Category Archives: Book reviews

Yes, My Other Half’s Novel is Out in Print!!!

Today’s news is that OH’s novel Replicas which came out in Kindle form a few months back, is out in print!  I haven’t actually read it yet because I can’t read books from a screen, but here’s the link:

So get yours today!  Buy buy buy!  Delivered in time for Christmas!

Oh, and I hope it’s OK to link here to the Insecure Writers’ Group, as Friday is so close to Christmas…

Kirk out


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Filed under The madness of Mark, friends and family, Book reviews

I Went to the Library Because I Wanted to Read Deliberately…

I have never read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, though of course I have heard of it – and now that I come to it I’m ashamed I took so long.  We Brits are scandalously behind when it comes to reading American literature: of course we read Henry James and have a stab at Hemingway and Pound (aren’t Pound and Eliot more British in spirit anyway?) but as for me, I am terribly behind on my US classics, only coming to Walt Whitman late and never having touched Faulkner.

All is not lost! for I am only sixty and it is probable that many years remain in which I can rectify these omissions.  In that spirit, I went to the library and happened upon Walden which, though I have only read fifty or so pages, has already blown my mind.

First, I never knew that there were so many quotations in it – for just as every line in Withnail and I is quotable, so every page of Thoreau has something in it that you didn’t know came from thence.  On the first page I read a line familiar to me from Dead Poets’ Society:

‘I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately.’ *

That idea of living  deliberately, thoughtfully, not just being swept along by the mainstream, is very appealing – though it does of course mean living a very stripped-down life.  Still it’s good to question which of the things you regard as necessary to life actually are.  Is a car necessary?  Is a job necessary?  And if so why?  You may come to the conclusion in the end that you do in fact need all these things; but at least you’ll have thought about it: and as we all know, the unexamined life is not worth living.  (That’s Socrates, not Thoreau, but still.)

A few pages later I came upon this:

‘If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.  Let him step to the  music which he hears…’

Everyone knows that line, as well as this one:

‘most men lead lives of quiet desperation.’

I had no idea that Thoreau was the source of these; and now I do, I want to read more.  I’ll keep you updated as I go…

Kirk out

*I guess Thoreau didn’t go on holiday by mistake?

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‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’

I’ve just realised after a quick trawl through some posts, that I never wrote that promised review which I began a few weeks ago, of the latest and possibly last Nicci French book:

You might call the series Frieda Stark’s Week: much darker and more thrilling than Ed Reardon’s Week (the highlight of which is something like being caught letting his tyres down to get into a car park) the series begins with Blue Monday and carries on till Sunday Morning Coming Down.  It’s highly dystopian; and as with the recent Val McDermid review I shall hold off on the spoilers a) because it’s new and b) because the ending left me utterly gobsmacked.  I was desolate.  I wanted to phone the authors immediately and cry, ‘How could you?  How dare you leave things this way?’  My heart was broken and my head crashed: as Val McDermid says it was both shattering and inevitable.

But although I won’t divulge the ending, I am free to discuss the beginning and middle.  Like all the Frieda Stark books, SMCD takes place in London; not tourist London but a seamy, hidden city; a city of oil-slicked puddles on abandoned estates; a city of filthy high-rise blocks and rubbish-strewn alleyways: above all, a city of rivers.  Rivers are Stark’s fascination and each book features a hidden river that has been blocked up and built on.  Of course the Thames is always present but other forms of transport, ie buses and the tube, hardly figure because Frieda likes to walk everywhere.  She can walk for hours in the most unprepossessing areas, just for the fun of it – although fun is not quite the right world; serious and dark, Frieda lives up to her surname as she sees life through a stark lens.

Somewhere in this dark world of crime lurks her nemesis Dean Reeve, believed by police to be dead but known by Frieda and her friends to be alive.  Her friends are, as she says herself, her real family, her blood relatives being cold and unloving.  The bright spots in the novel are the gatherings of this surrogate family of friends, colleagues, a sister and niece abandoned by Frieda’s brother, and a jobbing builder who came one day to fix Frieda’s bath and never left.  Add to these Karlsson, a detective whose career has been seriously threatened due to his friendship with Frieda, and you have the whole bunch.  But while they are all fiercely on Frieda’s side in her battle to convince the police that Reeve is still alive and out there, Reeve is threatening them all one by one.

