William Boyd – Love is Blind


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The comfort of an unsurprising read

I do always enjoy reading Boyd, an author who relishes words, knows how to craft a tale, creates complex and believable characters and often, in his books, explores cultural times and places, as he takes his central characters though their lifetimes. His central characters are frequently connected with the arts and culture generally. His historical period is often around the end of the nineteenth and earlier part of the twentieth century

Stunningly good versions of this include Any Human Heart and The New Confessions. Also central, generally, is some kind of obsessional love affair, often going wrong, and leaving unhealed wounds

With the title Love Is Blind the Boyd Reader knows we are in for pretty much the same journey.

Central character here is Brodie Moncur (Boyd generally manages wonderful names). Moncur, who has an uneasy relationship with his domineering, irascible clergyman father, is a gentler soul. He is blessed with perfect pitch. The art he is associated with, therefore, music. Moncur is not however a musical virtuoso himself. A good musician, but not enough so to achieve status sufficient to earn a living from performance. His skill is in his ear, and his craftsman hands. Almost by chance, he stumbles into his profession – piano tuning, and at a time, and in connection with, a piano making business out to rival the highest quality, most prestigious of instrument makers for those virtuosi.

Chance and opportunity send him to Paris. There he meets the Boyd femme fatale. Lika Blum, a beautiful (of course) , passionate (of course), soulful and creative woman of intelligence, complex emotions, and somewhat fluid morality (of course) is a young and vibrant Russian soprano. She also comes trailing clouds of glorious prior entanglements.

 Louis Anquetin – Inside Bruant’s Mirliton, 1886-1887

It didn’t matter how well you thought you knew someone, he realised. You saw what you wanted to see or your saw what that other person wanted you to see. People were opaque, another person was a mystery

I love the fact that these kinds of travelling-across-cultures-and-inching-through-history Boyd novels are always thoroughly immersive………….however…..(and it felt mean spirited to be thinking this) I did think he was deepening a groove of ‘this is the pattern of a Boyd novel. Even down to how his imaginary characters might tangentially brush past real characters, and we, as readers, surrender to a kind of game Boyd might be playing. So, what I missed was a kind of surprise of new realisation.

Hence like, very much indeed, and a reading experience willingly surrendered into, very comfortably. But I was not unsettled by it, and at the end of the day, probably do want a book to niggle at me, usefully, once finished

I received this as a digital copy, for review, via NetGalley

Love is Blind UK
Love is Blind USA

Statesiders may have to wait till October for publication


Helen Jukes – A Honeybee Heart has Five Openings


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And is there honey still for tea………..

Helen Jukes’ A Honeybee heart has Five Openings is a sweet, not saccharine, warm account, filled with the sense of purposeful, satisfying, meaningful feel-good which bees seem to symbolise

It fits neatly into a growing genre of writing-about-the-natural-world which not only includes much interesting scientific information, but is also full of emotional meaning, to the writer herself, as the subjects become part of her own biography, and also casts a wider, philosophical, historical, and even one could say political/environmental net. She explores bees themselves, but her book does not place the writer outside beeworld. She talks about relationship, the relationship she has with the bees, and they with her. This is a book about another species, sure, but not purely a rational, objective analysis of that species. The writer is changed by her encounters with them.

This should certainly appeal to all those who devoured Helen MacDonald’s soulful and intense H is for Hawk. And may even sit better with readers who perhaps were at stages of their own lives where the intensity of emotion which MacDonald explored in her journey, was too much. H is for Hawk certainly had this reader at times riven with connection to my own human suffering. Jukes’ book inhabits some sunnier uplands, and does not take the reader into the darkness of the soul which, surely, we all have at times.

Reading it was an unalloyed pleasure, deeply fascinating

The author felt a calling, after moving from London, where she had at one point assisted a professional who helps those wanting to beekeep, to Oxford. She was at a point in her life where the grind of office work and its stresses seemed to be disconnecting her from inhabiting, properly, her own life – the rush many of us feel trapped in, which can feel aimless and lacking a real direction.

I like the thought of a stability that comes from fine-tuned communication, and not the sayso of a single ruler. It must be a restless kind of stability , I think. The messages come constantly and from all around, and catching them is more about receptivity than reach

Bees were both a way to get physical, and out of that kind of metropolitan chatter head, and to be present. Under their influence, Jukes’ found space and time made for reflection and connection. Bee teaching! Friendships, and more are deepened, as the author found how her own connections to the bees were enabling her to open up more to human connections. Bee meditations!

