‘American Notes For General Circulation’ by Charles Dickens

Dickens wrote fifteen novels over the course of thirty-four years and double the number of ‘other works’ (see Charles Dickens Info). I wanted to read the American Notes because I was aware that Martin Chuzzlewit was based upon his trip to the North American continent in 1842 and I managed to identify Martin’s swamp, where he bought land – an area outside the town of Cairo, Illinois, near the river Mississippi.

Dickens didn’t like the United States or Americans.  He found most of them to be bombastic, shifty and lacking in the personal hygiene department, or, in the case of the Shakers, dull as ditch-water.  Through writing American Notes, Dickens lost most of his American readership.  (What nation enjoys being roundly criticised by one of the most celebrated writers of the day (except the Brits)? )  No author can allow that to happen, so he returned to the United States  a couple of years later and – what do you know? – he found things much improved the other side of the pond.

What Dickens most disliked about the United States was slavery.  In fact, I believe that knowing slavery was being carried on in the southern states probably prejudiced him against the country before he arrived.  He dreaded arriving in Maryland and Baltimore because he was aware that these were slave states, and was embarrassed at being served in a hotel by black waiters whom, he suspected, were slaves.  In a way no other writers were doing at that time, he described slaves and their condition in great detail;  he conjured up pictures of misery, for instance, of a mother and daughter travelling in the train after having been sold, and expecting never to see their husband/father again.  Much of his last chapter (Chapter XVIII Concluding Remarks) concerned the evils of slavery and the dichotomy with the American founding fathers’ concepts of liberty.  He held all white Americans responsible, from the President downwards.

Dickens, of course, cared passionately about injustice of all kinds.  Whilst in America, he visited prisons, hospitals and mental health institutions in every town he visited, and reported on them in detail.  He disapproved of the conditions in most of them, in many cases, vehemently, especially where men and women were kept in solitary confinement.  He travelled huge distances by rail and by river steamer, and described them as squalid and not quite so squalid.

Another remarkable point about Dickens’ trip to the US was that he was accompanied by his wife, Catherine.  They did very little together, except create ten children.

American Notes is your best possible Lonely Planet/ Rough Guide the United States in 1842, detailed, descriptive and insightful, but I didn’t enjoy as much as Dickens’ novels.  Maybe, it’s because I’m such a fiction person.

Get your copy of American Notes here (not an Amazon link).

‘Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death’ by James Runcie

Attrib Wikimedia Commons

After the funeral of a Cambridge solicitor. who has, apparently, committed suicide, his mistress claims he was murdered.  An engagement ring, worth £350, goes missing and the intended bride, having been reminded of its cost too many times, goes off the groom.  The daughter of a ex-con, turned jazz club owner, is murdered.  An aristocrat, reluctant to share his art collection with the National Trust, is murdered during a stage production of Julius Caesar.  These are just some of the six longish short stories, set in 1953 and 1954, featuring Canon Sidney Chambers,  vicar of Grantchester, and reluctant detective.

Serious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, in every way ‘vicarious’, Sidney rides a bicycle and enjoys cricket.  When his friend, Amanda, arranges for him to be given a Labrador puppy, he is concerned about never having looked after a dog before, that it will needs walks, inconvenience his cleaner and upset the precarious equilibrium between his clerical calling and the outside world.  He worries that his crime-solving is getting in the way of his proper job.  He won’t do it anymore… but then his friend, Inspector Geordie Keating, whom he meets weekly to play backgammon in the pub finds him another case.  A reluctant detective, he considers himself to be a poor priest, despite being very conscientious in his parish and giving a lot of thought to he will preach about next.

Sidney Chambers believes it is his duty always to think the best of people.   People will talk to him, because he is so gentle and non-judgmental.   This is what makes him so useful in crime-solving.  Eminently likable.  His love-interest is the wealthy socialite and art historian, Amanda, but he doesn’t wish to impose upon her because, really, when he thinks about it, being a clergy wife probably wouldn’t suit her.  He has a sort of posh(ish) family in London, a sensible sister, Jennifer, and a brother, Matt, who is a jazz musician.  Sidney is also passionately fond of jazz, and, when asked, can’t explain why, the sign of a real aficionado.

The setting is comfortable, enjoyable and beguiling.  I want to be there in Grantchester in 1953 with him.  The only flaw in the scenario, to my mind, is that Geordie Keating uses Sidney’s skills and time too freely, ordering him about as if he were a paid employee of the police force.   Sidney is not a pushover, and certainly believes in putting his God and his church first, so, for me, that aspect doesn’t work too well.

