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For King and Country

by Karen Gray

‘History’ – it’s not what you think!

This novel came to my attention through a recommendation  by Anne on WordPress. I don’t usually read high fantasy these days but the book’s description – swords and castles, mythological beasts and twenty-seventh century Scotland – was irresistible, so I bought it and promised to read it.


Karen Gray has created a world that mixes an historical past with a  future post-apocalyptic century inhabited by people and strange beasts with telepathic powers. The feel is mediaeval, and we can almost imagine we are in the Scotland of the Stewart kings, or maybe Robert Bruce, but with technology that is at once advanced for then and primitive for now.

” ‘When the Albannach princess was taken south as a hostage to control the nobility of Alba, there was widespread outrage. The highland clans conspired to steal her away home, but their plan was discovered. The Sassanach punishment was swift and severe ….’ “

The main protagonist in For King and Country is Morag who, though brought up in humble surroundings, is actually heir to the throne. As a teenager  she is taken for training in the military, when she begins to develop and extend the strange powers she has nourished from childhood. These include the ability to communicate with animals and to tap into the mind of other humans, even to influence their actions.

‘The major … chuckled, then attached a thick chain round her legs and let it drop from his hand. Agony engulfed her and she wailed despite herself. She could feel the terrifying slow shredding of her muscle fibres, and moaned in response. The evil, satisfied laugh behind her made her skin crawl ….’

The tough endurance training Morag experiences is made even tougher by the harsh, brutal treatment of some of her instructors. Watched over by her ‘familiar’, the nemeocorn Rannoch, and aided by her friend, the much abused and reviled Brax (Andrew), Morag sees it through.

Like all good heroes, Morag enjoys breaking the rules and she makes enemies as well as friends. Despised for her apparently lowly origins and her friendship with Brax, she attracts the attention of the dastardly General Raine who sets his cohorts on her team during a training exercise, and the young people have to fight for their lives. However, Morag has more friends than she realises, including Colonels  Randall and Rossen. The former not only knows her true background but owes to her psychic abilities his escape from the mental hold of the usurper king.

‘Randall froze, foot hovering over the first step. The girl’s mindcast had force and strength behind it. It rose up from the depths and drowned his soul with authority. He found himself standing in a dark room, dressed in bloody overalls, chain in hand. In front of him Morag’s familiar, showing his true form ……’

Randall and Brax both have their own links to Morag’s mother, the dead Albannach princess Catriona, but we learn only a little about them in this novel. By the end of For King and Country, Morag is aware of her heritage but seems a long, long way from claiming her rights.

Although the setting of the book is clearly THIS Earth rather than the imaginary worlds of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Le Guin’s Earthsea, Martin’s Westeros or even McCaffrey’s Acorna, the plot and action of For King and Country tugged at my memory strings from long ago as well as from the recent past. Besides, having grown up in Scotland, I was more than adequately immersed in her history and could see the clear parallels between the fierce Anglo-Scottish wars of olden times and the futuristic struggle between Albanach and Sassanach portrayed by Karen Gray.

As a rule, I prefer my history unadorned by make-believe [*** see note]. For this reason I found the beginning of the novel disorienting as I fought to separate in my mind the apparently real background from the unfamiliar fantasy. I had to put it down until I was in the right mood to try again. When I re-read the first two chapters, I began to enjoy it. Highly imaginative and well-written, For King and Country is an easy read and the sort of story that’s hard to put down. I liked the cover too! The only real negative is that it’s incomplete and part of a series – (a subject on which I’ve often expressed negative opinions in the past).


*** note: as I have many times discovered, a great deal of the history I learned at school was make-believe anyhow, or at least (euphemistically)  unbalanced.


History of the Future

The Foundation Novels

by Isaac Asimov

‘There were nearly twenty-five million inhabited planets in the Galaxy then, and not one but owed allegiance to the Empire … It was the last half-century in which that could be said.’

Isaac Asimov is one of my all-time favourite writers. Not only can he spin a great yarn but his sci-fi carries the stamp of authority and authenticity. He was a scientist himself, graduating from junior high school at the age of 12 and going on to do a master’s degree from Columbia in 1942 and a PhD in 1948.

Looking back at his early work from the 1940s and 50s, we can see he got a few things wrong, yet he was nevertheless (in a literary sense) an inventor, an innovator and a prophet.

In my little book, It’s a Fantasy World *, published at the beginning of this year, I had quite a lot to say about his Foundation, whilst not actually reviewing any of the books:

[The Foundations are] a comfortable vision for those of us living in the 21st century, not because the Foundation galaxy is some kind of cosmic paradise – it is anything but – rather that, with our wars, famines and plagues, it is remarkable that our species has managed to survive long enough to colonise one other planet, let alone millions.

