Mick Herron – Dead Lions


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“Grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind” (Ode: Intimations of Immortality, Wordsworth)

dead-lionsSo………having encountered Mick Herron’s first in his Jackson Lamb series, a bare week or so ago, I was utterly unable to resist downloading and compulsively devouring book 2. And (whispers): it might be even better

In Dead Lions, Mick Herron’s second Slough House/Jackson Lamb series spy thriller, Herron has further sharpened his pencil, turned up the dry wit, turned up the reverses to wrong foot (justifiably) the reader. And he has turned up the shock and the darkness, having softened up the reader by the effortless amusement in the earlier part of the book.

there was something about him, even leaving aside the secondhand clothing, the stained walls, the desperate address. Something off, like that gap between the use by date, and the moment the milk turns

But, be warned, killer punches are coming

Of course I recommend, highly, starting with Book 1,Slow Horses, getting to meet the characters, as different members of the second division of MI5 (or, perhaps even relegated lower than that) will come to the forefront and centre of Herron’s focus, and you will be deepening your knowledge of, and appreciation for, the spooks you meet (old and new) in Dead Lions

However, Herron has constructed his books well, and finds a way to introduce any needed back story and character details for new readers picking up book 2 by chance.

The storyline in this book, published in 2013, has Russia at its centre (and how topical might this be?) But this is a new Russia. Some of the spooks who have been around for a while are still stuck in an old Cold War scenario, where communism and capitalism square up against each other. Russia, as many have noted of late, has moved markedly rightwards, and its interests may no longer be in helping the workers of the world, who have nothing to lose but their chains, to unite.


An old, not very high flying, not very valuable, spook from the days of the fall of the Berlin Wall, sees a face he recognises. This (British) cipher clerk, was too lowly, too incompetent, even to merit deployment to ‘Slough House’ where spooks who have fouled up, get shafted to end their days as pen pushers, CCTV footage perusers, in order for government to avoid redundancy golden handshakes. In the fullness of time, is the thinking, the demoted ones will get fed up, and hand in their notice, saving payouts.

The ex-spook seeing a face from the past decides to trail the man from the other side, he last saw, memorably, at the end of the 80s. And so begins a whole, complex, twisty tangle of information, disinformation, plots, sub-plots, and things which are very much not what they seem.


It is set partly in the epicentre – London, and partly in that most English of English, safe, old fashioned, cosy part of the country, the Cotswolds – though a part of it not quite mainstream tourist destination:

Upshott has no high street, not like those in nearby villages, with their parades of mock-Tudor frontages gracefully declining riverwards….;whose grocery stores offer stem-ginger biscuits and seven kinds of pesto….. Because Upshott doesn’t invite the epithet ‘chocolate boxy’ , so often delivered through gritted teeth. If it resembles any kind of chocolate box, it’s the kind found on the shelf at its only supermarket: coated with dust, its cellophane crackly and yellowing

Some of the characters met in the first book are here again – but some are not. Espionage, even for the Slow Horses of Slough House is a dangerous game. And the more Herron invests the reader in each of the characters he develops, the more, I suspect, will reading subsequent books be a mixture of feverish page turning pleasure – and pain.

Yes. I cried, where I had laughed before.

Book 3 is now downloaded on the eReader, and I have book 4 (the latest) as an ARC Herron is THAT compulsive, THAT good.mick-herron

Dead Lions won the 2013 CWA Gold Dagger Award, and was a ‘Best Crime Novel of the Year’ for BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, and A Times crime and thriller book of the year. And I wouldn’t argue with any of that

Dead Lions Amazon UK
Dead Lions Amazon USA

Marcus Sedgwick – Saint Death


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A fence, A wall. A border: who are the bad hombres, in the end?

saint-deathI must confess I would never normally be drawn to a book with this sort of cover – it suggests some book focused towards those enamoured of zombie/werewolf/vampires and the like, but perhaps with a notched up degree of violence, and possibly of appeal to young boys with a yen for shoot-em-up video games.

Nothing like the prejudice of ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ going on here, eh?

Well, this is certainly geared to YA readers, though they might find that the violence and darkness in the pages is a kind of sweetener to encourage facing still darker matters. This book carries weightier themes, is bang-on-topical, and mixes myth, responsibility, gang warfare and class consciousness extremely powerfully. Not to mention friendship, free-will versus destiny, chance and choice..

It was the author that drew me, despite the lurid cover. This is, after all, Marcus Sedgwick, a wonderful author, writing challenging, thoughtful books for a younger audience – and also the odd foray into adult fiction

Saint Death is set on the Mexican side of the border with the US. It’s theme is the exploitation of the poor by capitalism, and how that goes hand in glove with gangland control and exploitation, drug running, violence and prostitution. It is strong meat for an adult reader, never mind a teen


Arturo is probably in his late teens. His mother is dead, his alcoholic, violent father gone from his life. He lives in the shantytown neighbourhood of Anapra, in the city of Juarez, Chihuahua, close to the Rio Grande. He gets by through occasional casual employment in an auto-shop, and steers clear of the gangs. He had a dear, childhood friend, Faustino, an immigrant from an even poorer place. Faustino had not kept so clear of trouble – extreme poverty means even the most righteous might find they surrender to powerful, vicious people, for the chance to put food on a plate. Faustino is now in danger and comes to his childhood friend for salvation


Interspersed within this violent tale is a dark, older religion, a Death-cult figure, Santisima Muerte, ever present, who must be placated, prayed to, sought for protection against her own visitation. There are also reflections, riffs, poems, where Sedgwick, sometimes using the words of others, comments on the wider political, ethical issues. Reminding the reader that though this might be a story, it is, or something similar is, a reality happening daily

This book is about other stories that occur
over there, across the river

The comfortable way to deal with these
stories is to say they are about them.