Read  Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death (non-Amazon link).  This book, which was published by Bloomsbury in 2012, and is the first in the Grantchester Mysteries series.  James Runcie, the son of Robert Runcie, former Archbishop of Canterbury, has also written many other works, including Canvey Island and the Discovery of Chocolate.  The Shadow of Death is the first one I’ve read.  Will I read more in this series?  Oh yes, Dear Reader.

Rating:  4/5.

‘A Better Kind of Intimacy’ by Jack Skett

In the introduction, the author, Jack Skett, tells us that “This is a book about porn.  Of course, porn is about sex, so in essence this is a book about sex…  Christians are not generally accustomed to talking about sex”.   This is the Christian take on porn.

Skett became addicted to internet pornography as a teenager for a short time in the Noughties.   He describes how porn changed the way he viewed women, objectifying them and leading him to understand that they existed only for his (male) gratification.  It also made him secretive and dishonest, even with his own brother.  At this time in his life he was attending church with his family, and exploring his Christian faith.  At a Christian youth camp in 2006, he attended an evening talk on addition.  The speaker shouted, ‘There’s something on you.  God can see it, and I can see it’.  Terrified that this man could see into his porn problem, he stood up and presented himself for healing… but let his friends think he was seeking help in quitting smoking.  Jack Skett is now a pastor and, according to what people in his church have said to him, pastors are ‘different’ (apparently).  What enormous courage he shows in ‘coming out’ on this issue now by writing this book.

The author asserts that we all of us dabble in porn, men and women.   Fifty Shades of Grey is porn for women, he tells us – and he’s probably right,  But I haven’t read Fifty Shades and I don’t really want to read erotica for either sex, and I hate writing anything approaching steamy bits.  In my opinion, to say that everybody does porn is taking it a little far.

His personal experiences are summed up in the Introduction and Chapter 1.  The remainder of the book moves on quickly from the personal and into Christian ethics, with particular reference to St Paul’s Epistles.  He draws our attention to pornographic statuary

Erotic Statue of Venus

Attrib Wikimedia

in the ancient world, in Pompeii, and, particularly, in Corinth, where having sex with a temple prostitute was somehow part of the Graeco-Roman religion.  He writes, quite reasonably, that you cannot expect a Biblical verse to cover every eventuality, and every sin.  Nowhere in the Bible does it say, “Thou shalt not do pornography.”  Skett’s central plank is that sex exists for two reasons – pregnancy and our pleasure – but that it should be enjoyed only by married couples.  After exploring some quite harsh Pauline teaching, in 1 Corinthians he justifies this position by stating that Paul didn’t discuss appropriate sexual relationships between unmarried couples, so therefore unmarried sex was not something Christians should do.  To my mind, this is stretching things too far.

Skett argues his case at length.  I cannot help but feel that he could have covered the ground in fewer words.  However, if you wish to explore and develop your understanding of Christian ethics, Jack Skett provides much food for thought.

The full title of this work is ‘A Better Kind of Intimacy: The Price of Porn and How to Overcome It’ by Jack Skett.  A copy for review was provided by the Instant Apostle Facebook group, free of charge.

This book has just been released on Instant Apostle.  You can watch the author un-boxing his copies on the Instant Apostle website and thereby find the Amazon link.


‘Their Lost Daughters’ by Joy Ellis

Oh Joy!

DI Rowan Jackman and DS Marie Evans (of ‘The Murderer’s Son’ fame) are starting a murder  investigation for one teenage girl when they are asked, by their inappropriately named chief inspector, Ruth Crooke, to renew the cold case of Kenya Black, a child who vanished eight years ago.  Ooh, and then they are commanded, by detested Superintendent Cade, to investigate the disappearance of Toni Clarkson, the teenage daughter of one of Cade’s masonic mates.  You feel their stress.  But luckily for them Toni Clarkson’s case provides helpful leads into the murder of the first girl.  The storyline is complex, but unfaltering executed, with twist after twist and pitching the breathless readers into another angle, another set of characters and another facet of the main plot.  However, without giving away any spoilers, the conclusion of the plot was a little too neat.  In my opinion, Ellis should have stopped three or two chapters before she did.

