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Sheenagh Pugh "Sheenagh Pugh" (Shetland)
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Oral-B Braun CrossAction Replacement Rechargeable Toothbrush Heads - (Pack of 8 Refills)
Oral-B Braun CrossAction Replacement Rechargeable Toothbrush Heads - (Pack of 8 Refills)
Price: £30.90

5.0 out of 5 stars Good, 13 Sep 2014
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
They do their job very well, though I'm puzzled to think how any heads could do it differently. There isn't much to say in a review of products like these, nor many different ways they could be made or designed - but yes, they do what they claim to.


Bitmore Juucee 2600mAh Ultra Compact Portable Battery Backup Charger with LED Torch
Bitmore Juucee 2600mAh Ultra Compact Portable Battery Backup Charger with LED Torch
Price: £12.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Handy, but not that handy, 13 Sep 2014
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is a handy device for charging portable devices when you don't have access to a mains supply. But how often is that? Even on the move nowadays, you can often find power points on trains and coaches, in pubs and restaurants.

But if you are in the middle of nowhere, it can be handy - as long as you have the appropriate USB cable to attach to your portable device. For, although it comes with a USB cable to attach the charger to a laptop or desktop PC (to charge it up ready for use), you will also need a USB cable that is compatible with your portable device, as this is not provided.

You cannot charge it from a mains supply, unless you can find a suitable transformer, so unless you have access to a PC, it is not of much use.

It certainly works when charging mobile phones (I haven't tried it on any other portable devices) and is a handy standby torch.

What it doesn't do is give you an instant power source if your phone is dead and you need to make an urgent call. You'll have to wait for it to charge your phone (or other device)

The charger is advertised as "ultra-compact". However, I have another back-up power source that is even smaller, lighter and cheaper, and operates from 1 AA battery (so no need to worry about access to a PC) and it comes with a selection of cables and is an instant power source.

So, in summary, this charger does what it claims to be able to do. But it isn't the best value for money, as you can get the same results from other, cheaper more versatile devices.


Breville Halo Plus Health Fryer VDF105, White/Green
Breville Halo Plus Health Fryer VDF105, White/Green
Offered by Pricelover Deals
Price: £108.50

88 of 88 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars BIG, BRIGHT, GREEN, PLEASURE MACHINE, 2 July 2014
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
(This review comes courtesy of my hubby who does the family cooking.)

The Breville Halo Plus Health Fryer, is a significant chunk of kitchen gadgetry and, for some, it may be a bit too gaudy.

It takes up a fair space on a kitchen worktop and you will also need a clearance of about 20 inches (or 51 centimetres) between your worktop and any wall cupboards, to allow the lid to open fully, otherwise you will have to pull it forward, clear of any wall cupboards and may end up with it overhanging the worktop edge.

It is also worth noting that the lid has to be held open while any ingredients are added, as it does not lock in the open position.

Operation is, however, fairly simple, although it took me a minute or two to master the means of operating the tilt lock. Setting the timing and turning the machine on is very straightforward.

So, how does it cope with cooking food. The quality of fresh chips was reasonable, but the timing may need adjustment to suit personal preferences. It coped very well with frozen chips, as it did with roast Mediterranean vegetables. The fresh, roast potatoes were excellent.

You should note that the only timings given for this machine are for fairly large portions, so, if you are cooking for only one or two you may have to adjust the timings. You also need to keep a close eye on progress as food can very quickly become overcooked. So don't leave the kitchen for half-an-hour and expect to come back to perfectly cooked food - it could be underdone, perfect, or charcoal.

With regard to efficiency, I cannot find out its energy efficiency rating, but it operates at 1.3kw, and will cost about 18p per hour to use (depending on your exact tariff).

This compares with the approximate hourly costs for the following electrical appliances:

Electric grill - 48p
Electric oven - 30p
Cooker ring - 28p
Microwave - 10p
Slow cooker - 2.5p

The actual costs will of course vary between different makes and power ratings.

