Book Reviews

Hakan Nesser The Living and the Dead in Winsford, 2013 translated by Laurie Thompson

I picked up this book, a type I normally ignore, because of the place, Winsford. It is where my parents lived for the last ten years of their life and I visited them so many times, and the book was full of Winsford and Exmoor.  The paths I walked, the pubs I visited, the ponies, people and weather, all the things that fill life in Exmoor.  The story was extraordinary, I followed it to begin because of the place but then the drama took hold and became compulsive.  I had to know what happened.  I shall read more of Nesser’s books.

Arnold Bennett, Whom God Hath Joined, 1906

A masterpiece by Bennett, set as usual in the 'pottery towns' of Staffordshire at the beginning of the 20th century, when trains and railway stations dominated people's lives, or people of a certain class.  This is a page turning story, you want to know what happens to the various characters and can hardly put the book down.  Like all great novelists Bennett doesn't judge his characters or moralise, he understands them and why they do the things they do,  you sympathise too with them all.  Full of local colour and interest.  I particularly liked this quote as it seemed relevant to today, but not just to people in London: 

Whenever he went to London it seemed to him o be the home of a race sad, hurried, and preoccupied; the streets were filled with people who had not a moment tospare, and whose thoughts were tuned inwards upon their own anxious solicitudes, people who must inevitably die before they had begun to live, and to whom the possession of their souls in contemplation would always be an ipossibility.  The unique and poetic grandeur of the theatre which the character of this race had reated for the sene of woes, only added to the situation the poignancy of visual beatuy.  Instead of lightening it increased the burden.  (p180)

Crow Lake, Mary Lawson, 2003

A customer gave me this book, she had read it in a Reader’s Group and wondered what I would think of it.  Normally I read classics or non fiction, I did not know this author and it was a bit modern for me.  However, I thought it was a good book, a good story, characters, and especially the setting, in outback Ontario which clearly the author knows very well from first hand experience.  She brought childhood to life for me, very vividly, I was in their world, though the novel jumps between the present university grown up day to the past.  It draws you on with the mystery, what has happened? Who is the story teller, does it all work out?  The author uses one or two shocking scenes, to jolt you into seriousness or why? I did not like this and felt slightly tricked, I would not have read these scenes if I’d known they were coming

This is the night they come for you; Robert Goddard 2022


This book was given to me by a customer with a recommendation to read it.  Normally I only read 'old' books, i.e. written at least 30 years ago, I find they are better but occasionally I chuck the odd new one in, and this is one of them. It comes from a prolific writer of 'thrillers’, Robert Goddard.  The book reads like a film plot, the mind's eye stakes it out and I am sure the author does too, it would certainly benefit from good actors to bring the protagonists to life.  Having overcome winces at the cut-out characters, e.g. old 'good cop', young beautiful (motor bike riding) young cop / agent, grumpy peculiar chief cop, old tart etc etc, I was drawn in and learnt about Algeria and France, the awful things that happened there, in particular the October1961 massacre of protestors in Paris, and the meddling of France in Algerian post-colonial politics.  This was a theme sufficiently menacing then and today, to have you believe the danger our protagonists were in.  Of course, the author has written the book to sell, to make money, and be slightly 'virtuous' too.  In taking the Algerian side he shows himself anti-colonial, compassionate and free thinking.  Far from the truth I fear for he side-steps the big evil story of his own day and connives with the authorities as the year he was writing in, was in the middle of the shut down of society. Goddard mentions the occasional mask and quiet in the streets, and his characters as far as it is mentioned at all, conform to the madness like it was real and the measures were sensible. In other words, Goddard goes along with the establishment and its control of citizens and by not mentioning the repression, it upholds the lie. Not an artist or serious writer at all then, but the book is only meant to entertain and divert, and yes, it does do that.

Beowulf, translated by Raffael Burton, 1963

I have tried to read Beowulf before and never managed, stuck in the complex language of ritual – basically it was too boring, but this time, with this translation, I read it in two days, only reluctantly putting it down because of the necessaries of life.  Burton’s translation is a racing tale, full of imagery, imparted by the words, conjuring wilderness, dark nights and flickering fires and bands of fighting men loyal to their Lords travelling across land and sea.  I read it to understand a little more about the Staffordshire Hoard, the treasure discovered 14 years ago consisting of more than 7000 pieces of gold, silver and cloisonne, all of it prized from weapons, representing the arms pulled from about 100 men, buried about 650AD.  Why was it dismantled from the weapons, broken and buried?  Beowulf explains a little.  The seventh century AD, when Beowulf was composed and recited, was also the period when weapons were embellished with gold and silver and garnet, a period of outstanding craftsmanship, and when honour was all.  Fighting, boldness and loyalty to a might warrior Lord was the aim of this warrior class, inspired by poems such as Beowulf. 

Escape in Vain, Georges Simenon, 1944

Another masterpiece by Georges Simenon, interesting in so many ways.  I found the story painful, my sympathies were with the main character, nasty as he was, I could hardly bear to follow his story, but if you pick it up, stay with it, in the end it was redemptive, it brought tears to my eyes.

Georges Simenon; The Venice Train; 1965 new translation by Ros Schwartz 2022, Penguin Classic

 Georges Simenon is a novelist and observer of human nature rather than a detective writer, he uses crime to reveal the character of people, often, as in this book, people of the most ordinary kind. His protagonist in The Venice Train is forced to look at his true self, all his values, aims and ambitions in work, sex and life. Does he love his wife, does he love his children even and do they love him, is he prepared to lie to his nearest and dearest, to live a lie? It is a horrid reckoning. An ageless tale but totally absorbing of a person whose moral values are not strong enough to support him in the game of life

Norah Vincent, Voluntary Madness: My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Bin, 2008

Norah is a journalist, a successful one, both with her journalism and books, I remember her book about pretending to be a man for a year, I didn’t read it, but what she said in an interview stuck with me.  I picked her ‘Year in the Loony Bin’ as I have a friend who has been sectioned and I have been horrified at the loss of her rights, and how easy it is to be sectioned.  Norah V’s book was set in America, but what happens there is very similar to what happens here.  The medication, powerful drugs, and more drugs to counterbalance the powerful drugs.  Everyone is on them, the only way to not be is to pretend – somehow, to take them and then bin them.  Equally horrifying are the vague diagnoses of the ‘disease’ and the psychiatrists who rule the roost, and the other staff who control lives in tiny detail.  Norah for the sake of her story half pretended and half real, admitted herself to three mental hospitals in America, a terrible one, a middling one and a very good one.  She talks us through the experience, describes her own mental state, those of her fellow patients, and the staff and the institutions.

It is an American book, with American language and attitudes.  I felt a bit uneasy about reading it, the honesty of it, like overhearing a nasty episode or being there actually.  But did her subjects give permission for their stories to be told, were they aware she was sort of ‘under cover’.  She is a tough person and not terribly likeable, but at the end we learn she herself had been sexually molested and landed with disease before she was ten, and this explains a lot.  The honesty of her own condition and those around her made me think about novels.  Is this why we like them?  To vicariously get into the minds and predicaments of others without actually having to live them ourselves?  phew thank heavens that isn’t me.  I suspect this is the case.  But this story is a bit too strong for me.  You will learn about drugs, don’t take any of them for any reason.  And never go to psychiatric hospital.  Once in the only way to get out is to play the game and hang on in there and/or have strong family and be lucky.  The take home message, and it is a strong one, comes in the last five pages.  No cure will work unless the ‘patient’ participates, unless they have the will to be better.  If the will is there even the most extreme cases can get better, but, it takes effort; effort, energy and thought.  Regular running for example is a wonderful cure, plus learning, getting a faith, having work, good food, friends, possibly psychotherapy.  This requires great energy and will power; most do not have it.  Norah comes away understanding this, she is not cured but she is ‘on the journey’ and her life as a result is meaningful and satisfying 

An Evil Love; The Life of Frederic West; Geoffrey Wansell; 1996

The reason I read (in part) this book is that Fred West is local, a Much Marcle and Herefordshire man.  I wanted to know his background, how did such a person come to be.  Geoffrey Wansell has done a good job of explaining it, both the peculiar life and extraordinary events.  They were ordinary for West I fear.  It is an important book.  A very important book.  Vulnerable children suffered horribly, and no-one was there to watch out for them.  Social services, school, church, hospital, the community, Police, no-one checked or thought it their job.  There were many signs. 

West was born into an abusive family, Rosemary West into an even worse one. People did not ask what went on behind closed doors in the countryside.  They were rough lower-class people, leave them to themselves was the attitude.  West’s own children went backwards and forwards into Care, they had trips to hospital from the abuse, they surely failed at school – no-one checked. 

West learnt by instinct how to be free to do what he wanted.  He bought his own house, he had his own children to abuse, he worked hard at manual jobs, ones that kept him on the road, ones that no-one else wanted.  He was a smutty, rough, affable person to strangers he met.  He kept an open house never judging anyone.  He got away with murder time after time.  The image he created of himself, a petty criminal in trouble with the police over and over, keeping an open house, talking smut, anything goes, this was exciting to people, it was different and colourful.  ‘Who are we to judge’.  The many people he came into contact with took advantage and were pretty awful themselves, not murderers true, but happy to indulge in prostitution, drugs, a life free of restrictions.  I feel guilty myself.  In 1994 when Police finally knocked on the door of 25 Cromwell Street, I was not actually living in Herefordshire, but a year or two later I could have been cycling through exploring the countryside, enjoying myself.  Would I be thinking of the vulnerable children suffering there and if I had, would I have actually done anything … 

The Washing of the Spears, Donald R Morris, (1972); A history of the rise of the Zulu Nation under Shaka and its fall in the Zulu War of 1879


I was riveted by the story and could not put it down, taking it with me to read whenever I had spare time.  I knew nothing of South African history or Africa before and now I am excited and intrigued by it.  The Zulu nation, on the SE of the continent, was a warring nation, their wealth measured in cattle.  Each tribal group was led by an absolute monarch and the future of those born into it pre-determined.  If you were a man you were a warrior, if a woman, you worked, at farming, home making, child rearing, everything, you would live among women, and your choice of ‘husband’ was not your own.  Women were a prize for a warrior who had proved himself (washed his spear), probably in his late 30s or early 40s, and a woman would be one of many wives awarded to the warrior, depending on his status as warrior.  Their nation like all others had a history, and it changed and developed.  Morris  is a brilliant historian who respects the Zulu people and he traces their history as far back as is possible.  He also describes equally the white settlers and the character and politics of them, he gives us the individual histories of many of the soldiers, their regiments and their horses, also the churchmen (very important in the development of South Africa) and their differences, the English politicians, and even the newspaper correspondents.  He is obviously a military man himself, and understands the ethos of regiments, which goes some way to explain the extraordinary bravery of the men and their horses, their resilience and morals.  It is an exciting tale, like watching an epic film.  The war of England against Zululand was unjustified, absolutely it was, but nevertheless you can understand why Frere, the ‘Governor of the Cape’ issued the Proclamation of 1878 to the Zulu representatives, an Ultimatum, quite unjustifiable from a neighbouring country to a free nation.  It was a Declaration of War, that latterly Frere was admonished for by the British Government for acting without their authority, but the deed had been done. The country was 'defeated', 'Balkanised', white settlers moved in.

A Lifetime in the Building; Christine Adams with Michael McMahon (2009)


This was a book recommended to me by a customer and I am so pleased I followed their recommendation.  A remarkable tale in so many ways.  First about the building, it was a 1450 timber framed ‘hall house’ that in the 1960s was scheduled for demolition.  At that time the justification was just because it was old, but later the reasons changed to become the normal reason, a new road was planned and the house was in the way.  The owner, Miss May Savidge, was determined to save it and first fought to stop the demolition.  She lost that fight, so she decided to move it, all, every piece of wood, brick, tile and nail, and she won that.  Sort of.  She began the move on her retirement (55 in those days).  May moved the house by lorry load and lorry load about 100 miles north from Ware in Hertfordshire to Wells next the Sea in Norfolk, specifically, up a small sharp hill and narrow entrance to the building plot she bought.  May did much of the work herself, making the all-important plan, marking the timbers, much of the dismantling, moving building materials, creating pegs, brick work, plaster work, up scaffolding and ladders etc etc.  She hired workers when she could but this was difficult, workers were hard to find and unreliable, she waited years for them to complete their tasks.  She got older and older with no heating, no electric, living in below zero temperatures.  The author, her niece in law, has done a wonderful job of explaining May’s character, she was independent yes, very, but barmy no.  She was a hoarder yes, but from interest, interest in the objects and things.  It is no easy thing to write a person’s life, especially when you have so much material, May kept every receipt, shopping list, letter (copying those she sent), bus ticket, and kept a daily diaries.  Her letters are reproduced word for word in the book, and many of her diary entries.  So you take the journey with her in her struggles.  The neighbours were mixed.  She certainly had some good ones, checking on her, helping her, but also some bad ones, boys hassling her and snooty people uncomfortable with May’s strangeness in the town.  Her pets were company but very trying and made her life difficult.  She was unfortunate in that the men she met did not want the sort of woman she was, they wanted a mother and carer, not an interesting, alive ‘can do’ sort of person, so she lived alone, but had many friends who were supported by her in correspondence and money gifts.  If she had had an able companion the building would have been completed in her lifetime, but as for many people, that was impossible for her, so it was left to her niece to finish the building, which, thanks be to God, she did.

The Life of Marianne Faithful by Mark Hodkinson, 1991

You do wonder why Mark Hodkinson wrote his biography of Marianne Faithfull (1991) as he was not born when her first hit (some would say only hit) was released ‘As Tears Go By’.  A biographer must like their subject and Mark clearly does, but it is hard to like Marianne, who until 1991 when this book was written was silly and self-centred, a total drama queen.  I suspect it was a commission, but he was a brilliant choice for the commission.  Hodkinson really knows music, is a talented researcher and a good writer.  It is a page turning tale and enlightening to me.  I know now why I hated most of the 1960s songs, even the greats. It is because they were produced to appeal to the biggest market and that was the family market sitting round the TV, the result being blandness.  Marianne of course was a darling of the media who for many years who feasted off her sexuality, relationships and drug addiction, rejoicing in seeing a high-flying person fall lower than the rest of us, in the normal media way. 

Hodkinson says in an epilogue as a sort of apology for Marianne that at least she avoided becoming fundamentally dull in the three ways that all her contemporaries have (Cilla Black, Lulu, The Beatles, The Stones etc etc), the three ways being blandness, cabaret or caricature. I agree with him, though personally I don’t think Marianne was interesting in the first place.  She seemed false to me and talentless.  The mystery is why she was a star at all.  Well, no mystery there.  She was famous and beautiful and the gormless British public buy celebrity.  She could always get a recording contract, find a supporting band, get tour dates and thereby earn money and feed her egoism and drug habit.

Mark H really gets the awfulness of the music and pop scene of the 60s and much that follows. Marianne does change with time, dutifully becoming Punk when Punk was fashionable, and then folksy pop, dutifully turning up at all the big pop and ‘cultural’ events between 1964 and 1991.  She was a huge drug addict and had a loyal following of drug addicts who would turn up for her shows and cheer, even when she lost her voice and couldn’t sing (quite often actually).  Heroin, cocaine, marijuana, pills, alcohol in enormous quantities.  And she is still alive.  Now here is the mystery.  Her medical record is very long, drug overdoses, accidents, suicide attempts, septicaemia, pneumonia, she was a frequent emergency admittance to hospital.  Apparently she had Covid badly in 2021 and without hospitalisation in London she (according to her) would definitely have died. Another covid victim then ... I will look out for more books by Mark Hodkinson.

Chatterton Square, E H Young, 1947

Chatterton Square was the last of Emily Young’s novels about life in Bristol, written just after the War and like her other novels the main theme is about the morality of the British people.  That is why I returned to it, after our own reckoning these last two years (and worse to come?).  I had need of her understanding.  She shows us as no historian can, the mood of the people, just how divided the English were before the war.  So interesting to see how long this division has been in the population, it probably always has been.