This story involves a huge number of characters, many with just a walk-on part in one short scene, yet the author expects to remember all of them.  At one point, a chapter begins with ‘William Hickey…” and launching into a serious bit of action, leaving me wondering ‘Who he?’  (I catch up after a page or so.)   As a result, none of the characters are developed in any depth.  I remember (from ‘The Murderer’s Son’) that Marie was into motorbikes and was widowed when her husband had a motorbike accident, but this wasn’t mentioned specifically in this book (and, actually, Dear Reader, that I did remember this is pretty remarkable, because I read a lot of books).  But I don’t know anything about Rowan Jackman at all, except that he lives in a nice property, in some comfort, and is looked after by a housekeeper.   Other crime writers (like Ruth Rendell) write about their detective’s family life, providing a counter-balance to the, often grim, main story, and, also showing the reader more about him/her as a character.  I must say, though, I prefer Jackman and Evans to Nikki Galena (Joy Ellis’s other mc) who does have a backstory and some character, which comes on a bit too strong at times.

Joy Ellis writes illuminatingly of the Lincolnshire Fens, with which she is clearly familiar.  The reader readily picks up the bleak landscape, yet I read the whole story wondering what time of year it was.   I think I must’ve overlooked this because I was too engrossed in the plot.

Amazon tell me I purchased this book on 21 May 2017.  What kept me so long?

This book is available from Amazon.

‘Out of Silence’ by Annie Try

Out of Silence, cover art.

Out of Silence, the cover

Dr Mike Lewis is a clinical psychologist working in London.   At the allocation meeting, he can find no good reason for not taking on the case of Johnny 2, an asylum seeker who is an elective mute.  Mike himself is suffering, his marriage having fallen apart following the death through cancer of his six year old son.  As a mental health practitioner himself, he has not thought it appropriate to seek the help of a counsellor, so he is living in a rented flat, in chaos, amongst coffee cups, half-dead pot plants, a sink full of washing up and the packing cases, which he has not been able to muster the courage to unpack, even though he moved out of his marital home five years previously.

However, the case of Johnny 2 fascinates him.  By throwing himself into it, invoking all his technical and experience and know-how, he starts to get his life together.  Mike and Anita, the art therapist, use art as a means of helping Johnny to communicate.  At the same time, a rapport builds up between Mike and Anita, yet he still craves Ella, who is still his wife, even though he hasn’t seen her half a decade.  He is torn between two women, not knowing if either of them really want him.  Other complications arise, when Georgina, the trainee, is stalked by one of the patients.

For me, ‘Out of Silence’ was rivetting, very emotional and, at one point, very harrowing.  All characters were well-drawn and empathetic.  A vulnerable and flawed main character goes straight to the reader’s heart.  We feel for him, when the departmental secretaries cold-shoulder him when his relationship with Anita isn’t going to – their – plan.  (I must say that, when I was a secretary in a psychology department in a psychiatric hospital, way back in the 1970s, I didn’t have that sort of excitement.)   We sympathise with Mike at the end when events  force him into a position where he couldn’t do anything else, but which is horribly open to misinterpretation.

instant Apostle (who published this book) is a small but active Christian publishing company.  Like all the other Instant Apostle novels I’ve read, the Christian content is applied with a light brush, and all the more effective for it.

‘Out of Silence’ is Annie Try’s first novel but the third to be published.  I have also reviewed ‘Trying to Fly’ earlier this year.  A full five stars for ‘Out of Silence’.

I can now go on and read something else tonight.  Do other reviewers have this problem, whereby they don’t feel they can start a new book until they’ve written up the last one on their blog?

I am a member of the Instant Apostle Facebook review group, which invites honest and rigorous reviews .  The work was supplied to me free of charge.

‘Out of Silence’ is available from Instant Apostle.

Slightly Spooky Stories 1 by Patsy Collins

A Cartoon Ghost

A Cartoon Ghost… looks more like a seal!

Twenty-five lovely short stories, some quite long for their genre, and others shorter, all with a very light ghostly theme. In fact, in some of the stories, the spooky bit is very light indeed, such as hypnosis treatment (‘Brainwashing Barbara’), whereas in others ghosts and the dead are the main characters (‘Can’t Take It With You’). My favourite was ‘Working in the Bookshop’, which featured a young lad looking for first job and finding one in very old fashioned bookshop. At every point, he is prompted by a mysterious old lady, and not just him but everyone else around him

Patsy writes from the first person and the third and all her stories include a lot of dialogue, which brings them alive. This is Patsy doing what she does best, getting inside the characters of ordinary people and crafting their problems into a tight story. Great stuff, but not for those who you want horror, ghouls, zombies and vampires, forget it.  Fortunately, Dear Reader, I don’t!

