Tag: philosophy

The Gift Maker: Book Review

I started this one as well as Hekla’s Children in a conscious effort to read more books published by independent presses. I chose Urbane Press this month as The Gift Maker caught my eye. And I’m so glad it did! It proved to be a disturbing, and yet, beautiful story. It reminded me very much of Bulgakov’s, The Master and the Margarita, with its surreal nature, as well as  its Eastern European-esque setting (the characters venture to a town called Grenze, which translates to “Border”).


At the very beginning, one of the MCs, Thomas receives the mysterious box. I enjoyed gradually getting to know Thomas and his fellow philosophy students – their jokes and banter easing us into the story. It isn’t until we meet Liselotte, the other MC that the story starts to get surreal and magical, but it’s worth the wait. I loved following her on her quest to understand her gift and watching as the world around her becomes more warped and disturbing.


There is so much to contemplate in this book – there is a depth of soul in this book that is such a rarity. I think some of the quotes I marked will sum up the particular beauty of its pages and its writer:

“The gift will find the receiver, whether he wishes it or not, for it is part of him and cannot be denied.”

“We look for the pure, if hidden, desire. The love of the love for its own sake, not for gross gain. A rare thing in this and other worlds.”

I don’t want to give too much away, but there are layers upon layers of meaning and influence in this book. One moment you think of The Master and Margarita, especially with the theatre scenes and then there’s hints of Dr Faustus and questions about one’s ambitions in life and their impact on the soul.


This book has stayed with me the last week – and I will definitely be buying a paperback copy so that I can revisit it again when the images and ideas fade.

Smoke: Book Review

I got a lovely hardback copy of Smoke by Dan Vyleta  for my birthday 🙂 Something a little different too: YA Fantasy, but set in an alternate Edwardian England. It details a world where sin shows up as soot on skin. I hear you, the old adage: “there’s no smoke, without fire”, except in this world there is. Or more the sins and evils that burn within us are excreted through the pores as smoke and cover everyone and everything in the world with soot.

I found the concept really interesting with lots of links to Christianity and the concept of evil, as well as the consideration of one’s emotions and desires – how much is expressed or hidden of the individual.

Vyleta opens the novel with a quote from Dickens that inspired the story. Rightly so, the language and style feels very Dickensian with the squalid descriptions of London and the constant sense that the characters are going to be consumed by the smoking city. Thomas and Livia, two of the MCs when they come to London, are described thus:

“A cold drizzle is falling, taunting them with the kind of proximity they resorted to during the night, shoulder to shoulder, thigh to thigh. They ignore it and sit yards apart. Even so he is conscious of her Smoke; feels it reach across the gap and tug at his very bones. It is as though he were built to drink her sin. London is a place where people touch. Before, he had not understood the implications of this simple truth.”

I found the story itself a little slow to get off the ground and even when it did it lacked the  momentum of most YA reads these days. That is no bad thing  in my opinion. In a world where everyone’s looking for the next fix, this book makes you sit back and ruminate. It is more about the slowly built tension and unease between and within the characters that draws you. Mostly, I read on for the  interesting concepts behind the story. Don’t expect a fast-paced read, but certainly, a thought provoking one, that lingers like a cloud of billowing smoke.

Image from: http://londonbeep.com/nicknames-of-london-city


Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb: Book Review

Firstly, this is the kind of book I wish I’d read when I was younger. When Mihaly talks about the pains of growing up: his awkwardness, his disassociation with his family and his joyous discovery of a different dynamic in his friends Tamas and Eva, I thought it was such an insightful take on adolescence. I loved the way in which he told it to his new wife, Erzsi and the way in which he idolises what has passed.

“I have to tell you these things from the past because they are so important. The really important things usually lie in the distant past. And until you know about them, if you forgive me saying so, you will always be to some extent a mere newcomer in my life.”

Mihaly’s reverence for the past is what comes shining through in the novel and how it distorts his present and future.

Early on he describes his character so:

“For me the deepest truth was the things suffused with the lives of many generations…”

It’s fascinating to walk with Mihaly on his honeymoon and see how absent he is from his surroundings, almost a ghost inhabiting the present moment. Incidentally, I think Mihaly is the ideal travelling companion. (Yes, he may leave his wife on a train, but everywhere he looks the historic monuments are alive and there is a dream-like quality to his narrative and journey where anything is possible).

“They had passed beyond the threshold of dreams, the habitual hour of sleep. Now distinctions were becoming blurred, rational morality was in retreat as they surrendered themselves to the night.”

In amongst the romanticism, there is a grounding realism.

“On the hill young Roman boys, late descendants of the quirites, were playing at soldiers, hurling shards at one another, fragment of pottery two thousand years old, without a trace of emotion.

‘That’s Italy,’ thought Mihaly. ‘They pelt one another with history. Two thousand years are as natural to them as the smell of village manure.'”

His voice is amusingly cynical throughout as he reacts to characters he meets:

“Even Millicent’s stupidity was attractive. In the deepest stupidity there is a kind of dizzying, whirlpool attraction, like death: the pull of the vacuum.”

Or on his friend, who becomes a monk:

“…he had dug up from his soul the very roots of anything that might flower into those feelings that bind people together.”

One of my favourite scenes was the one in which Mihaly and his old college friend, Waldheim discuss the way in which life and death are bound together, this truth better known to Ancient cultures than in the present day:

“…for the archaic peoples nothing was more immediately apparent than death and the dead, I mean actual dead people, whose mysterious para-existence, fate and vengeful fury constantly preoccupied them. They had a tremendous horror of death and the dead. But then of course in their minds everything was more ambiguous than it is for us. Opposites sat much closer.The fear of death and the desire for death were intimately juxtaposed in their minds, and the fear was often a form of desire, the desire a form of fear.”

This age old struggle between how we relate to life and death and handle the two is what accompanies Mihaly throughout the novel and his journey. And we, like him, can only observe the present through the eyes of our past; a dichotomy that could take a whole lifetime to ponder.

(Image courtesy of laragosta.tumblr.com/post/118692687502. A photograph of a porta dei morti(door of the dead). Folklore in Gubbio says that this second door was to remove any who died in the house. There’s a great bit about these doors in Gubbio in the book.)

Iza’s Ballad: Book Review

Iza's Ballad

A beautiful and moving read about family and loss. There is a sense of fragility throughout this book, brought about mostly by the exploration of the characters by telling the same tale from each of their viewpoints. It’s a book that shows how easy it is to misunderstand the actions and motivations of others, and most sadly, even of those closest to us. It is a jewel of a book for any writer as the author reminds us that it isn’t what happens to a character that makes a story, but how the character feels about what is happening that is at its centre.

There is a sense throughout that we can never truly know what another human being is, no matter how dear they are to us. The sense of distance conjured between the characters is unsettling, ultimately heart-breaking, but so truthful and insightful that you can’t fail to love them and their story.

I watched ‘The Invisible Woman,’ this week too, a film about Dickens and his life. In it something he wrote in a Tale of Two Cities is referenced. I think the extract contains the same sentiment that is present in this novel:

“A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! ”


The Battle of Land and Sea

I have found myself a little obsessed with the sea over the last year (since taking up diving – I know, you couldn’t tell, right!) and I’m sure that’s part of why I enjoyed Conrad so much recently. Reflecting on this I was reminded that I used to have quite a different fantasy a few years ago. For light relief after a hard day at work, I used to dream of a more peaceful lifestyle, away from the crowds of the city (I think this was a symptom of growing up in the countryside) and this was my go to site:



Now it has been replaced with looking at dive sites, scoping out which reefs and marine life I’d most like to visit, as well as eyeing up the occasional boat.

Ok, direct question – if you’re reading this what’s your fantasy and why? Has it changed over the years? Or if you’re a writer – what about your main character? What do they long for deep down?

Leave you with a Conrad quote:

“Sunshine gleams between the lines of these short paragraphs – sunshine and the glitter of the sea.” (Karain: A Memory)

The Sober Scent of Paper

For some time I have been hiding out in my writer’s world: built of paperbacks and notepads, (of course, the computer features in it too, but directed inwards, not at the outside world – that’s the important part).

The short days of winter and writerly tasks of reflection, writing and redrafting make this easy. A few things to share after this hibernation though:

Firstly, Conrad. He has been my companion for some weeks now. A most interesting gentleman, a sailor in the British merchant navy during the latter part of the 19th century. He offers keen insights into human nature and the organisation of society. You get the sense that the true nature of man can only be found in the unadulterated setting of sea and land, which dominates Conrad’s stories.

“Few men realise that their life, the very essence of their life, their capabilities and their audacities, are only the expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings. The courage and composure, the confidence; the emotions and the principles; every great and every insignificant thought belongs not to the individual but to the crowd…” (An Outpost of Progress)

And throughout all his stories the boundless possibility of nature sparkles, offering something unknown, whether welcome or not it is uncertain:

“…immense forests, hiding complications of fantastic life, lay in eloquent silence of mute greatness.” (An Outpost of Progress)

“The water shone pacifically; the sky, without a speck, was a benign immensity of unstained light…” (Heart of Darkness)

“Watching the coast as it slips by the edge of the ship is like watching an enigma. There it is before you – smiling, frowning, inviting grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering. Come and find out.” (Heart of Darkness)

Give him a go, although as florid and dense at times as the exotic jungles he describes, well worth a read.

egypt red sea.jpg

The Red Sea, Rae Else, 2015

The Happiness of Pursuit…

The happiness of pursuit :-)

The happiness of pursuit 🙂

I watched the film ‘Hector and the Search for Happiness’ last week. I liked it much more than I expected. If you haven’t seen it, watch it. And…here’s a summary: –

It tells the story of Hector stagnating in his profession, psychiatry, as well as in his relationship with his girlfriend, Clara. He feels comfortable, safe and secure, but begins to wonder if something is missing in his life.

He decides to go travelling – exploring China, going to a Tibetan monastery, seeing a doctor friend who has been working in Africa and finally off to Las Vegas seeking resolution about an past relationship.

The movie, despite the wooden characters of Hector and Clara at the beginning of the  (OCD, neat-freaks, bland sort of people) it was a good watch. The message is uplifting, very sweet in places and humorous in others.

Won’t spoil too much, but a few of the great pearls of wisdom he picks up along the way are:

“Happiness could be the freedom to love more than one woman at the same time.”

“Nostalgia is not what it used to be.”

…and – just had to throw in this conversation that occurs between Hector and a Tibetan Monk:

Old Monk: Would you like to come in?

Hector: Yes, please. Cause I might not be around next week.

Old Monk: The moment of death is indeed uncertain. Come in.

So here’s to embracing life fully and all that you wish to pursue!


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