Archive for the ‘book reviews’ Category

Review: ‘Thirty Poets Go to the Gym by George Szirtes’ (Candlewick Press, 2018)

March 19, 2018

There are three reasons for getting hold of this delightful little volume.

The first is to enjoy thirty completely fresh, amuse-bouche of George Szirtes’ poetry. His facility with words, rhyme, metre, cadence, assonance, consonance is masterful. This is always so with his poetry. But for this collection he is speaking with the voices of others – and he captures those others beautifully.

Which leads on to reason the second: if there are poets amongst those treated in this book that you do not know, this little volume will introduce you to them most engagingly. I had never come across George Herbert before so was particularly entranced by the concrete example (a poem created in the shape of a pair of barbells – a recurrent image in the collection, unsurprisingly) of his seventeenth century style.

I particularly liked the e.e. cummings and the Emily Dickinson pastiches (being both poets that I much enjoy, but occasionally feel are a teensy bit pretentious too): both had me laughing out loud. To name but a few of the others treated, Sylvia Plath and Rainer Maria Rilke are here; also Dante and William McGonagall. But my personal favourite is the Edith Sitwell. If you have never heard William Walton’s Façade, with Sitwell bellowing her poems through a megaphone over the music, then you really, really must remedy that. In the meantime treat yourself to this Sitwell-ese. If possible, bellow it – through a megaphone is ideal (it brings out the rhythm). There isn’t a dud in this collection. And there is even an engaging little coda.

Oh, wait – I said there were three reasons for getting hold of this collection. The third is the completely gorgeous little book in which the poems are contained. The paper is thick and creamy, the cover feels delightful in the hand. The design is restrained and classy. It begs to be given as a gift.

 

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‘Nothe Fort and beyond: in defence of Weymouth & Portland’, (2017) by Susan Hogben

March 19, 2018

Weymouth loves its local history. Books about aspects of it abound. I reviewed another of them recently (Philip Browne’s The Unfortunate Captain Peirce …). Those I have read are characterised by meticulous research and a love of quirky detail. So it is with this book on the creation of Nothe Fort.

The author, Susan Hogben claims this is ‘history that’s not just for historians’, which I think is bang on. Although these days woe betide the historian who attempts to get away with a dry book! Hogben has done the hard work (the research) so you don’t have to. And the result is anything but dry. She has immense affection for the area in general and Nothe Fort in particular. She has a goodly knack for seeing parallels between the era in which it was built and the present day (such as escalating costs, grumbling locals, lack of amenities for summer visitors, bust-ups in the Council chamber) which all sound very familiar.

Hogben has delved into all manner of public and private records for her story and tells it with enthusiasm, interesting segues, vignettes of human suffering and achievement, and plenty of amusing asides. Hogben’s knowledge is worn lightly and the writing style is popular: the saga gallops along (rather more quickly than the construction of the Fort, it must be said).

There is some colourful preamble to the building of the Victorian fort, which skips through the episodes of pirates and privateers, the Civil War, George III’s love of Weymouth and its resultant popularity. Then we arrive at the original reason for south-facing coastal defences being deemed A Good Idea: the French. Relations between France and the United Kingdom blew hot and cold long after Napoleon’s final defeat.

Hogben explains the prodigious role of the Royal Engineers in the construction of the fort. Nothe headland and its adjacent coasts are soft and prone to land slips. Trying to create a fort which would stay where it was put (on top of the cliff) and be strong enough to mount a shore-based battery of guns, which kept increasing in size as technology improved, was no easy task. And became increasingly expensive. That Victorian engineers were able, in the end, to build a thing of strength and beauty on the site and enable local folk to continue to use it for pleasure, piloting and weather watching, is a testament to common sense and co-operation.

Because of the ongoing building works undertaken by the army, there was a constant coming and going of soldiers during the years of the fort’s construction. In the main Weymouth’s citizens were glad of them. They provided husbands, a steady income for publicans, entertaining military bands and an extraordinary number of amateur dramatic shows. I have often been heard to mutter ‘what is it with British men and cross-dressing?’ when confronted with Monty Python, Dick Emery, Les Dawson et al. I believe Hogben has the answer: military amdram. Many soldiers stationed in Weymouth were or became skilled performers. In periods of idleness for the military (of which there were a surprising number) occupation of this kind was encouraged. And, of course, only one gender was available to take part. I understand now where that peculiarly unlovely, generic type of shrew was born which insisted, ‘he’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy’ …

The story so far ends with ‘Palmerston’s Follies’ considered obsolete following the defeat of France in 1871. But Nothe Fort and its sister, Verne Citadel, on Portland do come into their own. That story is, I understand, to be told in a second volume, to which I look forward very much.