Through this experience of beekeeping, of learning about and listening tot the colony, I might have called something up – might have begun to articulate and name a capacity I was missing, a connection I needed…..A particular kind of sensitivity, a quality of attention which is…almost like a substance itself……What to do with a feeling like that – which is not rational, and doesn’t fit with the usual categories – except to notice it silently and with a sideways grin as it becomes part of my day-to-day

To sum up, far more beautifully, something about bee-teaching, than I can conceptualise, is this lovely quote from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet

Go to your fields and your gardens, and you shall learn that it is the pleasure of the bee to gather honey of the flower,
But it is also the pleasure of the flower to yield its honey to the bee.
For to the bee a flower is a fountain of life,
And to the flower a bee is a messenger of love,
And to both, bee and flower, the giving and the receiving of pleasure is a need and an ecstasy.

I received this as a digital review copy, via Net Galley, and absolutely recommend it. Maybe if we all kept bees we might learn how to cooperate with each other …at times, it seems as if human beings are (at least on the world stage) more interested in taking hornets as role models!

A Honeybee heart has five openings UK
A Honeybee heart has five openings USA

Pat Barker – The Silence of the Girls


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Giving a voice to those who were – and, at times still are – the spoils of war

Pat Barker has long celebrated ‘ordinary’ people who are swept up in the making of history – which, sadly, is often the history of conflict. She does not forget that the lives of the untold millions matter, even if we don’t know their names

In this book, she goes for the jugular of very ancient conflicts indeed – the story told in The Iliad – we know the names of various kingly and warrior characters, but the women are few and far between. Helen, wife of Menelaus, captured by Paris,(did she run or was she abducted?) is probably the most recognisable name, reduced to that face that launched a thousand ships – as long long wars between Greece and Troy ensued

In this wonderful book The Silence of the Girls her central voice, the person whose story is followed, Is Briseis. Wife of a king, who was one of Troy’s allies (and of course, Briseis had no say in her choice of husband) when her husband’s kingdom is sacked by the Greeks – particularly Achilles, she becomes part of his booty. Her husband, her brothers, and all the males are automatically killed – including boy children. This is also the fate of women who have children in the womb – these might grow up to avenge their fathers in the fullness of time.

Other women are spoils, like material goods, to be shared by the victors. The high born may be the gift to commanders and kings, and the best that can be hoped for is to find favour. Otherwise, the women are there to be ‘enjoyed’ by the many.

Chryseis rescued from Agamemnon Joseph-Marie Vien circa 1780/1785

This is indeed a brutal and a harrowing book, but Barker does not just leave Briseis and others as just brutalised victims. Women lived through this kind of dire history, still having to find a way to make their own lives matter.

More than the story of battling kings, – Priam, Agamemnon – bloody warrior heroes – Hector, Ajax, Achilles, Patroclus – it is the women, the powerless, the ones without the fine heroic lays devoted to their stories – who occupy the foreground here. And Barker makes me believe that these, who have come to us only as names, might indeed have been truly as she imagines them.

Recounting Priam, king of Troy, in supplication for the return of the broken and humiliated body of his son, Briseis contrasts the power a defeated king may still wield, with the lives, the lack of power, of the women, even the most powerful, who are objects of ownership, in her society:

I do what no man before me has ever done. I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son

Those words echoed round me, as I stood in the storage hut, surrounded on all sides by the wealth Achilles had plundered from burning cities. I thought:

And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers

She does of course not flinch from how these human spoils of war were treated – the women who ‘belonged’ to the vanquished were there to slake the sexual thirst of the army just as captured wine and livestock were there to slake their appetite for food and drink – but she does not focus on the blow by blow, the awful and graphic details of their treatment by the conquering army. How, in this world, did these women live.?What were their thoughts, their feelings, how did they adapt, how connect, how survive? Victims of war – but also individuals with histories – and also perhaps, desires for a future, perhaps even an imagination for the ending of endless war.

Briseis mourning Patroclus. Léon Cogniet 1794-1880

I recommend this, despite its awful subject matter, without reservation. Whilst steeped in the physical reality of those ancient times (she is marvellously visceral about what a battle encampment might have been like) the present, and the still far from equal lives of girls and women, in some parts of the world more obviously than in others, knocked insistently in my thoughts.