The majority of Brits were for a peaceful life, for things to continue as they were leaving us all to get on with daily preoccupations, their problem not ours, but for some, and clearly for E H Young, this was an anathema.  They could not look their fellow country men in the face, ashamed to be British, humiliated for bending to the will of a homicidal maniac wreaking havoc and evil in countries just over the sea.  The cave in (as it was seen) by Chamberlain, literally brought them to tears, they did not know where to put themselves, how to continue life, how to speak to their friends, neighbours and relations. 

“To respond with soft words and reasonable suggestions seemed to her like trying to divert a mad dog by whistling to him cheerfully but because men in high places did whistle optimistically, the rest of the country seemed to be content.  Or was it merely that it was indifferent, morally and mentally weakened by the inertia that had fallen on it since the last war?  And what could she do about it? (p48) 

“The choice had to be made between temporary material ease and permanent spiritual evil” (266)

“… everything that was beautiful, explaining and being explained by its people, seemed to her to have that tarnish on it, or to be blurred, deadened, to have lost its loveliness and its meaning and she thought the breaking of the waves all round these shores had the sound of hissing in it” p346

"She did not meet a glance which, like her own, looked for someone with whom to share a sense of loss and indignity and personal guilt ... There should, she thought, have been a hush over the land, not a two minutes' silence of homage and thanksgiving, but an astonished silence of grief and shame" (p347)

This is how many of us felt over the corona debacle.  It is some comfort to know that things have not changed since the War.

The morality theme is set in a story around two families.  E H Young describes marriages, and especially difficult husbands, one impossibly self-obsessed one, one very selfish, two young adventure seeking men, and one good, confident self-sacrificing men, they come to life.  For me the main (female) protagonist was rather annoying but, that is just a small thing, possibly showing what a good writer, she is.

The Man Who Deciphered Linear B; the story of Michael Ventris 2002 Andrew Robinson


Linear B is the name of early European writing found on small baked clay tablets excavated by Arthur Evans’s at Knossos in north central Crete between 1900 and 1930.   Evans believed the tablets came from a Bronze Age culture and language of 1400 to 1200 BC that spread to Greece.  This culture had been previously found in excavations, notably by Schliemann's 1870s excavations in Mycenae, Greece and Evans believed it had spread there from Crete.  Evans called the culture Minoan after King Minos of labyrinthine and Minotaur fame which he thought his excavations had revealed.  Over the years the excavations found thousands of tablets.  He called the writing Linear B to distinguish it from the older (1750-1450 BC) Linear A script also found on Crete and still not deciphered.


The book is the story of Michael Ventris and how he ‘cracked’ the code.  If you want to know about Linear B you would do better to look it up on Wikipedia, but if you want to read about the man, and how he managed to interpret signs of an unknown language with an unknown script read the book.  Ventris was a linguist extraordinaire, he could learn a new language in a couple of weeks and communicate easily in it, switching form one to another.  He knew ancient Greek and Latin from school.  Sadly (in my opinion) his chosen career was architecture but from boyhood he was fascinated by Evans’s tablets and in his 20s and early 30s devoted much of his life to them.  He worked with others not wanting fame or glory, just to understand the script.  He and others worked out Linear B had signs, 87 in all but only 60 commonly used ones, such as ‘a’, ‘da’, ‘ke’, ‘no' and about 100 symbols, e.g. man, horse, cauldron.  Evans had already established that some of the tablets counted things, and the numbers, the symbol for 1 (the same as ours) and 10 (-).  Ventris and other scholars found word groups and that there were (probably) inflected endings denoting masculine, feminine, singular, plural, or case e.g. subject (nominative) object (accusative) or indirect object (dative).  Some vowel sounds were found, about three, from the logic of a leading vowel in a word only having a limited number of sounds.  Getting this far took many years.  The break through came in May 1952 when Ventris posing the premise that some of the words would be place names and these names might be the same as today, e.g. Knossos, Amnisos, Pylos and because of his knowledge of ancient Greek, he found the words.  He realised that the language he was dealing with was ancient Greek all along! 


Many years of study followed, working primarily with an academic John Chadwick.  Even today not all is solved and even today there are some that consider the whole a pack of cards.  Ironically the tablets do not tell us much, despite being able to read them and how many there are.  They are lists of things, though interestingly I suppose human sacrifice was suggested by the list, though academics tend to reject this due to ideological reasons. 


Ventris himself lost interest once he had finally solved Linear B to his own satisfaction and returned to a research job in Architecture in 1956.  This proved dull and led to severe depression.  In August 1956 he drove into the back of a stationary lorry at great speed in the middle of the night.  The verdict was not suicide but accident. 


The Book of Runes by Ralph Blum  1984

Blum writes that runic signs are very old, predating their first known date of around 200 BC and this by many centuries and interestingly putting them at the time of Linear B and indeed Blum does use Etruscan runes in one of his comparative tables.  Runes are found carved in rock in Bronze Age Sweden (1300 BC) and elsewhere, they are pictorial symbols, e.g. person, hand, arrow.  Tacitus in AD 98 says they were used for divination, for decision making by Germanic tribes.  Many (including Carl Jung) consider this an acceptable, indeed preferable way to decide things than using the brain and reason as it brings chance, randomness into lives, and to believers, introduces another mystical force.  By the 1st century AD it is thought the runes had developed into phonetic sounds and so a form of writing.   In Germany there were 24 plus one blank one and in Anglo Saxon Britain there were 33.  Blum describes each Rune, what it means, and how to read the Runes in your own life.  So much is packed into this small book and I will keep it myself for the interpretation of Celtic stone writing.


Settlers in England by Fred Kitchen 1947

I absolutely loved this book which is a small, green, hard backed book with charming illustrations (by E J Browne).  It is all about living on the land, earning a living in fact off 5 acres with pigs, chickens a horse, greenhouses and a helpful family.  Fred took up one of the holdings in the settlement system managed by the government, this at high altitude in the Peak District.  Though a farmer by birth and a writer by inclination and trade, much of the work was new to him, in particular Tomatoes … Fred had been a horseman and arable farmer.  He is a wonderful writer and this is one of a series of books he authored documenting life on the land.  I laughed so much at the antics of the animals – chickens, pigs, horses and goats, who all had their own aims and agendas in life often in conflict with their owners. 



John Inglesant, A Romance by J H Shorthouse 1881

28 Oct 2022

This book though hardly known today was extremely popular in the early 20th C, with six editions before 1883 and over 50 reprints before 1921, the date of the small Macmillan hard back I read.  It was deservedly popular without a doubt.  Shorthouse is a good writer, easy to read, a storyteller.  The book is set in the English Civil War though much of the drama takes place in Italy.  It is a historical story, and the writer knows his subject.  He writes about spiritual truth, and how one man searched for it through the travails of warring factions in politics and church (which amounted to the same thing).  I came to the book through Little Gidding which I visited this year on pilgrimage and through John Farrar who features in the tale and briefly set up a religious community here and restored the church, which was made famous by T S Eliot’s Four Quartets.  Both Eliot and Shorthouse catch the magic and mystery of the place which countless others have experienced since.  Shorthouse must have been an exceptionally well read and learned fellow, as well as a good writer, tackling such difficult subjects as Pope politics and religious sects in 17th C Italy, and making them interesting and exciting, touching on plague, war, murder, and marriage en route. 

The Hunting Hypothesis by Robert Ardrey; 1976

July 30 2022

A new book for me by my favorite author Robert Ardrey the Hunting Hypothesis (1976) and he characteristically gets straight to the point by asking the question, What is Man, how can we distinguish him from all  other creatures, and, … he answers the question.  Man is a hunter, a killer.  This meant leaders, cooperation and sharing of the kill with the group (unlike vegetarian apes), and expanding territory and deep knowledge of other creatures.  There you have it.  The explanation of the paradox, a killer who cares for his own, is capable of heroism and selfless behaviour but is ruthless, follows blindly, jostles for power and is male dominated.  Along the way we meet some fascinating evidence and theories, following the story of the evolution of Homo sapiens sapiens.  For example, possibly there is a missing link between people and chimpanzees and that chimpanzees are the later species, a divergence from man, not the other way round.  And sex, how and why did that evolve, Ardrey proposes that women invented the orgasm, as a way of enjoying sex, so men returned to the home drawn by it, but with the kill for the women who were hampered by their slowly developing young in joining the hunting party.  The man had to bring home the food, the women had to defend the lair, the den, from very real predators that would snatch a youngster and eat it.

Ardrey traces how we developed and survived the Ice Ages that have dominated the world for the last 2 million years and in 1976 science was finding evidence that we were on the brink of the next one.  What will happen to people then.  Ardrey has been spot on with his predictions and analysis and this one is not hard to agree with.  Nearly everyone will die.  A very few will survive and they will return to hunting herd animals on the edge of the ice with weapons of stone.

The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By 1938; The Breton Sisters 1936

Georges Simenon 

translated by Stuart Gilbert


Both these stories are similar in that they are psychological dramas.  No-one is ‘bad’ as such, what people do is explained in their own terms.  Fascinating tales, you follow the lives, with all the richness of home and work and towns, the relationships, objects, characters.  Though Simenon is not French he describes French life so well, its richness and intricacy, good food, customs, evocative towns and weather.  No wonder Simenon’s stories have so often been made into films.  When reading the stories you feel like you are in a French cinema, walking down the streets, into the houses, and hiding behind a curtain when terrible things happen.

The Psychology of Totalitarianism, by Mattias Desmet, 2022

13 July 2022

Desmet’s important book explains the craziness of the world of the last two years and how all the conditions were set for the madness that ensued, it was inevitable.  The book’s message is a warning, that unless each of us plays our part, a horrible future of total control of the individual will emerge.  Indeed it is almost here.


Desmet uses classic sources from different genres, psychology, science, philosophy, maths to explain where we are and what has happened.  I know what he says is true because I have observed it myself.  People are anxious and angry and this leads them to want a strong Leader/s and set of rules to take away the anxiety.  Their anger can then fix on groups and individuals that do not comply.  How often have we seen this situation in the past?  Most obviously in Germany in the 1930s and 40s when unimaginable atrocities were committed by supposedly sensible people and in Russia from the 1920s to 1960s, but there have been many other episodes, smaller but also deadly (witch hunts, terrorism fears, paedophilia mania).


In the past totalitarian mass madness episodes arose also from fear and a type of hypnosis that develops in crowds but at the heart of post ‘Enlightenment’ manias is our mechanistic world view.  The belief in science and that ultimately we can know everything and tabulate it, from the structure of matter to the workings of the human mind.  Our all encompassing knowledge then means that we can control all the dangers, by logic, rules and regulations.  Most of the great scientists however concluded that we will never know the structure of matter or anything else totally, at the centre of it is a mystery, because things flow and move and interact and the time element is so extraordinarily long.  We will never have absolute knowledge or even something approximating it.


Desment ascribes today’s free floating anxiety so obvious in the population now to the isolation most people feel in their lives.  Of course they have no faith either and he discusses this in the last chapter.  Because things inevitably are not as anxious people want, this makes them angry.   The isolation arises from meaningless work for people one does not know, and from plain isolation, living alone.  Digitization makes it worse, we think we are connected, but we cannot see facial expressions or feel all the other more human/animal ways of communicating.  Once the free floating anxiety has fixed on a common uniting danger, with relief, the hysteria arises paving the way for totalitarianism, with its rules and regulations, signs and symbols and illogical belief systems.  Anyone who does not uphold or abide by the rules is an enemy of the people.  The leader/bureaucrats of the state are also infected as the masses, and though they do not tell the truth and manipulate people, it is because, being infected, they think it the right thing to do.


Are there solutions to this rapid descent into totalitarianism, made so dangerous now due to the surveillance society.  Yes there are, and each of us must do our bit:


“ … a person’s greatest task [is] to discover the timeless principles of life, in and through all the complexity of existence … and the more we stick to those principles, even if it seems to our own detriment in the short term the more real these principles become and the more we develop as human beings … “  p157


Sticking to the truth and calling it out, whenever possible, is the only counter balance to the madness.  You will not change anyone’s mind, but you become a block, a brake, to the descent.  So don’t get jabbed (you know they don't work and are harmful), don't wear a mask (you know they don't work and are harmful) and don't contribute to this current madness or the ones that will inevitably follow by going along with it.

Peter Hitchens, The War we Never Fought, 2012


This is the story of the UK’s acceptance of marijuana and the State’s reluctance to get involved and stop it, actually more than this, the State’s encouragement of its use due to a vague libertarian attitude taking over law and policy makers of all political views.  It is harmless, less dangerous than alcohol (so they say), so no need to stop it, and pointless to try in any case.  This was the attitude as far back as the 1960s, despite media representation that it wasn’t and the general public’s belief that it is illegal.  People who smoke it have been largely free from persecution for over 60 years as police turn a ‘blind eye’ and magistrates and judges, should possession come to court, hand out minimal fines.  They have been instructed to do so.  The expressed law is strict, but it is not adhered but pronouncements from police chiefs, judges and politicians who have libertarian views, are. The situation has been a strange one of strongly condemning ‘dealers’ while ignoring or even feeling sorry for users for all this time.


The author describes how much the drug was used before the 1960s and by whom (very little, immigrant population and jazz musicians) and how it was taken up by rock culture, quickly becoming a sine qua non for cultural leaders and anyone who didn’t want to seem old.  He gives evidence, such as it is possible to know, on the effects of marijuana on mental and physical health.  It is almost impossible to know of course, for as with all lifestyle habits, e.g. diet, exercise, sleep, alcohol, the mental and physical health of the individual or group has no yardstick against which to measure.  We are forced back onto personal experience and observation.  There are plenty examples of psychosis following marijuana use especially among the young, but was it caused by smoking the drug?  Many examples too of whole sectors of society giving up on ambition once they have the drug habit but was/is marijuana a cause or effect.  Is marijuana (a ‘Class B’ drug) more dangerous than heroin or cocaine (a ‘Class A’) drugs? Again, not much evidence to say it is or isn’t.


Hitchens’ argument is why legalise a drug with unknown consequences when we didn’t have to.  Many would not have legalised alcohol if it was not more than 3000 years old and accepted by all (in this country).  His view is there is a personal morality that means we should not lose our senses and become sybarites, we need our senses for our souls.  The Establishment view is that there is no problem with this.  If this is what people want to do, then so be it.  The problem is, many make the choice when they are adolescents, and far too young to know what they are doing.

I enjoyed reading this book, Hitchens' is a good journalist giving me information I did not know about politicians and others, explaining how things worked/are working behind the facade we are given.

Kearton, with Nature and a Camera, 1897

Richard Kearton with Cherry Kearton, with Nature and a Camera, 1897;  Cassell and Co

Kearton’s book has some of the earliest photographs of wildlife in Britain, and some of the very best, even today.  The authors were brothers, they were athletic, fearless, affable and sensible.  They scaled vertical cliffs hanging from ropes, climbed tall trees in stages with a ladder (!) stood for hours waist deep in rivers to get the picture of the creature and descended into caves with precarious lights.  Remember, they used a box camera and tripod, which had to be steady in the most unsteady situations.  An amazing book but a very disturbing book.  Both brothers knew about nature learnt from boyhood due to fascination and obsession and were kindly men, not liking cruelty, but everyone else, their sources of information and very often hosts in wild places were gamekeepers and poachers.  To these people all animals, even the most tiny, were ‘game’ and ‘vermin’ and were caught in traps, nooses and nets and left to die horrible deaths.  I could not read some of the accounts.  It is surely the reason why wild creatures flee when they see humans (except for the robin, Christ’s bird).  Long experience has shown them that humans mean a horrible death.  Kearton estimates that only one third of fledglings make it even to the wing, due to predation by other birds (magpies, crows), cats, foxes, badgers, hedgehogs and most especially humans. 


The first chapter is an account of life in St Kilda’s which the brothers braved for a few months in search of wildlife, surviving with good humour the stormy seas, scrambling barefoot over the rocks and cliffs, living underground with artefacts from prehistory, and its customs and people.  An incredible source of archaeology and anthropology.  Richard writes with wit, compassion and pace, the book is an adventure story.  I have ordered other books of his and look forward to reading them.  I am loath to part with this one but probably will (watch for it in the shop). 