The way to understand these stories is to say
they are about us”

Charles Bowden

There are aspects of it which don’t quite work for me – the Spanish punctuation, and the interjection of frequent snatches of Spanish dialogue. Okay, it gives ‘flavour’ but it seemed a little tricksy. I could imagine the slang would be something which might appeal though, to its target audience

And I do think Sedgwick is extremely skillful at writing something which has page-turning action which might appeal to younger readers, whilst what he is writing is very far from escapism; rather, an invitation to look at how an unfair world works, and then castigates those who it has forced into suffering

We handed the right to kill to that thing we call civilisation. Civilisation does our killing for us, and we can wash our hands of it. This is the management of death. But the blood will not wash off

I received this from Amazon Vine UKmarcus-sedgwick-012

Saint Death Amazon UK
Saint Death Amazon USA

This book won’t be published in the States till April 25th

Samantha Ellis – Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life


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A sisterly fight for the youngest, overlooked Brontë

take-courageI confess, with some shame, that the youngest Brontë, Anne, is the one I have never explored. Clearly, I surrendered to the fake news floating around for nearly 200 years which dismissed Anne as being lesser than her more respected siblings, Emily and Charlotte.

Anne has been championed in more modern times for her more realistic, less romantic, heroines, as the sister who more clearly reflected the way society was weighted against women, and, moreover who explored a journey towards independence for her heroines, a self-actualisation free from the lures of ‘the Byronic romantic hero’ which renders Emily’s and Charlotte’s books so very alluring to impressionable minds.

Anne might just be the writer for the woman wanting to make a journey out of myth.

And Ellis is a perfectly placed writer to explore this territory.

Anne by Charlotte 1834

Anne by Charlotte 1834

I adored Ellis’ first book, How to be a Heroine, which engagingly, intelligently, passionately, thoughtfully and entertainingly explored the various ‘heroines’ of literature whom female readers might internalise as aspirational role models. This was, and is, a book a strongly recommend to all of my literary minded sisters, as a feisty book which provokes much enjoyable debate. And THIS book will be another, and is certainly heading me over to explore Anne’s two novels.

Ellis writes exactly the kind of literary non-fiction which I most enjoy. Forget dry, cerebral, academic theory, which pins its subject matter like a chloroformed butterfly, so that it will never fly again. Without losing any ability to analyse, or being any less intelligent in analysis, what Samantha Ellis brings is dynamism, a whole-hearted, gut-felt, lively intellect engagement with her material. Literature MATTERS to her, it is a living thing, and she observes the flying butterfly of a book, a life, a society on the wing, and observes herself observing it, rather than pretending a book, a life, a society are something outside our observation. The observer is always also having subjective responses.

Anne by Branwell

Anne by Branwell

Ellis takes (of course she does!) an interesting approach to her analysis of Anne, her life and her books. Rather than a linear approach, she looks at the seminal influences on Anne, with a chapter devoted to each influencing person. And also chapters devoted to the central characters of her two novels, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – there must, surely, always be a kind of symbiotic relationship between a writer and their creations. The writer (well, the depth writer, anyway) will create characters from their own ‘stuff’, but what is also happening is that written character is also potential, offering an ability for writer (and reader) to have something fed back to them, by the imaginative invention.

And I was pleased to discover (so Ellis, so Anne!) that the positive influence of less obvious individuals were allowed to take their places in Anne’s formative sun – not only her missing mother, Maria, who died in Anne’s infancy, but Aunt Elizabeth Branwell, Maria’s older sister, who moved from her beloved Cornwall to be the motherly presence in the Haworth household. Tabby, who served the family all her life, also provided stability and love. The often harshly vilified father, Patrick, is also shown to be far more positively formative, with his commitment to education, and a strong sense of class inequality, and its unjustiice.

…when we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear. To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light is doubtless the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest? Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers?  Anne Brontë, preface to Tenant of Wildfell Hall

It must be said that the person Ellis is most censorious of is the best known, most successful sister – Charlotte, and her proper champions, Mrs Gaskell and Ellen Nussey. It was Charlotte who prevented, initially, the re-publication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall after Anne’s death. In writing a realistic novel about alcoholism and about violence within marriage, Anne had written too modern, too truthful a book. And one, moreover, ‘unfeminine’ The book was considered by some, coarse, because it showed truth, and held a mirror up to society. Charlotte rather presented the sanitised image of the youngest sister, shy and sweet, and what the youngest actually wrote, conflicted with the docile image :

Wildfell Hall it hardly appears to me desirable to preserve. The choice of subject in that work is a mistake, it was too little consonant with the character, tastes and ideas of the gentle, retiring inexperienced writer. Charlotte Brontë

At this time of course Charlotte is a literary sensation. There is no doubt she loved her sister, but it seems she may have found it easier to love the idea of a weak, ineffectual angel (possibly an unhealed loss of her eldest sister, Maria, who it seems WAS that child), but found a more tough-minded, truth, rather than romantic illusion, facing sister, too tough a prospect. A more modern, psychologically driven analysis also has to wonder about any role played by sibling rivalry. Despite being seen by some as ‘coarse’, BECAUSE it did not romanticise, Wildfell Hall did sell well, on first publication.

It seems even more poignant than getting her age wrong on the original inscription, that her status, in her own right, was omitted

It seems even more poignant than getting her age wrong on the original inscription, that her status, in her own right, was omitted

Samantha Ellis, in offering us a wonderfully complex, interesting person, challenging-of-pre-conceptions writer, in her Anne Brontë biography, does the reader a service by clearly indicating where she is ‘imagining’ from her own perspective how Anne might have felt, or thought this and that, with also backing up some of her assumptions by textual evidence from the books, from social history documents of the times, as well as Bronte-and-friends letters and other documents

I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be. All novels are or should be written for both men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man Anne Brontë, preface to Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Woven into the book, in a way I find wonderful, is a kind of life-story, journey, of Ellis as samantha-ellis-bronteartist and woman. This is a harking back to her first book ‘How to Be A Heroine’ as she uses Anne’s writing, Anne’s complex, struggling heroines, Agnes and Helen, to help her reflect on her own journey. Reminding me (who needs no such reminder) of the power of literature to shape lives. We learn and are inspired by a multiplicity of stories – our own, those of others we know personally, also figures in our own times on world stages, figures from other times – but, also, the inspiration of imagination itself, and that most ancient, and most potent of teachers – story.

