REVIEW: A Postcard to Sylvia Plath by Patricia Jones

TITLE:  A Postcard to Sylvia Plath (Poetry)
AUTHOR: Patricia Jones
PUBLISHER: Ginninderra Press (P.O. Box 3461, Port Adelaide, SA 5015, Australia) (November 2010)
ISBN: 97811740276498

Reviewed by Ann Skea ([email protected])

“Trawling out my memories – elusive as tiny silvered fish
my heart flapping – a torn sail in the wind”.

In her Introduction to this book of poems, Patricia Jones writes of her childhood awareness of “the shadows within the sun” – a “hovering darkness” and fear which she could not then explain. Her acute sensitivity to that same darkness in others pervades these poems but her growing awareness of the complexities and beauties of life, and the humanity with which she surveys this world, constantly lighten this darkness. She has, too, a gift for capturing the strange beauty and connectedness of everyday things in vivid and evocative images.

In a Brisbane landscape where “showgirl houses on long-legged stilts” lie open in the tropical sun, she sees “Kids growing disordered/ wild summer weeds caught/ between cracks of cement, broken fences”. Here, she too, grows, develops, “dreams / of gossamer silk / pale latticework skies / woven silently / in tiny attics of the mind”, before heading for the Great Southern Ocean and “courting the seductive song” of a different city with different shadows.

These poems are embedded in an Australian landscape. There are  poems about country life and poems about the cities. And there are personal poems: a wonderfully funny but disturbing poem about her parents, in which grim humour and music are weapons against death and poverty; a film-like scenario about a sister in her “Rita Hayworth Dress”, where the refrain of a wartime song threads its way like a lament through a picture of a teenager reaching out for excitement – Craven A, Fosters Beer, fast cars  – and a devastating result of this; and poems about the poet’s own reaching out for independence, love and beauty.

Patricia’s poems are rich, dark, funny and compassionate. She confronts her shadows with insight and wards them off with music and laughter. Through her own shadows, she feels kinship with Sylvia Plath, whose presence in the first and last poem of the book is a shadow which has haunted the poet and to which she finally says goodbye. She feels the restlessness, loss and rejection of the aborigines “all the sounds of Noonuccal – blown away / like dead leaves”. And she mourns our own seeming indifference to “newsreels of dismemberment” and the “steel cataracts of war”.

Patricia has a discerning eye for the “small realities of life”, and for memories which can be outgrown “within the endless boundaries of love”. Her clear evocation of places and people, and her talent for evoking unusual and apt images make these poems vivid and memorable. In all, this is a fine first collection of poems from a poet whose voice deserves to more widely heard.

Ann Skea
Website and Ted Hughes pages:


REVIEW: The English Ghost: Spectres Through Time by Peter Ackroyd

TITLE:  The English Ghost: Spectres through time
AUTHOR: Peter Ackroyd
PUBLISHER:      Random House (December 2010)

Reviewed by Ann Skea ([email protected]).

Full of ghosts as this book is, it is disappointingly unspooky. Ackroyd is not telling ghost stories to scare you. Instead, he describes and reports, raises questions, notes trickery, and generally covers all manner of English ghosts from the earliest times to the present.

There are phantoms, poltergeist, “clerical souls”, animal ghosts, wanderers and premonitory ghosts which bring messages or herald a death. And there are plenty of strange occurrences and unexplained events.

Ghosts, on the whole, seem not to be the traditional white, spectral appearances but to be solid, like you and me, although they may dress oddly and glide rather than walk, and they do have tendency to vanish into thin air. Those who see them often don’t recognize them as ghosts until they disappear, and they generally find them unthreatening and not unfriendly. There are, of course, exceptions. Like the killer of babies recorded in a twelfth century anthology, although it is hard to know how reliable this record is and how much is misinterpretation and superstition. There are ghosts which may cause accidents, too, like the quite recent reports of the phantom on the A38. A number of motorists have had to swerve to avoid a grey-haired, middle-aged man in a mackintosh who appears on the road waving a torch. One woman drove her car into a ditch; a motorcyclist claims to have broken his leg taking avoiding action; and one man says he gave the man a lift on three different occasions. Always the man is drenched with rain. Always he just vanishes.

Ghosts may reappear regularly and then suddenly stop coming. They can be seen by several people at once or by only one particular person. They rarely speak. And there are notoriously haunted places, where apparitions have been seen by many people over many years.  But are English ghosts any different to those in other parts of the world? Ackroyd seems to think they are but he offers no proof.

This is a book for dipping into rather than reading straight through. It is a gift book, a pot-boiler written with Ackroyd’s usual care and precision. It contains nothing to convince those who don’t believe in ghosts, and nothing to change the minds of those who do. But it is a cabinet of curiosities for the curious and offers a pleasant way of passing  a few idle hours.

Ann Skea
Website and Ted Hughes pages:

REVIEW: Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds

TITLE:  Tamara Drewe
AUTHOR: Posy Simmonds
PUBLISHER:      Random House, (November 2010)
ISBN: 9780224078177

Reviewed by Ann Skea ([email protected]).

