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The Hostess, the Actress and the Duchess…

Another triumph from indie author Jane Davis in this gloriously gritty novel that engages head-on with a post-war London struggling to re-boot itself and wider society, amid ongoing privations. Against this authentic backdrop, the dawning realisation that Britain needed to change and to challenge former ingrained inequalities (particularly the structural disadvantage of women) is deftly explored by the author, through the lived experiences of three fictional women in the 1950s. Moreover the reader discovers that Caroline, Ursula and Patrice are each held hostage by their very different respective circumstances and perceptions of duty to family (parents, children, husband). Such traditional values are also cleverly juxtaposed with the tragic real-life story of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in the UK. The sensationalised accounts of her crime carried in the press at the time (Ellis shot her lover, killing him) succeeded in vilifying Ellis, but drew a veil over the scandalous and violent behaviour of the ‘innocent’ male victim.

The format of the book reflects multiple points of view and rotates between the key characters’ perspectives. Indeed, it sounds like the start of a joke, ‘the hostess, the actress and the duchess’, but despite the disparity in their social positions, their common experience of abuse (financial, emotional and physical) at the hands of men, is something of a leveller. But for quirks of chance, all three might not be so far removed from the fate awaiting Ruth Ellis, yet they are drawn inexorably together, bonded by a shared sense of being social misfits. The intertwining of their journeys also offers touching examples of support, without judgement.

Far from being a tale of ‘doom and gloom’, the writing is sumptuous and though perhaps not intended as a feminist commentary on the period, the author has provided the reader with a genuine depiction of a society in transition and three strong and courageous female characters equal to their time. 

Indeed, time, as measured for the nation by the iconic notes of ‘Big Ben’, provides a wonderful symmetry to this book. From August 1949, when the bongs failed to appear on cue, to July 1955 when sections of London held their collective breath in anticipation of the nine o’clock salvo, the author locates each of the women and enables the reader to follow their discrete but convergent journeys. It is true there are no male role models to speak of, which perhaps begs the question whether the period also presided over the demise of ‘gentlemanly’ conduct, or leastways diminished capacity to do the ‘right’ thing? But, the dilemmas the book exposes and the moral conundrums posed make for a fascinating and stimulating read, irrespective of the reader’s gender.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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Detonating a Taboo

8:15 PM 24 OCTOBER 2016

This book was listed for World Book Night 2016 and though an unusual storyline (at fist glance recovery from teenage mental illness may not seem fertile territory for humour), Holly Bourne has successfully woven together a really positive ‘rite of passage’ novel, which reinforces the notion that a diagnosed condition need not define the person. In this instance the sixteen year old person is Evie and the start of a new college offers the prospect of a chance to re-boot her adolescent life, no longer identified as ‘that girl who went crazy’. Still, in her efforts to re-invent herself with new girl friends and prospective boyfriends, Evie is cautious about how much she reveals about the past, or even her experience of the present. By contrast, her family have lived with Evie the darkest lows and with her psychologist, try to help navigate the return to ‘normal’.

Indeed, the book is something of a roller-coaster from emotional highs to poignant lows, the reader follows the central character’s progress and setbacks in her burgeoning relationships and ongoing mental health challenges, but the author deftly avoids any mawkish tendencies. Alongside some laugh-out-loud moments, Bourne also explores interesting insights and manages to balance the interplay between the potentially crushing effects of illness, with the shared ‘madness’ that so often characterizes the human condition. A thoroughly enjoyable and compelling read, it turns out we are all a unique version of ‘normal’, just moving along our respective paths. If we are lucky, there are people who care alongside us on the journey. 

I’m passing my copy on, fully endorsing the World Book Night listing as a genuine celebration of reading and books in all its diversity. Remember the name. Holly Bourne is a very promising young writer.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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The road to enlightenment

12:46 AM 15 OCTOBER 2016

‘The Pilgrimage’ has the distinction of being Paulo Coelho’s first major book and relates his extraordinary and at times mystical quest along the medieval route to San Tiago de Compostela. The mental and physical trials the author experiences and the insight he derives from this challenge are perhaps deliberately obscure, but also makes this a challenging read in parts. Complex metaphors wrapped around the enigmatic author and his strange guide (Petrus) give the impression that this book is multi-layered and yet I’m not convinced that careful unwrapping is necessarily worthy of the implied effort.

Certainly there were some interesting concepts introduced, such a ‘agape’ – total love. “…the love that consumes the person who experiences it… the highest form of love”. Moreover, enthusiasm is considered as “agape directed at a particular idea or a specific thing”. Still, Coelho postulates the ultimate challenge for each of us is how to harness these underpinnings of faith and happiness on our respective journeys. Invoking a term coined by St. Paul, the author examines what it means, “to fight the good fight”.

What should we be seeking to achieve with this wonderful gift of life and the talents we each possess? This is philosophical stuff and encapsulating the ‘bigger picture’ within the boundaries of a walk, albeit a very long one, was interesting, though somewhat dull. Rather than lift a veil on the meaning of life, Coelho has perhaps suggested we are each on a pilgrimage of sorts, to discover our own meaning and purpose. Still, my personal search for happiness is likely to include fewer such weighty or prophetic books. Life is afterall rather short.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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Life is partly Survival…

2:42 PM 24 SEPTEMBER 2016

‘Life of Pi’ made the World Book Night list for 2011 and rightly so. Martel has created a modern masterpiece, which is beautifully written. The storyline is unusual and all the more absorbing for it. The ending too is intriguing and though the movie interpretation is good, it can’t do full justice to a wonderful book.

Notwithstanding the general assumption of the superiority of the human race, the author holds up an interesting mirror for the reader, which reflects man’s inherent, but potentially ugly, animalistic desire for survival. 

Rating: 5 out of 5.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521143932

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Servants No Longer De Rigueur…

2:16 PM 24 SEPTEMBER 2016

I was honoured to be given the opportunity to give this book, as part of the World Book Night 2012. This was my first choice and enabled me to wax lyrical about this deceptively simple story, which explores in detail the reflections and experiences of a butler, Stevens, as he contemplates his life in service and the relevance of a life spent in service at a time of profound social change. Empathetically written, Ishiguro’s prose is a sheer delight and his attention to detail and fine emotional expression is quite touching. Certainly not a thriller, yet I feel the intentionally pedestrian pace merely accentuates the absolute quality of the writing. A truly exceptional read! 

Rating: 5 out of 5.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521144071

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Dark Matters

12:21 AM 24 SEPTEMBER 2016

A challenging read which plumbs psychological depths and questions the morality underpinning ‘crime and punishment’. I found the brutal killing and attendant emotional turmoil both disturbing and fascinating in equal measure and the abundant food for thought truly marks this book out as a classic.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/BOOK/SHOW/7138

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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‘Champion’ Heroes

13:10 PM 30 August 2020

In his thrilling fantasy novel, indie author Jeff Lane introduces two strains of superhumans, in effect the Yin and Yang of seemingly contrary forces, locked in a perpetual existential struggle for survival. That the conflict between the ‘champions’ and the ‘spoilers’ rages alongside the humdrum existence of the vast majority of the human population is interesting. That such extraordinary beings are hidden in plain sight among the general population and their activities go largely unnoticed is also slightly unnerving! Both groups are relatively small in number and co-opt lesser mortals to their respective causes, however, the enmity between the two factions is palpable. For the champions it is driven by the predation of the spoilers, whose hunting style resembles that of hyenas. The spoilers seek to harvest power from their superior opponents in a gruesome and tortuous process, draining the very life force from a lone champion, most often isolated and overwhelmed by numbers. Still, for the reader, this insatiable appetite for the ‘consumption’ of champions’ energy, in what is essentially a parasitic existence, readily casts the ‘spoilers’ as villains and the battlelines drawn between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are clearly marked throughout this opening book in the series.