Spike: The Virus vs the People, the Inside Story, Jeremy Farrar with Anjana Ahuja; 

July 2021


Ahuja is a journalist on the financial times.  Farrar, the person whose tale this is, is the head of the Wellcome Trust, “the United Kingdom's largest provider of non-governmental funding for scientific research, and one of the largest providers in the world” (Wikipedia), established in 1936 by a founder of what would become GlaxoSmithKline.  Many MPs invest in GSK (see Index of Members Financial Interests) and this is the theme that came out of this book for me.  How interconnected MPs, members of the World Economics Forum and Heads of Institutions like the World Health Organisation (WHO), Coalition For Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), Global Alliance For Vaccines And Immunization (GAVI) and many more are.  I don’t think Farrar thought this would be the effect of his book.  His is an argument for more funding for scientific research into health, more connexion between countries and government in order to tackle disease, and for WHO to be more important than it is now (and he to be head of it?). 


The book is a story of Coronavirus in the UK and the World.  The phone calls, emails, texts, from one head of an organisation to another across the globe, all of whom Farrar holds in great respect (‘brilliant’, ‘superstar’) and is at pains to be on first name terms with (to the confusion of the the reader).


It begins 30 December 2019, and the chapter heading, Known Cases 4 and ends May 2021, chapter heading known cases 169 million, deaths 3.5m, UK cases 4.5m, deaths 127,775.  It focuses on England, but takes in the world, and describes the SAGE meetings (Farrar was a member), other meetings, the frantic texts and emails, that led to lock downs, later eat out for free, later more rules, rule breaking, dissent and chaos in Government departments.


The book is a plea for early prevention in the case of infectious disease.  The idea behind lock down (and presumably all the other restrictions) is the illness stops dead with the sufferer, it does not spread to anyone else, this is achieved by isolation.  In this way the disease can be stopped entirely, at least on an island (e.g. New Zealand, and I suppose Australia and Britain).  In the meantime, before travellers can bring it in again, vaccines are developed, and the entire population is inoculated and protected from the illness.  Then life can get back to normal.  Farrar is adamant herd immunity cannot happen from natural exposure.  The Barrington Declaration was a ‘dangerous proposition to allow the virus to sweep through the population quickly so that herd immunity could build up’ … ‘it was ideology masquerading as science and the science was nonsense.  There was no evidence to support its central idea’ (p181) .  But he did not convince me.  Why would it not work?  I still believe (from life experience) that you get immunity from an infectious illness, if you recover from it.  Btw, the coronavirus mutates, this is why so many boosters are needed.  I didn’t realise that is why people have all the boosters.  Farrar also explained about pneumonia, an inflammation of the alveoli in lungs, caused by bacterium, virus or fungus causing trouble with breathing, a fever and can lead to death especially for the over 65s and infants and pneumonia is what killed many Covid victims.


Farrar may live to regret this book.  Like most of the reporting I saw (in truth not much as I tried to avoid), his definition of death due to Covid, up to Chapter 8 anyway (27 December 2020, UK cases 2.3m, deaths 70,4059), is within 28 days of a positive Covid-19 test.  It disregards the legitimacy of the tests, and that people were dying of other causes, but had also tested with Covid 19 in the last month of their life, or that Covid was mostly dangerous for the elderly or sick.  Scientific? …. err No. 


Farrar and colleagues were trained and steeped in disease outbreak, all their life you feel they were waiting for this moment, so long predicted by them.  For Farrar ,at 58, it was his chance to leap onto the world stage.  Was he right?  Was all the madness worth it?  On the last page of the book he quotes Maria Van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist in the WHO’s Emergencies Programme


“This (C19 pandemic) isn't the bad one.  It spreads easily but has a relatively low mortality.  We could get something much worse”. 


A practice run then.  What I learnt is how the world is governed now, mobile phone calls between heads of organisations, who call each other ‘John’ ‘Tedros’ ‘Michael’, the ‘scientists’ who run huge research or medical firms jostling for importance with the economists and bureaucrats.


Davos (Jan 2020) changed everything … The three of us – Richard, Stephane and I were texting each other and grabbing quick coffees between sessions so we could share the real-time updates coming directly from contacts on the ground in Wuhan” p46


None of these heads are elected, they are appointed by their peers and through self promotion.  Now they are high on the power, on the adrenalin from crisis and dealing in $billions.  Farrar, though by passport British is almost nation less, his ideology would be world government, his view the greatest good for the greatest number, freedom and self autonomy are secondary to health and ‘equality’. 


The book was interesting in the way of a political diary, exposing people and situations, and also funny (in parts).  The chaos of SAGE meetings, Government departments in panic, billions spent on mad stuff, crony appointments, scandalous episodes (Farrar just didn’t get it, why people hated Neil Ferguson “the episode, [his affair breaking lock down rules] … made me realise how much scientists had become figures of hate” (p149) and Boris Johnson gaffs (actually I warmed to him, if only he’d had the character to stick with his instincts), it was like an episode of the BBC drama (back when they were good) of behind the scene at the London Olympics, Twenty Twelve. 

Trials of the State law and the decline of politics Jonathan Sumption 2019


The books consists of five essays that had been the basis of Reith Lectures.  Judge Sumption presages the collapse of democracy we see in 2020, back in 2019, when Covid had not been heard of.  He traces the effects of a society that is unwilling and unable to make difficult choices (e.g. abortion, euthanasia, extradition, same sex marriage, European Union) and relegates them to the courts of law.  He emphasises how fragile a democracy is, and how rare a society in which each voice counts and is equal.  If people are happy to be told what to do, rather than engaging, thinking and participating in debate (like now), democracy will disappear to be replaced by something much worse.  Worse for people's minds and souls.

The Eternal Husband by Fyodor Dostoevsky 1870

A masterpiece of a story, the reader never quite knows what is going on in the two main protagonists’ heads (though they better understand their souls and hearts) and it keeps you turning the page.  It is a mystery and a thriller, a short book that will completely engross you.  Written when Dostoevsky was 49, with his huge understanding of human nature.  I read the version translated by Constance Garnett, a English woman born in 1861 who began learning Russian aged 30 from Russian emigre´s and first brought the great Russian writers to an English speaking audience.  She visited Russia and met Tolstoy.  What an exciting life she must have had.

Steppenwolf Hermann Hesse 1927

16 April 2020

I read this book in March 2020 at the beginning of the Corvid 19 hysteria outbreak.  I had read it many years before as a teenager, and remembered the basic premise, that society contains certain troubled outstanding individuals who are outside the lumpen pack of humanity, they suffer, are different and outcasts, but pull the safe, secure, majority along with them.  I got it off the shelf again because I thought it would explain some of the madness of spring 2020, and for me it did.  There is much more to it than the idea above.  Hesse has a loathing for the middle classes, the bourgeoisie for its longing for safety, comfort and self interest and I believe in his own life was forced to leave Germany because of the unthinking views expressed by educated and working people alike.  He could do nothing to bring people to their senses and so left.  Steppenwolf is full of Hesse's anguish, his struggle to make sense of what was happening and he produces profound ideas to explain it.  I found strong parallels, it was a relief to 'speak' to someone who had thought more deeply, but facing his stark truth made me unhappier.  If there was somewhere to go where the population had resisted the madness and used sense, like Hesse, I would go there.

Lenin in Zurich Alexandre Solzhenitskyn 1975

Solzhenitskyn has written a story based on his extensive research and primary documents of Lenin's life in Zurich, bringing to life this, how can I describe him, 'evil' is the best word, man.  Lenin was a man possessed of an idea and a huge belief in himself.  Solzhenitskyn's book is of great relevance to today, indeed to all time.  Lenin was a writer and researcher of revolution and spent most of his time in the library in Zurich the two years he lived there.  He fundamentally believed (and was proved right) that only a few people, a tiny percentage of the population, are needed to effect revolution.  Lenin's great strength was writing slogans, and distributing slogans, phrases picked up by the population that through saying over and over become true (how like the corona madness of today).  He also could dominate a room, in a room of dominant personalities, but he towered over them, people bowed to his views and opinions.  He had a clear vision of how revolution would happened, it would be based on civil war, extermination of a whole class, a blood bath, and this is what happened.  Leaflets and arms were together essential to make it happen.  The story ends with Lenin's race to Russia, aided by the German's during the 1st world war and accompanied by 40 other Russian emigres. 


Money Land, Oliver Bullough, 2019


Oliver Bullough's book is about the corruption of the super rich, something we all vaguely suspect but curiously accept. Why do we accept it?  We definitely should not for as this book makes clear, it damages freedom and democracy, it is insidious and very dangerous.


“'Graft' (illegal payments) distorts the whole economy.  Important decisions are determined by ulterior motives regardless of consequences to the wider community”, as the sociologist Stanislav Andreski in his definition of corruption wrote.  He observed that corruption is organised as a pyramid, with rulers extracting large sums at the top while state employees have to take bribes to feed themselves at the bottom (because a state impoverished by rich people not paying taxes cannot pay its workers).  This is what is happening today across the world and Britain is at the centre of it through its banks.  It is a situation that crept up slowly. 


Bullough is an investigative journalist who speaks Russian, tells the story of how people with large sums to invest can put their money in places where it is hidden from tax authorities, wives, competitors and enemies, and how they can then spend it.  He estimates 5% of all wealth/money is illegal, either evil (crime various) or naughty (no tax), both take the wealth of the country unto themselves, hide it, and then spend it.  It explains why houses in certain parts of London or New York cost £millions they are a way of holding wealth.  The same is true of jewels and art. 


Probably rich people have always hidden their money and not paid taxes, but Burroughs traces his story of today to London and 1960, and to three individuals. 


The Bretton Woods (in New Hampshire) international meeting in 1944, created an agreement and method of stopping the flows of money from one country to another in order to stop money chasing from one great scheme to the next and destabilising economies.  It created a quasi gold standard, by pegging all currencies to the US dollar which in turn was backed by gold, $35 would buy one ounce of gold.  Money could move overseas but only in a controlled way, i.e. in long term investments, not to fund short term gains.  Ian Fleming's novel Goldfinger explained the effect this had, his villain attempted to smuggle gold from pawnshops in the west to India where it was worth considerably more than $35/oz for gold jewellery.  Moving gold was illegal.  Gold was a national asset and  moving it undermined the currency on which everyone depended.  In 1962 Siegmund Warburg a German banker living in London devised a way of using the stores of capital in Switzerland, traditional home of hidden money, to make more money, by creating bonds, loans with fixed interest and length of years till pay back.  Business wanted the money to develop.  Warburg hired Ian Fraser and Peter Spira to find ways to dodge the restrictions.  By issuing bonds from Schiphol airport, paying tax on them in Luxembourgh, listing them on the London Stock Exchange, and pretending the borrower was an Italian state motorway company not a state holding company, taxes were avoided and technically, no law had been broken.  This is how it was done then.  Twisting and turning.  It is how it is done now, via Shell companies and non functioning Directors and addresses. 


The rich have become so rich they are untouchable.  If laws are broken they bring in a team of lawyers tying up the prosecutors in maybe years of court room expenses – more than any organisation or Government can bear. 


Bullough lists of stories featuring Russians, Ukrainians, African dictators, who come often to London to hide and spend their wealth.  He describes countries which accept illegal money, off shore islands, gain by some of the wealth being spent there.  Banks which accept it – London being a prime example, do so with elaborate schemes, involving shell companies, pretend directors and head quarter addresses.  Reading the book I am sure much of what the writer knows cannot be said, because of the threat of lawsuits.


Should we care about this?  Yes of course.  Because it bypasses democracy, laws and common sense.  Indeed it made me wonder if just ordinary bribery and corruption explains HS2 and other inexplicable things going on in the UK at the moment.  What can be done about it.  I didn’t get that far in the book, too depressed. 

Christiane Ritter; A Woman in the Polar Night; 1954

This is the story of Christiane’s year in Spitsbergen, a country in the Arctic Circle in perpetual snow and  darkness, with her husband and a man called Karl who was a hunter.  She was enticed to leave her comfortable German home to join her husband by imagining she would “stay by the warm stove in the hut, knit socks, paint from the window, read thick books in the remote quiet, and not least, sleep to my heart’s content”.  It wasn’t like that.  True she didn’t have to accompany the men on their hunting trips, but her days were spent largely in managing the stove, and to a lesser extent washing clothes in springs (in minus temperatures using bare hands), cooking and chopping wood, hours of chopping drift wood collected from the shore.  She did accompany the men sometimes, and always, following the advice of an experienced Spitsbergen, took a daily walk, often in the pitch black and ‘stayed cheerful’.  What happens to her is she becomes aware of a presence beyond and behind the awesome tangible nature.  “If it was the most profound immersion in nature which provided the Chinese masters with the inspiration for their sublime pictures, here it is the approaching night which, stripping the landscape of all its accessories, brings out only the innermost essence of nature itself”.  In her solitude (she was left for days at a time) she combatted loneliness by work (cleaning and wood cutting), she relished the stripped back, basic living.  I don't like the reason for the Spitsbergen adventure, it was hunting, nasty and cruel and unnecessary, nor does she, but the men are fine with it, travel through blizzards on foot in pursuit of foxes, seals, and later bears.  Nor did I learn where the toilet was, or whether Christiane missed her little daughter.  Her relationship with her husband was happy, healthy, friendly and practical, she hardly seems to distinguish between him and Karl.  I could hardly put the book down.

Framed by Robert F Kennedy Jr 2016

Why Michael Skakel spent over a decade in prison for a murder he didn't commit 

Framed is a ‘who dunnit’ – extraordinaire. It will keep you guessing to the last page. Along the way you will be horrified at the corruption in the police, the media, the court room and how dissolute families were back in the 1970s when the horrible murder of a 15 year old girl, the centre of the book, took place. Children from wealthy and poor backgrounds in and around New York were left to their own, from 11 years old and upwards, which meant marijuana – lots of it, drink, pornography – the rich ones drove big cars, as of right, in their early teens. Servants drawn from anywhere (a Nazi war criminal was the gardener in the Skakel household, and a serial killer the part time tutor), cleaned up after them. Parents thought having a curfew meant they were ‘good parents’, that seemed to be the sum of their involvement. Michael had an abusive background, suffering violence and mental torture from his own family. Robert Kennedy has unravelled the complicated events and the characters in the plot, from judges to low-life criminals, always retaining his own sense of right and wrong and not accepting the corruption. He is a good writer, he keeps you involved to the end of the story, though of course Michael and the several other ‘fall-outs’ from the sorry tale must struggle on in their own lives. American life is more raw and basic than in the UK ...

The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoevsky 1869

The Idiot is a breathless tale, the characters in it are on the precipice of disaster all the time, which way will they turn, to the good or the bad, it is in their hands. You watch them make their decisions, some knowingly pitching themselves and those around them into mayhem and misery. Dostoevsky is a master story teller, always the story is the thing, but within the tale you learn also of politics, fashion, religion and class in a discursive almost conversationalist way, inviting your opinion. Dostoevsky is fascinated by character and his sees his actors from the outside in. Salvation is always there for people, the worst people can change, his main protagonist ‘the Idiot’, the ‘Prince’, sees clearly the good in them and believes in the good in all people. Prince Myshkin understands them and feels so for them, their pain is his pain. Save this book, as with other Dostoevsky novels, for the time in your life when you need it.

The Lonely Plough by Constance Holme 1914

Knowing nothing about Holme, I picked up this little hard back World Classic and began it and was involved from the beginning. It is a story of the Lancashire countryside and the lives of tenant farmers who are part of it and into which comes a wealthy industrialist from the city, to live the country life, with his wife and daughter. Constance Holme loves Lancashire, the atmosphere of the lanes and hedges, the fields and stone houses and the drama the weather brings to the people earning their living within it. Reading the book is like visiting the country, riding and walking the lanes of early 20th C England but pre-occupied with life’s personal drama.

The Power of the Powerless Vaclav Havel 1979

translated by Paul Wilson, introduction by Timothy Snyder;  reviewer:  Rebecca

Havel wrote this amazing insightful essay in 1979 after a life time of living in a ridiculous ideology, which he survived, eventually himself to become President. Never would I have thought I would see such a mad ideology in England in my own lifetime, though Havel warns in this essay that the west was greatly as risk of it, and here it is with us now.  Forever maskers, forever vacciners. Go along with it for an easy life, but the price you pay is huge …

... ideology inevitably has a certain hypnotic charm. To wandering humankind it offers an immediately available home; all one has to do is accept it, and suddenly everything becomes clear once more, life takes on new meaning, and all mysteries, unanswered questions, anxiety, and loneliness vanish. Of course, one pays dearly for this low-rent home: the price is abdication of one’s own reason, conscience, and responsibility, for an essential aspect of this ideology is the consignment of reason and conscience to a higher authority (p9).