In general, it compares favourably with grills, ovens and rings, but is not as efficient as microwaves or slow cookers. At the same time, however, it is a little more versatile than the latter two.

I also looked at cooking times and found little variation between using an oven and using the Breville fryer, which makes the Breville, in general, cheaper to use (per item). However, if you wish to cook a meal of, let us say, pie and chips (both from frozen), the total time taken by the Breville fryer will be 50 to 60 minutes, as both have to be cooked separately (and whichever is cooked first will have to be kept warm). Alternatively, using a conventional oven to cook both at the same time will take only 30 to 35 minutes (allowing 5 minutes for the oven to heat up), cancelling out any saving that the Breville may give on lower power usage.

So, while the Breville can be economic to use when cooking single items, it is likely to be the case that your cooker oven is likely to be more efficient if cooking two or more items at the same time.

Which brings us, finally, to the price. At £120+, it is expensive for what you get and is equivalent to about 400 hours of oven time. It clearly falls into the category of a luxury and not an essential.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 14, 2014 6:02 PM BST


Elephantina
Elephantina
by Andrew Drummond
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars The elephant in the room, 29 Jun 2014
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This review is from: Elephantina (Hardcover)
Dr Blair's cook is outraged by the storage of parts of dead elephant in her kitchen, while his assistant Gilbert Orum, who is to make sketches and engravings of the beast, finds his mind turning to mortality:

Never mind, Miss Gloag!" shouted the doctor […] "Just think that your splendid kitchen has this evening played a part in the History of Philosophical Experiment!"
Miss Gloag expressed her ardent desire that Philosophical Experiment would rot slowly from its **** upwards, die painfully and be ****** by Satan forever. […]

All I can think of is Death: the age of an Elephant; the age of Man; the age of Woman. Three-score and ten is considered the usual allotted span of our years. But it seems to me that the age of Man is either grossly exaggerated or that it has diminished considerably since the days of the Patriarchs, for the common age of death among the people of Dundee is perhaps thirty or forty, by which time the trials and burdens of the world have taken their toll; a fresh-faced young woman of eighteen may turn, in a matter of three years of marriage, to a woman of middle years, haggard, bitter, bowed, lined, grey; a man of thirty will pass, within a twelve-month, to a white-haired cripple if he suffers one of many possible accidents in his labour...

Florentia the elephant died at Dundee in 1706, and remained there in a stuffed condition, having been dissected by Dr Patrick Blair. It will be noted that another death was imminent, that of independent Scotland, for the Act of Union would be signed the following year and the negotiations leading up to it were going on while Dr Blair (an anti-unionist, who would later join the uprising of 1715) was busy on his elephant; indeed Blair explicitly compares his own dissections to those of the Commissioners "cutting and butchering the Body Politick of Scotland".

Of the real Gilbert Orum, engraver, not much is known, but here his imagined journal forms the basis of the novel. It is rediscovered in 1828 by a man using the pseudonym "Senex" and published, with Senex's footnotes, in tribute to Dr Blair. Senex, however, is both an ardent pro-unionist, which means he has constantly to blind himself to the views of his hero Blair, and a prig who disapproves vehemently of the caustic, independent-minded Orum without ever understanding him. His indignant footnotes to Orum's MS provide a rich comic seam running through the novel.

Orum is, in fact, a thoughtful, fallible, likeable narrator who comes to have his own agenda with regard to the elephant. Blair, dissecting and reassembling the skeleton, sees it purely in a scientific light, but Orum has a sense of it as a living creature – indeed he ends up being visited by its spirit – and wants, through his engravings, "to ensure that the world knew what the Elephant had looked like, how it moved, how it lived". Meanwhile though, he also has his family's pressing financial problems to consider, and frequently staves them off by selling various bits of elephant to interested parties.

What is the elephant? We should never forget that she was real; she lived, and died alone and in exile (as will Orum's descendant who inherits the journal and hands it on before departing for Canada, only to die almost as soon as he gets there). But what does she connote, apart from herself? Scotland? Knowledge? A cause; something to live for? All are possible; the novel's sub-title, "A Huge Misunderstanding", rather suggests that no one sees everything about her, like the six blind men in the Hindu proverb who feel different parts of the beast and come to six different conclusions about its appearance.