In an act of self preservation, some champions are loosely connected through a national network and this story follows the transition of eighteen year-old, Jim Hunt, from college student to elite champion-in-the-making. Jim is the prodigy of his neighbour, the enigmatic Nathaniel Parker, who had identified the boy’s potential at a young age (and the need to protect it), but until now never disclosed why he was so special. However, the importance of the young man does not go unnoticed and when spoilers audaciously organise to trap Nathaniel and use him as bait to feast on two of the most powerful champion ‘batteries’, Jim has a life-changing decision to make. 

This, will he, won’t he, journey to potential ‘champion’ undertaken by Jim is exciting and at times comical, as the hero is supported by his college roommate, Eric Warner, who exhibits all the more familiar traits of a hapless mortal teenager. In fact, at times, Eric reminded me of Sancho Panza, with his squirely regard and selfless support for his friend, though he is also weighed down by a substantial secret, his ‘sanchismos’ provide a useful lighter tone amid the surrounding tension.

In the broader arc of this compelling story, can the champions survive this coordinated attack on their existence? Maybe even counter attack the unusually organized incursion into their established, but intentionally nondescript lives? No doubt which side the reader is on, but the grandstand finish raises plenty of new questions, which will have me reaching for Book 2 (“This Burning World”). The author has also confirmed that Book 3 (“This Champion’s World’) is currently being edited, so more to look forward to. For fans of thrilling fantasy tales, this is a very welcome addition to the bookshelf and I am obliged to Jeff Lane for a welcome diversion in this time of COVID-19. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Sumptuous Secret

12:08 AM 24 SEPTEMBER 2016

An enchanting tale of children growing up in a private space unencumbered by the troubled and sometimes burdensome world of adults. Uplifting and heavy on the feel-good factor, beautifully written, a classic book for adults and children alike.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/152114455

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Classic Adventure

11:48 PM 23 SEPTEMBER 2016

Wonderful classic novel of adventure and unadulterated escapism. As I was reading, the news was full of the latest activity in Icelandic volcanoes, which just seemed to add to the vivid descriptions crafted by Verne. Meanwhile the interplay between the key characters was both moving and intriguing. Quite a short book, the pace of the story is brisk, which fuels the incessant sense of excitement and perhaps a slight sense of guilt at a very sedentary life by comparison! In any event, a very satisfying read.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521144597

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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A Novel or a Series of Short Stories?

10:28 PM 23 SEPTEMBER 2016

I am a great fan of Sebastian Faulks work. Although we will all form attachments to particular books, he rarely disappoints and within the body of his work he has set the bar wonderfully high. However, as a ‘novel in five parts’, I’m not sure ‘A Possible Life’ works. The writing is superbly crafted and the sweep of the book is clearly ambitious, but seems most effective as five short stories. Certainly, for me the ‘novel’ is not greater than the sum of its parts, which is disappointing, but should not detract from the quality of the writing, which is at times sumptuous. I intend to read it again, in case I am doing the book an injustice, but I would encourage anyone to make the effort, in any case.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521144712

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Not the Mountain, but the Climb

10:09 PM 23 SEPTEMBER 2016

The notion of a story about Elijah may not be an obvious choice for the secular majority. Yet, such is the depth and quality of the Brazilian’s writing that the author successfully draws the reader in and through this profound parable invites the curious to reflect on the path of his/her ‘Personal Legend’ and the various stages that living one’s own destiny entails. Moreover, how should one respond in the face of the ‘unavoidable’. As Coelho observes,”…the unavoidable has touched the life of every human being on the face of the earth. Some have rebounded, others have given up – but all of us have felt the wings of tragedy brushing against us.”

To illustrate the point, the novel is set in the year 870 B.C. in Phoenicia (latterly Lebanon) and relates the exploits of the prophet, Elijah, fleeing persecution in neighbouring Israel, at the hands of Phoenician, Princess Jezebel. Since childhood, Elijah had heard voices and conversed with angels, but the massacre of the prophets and direction by the Lord, caused him to to seek refuge in the city of Akbar. Notwithstanding Phoenicia had enjoyed a lengthy period of peace and prosperity, underpinned by strategic alliances and a talent for trade, the presence of an enemy of of their countrywoman, Jezebel, placed Elijah under a constant threat. Throw in that the Phoenicians’ worship of pagan gods inhabiting the Fifth Mountain, the threat of Akbar’s invasion by an Assyrian army and a love interest with a native citizen and the possibilities for conflict are manifold. Indeed, the story of Elijah is a study in resilience, determination, compassion and the positive power of love, as well as an examination of doubt, fear and corrupted morals, all of which beset the human experience over millenia.

Coelho’s gift is to invite the reader to gain inspiration from the story of Elijah, contemplate our own responses to the unavoidable and embrace the inevitable potential for learning and growth on our respective journeys. A very thought-provoking read.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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Industrial Heart-lands

3:12 PM 18 SEPTEMBER 2016

Often described as an important/landmark novel, the story of members of the Morel family is a fascinating expose of period industrial working class life, made even more compelling through the author’s examination of the main character’s relationships. Lawrence consistently critiques social convention in his works and in this book covers the historic taboo of adultery and unmarried sex, but more importantly sheds light on the roles of women in society, juxtaposed with the male dominance of the period, born of paid work. Indeed the three central women in the novel – Mrs Morel (mother), Miriam and Clara (two lovers) are the stronger characters, albeit fatefully attached to the respective men in their lives. Still, their influence is testament to the dependence conferred upon son and lover. There is perhaps a suggestion that the emotional attachment of the female characters makes them potentially vulnerable to the whims of their male counterparts. However, in the most moving scenes, when Mrs Morel has to cope with the tragic loss of her eldest son, it is the contrasting ineptitude and emotional confusion of her husband that elevates the matriarchal figure to new heights of superiority and dominance. Overall a wonderfully thought-provoking read, which rightly sits among a select collection of books that might be labelled as ‘important’.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/BOOK/SHOW/17567570-SONS-AND-LOVERS

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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Great Heights to Unnecessary Depths

11:31 PM 12 SEPTEMBER 2016

Any contemporary story set (even partly) in Afghanistan runs the risk of appearing bleak, at least to western eyes. However, in spite of a sobering glimpse of life under the talaiban, it is Hosseini’s examination of a series of overlapping relationships, which reveals the frailty of man and the attendant capacity for tragedy.

At the outset, the narrator, Amir, is aged just twelve and has a close relationship with Hassan, the son of his father’s servant. The characters are all subject to a social structure which ensures they know their respective places (Pashtun are the dominant tribe locally, while the Hassari are commonly regarded as inferior) but privately such boundaries are blurred. That is, until an incident witnessed by Amir challenges his ability to openly support his erstwhile friend. Amir and his ‘Baba’ are members of an elite class, but following the death of his mother, giving him birth, Amir grows up feeling distant from his father and desperate for his affection. However, he is no ‘chip off the old block’. Baba is charismatic and courageous, a stalwart of Afghan society and Amir’s sense of inadequacy is fuelled by the very positive attributes shown by Hassan and admired by his father.

Kite flying, we learn, is an important pastime in Kabul culture and offers an interesting metaphor for life in the differing strata, contrasting the fliers with those subject to gravity, scrabbling for victory among the ‘also rans’. Ironically, it is with Hassan’s encouragement and help, Amir is able to excel at flying and inspire pride in his father. In a touching show of loyalty, Hassan even seeks to run down the last defeated kite in a kite-battling festival, to seal a memorable triumph for his friend. Yet, the euphoria is short-lived.