Asimov’s contributions to fictional science were many; the laws of robotics, the hyperdrive, the positronic brain.  He wrote seven Foundation novels altogether, including the so-called Foundation Trilogy, which first appeared as short stories during the 1940s. Even without the other stories, the Trilogy is a masterpiece in its own right. In it, the author created psychohistory, which, as I wrote early in 2016 is a mathematical science which combines an understanding of the human mind with the laws of probability to predict events centuries in the future. Asimov’s galactic populations are large – quadrillions or quintillions – making such predictions feasible, especially as the direction of events is in the hands of Second Foundationers with mind controlling abilities.


For the first three hundred years or so, the Foundation (the FIRST Foundation) is concerned mostly with establishing itself on the outer rim of the Galaxy. We see its struggles, its wars and its internal politics. We meet its heroes and contend with its villains, yet all are part of a greater plan – the Seldon Plan – that will ultimately lead to a new Galactic Empire. The First Foundation, according to its leaders, cannot lose.

‘Bayta, face frozen white, lifted her blaster and shot, with an echoing clap of noise. From the waist upwards [**] was not, and a ragged hole was in the wall behind. From numb fingers, Bayta’s blaster dropped to the floor.’

But it can! Along comes a new character, the Mule, an emotional telepath who can adjust minds to do his bidding – and believe in what they are doing. The First Foundation is defeated and the Galaxy is now dependent on the hidden Second Foundation to defeat the Mule and put the Seldon Plan back on its original course.

The First Foundation has laboured hard to find  the planet of these psychohistorians. All they have to go on is a remark by the great Seldon, recorded for posterity, that it lies at ‘the other end of the Galaxy, at Star’s End‘. But what precisely does that mean? The Second Foundation is prepared to sacrifice something of itself to prevent the First from finding out.

‘The first Speaker looked out silently as the window gained transparency. Past the giant structures to the quiet, crowding stars. A year would pass quickly. Would any of them, any of Seldon’s heritage, be alive at its end.’

We may criticise Asimov’s work on a number of counts. His characters are shallow; they move out of the picture just as we begin to find them interesting; he has almost completely missed the rise of the computer; he relies too much on verbal sparring between his characters, telling us what is happening through their words. What, we may ask, has happened to all his robots? Why aren’t there any aliens in his books?

Each of these deficiencies – if that’s what they are – can be countered. In the vast scope of five hundred years of history, individual human beings matter less than their deeds; Asimov gives us a nuclear age where miniaturised nucleic devices are every bit as enticing as our mobile/cell-phones and i-pads; dialogue is a strength, part of the very structure and style of Asimov’s writing. *** The absence of robots in the Foundation world is addressed in later books of the series, written in the years after 1980. As for aliens, had the author not died prematurely of an HIV infection contracted during surgery, we might have found out.

Isaac Asimov is one of the greats who has elevated sci-fi from its early days as a ‘pulp’ fiction to its rightful place as a true literary genre. The Foundation books are classics in their own right.


* It’s a Fantasy World available from Amazon http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B019ZGPV5I

** to fill in the blank would be a spoiler.

*** read the brilliant trial of words between robot and roboticist in Robots and Empire and you will get an additional flavour of what I mean.



Heroic Conflict

Five Great Literary Battles

Conflict is a feature of all good fiction. It stirs the emotions, moving us to love or to hate the characters. Heroic acts against the odds, family feuds, human beings against the natural elements, tense sexual encounters – all serve as stimuli, teasing us to imagine ourselves in the world of make-believe.

Pit man against man, woman against woman (or even against man) for noble reasons, in a contest where winner takes all, and you have the makings of a great story. There may be blood, or there may not, but regardless you will have an irresistible formula that makes us read on to the very end. Gratuitous violence, blood for its own sake, is all too prevalent in literature, but that’s not what I mean. I’m thinking  here of the Good versus Evil thing, not in any religious sense but as a means to an end: the king restored to his kingdom; the lovers reunited; the mindless and destructive enemy humbled; the hero’s courage vindicated.

I guess everyone will have their own particular favourite battle scenes, duels, heroic stands. Here are five of the best for me. If you agree, or disagree, or have favourites of your own, please let me know in the comments.

1.Odysseus versus The Suitors from Homer’s Odyssey

Odysseus has been away from Ithaca for twenty years, ten fighting the Trojans, ten finding his way home through a series of adventures with giants, goddesses, witches and monsters. Meantime his baby son Telemachus has grown up and his wife Penelope has resorted to desperate measures to keep her many suitors away. However, the suitors have camped in the palace and are wasting away its resources in riotous living. Odysseus must devise with Telemachus a scheme to get rid of them once and for all. Fortunately, he has his mighty bow, which no one else can bend.

‘Casting his beggarly raiment aside, deep-plotting Odysseus  Leapt on the threshold of stone, still holding the bow and the quiver
Laden with bolts; and before him the swift-winged arrows he poured out
Close to his feet on the floor. . .
and at Antinous directed the sharp-fanged arrow.’.