A final irony: this book about a huge beast is easily his shortest and sparest so far. But that doesn't mean there's any lack of the usual wit, fascinating detail and thought-provoking strangeness that characterises his writing. I've read my way through all his four novels now, more's the pity, and cannot wait for number 5.


Novgorod the Great
Novgorod the Great
by Andrew Drummond
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.32

5.0 out of 5 stars What is love, but..., 24 Jun 2014
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This review is from: Novgorod the Great (Paperback)
Innkeeper Voronov regrets losing touch with his sons:

"What have they done," he concluded nervously, "but run off with the maids? What young man would not do the same, if he was kept in the same house with them […]?"
Mrs Voronova saw the justice of this observation and dried her eyes. "It is only natural," she admitted.
Her husband continued on this romantic vein of thought: "Until that night when, all being quiet, he slips on his boots and coat and-"
"A young man will always follow his-" judged the wife.
"-breeches," finished her husband, continuing to paint a simple picture of elopement, "and set off into the world with nothing but a knife in his-"
"-heart," she concluded.
"-pocket and a girl on his arm," Voronov sighed.

This conversation, its two tracks occasionally crossing, more often running alongside each other, is typical of a novel in which communication is constantly hampered by the fact that people are better at talking than listening. Even Horatio, infatuated with Ksenia, finds it hard, when she is telling him her story, to stop his mind wandering to inconsequential mental arithmetic. Most people in this novel have a story to tell, and since each is more interested in his or her own story than in any other, there are several of these two-track dialogues. Indeed there are two tracks to the novel itself; one concerning Horatio, who may be a merchant, and Ksenia, who may be a widow, who spend a night together in 1833 at the bedside of a dying man in Novgorod, and the other concerning the adventures of the Cochrane family, one of whom, the traveller John Dundas Cochrane, had been married to Ksenia, while his father Andrew had been a friend of the dying man, Major Sinclair. The novel's two strands, therefore, cross and interact from time to time; indeed Andrew's ghost occasionally turns up at Sinclair's bedside, along with a bookseller who appears to be a werewolf and a soldier who is an imerach (a human mirror, forced to reflect everything others say or do). The structure of the novel itself is reminiscent of the imerach: John Cochrane's fascination with arcane facts and measurements reflects Horatio's, while the way in which Ksenia mirrors the Major's dead love Amélie causes another conversation to go off at cross-purposes.

It will be seen, then, that as in Drummond's two earlier books An Abridged History (reviewed here) and A Hand-Book of Volapük (reviewed here), this one contains rich potential for comedy, and this does exist, not least in chapter headings such as "He took the only course open to an honourable man and fled to Europe" and "Degeneracy, rhubarb and millions of squirrels". But this strikes me as his most serious novel so far: its leitmotiv is a rhetorical question that keeps being asked, and variously answered, "What is Love but…." There are as many answers as there are questioners, and I don't think any one is meant to be definitive: the implication is more that the question needs to be constantly asked and considered.

Most of the main characters are historical personages, but while there is much in print by and about the Cochranes, far less has been written about Ksenia and Horatio. Strangely enough, it does seem to me that they and their strand of the novel come more alive than the Cochranes do, perhaps because their creator felt he had a freer hand with them.

Drummond has been quoted as saying that he writes novels because nobody else writes the kind of novel he wants to read. I can believe that, because he doesn't really write or sound quite like anyone else. I found his first novel in a cut-price Aberdeen bookshop and have been hunting down others ever since. I'm off now to read the one novel by him that I haven't caught up with yet.