Books like this are wondrously important, wondrously imaginative, wondrously laying out myth and reality together

For those who know the story of the Iliad, repetition in this review would be unnecessary – but, more importantly, for those who don’t spoilers should not be revealed.

However, I cannot avoid this rather wonderful ‘preview opener’ a quote from Philip Roth’s The Human Stain’ which Barker quotes before her own novel begins :

You know how European literature begins?” he’d ask….”With a quarrel. All of European literature springs from a fight” And then he picked up his copy of The Iliad and read to the class the opening lines…. “Divine Muse, sing of the ruinous wrath of Achilles…Begin where they first quarrelled, Agamemnon the King of men and great Achilles” And what are they quarrelling about, these two violent, mighty souls? It’s as basic as a barroom brawl. They are quarrelling over a woman. A girl, really. A girl stolen from her father. A girl abducted in a war”

I received this as a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

The Silence of the Girls UK
The Silence of the Girls USA

Patrick Gale – Take Nothing With You


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….If music be the food of love, play on

Patrick Gale is a wonderful writer, and an even more wonderful teller of a story. This might seem a strange comment; except that, curiously, it can at times feel as if the skill of crafting words well, and the skills of creating strong narrative, with complex, believable characters – and, moreover, ones whom the reader will be intrigued by, involved with – can be hard to find joined in one individual.

Thankfully Gale makes all this seem remarkably simple, effortless, even. Reading him, I am rarely lost in amazed awe at beautiful turns of descriptive prose. It is only on putting down his books, thinking about what I have been reading, that realisation of his skills strike.

The central character of this one, Eustace, grabs from the off – how could a reader fail to want to know more after this beginning :

At an age when he was reassured that life was unlikely to surprise him further, Eustace found, in rapid succession, that he was quite possibly dying and that he was falling in love for the third time.

The true significance of his falling-in-loves will reveal over time

The book employs (seamlessly, clearly) a dual time narration

Avoiding spoilers, as this is revealed early : at the book opening Eustace is in hospital, in the present day, about to undergo treatments with radioactive iodine following a thyroidectomy. Interweaved with the isolation of his treatment comes the story of his adolescence, back in the 60s and 70s. Trigger for memory is listening to a compilation of classical music pieces for the cello, put together by a friend. Both Eustace and the friend were young cellists, potential prodigies. This is a story of a life, in many ways, made meaningful by music.

This is a book which will be a particular delight for those who love classical music, and know the referenced pieces, though, reading other reviews from those who do not fall into that category, I can confidently assert this will still be a mesmerising, immersive, wonderful read. Who knows, it may even lead some to want to listen to chamber music.

Gale himself is clearly thoroughly immersed in, and in love with, this kind of music – and a lovely little coda to the book yields the information that writing this, he was moved to begin playing the cello again.

Steven Isserlis again, here joyous with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, and Haydn

I really did not want this to end. But there were also times when I could not bear to read on, as clever Gale, with subtle mounting ‘something is not quite right here’ tension – which worked with the reader half a step ahead of the central character having the same realisation – meant I had to put the book down. I could not read further, so anxious did I feel..,yet of course I had to

Strongly recommended. It is magic. As was his last book, and I guess, as will be the one he is hopefully engaged in writing at the moment

I received this as a review copy from Amazon Vine UK, jumping at the opportunity when it was offered

Take Nothing With You UK
Take Nothing With You USA

Santiago Quartet – Language of the Heart


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Argentina and England; music the powerful language of the heart

Happenstance took me to a concert given by the Santiago Quartet, some weeks ago. The programme was exactly what is on this CD. Captivated almost from the off, (the strange, almost sax like, edge of sexy, edge of pain violin squeals were an initial shock) I was swept away by the vibrancy, intensity and playfulness of this music, moving without hesitation between rapid extremes of exuberance, ecstasy, mischief and melancholic longing.

I knew nothing of Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla. His ‘Four Seasons of Buenos Aires’ yes give the occasional nod to Vivaldi’s, but are of Paizzolla’s time and space. This is a fusion of tango, with its insistent rhythms and call to dance, with that inner reflectiveness, – be STILL and listen which is the heritage of classic concert music. That tension between still listening and – no – dance, move, whilst you can – we have such a little time to inhabit dynamic physicality was quite electrifying

The music inhabits emotional extremes, flickering instantly between oppositions, and is both intensely of its place, Argentina, but also draws the inheritance and influences from both classical music, modern classical music and jazz. It is utterly delicious.


Astor Piazzolla and Bandoneon

So to Santiago Quartet – 2 violins, ( Rowan Bell, Johanna McWeeneey) a viola, (Cressida Wislocki) a cello (Jonathan Hennessey-Brown) – joined on the Piazzolla pieces by a bandoneon (Julian Reynolds) They played with delight, intensity, sensitivity and passion, music which obviously spoke to their heart.

As well as the Beunos Aires Four Seasons, there is an altogether darker and more unsettling piece, Anxiety. I was not surprised, on racing away to buy the CD which was on sale at the concert venue, that this particular piece was one written after the composer had had serious health problems. The track Oblivion speaks both of faith and identity and was written as a film score with connections to a play by Pirandello

The final piece, by English composer Will Todd, could not be more different. The mood is far more restrained, internalised, and infused with both a very English melancholy and a final accepting quietude. This was a piece commissioned by the cellist’s mother. It also moved me intensely, though in a different way. Gone was the need to dance, the yearning was towards something transcendent.

I was even more pleased I had surrendered to the need to buy this CD from the Quartet, after the concert, and not waited to buy later on line – a percentage of the profits bought from the musicians themselves goes to MIND. The cellist, introducing one of the pieces, spoke movingly about personal history with mental health, and the importance of music ‘The Language of the Heart’ Not only the title of the CD, but the place all the music here inhabits, and the place the musicians interpreted from, and spoke from the composers’ hearts, their own hearts, to ours, listening

Santiago Quartet – Language of the Heart UK
Santiago Quartet – Language of the Heart USA

And…to those who might have noticed my absence – pressure of work, dear hearts, has meant for some time that I have time to read or to write about what I am reading, but rarely both. The amount which MUST be reviewed (those ARCS) is Everest like now, and no matter how much I try to tell myself I cannot open another book without addressing that must-be-reviewed pile, the flesh is weak, very weak indeed. All of us who pride ourselves (alas! pride!) on maintaining our own particular reviewing style and standard just can’t surrender to doing something simpler and less intensive than what we normally do.

I may (or may not) manage to get the odd to be reviewed pile marginally reduced over the coming weeks and months – the challenge then becomes remembering backlogs (goes scrabbling for ginkgo biloba)

Kevin Powers – A Shout in the Ruins


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Not for the fainthearted, or for ostriches

Like many, I had been overwhelmed and lacerated, by the reading of Powers first book, The Yellow Birds, detailing the experience of the war in Iraq. Powers had experienced that conflict, as a machine gunner. That powerful book was far from being any kind of glorification of war. Powers, a wonderful writer, pulls no punches, does not gloss over the awfulness of conflict, or the kinds of glorified lies countries tell themselves to encourage young men to enlist

A Shout in the Ruins, his second book, explores no less important, destructive, shaming themes which should be faced. He looks at racism, and its foundations in the history of slavery in the States, and the long shadow that has cast, and still casts.

Rawls could see up and down the old man’s arms. They were lined with mark after mark of whip and brine, a topography of the passage of time and pain one on top of the other, a map in miniature of ridgeline and ravine going up into his shirtsleeves in an uninterrupted pattern

This is a complex story, taking place over more than 100 years of American history. The central character is George, a quiet, reflective black man. And on his story, traced from the 1860s, George, now in his 90s. moving towards death (so his ‘present’ is the 1950s) is keen to unearth a mystery about his own origins, as an abandoned child. Those origins lie in the stories of those who had cared for him before he was ‘abandoned’ and why, indeed, abandonment happened. A story of slaves before the outbreak of war. In his 1950s present, American is still a segregated society, a society, effectively practising apartheid, in the South. And the continuing story of casual, unthinking, as well as deliberate racism continues beyond George’s death, in the later story of a young woman he meets, right at the end of his life, and her future, which includes someone damaged by one of America’s later conflicts

Whoever said a rifle on a wall was an opportunity for suspense must have been European. As if there would ever be a question of its getting fired or not in America. The gun goes off when the line gets crossed, and the line got crossed a long time ago, when we were naked and wandered the savannah and slept beneath the baobab trees. When is simply a matter of how long it takes to get it out of the holster, how long it takes the bullet to arrive. Perhaps days or weeks or months, perhaps one’s whole life, but these are questions of distance and trajectory, of time and physics, and not of possibility

This is an extremely difficult book to read at times, but it is one which I felt I had to read. As in Yellow Birds, punches are not pulled. Powers does not labour or over describe the awful violence of racism, rather, sentences are casually dropped in, rather like unexpected land mines, leaving the reader shocked and reeling. The throwaway information about a slave who had run away, and, on recapture, his ‘master’ deliberately damaged his feet, so the young man could not ever run away again, but would only be able to shuffle and hobble – still work, but not run

This is a deeply, deeply, despair filled book. There are wonderfully drawn, complex character, some are of a repellent, vicious nature, many are normally flawed, going along almost unthinkingly with the evil which may be the way a society is structured, others question the wrong, and there are those who are like beacons of what it might mean to strive to be ‘human-kind’ But the lives of those the reader cares about will inevitably also be lives that experience pain, loss, grief

Another major theme is the importance of home and community. The book opens with the destruction of property and community by those seeking to ‘develop prime sites’ and spools back to earlier acts of destruction and violence towards community and home, done by those whose only care is the acquisition of personal wealth and power. Powers makes sure we are aware he is not just writing about America’s past, but about all our presents.

I had some reservations. As I found, at times, with Yellow Birds, which changed points of view a lot – whose story was being followed, at any point – I wished he had been a little more linear. At times there are just too many characters to keep track of, and the narrative might have been pruned, shaped more, to allow trajectory of story to be clearer, the strength of his writing itself to shine out more. There was also a question I was left with, which was unanswered, part of the quest George himself was trying to get to the bottom of, but, then, as I continued to think about this book, long after I had finished reading it – life is also full of little pockets of mystery which never do completely get solved

I received this as a copy for review from the publishers, via NetGalley

It has taken some time for me to write a review, as I needed some time, and distance, to evaluate my rating. The length of time the book stayed with me has meant that the reservations during reading itself, retreated

A Shout in The Ruins UK
A Shout in The Ruins USA

Patricia Highsmith – Deep Water


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A creepy, violent, witty tale of a marriage gone feral

I’m very fond of the dark precision of Patricia Highsmith’s writing, and particularly appreciate the discomfort she causes for her readers, in the character of Tom Ripley. Ripley is an amoral man, in fact, quite evil, but possessed of such charm that the reader, shamefully, wants the horrific man to succeed in his casually violent endeavours

Deep Water, originally published in ’57, after the first Ripley, but well before later outings, is a stand alone novel, a portrait of a chillingly dysfunctional marriage. Under the lens of Highsmith’s acerbic, mordant, cynical eye it is both addictively, compulsively tension building, extremely nasty …and very funny. Whilst neither protagonist – husband Vic, weirdly obsessive compulsive, wife Melinda, aggressive drunk, sexually voracious and irresistible to anyone she sets her sights on, despite her deep unpleasantness – is the kind of person with the flexibility, generosity of spirit or interest in ‘other’ to stand much of a chance to make a healthy relationship with anyone, their individual flaws create a nuclear wasteland of destructive fallout, once brought into contact with each other.

Highsmith sets her theatre of marital war in American Dream small town suburbia, a scene of neighbourliness, polite parties, small professional businesses and vaguely arty interests. Vic, whose main enthusiasm is for the rearing and studying of snails (!), is the owner of an independent publishing company, producing high quality niche work, beautifully presented, local history, poetry imprints and the like. He is very well liked by most of the long-term small-town residents, as though he is of a somewhat introspective disposition, he is helpful and community minded. The local community takes care of its own, and is a little parochial, not taking that kindly to incomers.

Melinda is viewed with less favour. Most of Vic’s friends are aware that Melinda likes incomers a lot – or at least, MALE incomers. Rather too much, in fact. Something she makes no effort to hide. Instead she flaunts her come-hither, blowsy seductiveness in public. Part of the pleasure she gets from this, is the public humiliation of her husband, the fact that everyone is pretty aware that Vic is cuckolded, again and again.

What puzzles and discomfits the community is the fact that Vic never challenges the lovers, nor appears to be jealous, or disturbed by his wife’s loud, rather crude flaunting of herself.

One of Melinda’s earlier public affairs was with a man, now returned to New York, who has been mysteriously murdered, perpetrator and motive unknown.

Seeing a chance to unsettle any future paramours Melinda might set her sights on, Vic tells one prospective lover that HE had been the man’s murderer, setting in train a series of deliciously dark, distastefully funny acts of Highsmithian violence and impending violence

Although neither Vic nor Melinda are the kind of characters to excite the reader’s empathy, disturbed, disturbing Vic is the one most readers will engage with, and even, with some discomfort, root for. Melinda is just too unpleasant, too competitive and dismissive of other women, too careless of her daughter’s happiness or wellbeing. Vic, whatever his rather cold fish, creepy weirdness, is liked, and is actually a kind man, especially towards those less well placed in society. His particular selfishness and self-obsession is really only problematic within his marriage. He could perhaps have made a ‘good enough’ partnership with someone else. It is unfortunate that he is a man of extremely low sexual drive, married to a woman whose libido is extremely high

…he had waited for fear to come, for panic, for guilt, regret at least….He had found himself thinking of a pleasant day in his childhood when he had won a prize in geography class for making the best model of an Eskimo igloo village using half eggshells for igloos and spun glass for snow. Without consciously realizing it he had felt absolutely secure. Secure from detection….He had such slow reactions to everything. Physical danger. Emotional blows. Sometimes his reactions were weeks late, so that he had a hard time attaching them to their causes.

I was steered towards this satisfying psychological thriller by Jacqui from Jacquiwine, who recommended this highly, and thought I would like it a lot. And she was right

…and as for American Pie, well, there are some odd resonances so that the song bobbed up, occasionally, in my consciousness, as I was thinking about the framing of my review….

IF you go on to read the book, or HAVE read it, maybe those resonances will have you nodding in recognition too

Finally…..much fun and queasy stuff goes on around Vic’s fascination with snails, and some of the marital discord too (I had my sympathies, a little, with Melinda here) I DID think of including a clip, even a video, of snails mating. Perhaps readers will be grateful that, feeling queasy after viewing, I desisted! Sorry, those of you enchanted by gastropods……..

Deep Water UK
Deep Water USA


Madeline Miller – Circe


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Ancient of Lays, vibrantly and powerfully brought to life

Madeline Miller’s first book, The Song of Achilles, was a standout, stunning read. So it was with a mixture of trepidation and delight that I embarked on this, her second, Circe.

Within a few sentences I settled back with a huge sigh of surrendering relief, as it was clear from the off that the very high bar Miller had set for herself with her working of the story of Achilles was going to be equalled by Circe.

I can’t say this book is better than that one, or that one than this. In truth, she has sung another magical song for Circe.

There won’t be any surprises in the narrative, not for anyone enamoured of Ancient Greek – what do we call it, mythology? history?

When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist. They called me nymph, assuming I would be like my mother and aunts and thousand cousins. Least of the lesser goddesses, out powers were so modest they could scarcely ensure our eternities. We spoke to fish and nurtured flowers, coaxed drops from the clouds or salt from the waves. That word, nymph, paced out the length and breadth of our futures. In our language, it means not just goddess, but bride

Here again is part of the story laid out in Homer

Circe is in sharpest relief as part of Odysseus’ task/journey. She is the daughter of Helios, one of the Titans – older, more archaic and unpredictable gods, who were overthrown by the Olympians. Circe, who transgressed in some way, ends up banished to an island. Her story connects with Odysseus as she is a witch/some kind of punitive goddess, and turned Odysseus’ sailors, and other sailors, into swine. Odysseus ‘tricks’ her, or is wise enough to be alert to how her spell happens (just don’t drink wine offered by witches)

Brides, nymphs were called, but that is not really how the world saw us. We were an endless feast laid out upon a table, beautiful and renewing. And so very bad at getting away

The Wine of Circe, Edward Burne-Jones

But there is a lot more to Circe’s connections with these ancient lays, Jason, Medea, Theseus, the Minotaur, Ariadne, Prometheus, Daedalus, Icarus and more, all have stories which touch hers

Beneath the smooth, familiar face of things is another that waits to tear the world in two

Miller, who I think is shaping up – if not exceeding, the carrying of Mary Renault’s mantle, breathes vibrant, relevant life into these tales of long ago.

She is immersed, as someone who went the academic route into the study of classical Greece, in her research. But, she is a transformative, magical, inspired writer. Either she knows the spells to get the Muses to descend, or she has inherited Circe’s special magical gift of ‘transformation’ because this gripping, intense, lush story springs off the page, and I have to say this ‘real’ world felt a flatter, colour leached one, compared to the enduring power of those classical times

Beware the Moly – like all skilled witches Circe is a dab hand with plants for good and ill

I really cannot recommend this highly enough. Narrative, character, thought provoking substance and a skill with the craft of writing itself, all are superb.

Let me say what sorcery is not. It is not divine power, which comes with a thought and a blink. It must be made and worked, planned and searched out, dug up, dried, chopped and ground, cooked, spoken over and sung. Even after all that it can fail, as gods do not

I have to say that those Ancient Greeks have exerted a strong pull on me since childhood – mythic, archetypical, speaking to powerful collective unconscious depths. They are so much more than ‘fantasy’ And Miller, as a writer, gets those hairs up on the back of the neck shivers in this reader, echoing what some of those ancient sites in Greece do.

Another powerful woman who should not be messed with – Janelle Monae, Django Jane

Circe, in Miller’s telling, might easily be a Sister. Even though there is ONE bit of skulduggery against a prettier nymph, but, oh she realises her fault

I was delighted to read this as an ARC from Netgalley.

Circe UK
Circe USA

Rose Tremain – Rosie


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Goodbye Rosie, Hello Rose

I am a huge fan of Rose Tremain. She is an author who always writes and observes beautifully, but does not have just one book within her, regurgitated in different ways. She constantly surprises.

So I was interested to read what looked like a remarkably slim autobiography, Rosie : Scenes From A Vanished Life

That ‘vanished life’ is Rosie herself, as she claimed her true identity as Rose

This is beautifully written, but curiously distanced, distancing.

Born into a rather privileged background, at least in terms of status and finance – her stepfather was after all a ‘Sir’ and her real father’s cousin, her childhood was nonetheless curiously lacking in parental attention, encouragement and warm regard. In fact, her mother, referred to as ‘Jane’ by Tremain, and not by any maternal appellation, had lacked love and affection herself as a child, and had also been called by a name she disliked, rechristening herself as Jane.

Rosie’s First Birthday

Children – and the adults they become, sustain damage from absent affection, they don’t have to be actively ill-treated to bear wounds.

I found myself wondering about the kind of distance with which Rose writes about herself. This isn’t a ‘misery memoir’ but it does have a kind of lack of warmth in it. I found this unsettling because she is a writer whose characters are warmly and fully regarded by her. The reader of a Tremain novel is drawn into feeling that they really know her complex and beautifully rounded characters. Yet, the sense here is that Tremain did not really want the reader to know Rosie. Somehow, the child and the young girl sent off to be ‘finished’ in Switzerland, rather than pursue the academic route she wanted are seen through a screen. Which is a curious place to be writing some kind of autobiography from

Rosie, her loving and beloved Nannie Nan, and her sister Jo

This is rather like picking up a collection of faded snapshots, which have intriguing titles, but they are incomplete, part of a larger collection, which probably were mounted in sequence in an album, and told a larger story, but this is missing.

This is probably one which will be most interesting to those who love and know her writing. As she is at pains to point out, she is not an ‘autobiographical’ novelist per se, but certainly small events make their way into the novels and stories, and she references these.

There was one recounted incident where Rose drew me close to Rosie, and I felt great grief for her. Her inspired music teacher at the boarding school she was sent away to, arranged for a concert to be given by her pupils. A prestigious one, at the Royal Festival Hall. Though open to the public, the majority of the most expensive seats would be bought by proud families. Who would then take their children out for a congratulatory tea. Except Rosie’s mother and stepfather did not come. She wrote to her real father (who had abandoned his family for a liaison with another woman) He was a writer, and also a keen pianist himself. Though he did come, he left at the interval, after Rosie had played, and did not come back to take his daughter for tea

In conclusion, I liked this very much indeed, but remain slightly confused as to the purpose of its writing. There is half the sense of a catharsis (perhaps) for the writer – except that the feeling I was left with was an unresolved, and even covert anger and resentment (completely understandable) still within the child inside the woman.

Here is a wonderful excerpt, a moment of epiphany, an ‘aha’ moment, where the idea of writing, as something profound and meaningful, hit the thirteen year old

The perfume of the day, the heat of my body after the tennis game, the sky the colour of coral, the silence surrounding me – all combined to fill me, suddenly, with a profound feeling of wonder, a fleeting sense of the marvellous, which, in its intensity, was almost a visionary experience.