This is high quality crime fiction.  There’s not a stereotype in sight; the world is created every bit as lucidly as Rankin’s Edinburgh and the characters drawn with a mature, clear-eyed vision.  But oh, my god, the ending!  They can’t do that – they just can’t!!

Kirk out

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The Six Labours of Microcles

Once or twice upon a time I came upon a book.  It was very slim for a novel, but it undoubtedly was one: about the same length as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly but for very different reasons, it was a short Proustian burst of contemplation on the minutiae of modern life.  Like noticing when you go up an escalator that the hand belt goes slightly slower than the steps and that it wobbles slightly as you grip it.  Like having long and complex thoughts about bendy plastic straws – that sort of thing.  And I seized upon this book with a great gladness, for I had thought until that moment that it was Just Me – or rather, Just I, who had these wonted but unwanted thoughts; these obsessions that didn’t ‘get me anywhere’ and which I couldn’t share with any of my fellow-travellers, but which nonetheless struck my obsessive mind as significant.

Anyway, it set me thinking about the minutiae of life and asking, why should we think small things are less important than large ones?  So in that vein here are some of the labours of Hercules’ lesser-known sister, Microcles:

  1.  untangle threads and fluff from a velcro fastener
  2. extract a wad of chewing gum from a child’s hair
  3. get every speck of soil from a dirty leek
  4. retrieve every atom of glass from a smashed thermos
  5. clean the dog poo from the soles of a pair of DM’s
  6. untangle a drawer full of string.

I can’t think of any more at the moment but that’s enough to be going on with.  I recommend the book, too:

Share and enjoy!

Kirk out

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Filed under Book reviews, novels and longer works

By the Word Divided

Yesterday I listened to the prequel to the prequel – or rather, the accompaniment to the whole, which was Phillip Pullman talking about his art in Book of the Week.  Now, I confess that although I love the work, I had conceived a prejudice about the man – due to believing that JK Rowling’s Professor Lockhart, the inept and narcissistic character in Book Two of Harry Potter, was based on Pullman (because of Sally Lockhart, a character in his series of potboilers.)  So I conceived an idea of Pullman as a narcissistic academic, long blond-grey hair swept back, striding around Oxford in a billowing gown.

Well, from the sound of these programmes, my conception was dead wrong.  Pullman started out as a schoolteacher; and his tone as he talks about what informs his writing is solid and down-to-earth.  He is particularly good at debunking Richard Dawkins’ ridiculously Gradgrindian theory that reading children fairy tales is likely to discourage them from accepting scientific ideas.  Plus, like me, he is a huge fan of William Blake.  What’s not to like?  I have to wait until this afternoon for the last installment, but here’s the link to the rest:

Anyway, the thing I was going to talk about today was the BBC mini-series (I have to hyphenate that word because otherwise it looks too much like miseries) about the Gunpowder Plot.  This is a story that never fails to capture the imagination, as it contains not only thrills and spills but the very real danger of the overthrow of government.  The idea of Guy Fawkes as a popular hero is ill-informed as he and his co-conspirators were no friends to democracy: however this production gives us something of the background of oppression which gave rise to the Plot.  Catholics were tortured and killed in the most brutal ways: while at the same time Protestants were being burned at the stake in Catholic Spain.

The production does get a bit Game-of-Throne-ish in the last episode: there’s rather a lot of swashbuckling and male back-slapping.  But there’s enough of a counterbalance by way of serious drama and a Horrible Histories-style detail in the telling: the Tower of London is shown in grisly and depressing detail as the Lubyanka of its day; we see details such as the storing of the gunpowder in an underground store and their concern about keeping it dry.  King James is down-to-earth and very non-regal and the true villain of the piece is the Richard III-like Cecil, whose web of spies intercept letters and people and interrogate both with an equal detachment.  So on the whole I think serious drama won over the GOT – but it was a close thing.