… if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan, ‘I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient’ … he wd be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, … thus the sign (Workers of the World Unite) helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the facade of something high (or today Save the NHS, or Keep Safe). And that something is ideology (p15)

Lonely Hearts Killer Tomoyuki Hoshino 2004 

Written nearly 20 years ago this book describes a mass hysteria event which was marked at its beginning by the death of a young and loved Emperor 'Majesty' and proceeded through an ‘epidemic’ (err actually 56 events in a population of 125 million) of suicides, with associated lock downs, fear of other people, hate attacks, media manipulation, martial law, run on supermarkets etc etc.

A review on the first page (by Nate George film maker Beirut ) says it better than I could so will quote him (?) here.  "LHK considers the ways in which seemingly 'meaningless' symbols and structures profoundly affect society, calling into question the power of the dangerous fictions which are constantly perpetrated on us, as well as the mass hysteria that lurks below the surface". 

And one quote from the books itself,

" power in society was like a geyser spouting out of the emptiness of a society without people… we remain in a state of childhood wh creates the vacuum, and out of that vacuum emerges the geyser… we are made to move by a force we unwittingly created"

The book is a story, so don’t be put off, with characters who you get to know and things that happen and a suitable denouement at the end. But the story explains what society is today, I imagine Japan is about 20 years ahead of Britain, Hoshino saw it all coming down the line.

Traveller on Horseback in E Turkey and Iran by Christina Dodwell (1987)

reviewer:  Rebecca Aug 2021

I was completely absorbed in this short book. The author writes with an immediacy, like it has just happened, presumably directly transcribing from her daily diary, she is skilled at it, as she is in her amazing travels. She travelled these lands of Persia largely on horseback, on Keyif, horse extraordinaire, who could take her 50km or more a day at a fast pace in fierce heat, scrambling up mountains, jumping lava crevices, swimming rivers, kicking at fierce dogs or robbers, chasing mares and fighting other stallions who dared come too near. Everyone will like Keyif, his stallion feisty character shines through. Christina is dauntless too, riding from settlement to settlement, staying with families, either the yamai summer tent dwellings of the women and livestock, or the lower stone villages. She visits fantastic archaeological sites dating from Roman and earlier (and later) times. Escaping soldiers and robbers, mosquitoes and heat. This was (hopefully still is) a beautiful country of stunning mountain and plain scenery, full of flowers, wheat fields, vegetables, with people thinly scattered across it tending sheep and cattle in the hills and their crops lower down. They and the country are destroyed by the power hierarchy inflicted on them by an oppressive, unaccountable, bizarre layer squatting on top. The power authority is represented by soldiers who can swoop down and scoop up, throw you into prison or shoot you. Christina escaped shooting but men she met and helped her on her journey were not so lucky. She met one 20 year old soldier hiding in a rock shelter, he spoke good English and told her he was escaping Khomenie’s army because if he stayed in it he certainly would die. He had not eaten for a week and devoured her picnic lunch. He probably did not make it to UNESCO refugee haven, five or more days walk to the west. If he was seen by anyone, locals or Kurds or army oppressors, he would be shot and he desperately needed food and water. His was a fate suffered by thousands and thousands, then and throughout history.

The Minaret of Djam by Freya Stark 1970; An excursion in Afghanistan

Reviewer:  Rebecca; Aug 2021

A short book about a short landrover journey taken by Freya and four companions during a window in Afghan history when it was peaceable and possible, though only just by vehicle as it was without roads for cars. The book is a total bargain, for its wonderful full page photographs every few pages of dessert scenery and the occasional people they met, on foot, sometimes on camel, once or twice on horses. Also the stunning ruins, that were crumbling into the ground around, coming from previous eras and ‘civilizations’. Freya is a similar traveller but very different writer to Christina Dodwell, hers is a more flowery poetic language, but she does give brief information about Afghan’s dizzying past and observations on what makes a nation and people;

On Heroism

No religion has established itself without it nor should any aspirant press without its armour into whatever his private abyss of love or beauty may be … heroism is the indispensable foundation for all rule, whether of oneself or others. It turns life into a symbol beyond the need of living; and grants fortitude and calm in exchange for the mere husk of human existence … Without it, nothing worth remembering is achieved.” p35

On Old Age

“… we need not walk backwards out of Time, in sterility like that of Lot’s wife, fixed on our past; our compelling interest at the turn of the journey must ever be the adventure to come. Through all obstacles we draw near it, and are Ulysses to ourselves. At our prow, the voices whisper from the night; our weaknesses are the tackle of our voyage and Time is our horizon; and beyond it the new horizon must appear; with what eyes we see it, who can tell? … the flowing stream is nearest to our mood” p75

On the Seven Virtues

Love and Delight alone may be called immortal and shed their brightness from an unlimited horizon. Through them we share a divine freedom, the temporal enjoyment of temporary things. Any genuine artist or even craftsman can know this in the unpossessive realms where his dreams lead him; any lover must learn to know it as he grows to where self is forgotten. In these two ways of dedication and creation the simplest creature by its own native impulse touches the unchanging shores” p 85

These quotes give the flavour of her prose, but there are facts and excitements too on the landrover journey. Enough to make me wonder, why so many wars and invasions of Afghanistan? I went to Wikipedia, but the story is too complicated, so full of wars, massacres and swarms of people settling, and being driven out. It surely must at one time have had a different climate? The west part, around Herat, in Freya’s day was lush and grew crops, but the majority the people could only eke out a living, enough for them and their yurt lives, but no riches were evident in Freya’s time to make any invasion worth the effort.

Movement of Body Lionel Shriver 2020

Reviewer:  Julie

I wanted to read a book by an intelligent author like Lionel Shriver, I believe published before the Covid madness, but, as might be expected from someone like her, presaging some of the momentous stuff happening now. The younger generation of law keepers and law makers, bringing on a new puritan age and the all pervasive political correctness ending honest discourse, debate or logic, imposing tyranny are two major themes. The main one though is the pursuit of the body beautiful through endurance sports, the obsession they induce in many. All of the characters had strange names, I always find this difficult as it induces in me a dislike for the person whose strange name it is, and there were for me no likeable people in it.

Plague of Corruption Judy Mikovits and Kent Heckenlively June 2020

Reviewer:  Eileen

This is a book about vaccination, how vaccines are created from animal tissue and injected into us, (or we breathe them in unknowingly from minute aeroscopic particles). How we actually don’t understand what they do, so theories such as, overloading the body, weakening it and bringing to it in this weakened state diseases such as cancer, autism, Chronic Fatigue System, Ebola even – are plausible. But to even suggest such a thing brings the threat of a heavy law suite, ostracism from science and even murder. Considering the huge sums of money involved in medical science, it is actually not surprising. However, the silence is more insidious, more fundamental, it is the fear of speaking out against the crowd, that is the real silencer.

Mikovits' own story is a roller coaster, and we meet again in the book Andrew Wakefield (so denigrated in the UK for his theories on autism) and others who suffer even worse fates.

Mikovits and co worker Frank Ruscetti discovered a virus related to murine leukaemia viruses which they called XMRV (RV retro virus). They found XMRV in in children with autism, cancer and ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) patients. The significance for them was to detect XMRV in blood supplies and clean the blood supplies to make it safe for transfusions, which they managed to do. But here they ran into problems of rival products and law suits.

What I found alarming is the active research carried out into animal ‘improvements’ in the form of vaccination, that many researchers are involved in and how these can plausibly cross over into humans, and also how medical science is so strongly tied to funding, to the huge grants funds, some private some public, some a mixture. Scientists in America are highly paid and there are also prizes.

Mikovits lists all the diseases that derive from animals: anthrax, bird flue, bovine tuberculosis, dengue fever, Ebola, encephalitis, hepatitis E, Lyme disease, malaria, rabies, ringworm to name but a few.

At the end of the book she gives a few hints on how to stay healthy, the main thing is to be healthy, a strong immune system is your best friend, and you get it from being fit, healthy fats, not being overweight.

There are few other easy tips in the book which is hurriedly written, desperately needs an index and you may find the author (to our English ears), muddled and self important, but I read it in two days (though don’t test me on the science) and will say it is a very, very important book. It is frightening the vaccination programme and foolhardy, especially in countries and populations I know nothing about (Africa, South America, Asia) and I don’t thing the vaccinators do either.

The Post Office Girl Stefan Zweig1930s published posthumously

Reviewer: Ned: 3 May 2020

Like many things I have read these last few weeks in the lock down this book seemed very relevant to the present situation. Set in early 1930s Austria citizens were hemmed in by rules, regulations, officialdom, Police, prying eyes, disapproval and and most of all - poverty. There was no way for them to express themselves, to use their skills and talents.

Bound to hated jobs that paid scarcely enough to survive, our two main characters are daily tormented, made worse by the lack of a fellow soul who understands their frustration at the madness and injustice of it all. Their families, people around them, seem to buy the system or at least to tolerate it. They are surrounded by the thought police, if they express different views the condemnation is palpable. It lead of course to Nazism.

“...that idiot puppet the government, which doesn’t breathe and isn’t alive and doesn’t want to know anything, the stupidest thing people have ever invented, something that crushes people”

Ferdinand speaking, p232

“ … I don’t have a trace of moral scruple, when it comes to the state I feel completely free. Its committed such terrible crimes against us all, against our generation, that we have a right to anything … Commandeering, that's the word they used during the war, or expropriating – Versailles called in reclamation. Who taught us how to cheat if not the state – how else would we know that money saved up by three generations could become worthless in a mere two weeks, that families could be swindled out of pastures, houses, and fields that had been theirs for a hundred years … We have an excellent case against the state, by God, we'll win in every court. It can never pay off its terrible debt, never give back what it took from us. Once there might have been a reason to have some qualms, back when the state was a good custodian, thrifty, decent, proper. Now that its behaved like a hoodlum, we have the right to be hoodlums too”

Zweiss (who was forced to leave German in the 1930s) speaking through Ferdinand p235

Grace Kelly by Christine Haughland (2012)

Reviewer:  Jacquie

I read this book after watching 'To Catch a Thief' a flawed but watch-able film by Alfred Hitchcock. I agree that Grace Kelly was stunning in it, absolutely stunning, though no actress, and her clothes were horrid. We are told over and over about her wonderful clothes, her style, but actually our eyes tell us she was rubbish at it. She didn’t know herself or her body. Course it was a bad time for clothes, stodgy suits, thin as thin nylons, ghastly shoes, huge bingy out dresses, women looked frights, totally un-sexy and immobile, rigid like dolls. The men were just as bad. Poor Grace was meant to fancy Cary Grant, an elderly man who could hardly bend, let alone shag anyone.

The book is a paean to Kelly, so it is uninteresting, we are left to guess what she was really like. Well I am sure she never knew herself, brought up in middle class Philadelphia where women were meant to be healthy, virginal girls next door who calmed and stabilised men. She was taken up by the film studios at eighteen, and they owned their women, their looks, opinions and escorts (they weren't allowed friends or lovers or even husbands). Unlike her contemporary Elizabeth Taylor, whose nature rebelled, Grace was pliable and complied, but got out early via marriage, to an unattractive man she hardly knew (but was a Prince). She continued to live her stately, sedate, life, seemingly out of touch with her true nature. She was therefore suited to be a princess, but what sort of 'job' is that for a person?

Her life is a glaring example of how society 'puts upon' i.e. moulds women to be some sort of peculiar, useless creature. At least their clothes and 'beauty' regime drives the economy, that's something I suppose. No doubt the same is true today, being in it though, we just cant see it, we think its 'normal'.

Backstage Passes (Life with David Bowie) (1990) by Angela Bowie

(Written after a 10 year gagging order) Reviewer: Eleanor

I was never very interested in David Bowie, but the story of his marriage with Angie was actually extremely interesting and I read this book in one day. They were young, she 22 and he 25 when they married but already his career as Fashion and Pop Icon was established. Why did David ask Angela to marry him? That is the question. They had been very attracted to each other and this is understandable, they were similar people, almost twins in fact in body and face and clothes and both bisexual. But by the time they married the initial mutual love passion, was over, that had only lasted a few months (a long time for David B though). A clue is given at the end of the story, David became dependent on a fixer called Corinne, when she disappears after a fall out with Angie, he goes after her, he cannot live without her. Corinne by this time had taken over the role of Angie.

Angie was an excellent fixer herself, ambitious, bold, capable, she cooked, cleaned, organised, sewed, found the houses, the band members, the managers, kept the groupies away - a typical capable woman managing an incapable man. She was in love with David, obsessed with his beautiful looks and his unobtainableness, but accepted from the start, so she says, he was going to shag everyone in sight, men and women. In fact he did that horrible man thing, asking her to marry him but 'Is It Going To Be Hard For You Knowing I Don’t Love You?'. She took lovers herself, men and women, loads of them, and drugs, and partying, and spending money, but you feel she would actually have wanted what all women want, an adoring and faithful man, even is she wasn’t totally faithful herself. Remember she was very young. The most interesting thing for me was, despite her scary sexual prowess and number of lovers, she never had an orgasm - not until much later, when she was older and never with David (truly weird??).

Most of the pop and fashion icons of the time have walk on rolls in this book, they are all drug and sex mad, none come out too well though Angie loves them. Do you remember an obscure pop singer called Dana – I did, I always wondered why she was on 'Top of the Pops' cos she was soppy and the songs no good, well – all is revealed in this book. And much much more …

Postscript: Checking Wikipedia I see that Bowie married a beautiful sophisticated Somali model with only one short name post Angie and stayed with her for the rest of his life, so he went the way of these 'made it' cool people, happy faithful (?) marriage with wonderful woman, children, grounded in religion and good sense. Poor Angie, she couldn't compete with that, women somehow cant reinvent themselves in that way. Bowie died of liver cancer aged 71, pretty good considering the abuse his body had been through.

PSS: Bowie's and his circle great interest in the occult, derives from drugs I think, I only mention it because so many people have the same obsession today.

3 Nov 2020

Cities of Salt Abdul Rahman Manif 1984


A book for our time though written in the 1980s, it chronicles the destruction of a culture and an environment, that of the Arabic desert oasis culture, previously a rich interesting life, based on custom and religious and other beliefs.  The people were sustained by stories, tales of adventure, family, inheritance, observation of character and respect for each other.  It was a moral life.  Men married often hardly knowing their wives, but sometimes they did and were in love.  Men did not look on women as sexual beings, people married, and committed to love and sustain each other and rear children.  People generally did not want more of anything, though they welcomed rain with joy, they loved the beauty of the desert, relished visitors for their stories and trade, admired and valued their camels for their speed and endurance and the freedom they brought, had adventure through travel and kept interested in life through relationships within and without the clan.  Into this world came strangers.  Not strangers of the normal kind, travellers with tales, these strangers were different, they were Christians (infidels), white, wore strange, revealing clothes, ate strange food and knew Arabic.  They were busy, they collected samples, tabulated, wrote and were never still.  Of course they were oil prospectors, American.  They had come to take from the desert not live with it, they ruined it and the way of life, they were hated from the start, but nothing could be done to stop them.


Over a couple of years the Americans built a port using Arab labour in the hottest most inhospitable place.  One day a boat came full of women, young, white, scantily clad full of fun and beauty.  The men knew desire, jealousy and sexual frustration for the first time and were never happy again.  Other elements of western states slowly followed, modern medicine (sort of), radios, cars and finally a funny, hotch-potch mad army, it was this last thing that made people realise just what had happened:


“this was the cruellest experience he had ever known in his life.  He had never imagined that the day would come when people would be forced to abide by rules they did not understand or approve of” p571


The people had not welcomed the oil workers and pipeline that had planted themselves on their bleak little village but had tolerated it in their Bedouin way and workers had come into the hot desert area to live in tin sheds to live intolerable lives and a few of the more wealthy traders and fixers were brainwashed into thinking it a


“ … pipeline of blessings and prosperity for this people that love might flow for all people, near and far, and that all of us might enjoy a more comfortable life” p544


Cities of Salt is the first of five books, I look forward to reading the others.