Tamara Drewe is a young woman whose reappearance in the small English village of Ewedown creates a stir, especially amongst the men. She is, as Posy Simmonds’ superbly drawn graphics show, a pretty, nubile, sexily dressed young woman: “a beautiful, fecund creature“, as Dr Glen Larson, an American academic sojourning at the writers’ retreat of Stonefield, bemusedly describes her – a “hot patootie” (whatever that might be). And the expressions on the faces of the other people present speak volumes: Beth – unsure; Andy – assessing her covertly; Nick – anxious.

And why should Nick Hardiman be anxious and immediately leave the garden? Beth, his wife, has her suspicions, as well she might. Beth and Nicholas who have run Stonefield for twenty-five years, have what Beth calls ‘an open marriage’. She tolerates his ‘flings’, because, she claims, he needs them and she doesn’t: “Affairs are OK, up to a point. Lying about them is not“. Nick, however, is a master of deviousness, after all, this is what he writes about in his highly successful crime novels, and Beth knows that “lulling the spouse” is something he wrote about very perceptively in one of his books.

To say that Tamara’s love life is the core of this story, is to miss the richness Posy Simmonds creates around it. Her individual, elegant drawings bring the village and the people to life, and her sense of fun is  wonderful. It can be no accident that Dr Glen Larson, “translator (MFA, University of Arkansas, PHD. Columbia, currently Visiting Professor at London Medial University)“, and the source of a great deal of the fun in the book, looks just like Bill Bryson. They must be good friends. Or, by now, sworn enemies. There is a lurking famous poet, too, who I suspect may have a living double. Simmonds shows Ewedown as a typical English village which is suffering the effects of modern life on the small farms and small villages which are within easy driving distance of London. Local services are non-existent. Its teenagers are bored and find the usual destructive and illegal distractions. Their parents are on benefits. The ‘gentry’ are bad tempered and know little about the land, and everyone is keen to know every-else’s business.

Amongst all this Beth and Nicholas Hardiman run Stonefield, a “working retreat” which is advertised in terms of a writer’s heaven, with all the services a writer might ever want, and “Far from the Madding Crowd“. Glen’s loves the “luxury, the brazen comfort” of it but knows that it has all the ingredients to corrupt a writer and keep him from his work : “I mean“, he asks. “should a writer live like a pig in shit and expect the Muse to call?“.

Stonefield is Beth’s creation. She runs the 16 acres of farmland and the house, keeps the guests happy and well-fed, and at the same time she reads and types Nick’s work, acts as his editor, researcher, critic, advisor, and deals with his mail and his appointments so that he can seclude himself in his shed and write the best-seller which keep them in business. Essential to Beth’s running of the place is Andy Cobb, whose family had to sell Winnard Farm which they had owned for generations, and the farmhouse of which Tamara has recently inherited from her mother,.

Andy is understandably scathing about ‘incomers’. He complains to Glen about “rich bastards” who come in and transform the village with “Townie crap“, hanging baskets and the like. But Andy has a soft spot for Tamara, whom he knew before she went to London, began writing a gossipy column for a newspaper, had “a nose job” and became glamorous. Beth describes Andy as “an open honest sort of bloke” and Glen notes the pungent bouquet around him of “earth, dog, tobacco, engine oil…“; but Andy always seems to say the wrong thing to Tamara. And, anyway, he is soon outclassed by the appearance of Ben Sergeant, ex-drummer and song-writer of the famous indie rock band, Swipe, whose designer stubble, aggressive existential angst, and dislike of  “wankers“, “middle-aged tossers” and country life in general, upset the whole village. All except one local teenager, Casie Shaw, who is infatuated and obsessed with him.

For Casey and her friend Jody Long, Tamara is “Plastic Fantastic“, glamorous and lucky.  As an alternative to hanging out in the empty bus-shelter, smoking and reading chick-mags, they let themselves into Winnard Farm whilst Tamara is in London, try on her clothes, sample her alcohol, and discuss boys, doing IT, and losing their “V Plates“. For fun, on St Valentine’s day, Casey sends a sexy, inviting e-mail from Tamara’s laptop to Ben, and copies it to Andy and Nick. The ramifications of this involve everyone at Stonefield and, ultimately and most unexpectedly, lead to two deaths and a happy ending.

Posy Simmonds’ ear for dialogue is superb and her characters are people you can warm to, laugh with, and understand. The story proceed in pictures, speech and thought bubbles and in small blocks of text. Tamara’s newspaper column ‘Away From it All’, appears in fragments which express her views and her style (not “Shakespeare” but not as bad as Nick’s sarcastic “Eurchh yuk” would suggest). Beth’s initial revenge on Nick’ devious, adulterous behaviour is satisfyingly appropriate. And the frames depicting the difficulties of getting pen to paper for Glen, Tamara and Nick, will ring a bell with any writer: Glen picks his teeth, cleans his nails with a pencil, eats or just sits; Tamara agonizes over deadlines; Nick inhabits his own little universe and writes as if in a snow-storm bubble paperweight  when not distracted by Tamara and sex. Nick and Glen engage in some subtle writers’ rivalry. There are some caustic comments about Literary Festivals. And, on the rural side, Cows, mating goats, plucked poultry and uncontrollable dogs all play their part in this funny, perceptive, and entertaining book.

