30 June 2015

We are all completely beside ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler, USA, 2013

At the very beginning of the book, we learn that Rosemary (the 'I' of the book) has an older brother and sister and that both of them have disappeared. Immediately, our attention is caught: What happened? Where are they? Why has Rosemary been left on her own?

The book does not follow any chronological plan but, instead, begins somewhere around the middle, dives back to somewhere near the beginning, weaves its way towards the end and then, once again, swings back to the beginning, before finally catching all the threads and tying them together. This hopping between different time periods is handled skilfully and does not impact negatively on the story; in fact, it simply emphasizes the suspense.

This is a family where the father, a psychologist, uses his children as research objects; he is not a wicked man, and yet his too-narrow focus ends up having disastrous results on all those around him. Fowler (whose own father was a psychologist) draws on her experience, her extensive reading and her imagination to create complicated situations with, in many cases, a variety of conflicting ethical, moral and social perspectives.

                                 The photo of Karen Joy Fowler is from 

Wonderfully researched and beautifully written - We are all completely beside ourselves was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2014 - it is an intelligent, well planned book. In parts it is humorous; in others it is deeply moving. It sheds much light on both our humanity and our inhumanity and leaves us wondering what it actually means to be human. 

24 June 2015


I know that many of you who read my blog also follow my Newsletter, but I also know that there are many who know nothing at all about the Newsletter, so I thought I would mention it in this post.

The Newsletter is published twice a month (the next Newsletter will be published on the 7th July) and covers a number of different topics: books, vegetarian cooking, hiking, gardens and, at the moment, a course in numerology. Once a month, there is a giveaway - a book or a piece of art - and all subscribers are automatically part of the draw.

In order to read the Newsletter (and be eligible for giveaways), you must be a subscriber. There is a subscription option to the left of this post (type in your email address and then click on subscribe); otherwise you can find more information, together with a subscription option, on my website. It is extremely easy to subscribe and, should you later change your mind, just as easy to unsubscribe.

As they say: Nothing ventured, nothing gained, and you are more than welcome to subscribe.

16 June 2015

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, UK, 1940

Together with Brave New World by Huxley (1932), We by Zamyatin (1920-1921) and Nineteen Eighty-Four by Orwell (1948), Darkness at Noon is one of the principal dystopian or anti-utopian novels of the twentieth century. Although some may disagree regarding the choice of novels there are, after all, many novels that fall into that category most would agree that all these novels highlight the danger of dubious utopian societies and their power to completely annihilate all values associated with normality and justice. Sometimes these societies are placed in the future; other times they are an actual part of our reality.

Koestler, a Hungarian, (born 1905, died 1983) wrote Darkness at Noon after becoming disillusioned with Communism when Stalin began his purges in the late 1930s. The book does not directly refer to the soviet regime or to Stalin (Stalin is portrayed in the book as No.1), and the story centres on a man called Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov, an old Bolshevik. At the beginning of the novel, Rubashov is captured by the government's security police and is thrown into prison. He is not completely sure what will happen to him, but he suspects that he will probably be shot. An idealist, he has always believed that the utopia promised by socialism was worth the thousands, if not millions, of lives sacrificed. But, as he ruminates in prison, he is well aware that the goal is still well beyond reach. He had always been a loyal party member, yet, sitting in his isolation cell, he is no longer certain that the intimidation and cruelty he and many others have used was the right way to try to achieve the goal. Hours of solitary confinement and several interrogation sessions make him realize that replacing ideals with brutality simply negates any possibility of reaching the utopia that once may have seemed possible.

 The photo of Arthur Koestler is from

In one part of the book Koestler quotes Machiavelli when he says: Occasionally words must serve to veil the facts. But this must happen in such a way that no one becomes aware of it; or, if it should be noticed, excuses must be at hand to be produced immediately.(p.135, paperback edition, published 1984, Bantam Books). Worth considering, perhaps, in relation not only to the anti-utopian society of Darkness at Noon but also in relation to facets of present-day society.

Darkness at Noon is actually the second book in a trilogy where the first book is The Gladiators and the third is Arrival and Departure.

09 June 2015

Alexander McCall Smith (continued)

Last week I wrote about Alexander McCall Smith's Corduroy Mansions series, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Born in Rhodesia in 1948, McCall Smith spent much of his early childhood in Africa but eventually moved to Scotland to finish his schooling. He studied law and is now Emeritus Professor at the School of Law, University of Edinburgh. In the early 1980s, he returned to Africa for a short period in order to co-found the University of Botswana.

For more than thirty years, he has been writing books both for adults and for children. Some of his books are based on his experiences in Africa: for example - The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series (adults) and a number of books about Akimbo (children).

Two of his other very popular series are: 44 Scotland Street and The Isabel Dalhousie Mysteries. He has also written free-standing novels (for example The Forever Girl) and a whole range of academic texts.

McCall Smith's series The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency was made into a television series by the BBC in 2008/2009. The image above from shows Jill Scott as Precious Ramotswe.

02 June 2015

Corduroy Mansions Series by Alexander McCall Smith, UK, 2009, 2010, 2011

This series comprises three books: Corduroy Mansions (2009), The Dog Who Came in from the Cold (2010) and A Conspiracy of Friends (2011). As the three books are all connected, I decided to talk about the three of them together instead of separately. 
The series concerns a number of people, all of whom live at Corduroy Mansions, a four-storey building in Pimlico, London. There is also a dog, Freddie de la Hay. Freddie is a pimlico terrier, which is suitable given the location of Corduroy Mansions.

The characters – William and his grown-up son, Eddie, in the top flat; Dee, Jo and Jenny on the first floor, and Mr Wickramsinghe, the unobtrusive accountant, on the ground floor – are all connected, to some degree, with each other but also with other people outside Corduroy Manisons. As the series evolves, all these other people become drawn together through a number of different situations, many of them overlapping.
As with all of Alexander McCall Smith's novels, there is a delightful sense of humour at play here, which makes the books a delight to read. Members of Parliament, MI5 (or is it 6?), new-age followers, fraudsters, eccentric Porsche drivers, people who want to be in love and those who want to be out of love… a delightful mixture of, at times unbelievable, situations. Extremely well-written, the three books do not necessarily expound on life's deeper philosophical intricacies (beyond the boundaries of humour) and are ideal as light reading. 

Books like Corduroy Mansions are occasionally important, if only to put life and all its problems into another, lighter, perspective.
I definitely recommend all three books; you will not be disappointed.

Photo of Alexander McCall-Smith from