Desert and Forest (1928) L M Nesbitt

Reviewer:  Rebecca

This is a fabulous book, a must read, the story of the first white men to walk the length of Abyssinia (Etheopia), three of them with about 15 local men of different tribes from NE Africa, with camels and mules. A terrible ordeal, three men were killed, one went mad, the others hardly survived, Nesbit (who was 36) states categorically the temperature was 167 F which is 75 C and as he was a scientist I believe him, this on several stages of the journey, they would put their hands in their arm pits which at 98.4 gave their finger tips slight relief. Lack of water, sand storms, sharp rocky ground were the worst physical sufferings, mental sufferings don’t get a look in, the heat was so extreme. There were beautiful parts of the country, not so hot, striking colours, dramatic geology, sometimes forests (though these even worse to negotiate than the desert) and relief when finding rivers which amazingly do flow through the extraordinary country.

The humanity of the people is striking, both the three white men (two Italians, one English) and the 15 native men, all go to huge lengths to support each other, respect each other and care for the animals which they love dearly and look after with love, as best they can in the horrible conditions. Often there was no food for the animals, and worse, no water, but the bond was strong, men and beasts were in it together. I made many notes as archaeologically it was fascinating, the burial monuments, tribal customs (in some cases the oldest most frail man was the chief, in others the most blood thirsty), why they hung on in those awful living conditions (because of antagonistic neighbours who would kill them if they strayed into neighbouring territory). This is a book I shall keep, you will have to search for it on line to get your copy.

From Newspapers on Line

Nesbitt died in a small plane accident in S America in 1935 aged 44, he was living in Rome and is described as a writer and explorer. In 1912 he obtained first class school diploma from Camborne Mining School Cornwall, 21. Born 6 June 1891 After Mine school he went out to the Rand and remained in Joburg for four years qualifying as first class mine manager at 25. he subsequently managed a Mn mine in Sardinia, worked as an engineer on Cuban railways, worked in Venezuela on petrol survey and prospected for platinum in W Abyssinia. He was killed in air crash flying from Rome to Berlin July 1935. His book Gold Fever gives a ruthless picture of Europeans, Africans and Chinese in the maw of gold getting machine. The miners were compelled to work with such a straining concentration that at the end of the day their bodies wd not relax properly and they cd not sleep at night. Nesbitt was accused of starting a war later, one side stating his journey was to prospect for oil, though no doubt he was a pawn in a power struggle.

The Survival of the Fittest by Mike Stroud (1998)

Reviewer: Rebecca

A great title, the book is what it says it is, how fit people survive and unfit people, I fear 99% of us, succumb to cancer, heart attacks, diabetes, bad feet, weakness, aches, pains and old age, in fact, just about every ailment going. Stroud states what is obvious but rarely talked about backed up with medical evidence and years of his own experience as a serious endurance runner and medical doctor. Stroud accompanied Ranulph Fiennes on some of his journeys, most notably and described in the book, the trek across the Antarctic pulling all their stuff, fulling in crevasses, and an awful running trip across the Sahara and others in mountains in America. He came to running through enjoyment and challenge. His thesis is that humans evolved to run, for 70,000 years they have been active, running after prey some of the time, moving gathering food, making houses, going about their business, all of the time except for sleep, women, men, old and young alike. Along with running they developed resilience and persistence.

Walking ten or 20 miles a day would be normal, everyday practice. Only in the last 100 years have people become sedentary, the instinct to conserve energy (because you will need all of it soon) and consume food (because you cant carry it with you and you don’t know when the next meal will be) dominates, nearly all people and all ages, starting in the 20s. Look around you, you will see he is right. Lots of epic stories of runs and expeditions, all great reading are recounted. In my version it ends with the seven marathons in seven days in seven (?) continents, he and Fiennes together. All the great and good feted this event and somehow it was for charity? I guess people sponsoring?. It was a fascinating read, you really felt the pain, made me pleased to be reading it and not taking part. He learnt a lot about endurance, and what the body does, (fills up with fluid in the legs apparently, pees blood) but ... why do it? We would be thinking carbon footprint of this mad adventure nowadays – at least I hope we would, with all the air flights involved. Not sure it would get the sponsorship today.

The Sovereignty of the Good by Iris Murdoch (1970)

This little book consists of three essays, The Idea of Perfection, On God and Good, The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts.  I read the book after listening to a R3 prog about Iris and philosophy.  I enjoyed reading all three, they were clear, interesting and logical, and good for my brain, cleansing. However, the first two, seemed naïve, philosophers worrying about stuff they don’t need to and which most of us have sorted in more sophisticated and practical ways in any case.  The last essay though I thought profound and had something new to say, or at least added to writing of authors as Tolstoy and Eckhart Tolle who I return to frequently.  One quote:

“Beauty is the convenient and traditional name of something which art and nature share, and which gives a fairly clear sense to the idea of quality of experience and change of consciousness.  I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel.  In a moment everything is altered.  The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There I nothing now but kestrel.  And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important. ...”

much more of the same ...

Childhood, Leo Tolstoy, 1851

Reviewer:  Jacquie

I read this as an antidote to Agatha Christie, and it definitely proved to be so.  Many layered from the first sentence, showing the complexity of life and feelings, and the huge emotion, and struggle each of us has with being a good person and interacting with others.  Childhood apparently was Tolstoy's first novel.  I thought it must be his autobiography as it was so truthful and intense, but no, I was wrong, just great writing, but surely based on personal experience.

Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie (1923)

I have never read an Agatha Christie though I have seen a few on telly.  This one was holiday reading for me.  It was pretty stupid, just the last page was clever, - I think this is typical of an AC book.  I know my mother loved them and was very good at getting 'who dunnit', I imagine if you approach her books in this way, rather than as a novel, they are better.  I shan't read another though.

Born to Run  by Christopher McDougall (2009)

Reviewer: Rebecca June 24th 2019

This book was recommended by a customer, someone who trains women distance runners, we got into conversation.  I didn’t have it in the shop but definitely will in future.  What a great book, I spent Sunday and Monday reading it, sometimes in the garden and sometimes inside with the doors and windows open, stopping only to go for a run myself, and, running one field up and back with no shoes, think I will do this every time from now.  So much in this book, crazy American peopleundertaking ultra runs, 50 miles ++, in scorching heat, up and down mountains, through Death Valley, women too, they often beat the men (as our own Jasmin Paris proves ).  The evolution of humans was to run of course, that their niche, and why don’t we now, well loads do but the joy of running is counterbalanced by the need for efficiency (i.e. resting) and that is definitely winning out now, with people leading sedentary lives and over eating themselves into disease, old age and mental illness.  The centre of the book is a race with the Tarahumara, a cave living ancient tribe of the mountains of Mexico renowned for their running, which they do for fun, from childhood to old age, men, women and children.  Along the way we  meet colourful and likeable characters (well except perhaps for Barefoot Ted), learn about running shoes (what a con), drug running and brutal murder in Mexico, coaches, great runners, food and much more.  I couldn’t put the book down. Please read it and change your life.

Some quotes:

His enthusiasm, his friendliness, his love of life, shone through every movement … there is not and never was a greater man than Emil Zatopek (I'd never heard of him?). p98

… The Tarahumara, the founders and makers of the history of mankind. Perhaps all our troubles – all the violence, obesity, illness, depression and greed we cant overcome – began when we stopped living as Running People.  Deny your nature, and it will erupt in some other, uglier way. p99

Leadville's (dead mining town frozen up for nine months in the year ) only hope was tourism, which was no hope at all p58

And the cost of those injuries (i.e. foot and leg injuries)? Fatal disease in epidemic proportions. Humans really are obligatorily required to do aerobic exercise in order to stay healthy, and I think that has deep roots in our evolutionary history ... if there's any magic bullet to make human beings healthy, it's to run. p168

as far back as 1976 Dr Brand was pointing out that nearly ever case in his waiting room – corns, bunions, hammertoes, flat feet, fallen arches – was nearly nonexistent in countries where most people go barefoot.p177

before the invention of a cushioned shoe, runners through the ages had identical form: Jesse Owens, Roger Bannister, Frank Shorter, and even Emil Zatopek all ran with backs straight, knees bent, feet scratching back under their hips.  They had no choice: the only shock absorption came from the compression of their legs and their thick pad of midfoot fat.

“those fucking things are going to be dead tomorrow” Bob said, point at the FiveFingers on Ted's feet (i.e. Barefoot Ted, said to him from someone who well knew the country). p187

The Old Curiosity Shop by  Charles Dickens (1840-41)

Reviewer:  James (June 2018)

I adore Dickens and couldn’t remember reading this one, so the anticipated pleasure of beginning it, and so it turned out to be. Perfect for June.  Dickens was spiritually inspired with this story, so many deep insights into life, goodness, human character, the twists and turns of fate – typical Dickens in fact.  You wonder how he knows all this in his comparatively short and active life, his knowledge of the life of the spirit.  A hot line to the divine I believe.  

It is perfect story for June and for now, this moment in my life.  Our two main protagonists, with no money or possessions, pushed from their home, set out on a walking journey, trusting to God and the kindness of people, to walk across the English countryside in all its variety, taking comfort from Nature, simple buildings, and simple good people. Of course there are bad people in the story too and they do awful things, and one wonderful brave strong true good person, and of course, being Dickens and an observer of life, this good person is not educated or good looking, and has no money, but how precious he is.

The Universe and Dr Einstein by Lincoln Barnett; (1948)

1948 (8 printings) 1957 2nd edition (7 printings) 1957 (7 printings).  Reviewer: Eileen

A beautifully written, spiritual book. I cant say I could explain to you now Einstein's theories any more than E=mc2 and the space-time continuum, which you just have to accept as fact and also that there is a General and Special Theory. I do understand from reading it that common sense is only that tiny fraction of the universe we perceive with our limited senses and the vast vast majority of reality is beyond normal common sense comprehension.  Reading this book will shift your world view and led me to believe more in a Creator than I did before.

The Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille (1953)

A gross and pornographic book, very short at least, I skip read it in a day. The most interesting part was the final two pages, written by Bataille, his brief autobiography describing his appalling childhood and explains much of the book.  He offloaded his dreadful background on whoever is brave enough to pick this book up and read it - and thus it continues into the future.

The Pilot's Wife Anita Shreve (1991)

The many, many re-prints of this book prove its worth, it is a tale of a marriage, a familiar story, of one partner finding out hidden secrets of the other, leading to reassessing life, relationships, everything.

Yiwara; Foragers of the Australian Desert by Richard A Gould 1969

Reviewer:  Rebecca

Anthropologists Richard and Betsy Gould lived with a group of Aborigines in mid NW Australia in 1965-1966, learning their language and recording their daily lives. Yiwara means track, and is a word in constant use by the Gibson Desert Aborigines since it has several layers of meaning, from the material world to the spiritual. The group the Goulds lived with consisted of thirteen Nyatunyatjara people, these people had had contact with whites at a Mission Centre but had left and returned to their traditional way of life. Richard accompanied them in a landrover, he gave them tobacco and occasionally tools, in return for information, conversation, company and permission to record, photograph and learn.

Living with hunter gatherers is an archaeologist's dream, observing their daily life of collecting food (the women) hunting animals (the men), making tools and talking, talking, talking. Much is familiar to us, we would fit in, the politeness, different characters, interactions - the same as us, but much is fundamentally different. No possessions is the main thing leading to connexion to the land enacted in rituals that are learnt throughout life, accruing knowledge from others and from travelling to sacred sites. Some of it is grim, the male initiation ceremonies are gruesome and cruel but undertaken voluntarily, they don’t come to an end either, men open up old wounds in their most sensitive parts at any age.

Did you know they had stone circles and avenues, still used in the 1960s? - extraordinary, I didn’t, they are not as big as Stonehenge and Avebury but otherwise similar. These standing stone monuments were used both to herd and hunt animals but also represented the original dream time animals who established the world. Archaeological excavations have shown development in tool technology over thousands of years in Australia, the same as elsewhere, but they lived in the hunter gatherer way in the 20th century, in the hot hot country it was the best option.

When the whites came, their life changed for ever, enticed to the Missions by the availability of tools and food and people, they never went back to their desert life. Yet it was hard for them, they didn’t understand about work (though could be hard workers) or the social mores of the whites or about living in one place permanently. They lost the meaning to their lives and had not yet gained a new one.

The Uncoupling Meg Wolitzer (2011)

I enjoyed reading this, until it went into the fantastical.  Meg W didn’t need to do this, the premise behind the novel – why do people go off sex and what happens to families when they do, is easily good enough to sustain a book (hundreds of books even), so I don’t know why she took it along this route. Probably laziness, the subject is too deep, too much, even for a great novelist to explain.

The Accursed Share Georges Bataille 1967

Georges Bataille expresses an interesting idea in this book, that the problem people have is not in earning a living, but what to do with their surplus. The Mexican Aztecs used their excess on sacrifice, Islam on militarism, American North West Indians on potlatch (huge parties), Tibet on monasteries, Medieval England monasteries, castles and warfare and today, now – cars (that last one I extemporise). There is much more to his theory than that, but being French and a philosopher, it is difficult to understand and I have not retained it, but I really enjoyed reading it and have recommended to friends and ordered more of his books.

Poacher's Pilgrimage; an island journey Alastair McIntosh 2018

reviewer Eileen

For anyone who is a walker and/or adventurer, this is a book you will like. AM has the knack of making you feel you are there, in the wind and rain, hoping from one tufty tump to another in the bog, getting wet crossing streams, tiring walking up hills with a heavy pack, being uplifted by the resonance of the place – The Isles of Harris and Lewis where Alastair grew up. So many insights into spiritual and ecological truths, as an archaeologist I found it wonderful, lots of insights into how people lived in the community, not just practical things, but their minds and spirits. It was like having Alastair there and talking to him without interruption, his undivided attention on you.

Island Farm; Frank Fraser Darling, 1943

Reviewer: Rebecca

I loved this book, it had all the sense, interest and fun of Herd of Red Deer but directed towards two people wrestling a living from a windy island in NW Scotland in the war years. Frank and Bobbie (his wife) moved tonnes of rock and rebuilt a pier, tonnes of shell sand and slag and fertilised an 'inland', built a house, took sheep to other islands, bred and milked cows, battled with rats and welcomed all other wildlife that increasingly came to the island as it became richer in habitat. It's a brilliant read, totally relevant to today and always, I found it very insightful for archaeological features. 

Some quotes

p74 Prof Toynbee in Study of History discusses the concept of Withdrawal and Return as a potent influence in the spiritual development of individuals. A period of withdrawal from the world may strengthen a man so that when he returns he vies for the energy he did not know he possessed. Christ began his mission after forty days in the wilderness. .... the truth of the concept is dimly realized by many of us as young men.  A fault of our civilization is that it denies the wilderness to the great majority of young men.

p95 the longer I live the more convinced I am that a man cannot achieve wholeness unless he uses his hands as well as his head. Hands are part of the quality of humanness and their development in skills balances the tumbling, surging activity of our still young and inexperienced brain.

p111 both Labour and Conservative promise things to people, ease and pleasure, ... we need a great change of mind throughout our people, less of a desire to get and more of a notion of giving to the community. Most of us can be generous to those we love and know; the test comes in serving and giving to those we do not know.

p175 the island years impressed on us most surely the sin of waste, ... in being resourceful and in never taking goods from a needy outside world if we could help it

 Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky, 1880


I read this book after Jessie Chamber's autobiography, when she says she started to get better from her abandonment by her partner D H Lawrence (Bert) after reading this book.  For the first 80 pages or so I didn’t get it.  I am used to writing in a more personal way, the interior person speaking to the world, how they see things and feel about things.  This is the way most books are written these days.  Dostoevsky writes from the outside, he is an observer of the characters, so they are described quickly and the reader has to take it as fact, that is how they are – passionate, indulgent, upright, dissolute – whatever.  Somehow it didn’t explain.  But now, after 100 pages or so (over over 800, on my Nook at least), I can see what he is attempting.  The fundamental thing, from the beginning he attacks it, how a person can lead a good and sensible life when their passions pull them in the wrong direction, that is towards unsuitable people, disruption, dishonour, hurting innocents.  How to get your passions under control.  It is a racing tale, indeed the main character Alexei, the youngest brother rushes from one crises to another.  I am halfway through, the book has become a friend and helpmate, I don’t want to finish it.

ere I suspect), is prayer and spiritual practice.