No wonder it has been made into a British film which has already had rave review

Ann Skea
Website and Ted Hughes pages:

REVIEW: Empty Family by Colm Toibin

TITLE:  The Empty Family
AUTHOR: Colm Toíbín
PUBLISHER: PanMacmillan, (November 2010)
ISBN: 9781405040235

Reviewed by Ann Skea ([email protected]).

The moon lays low over Texas. The moon is my mother. She is full tonight, and brighter than the brightest neon: there are folds of red in her vast amber“.

So begins the first of the nine stories in this book, as a man walks the streets of Guadeloupe pouring out his memories of a return to Ireland six years earlier to be with his dying mother. He speaks, in his head, to an old lover, and memories of loss, separation and strained family relationships mingle with regret for long years of hoping for some sign of his mother’s love for him and nostalgia for a love which has cooled.

An air of melancholy and nostalgia pervades many of the stories in Colm Toíbín’s latest book. Memories and regret for familiar people and familiar places left behind, for the changes wrought by distance and time, for the awareness of  inhabiting  “a landscape of endings“.  Toíbín’s great skill is to create these tensions with small brush-strokes which build a picture not just of his narrators, but also of time and place  – California, Barcelona, Ireland  – all changed.

Carme Giralt, in ‘The New Spain’, returns after eight years exile in London to a new regime, a new democratic order in post-Franco Spain. Forced to leave because of her Communist sympathies, she returns to reclaim an inheritance left to her and her sister by her grandmother. She finds her parents and brother-in-law hostile towards her because of changes they have made to the estate without her permission; and  Spain itself is changed in ways she struggles to absorb. Old customs on St. John’s Eve eventually reconnect her with old friends and with some remnants of old Spanish life, but the situation in her family home, her home, is impossible until she reasserts her independence and finds unexpected ease in plans to claim her rightful place in this changed but familiar country.

Several of Toíbín’s narrators are women and many have an inner strength which supports them through difficult returns. In ‘The Empty Family’ the narrator could be a man or a woman. I read it as the story of a woman who returns from California to a cottage she owns on the coast in Ireland. In all the years away, she tells us, she would go to a place which reminded her of this coast “so I could miss home“. Now she is back in her “dream space” waiting for an old lover to hear of her return and visit her. No-one comes. “My eye, desperate to evade, erase, forget“, reaches after new dreams and (perhaps influenced by her reading of William Glass’s book On Being Blue) she muses on the way language and perception shape our world, and she blocks out words with the “rich chaos” of the endless waves.

In ‘Two Women’, a formidable, confident, sharp-tongued set-designer returns to Ireland to work on a film with a director she knows well. “Beside her career nothing interested her now except her own house and her own mind“, but Dublin stirs old memories, in particular of a man she had once loved and still regrets losing. When, by chance, she meets the widow of this man, she has to confront her mixed feelings. In the end, she decides, “the years passed: it was as simple as that“: and life goes on.

The narrators of several of the stories in this book are gay. Sometimes this is merely suggested and it plays no significant part in the story. But in other stories, ‘The Pearl Fishers’ and ‘Barcelona 1975’ in particular, graphic descriptions of homosexual sex are confronting and, for some, will be unacceptable. Those who have followed and enjoyed Toíbín’s writing over the years may not be prepared for such sudden, open and explicit writing about sex, and I do wonder if it is really necessary to the stories, especially when they are, in themselves, as subtle and complex as others in the book.

In the final and longest story, Malik, a young boy from Pakistan is an immigrant working in Barcelona and living in a small Muslim enclave. He does not know the city, does not speak the language, has no friends, and his employer wields considerable power over him. It is a lonely, insecure and alien life. He learns about people, about power, about violence, about himself and, eventually, about a fellow employee, Abdul, with whom he forms a tenuous friendship and a secret, unspoken and necessarily hidden homosexual bond. The nature of this bond is only made clear when he discovers by accident that Abdul has a wife and children in Pakistan and he realizes how little he knows about the man. But Abdul mends the relationship, telling him “you are my real family”.

This is one of the best stories in the book for the way in which it quietly conveys Malik’s youth, his naivety and his confusion. He does not know the work or the culture and hardly knows himself, but Toíbín skillfully conveys his gradual, half-understanding of his relationship with his employer, of his fellow workers at the barber’s shop where he has failed to learn to cut hair, of his severely restricted life in a strange city, and of love.

In all the stories in this book, Toíbín’s spare, poetic language has subtle and  powerful effect and his empathy with his characters is persuasive and convincing. As in his recent book, Brooklyn, he draws the reader into his narrator’s inner world and the story is told through their perceptions and their feelings about what happens in their lives. The Empty Family offers some fine, varied, poignant, and not unhappy, stories about memory, loss, love and regret.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2010
Website and Ted Hughes pages:

Ann Skea
Website and Ted Hughes pages:

REVIEW: Queen Elizabeth: The Queen Mother by William Shawcross

Reviewed by Ann Skea ([email protected]).

