly care for him and put up with his tantrums . M & G go to America and find a puritan village which elects to be lead by the famous John Milton and to call itself New Milton

Halfway through the book, in the 'Fall', Milton wanders off and, in mystical scenes, appears to break his leg, be cared for by the Indian heathen savages he so detests and regain his sight. On his retirn his puritan zeal is intensified. Where he had been intolerant not he is bigoted. The target for his wrath is a bearby village of Papists who get on with the local Indians and preach tolerance, as opposed to the narrow-minded puritans of New Milton. Goosequill does his best to mediate but Milton's fierce hatred of anything that is not his version of the truth whips up the flames of war. This second section of the book is mostly narrated in the third person omniscient point of view.

Peter Ackroyd's prose is brilliant but difficult to capture in quotes. His true genius is in the way his characters interact. The way in which Goosequill tells his story to his new wife, with various asides about babies and making love, and her 'get along with you' rebuttals, is a masterclass.

  • "He was all toughened and weathered, and I suspected that there was a great deal of ale within him somewhere." (p 35)
  • "I tremble to think of the sordid sperm engendered by their lustiness". (p 95)
  • "If he had worked me harder, there could have been a burial service." (p 119)
  • "They do not worship their god because they say that, being god, he will do them no harm." (p 134)
  • "Where there is glory, there must also be terror, where there is reverence, there must be fear." (p 145)
  • "Even Gods have lived in the woods ... does not Dante write that the trees contain the souls of suicides? ... In the dark wood of this world I lost my way." (p 198)
  • "The blind man wandered ahead and, weeping, through the dark wood took his solitary way" (last line; echoes of Dante; and, of course, Paradise being truly lost).

A fascinating story about how intolerance breeds tragedy. I suspect that the way Milton muddles up racism with religious intolerance and the way he confuses heretical religious practices with sodomy is intended to resonate with us today; Ackroyd is using the religious battles of yesteryear as an allegory of our own intolerances and bigotries today.

July 2017;

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

"Seven brief lessons on Physics" by Carlo Ravelli

This was the last book read by my dad before he died. He was an electronics engineer all his life. He worked on radar during World War II. Later he worked on the very first computers, meeting Alan Turing and Norbert Weiner. After that he researched radiocarbon dating, discovering that a fragment of wood found on Mount Ararat wasn't old enough to come from the Ark, and finally he worked as part of the team that created radio-controlled clocks.

In fewer than 80 pages, Rovelli talks about General Relativity, Quantum Physics, Cosmology, Particle Physics, Loop Quantum Physics, Thermodynamics and the nature of time, and Ourselves; I have taught Physics for 33 years and I have been a human for even longer and yet I still, repeatedly, learned fascinating things from this brilliant book. Plus it is superbly written and it tells so eloquently of the joys and challenges of being a scientist.

Just some of the brilliant insights from this wonderful little book.
  • "the gravitational field is not diffused through space; the gravitational field is that space itself." (p 6) This is a triumph of Descartes over Newton: a vortex space rather than one filled with action-at-a-distance. Space undulates. :
    • light curves round heavy objects
    • time goes more quickly at altitude
    • black holes exist
    • "space cannot stand still; it must be expanding" (p 8)
    • "space moves like the surface of the sea" (p 9)
  • "Why does the periodic table have this particular structure, with these periods, and with the elements having these particular properties? The answer is that each element corresponds to one solution of the main equation of quantum mechanics." (p 15)
  • "an electron is a series of jumps from one interaction to another. When nothing disturbs it, it is not in any particular place. It is not in a 'place' at all." (p 15)
  • Loop Quantum Gravity proposes that space is quantised in very small linked rings: "Space is created by the linking of these individual quanta of gravity" (p 41) 
  • "The passage of time ... is born in the world itself in the relationship between the quantum events that comprise the world and are themselves the source of time." (p 42). 
  • "Our universe may have been born from a bounce in a prior phase, passing through an intermediate stage in which there was neither space nor time." (p 47)
  • "How the gravitational field behaves when it heats up is still an unsolved problem. ... when heat is diffused to the gravitational field, time and space themselves must vibrate ... what is a vibrating time?" (p 56)
  • "There is a detectable difference between the past and the future only when there is flow of heat. Heat is linked to probability; and probability in turn is linked to the fact that our interactions with the rest of the world do not register the fine details of reality ... due to the limitations of our consciousness we only perceive a blurred vision of the world, and live in time." (p 60)
  • "The heat of black holes is a quantum effect upon an object, the black hole, which is gravitational in nature. ... The heat of black holes is like a Rosetta Stone of physics, written in a combination of three languages - Quantum, Gravitational and Thermodynamic - still awaiting decipherment in order to reveal the true nature of time." (p 62)
  • "We are like an only child who on growing up realizes that the world does not revolve around them alone, as they thought when little. They must learn to be one among others. Mirrored by others, and by other things, we learn who we are." (p 65)
  • "All things are continually interacting with each other, and in doing so each bears the traces of that with which it has interacted: and in this sense all things continuously exchange information about each other." (p 68)
  • "It would be absurd to ask whether 'I' can do something different from what the whole complex of my neurons has decided: the two things ... are the same." (p 71)
  • "Our reality is tears and laughter, gratitude and altruism, loyalty and betrayal, the past which haunts us and serenity." (p 74)
  • "We are nature, in one of its innumerable and infinitely variable expressions." (p 74)

  • "And to the very last: doubt." (p 19)

What a way for my dad to end his reading career.

Magnificent. July 2017, 79 pages