In an impulsive and childish act, Amir deliberately sweeps Hassan aside, but in so doing unleashes a lifelong sense of personal guilt, magnified by the dignified self-sacrifice of his victim. In spite of everything, Hassan, by fluke of birth a member of the lowly Hassari tribe, demonstrates a superior magnanimity and notwithstanding the consequent prospect of destitution, stoically accepts the betrayal.

Fast forward, and the overthrow of the royal family by the forces of extreme Islam and with it the social order that has secured their privileged positions, sees Baba and Amir flee Afghanistan.

In the USA, notwithstanding their attendant poverty, Baba exhibits the drive to start again, though father and son are sustained by the cultural traditions preserved in the local Afghan community. Still, there is an inevitability in the need for Amir, the young man, to be confronted with circumstances in which he must return to his birthplace and seek to atone.

This book is clearly well written and offers an interesting insight into Afghan society , both home and abroad. However, there is also the troubling spectre of child abuse, which is explicitly referenced and to my mind, diminishes the narrative. Not because it challenges some taboo, but rather it adds little value to the story and gives the impression that it has been included for gratuitous shock impact. Moreover, in the context of the book, such behaviour only occurs on foreign soil and could be construed as symptomatic of an inferior society, which given western trials of recent years, seems more than a little hypocritical. I acknowledge it could be argued that this may be a courageous addition on the part of the author, but on balance, for me, it detracts from an otherwise compelling read.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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‘O’ level debate

4:44 PM 10 SEPTEMBER 2016

This was one of my course books at school and we pored over the adventures of ‘Fiver’ and ‘Bigwig’, et al and the underlying social systems of the respective burrows. It was one of those classroom unknowns, but discussed at length, whether it was the author’s intention to provide a critique of democracy vs authoritarian rule, or simply a children’s adventure book to be enjoyed.
It was not until my thirties that I was able to get a definitive answer from the author, Richard Adams. I was lucky enough to live for a time in the same village, not far from the legendary down and was invited round for tea. Of course, I had to satisfy my curiosity, but it was quite a relief to learn that it can be enjoyed as simply a classic piece of fiction and the news did not diminish it one jot!

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/BOOK/SHOW/10258076

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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‘His Dark Materials’

4:31 PM 10 SEPTEMBER 2016

An utterly absorbing tale, which sparkles in its creativity and reaches young and older readers alike, with the quality of Pulman’s writing. The characterization is exceptional, the plot intriguing and the pace superb. A modern classic series which really does deserve the description, page-turner.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521145388

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Four-legged Hero

4:26 PM 10 SEPTEMBER 2016

This was my first introduction to Jack London’s work and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The storyline was gritty and very in keeping with the period and the tough life for pioneers in the wilderness of north america. But, it was also gripping and offered a really satisfying read. On the strength of this book, I aim to read more from this author.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521145435

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Workout for the little grey cells…

4:18 PM 10 SEPTEMBER 2016

Just after midnight, a snowstorm stops the Orient Express dead in its tracks in the middle of Yugoslavia. The luxurious train is surprisingly full for this time of year. But by morning there is one passenger less. A ‘respectable American gentleman’ lies dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times, his door locked from the inside . . . Hercule Poirot is also aboard, having arrived in the nick of time to claim a second-class compartment — and the most astounding case of his illustrious career.

Series: Hercule Poirot (#10)

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Contemporary Christianity

3:46 PM 10 SEPTEMBER 2016

I came to this book, mindful of my spiritual frailties and yet, aspiring to better understand how to move forward. In that context, Dave Roberts has provided an inspirational and thought-provoking insight into the development of Ffald-y-Brenin and the foundation of faith, which has enabled the creation of a thriving ‘house of prayer’. Indeed, so engaging was the book that I drove to West Wales to see for myself, such was the allure of the exciting groundswell of activity described. I was not disappointed.
Doubtless it helps if the reader is a ‘believer’, but even if not, I fancy one cannot help but be impressed by the sheer dedication and outpouring of faith writ large on the page, which also suggests a courage and conviction which is increasingly rare today. A common charge is of ‘mainstream’ Christianity being a bit ambivalent and less forthright in it’s moral assertions. Whilst this book might not be the antidote, it does at least imply that there remain strong voices, with clear messages, not least concerning the value of prayer and an ongoing need to develop our relationships with God. An uplifting read.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/BOOK/SHOW/18912000-THE-GRACE-OUTPOURING

Rating: 3 out of 5.
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Can do better….

9:50 PM 3 SEPTEMBER 2016

I have come to expect a polished story from JG, pacy and with a concise opening, which hooks the reader from the off. ‘The Racketeer’ fits this pattern and yet in my view it is not one of his best. The plot seemed more contrived than usual and the characters less plausible somehow. I do not regret reading it, in fact I read it voraciously, but even as an erstwhile fan, this book will not be near the top of my favourite Grisham’s.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521146142

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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To Bee-keep, or Not to Bee-keep

9:30 PM 3 SEPTEMBER 2016

A charming journal following the exploits of wannabee bee-keeper James Dearsley, in his first year as a novice. The book is full of ‘well I didn’t know that’ moments and offers some interesting insights into the trials and tribulations of establishing successful hives. Of course, it is a timely introduction too, as there is much handwringing around the international decline in the bee population and the potential impact on man, from such a threat to bio-diversity. I suspect readers are likely to include some people weighing the possibility of enlisting into the beekeeper ranks and though the book is not a manual, it does offer some pros and cons for what might seem an idyllic notion. Intriguingly the author does also draw parallels with that other seemingly eccentric British pastime of morris-dancing, complete with the need for a customary costume. Still, he makes a very compelling case for the hidden community of enthusiasts and a rewarding way to get back in touch with nature. For those wishing to take their exploration of bee-keeping further there is also a useful list of additional resources in the back. One for the curious to crawl over.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521146731

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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College mayhem

7:01 PM 3 SEPTEMBER 2016

A chronicle of Porterhouse College, Cambridge, the acidly-Sharpe humour served up by the author is as sumptuous as a fellows feast. Dripping with hysterical characters, the book plots the chaotic attempts to spare the ancient institution from financial ruin, led by a coterie of dysfunctional men marooned in a glorious past, which is slowly and painfully being eroded. The Master (Skullion), formerly the Head Porter, the Dean, Senior Tutor, Bursar and Praelector conspire and scheme and cross metaphorical swords with a media magnate and gangster for the greater good of Porterhouse. The Machiavellian plot twists unstintingly with laugh-out-loud moments sprinkled throughout. Tom Sharpe is rightly regarded as a great post-Waugh humorist and guardian of the national funny bone. Very highly recommended.A chronicle of Porterhouse College, Cambridge, the acidly-Sharpe humour served up by the author is as sumptuous as a fellows feast. Dripping with hysterical characters, the book plots the chaotic attempts to spare the ancient institution from financial ruin, led by a coterie of dysfunctional men marooned in a glorious past, which is slowly and painfully being eroded. The Master (Skullion), formerly the Head Porter, the Dean, Senior Tutor, Bursar and Praelector conspire and scheme and cross metaphorical swords with a media magnate and gangster for the greater good of Porterhouse. The Machiavellian plot twists unstintingly with laugh-out-loud moments sprinkled throughout. Tom Sharpe is rightly regarded as a great post-Waugh humorist and guardian of the national funny bone. Very highly recommended.

