Sarah Moss – Bodies of Light


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Let us not forget the sisters who struggled before us

Bodies of LightI’m at a loss to know where to start to adequately praise this excellent, layered novel from Sarah Moss, who has the stunning ability to write novels ‘about deep and complex stuff’ , engage with both the heart and the head, create real, properly dimensional, complex characters, write beautifully and unindulgently, and do all this within the discipline of a pacey narrative drive

Moss’s territory is the complex lives of girls and women, caught between their own personal identity, their calling, vocation and creativity, and the counter-pull, whether of a society which limits and curtails women, or the counter-pull imposed by the biology of mothering and the fierce demands of children

I read, some time ago, Moss’s last book, Night Waking, which I found brilliant, distressing, disturbing, but for me, there were some irritations, which pulled me back from 5 stars. Night Waking concerned a professional couple, with 2 small children, engaged in their work on a Scottish island. There was the tension of the children, affecting, differently, the mother and the father, with the mother least able to ‘follow her own star’. That book also twinned a long ago thread from the nineteenth century. And in fact, that thread skeins back to Bodies Of Light, her latest book. Though there is no need to have read the previous one. Except, you might later want to. Or indeed, as I shall do, revisit the earlier one.

Bodies of Light is set primarily in Manchester and London, between the mid-1850s to the 1880s The central family is that of Alfred Moberley, an artist and craftsman, and his increasingly successful circle, and Elizabeth, his wife, an idealistic Christian woman with a passionate commitment to female rights, to the burgeoning movements to achieve equality of opportunity for women in the field of education, primarily, and also to expose the vicious hypocrisy of the sex trade, criminalising prostitutes but not their clients. Elizabeth and Alfred have two daughters, Alethea and May, whom Elizabeth effectively sacrifices to the cause.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, first UK female doctor

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, first UK female doctor

This book is primarily the story of Ally, Alethea, who is raised to do her duty, by a mother who effectively resents and dislikes her, except she is the one who is raised to be the sacrificial victim for the better rights of future generations of women. Ally is one of the first groups of women to train to become doctors, so that women, particularly poor women, should be treated by members of their own sex, respecting their modesty, respecting their vulnerability.

Elizabeth is a deeply unpleasant, sadistic woman, but as a clear demonstration of Moss’s subtlety, we meet Elizabeth as she is on the eve of her marriage to Moberley, with his much more expressive, but weaker, nature. What Moss does is to show us Elizabeth’s own, steely upbringing, child of another mother wedded to fierce ideas. So one strand which returned for me, again and again, is how difficult might be the lives of the children of idealists, who are prepared to sacrifice, not only their own lives, but also the lives of others for the sake of ‘the future generations’ These are people implacable, made of steel, sometimes without the softness of empathy. Hard people to be around, often, but the people who forge beneficial and forward movements (as well, at times, as retrograde ones) The believers in isms, the ends-justifies-the-meansers.

And I believe that generations of our sisters yet to be born will thank us for what we give. And indeed what we take from others. There is no principle worth having that does not exact a price. We must recognise the cost of our principles and take responsibility for that cost. We must not deny the consequences of our own actions

Ally is a complex, damaged character, at times terrifyingly fragile, but she too, has steel. In her case, the steeliness is visited against herself. Her journey is at times unbearable, as is being reminded of the real struggle many made in order to win rights of opportunity for those who came after.

Just occasionally, she feels herself on the crest of a wave, the weight of water bearing her along. She herself has only a small role, but the fellowship of women is a tide, and it cannot be turned

But I don’t want to make this sound too worthy a read – Moss’s craft is that she is a superb novelist, and for the most part paints her characters and her story with complex and beautiful shapes and colours, rather than in big bold cartoon strokes of black and white.

Berthe Morisot; The Cradle, 1870

Berthe Morisot; The Cradle, 1870

Perhaps nowhere did I get this sense more strongly than in the character of Elizabeth Moberley. I was reminded, in some ways, of the horrible Mrs Jellaby in Dickens’ Bleak House, who sacrifices her own children’s well-being because she is more concerned with doing philanthropic works. Dickens makes Jellaby one of his enjoyably ‘love to hate and poke fun at’ figures. But we never really see her as a real person, and understand her psychology from the inside. We stand outside, watch, judge and, in superiority, laugh at her. Elizabeth, by contrast, hateful as she is, came from somewhere, and Moss makes us empathise and understand the terror of the young mother who did not want to be a mother, and was terrified of her own feelings.