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

Take Courage Amazon UK
Take Courage Amazon USA

Mick Herron – Slow Horses


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Borstal for spies; Herron trips, feints and cleverly deceives the reader every step of the way

slow-horsesMick Herron’s Slow Horses, the first book in a series set in ‘Slough House’ a kind of transfer to the bottom stream for spooks from MI5 who have made mistakes, is stunning. Absolutely stunning.

This is a highly intelligent, tautly written, compulsive page-turner, with a plot as highly charged and twisty turny as any reader could want, wonderfully complex, believable characters, and founded in a reality which seems terrifyingly plausible. It is bloody, violent – and, at times, very very funny.

He was aiming for a carefree delivery, with about as much success as Gordon Brown

I have found my series to compulsively read on – book 4 comes out this year and I’ve been fortunate to have bagged a copy as an ARC, but, 2 and 3 will be read in order first – if I can stop the dizzy spin I’m left in, reading this one.

The unfortunate challenge of writing a review, is that really, there is almost nothing I wish to say about plot – or even the cast of characters, because the best way to read this is to know as little as possible about the journey, other than to make it.


All that might be useful to know, is that the title, ‘Slow Horses’ is a kind of dismissive word play, accorded to the Z lister spooks, fallen from grace, who now work at Slough House. One and all, they were operatives who, for different reasons, had been attracted to the boxing-at-shadows work of MI5, recruited for their spook-needed skills, trained for this, but, in each case somehow failed the grade, dropped a catch, failed to tick the right box. Now, they all do the grunt work associated with counter terrorism, the endless checking of videocams, CCTV, paper trails. And all are resentful and yearn to be back at the high, respected levels of the job.


The only name I will provide is that of Jackson Lamb – as in, this is the first in Herron’s Jackson Lamb series. He heads up the crew of misfits, who have ended up here. Bullying, and shambolic, disliked by his subordinates and superiors, he is none the less as devious, intelligent, astute at pulling wool over eyes and mastering dissimulation as a spook must be.

He resembled, someone had once remarked, Timothy Spall gone to seed (which left open the question of what Timothy Spall not gone to seed might look like)

Having finished this one, I have no real idea where Herron might go with the later books in the series. My instinct is that we will certainly be meeting some of the ‘Slow Horses’ denizens of Slough House – not to mention the MI5 high flier section, – again, and I suspect different characters will, in subsequent books, come into sharper relief, and take place centre stage. In this, the closet parallel I can find is to the magnificent Tana French, who does a similar ‘Greek tragedy chorus’ effect with her Dublin Murder Squad series – each book focuses on different central characters in the squad, some of whom may have made passing appearances earlier, and are now centre stage, and may well pass through again in a later book, as a minor character in someone else’s story. When I first found French, I did a kind of total immersion and read all her books in the space of 6 weeks.

I can see myself heading the same way with Herron.


But, I have to hold back from saying even the most basic about plot, or other central characters beside Lamb because Herron starts the dissimulation and confounds the reader’s expectations right from the start, and you will be best pleased to read as an innocent, without knowing or second guessing in advance.

this particular block seemed ordinary enough in the early morning, with its shared entrance and its buzzer system that blinked continuously. Only the sign promising CCTV coverage hinted at Big Brother’s world, but signs were cheaper than the actual thing. The UK might be the most surveilled society in the world, but that was on the public purse, and building management companies generally preferred the cheaper option of hanging a fake camera

Counter Surveillance EquipmentAll I will say is that none of the sleights of hand, the cutting between different stories all heading in the same direction, deviously and twistily, is a gratuitous authorial series of tricks, coinicidences too far etc. The territory of the book, after all is one where no one is quite what they seem, because the territory of intelligence, counter-intelligence and their friends and enemies is, of its nature – hidden, deceptive, shadowy.

However…..this book was first published in 2010. There is a remarkably foresighted view of the future, and a thinly disguised character readers will ‘enjoy’ recognising. I guffawed out loud on a silent tube carriage………….Of course, humour gets laced with horror these days.mick-herron

I wonder what else Herron is predicting in later books in the series, and sincerely hope book 4 (published in 2017) won’t have World War 3 in mid-throes.

Slow Horses Amazon UK
Slow Horses Amazon USA

E.M.Forster – The Machine Stops


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Considering the time of writing, astonishingly and horribly prophetic

the-machine-stopsE.M.Forster wrote this ‘Science Fiction story’ in 1909. Pre-computer, pre-world wide web, pre-smart talking to itself technology.

Just over 100 years later this seems not like science fiction at all, more, something which might be a mere handful of years away, and in many ways, already here.

Set sometime in the future (at the time of writing) human beings have gratefully done away with all the challenging, messy stuff of having to communicate with each other, and skilfully negotiate co-operation with another face to face human being, in real time and place.

Instead, each lives softly cocooned like a babe inside a personal pod, where all wants are regulated by sentient technology. The technology ‘The Machine’ was once created and conceived of by humans, but now it does things so much more efficiently than any one human can do. All needs, be they of ambient temperature, health and well being, education, entertainment, furniture, are seamlessly provided by the machine, and the human being in its pod never has to rub up against the messy flesh of another. Communication happens by seeing (and hearing) each other on some kind of screen. You in your small pod, me in mine


Everything that can be controlled, is, and everything that can’t, in the material world, is regarded as unpleasant and dangerous.