I told myself that if I continued standing still, this moment would last and might even change me in some way that I couldn’t quite foresee. But I stood there so long that the sun almost disappeared and the field became full of shadows. And with the dusk came a feeling of desolation. The desolation was simply a mundane recognition of the fleeting nature of everything, which even teenagers (or perhaps especially teenagers) understand. A moment of happiness as intense as this slips quickly away with the turning of the earth. So I asked myself, there in the hayfield, with the swear of the tennis game drying down my back and making me shiver: was there any way in which the experiences of my life, like this one, could be captured and locked away, not just in capricious, gradually fading memory, but in some more concrete form

Rosie UK
Rosie USA

Michael Blakemore – Arguments with England


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The play’s the thing…………and how!

I was enthralled by the 2013 Stage Blood, Blakemore’s account of the early days of the National Theatre in its new South Bank home, and the last days of the company at the Old Vic, under, first of all, Sir Laurence Olivier as the Artistic Director, and then, Peter Hall’s first few years of tenure. Blakemore had been invited to join as an Associate director by Olivier, whom he much admired, and had interesting things to say about Hall. As in, ‘may you live in interesting (conflicting/disputatious) times’ He had some prior history with Hall, and resigned (as did some others) not liking the direction Hall was taking.

This book, published some 9 years earlier (2004) is amongst other things, a far more obviously autobiographical book than Stage Blood, though of course Blakemore’s experience of those 5 years at the National, is nonetheless an individual’s account, it is still focused on the history of an organisation in which the author was deeply involved

Arguments with England is Michael Blakemore’s sense of himself, and his personal history which has been lived as an Australian who came to this country to follow a path in theatre, drawn here by the experience of seeing that tradition of classical theatre in Australia, as exemplified by tours from ‘the mother country’ with some towering figures at their helm. Of which one was Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, on tour with the Old Vic Theatre Company.

Blakemore, arriving in the UK in 1950, though always desirous of directing, started as an actor, auditioning and being accepted at RADA and then following the life of a jobbing, but steadily more successful middle range actor. This book charts that life, and his long start and stop writing of his novel, Next Season. I was fascinated (despite his later disclaimer that he had amalgamated characters and incidents and no specific individual was portrayed) to so clearly be able to identify characters from that novel, in this autobiographical account

There is quite a lot of information about various affairs Blakemore had, plus personal stuff which really belongs to others. I always feel a little uneasy with these revelations – only because I wonder how those various partners might feel about their histories being revealed. I can only hope permission was given. Reading this book, I found myself full of – I’m not sure if I want to write admiration or compassion for his wife, who seems to be a woman of extraordinary – tolerance, or long-standing broadmindedness. Or, perhaps laid unfairly low by her loving heart. The marriage was/is an ‘open’ one, but as often, it seems this means males wanting freedom to roam, and women being dangled. Blakemore expressed, often in this book that he had had no intention of leaving his marriage, and I also felt compassion for the woman with whom he had a long standing affair.

Be that as it is, I hurry along to praise the fascinating writing about the process of acting itself, the details of performances Blakemore saw, with actors he admired hugely, accounts of his own discoveries, anguishes and successes with rehearsals and performance and also the wonderful view of England and English society and culture which is revealed by an outsider’s eye. It always fascinates me, how someone from another culture views ours (and how we view theirs)

If the industrial wasteland I was passing through on my way to Huddersfield spoke of the selective blindness of those fortunate enough to live elsewhere, it also said something about the perverse social obedience of the thousands dumped in the middle of it. Similarly the fondness for secrecy among those who governed….could only be indulged by a constituency happy not to know. I could see that the class system, the acceptance of which was so incomprehensible to an outsider, was shored up most crucially by its victims, a population obsessed with deference…..By the mid-sixties England would be a country in which I felt lucky to have found refuge. By the mid-eighties, as the old heartlessness found new ways to assert itself, I would be less sure

Blakemore had (and has) absolute passion and intelligence for theatre, and whether he is writing about the experience of the audience, exploring acting itself, or directing, or writing for theatre, and the collaborations between director, writer, actors, designers and the technical side of bringing vision to reality, this is an utterly fascinating account.

Up till now I had relied as an actor on my small store of sophistication and assurance, and had got nowhere. Only now, when I was making use of the most vulnerable and naked aspects of myself had I come up with something of real interest….I began to see that notwithstanding its occasional triumphs, its conspicuously public success, there was at the heart of an actor’s life an aspect of public confession, something perplexed and even grieving

It is also, at times, laugh out loud funny. Blakemore is a sharp and funny writer, never more so than when pricking his own balloon
Arguments with England UK
Arguments with England USA