She woke up thinking of knives, took only porridge for breakfast, because even a butter-knife seemed a bad idea. She is still thinking of knives. The baby is still crying…

She is weak. She is slovenly. The baby has defeated her. If she goes out she is afraid she will buy laudanum, and if she stays in the house, there are knives. And fire, and the staircase. And windows high under the gable. The baby cries. She cannot pick it up because of the windows and the staircase, and she cannot walk away because of the knives and the laudanum

I particularly liked the structure of this book, each chapter illustrated in the description and later provenance of a piece of artwork, either painted or crafted by Moberley, or his artist friend, Aubrey West. The painting or crafted object is a capture of the story and subtext of the ensuing chapter.

Google Search was, as ever, of interestSarah Moss

A wonderful, rich, book, which is at the same time an easy to read one, challenging much thinking, much feeling, but without any self-indulgence. Just as her central character, doctor in training Ally, was learning how to be a surgeon, and master the arts of scalpel and suture, so Moss demonstrates equally precision with her pen, knowing what to cut out as well as what to stitch together

Bodies of Light Amazon UK
Bodies of Light Amazon USA

Janice Galloway – Clara


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If music be the food of love, play on

ClaraJanice Galloway’s Clara, a biography as fiction of Clara Schumann, born Clara Wieck, pianist and composer, who married Robert Schumann and bore him 8 children, was something of a struggle, for many right reasons, but also, perhaps, a victim of its attempt to write from both an objective perspective, and from a within the mind of both Robert and Clara. Robert Schumann suffered episodes of extreme mental disorder, most possibly bipolar disorder, as his diagnosis at the time recorded periods of extreme and prolonged ‘melancholia’ followed by periodic attacks of ‘exaltation’. This means that writing ‘within his mind’ becomes remarkably confusing, distressing and jumbled at times.

Galloway has written very well ‘within the mind of breakdown’ before, in her mordant, Clara_Schumann_1853painful and often very funny The Trick Is To Keep Breathing – but this worked in part because the central character of that book had a degree of wit about herself.

Here, the tenor of the book as a whole, despite some fine passionate intensity about music itself, as the major players – Clara, her music teacher father, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Brahms, are all musicians and or composers – is overwhelmingly bleak and full of despair.

I am very admiring of Galloway’s writing, most particularly because of her ability to leaven the tragic with a lightness of touch, and, in her own biographical books, a certain cool stoicism.

However, in this book, looked at (as we can’t help seeing it) through twenty-first century eyes, through the journey of a century where much has been achieved, primarily by fiercely battling women, to change consciousness, in both women and men in attitudes to women, Clara Wieck, then Schumann’s story, filled me with horror, rage, despair. As it should have done, but I wished there had been some more lightness in the telling, and that Galloway had found a less confusing way of narrating, as the shifts between within Robert’s mind, within Clara’s mind observing Robert, and the overall view of an outside narrator were not always easy to navigate, for this reader.

Robert_Schumann_1839Briefly, Clara’s story is that she was ‘groomed’ as a musical prodigy pianist by her autocratic father, as evidence of his brilliance as a teacher, and evidence of the brilliance of his methods. He also taught Robert Schumann piano. Robert and Clara fell in love and the match was violently and viciously opposed by Wieck. The couple did marry, but Schumann’s mental instability was already obvious. Clara was a devoted wife, but she was also a world renowned artist in her own right. Society, even progressive bohemian society had in the main very old fashioned views about the duties of wives and mothers. So, Clara was always on a rack and pulled at from both within her own psyche, within that particular time and place, and from without, by the oppositions of Father and Husband. Even without Robert’s mental illness, two highly lauded creative artists within a relationship, within the same field, one male, one female, creates some obvious tensions. Who is the supporter in that relationship, whose creative needs come first, who limits and curtails their own creative needs in order to allow the other to fully flower. Clara Schumann’s story has its echoes in other many other places

I do recommend this strongly, despite my reservations about the narrative voice, and my wish that Galloway had made the journey a little more high speed, rather than stopping at every station, and sometimes waiting around before starting again. I wasn’t quite as surrendered to every moment, every page, as I usually am with her writing

In the last moment prayers of performers, feelings only interfere. Hours into years of practice, solitude and repetition, war with tedium and physical limitation made to look like grace, elegance, ease – what use is feeling to that? What are they after, This relentless determination to sublimate a life – what drives it? …… Is it a desire to conquer or the desire to serve? A requirement to display or hide? Is the impulse born of sensitivity or instability?…Is it some form of love? Is it driven by the imperative of making a living or supreme disregard for same? Is it simple lack of any talent in any other direction? Does it matter?


Clara Amazon UK
Clara Amazon USA

Jennifer Peace Rhind – Listening To Scent: An Olfactory Journey With Aromatic Plants and Their Extracts


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Olfactory deconstruction so fine that I could smell the odours in my mind. Very scented heaven!

Listening to ScentI read Jennifer Peace Rhind’s book on olfaction and natural perfumery, and became almost dizzy with delight.