A chronicle of Porterhouse College, Cambridge, the acidly-Sharpe humour served up by the author is as sumptuous as a fellows feast. Dripping with hysterical characters, the book plots the chaotic attempts to spare the ancient institution from financial ruin, led by a coterie of dysfunctional men marooned in a glorious past, which is slowly and painfully being eroded. The Master (Skullion), formerly the Head Porter, the Dean, Senior Tutor, Bursar and Praelector conspire and scheme and cross metaphorical swords with a media magnate and gangster for the greater good of Porterhouse. The Machiavellian plot twists unstintingly with laugh-out-loud moments sprinkled throughout. Tom Sharpe is rightly regarded as a great post-Waugh humorist and guardian of the national funny bone. Very highly recommended.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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Granada’s grandeur

4:03 PM 3 SEPTEMBER 2016

Extracts from Washington’s book are used in the audio guide for contemporary visitors to the Alhambra and it was the emotive prose which inspired me to seek out a copy. The grandeur of the palace complex is beautifully reflected in the author’s description and related legends and alludes to the almost mystical influences of Spanish and Moorish inhabitants.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521151018

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Classic swashbuckler!

12:03 PM 3 SEPTEMBER 2016

The term ‘classic’ is heard often, but this famed tale, first published in 1883, must bear the rubric as well as any. I confess I am very late coming to ‘Treasure Island’, the book, and can see why so many suggest it and recall it fondly from a childhood reading list (myself, I recall the 1950 Disney film version played out at Saturday morning pictures). Still, rarely has a fictional literary character been so profoundly absorbed into the national consciousness as Long John Silver. Moreover, on belatedly reading the book, one realizes the challenge of trying to capture, in moving pictures, the sheer scale of this much-beloved adventure and the pale nature of the many attempts.

As an island nation, I suspect we have a particular fascination with the sea, but Stevenson’s use of a maritime backdrop taps into the lifeblood of nineteenth century Britain, from the evocative description of bustling Bristol, steeped in trade, to the skills of the seamen who enabled such trade to flourish. Little wonder perhaps that such men should assume heroic status among landlubbers, nor that sea-faring legends should prove such fertile ground for the anti-hero.

In the main, the story is narrated by Jim Hawkins, young son of an inn-keeper, who is by chance drawn into a dark plot involving the pirate fraternity and the search for the late Captain Flint’s plundered loot. The contrast between the leading protagonists is stark, from the stoic, cultured Captain Smollett, Dr Livesey and Squire Trelawney, of the gentrified classes to the deformed, drunken and duplicitous pirates including Pew, Israel Hands and Long John, although it is the latter ‘have nots’ that display the more intriguing characters. Indeed, Stevenson describes the comic ‘lower’ classes in quite disparaging terms, the worse off for their inferior intellect and a weakness for drink, but on board ship the value of sailors in their ‘natural’ environment proves quite the leveller.  Woven throughout is the majestic schooner, ‘Hispaniola’, which sails under the Union Jack and Jolly Roger in the course of the book and provides the means of safe passage across the oceans for the would-be adventurers and a triumphant return.

The book is fairly short and the pages slip past under a full-sail assault on the senses, in which the reader can almost taste the salty air, luxuriate in the warmth of a secluded lagoon and hear the rigging creaking in the mainsail. Only Long John Silver’s irreverant parrot to break the atmosphere…..”pieces of eight!” 

Well over a hundred years after its original appearance, Treasure Island remains a wonderful tribute to the adventure genre, replete with a reputation undiminished by the intervening years. Young or old, for sheer escapism, this book can muster a place on most shelves. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Nation-building

11:21 PM 29 AUGUST 2016

I read this with my teenage son and it says much for the late Pratchett’s ability to speak to a broad audience that this story was immediately hailed as “the best book ever….well so far”. So what was it that resonated so notably with that most challenging of all readers – the adolescent male? Clearly a pacy storyline helps, but the Pratchett brand of humour effortlessly underpinned some complex concepts and successfully held the readers attention, able to empathise with a choice of hero/heroines.

The novel centres on the story of two survivors – ‘Mau’, an islander undergoing a right of passage to manhood, interrupted by a cataclysmic tsunami, which destroys his society and ‘Daphne’, whose boat, borne on the same monstrous wave, crash lands in the rainforest. With echoes of Tarzan meets Jane, Pratchett compares and contrasts the disparate cultures and beliefs upon which Mao and Daphne’s respective views of the world are founded and blends their different knowledge and skills to combat their vulnerability and attendant dangers. It’s a thrilling adventure. Babies to be birthed, raiders to be repelled, food to be chewed for the toothless. Indeed, part of the book’s appeal is possibly this Dahl-esque indulgence in the unexpected, the violent, the gross. But, it is also touching in parts and even the burgeoning relationship between the two main characters was tolerated in all its subtle sensitivity.

In many ways this is a ‘right of passage’ book and the emergence of the two young adults, stepping out into their prescribed futures, forever bonded by their experience, is quite uplifting.

The idea that, on this small island at least, it might be possible to erase a history and start again, or perhaps we are each a summary of our preceding generations, so that we are rarely a blank canvas. Certainly the encroachment of the ‘outside’ world into an isolated island community must change it forever, if not for the better, but individual contributions do matter.

Helpfully, in his ‘Author’s Note’, Pratchett plays the “great big multiple universes get-out-of-jail-free card”, to explain any anomalies in the plot. And about ‘Thinking’, he also belatedly warns the reader that “this book contains some”!

It is perhaps a measure of the writer that though aimed at the ‘young adult’ reader, ‘Nation’ has much to commend it to a wider audience. Leastways, son and I are committed to further exploration of TP’s lengthy book list. Bring it on!

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Jungle drum

9:18 PM 28 AUGUST 2016

This was my first taste of Paul Theroux, but I tend to love the orange-spined Penguin books and the Sunday Times byline on the cover suggesting the author “is as cool as Maugham”, just had to be tested.

Set in Malawi, the book follows the antics of American, Calvin Mullet, sent by his company ‘Homemakers International’, to establish the use of insurance on the continent and European, ‘Marais’, a wannabe revolutionary leader, seeking to ignite a popular uprising against the incumbent dictator (‘Osbong’). The interplay between their disparate paths and the buffeting of the respective ambitions, lends itself to a satirical examination of a paternalistic brand of imperialism. But, the impact of capitalism, in the guise of a local brothel just piles on the irony, as the author casts an empathetic, quizzical eye over the insincere and ill-informed fumblings of the ‘developed’ world and the assumed vulnerability of the ‘developing’. Throw in the stereotypical British ex-pat, Major Beaglehole and the scope for political incorrectness is huge. However, read as a book of its time (1970s), the caricatures are cleverly assembled and instantly recognizable.

A very entertaining read, I’m not sure I would put Theroux in the same bracket as Maugham, but he does have an impressive back catalogue  and I shall look forward to sampling some more. 