I am not A ‘Royal Watcher’ although I do enjoy the theatrical pomp and circumstance which Royalty provides. Nor am I usually a reader of Royal biographies. However, I knew Ted Hughes when he was British Poet Laureate and I knew that he got along especially well with Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. “She’s a great flirt”, he told me (she was in her 80s at the time), and he greatly admired her abundant energy and her sense of fun. She also used to send him salmon which she had caught on her Scottish estate. So, I was interested to read more about their friendship.

My other reason for wanting to read this book was that Queen Elizabeth (as she is called throughout the book) was a favourite with my mother, who was of the same generation and shared some of the Queen Mum’s “indomitable” character traits. When Queen Elizabeth II sent her ninety-three-year-old mother a special stick with a letter saying “Your daughters and your nieces would very much like your to TRY this walking stick”, I knew just how she felt.

Shawcross delivers on both my interests. There is a whole chapter entitled ‘Poetry and Pain’ in part of which he writes of Queen Elizabeth’s special friendship with Ted Hughes. On Hughes’s first private poetry reading for her at a Musical Weekend at the Royal Lodge at Windsor, “he was captivated by her and she by him”. Their friendship, Shawcross writes, “was a continued pleasure” for Queen Elizabeth. They corresponded with each other, fished together and shared a love of nature. Hughes would write whimsical poems especially for her, and he clearly knew what sort of poems she would enjoy. The poem he wrote for her eightieth birthday, she said “gave her great joy”. She was still re-reading it ten years later and several passages, she said, made her cry every time she read it.

Shawcross delighted me, too, with his accounts of Queen Elizabeth’s sense of fun and her love of the unexpected. And, again, I recognized her daughter’s worry whenever her elderly mother delightedly “went outside her programme”.

I enjoyed many parts of this book. I was lost by the pedigrees discussed in the early chapters but interested to read of the black sheep of the family, who were responsible for fluctuating family fortunes and for some tempestuous and disastrous marriages.

Queen Elizabeth’s own early family life was very happy, although one of her six brothers was killed during the First World War, a second was wounded in the foot and suffered badly from shell-shock, and a third had to have a bullet-shattered finger amputated. Elizabeth, herself, was too young to train as a nurse but she was responsible for making the soldiers who were convalescing in her family home feel relaxed and comfortable. She was clearly very good at this and her experiences, then, clearly shaped the way she cared about the ordinary people during the bombing of London during the Second World War.

A good deal of Shawcross’s book seems like lists of events which, as official biographer, he clearly had to mention, but Queen Elizabeth’s character shines through and her great sense of fun frequently enlivens the text. Shawcross uses letters, diaries, and much other archive material, and he is good at encapsulating the historical and political events which Queen Elizabeth lived through during her hundred-and two years.

Queen Elizabeth never expected to sit beside he husband as Queen of England, wife of King George VI, and it is interesting to read that when they took the throne after the abdication of King Edward VIII, she and Albert (the name by which the family knew him) were not immediately accepted by the British people. However, she handled this difficult challenge with the aplomb, sensitivity, stamina and sense of duty which eventually made her, in her later years, the most popular member of the Royal Family.

Other reviewers have noted Shawcross’s “manful” handling of countless descriptions of clothes, charity work, constant public tours and duties. I did find these over-long and tedious, and the book itself is thick and heavy, but Shawcross is a meticulous historian. What I really enjoyed, however, was the way his book revealed a remarkable woman, a loving wife and mother for whom family was of the greatest importance,  a caring family matriarch, and, especially, a “Granny” who loved poetry, ballet, jokes and unscheduled adventures.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2010
Website and Ted Hughes pages:

REVIEW: Two for Sorrow by Nicola Upson

Reviewed by Ann Skea ([email protected]).

London. Holloway Gaol, Tuesday 3 Feb. 1903“:  Two women are about to be hanged for baby killing and, in the frosty, early-morning darkness of one cell, warder, Celia Bannerman, prepares to awaken one of them for the 9 a.m. arrival of the hangman and his escort. Thirty years later, writer Josephine Tay recreates the scene in an untitled chapter for her latest book. She is interested in the lives of the two women and in the effect of their actions and their deaths on those who knew them and were close to them.

If you look up ‘Josephine Tay’ on the internet, you will find that this was, in fact, one of the pseudonyms of a popular Scottish author, Elizabeth Mackintosh, who died in 1952. In Two for Sorrow, Nicola Upson has borrowed her name and some aspects of her life to tell her own mystery story.

Chapters purportedly written by Tay are interspersed with Upson’s own chapters on imagined events in Tay’s life and the horrific murder of a young woman employed by close friends of Tay. The murder is in some way connected to the hanging of the two women which Tay is investigating but now, thirty years later,  the web of connections between this event and the current murder involves many of the Tay’s friends and acquaintances. As the search for the killer evolves and the tangle of events is gradually unwoven, Upson skilfully and slowly reveals details which intrigue and puzzle everyone, including the reader.

The hanged baby-killers really did exist and Upson has used newspaper reports of the time as a basis for Tay’s book research. Elizabeth Mackintosh (alias Tay) really did study at the Anstey Physical Training College, where Upson’s Celia Bannerman has been a senior teacher. And the Cowdray Club, where much of Upson’s dramatic action takes place, really did exist and was frequently the residence of Tay when she was in London. Two for Sorrow, however, is a work of fiction and no matter what real names there are amongst Upson’s characters (Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, for example, make an appearance) their thoughts and actions are Upson’s invention.