The Three of Us, a Family Story Julia Blackburn 2008


This is an amazing tale of Julia's psychopath father (I'm sorry Julia, I am sure he was), and unhappy sexy artist mother and herself young and in the middle.  The three of them attractive, well read, unpredictable and prone to addicitons.  From an early age her mother treated Julia as a sexual rival and more or less encouraged her various affairs, so long as she kept free from her own boyfriends.  For years all three went to therapy and psychiatrists blind with theories which led only to drugs and introspection.  They definitely made things worse.  Somehow Julia survived what would be considered a difficult social worker's case to become a talented writer with a happy personal life and family, which just shows you.  I read this book in one day, amazed!

Snow Country 1956; Thousand Cranes 1959; Yasunari Kawabata 

Reviewer; Jacquie

Two poetic stories, about men in yearning relationships with much younger or much older gentle, kind, women. The relationship, impossible to grasp or define, is inter weaved with landscape and beautiful objects, snow, linen (the most prized is made by women under 24 in the snowy mountain country), pottery vessels all imbued with soul. Magical but real tales of people struggling to understand themselves.

A Herd of Red Deer; Frank Fraser Darling; 1935

Reviewer: Rebecca

A classic and fantastic book, everyone should read it, in fact it should be compulsory reading for everybody in England, in the world even.  Read it, to learn about animals, about humans, to walk barefoot with someone in the Scottish Highlands for 35 miles, in awe of this wonderful animal nearer to God and understanding than I have ever been.  Their story will bring tears to your eyes and fill you with wonder about the many ways animals choose (yes all have free will to choose) to live.  As a practical aside, as an archaeologist it has been a massive help, all those antlers we find on archaeology sites, oh and yes, probably we should re-introduce wolves, for the deer and environment sake.

How to Find Love in a Bookshop; Veronica Henry; 2016

Reviewer; Rebecca

A dear friend generously gave me this new book and I duly read it, for her sake.  I am pleased I did, at one point, about 7/8ths in I thought it might actually be interesting, that people were interweaving through the bookshop which acted as a node, a connexion point, and the obvious girl would not end up with the obvious man, but no I was wrong.  This was set in some sort of fantasy never never land, where there are queues waiting to buy and staff and tills ring in bookshops (no, no and no), and where there are fanciable men who like and love women and are loyal to them (no, no and no) and where unscrupulous developers set up new glove factories that will earn millions of pounds in a picturesque Cotswold town (err … No …).  So personally I couldn't get round any of that, but I did finish the book and can remember most of it.

The Mandarins Simone de Beauvoir 1954

Reviewer: Gillian

This is a big book, a long read, but absorbing and a real page turner.  The page turner is the usual, good writing and who is having an affair with whom, but behind this, the background, is the legacy of the French Resistance and the struggle of France in the immediate post 2nd World War years to establish their place in the world.  French intellectual society wanted to count, to influence world events.  The Left was strong, the Communists were big and intellectual society leant strongly towards Russia and against America, obviously mad to us, - with the benefit of hindsight, but not to them, there and at that time.  Their predicaments seem a bit silly, again, with the benefit of hindsight.  For example, finding out about the Stalinist concentration camps was a crisis, if they denounced the Gulags, as obviously they should, it condemned the whole Leftist movement and laid the way open to Fascism, if they said nothing, they were guilty of Fascism.  Now we know that socialism can be democratic and respectful of human rights, but coming out of a brutal occupation, to them that didn't seem an option.

I learnt a lot about immediate post war France, it was riddled with the war legacy, there were dreadful retributions, men who had fraternized with the Germans were brutally murdered, women publicly shamed and imprisoned, heroes of the Resistance were lionized.  What about women, what did I learn about them from a lead philosopher of the 20th C?  Though the main protagonist was a woman and had a serious job (a psychologist), the others were mostly decorative, leading society lives, providing entertainment for the men taking up possibly 15% of their time.  Mdm de Beauvoir doesn't mention it and I only learnt later, but French women didn't get the vote until 1944.  This from the land of liberty, equality, fraternity.  All that War business, and Occupation and working and politicising and women had no say in it, only manipulation and influence.  Extraordinary. 

The Territorial Imperative by Robert Ardrey 1966

Reviewer: Rebecca

The most profound book in the shop

I had a first edition of this book in the shop and as an archaeologist puzzling about when villages and boundaries were first established in the UK, I was attracted by the title, not the cover which looked not for me (but now I get it).  I am so pleased I picked it up, first it is an excellent read, Ardrey is witty and super-bright and interesting. He draws on a wide range of studies by ecologists, ethologists (the study of inherited behaviour), ornithologists and anthropologists, describing the extraordinary and inexplicable lifestyles and homing instincts of animals, including humans. His thesis is that territory, your space – be it one foot (if you are a puffin), a short stretch of river (if you are a beaver or stickleback) or many miles if you are a lion or grazing herd animal, is the main principle of life, the thing you will fight and die for and spend much of your life defending. The need for territory is psychological, not physical. His theories explain why some of us animals live really, really close to our neighbours and squabble at each other over an invisible line. We don’t have to do that, we could move away, but we don’t want to move away, we want to maintain our patch and keep others out of it. 

Ardrey considers territory is the main guiding principle of evolution. He has convinced me.

Humans are group animals, having territory and a common enemy (usually them just over there) keeps us alive, on our toes, full of ingenuity and capable of great selfless acts to keep our space for our tribe, and mercilessly cruel to those trying to take it away. Ardrey goes on to reveal much more about our 'human' condition, which he reveals so logically is an 'animal' condition actually, with the same fundamental driving forces shared with all other animals, even the 'planarium worm' a creature so basic it hardly has senses at all, that existed in pre-Cambrian days. The three fundamentals for all creatures are identity, stimulation and security – their opposites are anonymity, boredom and anxiety. The last, security is the first to be sacrificed to the other two. Bundled into identity is jostling for power and all those nasty characteristics it engenders.  Like vitamins there must be a daily dose of these three fundamentals, and if you go for security you will become 'bankrupt' in yourself (i.e. depressed). Being 'in love' and war satisfy the three main needs, especially war. It brings identity (your rank, role), stimulation (yes there are long periods of boredom but people don’t know this when they launch into it) and you are, you believe, fighting for security. What holds the group together is antagonism to the other, and sometimes to hazard, to natural disasters, when people temporarily come together to fight off a common threat. 

These needs may just be evolutions driving wheel, forcing genes into competition to be forever selecting the best for the current condition.

Lots lots more in this book, written by an actor, not a scientist, only an actor with profound understanding of life would be able to write such a book.

Night and Day by Virginia Woolf; 1919

Reviewer: Eileen

Reading this book was such a relief after finally finishing Netherland, so nice to enter the real world of women, for example wondering why someone is looking awkward when you hand them a cup of tea, or of why that person said that with a rather strange look and, ultimately, whether you should marry the man who (says) he adores you but you are not excited by.  It is the world of gentle England with undertones of change and revolution, of activists spreading the word of total suffrage, of disquiet at rich and poor.  The war is not mentioned, rather it is all about internal conflicts, within person, within England.  I am sure Virginia Woolf drew on much of her own experience to write Night and Day, and the characters portrayed and probably some of the scenes are people known to her, which makes it all the more valuable to read.

Netherland; Joseph O Neill; 2008; 

Reviewer:  Eileen

This book was written to tap into the post Twin Towers national trauma in America and also the UK.  It doesn't have anything to do with the outrage, but the story is set in New York after it had happened and it is mentioned rather a lot.  It is a very blokey sort of book, or rather a 'Guyish' sort of book as it is extremely American.  The main protagonist who is Dutch curiously plays cricket, but somehow, the cricket doesn't tie into the plot.  Race is everything, Americans are obsessed by it, and men are inarticulate, tough and not very nice.  I actually didn't like the females either, but as it was written by a man, I suspect he got their motives wrong and misinterpreted.  The book put me off men - again - and made me think how it is still so much a man's world and how separate the sexes are.  I am reading a Virginia Woolf now - phew, back to the real world.

The Dark Tower Phylis Bottome 1916

Reviewer:  Rebecca, August 2018

I quite enjoyed reading this book, tho it was very Old Fashioned.  The language was the hardest thing to get over, ‘jolly’ ‘awfully’ preponderated, the second hardest thing was to feel any sympathy with the Staines family who divided women into good types – who you protected and looked after regardless and ‘bad’ types for which anything goes.  After this though the story was good, I read it easily, it was streaks ahead of the average detective novel type of today, miles ahead of them.  I was puzzled though over the American spelling when it was set so clearly in an upper class ante diluvian shires family of England, all huntin and shootin and drinking.  Later I found, not to my surprise, that Phylis B was a teacher who had taught Ian Fleming briefly, the book reminded me of the Bond novels in their tone, but it was better than them (not hard).

The Possessed Fyodor Dostoevsky 1872

Reviewer:  Gillian August 2018

This novel is very 'Dostoevskyan', full of dark forces, dense passions and terrible events. It was written in 1871 and shows just how long the Russian Revolution was on the boil and just how brutal and bloody is was destined to be. Hatred and passion were churning in people, in all classes, the serfs wanted revenge for the lack of dignity and poverty they had suffered for centuries, but also the aristocracy were boiling, so quick to take life offence for something as little as a perceived insult but often big things too, inheritance was everything to the aristocracy. By 1870 estates were no longer reckoned in serfs, so in order to maintain their lifestyles landowners were selling timber, land, the family silver, but buyers were few and far between.

Dostoevsky knew about evil people, both educated and not, prepared to commit murder for a few roubles, and be caught with the severe consequences that meant. Streets were muddy, alleys dark and murderous, houses cold, horses and carriages dangerous, people drank, husbands beat their wives. Brutality was like the weather, something that just was. The main thing is though that the reader and main protagonist (a shadowy figure we hardly meet) know what is right and wrong, just what we would think is right or wrong today in fact, that has not changed. The circumstances in which people live though are very different. Therein lies Dostoevsky's message, how to maintain sanity and a broadly satisfying life, whatever the circumstances you find yourself in.

Shelley; The Pursuit by Richard Holmes; 1974

Reviewer: Rebecca

Richard Holmes is a brilliant writer and biographer and Shelley was his first book. It won Holmes prizes and started him on his career path. Shelley is an excellent subject of course with a stack of letters and diaries to consult and a colourful life, but only someone able to read it all and understanding it and the human being behind it, someone like Richard Holmes, is worthy of the task.

Shelley was first and foremost a political activist, and only secondly a poet and Holmes' biography reflects this, for it is as much a story of people's struggle for political representation as it is about Byron, Shelley's menage a trois (or quatre or cinq) and his travels around England and Europe fleeing creditors and authorities. Shelley rarely stayed more than a few months in any of the magical places he lived. Holmes's book reads like a novel but is better, because there are questions, we cannot know about some key events in Shelley's life (who was the father, who the blackmailer, did that assault really happen) but only guess.

I loved the story, and liked Shelley, though I didn’t like that he didn’t pay his debts and never intended to (a criminal in fact) and didn’t work at a paying job, though he did work very hard at his poetry and political writing. If he had been born a couple of hundred years later, he would have been a TV pundit perhaps, saying acid things on chat shows, but also a writer, he could get up early, and work, and he was passionate about equality and freedom. In his view this is what a poet was for.

For the most unfailing herald, or companion, or follower, of an universal employment of the sentiments of a nation to the production of beneficial change is poetry, meaning by poetry and intense and impassioned power of communicating intense and impassioned impressions respecting man and nature.”

Much of Shelley's perspicacious pamphletering and political poetry was not published until years after his death, much of it in 1839 after the Great Reform Act plus a few years, though his obscure and difficult Queen Mab apparently became underground literature inspiring Working Men's Groups (though it is hard to think how, I and my poetry group found it unintelligible).

As I Walked Out 1969. Laurie Lee

Reviewer:  Norman

I read this book in two days, a sure sign of a good book. I did question how true it was though, the writing is polished, it had been thought about a bit too much for a personal account so I was not surprised to learn it was written 35 years after the events. Lee's exploits reminded me of Hilaire Belloc's walks in Italy, massive climbing and endurance in extreme heat, on wine and very little food and shrugged off as normal. Lee was clearly very attractive, with his youth, spirit of adventure, tall good looks, sense of fun and intelligence. I didn’t like him though, I sensed 'nasty man syndrome'. The Spain he walked through was impoverished, but this, horrible as it was, wasn’t the worst thing about it, it was the lack of care. Men and women were separate, prostitution acceptable, men's drinking excessive, cruelty to people and animals rumbling in the background, but Lee did meet kindness, as ever out of the blue and from unexpected quarters. The British Gov for example sent a destroyer to pick him up with one other from a seaside village when war threatened. What a wonderful thing. The Civil War came but I doubt it brought care and love into the community, I suspect that came later with tourism. Read it yourself, you will probably disagree with me.

Frankenstein Mary Shelley 1818

Reviewer:  Norman

I began to read Frankenstein in the 1831 edition, a small bound book with a wonderful Blakeian illustration in the front. I was immediately entranced, beginning as it did with a letter home from a fond brother to his sister while negotiating ice flows in the Arctic where he had to tell of a strange sight, a large man racing a sledge at furious pace on the horizon. I read the book over the weekend, but on an iPad (once I realised how valuable the hard copy was), which took some of the essence of romance from it, but certainly not completely. So enjoyable to read it was, Shelley brought the adventure of travel absolutely to life, and the mysteries of relationships with horrid events within, to bring you up sharp. This was written as a horror story after all. Definitely a classic, one of those books that forms history rather than follows it. How did a teenage girl know all this? By absorption of everything around her, mixing and re-telling for following generations.

The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky 18??

Reviewer:  Julie

I read this book after Jessie Chamber's autobiography, when she says she started to get better from her abandonment by her partner D H Lawrence (Bert) after reading this book. For the first 80 pages or so I didn’t get it. I am used to writing in a more personal way, the interior person speaking to the world, how they see things and feel about things. This is the way most books are written these days. Dostoevsky writes from the outside, he is an observer of the characters, so they are described quickly and the reader has to take it as fact, that is how they are – passionate, indulgent, upright, dissolute – whatever. Somehow it didn’t explain. But now, after 100 pages or so (over over 800, on my Nook at least), I can see what he is attempting. The fundamental thing, from the beginning he attacks it, how a person can lead a good and sensible life when their passions pull them in the wrong direction, that is towards unsuitable people, disruption, dishonour, hurting innocents. How to get your passions under control. It is a racing tale, indeed the main character Alexei, the youngest brother rushes from one crises to another. I am halfway through, the book has become a friend and helpmate, I don’t want to finish it.

The Three of Us, a family story, Julia Blackburn, 2008

Reviewer:  Julie

This is an amazing tale of Julia's psychopath father (I'm sorry Julia, I am sure he was), and unhappy sexy artist mother and herself young and in the middle. The three of them attractive, well read, unpredictable and prone to addicitons. From an early age her mother treated Julia as a sexual rival and more or less encouraged her various affairs, so long as she kept free from her own boyfriends. For years all three went to therapy and psychiatrists blind with theories which led only to drugs and introspection. They definitely made things worse. Somehow Julia survived what would be considered a difficult social worker's case to become a talented writer with a happy personal life and family, which just shows you. I read this book in one day, amazed!

Unsung Hero by Kevin Fulton 2006

Reviewer:  Ned  8 March 2018

The story of Kevin Fulton (not his real name) was ghost written by two journalists and looking at the credits, it took them a long time and a lot of legal and emotional hassle to achieve it. It is a horrible story, but one that we should all know. For me the main theme was actually about leading young, gun happy men astray, not about 'The Troubles'.   KF was entranced by the British Army that he saw all around him, so far so normal, but he became trapped by it before he reached the age of reason. That came much much later. Kevin was Catholic but loyal to the army – at least that is what he gave as his purpose for setting off on such a, mad, irreversible and deadly path, that of an informer in N Ireland during the 1980s and 1990s, a mostly pre-mobile phone time.  Kevin lived a terrible lie, and interestingly became addicted and totally dependent on his 'handlers'.  Everything he did was for them, and though money and motivation to save army lives were a factor, it was to please the handlers that he continued the horrific task of responding to IRA demands. This meant grinding fertiliser (for weeks), planting bombs, carrying out 'judgements' (shootings) and spending his life with known IRA men who were really just low life thugs. This is clear from what they did. Targeting workmen on building sites for example because the site was in some vague way connected to the British, dragging men from their families and shooting them, going up to young men in bars and shooting them. None of the operatives were employed so in order to fund their hand to mouth existence they carried out elaborate criminal activities, insurance scams, heists and the like.