Amazon link

I’ve Finished the Forsyte Saga At Last

Reading The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy was one of the reasons why I haven’t posted on this blog for a while.  It is a massive tome, 1140 pages long and consisting of five books:  The Man of Property, Indian Summer of a Forsyte, In Chancery, Awakening and To Let.  Of course, it’s been adapted for television and cinema, time after time, and ‘nobody’ reads the books anymore, do they?  Well, I did, and I’m really glad I did.

(The other reason I haven’ t been posting is a four-letter word – Work.)

I first started reading it early in October, at Gatwick, as we were waiting to board our plane to Tenerife, using a leather-bound copy, which had been a school prize awarded to my father.  (I do hate that bit where you’re sitting on the plane, waiting to take off and you’re not allowed to read your Kindle.).  As I started to read the first pages, this rather precious volume started to fall apart, so, as soon as we reached our holiday apartment and got the internet sorted out (no mean feat), I downloaded it on to my Kindle and put the book away.  I always thought of the Forsyte Saga as a sort of Downton Abbey for my parents’ generation.  As I rapidly realised, it’s no such thing!

The title of the first book should’ve warned me straightaway:  Man of Property.  How scornful, how dismissive, how derisory is that!  Galsworthy did not approve of the Forsytes.  In fact, an associate of George Bernard Shaw and Joseph Conrad, Galsworthy demonstrated that he did not share the middle class values of his characters, particularly their preoccupation with things and possessing things and how regarded everything as a possession, even wives.  In other works, as well as the Saga, Galsworthy championed women’s rights, prison reform, animal rights, and – particularly – attitudes on divorce.

The story of the Forsyte Saga (which takes place between mid-Victorian era and the 1920s) is predominantly (but not solely) concerned with the relationship between Soames and Irene.  Irene, very young and very beautiful, and desperately unhappy as Soames’ wife, has an affair with Soames’s architect, Bosinney, who is also engaged to June Forsyte, Irene’s only friend in the Forsyte tribe.  This affair only ends when Bosinney is killed in an ‘accident’ (which may have been suicide).  Irene then leaves Soames to live on her own modest income, but is chanced upon by Soames’ uncle, Jolyon, who befriends her and leaves money to her.  Soames, meanwhile, thinks about divorcing her, because he wants a son and heir, but changing his mind, even though ten years have lapsed, tries to resurrect his marriage to Irene.

What television and film viewers of the Saga miss is Galsworthy’s flowing descriptions, of London, where most of the action takes place, and of his characters’ movements and expressions.  It is the detail that’s so amazing. Here is a random example:

Soames watched his daughter give her hand, saw her wince at the squeeze it received, and distinctly heard the young man’s sign as he passed out.  Then she came from the window, trailing her finger along the mahogany edge of the billiard-table.  Watching her, Soames knew that she was going to ask him something.  Her finger felt around the last pocket, and she looked up.

The English usage is also interesting.  Galsworthy hyphenates everything:  billiard-table, Good-bye, self-conscious, even after-noon.  He also uses em dashes a lot.  He uses exclamation marks far more frequently than would be approved of now, several times on every page.

Characterisation is not particularly perceptive.  The men are very mannish and the women girly.  His best-drawn character is the rake Val Dartie, a middle-ranking character.

The plot is pretty water-tight, although I never really understood why Irene was physically repelled by Soames, despite an inadequate explanation is given much later in the book by the younger Jolyon.  She shuddered when he tried to kiss her, before they were engaged.  Why then did she marry him?   I fully understand that marriage is what Victorian women did, but, even then, there were limits as to what a cash-strapped woman might take.

The plot also reflected the era in which it was set very effectively, despite Galsworthy’s radical views and being written half a century later than the time of its setting.

All the time I was reading The Forsyte Saga, my one and only husband was telling all about the television presentation and which actor played whom.  I’m so glad I never saw it.   If ever a series of books deserved to be read, not viewed, it’s these.

If you’re a writer and interested in historical fiction, take a look at my other book, Write On.  There’s a lovely historical fiction competition for you to enter.

Sorry.  Too late to think about suitable photos.  Above are two of Tenerife, where – a tangential link here – I read the first part of it.  I think Galsworthy would have enjoyed both of them, although Soames probably would not have appreciated the second.