Her Josephine Tay is a strong-minded, intelligent and independent woman, dedicated to her work but, now, embroiled in a real-life mystery. Her close friend Archie, who had been a friend of her lover who died during the 1914-18 war, is now the detective investigating the murder; and his cousins, Lettuce and Ronnie (both women) run a dress-making business which specializes in theatre work. All this provides Upson with varied and fascinating material, as, too, do the various women who frequent the Cowdray Club and the attached College of Nursing and who are also involved in the murder investigation.

In spite of the developing love interest between Arthur and Tay, the women’s club, the nurses, and the theatrical acceptance of unconventional behaviour all allow Upson to inject a lesbian flavour to parts of her story, but this is lightly done and is unlikely to offend many modern readers. It is also the source of much humour and of some perceptive writing about female friendships, which were common in the aftermath of the Great War, when so many young men were killed and so many single women had no chance of marriage.

Two for Sorrow, I discovered after reading it, is the third of a series of books by Upson which feature Josephine Tay, but it can certainly be read on its own. And I found it gripping enough to make we want to read the earlier books.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2010
Ann Skea
Website and Ted Hughes pages:

REVIEW: My Blood’s Country: in the Footsteps of Judith Wright by Fiona Capp

Reviewed by Ann Skea ([email protected]).

Fiona Capp was just twelve years old when she first discovered Judith Wright’s poetry; and just a few years older when she first met her. Judith Wright was forty-five years older than Capp – an old woman in her eyes – but a correspondence began between them which lasted until Judith’s death in 2000. “I could not claim to have known her as a close friend”, writes Capp, but over the years Judith’s letter endings progressed from “Sincerely Yours” to “Best Wishes” and, finally, to “Love”, as a relationship of affection and trust was established between them.

My Blood’s Country is Capp’s journey to those landscapes in which Judith lived and from which her poetry and her activism grew. For Capp, it was not “a pilgrimage”, but a way of learning what Judith might have experienced in those places she loved, and, especially, a way of making connections with Judith’s poetry.

Capp’s long familiarity with Judith’s poems, and with Judith’s other writings, makes her journey, and this book, rich and absorbing. It takes her from the Australian, New England Tablelands, where Judith’s family had been early settlers and where Judith had grown up; to the Queensland home which she and her partner, Jack McKinney, shared at Mount Tambourine; to Canberra, where her growing relationship with the prominent Aboriginal activist,  Herbert Cole “Nugget” Coombs, was a closely kept secret; and, finally, to the house at Edge, in the Half-Moon Wildlife District, which she designed for herself. Along the way, Capp explores the way in which these very different landscapes are reflected in Judith’s’ poetry, her deep connection with the land and her increasing awareness of the “interconnectedness of all things”. It was this awareness which lay at the root of her growing ecological activism and her concern for the rights of Aboriginal people.

My Blood’s Country is not a biography but inevitably it deals with the people, events and experiences which shaped Judith’s life and underlay her beliefs and her work. At the same time, the book reveals Capp’s own responses to Judith’s homes. “I might never be able to see and know this place as Judith had”, she writes after immersing herself in a bushland waterhole beside which Judith, her daughter, Meredith, and Nugget Coombs often used to camp, “but at least I could taste something of its pleasures and, in doing so, ease my way deeper into the poems themselves.”

She paints us pictures of Judith’s lands, digs a little into their history, tries to discover their secrets and the meaning they had for Judith and, constantly, she comes back to the poetry. It is this which makes the book satisfying and, for me, meant that I returned to Judith’s poetry with a new admiration for her spare, pared back, beautifully crafted art.

Capp’s journey also reveals Judith’s character, showing her as a strong, determined, sensitive and very active woman for whom the raw experiences of life were the foundation of all she did and all she achieved.

Judith was forty-seven, and already an established poet, when she helped to found the Wildlife Protection Society of Queensland. Their activism and the growing public awareness of the unique and threatened nature of much of the Australian environment eventually led to the establishment of the National Parks of Cooloola, the Great Barrier Reef and Frazer Island. In 1979, with Nugget Coombs and a small group of scholars, Judith helped form the Aboriginal Treaty Committee, which fought for Aboriginal land rights and self-determination. And because of her involvement with a number of different groups, in particular the Fellowship of Australian Writers, which was suspected of having communist leanings, she came to the notice of the Australian security services. This did not deter her. “Change”, as she wrote in one of her poems, “is my true condition, / to take and give and promise, / to fight and fail and alter”*.

Her ability to evoke the uniqueness, the fragility and the strange beauty of the land which she called her “blood’s country”, lives on in her poetry. And it is this for which she will best be remembered.

* These lines come from ‘Some Words’. A sample of Judith’s poems can be found at

Copyright © Ann Skea 2010
Website and Ted Hughes pages:

REVIEW: The Book of Lost Threads by Tess Evans

The Book of Lost ThreadsThe Book of Lost Threads by Tess Evans

Reviewed by Ann Skea ([email protected]).