I did not need to be told from the author’s profile at the end of the book, that she has been deeply involved in a journey with aromatics, and with the essential oils and absolutes as aromatics in particular, for many many years. Her absolute knowledge from experience, as much as from her own studies and reading of other texts on the subject, is absolutely obvious.

And, as important to me as depth knowledge and creative thinking on a subject are – Rhind is also a clear and inspiring writer.

Though this book is particularly geared towards those who may be interested in, or are already, making natural perfumes and perfumery products, it will also be of deep interest to those who are involved in the therapeutic side of working with the essential oils. Despite my own relationship over many years with those oils therapeutically, I was absolutely delighted to find that Rhind was teaching me new information here.

Even for those who primarily are working therapeutically, aesthetic blending may well be part of the mix, particularly when working with clients whose prime reason for treatment is dis-ease presenting in psyche, or with causes from psyche, or those with chronic conditions, where the feel-good hedonic aspect of those oils will absolutely need to be considered.

Rhind explains very clearly the complex physiology and psychology of olfaction, how and why odour has its effects. However, the main thrust of her book is like spending time with a wonderful, creative educator who teaches practitioners of artistic disciplines – the book de-constructs the creation of perfumes, and, best of all, presents the aspiring (or experienced!) perfumer with a really in-depth programme for developing and refining their olfactory sensitivities, both in systematic, left brain ways, with wonderfully structured exercises, and with right brain, creative, playful, olfaction-as-meditation exercises.

Free on Pixabay, Optimusius1 photostream

                        Free on Pixabay, Optimusius1 photostream

What I am particularly enthused with in her writing is the absolute sense of generosity and empowerment which shines out. She is not laying down rigid formulaic monkey-see, monkey-do, she does that wonderful thing of giving the reader a brilliant tool box, the understanding of what the tools can and cannot do, and then says, metaphorically – go make, explore, learn from your own experience.

There is an excellent amount of safety information, specific information about chemistry in each of the oils and absolutes mentioned, to keep perfumers aware of cautions which may be needed, skin sensitivity issues and the like.

I particularly appreciated the information on the aromatic profiles of individual chemical constituents, in isolation. Many of us with familiarity with the oils and absolutes may not have encountered that wide a palette of each component as a stand-alone, so, I am looking forward, from descriptions of the odour notes of the isolate, and my own knowledge of essential oil chemistry, to tease apart the full odour of a particular botanical

Her book is meticulously and brilliantly referenced, with academic thoroughness, and gives those who want to find out Jennifer-Peace-Rhind1more left brain stuff the detailed information to find it

I was absolutely delighted to get offered this as an ARC from the publishers, Singing Dragon, via NetGalley. And just a word on Singing Dragon – they have a great and growing reputation as publishers of books in the complementary medicine field which are thorough, serious, innovative, sensible texts. To be honest, the fact that Rhind’s book is published by Singing Dragon let me know in advance this was going to be a good ‘un

Listening To Scent Amazon UK
Listening To Scent Amazon USA

When Vanity Publishing Turns Dangerous


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I know that it seems progressively harder to get published, as more and more books seem to become yet another commodity, and fabulous advance bidding wars are fought over the rights of (sometimes mediocre) books which are snapped up for megas because someone sees FILM RIGHTS or MERCHANDISING.

Meanwhile, the role of the carefully crafting book editor, nurturing a talent, working with a writer over decades, seems to be in decline

Inevitably the ‘well I can publish this myself on digi’ beckons, and clearly some writers find this hits the sweet spot – 50 Shades the classic example.

Now I’m sure there are wonderfully written books out there which failed to get publication the normal route, and the authors of them are desperate to get reviewers to try their free downloads to see if genuine enthusiasm can get the work read, as it absolutely deserves to be.

But it is also true that some stuff of abysmal quality is being self-pub’d, and I guess many of us have sneaked ‘look insides’ at what we were getting requests to read, and finding jaw-dropped moments of disbelief at how bad some of this was, and, in the end, we decided to draw a line and state, firmly ‘no self-published works will be read’. Which is horribly hard for the writers of the stuff we might have absolutely been blown away by, but unfortunately finding the pearl means wading through dozens and dozens of stuff which is badly written, – or completely outside the reviewer’s interest.

So – I had definitely become a ‘no self-pub’, clearly explained, on my Amazon profile. But still the requests keep coming, several daily. Delete, delete, delete.

Except – one arrived which was right within my area of expertise – a specific modality of the complementary health field. So, I thought I ought to read it, as I do keep up with what is newly being written on the subject. Though I had some reservations, as the title of the publication did rather suggest that the author was jumping onto a cash-cow bandwagon – self-help books, and that possibly, probably, her expertise might not be that high.

I started my read expecting to find only that the eBook on free download when offered would probably be no more than the usual same old same old fluffy repetitions, cuts and pastes. It’s an overcrowded, but lucrative market, particularly when the writer does a mass-mailout, offering a free download in the hope of garnering the 5 stars, pushing the book up the listings, before charging a very modest sum, and watching the modest sums stack up.

What I found, instead, was outrageously dangerous. The writer clearly had no more knowledge of the subject than I have of how to perform open-heart surgery. And yet her marketing found her managing to garner 5 star reviews from people who clearly were either patsies, or people who knew nothing whatsoever about the subject either, and thought that what was written was advice which could be safely followed

However if any misguided person actually does follow the given instructions they might – suffer severe skin burns from using essential oils in the bath in the manner suggested, suffer severe burns to the mouth, throat, oesophagus from ingesting essential oils diluted in water and suffer burns (both giver and receiver) attempting to massage someone with essential oils dissolved in water.

Essential oils are primarily hydrophobic – the majority of the individual components in each essential oil either do not dissolve in water at all, or are only marginally hydrophilic.

The worst which can result from reading a painfully bad work of fiction is irritation, boredom and the like.

But when ignorant writers turn their hands to writing ‘health advice’ on subjects they clearly know nothing about, the results can be serious, for the reader who takes that advice.

I  wrote a blistering, detailed, scathing and far too long 1 star review of the ill-advised book, on the Amazons, quoting from the book, and explaining many of its erroneous and dangerous mistakes, in the hope that possible readers who have no knowledge of the field might at least think ‘I wonder why there is a one star review’, and be deterred from following suspect advice, and perhaps seeking out one of the books written for lay-readers, but published by a reputable publishing house who specialises in the field of good quality books on health care and self-help.

Inevitably, some negative voting has happened on my review to drive it out of sight, on the USA site. But it’s telling, that so far, none of the negative voters has challenged that what I quoted from the text itself are not true quotes

Hawking quote

Curiously, this distresses me even more – if I had put out advice into the public arena which was dangerous, but perhaps I was blithely unaware of the danger, and it was pointed out precisely why this was dangerous advice, personally I’d rather people were protected from danger, rather than want my dangerous information to be utilised.

Having read this particular self-pub it reinforces, for me, the importance of making sure that any books I read on complementary health matters which involve advice on supplements, homoeopathy, herbs, essential oils, manipulative bodywork and the like are published by one of the publishing houses which specialises in the area, and ensures that ‘advice’ for self-help is given by people who know what they are talking about.

Sometimes, the fact that a publisher might be held liable for dangerous advice and that the threats of lawsuits make publishers cautious, even over-cautious, is a good thing.

Complete freedom to write and self-publish whatever you like, as long as it isn’t an incitement to criminality, terrorism, racism and the like, does not mean that work which falls outside these obvious cavils, is necessarily writing which is without danger.

Caveat emptor – and perhaps, even more, Caveat free-downloader!

Tom Hunt – The Natural Cook: Eating The Seasons From Root To Fruit


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Eat well, eat local, eat in good time

the_natural_cookI’m not really quite sure why I failed to post this wonderful book on this blog,  given my enthusiastic review of it (after receiving it on Amazon Vine UK) on Amazon. I think I was a little restrictive in ‘what is this blog about’. As I fairly often review cookery books, why not? It was probably thinking I’d have to create another category, and the hard work that entails. My inner sloth protesteth! But this is too good a book to give way to that sloth………

Tom Hunt’s The Natural Cook is rather more than just another book of visual food porn, tempting you into your kitchen to try (and fail) to produce stunning results after a lot of time, heavy duty shopping and sourcing of rare ingredients shipped by rocket from Mars. Or at least air freight from across the world.

Hunt’s mission is to help us save our money, save our time, delight our eyes, taste-buds and tums, at a price which doesn’t cost the earth for future generations.

Although this is not a vegetarian cookbook (which will probably delight many) the star performers here are players from the vegetable, rather than animal, kingdom.

Divided initially into four quarters, to mark the four seasons, Hunt picks a few plant ‘stars’ typical of the season, and then gives a good 8 to 10 recipes with that star player as main ingredient. He offers 2 methods of preparation for each, and then sundry recipes involving that method. Advice is also given on the storage of left-overs from each recipe and indeed where it would be advisable to make extra in order to have freezer food for later.

A full list of the ‘players’ available in their right season is also given

His aim is to reduce food waste to a minimum, so ways of using left-overs are also included, making them part of other dishes.

This is all high end, easy prep (for the most part) gourmet, healthy, delicious and stylish food – designed to make the cook and the diner feel equally good and delighted, without sacrificing hedonic pleasure to dutiful , healthy, but rather dull eating.