Living happens in the personal pod, deep below the earth, where the air supply is regulated, and purified. The surface of the earth is deemed dangerous, the air not fit to breathe. The Machine has told us so, so it must be true.

Vashti, the central character is happy in her pod. Her son is a difficult and challenging embarrassment to her and their ‘meetings’ on screen do not go well. He also has disturbing things to say about The Machine, and appears to harbour dangerously subversive ideas about a better, earlier time, when people communicated directly with each other. And then………well, the title of the story shows where this will lead.


Twenty-first century readers can’t help but look around at a world where we are all clutching our little screens,facetwitting, Instachatting, occupying the same space as each other in cafes, on buses, colliding on the street, but rarely connecting with each other, in real. Terminals in shops instruct us that we have placed an unrecognised item in the bagging area. Doctor’s surgeries require us to register our arrival on a screen, whilst the receptionist communicates only with her own terminal. And children, so we are told, no longer realise that potatoes grow in the earth, milk comes from cows, and, from early years are plonked in front of screens with brightly coloured moving shapes, emoticons and squawking sounds, so their harassed parents can get on with the important stuff of staring at their own little screens, busy with brightly coloured moving shapes, emoticons and squawks of their own


Whilst I certainly prefer Forster’s more ‘traditional’, literary novels of relationship this is a horribly possible vision, and it is tempting to categorise it as contemporary fiction, not Sci-Fi at all

A short piece, it punches the gut and leaves the reader gasping for breathe-m-forster

And, the inevitable link to my virtual bloggy buddy FictionFan, who once again brought something to my attention I would otherwise not have known about. You can read her review here. We have never met, in real, and I realise the whole wonderful book blogging community is a ‘virtual’ like Forster is warning us about. There are many good things about our virtual connections, but I sincerely hope to live out my days on the surface of this planet, not beneath it (that can come later!) and welcome the real faces of real people as we meet each other, bump against each other, and even talk, face to face, in real time and space

A version a little more alarming than the better known one by Simon and Garfunkel

The Machine Stops Amazon UK
The Machine Stops Amazon USA

Irvin D. Yalom – The Spinoza Problem


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Novel ‘form’ used to explore ideas and the personalities which subscribe to them

the-spinoza-problemReviewing The Spinoza Problem is more than a little challenging, it is not quite successful as a novel, but is a far better way of educating the reader into grasping facets of Spinoza’s philosophy than any of the ‘Dummies’ type guides might be, because the information is woven in a more dramatic, narrative, human way

Irvin Yalom is a much revered humanistic psychotherapist. He is also a marvellous writer/communicator about these matters, and his non-fiction writings are rich, meaningful and informative, to practitioners and to those interested in our very human nature, and all the ethical and philosophical ideas which might arise from consciousness, and self-consciousness. He has written other novels, using a semi fictional framework to explore ideas.

In ‘The Spinoza Problem’ there are two parallel journeys happening, separated by nearly 300 years, and both stories, of real people with a strange, cross-time connection, are explored using a similar device, that of presenting the central character in each time, with a kind of analyst figure, a wise, self-reflective listener who can be trusted to explore how who we are, and our formative experiences, often determines how we think

God did not make us in His image – we made Him in our image

Baruch, later Bento Spinoza was a Portuguese Jew of extraordinary intellect and a rigorously independent, questioning nature. The Netherlands, where he lived and died was, in the 1660’s, a markedly tolerant society, where religious freedom, and different religions, were able to live side by side. Great things were expected of Spinoza within his community, where his understanding of religious texts and analytical mind seemed to indicate he would become a highly influential rabbi. This was not to be, however, as he began to question religion itself, and dismissed the forms as created by man, not God. Extraordinary thinking in those times, and brave to voice those thoughts : religious intolerance and fundamental beliefs were rather more the bedrock of the times, and dissent, in some cases, led to death. He had an extraordinary certainty in his own belief system, but also a tolerance towards others of different beliefs. He was, however, uncompromising in his insistence that he could not live untruthful to his own beliefs. The result was that he was cursed, excommunicated by his community, for the rest of his life. This was a man who hugely valued his community, but valued adherence to his own understanding of ‘truth’ more. Where I found his uncompromising adherence to that to be even more laudable, is that he did not feel the need to force others into his thinking. A rather unusual combination of uncompromising adherence and toleration. Often, those who hold most fiercely to their own ‘right’ seek to deny others theirs – where we are talking the systems of beliefs

nothing can occur contrary to the fixed laws of Nature. Nature, which is infinite and eternal and encompasses all substance in the universe, acts according to orderly laws that cannot be superseded by supernatural means

The shadow side of belief lies in the second figure, the one who searches for the solution to ‘The Spinoza Problem’ : Nazi Alfred Rosenberg, who was chief ‘theorist’ of the Party. Rosenberg, committed Anti-Semite, had a major problem with Spinoza – that he was a Jew, and was admired, hugely by the ‘good German’ Goethe, whom Rosenberg venerated. Here is a clear mark between mature and immature thinking, feeling, being – the inability to hold any kind of nuance or conflict between ‘this’ and ‘that’

You attempt to control the populace through the power of fear and hope – the traditional cudgels of religious leaders throughout history

Where the book particularly fascinated me is through Yalom’s own background as a psychotherapist, and one with a view which is both ‘narrow focus’ – this person, this story of theirs, and ‘broad focus’ – the overview, the wider issues. So, our own beliefs, which we generally believe are rationally driven, whilst the beliefs of others, with different opinions, we are more likely to believe spring from ‘personality and individual psychology’ than fact, are always driven more by ‘who we are’ than by rationality.