I was provided with a proof copy for the purpose of this review. It contains a number of typos, occasional inaccuracies and some malaprops. Hopefully these have been rectified in the published edition.

You can obtain a copy of the book here: Nothe Fort and Beyond

 

‘The Unfortunate Captain Peirce and the Wreck of the Halsewell, East Indiaman, 1786’ by Philip Browne

February 26, 2018

I have been in thrall to this book since the beginning of the year, having borrowed it from Weymouth library (several times). I can’t remember what led me to it as, to the best of my knowledge, the local libraries don’t have a ‘local authors’ section (I have asked, as I would like to be in it, if it existed).

As the Dorset coast is spattered with wrecks one comes across references to books about them quite often. The title of this one immediately piques interest. Why should Captain Peirce be any more unfortunate than any other captain who has experienced shipwreck? The cover gives a clue – in the facsimile of a contemporary painting he is clutching a brace of young girls to his bosom. For this reason the shipwreck became a cause célèbre for several years after it happened. The cover is a reproduction of one of the paintings about the disaster which appeared soon after the event. The young ladies in various states of distress in the painting are mainly daughters and nieces of Captain Peirce. Everyone in the painting died.

However, this is much more than a book about a disaster. Philip Browne has been forensic in mining contemporary records for information about the life of Captain Peirce, his connections, the East India Company and the faraway places it sent its ships to. When Browne says ‘it is likely that …’ one feels confident that he is right. This is a man steeped in the time and places of his book, who probably knows Captain Peirce, and his wife, better than their own family did.

The book begins with Captain Peirce’s first command of a ship. It follows him around the globe, eastwards, then westwards, on each voyage, showing his growing skill as a sailor and navigator, the profits he made, his rise in the world, and not forgetting the baby he gave his wife each time he returned home!

But the disaster looms. As with the movie ‘Titanic’ one knows the ending from the outset. But when it comes one immediately understands why Captain Peirce was designated ‘the Unfortunate’ from the day the Halsewell struck.

I went to hear him talk about how he did his research at Weymouth library on Saturday. Actually, the talk wasn’t about that. Nor did it cover the projected title showing on the day. He spoke, with great enthusiasm, on yet a third variant of his theme – how the ship got into difficulties in the English Channel, which compounded until …

I discovered then that the research took him five years, took him into the bowels of the British Library and other archives (including those of the East India Company), to the Netherlands, and all the way to India. The wreck is his passion.

Browne wears his learning lightly and has written a pacy saga, almost as if it were a novel of the eighteenth century on the high seas and in fashionable society. It is a rare achievement and I commend him highly for it. He has a real talent for turning research into a proper, rollicking, story. Enjoy.

NB If you are local to Weymouth – I have now returned their copy. 😊

Sea Wall: a journey on the South Dorset Ridgeway by Jennifer Hunt (Archaeopteryx, 2016)

January 2, 2018

I came across this delightful little volume of thoughts, snippets, poems, lino cuts and two inspiring concrete poems at the Weymouth Book Fayre at the beginning of December last year.

The Fayre showcased what all us local authors have been producing. A huge range of books was available there, from stunning picture books of the coastline, through fiction (mine included), via local history (wrecks and castles and battles galore!), to poetry (such as this).

Jennifer Hunt used to live in the shadow of the South Dorset Ridgway, and learned long ago that ‘sea wall’ is what Martinstown people used to call the part of the Ridgeway that kept their village safe from the sea.

Some of the material was created as a result of an Artsreach project, walking the Ridgeway in the summer of 2015. Other poems were the result of her long and deep engagement with the land of the Ridgeway.

In 2016 and 2017 I took part in similar projects, experiencing the landscape over a couple of days and writing about it intensely for the SATSYMPH project (now, sadly, ended). If you ‘do’ Facebook you can access the work we did here : https://www.facebook.com/LBSPoetryParks/. I can attest to the power of clearing your mind and simply sitting or walking in the landscape. In my case sitting on Eggardon Hill in June of 2017. Your eyes and ears become much sharper, and you really smell the land – cut hay, the flowers crushed by your own feet, cowpats – all of it comes to you if you give it space. I got royally sunburned, to the extent that I still have the mark of Eggardon Hill in June upon me as I write this in the winter. I find that somehow very fitting.