The Book of the Needle
The Book of the Needle
by Matthew Francis
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.41

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dazzling doubleness, 18 May 2014
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This review is from: The Book of the Needle (Paperback)
"There are some cloths, said Mr Jones (snipping), where this difference is manifest, as satin where one face shines and the other is plain, or a twilled cloth like worsted where the weave shows and feels differently in the two faces, but there are others where the front and the back are identical in warp and woof and pattern and colour, in all their properties, and yet, Arise, to you as a tailor they can never be the same. For the front of the cloth is that which will appear to the world; it will be fair and smooth, or else embellished and embroidered, but the back will hold the raw workings of your stitches or a lining, and the moment the cloth lies upon your lap you must and will know which is which, for unless they are first different in your own mind they will never be so in reality. Such doubleness is a property of everything in the world, and of every person. We are not meant to see the threads and thrums of another's soul, nor the plainness of their lining, but our own we feel familiarly rubbing against us whenever we move. In this a garment is like a man or a woman; how should it not be, made as it is in our image? Therefore when I teach you to sew, I am teaching you to ape your creator..."

For all Mr Jones's best efforts, young Arise Evans, his apprentice some time in the 1620s, never did become a master tailor. What he did learn from his master was this concept of "doubleness". It appears in his fascination with etymology, with what Mr Jones used to call the words behind and beneath other words (Mr Jones was the master of false etymology, until his pupil surpassed him, and mistakenly seeing the word "Arise" behind his own given name of Rhys has a huge effect on Arise's life). It appears also in Arise's way of seeing the potential for imagery in everything around him, very much in the manner of his time, so that he cannot sew a seam nor consummate his marriage without reflecting on the cosmic significance of his actions. Above all, it is what underlies his practice as an author.

During the hectic period of the Civil War and Commonwealth, Arise had been a successful author of books of prophecy. Rather ungratefully, given that it was the upside-down nature of society at that time which had enabled a tailor to become respected as an author, Arise is an ardent royalist who foretells doom to the nation unless the monarchy is restored. When this comes about, of course, he finds himself at a loose end for what to write next - the future has happened and there is nothing left to prophesy. Hence The Book of The Needle, which starts out to be a tailoring manual but soon digresses into Arise's personal memoirs.

What makes Arise's story engaging is partly the intrinsic fascination of the times and partly his own personality, reflected in his writing style. He can be very funny, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not - though very much a man of his own time, he also comes very close to us in his tendency to hapless incompetence in the face of minor but irritating tasks like threading a needle or re-folding a map. There is endless amusement to be had from the domestic by-play between Arise, his amateur herbalist wife Maud and their son Owen (a Puritan version of Lupin Pooter). But Arise's life also has a serious side; he met the mighty of his day, including two kings and a Lord Protector, and there is nothing funny about his second encounter with the Earl of Essex, a man who once craved glory but is now haunted by his experiences of battle:

"The bowels, he said, belong in the body, do they not? They were never intended by God to be seen. But I have seen them many times, at Newbury and other places. [...] Several of the men fall over; they always look as if they are doing it on purpose. And only then do you notice that some of the other men are wearing the bowels of these fallen ones across their faces. They look like pieces of rag, Evans, bloody and befouled pieces of rag."

In one of the most powerful chapters, "Remember", Arise recalls the execution of the Presbyterian Christopher Love, which he witnessed, and, in the margins, reflects on that of Charles I, which he did not see. His son Owen, who also has ambitions to be an author, objects to this method and is discovered cutting the page:

"You see, father, where I was cutting. I was trying to cut the narrative of the King away from that of Mr Love, and keep them separate.
Why, Owen, they are intertwined.
He frowns at the page in front of him, and his fingers move as if they were still wielding the scissors.
They are intertwined, Owen, because the one story makes me think of the other, for thoughts do not pass through the mind singly but grow round each other like ivy round the trunk of an oak, and thus I wrote it as I thought it, interconnectedly. [...]
When I am an author, Owen says, looking with longing at the scissors lying on the desk next to his hand, I shall write only one thing at a time."