It’s interesting though, that we can still be gripped by a drama whose outcome we already know.  I wonder if Richard Dawkins would understand that?  He certainly wouldn’t understand Catholics and Protestants killing each other – but then neither do I…

Anyway, here’s the series:

Kirk out

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Filed under Book reviews, drama, friends and family, God-bothering, TV reviews

The Book of Dust

To listen or not to listen?  That was my dilemma at the weekend (yes, that same weekend that was packed with non-violence and non-nuclear weapons) when the BBC broadcast in its entirety Philip Pullman’s prequel to His Dark Materials, another three volumes collectively entitled The Book of Dust.  I was so torn: on the one hand I really wanted to read the text first; on the other hand it might be Christmas before I could get my hands on a copy and even then, that particular item on my Christmas list might not materialise.  Add to that the inducement of Simon Russell Beale’s hypnotic voice – and reader, I caved.

I was glad of my caving: it made the space between nuclear weapons and Casualty (not long usually but in this case about four hours) – enchanting.  I forgot I was in the kitchen making bread; instead I was at an inn on the riverside in Lyra’s Oxford where Lyra, a baby, is being looked after by some nuns.  But others are taking an unnatural interest in this baby…

I shall not post spoilers because as I said before, when a book is so new it’s unfair.  But here’s the link to the programme:

I might even listen again – again.

Kirk out




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Filed under Book reviews, radio, radio

Death Nell of Dickens

I well remember my introduction to the famous (or infamous) death-scene of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop:

which was also my first introduction to the idea that one could ridicule the work of a famous and respected author and get away with it.  Aside from one teacher who disliked Betjeman (and apologised for it) my schoolteachers had approached texts as holy writ.  They were the Given: it was our job to understand Them and to convey that understanding in such a way that it could be marked and graded.  Scepticism, let alone ridicule, played no part in that process.

Enter Geoff Syer.  Geoff was a lecturer at Isleworth College, an unashamed communist who wore a symbolic red tie: he was also a profound literary sceptic.  So when we were discussing pathos in literature it was inevitable that Little Nell should arise from her grave like a shadow-puppet to be killed yet again:

She was dead. Dear, gentle, patient, noble Nell was dead. Her little bird — a poor slight thing the pressure of a finger would have crushed — was stirring nimbly in its cage; and the strong heart of its child-mistress was mute and motionless for ever. Where were the traces of her early cares, her sufferings, and fatigues? All gone. Sorrow was dead indeed in her, but peace and perfect happiness were born; imaged in her tranquil beauty and profound repose.1 (Chapter LXXI, p.524)

Victorians were as devastated by this scene as people more recently at the death of Princess Diana.  They wept openly in the streets.  But there were no Reichenbach Falls for Nell: Dickens was as implacable as death itself and refused to bring her back.

However, amongst the mourning there were even then dissenting voices.  Oscar Wilde remarked: “one must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without dissolving into tears . . . of laughter.”  And that, I would guess, sums up the reactions of most modern readers.  Though attempts have been made to explain Nell as symbolic of the victims of capitalism:

I don’t think that’s the way Dickens worked.  His characters were visualised with an intensity rivalled only by Dostoevsky’s – and though he was deeply concerned with poverty and child mortality (the novel follows on from the death of his sister-in-law) such abstraction is not in his nature.  Dickens dealt with concrete realities.

I have to say the above article expresses everything I dislike about post-modernism; inventing complex terms for something already ‘out there’ which could be expressed much more simply.  That said, much has been written in the feminist era about Dickens’ women and how they tend to divide into the garrulous and the child-like; the figure of fun and the ‘angel in the house’.  Give me garrulous and comic any day: besides, I wouldn’t have been married to Dickens for any money.  Twelve children, a lifetime of unfaithfulness and ne’er a mention in any of his books.  No, ta…

I can’t remember why I started on this topic at all.  But there you go: I never could get the hang of Wednesdays…

Kirk out




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