But back to Jennifer Hunt’s Sea Wall. I particularly liked ‘West Wind’, a cinquain (a poem constructed of 2,4,6,8 and 2 syllables) which is as full of matter as a pie is full of meat *. The first stanza goes like this:

“Thick fog
wet as sheep’s wool.
Birds fly up underfoot.
A single apple tree in blossom.
West wind.”

‘Ah’, I hear you cry, ‘but that fourth line has 9 syllables, not 8!’ And I admire Ms Hunt as much for stepping outside the form and using the line that makes perfect sense as I do for her choice of the strict form in the first place.

Here are a few lines from the prose poem ‘Maiden Castle’. So much rapturous blueness:

“Clouds of small blue butterflies rose up from the grass. I looked them up in my Observer book – Chalkhill Blue, Blue Skipper, Silver-Studded Blue, Common Blue. White-chalk and blue-sky names, the colours of my childhood summers on these ancient hills.”

The two concrete poems are ‘Quern Stones’ and ‘Snail’ (which seems to have no formal title but is, determinedly, snailish). Consuming these is like eating a Cadbury Crème Egg – first you work your way around the outer shape of the thing, then you begin to investigate the luscious interior, turning the book this way and that to get at every sweet lick. Yummy.

The Illustrations are fresh and sharp and bring an extra dimension to the natural world being described.

If you enjoy the landscape of Dorset I am certain you will love this collection.

I don’t believe Jennifer Hunt’s work is available from The Great Zon, so look out for her at craft and book fairs in Dorset, or contact her via http://archaeopteryx-imprint.co.uk/

(*which saying comes from : http://www.samuelfrench.co.uk/p/10731/hans-the-witch-and-the-gobbin)

Review: ‘Permeable’ by Hannah Chutzpah (Burning Eye Books, 2017)

December 20, 2017

This is a poetry collection by a performance poet whose work performs just as well on the page as it does on the stage.

Hannah Chutzpah is a self-named poet, which name demonstrates both her delight in words (Hannah) and her activism as ‘potential maggot thrower’ (Chutzpah). As she says in the poem ‘A dude in an East London pub has just out-Jewed me’, she is half-Jewish, half-American and bisexual. She is what every poet with something to say needs to be: on the outside looking in – sometimes wishing to be on the inside, sometimes pointing out to those on the inside how unacceptable, weird or just plain naff their behaviour looks like from out there. It is a brave place to live one’s life.

I first heard Chutzpah at a three-woman Edinburgh try-out gig in deepest Hackney some years ago. I was impressed, so I bought her pamphlet Butterfly Wings, where some of these poems were first published, and watched others develop on Facebook. When I heard this full collection was out I was keen to review it (not least because I lost the pamphlet in a move) and it is as good as I hoped.

The title of the collection is taken from the idea of roots working their way down through Maslow’s hierarchy of five needs (food and shelter, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualisation). While the collection certainly travels through all the five levels, I’m not sure the poems are always in the right level. You might have fun re-allocating them. I did, although it was a surprisingly complex task. Chutzpah says about the decision to include the Hierarchy ‘”Millennials” have been raised with a lot of insecurity around the basics of jobs and housing. It doesn’t always stop us, but it often erodes us.’ This is becoming increasingly true, making Permeable an important (and definitely quotable) book for the way we live now.

Here are some of the highlights: ‘This is your Twenties’ in the first section about food and shelter, drives forward like Auden’s ‘This is the night mail’: it deals with the constant relocation by a whole generation of ‘urban nomads’ looking for the ‘scraps of jobs going’, upping sticks, cats, plants and lighters, ‘And you think you might be doing this wrong.’ Your whole life can be fitted into a transit van, you flit between flats, all the time looking for The One – the good job ‘with a pension scheme/You’ll actually use/Or the person you’ll grow old with.’ ‘Tumbleweeds’ expands on that idea:
‘They said we could be
Tall as redwoods
Bright as autumn maples
Bold as monkey puzzles
But to survive
We are learning to be tumbleweeds.’

Two more of my favourites from this first section are ‘Job Centre’, ‘Blood, Bone, Bowel, Brain, Breast’, about working at a cancer charity, and ‘Fairy rings’, which is a modern take on the  way a London borough can be Unsafe, moving through OK and Cool to Unaffordable in the time it takes to get settled in a new flat.

In the second section, acquiring safety enables the poet to play ‘Shithead Bingo’. You can play it too: the instructions are very clear. ‘Too Good to be True’ has been true for me many times. Does ‘Platters of praise you never knew you were hungry for’ speak to your own experience?

From the ‘love’ section I pull out ‘Tetris (as a Relationship Analogy)’ and ‘Necrokitty Comic Sans’ which titles are so good in themselves you wonder what the poet could possibly add, but she mines the analogies deeply. In this section is also the clever ‘In Tents’.

In the ‘self-esteem’ section the poet lets her readers see how raw some of this emotion is. ‘Snakeskin’ resonated particularly with me.

‘Self-actualisation’ contains, perhaps unsurprisingly, some complex poems of which my favourite is ‘Butterflies’.

This really is poetry for a Millennial generation: if you are that generation it will speak to you. If you are older than that (as I am) it will help you understand what today’s young adults are going through.

Or you could just enjoy it.

Get it from Burning Eye Books here: https://burningeyebooks.wordpress.com/?s=permeable

Or from The Zon here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Permeable-Hannah-Chutzpah/dp/191157003X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1513796629&sr=1-1&keywords=Permeable

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Whales and Strange Stars’: review

December 7, 2017

Whales and Strange Stars: An Adventure by [Sharp, Kathy]

Kathy Sharp is a novelist well known for her three charming fantasy books set on an historical, fictionalised Isle of Portland: the Larus trilogy.

This, her latest novel, is also set in a simpler time than our own – but in a quite different place (although in it, too, water plays an important part).

Whales and Strange Stars begins with the quiet elegance of an otter slipping into the water. The story quickly gains breadth and depth and momentum as it swims downstream, urged on by deliciousness such as this ‘an empty gape draped in drab’ and this ‘The infant New Year lumbered forward unsteadily, burdened with ice and nearly knocked off its feet by strong winds’.

The book’s time is the eighteenth century and, as an historical novel, is unusual in that it does not deal with specific historical events, except for a passing reference to the king raising taxes to fight his war in America. What it does is tell a story of the time before the railways came and changed communications forever.

The book’s place is East Kent, as the author explains in an Afterword. If you are familiar with that part of the world you will enjoy picking out the real locations and geographical features which have been fictionalised for the book (and checking them at the end, when all is revealed). The author writes of the area with a deep affection and intimate knowledge, lightly worn. Exquisite thumbnail sketches of the river, the marshes, the winter weather, the big skies, the very contents of the hedgerows, set the scenes of the book.

The story concerns hard lives and making do. When money is scarce what may a man try to cushion his family from hardship? Personal possessions are so few, is it wrong to covet a fine knife or pretty ribbons?

It also concerns love – of uncles and niece each for other, of a man for his boat, occasionally of a man for his liquor. But it also concerns greed. How powerful men may ensnare others to their will, how having a little more makes a man want a lot, and how this can make him seem quite mad to his loved ones. There is treachery in the story too, as well as coercion.

And, finally, it is about growing up in a slow, circumscribed universe. How a girl on the cusp of womanhood, living in a backwater, full of fancies and commonsense both, must puzzle out the behaviour of the adults in her world for herself. Men and women alike are too busy working to explain. There is a book on manners, and there is the back of my hand, and between these two extremes one must puzzle out what actions and words may mean and what that may signify for one’s life to come.

It is also a salutary lesson against eavesdropping.

 

Book review: ‘A murder on the Appian Way’ by Steven Saylor

November 21, 2017

This book was ‘givers’. Indeed, I cannot even remember who gave it to me. It has had a hard life, which it began in Poole library. Lord knows where it has been since then to get so tatty, but I shall put it on the shelf of treasured fiction and search out more by Mr Saylor.

This is book #5 in Saylor’s ‘Gordianus the Finder’ series. There are maybe as many as nine in all. This one came out 20 years ago.

It is beautifully researched, entwining what is known about the events described with fiction. The Romans wrote a lot of stuff down, so there is a considerable factual basis for the book, upon which Saylor has embroidered a story which canters along a path richly strewn with action, interesting information about this Roman period (52BC – Marc Antony is a young man), and wit.

Tightly plotted and economically told.

Great stuff.

* * * * *

Wonders will never cease

November 21, 2017

My new novel, coincidentally entitled Wonders will never cease, will be available on Kindle on 2 December. You may pre-order it from Friday 24 November.

Please share this information on all the social media sites you frequent.

The whereabouts of the paperback is currently a bit of a mystery. But it too should be available on or shortly after 2 December.

WWNC Front Cover November 02 (002)

April 22, 2017

Love Songs of Carbon (The Yellow Earl: Almost an Emporer, Not Quite a Gentleman) by [Gross, Philip]   I found the first two poems of this collection very difficult and left the book alone for some months. But then I thought – either read it or take it down the charity shop (I do sometimes wonder who buys the books I leave at the charity shop – the last one was a bone-dry biography of Ben Nicholson: but I digress). So with a small sigh I re-entered Love Songs of Carbon – and wow! ‘Thirty Feet Under’ uses the imagery of a super-low spring tide to talk about ageing. ‘Mould Music’ is fascinating about the moulds that appear on all living things (except, actually, human bodies – if you have mould you need to see a doctor, stat). But I have now reached ‘A Love Song of Carbon’ (the title poem) and have been absolutely blown away by this about scattering the ashes of his parents on Dartmoor. I am now chomping through the rest with great enthusiasm. He uses as his colouring pencils not only the natural world, but also the part of the world I am from.

I sometimes write poetry and have always denigrated what I write as ‘just nature stuff’ because robins and storms and seasons figure largely in it. I may stop doing that (denigrating), because I now see that the natural world is a fine metaphor for the human condition. Why would it not be? We and it are all made of carbon, after all. Even my storms are distributing carbon from here to there.

If you have only read the first couple of poems you have absolutely not seen the best this collection offers. (And it has to be said that the cover does not beckon one in either). But what is inside that rather dull cover is akin to reaching the top of the hill outside Weymouth and seeing the sea sparkling in front of you. Go on! You will be rewarded.

Review of ‘The Chinese Spymaster’ by Hock G Tjoa

March 23, 2017

The author provided me with an e-file of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The Chinese Spymaster by [Tjoa, Hock]

I enjoyed this book a lot. I like to learn New Stuff when I read fiction and, for me, this book contained plenty of fascinating, fresh, information about the Chinese in general, particularly their intelligence agencies; the Pashtun people and their fragmented existence in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and the reaction of intelligence communities in countries such as Israel and the UK to their Chinese counterparts. Tjoa maintains that his depiction of the Chinese intelligence agencies is without foundation in fact. However, it is certainly founded on intimate knowledge of Chinese culture and rang very true.

The premise is that the Pashtuns are seeking to acquire a portable nuclear device to use as political leverage. They are talking to six different potential suppliers. (This is not a spoiler: it is part of the blurb.) It was an interesting and timely plot device. And enabled Tjoa to investigate the character of Spymaster Wang, who was a child during The Great Leap Forward, when blame and self-criticism were vicious tools of the state, and recognises that elements of that mindset still exist in China today. The ways in which Chinese friendships and families work are subtly different from western ways. As are their work relationships. Tjoa shows us this through Wang’s way of working and his social interactions.

At its best this book stands comparison with Le Carré’s early work. Spymaster Wang and George Smiley would very much enjoy each other’s company. Much of the book consists of people finding stuff out and puzzling over what it means. I prefer this sort of spy thriller to those where there is a high and bloody body count. There is action, but the espionage is more cerebral than physical.

A nice line in Chinese aphorisms runs through the book. I particularly liked ‘act without desiring the results of your action!’, a mantra apparently predating the Lord Buddha, taught by Japanese Zen masters, who were themselves taught by Chinese Zen masters.

By the end of the book I felt I knew considerably more about the way in which power is shifting towards the East in our world. It is moving not only towards China, but also towards various, post-Soviet, ‘Stans along the Silk Road and lining China’s borders – and, of course, one must not forget the firestorm which is the Middle East. Le Carré and others cast about constantly for new theatres of espionage and intrigue now that the Iron Curtain has come down. These days a refreshing breeze disturbs the Bamboo Curtain, giving us glimpses behind it. Charles Cummings touched upon nationalism among the Uyghurs (one of China’s ethnic minorities who also turn up in The Chinese Spymaster) in his 2008 book Typhoon. Tjoa also contemplates the rumblings of nationalism in this part of the world (might it begin, in truth, with the Pashtuns?) This is fruitful ground for the modern spy thriller writer.

There is rather more ‘telling’ in the book than the modern, western, fashion in fiction-writing favours. But in the context, it is probably the most economical way to keep the story moving.

The occasional shifts in where and when we were kept me on my toes. In one case we unexpectedly timewarped some ten years into the past. However, it very quickly became apparent that this was essential information. And how else was it to be offered to the reader?

Tjoa thoughtfully provides a ‘Key Words, Abbreviations and Institutions’ section, and maps. An aide memoire to the large cast of characters would also have been helpful. I had no difficulty with Hu and Yu. Nor with Wang, Tang and Owyang. The use of nicknames (apparently a Chinese schtick) helped. But I did have difficulty remembering who was who among the many minor characters. (I would make a lousy spy!)

If you like your spying bang up to date and more mental than action-based, I believe you will enjoy this book.


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