Owen is wrong, of course. Arise can no more tell a story in a straight line than Tristram Shandy can, but then neither life nor narrative goes in uncomplicated straight lines, and the interconnectedness, the doubleness, which Owen fails to appreciate is what gives this narrative its depth and lasting interest. The one thing I wish is that my paperback had rather stiffer covers, because I foresee that they will very soon be bent with much reading....
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 14, 2014 10:41 AM BST


Six Pounds Eight Ounces
Six Pounds Eight Ounces
by Rhian Elizabeth
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.67

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Don't believe a word..., 16 April 2014
"If the teachers liked teaching once, they definitely don’t any more. […] They trip up, we laugh. They cry, and it’s even funnier. […] We make fun of their twitches and the way they speak, that’s if we let them speak at all. […] Because this is war. […] Although when I say we, I don’t actually mean me and Jess. We always wear the right uniform and do our ties up properly. We bring our homework in on time and only ever talk in class with a teacher we’re not afraid of."

The way this passage subverts and undermines its original premise is typical of Rhian Elizabeth’s debut novel. Hannah, its narrator and protagonist, announces herself from the start as an unreliable narrator: a potential author of fiction, indeed. Having done so, she then proceeds to speak, for the most part, very openly and honestly, so you forget for long stretches that, apart from being a child, she also sees herself as a writer who embroiders and riffs on reality. She pulls this trick several times in the narrative, recounting something as if it had actually happened, before making it clear that this was in fact only one of several possible outcomes and not the one that actually came to pass.

“The truth”, whatever that may be, is a key theme of the novel; most of Hannah’s problems with adults are caused by their elastic definition of truth. They cannot tell childish fantasies from lies, yet themselves distort or ignore the truth when it does not suit them, like the grandmother evading a question about someone’s terminal illness by pretending her hearing aid is on the blink.

Hannah’s first-person narrative begins when she is aged five and ends when she is sixteen. First person in a very young voice is hard to pull off, especially when, as seems to be all but compulsory these days, the novel is in the present tense. If you write first person in past tense, you can have it both ways: write from the perspective of the child that was, but with the vocabulary of the adult you now are, and no reader thinks it odd – it is, after all, how most of the greatest child voices in literature were created. But with the present tense, we can only suppose it is All Happening as we read, and that is more problematic. When I came across the first age marker that told me Hannah was five, I was downright surprised; I had already been listening to her voice for two chapters and it wasn’t the voice of a five-year-old, even a clever one. She could think like that, but she couldn’t possibly formulate her thoughts in some of the ways this voice does.

This did cause me some problems near the start, though fewer than it might have done because the writing is extremely assured, quite unusually so for a first novel, and tends to carry you along with it. By the next time marker – going to comprehensive school at 11 - Hannah’s age has caught up with her voice and the problem disappears. The teenage argot and behaviour of Hannah and her best friend Jess are observed with forensic and often very funny accuracy; young readers (and this novel should appeal to both an adult and young-adult readership) will be cackling, while readers with teenagers of their own will be tearing their hair and longing, at intervals, to slap the pair of them. Though often infuriating, they are so basically bright and harmless that one cannot be indifferent to what happens to them, particularly when self-destructive urges seem to have taken them over. The downward spiral they get into is, again, very subtly observed, so that, for instance, the decline in their standards of personal hygiene hits us as forcibly as it does the young narrator in one of her more lucid moments.

Another instance of this subtlety in the writing struck me in the account of the school outing to a play in Cardiff. I know that this event, though not, thank heaven, its riotous outcome, is based on fact, because I saw that very production there myself. At first, it seemed odd that Hannah is not sorry to see the play interrupted; at this point she is very keen on English and, unlike most of her classmates, has read it. Only later did it occur to me that the play bears on her life and contains a character she might well wish to see silenced. There is absolutely no mention of this in the account of the incident; the reader is left to figure it out in a way many writers would not have had the confidence to do, especially at such an early stage of their career.

Here, the author has taken a real event and transmuted it into the material of fiction. As the novel ends, Hannah in unreliable-narrator mode challenges us to wonder if she will do so, or is already doing so:

"It took me a while but I know now that words are nasty little things and I’m done with them. And it’s funny, isn’t it? I did warn you. I told you right from the start that I’m the girl who lies, so, really, you probably shouldn’t believe a single word I’ve said."