Kevin and the many other double agents should never have been recruited, his life was sacrificed for dubious benefit. I am not sure if he is still alive, but when eventually his cover was blown he lived from then under a permanent death sentence. His handlers never did rescue him as they had promised but actually planned his death (by the IRA) once he had outlived his usefulness.

Exposure Helen Dunmore 2012

Reviewer:  Julie

I am a big fan of Helen Dunmore's writing, she is a superb story teller and somehow absorbs history and place as though she has lived first hand through the experiences herself. I read this in March 2018, very quickly as it is a good read and found it was somehow right on topical, about Cold War spying in the drear, drab and repressed England of the late 1950s. Of course

The Possessed Fyodor Dostoevsky 1872

Reviewer:  Eileen

This novel is very 'Dostoevskian', full of dark forces, dense passions and terrible events. It was written in 1871 and shows just how long the Russian Revolution was on the boil and just how brutal and bloody is was destined to be. Hatred and passion were churning in people, in all classes, the serfs wanted revenge for the lack of dignity and poverty they had suffered for centuries, but the aristocracy also were furious, quick to take life offence for something as little as a perceived insult but often big things too, inheritance was everything to the aristocracy. The novel was written a few years after the emancipation of the serfs, estates were no longer reckoned in serfs, so landowners were selling timber, land, the family silver, but buyers were few and far between, so money was important to the aristocracy.

Dostoevsky knew about evil people, both educated and not, prepared to commit murder for a few roubles, and to be caught with the severe consequences that meant. Streets were muddy, alleys dark with rickety holes in fences letting the way into convict hideouts, houses cold, horses and carriages dangerous, people drank, husbands beat their wives. Brutality was like the weather, something that just was. The main thing is though that the reader and main protagonist (a shadowy figure we hardly meet) know what is right and wrong, just what we would think is right or wrong today, that has not changed. The circumstances in which people live though are very different. Therein lies Dostoevsky's message, how to maintain sanity and a broadly satisfying life, whatever the find yourself in.

The Russian society was pretty awful in 1870, according to Dostoevsky, we are surely better now, we believe in being nice to each other, even if only on the surface, in developing morals, happy families, happy work places. In Russia people were obsequious, always looking for money gain and prepared to go to horrid ends to get it. It was v important for survival to see who had morals and who had not. Many did to an extraordinary degree, committing suicide due to despair in the lack of belief in God, but ignored the little things, being nice to neighbours, brightening peoples' lives.

Sons and Lovers D H Lawrence 1913

Reviewer:  Rebecca

Why is it that novels are about relationships, and more than that, nearly always about romantic relationships. I do know the answer. It is because the rest of life, work, hobbies, friends, children, housework, money – while it takes most of our time, provides only a hazy background to the real stuff. That is, relationships and our interior feelings known (or not) only to ourselves, in the search for fulfilment. Lawrence in Sons and Lovers thought wholeness and content was to be found in a woman, but doesn’t find it.

S and Ls is a spiritual novel of great truths that resonates today and will in a hundred years time, written by Lawrence when he was still in his 20s. It comes from real life and a thorough intelligence.

The book flows like a river, day to day, with day to day events, what happened, what was said and the emotions behind what happens, which the characters do not understand. Real life then. People are generally sad, uneasy with their family, colleagues, lovers and friends, at odds with them, because behind the outward things are deeper things. The need to possess, to be loved and thereby possess, bending the will of the other to behave in more refined ways, sex of course, and bonds between people that are strong but people grow apart even so. The main character is quite a cruel man, not deliberately so, but nevertheless very cruel to his lovers. Drawing them in totally and then leaving them, bereft and broken. Why does he do this? He is searching for that special bond of body, mind and soul, and when the women doesn’t match up, she is rejected. He is unhappy and unsettled. His greatest love is his mother and it is heart breaking their bond, the terrible inconsolable pain of a dear presence gone.

The couple of sentences below, taken almost at random illustrates the tone, it is just one of many thoughts DH shares:

If so great a magnificent power could overwhelm them, identify them altogether with itself, so that they knew they were only grains in the tremendous heave that lifted every grass-blade its little height and every tree, and living thing, then why fret about themselves. They could let themselves be carried by life and they felt a sort of peace each in the other … (p430 ff).

You probably read this book ages ago, do read it again as I did, and will again in a few years time (God willing).  I still rate this the best novel of the 20th century (along with Philip Larkin apparently).  Watch out in the bookshop btw for the biography of DH by Jessie Chambers, the real life rejected lover.

Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich 1969 Germany 1970 UK Weidenfeld and Nicholson and Macmillan

Reviewer: Rebecca 2017: NB this is a long review, as befits the subject

This book is a horrific tale of a man corrupted by love for a psychopath. It is Albert Speer's personal account of the Third Reich (i.e. The Third German Realm as the Nazis called it covering Hitler's rise to power and the Second World War). Speer was in love with Hitler (though he was married with six children) and his obsession lasted over 15 years, in fact he was never totally free, even after Hitler's death and 20 years in Spandau prison, he could still feel the magic and mystery of his personality.

“Hitler may have become the object of sober studies for the historian. But for me he possesses to this day a substantiality and physical presence, as if he still existed in the flesh.”

To be fair, a whole country came under Hitler's spell, his magnetic charm and that indefinable difference (at the basis of which is lack of emotions) characteristic of a psychopath, but the nearer to him victims were the more blinding and binding it was. Speer was captured by Hitler's person and ambition kept him entrapped. The tragic affliction led to his corruption, loss of reality and his complicity in terrible actions.

“… all the intrigues and struggles for power were directed toward eliciting the ... 'Heil Speer' a rare greeting of favour … ”

It is an extraordinary story of Speer's own rise to power, what he felt, and why he did what he did. Speer was a key figure in Nazi Germany, indeed, once Hess flew off the scene, he was destined to be Hitler's successor. But Speer was not a politician or soldier, he was an architect who Hitler with his own predilection towards art, films and architecture, liked and courted. When only in his 20s Speer designed vast buildings and squares and, entranced by American movies, the Nuremberg rally sets. He was catapulted into the key job of Head of Armament Production when the previous incumbent, Professor Todt died in an aeroplane accident (not the first or last Nazi official to do so) on Feb 8th 1942. Speer describes the huge difficulties in the German war effort, (jealousy from other key men being the main) how they were overcome, how he felt and responded. You feel Speer was a fair man, a high achiever, driven to do a good job and make sensible decisions. He says he never knew about the Jews. Here's how it explains it.

“In making the decision to join the accursed party, I had for the first time denied my own past, my upper-middle-class origins and my previous environment. … my inclination to be relieved of having to think particularly about unpleasant facts, helped to sway the balance. In this I did not differ from millions of others. Such mental slackness above all facilitated, established and finally assured the success of the National Socialist system. The superficiality of my attitude made the fundamental error all the worse. By entering Hitler's party I had already, in essence assumed responsibility that led directly to the brutalities … in 1931 I had no idea that fourteen years later I wd have to answer for a host of crimes to wh I had subscribed beforehand by entering the party. I did not yet know that I wd atone with twenty-one years of my life for frivolity and thoughtlessness and breaking with tradition. Still I will never be rid of that sin.” p21

This is all the space Speer gives to the Jews in a book of 600 pages. As the war progresses he was aware that difficult and inconvenient people were sent to Concentration Camp, but I don’t think he thought it would happen to him. What he was scared of was losing power. With all the plotting that went on he had to be constantly vigilant, very energetic and skilful to maintain his position. Doing a good job (which he did) was absolutely not enough.

In the Nuremberg trials Speer was not given the death sentence. It was commuted to 20 years in Spandau jail, a lot tougher than today's jails I suspect though he doesn’t mention any cruelty, just a lack of resources, this book was written on scraps of paper smuggled out while he was in prison. People liked Speer, he wasn’t brutal or a murderer, just ambitious, riven with ideology, and under the spell of Hitler, and a belief in the Motherland. He says people thought they had to be either the Socialist or rather The National Socialist Party (NSKK) or Communist in the 1930s and he considered Socialism the lesser evil. A lot of people joined the party and believed in The Revolution to come because they would then, somehow, miraculously, have a car, everyone was extremely keen on cars.

The amazing thing is how long the war went on. The inherent flaws in a dictatorship, with its plotting and intrigue, and an unwilling people coming up against huge outside forces meant it was doomed from the off. All the main men around Hitler including Hitler himself started to go mad. The main thing was, they would not face the truth, that they were outnumbered and out resourced on all fronts, but they lived in fantasy land, cut off from their citizens and soldiers starving and freezing on the front line. Access to Hitler was filtered through Bormann, Keital and Lammers. The latter two fall by the wayside, Bormann, a sycophantic peasant, built his actress mistress a huge mansion, Goebbels (head of propaganda) had blatant affairs, Hesse flew to Britain to arrange a one man treaty, Goering (head of Air Force) was hugely overweight, drugged and transvestite. The main thing was, no-one could be trusted. You do feel that if the Allies had dropped a few revolutionaries into Germany and/or cut off production supplies (always Speer's fear) the War would hardly have even started

To me it is noticeable that Speer scarcely mentions religious belief or teaching, except when the twenty-one of them were facing trial in Nuremberg, then he and the others found the weekly chapel a great solace.

In the last days of the War with bombs dropping all around Speer undertook another 'Master of the Universe' mad trip into Berlin to see Hitler in his bunker for one last time, still chasing the chimera of love. Hitler treated him as 'an ordinary guest', parting 'without shaking hands'. This was on April 23 1945. Speer realises then:

“There was actually something insubstantial about him (Hitler). But this was perhaps a permanent quality he had. In retrospect I sometimes ask myself whether this intangibility, this insubstantiality, had not characterized him from early youth up to the moment of his suicide. It sometimes seems to be that his seizures of violence could come upon him all the more strongly because there were no human emotions in him to oppose them. He simply could not let anyone approach his inner being because that core was lifeless, empty.”

Which is the definition of a psychopath. One week later Hitler was dead, though, mad to the last, not before he had sacked Goering and put Bormann as his successor to the German Empire.

Pill box designed by Hitler on the Normandy coast.

Hitler planned defensive installations down to the smallest details … even pillboxes usually in the hours of the night. The design were only sketches but they were executed with precision.

I think back to when I used to take cycling and camping holidays in Normandy and came across eerie concrete structures deep in vegetation with pools of black water in their bases, the manifestation of Hitler's mind. When walking and exploring the countryside and towns, how much ideology, good and evil, is manifest in what we see.…

Germany was rife with ideology in the 1920s and 30s, I wonder if we are too because they cd not see it. Speer was a student and his professors who he admired, adored even, taught their architecture through the prism of a strong belief system, - in purity of form or whatever, it was based on determinism not empiricism, looking and seeing or allowing for other. Also a great belief in the Motherland – perhaps it came from being ostracised and downcast from the defeat of the 1st WW, many elements were at play, I imagine.

Speer never mentions religious teaching in his biography at all, that is very noticeable, most people would at least discount it.

To my mind, he doesn’t show any real remorse or understanding in this book, or at least, only a glimmer. He was an A student and can't resist telling us how clever he is, he had some nice qualities, today we wd hugely admire his hard work, and rigorous moral code and basic decency.

Here is how he explains his crimes to himself ...

Hitler had one of those hugely dangerous magnetic personalities that reek havoc on all around them.


Both Goebbels and Hitler had understood how to unleash mass instincts at their meetings, how to play on the passions that underlay the veneer of ordinary respectable life. Practised demagogues, they succeeded in fusing the assembled workers, petits bourgeois and students into a homogeneous mob whose opinions they cd mould as they pleased. p17

p87; the powerful men under Hitler were already jealously watching one another like so many pretenders to the throne (1930s). quite early there were struggles for position among Goebbels, Goering, Rosenberg, Ley, Himmler, Ribbentrop and Hess. … but none of them recognized a threat in the shape of trusty Bormann. … even among so many ruthless men, he stood out by his brutality and coarseness. He had no culture … he carried out whatever Hitler ordered or hinted at. A subordinate by nature he treated his own subordinates as if he were dealing with cows and oxen. He was a peasant.

Ribbentrop, Ambassador to England with grandiose plans for his own palaces

P32ff Today, in retrospect,I often have the feeling that something swooped me up off the ground at the time, wrenched me from all my roots, and beamed a host of alien forces upon me.

p365; always a matter of whether to concentrate on defence or attack. German cities subject to 3,000t of bombs a day, the Germans did not have the fighting planes to protect their cities. H wanted to launch massive bombs on England, but production not sufficient. … p366 H ordered long range rockets wh proved an almost total failure.

P363 jet planes; 60 planes a month from July 1944 on. From Jan 1945 wd be able to produce 210 a month.

p96; Rosenberg sold thousands of Myth of the 20th C, standard text for party ideology

p20ff  in 1931 I had no idea that fourteen years later I would have to answer for a host of crimes to wh I subscribed beforehand by entering the party. I did not yet know that I wd atone with 21 years of my life for frivolity and thoughtlessness and breaking with tradition. Still I will never be rid of that sin

p29; S as young architect to redo chancellor's residence in Berlin

p32  in responding to this challenge I gave up the real centre of my life, my family. Completely under the sway of Hitler I was henceforth possessed by my work. … Today, in retrospect, I often have the feeling that something swooped me up off the ground at the time, wrenched me from all my roots, and beamed a host of alien forces upon me.

P36 every evening a crude movie projector was set up to show the news reel and one or two movies … review with lots of leg display were sure to please him … this habit continued until the beginning of the war (from 1933)

p56; Speer and Hitler design buildings that wd appear wonderful ruins in the centuries to come

p57 benign building plans .. we persuaded factory owners to modernize their offices and to have some flowers about … lawn was to take the place of asphalt … hwat had been wasteland was to be turned into little parks … we urged that window areas be enlarged and workers' canteens set up … sturdy furniture … moving towards a classless People's Community.

P198 when Speer appointed armaments minister; Hitler spoke of his plans for the future, he frequently declared longingly; “then both of us will withdraw from affairs for several months to go through all the building plans once more”

p213; in spite of technical and industrial progress, even at the height of the military successes of 1940 and 1941 the level of armaments production of the WWI was not reached. During the first year of the war with Russia production figures were only a fourth of what they had been in the autumn of 1918. three years later, in the spring of 1944 when we were nearing our production max ammunition prod still lagged behind that of WWI, considering the total production of Germany at that time together with Aus and Czech. Amongst the causes for this backwardness I always reckoned excessive bureaucratization wh I fought in vain. e.g. the size of the staff of the Ord Office was 10 times what it had been during WWI.

P214; Hitler indicated he needed to keep up supplies of consumer goods, fear of uprising, more than in countries with democratic govs. Churchill promised blood sweat and tears, Hitler's slogan was “the final victory is certain'.

P221. In 1943 Eng had reduced the number of maidservants by 2/3rds this did not happen in Germany until the end of the war. 1.4m women continued to be employed as household help plus 0.5m Ukrainian girls.

P317 Summer 1943, Speer gives monthly production figures … when I thanked him and added the saluation 'Heil, mein Fuhrer'! He sometimes replied 'Heil Speer'. The greeting was a sign of favour wh he only rarely vouchsafed to Goering, Goebbels and a few other intimates. Underlying it was a note of faint irony at the mandatory, 'Heil mein Fuhrer'. At such moments I felt as if a medal had been confeered on me. I did not notice the element of condescension in this familairity. Although the fascination of early days had passed … a word from Hitler had lost none of its magical force. To be precise, all the intrigues and sturggles for power were directed twoard eleciting such a word and what it stood for. The position of each and every one of us was dependent on his attitude.