Moss’s life is complicated by the fact that she has two mothers, Mother Amy and Mother Linsey. And life becomes complicated for her father, Finn, when Moss seeks him out years after her birth. So much for guaranteed anonymity for sperm donors! Clearly, one determined offspring can find ways around this, which is exactly what Moss (Miranda Sinclair) has done.

Flynn, who leads a reclusive sort of life trying to come to terms with having killed an anonymous young woman in a traffic accident, is wary of Moss. His story unfolds alongside hers, but so, too, does that of his elderly neighbour, Mrs Pargetter, who has found a role for herself in life by knitting tea cosies for the United Nations. How she came by this occupation is a story in itself, but we learn that it is not the only thing which makes her life very different to that of other people.

In fact, there are many stories in this book and Tess Evans weaves their threads together with great skill, giving each of her loosely connected characters enough depth for us to want to know more about them. So, there is plenty of variety and plenty to enjoy.

We hear about Moss, Flynn, Mrs Pargetter and her dog, Errol, and we meet kindly and worldly-wise Benedictine monks, a puzzled police sergeant, a run-away teenager, Kosovo refugees, some unusual United Nations employees, the townsfolk of Opportunity, and many others. The great strength of this book is Evans’s ability to show realistically and sensitively the psychological complexity of her characters as she draws us into their uncertainties, their emotional ups-and-downs, the mistakes they regret and the relationships they develop with each other in unexpected situations.

Evans is a good story-teller and her gently insistence on the tolerance and the kindness of ordinary human beings is what makes this book a joy to read.

Also, there is also a large sticker on the front of the book which says that if you don’t “Love it”  the publishers will give you your money back. My guess is that there won’t be many who will want to take them up on their offer.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2010
Website and Ted Hughes pages:

REVIEW: The Journey of Anders Sparrman: A biographical novel by Tom Geddes

Reviewed by Ann Skea ([email protected]).

On the 28th of January [1774] we penetrated into the southern regions as far as we could possibly go…no person before us had had the frozen honour of being further south.” So wrote twenty-six-year-old Anders Sparrman, who was sailing as an assistant zoologist, botanist and physician on Captain James Cook’s ship, Resolution. It was typical of his honest recording of the natural world that he also noted: “I could smell rotten penguin meat“.

Sparrman’s diary entries describing the light, the noise, the terror and the beauty of glacier-filled Antarctic seas are amongst the most compelling in this book. Yet this voyage to Tahiti, the Antarctic and to New Zealand was not his first venture into unmapped territory, and this description is only one of many of his vivid, acute and fascinating observations of the natural world, the people and the cultures which he encountered on his travels.

Anders Sparrman was a most remarkable Swedish natural scientist, whose early travels had taken him to both China and South Africa before he boarded the Resolution. He was just fourteen when he left the countryside where his great-grandfather, his grandfather and his father had all been church ministers, and went to Uppsala with his older brother to study medicine at the university. There he became the youngest disciple of the great Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus, who commissioned him (at the age of nineteen) to travel to China to collect and observe the natural phenomena. Since early childhood, Sparrman had been fascinated and absorbed by the world of nature, so he was superbly qualified for this task. And he continued his biological observations all his life, although he travelled little after the age of thirty.

After returning from Antarctica, Sparrman sailed once again on Linneaus’s commission. This time he ventured far into unmapped territory in Southern Africa, mapping and collecting specimens, and observing the natives and the Boer settlers as he went. In his surviving diaries, he give us a delightful picture of himself trekking into the bush to “observe the lilies on the ground and the daughters of the land” with a “whole regiment” of insects pinned around the brim of his hat because his insect box was full. The collection which he sent back to Sweden at the end of his trip was “the largest ever sent from Africa to any country” but his notes on the culinary delights of such things as fried elephant’s trunk, rhinoceros flesh and hippopotamus-fat soup, would horrify modern conservationists. His observations of the people he met, their cultures, customs and illnesses, are as acute as his descriptions of the country and its botanical specimens. Most of all, the horrors and cruelty of the slavery which he encountered and recorded made him a passionate abolitionist.

On his return to Sweden at the age of thirty, he set up practice as a doctor and midwife, and was given a ‘pension’ as the Keeper of the Museum at the Academy in Stockholm. Later he was elected to the Swedish Academy of Science and paid a stipend, which allowed him the time to order and describe his collection. Subsequently he was appointed Curator of the Cabinet of Natural History, a position which he held against strong opposition until just before his fiftieth birthday. In contrast to the freedom of his early childhood and the independence and adventure of his early life, these appointments exposed him to bureaucratic corruption, pettiness and social commitments which he scorned. Fortunately, it also brought him into contact with Lotte, a young woman with whom he shared love and friendship until his death in 1820.

Per Wästberg’s weaving together of the strands of Sparrman’s remarkable life from his books, diaries and letters, and from Wästberg’s own empathetic imagination, rescues a good and modest man from obscurity. His achievements in botany, the important part he played in the abolition of slavery, and his lifelong work for the ordinary, poor people whose doctor he chose to be, all make him a man who deserves to be remembered.