I think this novel’s title does it less than justice. There is a reason for the clear reference to a birth weight, but as an attention-grabber, an incentive to pick up the book, I should say it was a non-starter – indeed to some it may signal “mum-lit”, which could not be less accurate (mother’s place, in this book, is firmly in the wrong). It deserved a more memorable, unusual title, perhaps with a dash of the humour that never deserts Hannah. The writing is confident, assured and doesn’t sound like anyone else I can think of offhand.


Ugly Bus
Ugly Bus
by Mike Thomas
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.99

5.0 out of 5 stars What happened on the bus, 6 Mar 2014
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The Boxing Day match. Football hooligans. Neo-fascists. Casual criminals. And then there's the bunch you really don't want to meet... the ones in uniform.
Mike Thomas is the author and serving policeman from South Wales who in 2011 published a debut novel, Pocket Notebook, about a sardonic police officer called Jake who goes to pieces over the course of the novel and takes to chronicling his own disintegration in his police notebook. One of the characters from Pocket Notebook reappears here in a main role, but I won't deprive you of the pleasure of recognising him.

The "ugly bus" is a TSG van, and this novel features its crew of five officers working a shift in Cardiff on Boxing Day. So it's an ensemble cast, and the story is much concerned with group dynamics, with one person's effect on another and how the mere fact of being in a group can make people act differently. Martin, the sergeant, is educated, idealistic and modern in his outlook. But he is also young and relatively inexperienced in his role, so his authority over the older and more case-hardened four PCs is more nominal than real. And all five officers, being human, have their own problems at home to think about, as well as the drunks, football fans and determined troublemakers who contribute to the day's festive atmosphere. Meanwhile in another part of the urban forest, chance and an excess of drink are propelling another person on to a collision course with them…

Like Pocket Notebook, Ugly Bus is a blend of darkness and humour. There's a priceless moment, early on, when the crew, attending a briefing meeting, are relieving the boredom by playing Bulls*** Bingo, in which the first to fill his card with management-speak clichés uttered by the boss is the winner:

‘. . . absolutely crucial,’ Da Silva was saying. ‘But let us not forget that today is for both sets of fans to enjoy themselves and the surroundings our fair city has to offer. We have the resilience and capacity to—’
‘House!’
Vincent turned when he heard the strangled shout.
It was David. Half standing, notebook in his hand. A look of pain slowly emerging on his face as he realised what he’d done, and where he’d done it.

David, a family man with rather too many ex-families and his mind never far from food, is one of the more likeable officers on the bus – certainly more so than Vince and Andrew – but if one thing becomes clear from this novel it is that nothing is black and white. Reader sympathy swings alarmingly as we see both the failings of the five and what they have to put up with, especially during the gripping scene where they are policing the Boxing Day football match and having to keep apart not only two sets of fans but two sets of political activists:

‘You fascist[...] pig!’ the woman screamed at him, the abuse made all the more absurd and troubling by her clipped and refined accent, because if somebody as well heeled as this had turned on them with such venom just for keeping people separated, then he dreaded anybody a little more hardcore showing up. Martin looked her up and down through smeared plastic: forties, neatly dressed in quilted jacket, herringbone trousers, cashmere scarf and light brown bobble hat, a delicate touch of make-up. She reminded him of his old deputy head teacher, except his old dep head never once spat in his face for wearing a uniform.

This is one of the moments where Martin's control of the situation is tested; there will be more, some of which he handles better than others. In the end, his problem is controlling not just four men but the van on which they all work, which changes their behaviour and is in many ways a character in its own right. The repeated mantra "what happens on the van stays on the van" is a crucial indication of what a sealed, hermetic, dangerous world it creates.

Just when you think it has no more twists and turns to offer, the novel's final scene is startlingly revelatory about who and what a particular person is. In a way, this shouldn't matter; in itself it alters nothing of what has happened, but in an odd way it does matter, partly because it gives a glimpse into the future; we can guess what will and will not happen next and we can also see that people who might wish never to have anything to do with each other again will have no choice about it. It also opens up a tantalising possibility; there are characters here whose story could well be continued in a third novel… Bring it on, I say, provided it has the tension, momentum, observational keenness and dry wit of this one.
Tags: book reviews, litfic, novels, wales


The Beginnings of Trees
The Beginnings of Trees
by Geraldine Paine
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Worth waiting for, 17 Jan 2014
Geraldine Paine is not the sort of poet who rushes a book out every couple of years; her first collection, The Go-Away Bird, came out in 2008, also from Lapwing, and I reviewed it here.

This second collection, then, has been some years in the making, but the long gestation period shows in intensity rather than expansiveness: these poems are mostly brief, pared, sometimes epigrammatic, with seldom a word wasted. Blaise Pascal, allegedly, once apologised, "I have made this letter longer than usual, because I lack the time to make it short". It's baggy, wordy poems that can be churned out quickly; precision and spareness take time. Consider how much longer "Coming of Age" (quoted here in full) might have been, and to how much less effect:

She was twenty the first time. A back-hander
across the face, stinging. Her thirties were blurred.

At forty she tries a new eye-shadow, yellow
tinged with brown. Her fingers are gentle.

The ending here is redemptive, which I recall as a characteristic of her first collection. There are other redemptive endings here, like that of "Family Case", in which a young man's downward spiral is possibly halted by the willingness of someone to believe in him. But there is quite a lot of darkness here too, especially in those poems concerning lonely old age. In "Activity Class", the relentlessly cheery music and pompoms in the care home make a sombre background to the old man who has

lost seventy years
under the chair where it's sticky

or behind the chintz curtains
where his mother waits.

The old men of "Morning Men", sitting in the park "on hold" in contrast to the dogs:

One West Highland White chases another,
running flat out, in the moment, forever

are similarly comfortless. But in "Her Riley", a widower does seem to find a kind of consolation, looking at the car mothballed in the garage and recalling former times: in this ending car and wife merge, and past and present telescope to a point:

A rare beauty's
revealed, racing green, last taxed Nineteen-Sixty.
She'd loved the Derbyshire hills, the moors, distance.

This sense of the oneness of past and present, of the past being as real as the present, is one of the two things that most often redeem darkness in these poems - the other is human contact, from the most fleeting glance to a lifetime bond.

There is some wry humour in this collection - "English Bank Holiday" being a prime example - but also a pervasive sense of time, which in the final poem "There Can Be No Calling" takes on an urgency reminiscent of Louise Glück:

there is nothing left but time. This place is blind,
yet our eyes still stare. We are earth-hardened.
No words can reach us; there can be no calling.

Oh, teach me the inevitability of loss.

The collection's opening poem, "Release", is perhaps the most striking, an assemblage of images that work powerfully together but defy pinning down. It could be interpreted as a recovery from sorrow or illness, or equally well as an embracing of death, but in the end, I think, you have to accept that it is indeed what it says, an imagining of the very notion of release, but not in a way that can be narrowed down to a particular set of circumstances. Its unobtrusive rhymes, and above all the way it uses short and long sentences to create its movement, end in something very memorable:

This must be achieved noiselessly, don't draw
attention to yourself, they will count scores
to keep you longer in the dark. Now, pull
hard. But take good care. The shutters are full
of splinters. Gently. That's it. You can see
green ivy climbing the trunk of a tree,
such fine leaves, so determined; and the slow
water, that's a kind of green too. As though
someone has added milk. The sun is just
reaching the front steps; as it mounts, it must
penetrate this stone grey room. Come, you'll say,
it's been so cold without you. Every day
I've worked a little more to let you in,
to feel a remembered touch on my skin


Volapuk
Volapuk
by Andrew Drummond
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Universal Incomprehension, 30 Dec 2013
This review is from: Volapuk (Paperback)
"Then a small band of Leibnitzians suddenly emerged from the shadows at the back of the church, academicians to a man [...] blinking in the unaccustomed light, shouting out anathema and castigating us all for sullying their fond memory of a great Mathematician and Thinker. "Prime numbers are indivisible!" seemed to be their battle cry".