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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Profound look at good endings…

8:44 PM 28 AUGUST 2016

Working as I do in an integrated Health & Social Care environment, ostensibly geared to working with older citizens, this book had a resounding resonance with my own professional experience. The loss of my grandparents in recent years also bore some of the hallmarks of the tensions alluded to by Gawande, between the expectations and aspirations of people faced with the additional years, which for many, modern science has made possible and systems which may be subverted towards longevity as a destination in itself, without recourse to the ‘quality of life’ issues, with which they are inevitably bound.
Gawande makes a very cogent case for considering the role of western medicine in contemporary society and the potential for Drs to collude with patient’s assumed desire for survival, because treatments are possible, rather than initiate ‘difficult conversations’ which establish ‘what matters’ to the individual. The author describes common examples of clinicians instinctive leaning towards the exhaustion of a catalogue of possible interventions, without necessarily relating decision-making to what the patient is seeking to achieve through treatment. The book may thus be seen as a rallying cry to clinicians to rebalance the power differential which has evolved between the professional and the patient. However, there is also an implied criticism of societies that have become distanced from the reality of death. In the past, families and individuals were arguably more exposed to the experience and consequences of ageing and dying. In contrast to today, when such decline is frequently behind hospital doors, managed by professionals, the sanitizing of the process may have resulted in societies less equipped emotionally and practically to procure and recognize a ‘good’ death. For example, the author contrasts the experience of many with the often enlightened approach adopted by the hospice movement, which could inform much of ‘mainstream’ medical ‘end-of-life pathways’.
In his quite profound book, Gwawande’s sensitive writing style invites overdue reflection on how we have come to the current state of affairs. Given the ageing populations of most western nations, he has also perhaps rendered us a great service, initiating a wake-up call to all of us, to consider how we would want the last stages of our lives to look like (and equally pressing – not look like) and to have the courage to ensure our nearest and dearest are aware of our wishes. Abdicating responsibility for defining a ‘good death’ in our own terms, potentially leaves the decision-making, when the time comes, in the hapless hands of those without the clarity of ‘knowing’. For those of us in a position to initiate such difficult conversations, the reward of short-term discomfort may be surprising responses, but also understanding and knowledge with which to advocate the most appropriate outcome. A really thought-provoking read.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521155649

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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Sequels can work…

7:39 PM 28 AUGUST 2016

A return to Jake Brigance as a hero of the courtroom marks the continuance of John Grisham’ s first novel. JB now in his thirties has not enjoyed the take-off of his career that might have been anticipated following his triumph in “A Time to Kill”, set three years previously, but his brand of delivering legal representation with an ethical edge remains thoroughly compelling. Of course, the latest tale is dependent upon a scenario which duly presents a moral maze, through which JB must navigate on behalf of a victim of circumstance, facing high calibre legal gladiators. As always, Grisham confirms his standing as a consummate story-teller and his pacing of the plot translates into a strong ‘page-turner’. The book reinforced my relish of the wise Judge Atlee, who wields power on the Ford County bench, mentor of JB, but unashamed arbiter of fair play, at times based on an apparently instinctive, ‘common sense’ view of justice. There are a couple of mechanisms used to maintain the pitch of impending failure, but nonetheless, the resolution of the court case is satisfying and confirmed my standing as a fan of
Grisham’ s skill as a writer of thrilling fiction.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521162726

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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Men and sheds

7:41 PM 7 AUGUST 2016

Witty, insightful, poignant and thought-provoking, for men of a certain age Marcus Berkmann’s book provides a useful compass with which to navigate those twilight years, with humour rather than resignation, grace rather than grumpiness. Should be compulsory reading for all men with the potential to age predictably.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521167368

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Quite Sublime

7:12 PM 7 AUGUST 2016

The word ‘superb’ is not one I bandy about lightly, but it seems eminently appropriate for “The Book Thief” by Marcus Zusak. Not only is it inventive in the use of Death as a narrator, which adds a peculiar perspective to the story and confers so much more than a simple device, but the plot and characters are truly compelling. Just when I might have thought the rich seam of World War II had been overworked, comes this beautifully crafted book, which teases at loose threads of this global human tragedy and gradually unpicks the experience of a unique individual, her foster parents and the street and town in which they lived. That the street and characters are German and shaped by the familiar trajectory of the conflict is intriguing. That human frailties and blessed courage know no national boundaries, yet flourish at the individual level, is fascinating.
The gloriously flawed heroine, Liesel, is a child, but nonetheless challenges stereotypes and her arbitrary circumstances, not saintly, but indomitable, funny yet deep. Meanwhile, the disparate array of relationships between Liesel and her parents, neighbours, asylum-seeker and benefactor sow the seeds of sadness, frustration, admiration and despair in equal measure. The impact of man’s folly is clearly shown in war and is perhaps felt most keenly by the poor and yet the author also casts a hopeful light on the resilience of the human spirit and without sentimentality the possibility of greater things. A wonderfully poignant read to ponder.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/BOOK/SHOW/893136.THE_BOOK_THIEF

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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Quiet, please!

We all have talents, this seems self-evident, but in a world apparently possessed by a clamouring for celebrity culture and the reward of extrovert behaviour, there is a risk that we trade charisma for depth and push ‘quiet’ souls to the margins. This book makes a compelling case for re-evaluating the contribution of the introverted and examines why the range of human personalities exists, what are the implications for those who fall to the introverted end of that continuum and for those successful in overcoming such a potential disadvantage, how did they do it?
Naturally there is an obvious attraction in this book for introverts everywhere (though western culture appears to offer the greatest challenge) and there is a warming validation in Susan Cain’s explanation that it’s OK to be ‘quiet’. The cerebral-leaning are not to be pitied, the ‘geeky’, the ‘shy’ are capable of making profound contributions in work and social life and this book offers some real insight for those seeking to understand how best to relate. The book also offers strategies for the introvert not wanting to be held hostage to their natural self. I found it gratifying to find that introverts don’t need to move to China to be appreciated, but awareness of approaches that might oil the wheels of relationships were thought-provoking. This book reaffirms that ‘it takes all sorts’, but my favourite quote appears in the conclusion, “The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting.For some it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk”. Thank goodness for that!

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/BOOK/SHOW/18006972-QUIET

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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Older and wiser…………

The underlying premise of this book is quite intriguing in that it appears to question the morality behind the ‘warehousing’ of our elders in Care Homes. Moreover, the delegation of caring responsibilities for some of our more vulnerable people to the vagaries of commercial enterprise seems destined to deliver only a diminished quality of life. Cue Martha Andersson, a septuagenarian heroine unwilling to allow the status quo to go unchallenged and the potential for conflict, drama and humour is set. Like a latter-day Spartacus, Martha contrives to lead her friends and fellow malcontents on a spree of uninhabited rule-breaking and new experiences, in an effort to enrich their lives.The series of adventures struck me as reminiscent of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, or rather how they might behave in retirement. Still, there is something endearing in the rebels rejection of stereotypes and their general railing against the dying of the light. Indeed, there is something delicious about the group’s refusal to comply with social etiquette and the frequently patronizing expectations of the older fraternity. Friendship, romance, bonding and unashamed thrill-seeking drive the ‘gang’ into an escalating spiral of misdemeanors, outwitting those in authority and proving the adage that people can only be ‘governed’ by consent.

On the whole an easy, entertaining read without being overtly funny or exciting. Nonetheless, the concept is a good one and just as some of us aspire to be the elder in the purple hat, some of us may now have a sneaking desire to join the ranks of the aged rebels and definitely not go quietly, but rather wring some quality from life well into our dotage.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1644378598

Rating: 2 out of 5.
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Satirical Humour?

1:35 PM 6 AUGUST 2016

There can be little doubt that McEwan ia an exceptionally talented writer. Fresh from reading “Atonement”, for me, this is clearly demonstrated by the contrasting, but similarly compelling style and storyline deployed in “Solar”. 

This book centres on Nobel-prize-winning physicist, Professor Michael Beard. A brilliant mind, though past his ‘best before’ shelf-life, Beard is an emotional train crash, careering out of a fifth failed marriage and destined to be perpetually disappointed by the self-inflicted carnage of his sabotaged relationships. And yet, the superficial nature of Beard’s disposable romantic encounters, juxtaposed with the gravity and gloomy predictions of global-warming, is shot through with mawkish satirical humour. Notwithstanding the lure of scientific rationality, the weak and shallow base motivations of man are seemingly unequal to the challenge of impending destruction. Moreover, humankind may yet be sacrificed on the altar of our individual and collective inability to focus! It’s a sobering thought….

Another well-constructed novel, which further burnishes McEwan’s reputation, though I was also left with the impression that the serious threat to the planet is no laughing matter!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Protective Nature of Imperfect Memories…

11:51 PM 1 FEBRUARY 2018

I am a self-confessed admirer of Sebastian Faulks and any additions to an already impressive body of work are typically to be savoured. For me, the author has consistently delivered novels that are both interesting and evincing a silky use of language, but two themes have repeatedly captured Faulks’ imagination. Indeed, he excels at books involving wartime experiences – WW1 or WW2 (think ‘Birdsong’ or ‘Charlotte Gray’) and mental illness (think ‘Human Traces’ or ‘Engleby’). What these themes tend to have in common is the prospect of turmoil for the characters involved, elements of unpredictability for the plot and untidy conclusions – the legacy of both can be far-reaching. It is also true that these two themes can profoundly define individual lives and, in the case of the world wars, whole generations. In ‘Where my heart used to beat’ Faulks has created (almost inevitably) a tale that deftly merges these themes and brings together two survivors of their respective generations’ global conflict, bound by the shared curiosity and insights of trained psychiatrists.


The British psych’ is introduced first. In New York for a medical conference, he uses his friend’s flat to use a prostitute, before hurriedly leaving for his home in London. This is a peculiar opening, which reveals much about the character, very quickly, including an ongoing affair with ‘Annalisa’, but without naming Robert Hendricks, until he takes his messages off the ansaphone in his London flat. Before the end of the opening chapter though, he’s also had an argument with his aforementioned girlfriend and feels quite alone. This struck me as a really clever means to sketch out this central character and in a sense prepare the canvas for the layering of colours to follow. Still, Hendricks’ assertion that, “I was an habitué of loneliness, which was in any case the underlying condition of mankind from which the little alliances and dependencies we make are only a diversion.” alludes to the complex psyche of the man and the torturous nature of his life’s experiences.


Among the letters awaiting Hendricks’ return is one from the unknown Alexander Pereira, who explains that he knew Hendricks’ father (he died just before Armistice Day, when Robert was just two) and invites him to stay at his island home off the coast of Toulon. Pereira is familiar with Hendricks’ acclaimed book and offers him a job collating his memoir, but over time the two develop a relationship in which they foster mutual help, without any progress on the older man’s book. Instead, at times the pair seem to be indulging in reciprocal counselling, each divesting himself of historical baggage. We discover, for example that Hendrick’s tragic war-time love affair, while recuperating from wounds sustained in battle in Italy, proved every bit as debilitating as the physical injuries. Yet, while both men are struggling with the burden of aspects of their respective pasts, their professional insights into the working of memory and emotions cannot shield them, but they are able to bare their vulnerability and over time work towards a truce with their troubled consciences.


Along the way, the author provides much food for thought for the reader and suggests limitations for rationality in the life of men. Love, Hendricks asserts has similarities to drug addiction. It is the “only emotion we granted the power to change our lives; no other feeling – if by ‘feeling’ we meant the release of unruly chemicals in the brain – was allowed to sit in judgement bedside our reason and our intellect.” Moreover, Pereira argues that we cannot necessarily rely on the mercurial nature of human memory either, since “a man’s life is not made up of things that happened, but by his memory of them and the way in which he remembers.” Our capacity to repress memories and fashion self-protection is fascinating, but for the two central characters it seems likely that a diagnosis of PTSD would offer the most compelling explanation in contemporary psychiatry. Still, the reshaping of the men’s respective burdens to something more bearable is an interesting journey and perhaps reinforces the notion that only at our most vulnerable, at our most human, can we be truly alive and know that our heart is beating. This is not my favourite book from Faulks, but worth the effort and I think may bear re-reading for some of the subtle nuances.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

In every life a little rain must fall…..

1:17 PM 21 JANUARY 2018

In essence ‘The Rainbow’ is a family saga, which examines the journey of three generations of the Nottinghamshire-based, Brangwen family. In particular, several of the most interesting characters are strong women of that clan – mothers, partners, daughters.

Published in 1915, this novel assumed some notoriety following a prosecution, by the ‘Public Morality Council’ for obscenity and the first clash between Lawrence and British censorship. However, a century on, the contemporary threshold for public outrage is calibrated more liberally and enables the reader to engage with the much bigger themes present in the book. So, rather than becoming exercised by lewd sexualised behaviour and implied impropriety, of equal interest to the modern reader may be the backdrop of early industrialisation, the rise of capitalism and the attendant social consequences for women and, to use the modern parlance, social mobility.


The chapters are quite long, which seems to be Lawrence’s style and often the description of nature is beautiful though laboured. Yet, it does contrast the starkly grey and grimy towns to which the working class are increasingly tethered to populate mines and factories and satisfy the demands of mechanisation and progress. Indeed, arguably Lawrence has used the Brangwen’s as a metaphor for the urbanization of the midlands and a wider movement from a bucolic existence to a form of industrial serfdom, but transforming also social attitudes and the norms, which had hitherto maintained the status quo. Thus, the apparent loosening influence of traditional institutions (church, marriage, community) is portrayed by Lawrence as having potentially liberating effects, or at least challenging the hypocrisy of conventional moral rectitude.


Still, within the personal lives of the main characters are also the tensions, trials and emotional turmoil that appear ever-present in families, whatever the era and some interesting parallels to twenty first century life. First up, Lydia Lensky is the daughter of a Polish landowner, but a widowed single parent, when she receives a proposal of marriage from farmer Tom Brangwen. The couple go on to have a son, but Tom also raises Lydia’s daughter as his own and fashions a strong and special, though volatile relationship with ‘Anna’, in part to fill a perceived deficit in his marriage.


Anna, in turn, marries William Brangwen (‘step cousin’) and in some senses replicates the turbulent relationship modelled by her parents, but the couple go on to have a large family and Anna revels in her matriarchal role. The rapid succession of babies though also has implications for their eldest daughter. ‘Ursula’ is called upon to help tend her siblings, but in the frenetic bustle of the household fosters an especially close relationship with her father, to step outside of the care of four babies. Moreover, Ursula’s subsequent education and aspirations show burgeoning feminist tendencies and her resistance to the historical templates available for women – “…why must one inherit this heavy, numbing responsibility of living an undiscovered life?”- mark her out as the most interesting character in this book.


Ursula’s revolutionary leanings are expressed in her pursuit of independence, but Lawrence deliberately touched a nerve, by including the young woman’s developing sexual awareness, as a component of her rebellion. “She knew that she had always her price or ransom – her femaleness……In her femaleness she felt a secret riches, a reserve, she had always the price of freedom.”


The challenge posed by D.H.Lawrence to the sobriety of his time might seem less inflammatory today and yet the aspiration to be “proud and free as a man, yet exquisite as a woman” retains a familiar contemporary echo. The fact that this book precedes its better known sequel ‘Women in Love’, which continues to follow the lives and loves of Ursula and her sister Gudrun Brangwen, may also suggest that Lawrence was ahead of his time in more ways than one and can still speak to the multi-title, ‘boxset’ generation.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

It takes a whole village…

1:06 AM 2 JANUARY 2018

Using a novel to highlight invisible social issues, such as runaway teenagers, taking flight as a consequence of factors such as domestic violence, gang culture and parental rejection is a tricky business. For example, who knew “one in ten run away from home before they reach the age of sixteen, a massive 100,000 every year”? It’s a fairly damning statistic, which says much about British society and an apparent incapacity to protect vulnerable young people. Moreover, “two thirds of children who run away are not reported to the police.” Still, against this rather bleak backdrop, Jane Davis has constructed a subtle plot, which does far more than merely generate pathos. Indeed, JD has also sought to establish that this is not a problem solely besetting some poverty-stricken underclass, but rather an issue that crosses mundane social boundaries and ‘runaways’ might therefore be seen as victims of an extreme degree of family separation.