2. Sir Gawain versus The Green Knight from the mediaeval Romance Poem


At the court of King Arthur, at the New Year, the knights are still celebrating Christmas when a gigantic horseman, green-featured, clad in green armour and mounted on a green charger, rides into the hall. He issues a challenge to the Round Table for a knight brave enough to trade blow for blow with him. Gawain accepts the challenge. The problem is this: when he strikes off the Green Knight’s head, the latter picks it up and puts it back on his neck! Now Gawain has a year to prepare to accept the return blow.

‘He stands ready to swing
Face puckered. Imagine how
Gawain is suffering
For there is no hope now.
He lifts the mighty weapon, lets it fall Straight: the blade brushes the bare neck . . .’

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a poem with pagan associations, so please don’t read the contest too literally.

 3. Umslopogaas holds the stair from Allan Quatermain by H. Rider Haggard

Quatermain and his friends must defend the fair Queen Nyleptha, wife of his friend Curtis, against the hordes of her twin sister, the dark Queen Sorais. Umslopogaas, the ageing, axe-wielding Zulu warrior, who has been through many adventures with Quatermain, volunteers to hold the palace stair against the enemy. With one swordsman at his side, he takes on the advancing army.

‘Umslopogaas was alone now, but he never blenched or turned. Shouting out some wild Zulu battle-cry, he beat down a foe, ay, and another, and another, till at last they drew back from the slippery blood-stained steps . . . thinking that he was no mortal man.’


4. Eowyn faces the Nazgul from Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

Against the orders of her uncle King Theoden, and disguised as the young warrior Dernhelm, Eowyn finds herself defending Merry in the battle of the Pelennor Fields. The winged creature swoops down to sink its talons in the King’s horse and he is pinned to the ground. The Lord of the Nazgul, whom no living man may kill, has Theoden at his mercy.


‘But Theoden was not utterly forsaken . . . Yet one stood there still; Dernhelm the young, faithful beyond fear; and he wept for he had loved his lord as a father.’

‘Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. “But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn I am, Eomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin.. Begone if thou be not deathless!” ‘

5. Iorek versus Iofur Raknison from His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman


Iofur has usurped the armoured bear kingdom by trickery and has banished Iorek, the rightful ruler. Lyra has convinced Iofur that she is Iorek’s daemon. And since he wants a real live daemon for himself he agrees to fight Iorek in single combat for the right to take her. The two huge bears face one another across the ice and snow of the Arctic.

‘That was when Iorek moved. Like a wave that has been building its strength over a thousand miles of ocean . . . so Iorek Byrnison rose up against Iofur, exploding upwards from his firm footing on the dry rock and slashing with a ferocious left hand at the exposed jaw of Iofur Raknison. It was a horrifying blow. It tore the lower part of the jaw clean off . . .’


Source notes: the Odyssey translation is by H.B. Cotterill (1912); the Sir Gawain translation is by Keith Harrison (1983)



‘How many goodly creatures…..’

Brave New World

by Aldous Huxley


‘They entered. The air seemed hot and somehow breathless with the scent of ambergris and sandalwood. On the domed ceiling of the hall, the colour organ had momentarily painted a tropical sunset. The Sixteen Sexophonists were playing an old favourite: “There ain’t no Bottle in all the world like that dear little Bottle of mine.” ‘

I can’t believe I’ve never read Brave New World from cover to cover before and, no, that isn’t a typo! Written in 1932, and set in a futuristic world where everyone knows his/her place and is happy in it – principally due to hypnotic conditioning and drug-induced stupor, Aldous Huxley’s brilliant and enduring dystopian novel explores methods of population control by velvet glove. He writes a lot about bottles, and organs, and sex; the above quotation is from one of my favourite episodes, when two of the characters, Lenina and Henry, go on a date to the Westminster Abbey Cabaret.

‘Zip! The rounded pinkness fell apart like a neatly divided apple. A wriggle of the arms, a lifting first of the right foot, then the left: the zippicamiknicks were lying lifeless and as though deflated on the floor …. “Darling. Darling! If only you’d said so before!” She held out her arms.’

However, let’s for the moment strip away character and plot and consider Huxley’s method, language and style. His Brave New World is a world, a society, that is superficially benign but underneath which lie sinister currents of disorder. These are presented, like the surface itself, as satire and sometimes dark grey humour, which nevertheless pricks in a disturbing way our twenty-first century sensibilities. Many of the ideas and constructs of Brave New World, whilst being futuristic and outrageous in 1932, we can recognise today as already part of our own society. Flashing neon lights and loud piped music are commonplace. Sexual promiscuity, whilst not perhaps the norm, is not regarded with the same distaste as it undoubtedly was in the the early years of last century.

‘Orgy-porgy, Ford and fun,

Kiss the girls and make them One.

Boys at one and girls at peace;

Orgy-porgy gives release.’

In Huxley’s imaginary (and prophetic) world, pregnancy has been abolished, children are made in test tubes by genetic engineering, a process called bokanovskification, hatched in incubators – hundreds, thousands at a time -and human beings are classified at birth in one of five categories – Alpha to Epsilon. Alphas are the intelligent upper class; Epsilons are the moronic workers at the bottom of the social scale. The very words ‘mother’, ‘father’, ‘family’ and even ‘love’ are obscenities. As a consequence, free, promiscuous sex is on tap. It is the objective of most decent people, men and women alike, to ‘get laid’ as many times and with as many partners as possible. [Huxley does not use the expression ‘get laid’ of course, but his euphemistic ‘have’ seems to suggest the same degree of vulgarity.]

‘Streptock-Gee to Banbury-T,
To see a fine bathroom and WC.’

Education (conditioning) begins at birth and involves the process of hypnopaedia, or ‘sleep-teaching’. Neuroses and other unpleasant psychological conditions are held at bay with daily doses of the drug Soma, a sort of LSD-cum-ecstasy that instils a happy acceptance of one’s lot in life. By the simple transposition of four letters of the alphabet, x to t and l to f, Huxley creates at once a new religion and a new politics. The supreme being is Ford (late Henry Ford), his creed is mass production and consumerism, and his cross is the mighty T.

A few titles will suffice to convey the general idea:

  • The Ford Chief Justice
  • The Arch-Community-Songster of Canterbury
  • The Professor of Feelies (if you want to know what feelies are you’ll have to read the book)
  • The Chief Bottler
  • The Director of Predestination

Lenina Crowne works in the the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre. She has ‘had’ quite a few men, but has set her cap at Bernard Marx. Bernard is a malcontent who likes to be alone and when threatened with banishment to Iceland he devises a plan to save himself. Bernard and Lenina on their date travel to the reservations and bring back John Savage, the unintended product of an illicit relationship between the Director of the aforementioned Hatchery and a woman called Linda, who has been left behind among the savages (in America, as it happens).

‘As soon as they got back . . . [Lenina] swallowed six half-gramme tablets of Soma, lay down on the bed, and within ten minutes had embarked for lunar eternity.’

John, like Bernard, is a misfit in his society, an outsider, a white European among Indians. However, he fits even less into the Brave New World. He believes in God, in Love and in flagellation. The object of his love is Lenina but when she tries to seduce him, his reaction is not quite what you would expect and, thereafter, his choices are (as you WOULD expect) limited. Bernard is at last banished to Iceland, which does not sound too unpleasant a fate, and life for the others goes on much as before.

Comparisons between Brave New World and Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four are tempting; Margaret Atwood makes the point in her stimulating introduction to my edition of the book. Indeed, on opening the first chapter of Orwell, one is immediately faced with a sentence reminiscent of this one from Chapter III of Huxley:

‘In the few thousand rooms of the Centre, the four thousand electric clocks simultaneously struck four.’

However, the resemblances, it seems to me, are few. We view both novels with the benefit of history and we want to see similarities of intention where none exist.

Brave New World is an easy read, unlike many of the modernist works of the early nineteen hundreds. Less daring now than it was in 1932, it’s brilliant and fun – though it carries a message and a warning!




Brief Candle in the Dark

A Life in Science

by Richard Dawkins

Brief Candle in the Dark is the second volume of Dawkins’s autobiography; the first part, An Appetite for Wonder I reviewed here.

Rather than being a chronological account of his life, this volume is set out by subject and is all the more interesting and enjoyable because of it. It means that one can skip, ignore and/or go back to chapters at will without disturbing the flow of Professor Dawkins’s narrative.

‘I experienced the same ….near-lachrymose pride in what humans can do when they co-operate, across nations and across language barriers.’ [of a visit to CERN]

dawkins candle

He begins with details of his life as a reader at New College, Oxford and goes on to describe his experiences as speaker at various scientific conferences, and as an invited lecturer, in – for example – the USA and Japan as well as in Oxford and London. Dawkins has long been a controversial figure, not only among his fellow scientists but also among practitioners of other disciplines, most famously (or notoriously, depending on one’s stance in these matters) when he strays into the subject of religion. He has been fortunate enough to be at the cutting edge of developments and discoveries in his field of expertise and his books on zoology and genetics have sold millions in several foreign languages as well as English.

‘The overwhelming impression I took away from the Galapagos was the tameness of the animals and the almost “Martian” weirdness of the vegetation…. You have to take care not to tread on the sunbathing marine iguanas and the nesting boobies and albatrosses.’

Two of his more ‘exotic’ experiences (of which I’m quite envious) were visits to the Galapagos Islands and diving in a submersible off the islands of Japan to look for the Giant Squid. He is passionate about his work and that of his students as well as his contemporaries. He does not draw back in his appreciation of and respect for both, or stint his admiration and gratitude to his mentors and those who have gone before. He is in awe of Darwin and does not let us forget it.

Professor Dawkins’s interests extend beyond science (and religion) into other fields such as philosophy, literature and IT. The title of Brief Candle in the Dark is a composite one from two literary sources: Shakespeare’s Macbeth and a book by Carl Sagan. He is quite accomplished as a computer programmer. Whilst he does move in fairly lofty company, I suspect Dawkins enjoys name-dropping, but he does it in an unoffensive way.

‘I arrived at his tall Islington house and rang the bell. Douglas opened the door, already laughing. I immediately had the sense that he was laughing not at me but at himself or perhaps more precisely at my anticipated reaction … to his spectacular height.’ [on meeting Douglas Adams]

His circle of friends and acquaintances include some very well-known past and present public figures – Richard and (Sir) David Attenborough, Martin Rees (Lord Rees, Astronomer Royal), Jocelyn Burnell (discoverer of pulsars), Douglas Adams, to name but a few*. Perhaps more surprising – given his atheism – is his liking and admiration for Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury and Jonathan Sacks (Chief Rabbi).

In the second half of the book, Dawkins talks about his experiences in television and in live debate. He seems genuinely surprised and humbled by the honours he has received.The last hundred pages of Brief Candle in the Dark are reserved for discussion of ‘Dawkins Science’ (if I may call it that). He talks at length about genes, phenotypes, wasps, cuckoos and immortality, always in the same fluid style, his seriousness interspersed with moments of humour.

‘I am strongly in favour of teaching children ABOUT religion, even as I passionately oppose indoctrinating children in the particular religious tradition into which they happen to have been born.’

He also talks about religion, in particular his book The God Delusion, which is one that I would indeed recommend, along with The Greatest Show on Earth, to readers of all shades of opinion and belief. Both his work and his beliefs about life and death are part of the man. You can’t have one without the other.

In my review of An Appetite for Wonder I wrote:

‘Professor Dawkins is not a modest man. He is proud of his achievements, and this comes over in his writing. However, he is not a boastful man either and is equally ready to admit his mistakes and regrets. Although he argues with passion, his reputation as a ‘militant’ is ill-deserved….’

After reading Brief Candle in the Dark I have no reason to change my opinion. Dawkins is a scientist whom I admire greatly, as I do Attenborough (see above), Stephen Hawking and James Lovelock. This is a book that can be enjoyed by scientist and non-scientist alike.

[*I would be seriously name-dropping were I to continue!]


PS I have to admit I was quite sad when I read recently in the press that Dawkins had separated from his wife Lalla Ward, the artist and former Dr Who actress, although I’m pleased to learn they are still ‘friends’. In several chapters of Brief Candle in the Dark, he writes lovingly of her and has indeed dedicated this and others of his books to her.


The Midnight Palace

by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

(translated by Lucia Graves)

Re-post of original review Secret Societies and Ghostly Terror by Bookheathen)


 ‘Never mind the number of candles on your birthday cake,’ writes Zafon in his introduction to The Midnight Palace,for those in the know, it’s what lies beneath them that matters’.


Zafon’s first four published novels were intended for young adults. The Midnight Palace, written about seven years before The Shadow of the Wind, is the second to be translated into English. The Palace is a derelict building in Calcutta, the headquarters of a secret society of orphan teenagers. As Ben and his six friends are about to leave the orphanage for good, they meet elderly Aryami Bose and her granddaughter Sheere.

It turns out that Ben and Sheere are twins whom Bose has separated shortly after their birth to protect them from a family curse. Pursued by Jawahal, a diabolical presence who can appear and disappear at will, crush flesh and bone, and melt metal at a touch, the friends embark on a quest to find answers: why has Aryami lied to them? where is Ben’s and Sheere’s father’s house? what really happened on the night when more than three hundred orphan children were incinerated in a horrific train disaster?

The teenagers’ search puts them all in mortal danger, especially Ben and Sheere, for whom the danger is not merely the threat of death but of something much worse. Against an immortal villain who appears invincible, their only weapon seems to be their love and friendship for one another. And, as is so often the case when good faces evil in an impossible contest, only a supreme sacrifice can break the deadlock.

The Midnight Palace is a fantasy but we can see already in the writing some of the elements that Zafon will use in his adult stories. There is his use of suspense and of the gothic – a haunted railway station, dark streets and fetid passageways, a sprawling mansion to which entry is gained by turning four alphabetic wheels. And, like those in his Barcelona trilogy, the antagonist in The Midnight Palace is as relentless as he is pitiless.

Although the writing in this novel is not as grand and accomplished as that of The Angel’s Game, for me it has the same feel of surrealism. The Midnight Palace is not a happy-ever-after tale like those Famous Five stories by Enid Blyton, or even the Bulldog Drummond series with all its derring-do. It is not even happy-for-now. Yet I very much enjoyed the trip back to my late childhood.



Something Nasty in the Woodshed

I was reminded just the other day on going through my ‘Reader’ of this piece, which I wrote some time ago. As this is one of my  very favourite books, I thought I would re-post my review today!

Cold Comfort Farm

by Stella Gibbons

You would expect, by all the laws of probability, to find a mad grandmother at Cold Comfort Farm, and for once the laws of probability had not done you down and a mad grandmother there was.’

Aunt Ada Doom is in her eighties. She hasn’t left the farm for twenty years. Indeed, she only comes out of her room once a year to do ‘the Counting’ – a kind of on the spot census of her numerous and eccentric relations, the Starkadder Family. When she was a young girl (we are told), she saw something nasty in the woodshed. No one truly knows what she saw, but she has never been the same since.


Flora Poste, recently orphaned at the age of nineteen and possessing an income of one hundred pounds a year, goes to live with her aunts and cousins at Cold Comfort Farm. With names like Amos and Seth, Reuben, Elfine, Mark, Luke, Micah and Harkaway, the extended family and their contingent of domestic help are as crazy as they sound. We meet nonagenarian Adam Lambsbreath and his four cows, Graceless, Pointless, Feckless and Aimless. We make the acquaintance of Mrs Beetle, a sort of housekeeper, and her philoprogenitive daughter Meriam. And we encounter from time to time minor characters like Claud, Mr Mybug, and a collection of Starkadder wives who live in the nearby village rather than with their men folk at the farm.


But Flora, rather reminiscent of Jane Austen’s Emma, has a plan! – a plan to change the farm and its inhabitants – to give to all an opportunity to achieve their ambitions, to fulfil their hearts’ desires.

She begins with Amos, a fiery preacher of hellfire and damnation and persuades him to go on a world tour in a Ford van. Next, she arranges for Elfine to marry into the County set. Seth’s passion – apart from Meriam – is the Talkies, and Flora brings a Hollywood director to Cold Comfort to sign him up as a star. She seems to know all sorts of people, does our Flora!

Reuben has his heart set on the farm, and she removes all the obstacles to his taking possession of it. His suspicion of his cousin removed, he begins to make some long-overdue changes.

The problems and the solutions are as many and varied as Gibbons’s characters, and Flora sets about changing the world without giving much thought to her own happiness. For her cousin Judith, she enlists the help of a German psychoanalyst. Her penultimate triumph is a total make-over for Aunt Ada, who is reborn as Cold Comfort’s version of Amelia Earhart/Amy Johnson, complete with black leather flying jacket.

Finally, Flora – like Emma – needs to sort out her own love life, which she does without dissembling in typical Flora fashion.

Published in 1932, Cold Comfort Farm was Stella Gibbons’s first novel. It is supposedly a parody of a genre that was popular at the time, a satire on country life, but it is so much more. We laugh with the author at the rural folks’ breeding habits (both animal and human), their quaint dialects and stubborn attachment to the soil of England. But we laugh too at the fashionable  world of Flora’s friends, and at the ‘County Set’ and their seemingly pointless existence.

Cold Comfort Farm is a novel to brighten up a dull day, full of crazy but lovable people. An added bonus in my copy are the delightful illustrations by the talented Sir Quentin Blake.

PS [added August 21, 2016] By the way, this novel has one of the best first sentences in literature [with thanks to Magic of Books and My Book File for blogging the favourite first sentences challenge]:

‘The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged; and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plague which occurred in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living.’




by Margaret Atwood

‘…. [A]nyone who liked smelling daisies, and having daisies to smell, and eating mercury-free fish, and who objected to giving birth to three-eyed infants via the toxic sludge in their drinking water was a demon-possessed Satanic minion of darkness, hell-bent on sabotaging the American Way and God’s Holy Oil, which were one and the same.’

WARNING: If you are someone who is offended by the proliferation in literature of four-letter words beginning with f-, s- and c-, this book is most definitely not for you. In fact, it’s probably better that you don’t read on because, in order to review it, it’s hardly possible to avoid including one or two of said words!

maddaddamAs it says in the blurb on the book’s back cover, Welcome to the outrageous imagination of Margaret Atwood. In her crazy, dystopian, yet mostly hilarious world, much of humanity has been wiped out by a pandemic. The survivors fall into five main groups:

The Crakers are genetically modified “humans” of various colours but having the common feature that certain parts turn blue at the mating season. They don’t wear clothes, are naive, enjoy purring and singing and like stories. They were created by Crake, whom they now worship as a god.

The God’s Gardeners are unmodified humans, members of a pseudo-religious cult founded by Adam One. They love nature, hate violence and modern technology, and are given to growing vegetables and keeping bees on the roofs of derelict houses.

The Painballers are vile and murderous human beings who rape and kill for fun, doing both in the most revolting ways. Not many Painballers have survived the plague but they have nasty weapons, so you don’t need many to cause havoc. They are definitely the bad guys!

The Maddaddamitesthe main focus of this novel – are as near to normal as you’re going to get in a post-pandemic world. Their group includes former God’s Gardeners and just about everyone else who isn’t either a Craker or a Painballer. The Maddaddamites wear old bed-sheets for clothing  but are otherwise reasonably sane.

There are several kinds of Animals in the novel too, the chief ones being the Pigoons – pigs spliced with human DNA which gives them reasoning abilities – and Mo’Hairs – sheep with human hair instead of fleece.

Maddaddam is the third novel in a trilogy set in this post-apocalyptic world. The first two are Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood. but if you haven’t read them don’t worry. Ms Atwood kindly summarises the earlier stories for us at the start of Book Three.

‘Romance among the chronologically challenged is giggle fodder. For the youthful, lovelorn and wrinkly don’t blend …’

The main characters of Maddaddam are Toby and Zeb, respectively female and male, middle-aged lovers, who are living with their fellow survivors in a compound, and sharing it with a group of Crakers, including Blackbeard and Abraham Lincoln. Snowman-the-Jimmy, a sort of prophet of Crake (who has passed on to the Happy Eternities), is in a coma and Toby takes on his role as chief storyteller. Most of her story is about Zeb, his ingenious brother Adam, his corrupt father Rev, founder of the Church of PetrOleum, and about how she and Zeb came to meet.

'Who killed Fenella?
 A really evil fella.
 Hit her on the head,
 Gave her quite a whack.
 Everything went black,
 Now she's fuckin' dead.'

In fact, Fenella is Adam’s mother. She’s buried under the rock garden and when Zeb and Adam expose their father as the murderer they have to go on the run. Adam devises all sorts of clever schemes to avoid discovery, and his ingenuity coupled with Zeb’s hacking skills enable the brothers to remain a few steps ahead of their vengeful father.

‘ “….Oh fuck.” Jimmy lies back, closes his eyes. “Oh fuck.” “Who is this Fuck?” says Abraham Lincoln. “Why is he talking to this Fuck? This is not the name of anyone here.” ‘

As I hinted at the start, in addition to zany antics and improbable characters, there is a lot of “swearing” in this book. I confess I don’t usually like too much in a novel; after all, expletives are often a sign of inadequate language skills. However, such is Margaret Atwood’s genius as a wordsmith and so highly developed are her language skills that you can bet your life that in her hands fuck (with or without the capital letter) will take on a whole new identity and literary meaning.


When their compound is threatened by the surviving Painballers, Toby, Zeb and the Maddaddamites form an alliance with the Pigoons. They lead their followers to the AnooYoo Spa, where Toby once worked – and thence to the Egg for a final confrontation and a gruesome discovery.

By now, three women have become pregnant, and the question is, who are the fathers? Are the children to be part Craker, part Painballer or perhaps even a bit of both?

And if any of this sounds confusing, irreverent, outrageous, even insane, it is! It’s true there are some sweet moments – some nasty moments too – but most of the book is incredibly funny.

I loved it!

‘Of course, once you elected to enter Painball, the alternative to winning was death. That was why it was so much fun to watch.’


The Mysteries of Udolpho

by Ann Radcliffe

‘As the carriage wheels rolled heavily under the portcullis, Emily’s heart sunk, and she seemed, as if she was going into her prison …. her imagination, ever awake to circumstance, suggested even more terrors than her reason could justify.’


I’ve been neglecting the books on my Classics Club list for a while and picked this one to get back on track. Ann Radcliffe was one of the first authors to write Gothic fiction. She was a contemporary of both Jane Austen and Walter Scott, and indeed we find references to her in Austen’s writing.

The Mysteries of Udolpho, published in 1794, is set in France and Italy two hundred years in the past (1584) amid romantic woods and hills, contrasting with glowering mountains and dark, forbidding castles. A few chapters into the story I didn’t think I was going to like it – or even finish it. Overburdened with description, some of it  repetitive, and in very dated style and language, it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. The heroine is dithering and infuriating by modern perceptions and her would-be lover rather bland and weepy. Then, about half way through Volume 1, I began to enjoy it. The protagonist was still annoying me with her ‘timid one moment, daring the next’ personality, but the plot was driving along to some sort of conclusion.

Emily St Aubert is traveling in the south of France with her father when he dies and, not having reached her majority, she is left in the care of her disagreeable and social climbing aunt. On his deathbed, M. St Aubert extracts a promise from Emily that she will locate and destroy certain documents he has hidden in his home. This Emily does but not before accidentally reading a few haunting words on one of the papers. She also retains the portrait of a mysterious unknown woman who seems to have been important in St Aubert’s life.

Emily is being ‘courted’ (isn’t that an old-fashioned word?) by Valancourt, a young army officer whom she met in Languedoc. Her aunt forbids the match; Valancourt isn’t rich! He wants Emily to elope with him but she refuses.