P334 Seeing him again after an interval of ten weeks, I was for the first time in all the years I had known him struck by his overly broad nose and sallow colour. I realized that his whole face was repulsive – the first signe that I was beginning to attain some perspective and see him with unabiased eyes.

Hitler the psychopath

p101; Hitler only used the Du form with four pple, three he dropped and never used and Roehm he had killed. Even toward Eva Braun he was never completely relaxed and human. The gulf between the leader of the nation and the simple girl was always maintained. Now and then, and it always struck a faintly jarring note, he wd call her Tschapperl, a Bavarian peasant pet name but with a slightly contemptuous flavour.

p357 Hitler the psychopathic;  similarly I can only explain Hitler's rigid attitude on the grounds that he made himself believe in his ultimate victory. In a sense he was worshiping himself. He was forever holding up to himself a mirror in which he saw not only himself but also the confirmation of his mission by divine Providence. … if there was any fundamental insanity in Hitler, it was this unshakable belief in his lucky star. He was by nature a religious man, but his capacity for belief had been perverted into belief in himself.

Given to outbursts of temper, delusional, hypnotic, unable to give affection, only to Bondi the dog who he keeps begging.

P471  there was actually something insubstantial about him. But this was perhaps a permanent quality he had. In retrospect I sometimes ask myself whether this intangibility, this insubstantiality, had not characterized him from early youth up to the moment of his suicide. It sometimes seem s to be that his seizures of violence cd come upon him all the more strongly because there were no human emotions in him to oppose them. He simply cd not let anyone approach his inner being because that core was lifeless, empty.

P476; the overpowering desire to see him once more betrays the ambivalence of my feeling. For rationally I was convinced that it was urgently necessary, although already much too late, for Hitler's life to come to an end. … my wish to have the speech (disobeying H) broadcast only after his death sprang form the desire to spare him the knowledge that I too had turned against him. My feelings of pity for the fallen ruler were growing stronger and stronger.

P478; Speer undertakes an impossible journey with invasion all around to see Hitler in his bunker in Berlin for one last time. Hitler talks of his suicide. … Hitler had treated me as an ordinary guest, as if I had not flown to Berlin especially for his sake. We parted without shaking hands, in the most casual manner, as if we wd be seeing each other the next day. This was on April 23 1945. On May 1st H was dead, though, mad to the last, not before he had sacked Goering and put Bormann as next in charge

The Divided Self, R D Laing, 1959

Reviewer: Rebecca 2017

I read this book after seeing the recent film Mad To Be Normal about R D Laing with David Tennant as the man. Mr Laing didn’t come out too well in that but I liked him more here, in it you see the intelligence and application behind the celebrity narcissist (which he undoubtedly was). It was Laing's first book of many, the only one I have read but I suspect his best. It has that originality and urgency that you get in really great books. Laing is well read, he knows all the theories, but he pretty much ignores them and comes to each case new, hence the book is timeless. As he says, theory distorts,

the American authors write their cases in terms of ego, superego, id which I feel puts unnecessary limitations on one's understanding of the material.” (p160)

To him schizophrenics are individuals and their problems real. Through hours of interviews with patient, family and friends he attempts to understand the reasons and origins for their behaviour. Like Freud, he discusses particular cases in great detail (I wonder about the ethics of this) which of course makes very interesting reading.

It seems any of us could succumb to schizophrenia though some are born with a propensity for it. In a sentence, the condition is a fear of the self being seen by others and being destroyed by others which leads to various strategies by the sufferer. They invent an outer persona that interacts with the world, the inner real person they keep hidden.

“ … if the mother's or the family's scheme of things does not match what the child can live and breathe in. The child then has to develop its own piercing vision and to be able to live by that – as William Blake succeeded in doing, as Rimbaud succeeded in stating, but not in living – or else become mad” (p189).

The schizophrenic is not going to reveal himself to any philandering passer by. If the self is not known it is safe. It is safe from penetrating remarks; it is safe from being smothered or engulfed by love as much as destruction from hatred. (p164/5)

– remind you of anyone?

This reminds me of the great spiritual writer of today Eckhart Tolle who says it is our ego that gets in the way of our true being and all suffering comes from it. The way to overcome the ego is to live in the present and observe, whenever you feel any emotional upset whatsoever, that is the clue that you are resisting what is and your ego is getting in the way (I hope I have interpreted it right). So Tolle says that actually our 'true' selves are not our selves at all. Laing agrees on the superficial level.

a partial depersonalization of others is extensively practised in everyday life and is regarded as normal if not highly desirable. Most relationships are based on some partial depersonalizing tendency in so far as one treats the other not in terms of any awareness of who or what he might be in himself but as virtually an android robot playing a role or part in a large machine in which one too may be acting yet another part. (p47)

but schizophrenics take it to extremes

Indeed, what is called psychosis is sometimes simply the sudden removal of the veil of the false self, which had been serving to maintain an outer behavioural normality that may, long ago, have failed to be any reflection of the state of affairs in the secret self. Then the self will pour out accusations of persecution at the hands of that person with whom the false self has been complying for years. (p100).”

I fear you don’t have to be schizophrenic to experience the above. Tolle would say such behaviour is the Pain Body rising and taking over but normally it subsides and things return to a bearable state. With schizos they don’t return to normal, they get worse and worse.

In literature Laing sees schizos in Kafka but not Shakespeare. In Shakespeare's world the clowns, lovers and kings all live before they die albeit in 'a tale told by an idiot', in Kafka's world it is much worse, his protagonists are de-constructed before they die. It is William Blake he most admires, his Prophetic Books

' … require prolonged study, not to elucidate Blakes's psychophathology but in order to learn from him what somehow he knew about in a most intimate fashion while remaining sane.'

Laing believes schizophrenia can be cured (though sadly doesn’t give examples).

The task of therapy then comes to be to make contact with the original self of the individual which or who we must believe is still a possibility if not an actuality and can still be nursed back to a feasible life. (p158)

Yes but that individual is going to face a lot of difficulties of loneliness. The individual if found will need to bolster that inner self through awareness and the support of a power greater than themselves.

This book is a classic, it is easy to read, you can hear the writer behind the words, and indeed the patients.

Stonor by John Williams 1965 Penguin Vintage

Reviewer:  Rebecca

Was it worth re-issuing this book (and loads of them come into the shop), by the writer whose name is so easy to forget, emphatically yes. JW has a unique voice, his style is short, no words are wasted, but all is said. This story is about William Stonor a curious character who we get to know as he proceeds through his life, along you get the feeling with himself, his own discovery of who he is, and it is a bit of a shock to us both. He learns about himself by what happens to him and how he reacts. Of course his character drives the actions but he, as are we, are surprised by what it does, by the hidden depths coming to the surface. First his sudden and then life long love of literature and its justification for study, surely John Williams speaking here against the tide of change in universities. Then about passion, which none would expect from this reticent, withdrawn man. It is a good story, you will turn the pages wanting to know what happens and then at the end you will put the book down and think, what was that, what is a person, how can we ever know, ourselves, those nearest to us, or anyone. Its super prose, and great feeling for the life and politics in a Missouri university way outback.

The Self Enchanted by David Stacton, 1956

Reviewer:  Rebecca

I read recently that Stacton was the greatest American author of the 20th century and I thought, crickey, I've never even heard of him, so I read The Self Enchanted which was one of the only books I could find by him and happens to be his third novel at the beginning of a career of writing fiction history and poetry. Was it that good? Well I'm not sure of that but it was definitely good. This book oozed menace, it was about a disordered charismatic person, wealthy, living in sunny California but drawn to the north snowy remote states. Stacton surely had observed such a type and knew the disturbing detrimental effect they had on people who were drawn to them. He has constructed a drama based on personalities tussling with each other, driven by their passions which ultimately they cannot control. Would I read another book by Stacton, yes, if I could find one (mind came from America).

Memoir by John McGahern 2005

Reviewer:  Rebecca

This is definitely the best book I have read this year, and I have read many. It is also (to my shame) the first book I have read by John (Sean) McGahern, written I realise now, one year before his death. While I was engrossed in it and even now, I felt I really knew Ireland, strange and foreign country (to us Brits) that it was (is?), and its spirituality the people felt so keenly. Theirs was a hard life but the important thing was not this life but the next. Sean himself was destined for the priesthood and this was an honour, the highest thing one could aspire to. He was the eldest of seven, all of whom became wonderful people, and from such an appalling background. John (Sean) loved his mother and that was the main thing about him, she was a lovely woman, educated, spiritual, who walked the country lanes of Ireland with her children, collecting flowers for the classroom in which she was head teacher. She earned the money, held the house together, gave the children morals, cooked the dinners. The book though is dominated by the father, as awful as the mother is good. I wish I could have had a conversation with Sean and said to him, 'do you not realise, your father was a psychopath, all this thought and coming to terms by you is pointless, he was a psychopath, you were unlucky the only thing you can do is get away' (all the children did as soon as they could). There is so much in this book, what I have said above merely scratches the surface. I have other books of his lined up to read.

Portrait of Clair by Francis Brett Young 1927

Reviewer:  Rebecca

This lovely book is set in the Midlands to the west of Birmingham when people travelled by horse and train and women didn’t have the vote, and industry was king and drove the economy. It provides the backdrop to the aptly named portrait of a woman, beautiful, lively, charming but these attributes don’t stop bad things happening. She manages to hold her own against people who want to be somebody or do something that isn’t quite her,

The Devil and Miss Pym by Paul Coelho

Reviewer:  Rebecca

I was given this book by a young friend, it was a profound and should be on everyone's reading list for its life and moral lessons. A few years ago I would have thought it was a magical realist book, now, with the wisdom of age, I know it is just a realist book. Coelho gives the best and shortest definition of right and wrong and good and evil and how to live your life that I have yet read (it comes at the end).

Beware Pity by Stefan Sweig

Reviewer:  Rebecca

I read this book attracted by the author of one of the best Radio Dramas I have ever heard, adapted from a story of his which was about a chess game on board a boat. Beware Pity was brilliant, equally good as the Chess Game and longer and more profound as well. It is a good story, you want to know what happened next but what I liked about it was, unlike many people, Sweig took the important things of life seriously, for example the feelings of a 17 year old girl. How many would give this any thought today at all, not even a sentence would be spent on it. But Sweig doesn’t distinguish between people and he gives the young ordinary person a whole book. To him all people are important and good relations and decency and good feelings between people are the most vital things in the world. Writing in the 1920s and 30s he could be said to understand Freud though probably he never read him, he just knew the way a novelist knows, that emotional feelings are the basis of eveything and it is why this book will not date.

Red Stefan by Patricia Wentworth 1935

Reviewer:  Rebecca

This was an awful book, I determined to finish it but my goodness it was hard, stupid sexist nonsense. It was written in 1935 but had a definite 50s feel to it. It was all about a wimpish, beautiful (yawn) woman, rescued by a dare devil brilliant charismatic man who adored her, and carried her through door ways and told her not to worry it would all be all right. The whole story was about how dare devil and brilliant and attractive the man was, how submissive and lady like and beautiful the woman was, … say no more, you get it.

Being Dead by Jim Crace 1999

Reviewer:  Julie

This was a short book I read and enjoyed over a couple of days. What I liked about it was that it was about a middle aged academic and, outwardly, boring couple. Their daughter, who doesn’t enter the pages until later, like a lot of academic offspring, was the exact opposite. Crace explores the fundamentals of this couple, largely through their sex lives, though the book is not pages of bonking, its just that its what brought the couple together and the problem of it, as time passes and how this particular couple get by. It was a clever book, the end at the beginning, but you still wanted to know what happened, so a good story and good short prose. Maybe a bit gruesome …

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O Brien 2016

Reviewer:  Julie

I was interested in this book as it is a topic that has dominated me for the last two years, that is, the nature of the psychopathic personality. Edna O Brien of course is a brilliant writer with great insights into the human soul but I have to say, in spite of the quote on the cover, by Philip Roth no less ('this is her best book'), I don’t think it is her best book and I think the reason for that is that the book is dominated by an idea and not by the characters. So the characters are pushed about in an illogical sort of way. The idea is about refugees, refugees of all types from all countries who meet and mix together in refuges (what a good name that is) in order to survive. They need first of all shelter and then jobs, so they can at least live and will take virtually anything going. They are all scared, of whatever appalling thing has happened to them, and this is where the psychopaths come in, and of the authorities catching up with them and of losing their job. Injustice continues in their lives albeit in a smaller meaner way, of the type that is not prosecutable unless you are a secure confident sort of person with a bit of clout. They are all sort of amazed at being where they are, but … it can happen to anyone as this story so clearly tells us.

The High Flyer by Susan Howatch 2001

A friend recommended this book to me, she got it from her local library (where incidentally they have a policy of only stocking books less than 20 years old, - you what?). It is all unbelievable, the protagonist is the High Flyer, she speaks in a horrible language (Nutterguff, cut the crap,) and earns megabucks and has a Life Plan. Everyone has loads of money. There are super attractive men all over the place and other nice religious people prepared to risk all to help this unattractive (and unbelievable) main character. I know why my friend liked it, it is a psychological drama that builds to a crescendo and to be fair to the book, I read it, and it is quite long, I didn’t discard it, which I could have done. But I am pleased it is finished it for the last few chapters are the best, they are an explanation of Christianity in modern life and the forces within and beyond us that drive our actions. An interesting and intelligent discourse revolving around the characters and events in the story, the outward skeleton of the unconscious and spiritual powers.

Gerald Seymour 2017 Jericho's War 

I'm afraid I abandoned this book about one fifth of the way in.  I will say straight away the fault is me not the writer, it is just not my sort of book.  I gave up the evening I saw Mission Impossible (No 4) on the telly over Christmas and the two stories became muddled in my mind.  Jerichp's War is very Mission Impossibily,  I stopped at the point a donkey entered the plot.  I am sure something nasty was in store for him and  I would rather not know.  The bit I read was about extreme characters working on their own carrying out highly secret and dangerous tasks that will alter the course of history, except no-one but us will know about them, as it is highly secret.  So if you like that kind of thing you may well like this.  The book is long, so one fifth was actually pretty good going, and it is plot and war technology, not character driven.  The protagonists are introduced just enough to explain why they are there, though I didn't get it.  Why for example would a young attractive graduate risk his life, take life and live undercover in war deprived Yemen rather than being a lawyer, adventure holidaying and drugging or whatever in London.  The people in it are called The Ghost, The Girl, Belcher and Jericho and are archetypes rather than people.  The Archaeologist, (aka The Girl) for example, I mean, which university did she belong to, and NO, under 30 year old women however blond and beautiful (yes she is) don't get to run digs, and where were the diggers and what was she digging anyway? 

The author, Gerald Seymour, is very experienced and very successful (he wrote Harry's Game), but I found the style difficult, it is very factual.  You have to read where the wounded man turns left, crawling on his belly, along the ditch, how long the ditch is, about the wire, the recessed doors, cement etc etc he has to negotiate while making an escape.  As I don't care about the wounded man I don't mind if he makes it or not, so this is boring to me.  But ... hands in the air ... I don't read war books.  Its a man's book I guess.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte, 1848

This fascinating novel begins where most end, with a marriage. I adored this book. It came at just the right time for me, It is about a woman suffering from the effects of bad men, who took home, money, jobs, friends and most of all, emotions. All women should read and inwardly digest Wildfell at the age of its heroine, and authoress, that is in their early 20s. Actually I had read it, when I was about 12, and I dimly remember bits of it, but it had no effect on me then. In fact I may have put it down in the early pages after a passage on badger baiting (reader, get past this, it doesn’t feature again and bears no relevance to the plot). This time round every page was so relevant. Conversations are given verbatim, the heroine's feelings recorded in a journal (as one does), horrific domestic events occur daily, with their effects on the emotional life of our heroine detailed. The story is set in a backdrop of English country life. We are given genuine glimpses of the minor gentry in midlands England (so that's how one got through the days living in country mansions surrounded by fields), of travel, meals, clothes and customs. This is Bronte world though and violence rumbles just below the surface, sometimes erupting onto the pages. How did Anne know so much at such a young age. She has a real understanding of the absolute importance of a good moral character fortified by religion, if one is to lead a happy, stable and useful life. Love and friendship are secondary. Without moral character one is lost, in this world and the next