‘A Funeral for an Owl’ centres on history teacher, Jim Stevens, who works at an inner city high school, but originates from the nearby council estate and though the vagaries of social mobility have enabled Jim to move literally to the other side of the railway tracks, he has not strayed far from his roots. When a violent incident at school sees Jim hospitalised, colleague (‘Ayisha’) is drawn into the clandestine support he has been providing to one of his pupils (‘Shamayal’) and Ayisha’s own integrity, in the face of strict policies and procedures, is challenged.


Ayisha has benefitted from a stable family upbringing and though struggling with the expectations of a distant and demanding mother, she has little insight into the profound hardships experienced by some of her disadvantaged pupils, away from school. And so, while Jim languishes in a hospital bed, the story alternates between examining Jim’s past experience, which culminated in his being stabbed and the very pressing present, which finds Ayisha discovering that doing the ‘right thing’ can take courage and a sense of bewildering isolation.


In spite of his inner city upbringing, ten year-old Jim is into birdwatching and this egregious pastime enables the boy to connect with the troubled Aimee White. Two years his senior, Aimee is destined to attend the all-girls school designated by her wealthy parents, but for the intervening six weeks of the summer holidays, the pair fashion a poignant relationship, which bridges their respective worlds. Almost spookily prescient, Aimee observes that “Indian tribes believe owls carry the souls of living people and that, if an owl is killed, the person whose soul they’re carrying will also die.”


Later, the geekiness of Jim’s birdwatching also captures Shamayal’s imagination and there is symmetry too, in Jim’s burgeoning relationship with Ayisha.


However, what stood out most for me in this book was the crafted writing, in which JD changes gear so smoothly that the journey was simply a pleasure and over all too quickly. The plot was deceptively simple and yet the characterization of the protagonists was insightful and interesting (I especially enjoyed ‘Bins’ the estate eccentric, who is curiously invisible) and made the story eminently plausible and readable. Clearly the book is not targeted solely at young adults and as with a lot of good fiction, the food-for-thought it provides is rightly taxing. As a social worker myself, it would be easy to criticize the rather neat conclusion, which perhaps sanitizes the ‘messiness’ that attends typical family life, but that would be churlish and miss the point. The adage that ‘it takes a whole village to raise a child’ is at the heart of this book and we all need to do our bit…

Rating: 4 out of 5.

We can learn from books…even forgotten ones!

8:42 PM 26 DECEMBER 2017

Occasionally it can fun to take a punt on an ‘unknown’ book, from a public library, charity shop or friend’s shelf, but when such a lottery yields an unexpected pearl it can be all the more rewarding. ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ was one such absorbing read, by an author (Carlos Ruiz Zafόn) unfamiliar to me, but this story is made all the more intriguing by its draw on several genres. Set in post-civil war Barcelona, there are elements of historical drama, echoes of gothic mystery and romance, thriller and even comedic moments. It’s a heady cocktail, yet the layering of the narrative is so expertly written that the reader is skilfully drawn into the complex lives of the interconnected characters. Central among them is Daniel, who, aged ten, is introduced to the strange ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’, where he is fated to choose ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ written by Julian Carax.


“…few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart…”and so it proves for Daniel, as his ownership of the rare book triggers his curiosity about the mysterious author and burgeons into an ardent adult need to solve the puzzle that is Carax.


Along the way, Daniel’s relationships with his father, friends, neighbours and those close to Carax offer vivid insight into the dark days of Franco’s Spain. None more so than a vagrant, the ebullient Fermin Romero de Torres, who befriends Daniel and though exposing him to the unwanted attention of his former police torturer (Inspector Fumero), also protects Daniel and infuses him with a romantic verve for life. By contrast, a rather sinister character disfigured by fire is also lurking, bent on relieving Daniel of his book. Peril it seems is never far away.


Still, notwithstanding the well-defined Spanish social strata and the distribution of power across wealth, family and state lines, Daniel navigates a courageous path, which challenges the status quo and unashamedly asserts the capacity of love to breach such man-made boundaries.


The various strands of the plot are woven together seamlessly to create a highly satisfying whole and Zafόn’s attention to the detail of his creation ensures there are no ‘loose ends’, which I rather liked. All in all a very entertaining read, though as Mr Carax suggests, “Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you.” I hope not.


As an aside, this novel was translated into English by Lucia Graves, daughter of Robert Graves, whose books about Emperor Claudius are among my earlier reviews. However, we should acknowledge that the quality of Ms Graves work has ensured that this novel seems to lose little in translation.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Modern charades….is it a book? Is it a film?

10:27 AM 26 NOVEMBER 2017

I generally get a sense of foreboding when I read on a book’s cover, “NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE”, even more so when I have seen said movie. “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is a good example, in that it is a glorious ‘feel good’ film, with a host of wonderful actors, setting the bar high for the preceding novel, which I notice was previously entitled, “These Foolish Things”. But, notwithstanding this book has apparently inspired a successful cinema formulation, would it be any good?

The answer is ‘yes’, Deborah Moggach’s original novel is really well conceived and the interplay between the cast of characters is comical, poignant and even touching at times. However, the downside to seeing the movie first is a sense of disappointment that the book has not been faithfully reproduced on the screen. Some parts that have been ‘bigged up’ for the cinema-going public proved to be relatively modest on reading the book. Unsurprising perhaps, when the talents of Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith et al are at hand, but the young charismatic Indian entrepreneur (played by Dev Patel) shown on the book’s cover with his beautiful girlfriend, doesn’t actually exist in the intervening pages. Instead, Sonny is middle-aged, rather dull and a ‘bit part’, compared to his central role in the screen version.

In contrast to the Hollywood meets Bollywood makeover, the book is earthier and the characters’ back-stories more authentic, in turn making the plot lines more plausible. At a time when the UK’s National Health Service is creaking under the pressures of an ageing population and traditional family loyalties are equally stressed, the advantages of shipping out to a new retired life in a strange land is a tantalising prospect   The comparing and contrasting of cultures within the book was also arguably more nuanced and the author holds up an interesting mirror on what it is to grow old in modern societies. East and West both have their ‘hidden’ populations of the ‘uncared for’. But, perhaps the message of the book is that for those with an adventurous or courageous spirit and a willingness to share and create new social circles, life retains a wealth of possibilities.

The title is an interesting aside, but for me the book is much more explicitly about the characters and the dilapidated hotel merely a backdrop, albeit a useful metaphor, for which the original title may have better preserved the distinction. Still, despite the apparent temptation to ride the coat-tails of a successful movie, this book is, of itself, worth a read and perhaps for people of a certain age provides important fuel for thought.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

DNF – a first!

12:03 PM 30 JUNE 2018

In an overdue exercise in clearing up some flotsam on my shelf, I have taken the unprecedented  step of declaring this book a ‘DNF’ – ‘did not finish’ and moreover have no intention of finishing…ever! I am not easily discouraged as a rule, but I made it to page 242 (about 25% in) and it struck me as such a dispiriting book that I’ve decided to cut my losses. Life is after all too short.

The narrator of the story, Dr Max Aue is a former SS Intelligence Officer and claims he “never asked to become a murderer.” Yet, his proclivity for the function of mass killer leaves the reader with no understanding or empathy for the miserable husk of a man that he becomes, still less for the mindless atrocities in which he was complicit. Indeed, I leave the book rather disappointed that this wretched character goes on to survive the war.

The sleeve notes point out that the book has won literary accolades and I readily acknowledge that Jonathan Littell writes well, but the content is not for me. The notes also add that this is a book, ‘to which no one can be indifferent’ and that too may be true. Unfortunately I disliked it so intensely that it has the distinction of being my first unread shelf occupant. It has also been compared to ‘War and Peace’, though I am confident that Tolstoy’s masterpiece will not get the same response (it’s added to my tbr list, just to be sure). Of course it is eminently possible that I am mistaken, but I’m content with this being ‘one that got away’.

Reading progress update: I’ve read 152 out of 992 pages.

12:24 PM 20 OCTOBER 2017

I’m not usually minded to update on reading ‘progress’, but for this “monument of contemporary literature” I’ve made an exception. Firstly, it’s a fairly impressive tome, weighing in at nearly a thousand pages, which implies a fairly large investment in time. But,  the subject matter is also destined to be harrowing and is likely to be interspersed with some lighter reads, in an effort to stave off emotional exhaustion.

Perhaps, if I explain the book is a fictional memoir of Dr Max Aue, a former SS intelligence officer and the first hundred or so pages has been dominated by the Nazi invasion eastward into Poland in World War II and the central character’s involvement in the attendant atrocities, you will appreciate the nature of the task. Certainly it is not an easy read! Trying to illuminate the seductive nature of evil on such a terrifying scale is ambitious and man’s capacity for inhumanity is frightening! Whether this book enhances the understanding of the horror of war and the tragic consequences is another matter.

My early impression of the novel is that it’s well written, but that Jonathan Littell must have known his approach would be controversial. Notwithstanding the cover sleeve suggests it has been compared to “classics of world literature, including War and Peace”, time will tell whether it was worth the effort. The sleeve also suggests that “this is a book that every thinking person should read and to which no one can be indifferent”. Whatever my ultimate conclusions, I’m sure that will be true. I’m already far from indifferent, but the thinking is perhaps necessarily uncomfortable.

Less Than High Jinks

1:24 PM 16 OCTOBER 2017

This debut novel by the loquacious Stephen Fry was always likely to be embraced enthusiastically, emanating as it has from the pen of a popular polymath. One also gets the impression that SF has adhered to the old adage of ‘write what you know’, since the book is largely set in the world of public school and Cambridge, as it tracks the journey of Master Adrian Healey from boyhood, through turbulent adolescence, to the nurturing embrace of the middle class establishment. Certainly the writing style is engaging and shows a sure-footedness that the reader might have expected. However, whilst the main character is mildly interesting in his precocious, brash confidence and quick one-liners, Healey is surrounded by rather cliched caricatures of schoolmasters, college dons and the spy-set, which overall destined this novel to disappoint.

Fundamentally I had expected more originality and though there were humorous elements, for me, these were offset by the dependence on the crudely sexualized description of Healey’s experiences, which might equally establish the central character as a victim and perpetrator of abuse. In such territory, light-heartedness is a double-edged sword, even if meant to be tongue in cheek. A very English brand of humour? Possibly. The book may also draw on autobiographical material, but must surely also cast doubt on the character-building qualities of such apparently entrenched institutions, for our youth.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Chinese Takeaway…

12:01 PM 23 SEPTEMBER 2017

“The Bonesetter’s Daughter” was my first foray into the work of Amy Tan and though the author’s style is quite engaging, it struck me as something of a ‘prawn cracker’ novel. That is, it looked substantial, but melted during consumption, leaving a rather hollow sense of what might have been. Still, insights into the characters’ experience of oriental culture, permeating their origins in rural China, but also conferring a heritage, tenaciously relevant in the modern United States, kept the story interesting.

The book focuses on the experiences of three women, connected by blood (daughter/mother/grandmother), but separated by generational expectations and the disparate influences of vastly different times and places. From pre-war China, through Hong Kong to contemporary San Francisco, the journey of the Liu maternal line is fraught and runs the risk of being forgotten, until Ruth is confronted by her mother’s advancing dementia. Fortunately, Luling Liu had seen the signs earlier and committed her life-story to paper while her memory was relatively intact. Through this device, Ruth becomes the narrator of her mother’s story and is able to review their relationship in the context of Luling’s past. Moreover, Ruth learns about their mutual roots and is able to reconcile a tragic history with a more positive future, amid her mother’s fading recollections of her own upbringing. 

The examination of significant events, which beset the elders and yet percolated through time to deposit consequences on the youngest is a familiar theme and given the similarities in their respective personalities, kept alive the dichotomy of the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate. Yet, by comparison, I found Ruth Lui to be the weak link, locked in a mundane present, in contrast to the steely Luling and her ‘Precious Auntie’, forged in harsh and often brutal circumstances. Perhaps inevitably, there is an additional curiosity value attached to the unfamiliar, but the tantalizing glimpses of the lives of Ruth’s relatives rescued the book from total blandness.

In a wider sense, there is also a perceptible nod to the experience of women, which has seen significant change in some cultures and spheres, but almost glacial evolution in others, most obviously, in this novel, in terms of familial responsibilities. Given the subject matter of course, there is also the possibility that the book may resonate differently between genders, but I don’t think it was necessarily written with solely women readers in mind. Certainly, the spotlight cast on dementia and the sense of loss for sufferers and loved ones alike, is a shared experience that packs a common punch.

On balance, for me, it was an OK read, which didn’t chime with the gushing praise on the cover and promised more than it delivered, but we have another Amy Tan on the shelf and I will give that a go in due course.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Morse bows out…

9:23 AM 25 AUGUST 2017

The final book (13/13), in the series of crime novels featuring Chief Inspector Morse and a bravura performance from the great detective (and his creator), on which to bring down the curtain. For all his foibles and personality flaws, the irascible Morse stands tall among the pantheon of fictional sleuths and in spite of deteriorating health, he remains the best that Thames Valley CID can put in the field. And, in this tale, a particular focus is shone on the respective relationships between Morse, DS Lewis and Chief Superintendent Strange, which only adds to the feeling of a finale.


The unsolved murder of nurse, Yvonne Harrison, the previous year is a source of bitter regret for Strange and with his retirement looming, he would dearly like to leave a clean slate. However, notwithstanding the determined coercion of his superior officer, Morse is reluctant to take the case, to the point of outright insubordination. Lewis, suspecting that Morse perhaps had an historic entanglement with the victim, gets the re-opened investigation underway, but finds Morse popping up ‘unofficially’, usually ahead of his own inquiries.


Between the family members (husband, daughter, son), a series of lovers and the closed ranks of the local village, the list of suspects is lengthy. However, it is gratifying to see Lewis, unaccustomed to leading proceedings, take up the mantle, as the continued deterioration in Morse’s health hampers his involvement.


Reflections from each of the policemen are also poignant. For example, Lewis observes that “his own service in the CID had been enriched immeasurably because of his close association, over so many years now, with his curmudgeonly, miserly, oddly vulnerable chief”. In his turn, Morse takes to writing down his latest thoughts on the case, almost as a premonition or at least an insurance against his unpredictable health concerns. In the event, the case is chased to an elaborate conclusion, with the author twisting and turning to the last, but the loss of Morse, by comparison, overshadows a rather mundane and tawdry outcome.


For a brief moment, even Lewis has cause to consider the ethics of his hero’s apparent actions, but happily Morse’s reputation for authentic leadership emerges untainted. Moreover, it may speak volumes that as a reader, I also mourn his passing. Still, while television indulges in imagined sequels and prequels, the series of books crafted by Colin Dexter remains the undisputed origin of a truly exceptional literary character. May they both rest in peace.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.