Yalom teases out, in the ‘invented’ encounters, giving Spinoza and Rosenberg people whom they can trust to have meaningful dialogue with, of the kind that happens in the best-run psychotherapeutic encounters, known history and personality traits. Obviously, more is known of the man Rosenberg through his writings, sayings, deeds as his is a more recent history – Rosenberg was one of those brought to trial, at Nuremberg, and executed for his war crimes, and his crimes against humanity. Yalom traces this aberrant personality and psychology, which the wider events of the times fitted so horribly well – when external political/economic systems hurt ‘the common man’ the easiest, and most terrible solution is to make some massed ‘other’ the cause.


This is what we are of course seeing, nascent, in the rise of what is being improperly named – ‘the alt right’. Let us name it – certainly there is proto Fascism as a driver : the so called ‘alt right’ leaders are using the terrible, dangerous language of Fascism, before it became powerful enough to translate word into action,  and the terrible, dangerous, ‘feeling thought’ is gaining credence.

Reason is leading me to the extraordinary conclusion that everything in the world is one substance, which is Nature, or, if you wish, God, and that everything, with no exception, can be understood through the illumination of natural law

To return (and how we need to) to Spinoza. There is a wealth of quite complex writing – which Yalom has clearly studied at depth – which can be used, with historical background about his life, and what has been said about him by others, whether at the time, or later students/researchers into his life an writing – to create an idea of who this man might have been. Certainly there is an enormous intellectual and emotional intelligence at work here, a visionary, positively inspirational individual. He may not have been an easy man to be around in some ways – those who are ‘greater’ in a kind of moral, ethical way than most of us, those who serve as ‘inspirers’ to our feebler selves to orientate towards, can easily inspire our fear and our dislike – through no fault of their own, but because they make us uncomfortable and uneasy with our own shortcomings. ‘Dead heroes’ of history may be easier to read about and be with, than the person better, more humane, more morally fine, who lives next door!

It is the fall from grace of the most highly placed that has always most excited crowds: the dark side of admiration is envy combined with disgruntlement at one’s own ordinariness

So, not quite fully satisfying as ‘novel’ Yalom, as ever, invites the reader to engage with themselves, and with ethical ideas, educating without standing dryly outside what is being explained

You can see I have categorised it as both fiction and non-fiction. I am trying to hold the ‘this AND that’ idea together, rather than this OR that.

I keep coming back in my mind, to that idea of ‘one substance’ in the quote which starts ‘Reason’ . Right there, is the idea of wholism, communality, community, respect towards other – including towards our planet itself. Not a splitting, not a division. Spinoza grasped the spirit of matter. Spiritual materialism, not the split, mechanistic version that is merely consumerism.


All quotes  come from the Spinoza section, and are either from his writing, or from a clarifying/ distillation/explanation of his philosophical framework.

Quotes from the ‘disordered thinking’ Rosenberg section do not bear repetition, and some of the current political leaders are espousing modern versions of them, daily, by spoken word and by tweet

The Spinoza Problem Amazon UK
The Spinoza Problem Amazon USA

Cormac McCarthy – The Road


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Dark days on a dying planet.

the-roadCormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer prize winning, bleak, heart-breaking post-apocalytic novel of the remaining few survivors, scrabbling towards the final, dying days of a wasted, destroyed planet, some time in the very near future would have been a sombre, regret filled read at any time.

But in these days where the Presidential Office is filled by an erratic, self-obsessed and unreflective man, McCarthy’s book seems far less fictional than might be comfortable. Less allegorical and possibly more prophetic. I hope not.

The ‘event’ some ten years ago in the past is never spelled out, but, there was a blinding flash, there were sonic reverberations, and people burned, disfigured. Some kind of nuclear winter appears to have occurred. Almost all living things have now ceased to be – vegetation, insects, birds, mammals, most humans.

Pockets of survivors, feral, cannibalistic exist in the unnamed place, somewhere in America, where the novel takes place.

The central characters are a man, and his child, a boy who is probably now 10 years old. His mother is no longer living, and why, will be revealed. The father looks back to a time before the event, before his son was born, before the world was catapulted into these dark days.

His son is his reason for living, he has been charged, he charges himself, to take care of his boy. Some years after the cataclysm, and all the available food sources (whatever there was, canned), in houses, in stores, across the world, have all been looted by whatever survivors there were. Most have long since, horribly, died, but those small bands who remain – are they people of decency and humanity, or are they those who now regard other humans merely as food, offering a few more weeks and months of survival for those who kill them?


Image from the film of the book, Viggo Mortensen as Man. Kodi Smit-McPhee as Boy

Bleak days, little hope. And yet, McCarthy offers us a strong love, some relic of who we might have been, when we seemed to ourselves to be evolution’s finest flower. There is the tenderness and dependence of father and son upon each other, as they walk a road ‘South’ in search of warmer weather Practical tasks occupy the pages. Scavenging odd discovered stores of tinned food, clothing, rags to bind round feet, wheeling all these worldly goods in abandoned supermarket trolleys. Balancing the need for fire and warmth with the possibly dangerous signals given out by smoke.

The reader knows the father and his son are ailing, infections taking hold, breathing laboured. The outcome is bleak, cannot be good, for either. Nonetheless, there is also something about the child. He has a kind of holy innocence about him. He might be a kind of naïve fool – or the repository of human wisdom, not intellectually, but in goodness, in kindness, in tenderness and that so sullied thing ‘humanity’ Time and time again he rather sets a moral compass for the father to orientate towards

There are many, sometimes subliminal nods to religious imagery, and I thought this a kind of journey through an anti-Garden Of Eden, where nothing grows, but the child might be – possibly a new kind of ‘Adam’.

It took two days to cross that ashen scabland. The road beyond ran along the crest of a ridge where the barren woodland fell away of every side. It’s snowing, the boy said. He looked at the sky. A single gray flake sifting down. He caught it in his hand and watched it expire there like the last host of christendom

McCarthy does the reader the great service of keeping a kind of ambivalence going in the story. We know how the story must end, realistically, without appeal to any kind of magic, corn, or unsatisfying tied up wrap. But, isn’t life itself something evolving? There have been earlier cataclysms which destroyed life as it was known. Didn’t other forms arise? Might a conscious, a self-conscious species, be able, some of them, to choose to be some kind of bearers of light?

I found the concepts, the far wider considerations McCarthy was presenting the reader, kept me engaged and absorbed, as did the practical details. Father and son, and particularly, that relationship between them, and the father’s memories of ‘before’ were all extremely powerful.

And, often his writing is magnificent, carrying his weighty themes, particularly in his chilling descriptions of the new, harshly wasted world

The land was gullied and eroded and barren. The bones of dead creatures sprawled in the washes. Middens of anonymous trash. Farmhouses in the fields scoured of their paint and the clapboards spooned and sprung from the wallstuds. All of it shadowless and without feature. The road descended through a jungle of dead kudzu. A marsh where the dead reeds lay over the water. Beyond the edge of the fields the sullen haze hung over earth and sky alike

Despite these undoubted strengths I sometimes struggled with McCarthy’s writing. He cormac-mccarthyhas a tendency to a kind of portentous elevation, using archaic language – and then over-using it. As example, he carefully seems to want to avoid using the word ‘wash’ replacing it with ‘lave’ Using an unusual or poetic word like that, once or twice, helps the feeling of strangeness. But if every time something – hand, face, hair, knife is not washed, but is laved, it becomes grating and repetitive in a way the reader would not have noticed if the common word had been used over and again, for a common action

Still, a very powerful read indeed

And I must link to blog-chum FictionFan’s review of this, first bringing it to my attention a while ago.

The Road Amazon UK
The Road Amazon USA

Maggie O’Farrell – This Must Be The Place


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Walking a sure tightly woven rope of many voices crossing times and continents

this-must-be-the-placeI had to stop, many times, in my reading of Maggie O’ Farrell’s stunning “This Must Be The Place”, because it ached my heart too much, and took me to the places, which we all have, where life and living seems so fragile, so caught on a pin-point of bliss or desolation, where the realisation of the wonder and despair of who we are, have been, might be, overwhelms.

Sorry for the purpling prose, but that is the overview of how the book spoke to me, particularly as I neared the ending, realising that whichever way that fell out, it would be hugely intense. I hoped so much that she would manage the balance point and not tip into something disappointing. She did, and walked that fine rope brilliantly, all through

So, to the more dispassionate, cooler ‘what is it about’ stuff

The overall theme is the trajectory of a relationship (aren’t most books, somewhere?)

There are many central characters in this book, and O’Farrell gives most of them narrative rights: the story is told over a long period of time, cutting backwards and forwards in different voices, at different times within a lifetime, and from different countries. Don’t expect linear narrative, but surrender to the cutting from voice to voice. This is not confusing, a link back to who the new voice is, how they might connect to a previous voice, will come quickly. What the structure gives us is a spider web of connection, fine, fragile and also with tensile strength.

I find myself unwilling, in this review, to name the most central characters even, because when they meet, they are not without history and the snarled tangles that come from their before. We are all shadowed by our prior selves, imprinting on the present. I feel lucky enough to have come to read this without really knowing much about it – except that I did know it was the story of a failing relationship, that it was a Costa shortlist, and that the author was O’Farrell, As I have read earlier books by her, I was willing to jump into the unknown. It was a real pleasure to read without the map of pre-conception, hence – no names, no pack-drill!!

Bolivian Salt Flats, a profound location at one point

 Bolivian Salt Flats, a profound location at one point

Some of the narrators are first met as children, at their own early stages in the story. I have a particular fondness for writers who can get inside child mind, and engage with the truth of those voices. The fact that O’Farrell does was the sure hook to keep me reading – particularly as it is not just the child voice she manages – but individual children, finely differentiated.

A thousand teenagers are pouring out of the school. Once through the bottleneck of the doors, they break, regroup, and bond as groups of three of four. They call to each other in their particular argot: pure Home Counties cut with Teen American. A lot of yips, heys, elongated vowels. They swing bags through the air. Hair is flicked, stroked, tossed. Trousers are worn tight but low; shoes unlaced. The females link arms with their chosen peers; the males perform mock-violence upon those they recognise as their tribe. Most, if not all, display what I think of as ‘the screen hunch’: head bent, eyes down, one hand engaged in fondling, stroking, manipulating a phone

She took me inside the mind of every narrating character, the why of them, the who of them. And it is to her credit that with each voice and chapter change I was loath to leave the chapter I was leaving, wanting to stay with that story, but, instantly was inside fascination with the next voice.

And all the while they continue a conversation above her head:
– He was like, whoah, and I was like, yeah
– Totally, totally out of it. And I mean. Out. Of. It.
– Because she gave me this look and I was just, you know, hey

Lest this all sound not just ridiculously woolly, but also far too intense for words, she is well attuned, as a writer, to the needs of variation, light, shade, humour. Here is a lovely excerpt, inside the mind of a minor character, a counsellor for ‘problem children’ because of their behaviour in school. He is waiting to meet a new, referred pupil for the first time, and skim reading their background notes. The assured blasé professional’s assumptions are, the reader knows, in for a wonderful puncture, and I was giggling all the way. This is no spoiler, as, by the time you get to this point, you, reader, will be in on the joke, waiting for the banana skin (No names, no pack drill, remember!)

He grabbed the file from his in-tray, swallowing an unchewed hunk of hummus-clogged bread, and flipped open the cover…..He let his eye travel down the page as he took a swig from his water bottle. Lives in Ireland….attended this school for a year…..the counsellor’s ey was caught by one particular detail: Previous schools attended – none. He sighed and his head gave a single shake. He took a dim view of home-schooling. He turned his swivel chair and stood up. A child – he opined, to an audience comprising his bookshelf, a watercolour of a Scandinavian lake, a Newton’s cradle, his effigy of a Yoruba deity picked up a long time ago on a gap-year placement – is a social being….The counsellor crossed the room, pausing only to light a candle on the mantelpiece. He had a handle on the session to come now. He felt inspiration, confidence, assurance surge through him. He loved this job, he loved it……He pictured the child who would be waiting beyond the door, in all probability, nervously, fearfully, perhaps covering these emotions with the rough façade of teenage bravura. Ireland the file had said, so the counsellor imagined the offspring of some Celtic hippie types. Auburn dreadlocks, a whispery Irish inflection, dressed in hand-felt and hemp, that particular brand of drivelly, directionless, formless home-schooling written all over him. Couldn’t read until he was eleven, could barely count, even now. He, the counsellor, would bring him out of himself, give him that direction, inspire him to exert himself in more mainstream educational channels, show him that there are other ways to live, besides weaving one’s own clothes, straining one’s own cheese, splitting one’s own logs.

The counsellor flung open the door to welcome this waif, this refugee, this victim of over-parenting…….

I hope this excerpt shows how O’Farrell can construct and build and shape – and clearly has a fine sense of the narrative, the dramatic voice. As well as all the wonderful psychology, dialogue, fine writing, playing with time, place, voice, she remains that wondrous thing – a storytellermaggie-ofarrell

I received this as a digital review copy from the publisher, via NetGalley. And how I enjoyed carefully unwrapping it to follow its treasure journey!

As I hope is obvious, unreserved recommendation

This Must Be The Place Amazon UK
This Must Be The Place Amazon USA

Christopher Somerville – The January Man


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Walking the poetry of landscape, wildlife, relationship and music through the years

the-january-manI  have been waiting since last summer to post a review of this wonderful book here on the blog. I had received, and reviewed it, on Amazon UK, as it was offered to me on Amazon Vine, where I was bound to review it within a month. No point in sharing it here at that point, since it is not due to be published until mid January 2017. Shame, really as I think keen walkers, keen philosophers and reflective types (which must include serious readers, surely) keen engagers with the natural world, keen yearners-for-beautiful-writing-on-the-natural-world, keen lovers of music, of history, of good conversation, and, well, those with any kind of keen-ness to appreciate life-in-real connection would Have welcomed finding this book in their Christmas stockings Enough preamble:

What can I say to justifiably praise this deep, joyous and poignant book?

Christopher Somerville is a travel writer, specialising not in exotic tales of derring-do in sub tropical or polar Lonely Planet inaccessibility, but in travelling, on foot, through the hidden and not so hidden highways and byways of these isles.

This particular book, taking as its springing-off point a folk song entitled ‘The January Man’ recounts the months of the year, and some walks undertaken in those months in different parts of the British Isles.

From March:

Frogs are at risk. There are no wallflowers in the ranine ballrooms of romance. The opening notes of spring have stung all the sleepers into a conga of love. They singlemindedly pursue their search for partners across high roads and dual carriageways. Toads are at it, too, with just as much gusto as their froggy cousins. They teem recklessly out of the ponds and ditches along the old Roman road from Bristol to Wells. Randy toads and frogs with reproduction on their minds are run down and flattened by the dozen, martyrs of love on the B3134

Somerville writes most beautifully, evoking the landscape itself, painting the vegetation, illuminating the chatter of many birds, so that the armchair reader, feverishly polishing their boots and raring to get outside, can, in imagination pour themselves into the territory the author is describing. But he writes about so much more than this. Whilst walking in place, he also walks in time. Some of these, in fact most of these, are walks he has done decades before, so he is accompanied by his younger self, and, most poignantly, by his dead father John. John was a keen walker. The relationship between John and Christopher was at times a little estranged, difficult and distant, caused by the times and the great and rapid change in cultures and generations, post war. John had a reserve to do with that war, and also due to his occupation – he worked at GCHQ Cheltenham, so discussions of what he did were off-limits.

Fathers didn’t make mistakes. They knew what to do. They showed you how to ndope the tissue wings of a model glider and paint a bedside cupboard nwith smelly green gloss. They gave you a florin if you cleaned the car properly with a chamois leather, they spoke sternly to you about your school report, and they chastised you if you hit your sister or cheeked your mother. They were upright and dutiful, the object of everyone’s respect and admiration. They set the moral bar so high it daunted you

The reserved father and the child of the 50s and 60s found the beginning of meeting places in walks they took together.

Walking in the present, often meeting people who recount their lives and the lives of their parents in the specific regions he visits, he is also meditating on history, geography, culture and deepening his connection to his own family, whether his loved, now gone, father, or appreciating his present connections to his family and friends. Celebrations, often traditional and local of the  passing of the seasons are woven through this book; folk songs, folk music and dancing connect present with the past.

From May, walking before dawn  as a seasonal ritual on May Day morning, up May Hill in Gloucestershire

Every bird in these woods is silent. There’s only the sound of our breathing, the faint creak of boot leather and the glassy tinkle of the stones. Then ahead a dog barks, and a blackbird breaks out scolding. It turns to tentative notes, sweet and unsure. A wren whirrs briefly. A robin begins to chitter, and deeper in the wood a warbler produces some sweet, expressive phrases. By the time we leave the edge of the wood and enter the common land of May Hill top, the dawn chorus has got under way. There’s another musical sound, too, faint but growing louder, coming up behind us – the silver jingle of tiny bells, bound round the shins of three men who are walking the hill in ribbon coats and breeches

I wiped away tears, moved by descriptions of landscape and wildlife, not to mention the recounting of human connections to those landscapes as well as to each other, as I read

And, over and again, having found a most wondrous version of the song, The January Man, on YouTube, performed by Christy Moore, I played this, its plangent rendition revealing the layers in the deceptively simple lyrics about the months of the year, and the man who moves through them

The only thing I missed through being lucky enough to have this as an ARC for review, is that there will be maps and walkers notes when the book is published, not available here.

But what I did find is that Somerville has a blog, and a walking website, where he adds new walks, photos and descriptions and much more besides, each fortnight. I’m sure details of a terrific walk, somewhere near any of us, is either there already or will be, waiting to be explored……….Christopher Somerville’s website where you can gorge on links to many walks and more

Somerville is a rambler and a rover, all over this land, And, to be honest, his writing holds the benison of rambling and roving – not to lose or to fox you, but to surprise and stop you, making you draw breath and notice. This is far from a linear journey, this book. Rather it is a spiders web, suddenly sparkling, where every thread makes you notice the sure connections to every other thread, a woven whole.

I didn’t underline what I was reading – because it could and would have been everything, as almost everything I read made me glimpse words behind words, thoughts behind thoughts – or, the poignancy of the meaning of ‘June’ in that January Man song ‘the man inside the man’ – by which I loosened gender, because, what Somerville was revealing to me was something about who any of us, all of us, each of us is inside the passing external we show to the worldchristopher-somerville

As is obvious, I recommend it. It will be published on January 12th

The January Man Amazon UK
The January Man Amazon USA

Katherine Arden – The Bear and The Nightingale


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A perfect, darkly mythic tale of old Russia

the-bear-and-the-nightingaleKatherine Arden’s first book should grip anyone with a love for old folk/faerie tales, especially those who prefer their those tales to have more than a whiff of the darkly sinister about them – less Perrault, more Grimm, and. perhaps heavy with Pagan roots.

Arden, in transpires, is a Russophile, and spent some time in Russia as a student, steeping herself in its Medieval past. The Bear and The Nightingale is, by all accounts, the first volume of a trilogy. I’m glad I didn’t know that when I requested it from NetGallley, as I’m not wildly enamoured of the fantasy/fantasy YA genre, particularly where sequels are concerned, as my prejudices tell me this may all be too marketing driven and not enough driven by creative integrity.

However….prejudice is so often there to be exposed and exploded, and, after a slow start, Arden hooked me up and tied me tight into her wonderful tale of a family, minor relatives by marriage of the tsar of the time, living far away from Moscow. The central character is a wild, witchen child – or, at least one who sees more than others, and is aware of the myriad domestic and nature deities which are well established in the pantheon of pre-Christian (and even post-Christian) myths and legends from classical times. And Slavic folk lore has many of these.

Vasya’s mother Marina, who died giving birth to her, (they always seem to) had a kind of second sight, and could see those nature and hearth deities. She is happily and passionately married to Pyotr, a heroic, but ordinarily mortal man. Most of her children are four square without other powers, but Vasya and her older brother Sasha ‘see beyond’

The old religion and a mystical Christianity have to sit side by side with each other, sometimes easily, and sometimes….not. Some of those with additional powers, like Marina, and like Vasya, juggle a more universal sense of holy and sacred better than others.

16th century Icon, Kremlin Only Begotten of the Father and the Word of God

16th century Icon, Kremlin : Only Begotten of the Father and the Word of God

When a highly devout and charismatic priest with dreams of leadership and glory is banished from Moscow to Pyotr’s domaine, a deadly clash between faiths and practices is set in place. And compounded by the fact that Pyotr has had a new wife foisted on him, by the Tsar – for political reasons. The new wife, Vasya’s stepmother, is not much older than Vasya, who is standing on the edge of moving from girl to woman. There are the usual folk tale tropes of wicked – or at least, spiteful, stepmother and far nobler, braver stepdaughter, but there are also darker forces around, as stepmother Anna, who also has powers to see the native deities of the house, the woods and the forests, fears and hates them as demons. She wishes not to be a wife, not to be a mother, and longs to be a Christian nun. Vasya, the most wonderfully spirited, passionate child and woman wishes to be curtailed by wifedom, motherhood nor a Bride of Christ. She is akin to elementals and wishes for a life of adventure, which her sex denies her

There are wonderfully dark forces abroad in this, satisfyingly archetypal battles between Good and Evil – except, which is which, is not always so simplistically obvious. The dark Marozko, Frost King, demon of winter is simultaneously a less malevolent figure, Jack Frost.

Ivan Bilibin, artist and stage designer 1902: The Heroine Vasilisa outside the hut of Baba Yaga

Ivan Bilibin, artist and stage designer 1902: The Heroine Vasilisa outside the hut of Baba Yaga

And saint-like beautiful priest Konstantin, who paints fabulous icons, and seeks to lead the people away from worshipping older gods, is desperate to hear the voice of God

Suffice it to say, the story started a little slowly, but I kept reading with some interest until the hooks took hold, as Vasya became old enough to show her heroic qualities

The marketing of the book is falling between several stools – because the writing itself is quite complex, it has an adult, fantasy marketing but the age of the central character mark it as Young Adult. I requested it from NetGalley on its General Fiction (ie NOT YA) marketing, and only as I neared the end wondered whether it would ALSO appeal to that market.

Lacquer box illustration of Morozko folk tale

Lacquer box illustration of Morozko folk tale

Definitely a read for short days and long midwinter nights though………..

And, yes, I WILL be looking out for the sequel………katherine-arden

The Bear and The Nightingale will be published on the 12th January in the UK and two days earlier in the States. The young author, one to watch, surprisingly has not grown up in the far North – she is a Texan, but I was convinced she dwelt in frozen, evergreen forests, and gambolled with the wolves……

The Bear and The Nightingale Amazon UK
The Bear and The Nightingale Amazon USA