As mentioned earlier, it is not a vegetarian cookbook, I guess a good quarter of the recipes involve inexpensive cuts of meat or fish, but certainly some of the meaty or fishy numbers could I think be adapted by the vegetarian cook, using tofu or pulses, as for the most part the flesh food is more Eastern and Mediterranean in quantity – if a recipe includes meat it is in smaller amounts, not groaning trenchers of severed limbs and the like – hence the possibility of replacing, for example, a recipe of asparagus and mackerel sashimi with pickled ginger, orange and soy dressing with smoked tofu in place of the fish.

Because I AM vegetarian, I’ve found a flesh free video of Tom demonstrating how to make a dish – there are some one’s I hid behind a couch, rather than watched, sobbing plaintively.

In a sense, though undoubtedly delivered with style and panache, Hunt’s recipes invitingly call out to the home cook to adapt and experiment with what you have to hand in YOUR cupboard – it is easy to see these are recipes designed to release your creativity in the kitchen, not stifle it into nervous following of rigid instruction.

I particularly like Hunt’s using up everything possible from the cooking process in interesting ways – a lovely example, from our current ‘apricot season’ is, having poached your fresh apricots, perhaps for an apricot melba, reserve the poaching liquid to add to white rum, lime juice and sugar and, hey presto, a daiquiri!

This is a cookery book with a lot of heart, joy, compassion and passion, as well as stuff to make the diner drool with anticipatory pleasure, and the cook happy in that fine dining can be produced without spending a life-time turning a lettuce leaf into something to be submitted for the Turner prize

Natural Cook

The look inside lets you see some recipes, so its easy to try ‘is this my kind of food; do the recipes work; are they do-able or just faff’ etc, and the index also gives a fair idea of the recipes.

Hunt, as I think is explained in the look inside section, has based his cooking on excellence in home and traditional dishes – ‘regional cooking’ where the regions take in other countries as well, but this is not about cooking as art form or cooking using fashionably rare and highly exotic ingredients, and you won’t need to purchase arcane equipment in order to achieve fabulous results. No foams, no jus, no blowtorches.

Readers from outside the UK may well of course find that the availability of product, and the time of the year it is locallyTom Hunt available won’t dovetail to perfection the way it does in the UK, and that you may wish to adapt recipes from UK local produce, with your own local produce. As stated earlier, Hunt really encourages that sort of creative, adaptive approach. he is a wonderfully relaxed, confidence inspiring cook, rather than one of those who will leave you sobbing because you followed the recipe to the nth degree and ended up with something looking like a dog’s dinner, and tasting so hideous that even the dog walked away from it. Recipes, I imagine, invented by star hissy fit prima donna chefs whose aim is to humiliate the home cook!

Tom Hunt’s lovely, enthusiastic and welcoming sharing of his food beliefs and scrummy recipes are further available on his blog which I for one will be bookmarking

The Natural Cook: Eating The Seasons From Root To Fruit Amazon UK
The Natural Cook: Eating The Seasons From Root To Fruit Amazon USA

Neil Gaiman (author) + Eddie Campbell (illustrator) – The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains


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Fireside dark storytelling rendered even more magical

I am old now, or at least, I am no longer young, and everything I see reminds me of something else I’ve seen, such that I see nothing for the first time. A bonny girl, her head fiery-red, reminds me only of another hundred such lasses, and their mothers, and what they were as they grew, and what they looked like when they died. It is the curse of age, that all things are reflections of other things

Fabulous weaver of weird and wonderful stories for adults and children Neil Gaiman wrote this short story/novella The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, which was published in a collection of creepy dark stories: Stories: All New Tales, by Headline, back in 2010.

Then this story by Gaiman developed another life, when he was invited to read his story aloud, and with projected artwork by Eddie Campbell, with a musical underscore by FourPlay String Quartet at the Graphic Festival at Sydney Opera House.

Neil Gaiman reading, Eddie Campbell’s images, and underscoring by FourPlay, Sydney Opera House 2010 excerpt starts at 2.44 and runs to 4.10

Now Headline have reduced the experience back down to the individual reading experience – a book, a story on the page, that artwork, condensed into a wonderful weaving of seductive and dark words, sensuous and sometimes scary images, and the tactile experience of silky, glossy pages, hardcover, slightly textured titling. The book as craft, art, and beautiful object as well as wondrous words and a story like some well-honed myth, handed down through generations.