Her troubles really start when her aunt marries an Italian gentleman, Signor Montoni, who wants Emily to marry another ‘gentleman’, Count Morano. Neither are gentlemen as it turns out and having by now become Morano’s bitter enemy, Montini moves with his wife to his castle in the Apennines, taking Emily with them. She becomes a virtual prisoner in Udolpho, where there are some very strange goings on indeed – dark corridors, ghostly apparitions, strange music in the night, secret staircases, unpleasant servants, duelling and murder. In other words, no shortage of Gothic elements!

Radcliffe manages the tension by means of long, contrasting passages of descriptive prose, matching Emily’s various moods with the scenery around her. Two examples will serve to illustrate her technique:

‘When Emily … opened her casement, she was surprised to observe the beauties , that surrounded it. The cottage was nearly embowered in the woods, which were chiefly of chestnut intermixed with some cypress, larch and sycamore. Beneath the dark and spreading branches, appeared, to the north, and to the east, the woody Apennines ….’

‘The gloom of these shades, their solitary silence ….assisted to raise the solemnity of Emily’s feelings into awe …’

Emily eventually escapes from Udolpho with the help of Du Pont (another admirer) but her problems are not over. Some of its mysteries are still unexplained and there are a few other odds and ends to tie together, not least the matters of her inheritance, Valancourt’s character and intentions, and the mysterious woman in the portrait Emily carries on her person.


Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823)

The Mysteries of Udolpho is, on reflection, a good STORY, but the plot wanders and depends too much on ill-explained coincidences. The plot has several strands, which we suppose from the early chapters are connected, yet as the narrative proceeds we begin to doubt their resolution. There are also some inconsistencies of geography; both distances and journey times are, it seems to me, condensed and Radcliffe, who probably never traveled the path of her heroine, sometimes confuses her directions.

We cannot deny that Ann Radcliffe is a mistress of atmosphere, especially where dark scenery and Gothic castles are concerned. At times, we almost expect to turn a corner and discover the lair of Dracula. However, the supernatural here is imagined rather than real. Emily more closely resembles Catherine Morland than Mina Harker. There is horror (see note **), certainly, in the book but there are also long passages where very little – or nothing – happens, making it a slow read. In the introspection of the heroine, we see occasional touches of Austen, in the descriptive prose something of Scott, and in the writing generally much of the style, language and character traits of earlier novelists.

The similarities with Austen and Scott are often noted in criticisms of Radcliffe’s work. The three writers were undoubtedly known to one another, though it’s unlikely that they ever met. My thoughts on this are that it is less a matter of influence – as is often claimed – than of exposure to the same culture, not to mention the demands of their reading public. The late 20th and early 21st centuries have given us altogether different literary tastes, driven by our experience of visual media but, in spite of that, the late 18th century still has much to offer.

Mrs Radcliffe was a successful author and immensely popular in her day. We surely cannot doubt the presence of her ghost in works of later writers, such as Mary Shelley, Emily Bronte and Daphne du Maurier.

‘Mrs Radcliffe, as an author, has the most decided claim to take her place among the favoured few ….’ [Sir Walter Scott]

NOTE: (**) Ann Radcliffe would likely have disagreed. She made a point of distinguishing horror from terror: ‘… [T]error is characterized by … indeterminacy in its treatment of potentially horrible events; it is this indeterminacy that leads the reader toward the sublime. Horror, in contrast, nearly annihilates the reader’s responsive capacity with its unambiguous displays of atrocity.’ [On the Supernatural in Poetry, 1826]






Speeches That Changed The World


Like yesterday’s post, this one is going to be a bit different from my usual book reviews.

I picked up this book for a very much reduced price at a book sale. Introduced by historian Simon Sebag Montefiori, it contains speeches by diverse prominent figures from the past, from Jesus Christ and Mahommed to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, to George W Bush and Richard Nixon. Each chapter also contains a bit of the history behind the speeches.

There is plenty here for anyone interested in the past, be their interest political, religious or humanist. I’d like to share with you a scientific speech, one reflecting the best of what science can accomplish.

‘Radium is no more a baby,’ said double Nobel laureate Marie Curie in a rare speech, given in 1921. ‘It is more than twenty years old, but the conditions of the discovery were somewhat peculiar.’

After describing the work of herself and her husband Pièrre, she went on to say, ‘…the special interest of radium is in the intensity of its rays …the effects of the rays make the radium so important … physiological effects on the cells of the human organism… What is considered particularly important is the treatment of cancer.’

The cancer charity founded in her name in 1948 still provides front line support today to people with cancers and other terminal illnesses. Marie also gave her name to a university and a research institute in Paris. Sadly, it was probably her pioneering work that led to her death in 1934 from leukemia.




‘Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.’


[Speeches that Changed The World is available in several different editions from Amazon.]