These unseemly goings-on interrupt the funeral, in 1891, of Prof. McInnes, a member of the Edinburgh Society for the Propagation of a Universal Language. Our narrator, Mr Justice, is the General Secretary. The Society, which hopes to achieve "Universal Peace, founded solidly upon Universal Comprehension", is, needless to say, riven with misunderstanding, acrimony and downright aggression, mainly because nobody can agree on what this universal language shall be - Latin, English and several invented tongues all have supporters, but none can carry the day. The cause of Solresol, for instance, is severely hampered by the fact that its only two adherents in the Society, or indeed in the country, are not on speaking terms.

Solresol was real, as are the other universal languages mentioned in the book; there seem to have been a considerable number of universal languages being invented around the last quarter of the 19th century. Two of them were Volapük and Esperanto, whose causes in the society are espoused respectively by Mr Justice and his opponent Dr Bosman. There was also, in the time of the English Civil War, a Sir Thomas Urquhart, who claimed to have invented a universal language, and if you ask what is the relevance of that, I can only say that he is an active character in the novel, despite being some 300 years old. It's that sort of novel.

Sir Thomas's plan for a universal language differs from most in preferring complexity to simplicity. Nineteen genders may be overdoing it, but he points to one of the chief problems of "simplified" language when he asks for a Volapük translation of strumpet, trull, Cyprian, wanton, hussy, slut, cocotte, Delilah and fille-de-joie, to find that Justice can offer only the same phrase for each (meaning, roughly, dishonourable young lady). Volapük, or any language like it, might do well enough for text-speak or office memos, but it has none of the nuance of languages that have evolved naturally. Later in the novel, Miss Smyth, an inhabitant of the lunatic asylum in which quite a few of the main characters are temporarily residing, asks Justice "When did a language ever come in advance of a conqueror? [..] Language, sir, is a means of Rule, an instrument of Power, a weapon of Oppression."

It will be clear by now that this novel is very much concerned with the nature of language, and indeed communication in general - one reason for the fracas at the funeral is that Justice, at the organ, is playing the tune of "O Tannenbaum", but the congregation are hearing the tune of "The Red Flag". There are two striking and game-changing moments when we realise that our narrator, while he hasn't exactly lied to us, has been failing to mention some quite important facts. There are also moments when our author communicates in Volapük, for the novel has a sort of primer running through it, with exercises which, you may be glad to know, have solutions at the back. Though you can perfectly well cheat with these, it's actually possible to follow the primer and read the Volapük phrases en route; as the novel progresses they become more relevant. And funnier, for like his first novel An Abridged History, this is a very funny book. I shall long cherish the scene where the Edinburgh census forms, collected by Mr Justice and accidentally damaged in a brawl with the obstreperous Leibnitzians, are reconstituted by the asylum inmates:

"Mr Oliver, however, was outraged at the scandalous replies that had been given. "What manner of man", he demanded to know, "lives with six children, a wife, his mother, a brother-in-law and two lodgers, in a house which barely has two rooms?" I tried to persuade him that a great many of our citizens lived in such conditions, or worse, and that this form merely described an unpleasant truth. But Oliver, who was possessed of a mis-placed sense of social justice, was having none of it. At the stroke of his pen he gave the family another five good-sized rooms, evicted the lodgers and brought some comfort to the declining years of the house-holder's widowed mother, by resurrecting her late husband."

This notion, that you might be able to make a thing so, simply by writing it, underlies the novel. It has elements of realism, fantasy, politics, the picaresque: in short it's unclassifiable, which is probably why it isn't better known, as it ought to be. Oh, and you could also learn Volapük from it, if you wanted to. By the end, though, you'd probably conclude that this is a fruitless exercise - which is odd when you come to think about it, because though it is clear that the author is encouraging that conclusion, it's also clear that he himself can speak it... But as I said, it's that kind of novel.


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