The Truth Is A Cave

This is a journey through the Highlands, a journey made by two stern men, both with hidden secrets. The un-named narrator is a small fierce man. His companion, Calum MacInnes, is a tall, gaunt one. And there appears to be distrust of the other, from both sides, as they set out to find hidden gold which may be cursed

Artist Eddie Campbell’s artworks are gorgeous, and varied in style, ranging from graphic, solid broad-brush stroked figures which are almost cartoon in simplicity, to some lovely part-shaded, part outline, suggestions of shapes, which appear to flicker out from misty, pastel backgrounds. I particularly like the fact that the textured background Campbell must originally have used is visible, a wash across all pages, so that the use of colour is subtle and varied.

This is really not a book to get on ereader – the subtlety of texture, the vibrancy of colour and shape need to be appreciated in the larger size of a book’s pages.

I was extremely fortunate to be offered this by Headline, as a review copy.

My only regret is that I missed knowing about this book till a few days after Neil Gaiman, Eddie Campbell and Foursquare repeated the performed event of the story. Seeing these illustrations stage sized, having the author read his tale aloud and with the underscore, sitting rapt with others whilst this played out, must have been a magnificent occasion

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains Amazon UK
The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains Amazon USA

And, of course, I must once again give hearty thanks to fellow blogger, friend,and fellow Amazon reviewer Fiction Fan, who is also at times my crossed books at dawn duelling partner, when one of us fervently recommends a book to the other which makes the other react with the sort of enthusiasm normally reserved for a festering swarm of fruit flies on a rotting pineapple. (I’ve resisted the urge to use media here, and will leave it to your fertile imaginations)

However she absolutely came up trumps for me with this one, urgently contacting me to tell me that I would yearn and lust for this, and that ARCS were available She was SO right – and you should also check out her magnificent review, chock full of those marvellous illustrations, and other quotes Fiction Fan’s review of this

Kayhan Kalhor + Ali Bahrami Fard – I Will Not Stand Alone


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Iranian Heart, Iranian Soul

I Will Not Stand AloneKayhan Kalhor, the Iranian kamancheh (spike fiddle) player, is as consummate a musician and artist as one could dream of. He combines astonishing virtuosity and passionate immersion in his music, with playing which is charismatic, stellar – and, yet, curiously without ‘look at me ego’ or hogging centre stage, muscling out his ‘supporting musicians’ Kalhor doesn’t really do ‘supporting musicians’. He works peer to peer with other musicians

What he does do is to work with a range of other musicians, sometimes from his own culture’s musical traditions, sometimes cross culturally, as in his work with Ghazal, marrying the Iranian kamancheh with instruments from India’s classical musical tradition – sitar, tabla, vocals. And sometimes he works with musicians better known in the European classical music traditions, most notably with Yo Yo Ma, playing a wealth of Asian music in the Silk Road series of albums.

Whatever Kalhor does, he brings devotion to his work. Whatever brilliance, finesse and mastery he brings to his playing everything is designed to shine the brilliance of the music itself. There is surrender to the music, surrender to the joint practice of playing music with others, and, if you are fortunate enough to experience a live concert with Kalhor, as I recently was, surrender to the experience of unfolding and revealing music in a shared experience for the active listener to enter into this space.

This particular CD, with music which arose out of Kalhor’s own experience of his country’s recent political dark places, is a meditation on music as expression of suffering, as well as music as a shared, collective experience to provide some ease from that dark night of isolation, and existential aloneness

Here, in accompaniment with Ali Bahrami Fard, we have two musicians playing adapted versions of traditional Iranian instruments. Fard is playing the santour, a shimmering, percussive dulcimer instrument – but it is a bass santour, much larger, with a wider musical range, 96 strings, 24 bridges instead of the traditional 72 and 18

Meanwhile Kalhor is playing a new instrument, developed especially for him by the instrument maker Peter Biffen, the shah Kaman, with different stringing, and using a lighter sounding board made of wood rather than skin, with, again, the possibility of richer lower notes.

At the live concert, which this CD is a version of, the two musicians were electrifying, playing for well over an hour, a continuous piece of music (here, on the CD briefly broken into movements with track names, rather than stand alone tracks).


The music ranges from dark anguish, quiet reflection, a maelstrom of passion and energy, anger, despair, resilience, shared commitment. At times so frenetic and wild is the music that it seems impossible to sit with it, the wild expression of dance is an insistent call. Restrained by the initial hearing of the music in a concert hall, I found a subtler response, listening to the dynamic movement of the music from within physical stillness, letting the music shape itself and move within, rather than cause external movement. It deepened my appreciation of this wonderful music, and the absolute focus brought by the inspired musicians

I Will Not Stand Alone Amazon UK
I Will Not Stand Alone Amazon USA

Michel Faber – The Book Of Strange New Things


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To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before

Michel Faber’s rich, opulent novel about power and sexuality in Victorian London, The Crimson Petal and The White, was, all those years ago an strange and immersive read.