This book is not always easy to read.  Wästberg’s prose, initially, seems rather abrupt but his descriptions of nature are lyrical, and gradually his ‘voice’ begins to seem natural to his subject. The excerpts from Sparrman’s own diaries and letters are always absorbing and often funny. They offer a clear picture of a sensitive, intelligent, determined and honest character whose heart, always, was attuned to nature and who viewed all humankind as equally deserving of respect. This is a book to savour slowly – and to remember.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2010
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REVIEW: Would You Eat Your Cat? by Jeremy Stangroom

Would you eat your cat by Jeremy StangroomReviewed by Ann Skea ([email protected]).

Would you eat your cat? Assuming that it had died from natural causes and you had shared so much together that you felt it would be fitting tribute, would you do this? And would it be right to do it? Is there anything immoral in doing such a thing?

Jeremy Stangroom poses a number of questions in this book which will make you think about morality, rights and responsibilities, crime and punishment, society and politics.  The cat question is just one of his 25 ‘ethical conundrums’ all of which are designed to “illuminate various issues in moral philosophy” and to help you to “shed some light on your own moral commitments”. That may sound like hard going, but the conundrums themselves are presented in a humorous and light -hearted manner, and possible responses are discussed in a separate section at the back of the book.

This is philosophy for everyone and the conundrums would make for lively discussion around the dinner table or over coffee with a friend. Many are very relevant to all our lives, dealing, for example, with such things as civil liberties: “Should the policeman stop the climber from climbing Ben Nevis?”; crime and punishment: “Is it right to torture Goldtooth in the hope that he reveals the location of the [world destroying] bomb”; If “the effect that any particular individual has on global warming is negligible” can no individual be held responsible for contributing to climate change?

Stangroom begins the book with a brief introduction which moves from a question about the Internet and virtual marital infidelity to a brief outline of three traditional ways of viewing ethical issues: Utilitarianism, Deontological Ethics, and Virtue Ethics. These three names may sound formidable but Stangroom’s outlines of these positions on morality are admirably clear and brief. Whether or not they help you to answer the conundrums, they do offer some clear guidance in thinking about your own responses.

For philosophers, of course, there is never one clear answer to any moral dilemma, nor are there only three cut-and-dried ways of approaching it. So, simple as this book seems, the questions it poses are often more complex than they appear at first glance.

To take the example of eating your cat. In his response to this question Stangroom suggests that those who think it is not wrong to do so (which is a moral judgment)  value intuition more than feeling, put no moral value on private behaviour, and reject rational arguments about moral issues. On the other hand, those who think it is wrong to eat your cat think emotion makes a poor base for moral judgments,or, he admits, they may be put off by the ‘Yuck!” factor. He also notes that it is not clear that there is a moral issue involved: the cat is dead and died of natural causes, no-one is harmed by your eating it, and it is an issue which affects only you.

He offers no further suggestions for further debate, maybe because he hopes you will consider the issue seriously and ponder the implications of your choice. You may think, for example that there is nothing wrong with eating your dead cat. After all, unless you are vegetarian, you eat pigs, lambs, chickens etc. So, would you also consider eating your deceased, human, best friend? Some societies might see nothing morally wrong in doing this. The more you think about it the more complicated the issue can get, unless, perhaps, you just follow some strictures set down by religion or the law.

Moral philosophy is all about trying to think clearly about our own value judgments and about moral issues which affect our lives. This small book offers and enjoyable and stimulating way of examining our own values and the basis on which we make moral decisions. It is an easily digestible aid to clear thinking.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2010
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REVIEW: Fox and The Princess and her Panther

The Princiess and Her Panther by Wendy OrrReviewed by Ann Skea ([email protected]).

Fox is a beautiful book. The rich colours and textures of its illustrations are dramatic and satisfying and the hand lettering is interesting and unusual, although it may be a problem for some early readers. The story it tells is unusual and open-ended in a way that stimulates the imagination.

The story is simple and the language sometimes complex but not daunting. A dog finds a magpie with a broken wing and takes it to his cave to nurse it. Dog has only one eye. Magpie has only one useful wing. Together they help each other. Magpie flies through the air on dogs back and acts as Dog’s missing eye. Then  Fox appears. Fox entices Magpie away and runs with it to the desert where it leaves it to make its own way home. The final illustration is of Magpie jiggety-hopping away from the fiery red sun.

There are lessons here in friendship, loyalty, trust and deception, but nothing is spelled out and the vivid illustrations are a major part of the joy of the book.

Fox was first published ten years ago and has since won numerous awards. This anniversary edition is suitably sumptuous for a book which widely is regarded as an Australian classic.

The Princess and her Panther is a very different kind of picture book but children will identify with the princess and with the panther, both of whom are real children in dress-up clothes.

Fox by Margaret WildThe first illustration shows panther having whiskers painted onto her face, and the garden inside the front and back covers is ordinary and familiar. The story begins one afternoon with an imaginary trip to the desert of the garden sand-pit. Princess is confident. Panther is nervous. The paddling pool becomes a wide blue lake and the garden tree is the wood where Princess pitches her tent. As night falls, the world becomes black, and strange noises begin, Panther tries again and again to be brave. Finally, “Enough is enough”. Panther finds her courage and the frightening, spooky night creatures are banished. The book ends with the sisters and their cat sleeping happily in their tent until morning and breakfast appear.