The Book Of Strange new ThingsNow, with The Book Of Strange New Things he has gone in an entirely different direction, producing something equally unusual, compelling, disturbing and memorable.

This is a genres-bending book – apocalyptic, spiritual, specifically Christian, SF, taking on board multinational corporate politics, what it means, after all, to be a human animal, a creature at all, and, what it means to be in relationship, specifically a sexual relationship. How do we connect with each other – and, how do we, how will we connect with other life forms, assuming we are not the only intelligent life forms in the universe, how will we manage to accept ‘extreme otherness’ when we can hardly manage each others’ otherness?

I found myself curiously distressed and disturbed, all shaken up, by this read. Rarely have I felt so strongly that in writing about ‘other life forms’ and our attitudes towards them, the author is not using this as a metaphor to make us think about racism, how we carry attitudes towards other groups and members of our own species – but instead, is really tapping in to some very primal potential disgusts about what ‘other’ looks like. Suppose, for example, intelligent alien life forms had an appearance close to something many of us felt an almost hardwired, visual disgust for – large maggots, bubbling goo with a rotting aroma or the like? How would that work if this were married with a progressive pan-religious idea that encompassed ‘made in the image of God’ as being something to do with soul quality rather than appearance. Faced with the challenge of recognising – let us not call it ‘humanity’ but some sort of ‘advanced and soulful creaturedom – created-dom’ – in a species which shares a lot with us, in many ways seems more emotionally, co-operatively ‘whole’ than we do – less aggressive, less egoic, wiser, more thoughtful, and yet, evokes that sense of disgust. How would we manage?

Yellow mite Tydeidae:Lorryia formosa Wiki Commons

Yellow mite Tydeidae:Lorryia formosa Wiki Commons

Set at some close future time where life is very similar, politically, geopolitically, to how it is now, with current climate and political flashpoints as they are, we have managed to jump space-time, and set up at least one community on a planet in another galaxy with an indigenous, intelligent, humanoid life-form

Peter Leigh is a British man with a damaged past, due to alcohol and drug abuse. All that is behind him though, having found sobriety, a loving and adult relationship with his wife Beatrice, a nurse, the two are evangelising Christians. Leigh is a pastor. The denizens of that other planet ‘Oasis’, named by us after a competition, are desperate for the words of Jesus (for reasons which become clear much later on) Leigh along with a small community of more obviously required professionals – thermo-engineers, experts in building, doctors, heating and air-conditioning engineers and the like, are building infrastrucutres and relationships with ‘the aliens’ on the new planet. Leigh is there to minister the word of the Lord to the aliens, at their request.

This is NOT a book about Christian evangelism. It is however a book about how we might keep a sense of faith, belief, integrity, humanity when all around us is heading for meltdown. Shortly after leaving for his tour of missionary duty, events back on Earth begin, rapidly, to head towards meltdown, both in terms of cosmic disasters, and the inevitable human response to apocalypse.

Leigh begins to build respectful connections with the aliens (though, in truth, as he realises, it is their planet, and it is ourselves who are aliens), with his fellow, far stranger, less humane human companions, even as his long distance relationship with Bea begins, steadily and painfully, on both sides, to fracture and crumble, as is evidenced by their ‘letters’ sent through space-time

This is a fascinating and absorbing read – one which can give rise to all sorts of challenging debates about ethics, philosophy and futurology ‘what-ifs’

I recommend it highly. I have some slight stylistic reservations about how things end for Bea and Peter, not quite michelfaberconvinced why one of them acts as they do, but this is a minor mark against what is an extremely thought provoking, well written addition to the modern SF canon.

I received this as a remarkably early ARC from the publishers, via NetGalley, as it is not due to see the general light of day till late autumn. Worth waiting for. Come October, I’ll start doing alerts and posts back to this. meanwhile, it is available to pre-order

The Book Of Strange New Things Amazon UK
The Book Of Strange New Things Amazon USA

Philip Hensher – The Emperor Waltz


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Intertwining wheels and spirals

The Emperor WaltzPhilip Hensher’s hefty 600 page novel, despite being set in 4 distinct time frames, and following 5 sets of characters (including the author himself), with a couple of recurring musical themes, one provided by a blackbird’s song, one the Strauss Waltz of the title, is actually almost a traditionally well-crafted narrative journey, with attention given to plot, character development, repeating motifs and beautifully constructed links which work like smooth dovetailed joints.

This is consummately CRAFTED writing and story-telling

There is a recurring theme of what it is to be an outsider, the glorious, lively eccentricity of humanity is celebrated, as something with soul and heart, set against the forces which are afraid of individual human messiness and personal connection, and which operate to conform and stultify.

These themes are clearly shown in the major narrative strands. The first of these is a group of artists in the Weimar Republic, including the appearance of known artists, Klee, Kandinsky, the Bauhaus school, artists and philosophers, experimenting with form, ideas, spiritual development – Johannes Itten and Mazdaznan. The importance of art in developing ‘humanity’ is set against the destructive, violent background of emerging fascism. The second major strand is the emergence of gay and lesbian liberation, and movement ‘out of the closet’ from the late 70s, following the fortunes particularly of one gay man and his circle, who opens a gay bookshop. Literature changes consciousness and is changed by it.

Paul Klee  Tempelgarten

                                          Paul Klee Tempelgarten

Both the Weimar set sections and the London early 80s have sections where there are actions of casual unthinking prejudice that in some ways are more shocking than bloody violence, as in a sense the casual events, the casual low level prejudices, unchecked, are what swell, eventually into violence.

The third strand is set in Ancient Rome, and concerns Christianity as a fledgling religion, treated violently by the state. Later, of course, Christianity will itself become an instrument, later in history, of oppression and state control.

There are two other sections, one of which I could not quite set within the structure, though I suspect there is a meaning I have missed, in this – very slightly in the future we have a small group of young London boys going through puberty, right in the middle of macho posturing, engaged in metropolitan gangsta speak, experimenting with drugs, whilst, downstairs, their sophisticated cosmopolitan parents, blissfully unaware, discuss education, economics and office etiquette. Above stairs the beloved children are getting slowly wasted. This section is very funny.

Hensher, in a section about the time he spent in A + E, and later in a medical ward of a London Hospital recently, as a result of complications linked with his diabetes, shows how the artist himself works, how literature is crafted – and also, how important connection and community is. There are outcasts in this section – those who live on the margins through poverty, mental health issues and alcohol abuse. Hensher and his supportive community of friends and family are now the golden ones.

Until the very end of the book, I thought my review was to be 4 star, but there is a very satisfying tying up of threads, Philip-Hensherrepetition of images, symbols, artefacts, so that the tapestry of the book as a whole, works, and there is the sense of a good journey completed

4 ½ rounded up to five. I received this as an ARC from Amazon Vine UK.

The Emperor Waltz Amazon UK
The Emperor Waltz Amazon USA

John Wyndham – The Seeds Of Time


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The rich world of literary SciFi short stories

The Seeds Of TimeJohn Wyndham’s short story collection The Seeds of Time is a masterclass in how unformulaic any genre might be in the hands of someone who is a crafted, imaginative literary writer who happens to write in the Sci-Fi genre, as opposed to someone who is a Sci-Fi writer. Yes, I know my prejudices are showing, but I do believe it must be the writing, the craft itself which comes first, and the mastery (or not) of that, rather than the field in which someone chooses to write.

Here, Wyndham has laid out something of a smorgasbord of different genres of writing, with a theme which might loosely be described as SF – so, if you like, he is sewing together genres, so that we get SF Romance, SF Humour, SF philiosophy, an examination of racism through the lens or disguise of SF, etc.

The short story structure itself is something which demands precision and craft to be successful. Often, short story collections rather disappoint, because the reader may very quickly realise the writer’s particular tricks and tics, especially if the short story writer is basically writing in a very fixed groove – fairly recently I read an example of this, where had I just read one such story, perhaps, published as it was in a magazine, it would have been a superb example of the craft. Unfortunately gathering dozens and dozens of such stories, published over many years, individually, together, was just too much same old.

But that is definitely not the case here, because of Wyndham’s splendid variety.

Inevitably, there cannot but be variations in excellence, and I can only concur with a fellow reviewer, – Fiction Fan – see her review, with added jolly media enjoyment, in picking out the particularly stellar 3. It is not that the others are poor, only that these are superb

Perseid meteor shower 2007 Wiki Commons

Perseid meteor shower 2007 Wiki Commons

Meteor is a short and telling story which shows what might happen when the inevitable supposition of what intelligent life from another planetary system might look like, remains viewed through the lens of human size as well as shape. This was horrid, poignant and funny, all at once

Survival is a shocking and absolutely plausible story which, written in the 50s, shows the danger of underestimating women. A proto-feminist SciFi fable

Pillar To Post is an extremely clever story involving a couple of protagonists fighting through time and space for possession of the same body.

I also thought Dumb Martian, which examines racist and sexist attitudes under the guise of Sci Fi, was particularly fine, John_Wyndham Wikipediaand Opposite Number, which looks at ‘alternate realities’ the intriguing idea of a kind of bifurcating universe where the choices an individual didn’t make, are playing out – and then what happens if a couple of these bifurcations collide. It’s the story of ‘What If………I had done this rather than that’

10 short stories – not one is poor

The Seeds Of Time Amazon UK
The Seeds Of Time Amazon UK


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