The story is simple but dramatic and there is plenty to discover in the illustrations on each page. A good bed-time story.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2010
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REVIEW: The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and of his friend Marilyn Monroe by Andrew O’Hagan

The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and of his friend Marilyn MonroeMafia Honey was and is a remarkable animal. Was, because he was, in truth, Marilyn Monroe’s pet Maltese terrier for the last two years of her life. Is, because, as he demonstrates in Andrew O’Hagan’s book, he is a remarkably literate, philosophical, perceptive and intelligent animal, even if he is an inveterate name-dropper. His pedigree (according to Maf) “is terrifically intact” and can be traced back to the pets of Mary Queen of Scots and Marie Antoinette. He is also a skillful narrator with a fascinating story to tell.

Born in Aviemore, Scotland, in the house of an imaginative Trotskyist, Maf imbibed literary knowledge and socialist principles as a pup before being sold to the gardener of Charleston, where he became part of the household of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and inherited the dog-collar of Virginia Woolf’s beloved dog, Pinker. His literary education, thus, was impeccable and his vast knowledge of art may have begun there, too.

So, Maf was Scottish born and English educated before his journey to Marilyn exposed him to a new and different culture. Maf tells us how he was shipped to America by Natalie Wood’s mother, spent some time in the Wood’s chaotic household, and then was bought by Frank Sinatra as a surprise gift for Marilyn Monroe, because “every girl need a man around the house”. Marilyn was instantly captivated by Maf, lifted him into her arms and kissed him as if he “was a returning hero”. Hearing that he was from England, she declared him “a proper gentleman”. It was love at first sight for both of them and from then on Maf was her almost constant companion. He was thus perfectly placed to tell us about the famous people she met and worked with, and he was an acute observer of Marilyn herself. He tells us all about his observations with an ironic turn of phrase.

Commenting on dog owners in general, Maf says that humans imagine that dogs “enjoy nothing more than leaping after a stick or chasing a tennis ball”. On the contrary, he says, dogs would prefer a chewy bone to gnaw in front of a roaring fire whilst they imbibe conversation and opinions. He notes, however, that “given the paucity of stimulating conversation in most English and American households”, a trip to the park where he can meet and debate with other “flatulent slaves of enchantment” is very acceptable.

Maf is always ready for philosophical debate with his own kind. Quite where he came to know the works of Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Descartes (“He think therefore he Am – well good for He. Good for Am”) he never tells us. Nor does he really explain how he came by his extensive knowledge of literature and art, both of which he quotes from and refers to frequently. He does tell us that Marilyn reads Russian novels – slowly. He also comments that you never saw her reading the books by De Toqueville and Edmund Wilson which she had on her shelves unless a photographer came to the apartment to take pictures. But he records her strong desire for intellectual seriousness, and her urge to better herself and to break out from behind the Marilyn ‘mask’  which she wore to concealed her vulnerability.

Maf gets involved in some wonderfully funny situations. His description of Natalie Wood’s father, Nick, watching cowboy shows on the television, swigging vodka and holding his rifle (unloaded) on his lap, and the mayhem that ensues when Frank Sinatra visits is an exercise in deadpan humour. “I don’t think I have ever witnessed such chaos”, he remarks, “whether in Scotland, England, on Pan-Am or in Quarantine”.

When Maf accompanies Marilyn to an after performance gathering of actors and friends in Lee Strasberg’s office, their enthusiasm for Shakespeare’s dog, Crab, in Two Gentlemen of Verona, inspires him so much that he imagines himself on Lear’s blasted heath:  “Poor Maf’s a-cold” he extemporizes, getting carried away by the excitement of the moment.

Maf is acutely aware of Marilyn’s vulnerability and of her need for self-discovery. He shares her ups and downs, her passions and her depressions. He accompanies her to consultations with her psychiatrist, about whom he makes  penetrating comments on her patronizing attitude, her self-obsession, her own neuroses and her claims of childhood friendship with Anna Freud. Most of what passed for psychoanalysis at the Actors Studio, Maf concludes, was really just gossip about analysts and writers in Europe, which made people feel better about their own lives in America.

Marilyn’s first meeting with President ‘Jack’ Kennedy is recorded. “Don’t hold your breath for stunning revelations”, Maf tells us. He only met him this one time and that was as at a party which was “no more racy than usual”. He recalls no “world-historical discussions”, only a brief conversation in which he was aware of “something dramatic lying just under the surface”.

All-in-all, Maf is a great observer and a great story-teller. “A dog’s biggest talent is for absorbing everything of interest”. Cats, he observes, “show an exclusive preference for poetry over prose” (one cat he meets quotes Yeats) and that is why dogs hate them. Other animals speak prose and are practical and realistic, Human beings, however, “live in a place invented in their own minds”.

Above all, Maf’s creed is to never give up. “We move on”, he proclaims, “New adventures. New people. New snacks.”. His last glimpse of Marilyn is on television, singing Happy Birthday to President Kennedy. She looks, he says, “unearthly”,”as if nothing real had ever touched her”. And our last glimpse of Maf is of him snuggling down on his mistress’s empty bed, breathing in the scent of her pillow.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2010
Website and Ted Hughes pages:

Ann Skea
Website and Ted Hughes pages: