Book Review : “Toys” by James Patterson and Neil McMahon

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Toys by James Patterson and Neil McMahon with added Jaguar XJ220s (Hot Wheels)

“Toys might seem like harmless fun to you, as they do to most people, but they can be sinister and very dangerous. I’m not exaggerating for effect. These toys are not what they seem.”

This novel is set in a future where a new kind of technologically advanced human has emerged, the Elite. These Elites have super-human strength and powerful intelligence and have pushed ordinary humans to the margins of society.  Into this story we meet Hays, an elite and top operative in the Agency for Change, an entity engaged in eliminating human “terrorists”. By an odd twist of events Hays finds himself as a fugitive fighting the elites to save humans from annihilation. The action is like that of a comic book, Hays is like some kind of Marvel superhero, capable of running at 60 miles per hour and fighting like a veteran of The Matrix movie.

“I dove sideways to the neighboring balcony, twenty yards away, caught its lower rim, and swung myself down to the floor below.
The searchlights followed, and then bursts of laser fire hissed around me.”

This was very different to other James Patterson books I’ve read, like those featuring Alex Cross, (Along Came a Spider), those books I found enthralling page turners, with this I was disappointed. James Patterson is a very prolific author, many of his books are co-authored, I don’t know how much of this is Patterson and how much Neil McMahon. I picked this up for the title, the author and the illustration of the Jaguar XJ220 on the cover. There is no XJ220 in the book (there is a Mazda RX74, that can fly and go underwater…it is 2061), the XJ220 is an incredible supercar, back in the early 90s it was the fastest production car in the world (Jay Leno drives an XJ220). There is precious little character development, little suspense and not much science fiction to marvel at.

 

My rating 2.5 out of 5

Book Review: “The Odd Women” by George Gissing

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“Half a million!” Rhoda laughed again from the girl’s naive reaction. “Something like that. So many odd women – no making a pair with them. Pessimists call them useless, lost, futile lives. I take another view. I look on them as a reserve.

I’d never heard of George Gissing until Katie Lumsden  suggested that we read this book as a Goodreads readalong (readalong link), the proposed pace was two chapters a day from the beginning of May until 16 May. Because of COVID-19, I was unable to go around the bookshops to find a physical copy of this, but I did download an e-book onto Kindle and also listened at times to the LibriVox recording on archive.org. I prefer reading a physical book where possible, but recognise the benefits of e-books and audiobooks on occasions. I rarely listen to audiobooks but I found I could do this whilst practising my Drawing, a skill I hope to improve over the duration of this lockdown.

The “odd women” of the title refers to the discrepancy between the number of men and women in the population of late 19th Century England. There were far more women than men.

The story begins with a widower, Dr Madden who has six daughters, the eldest of whom is 19 year old Alice. Dr Madden is thrown from his horse and dies, leaving the fate of his progeny in a precarious position. In the late 19th century there were few opportunities for middle class women, if they didn’t find a husband the jobs open to them were very limited, jobs like governess, lady’s companion, teacher or nurse. The second chapter jumps forward 15 years, three of the sisters had by this time sadly died, the eldest sisters Alice and Virginia talked of starting a school in Clevedon, but they had little resolve and precious little financial reserves. Alice and Virginia had been trying to raise their youngest sister, Monica, just six when she was orphaned but as their friend Rhoda observed: “They were useless as guardians; they made her half a lady and half a shop-girl. She will never be good for much.” The action moves to London, where the sisters are living  a life of shabby-genteel desperation, existing meagerly on a simple vegetarian diet of unexciting fare, such as plain boiled rice. Rhoda Nunn, a dynamic school friend, who was determined to make something of herself as a single woman, re-enters their lives, she is working with a Miss Barfoot at an academy, teaching girls useful skills such as typewriting and hosting talks about female emancipation. The sisters persuade Rhoda to take Monica on as a student, Monica had been  wearing herself away working crazily long shifts at a draper’s. 

Alice and Virginia mope quietly in the background of this novel, with their spirits for solace (the holy spirit for one and gin punch for the other), too plain to hope for husbands and too timid to break out of their roles, serving as the example its other women react against. The two main narrative threads concern an emancipated woman conflicted by the attentions of a man who is attracted to emancipated women (with dreams of dominating one), and an asocial man who marries a seeming doormat who turns out to like thinking and refuses to bend to her master’s wishes.

This is a surprisingly feminist novel penned by a man of that era. The novel questions the role of women’s work, relationships, marriage and position in society. It is also a riveting read, as we follow the struggles of the women in the book. I teach English as a foreign language and a text I frequently use concerns the Suffragettes. One question I ask the students is “which country first gave women the right to vote in modern times?”, then I give them the choice of United States, Sweden, Switzerland or New Zealand. Very few to choose the correct answer which is New Zealand, where women got the vote in 1893, the same year this novel was published. Switzerland only allowed women to vote in 1971….

My rating : 4 out of 5

Audiobook on Youtube: audiobook: The Odd Women

E-book on Archive.org: The Odd Women e-book

Katie and Marissa talk about the book on YouTube here: The Odd Women, Gender and Class – with Katie from Books and Things

 

 

Book Review: “David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens

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David and Mr Micawber on the cover

In the preface Dickens wrote, “like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield. David Copperfield is Dickens’ eighth novel and, coincidentally, the eighth of his novels that I have read, but I haven’t been reading them in chronological order. My first impression of Charles Dickens came with a BBC TV adaptation of David Copperfield back in 1974, my parents watched it and I caught a couple of the six episodes. I remember Arthur Lowe’s tremendous performance as Mr Micawber. I also remember the fawning obsequious character of Uriah Heap and Barkus telling David to pass a message on to his nurse, Peggoty,  that “Barkus is willing”. I remember little else of the story from that time. My next encounter with Dickens was at school in my teenage years, when we had to read “A Tale of Two Cities“, this put me off Dickens for a very long time, not because of the story but because of the way literature was taught in school, destroying the magic of reading. I was in my thirties when I picked up “Great Expectations” and I loved it. In the past few years I’ve set myself the task of reading through all of Dickens’ novels. I started by rereading “A Tale of Two Cities“, which didn’t impress me as much as Great Expectations as it lacked the humour that characterises Dickens’ work. David Copperfield has such humour in abundance.

“We went downstairs, one behind another. Near the bottom, somebody fell, and rolled down. Somebody else said it was Copperfield. I was angry at that false report, until, finding myself on my back in the passage, I began to think there might be some foundation for it.”

David Copperfield after having rather too much to drink (Chapter 24)

 

David Copperfield has so many wonderful memorable characters. Mr Micawber is “a man who labours under the pressure of pecuniary embarrassments”, but no matter how bad things get he is forever optimistic, thinking his luck about to turn for the better (it is surely no coincidence that Dickens’ father also knew pecuniary embarrassments).
The protagonist, David Copperfield we see as a boy and a young man, this is supposedly the most autobiographical of Dickens’ novels, it is the first of his novels described in the first person. David as a boy goes to work in a factory for a time cleaning bottles, Dickens worked in a blacking factory as a child. David as a boy, like Oliver Twist,  makes a long journey with almost no money, whereas Oliver walked to London, David walked away from London to Dover to seek out his aunt. Charles Dickens also enjoyed walking at night to stimulate his imagination. As a young man David begins a writing career and meets with early success as did Dickens.

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David is much more convincing as a child than Oliver Twist. David’s childhood friends James Steerforth and Tommy Traddles are both intriguing characters. The fawning Uriah Heep, who claims to be “ever so humble” rises by devious means and provokes David to strike him at one point. David’s eccentric aunt Betsey Trotwood, is a wonderful character and provides comic relief when chasing donkeys off her land.

Aside from his aunt, there are some other interesting female characters: Little Emily, Dora Spenlow, Clara Peggoty, Agnes and Martha. Martha and Emily show how society shunned “fallen” women at the time. David falls madly in love with Dora on first meeting her but later rues the lack of intelligence of his “child-wife”, some suggest this might also reflect on Dickens own marriage, which wasn’t happy. Agnes, David’s childhood companion in Kent, attracts the unwanted attention of the obsequious, Uriah Heep. Peggoty, looks out for David and his frail mother as best she can at the start of the novel and introduces David to her brother in Suffolk, Mr Daniel Peggoty, and his strange family of strays, an adopted son, Ham, an adopted daughter, little Emily and Mrs. Gummidge, a widow.

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Martha, David Copperfield and Mr Peggoty by the River Thames, illustration by Phiz

There are echoes of other dickens novels, the plotlines rely much on coincidence, characters meet, part and meet up again in unlikely circumstances. Australia, where Magwitch made his fortune in Great Expectations is seen as a place to start again. Barkus like Fagin and Scrooge has a miserly character. The dark River Thames features as it does later in Our Mutual Friend as a brooding melancholy presence. The book shows David coming from an impoverished troubled childhood to make his way in the world.  There is far too much in the 800+ pages to condense into a simple review, I thoroughly enjoyed the entire novel.

My rating : 5 out of 5

My reviews of other Dickens novels:

Book Review: “Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens

Book Review: “Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens

Book Review: “The Old Curiosity Shop” by Charles Dickens

Book Review: “The Pickwick Papers” by Charles Dickens

Book Review: “Hard Times” by Charles Dickens

Book Review: “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens

I have also read “Great Expectations” but that was before I kept a blog.

Book Review: “Hard Girls” by Martina Cole

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 “There was nothing, nothing at all to go on, nothing she could grab hold of and try to make sense of.”

This was a little disappointing, I think it was overly long (143 chapters!). When I read crime fiction, I am looking for a page-turner, that is focused on the investigation of the crime. The plot here seemed to spend more time on the romantic and professional relationships between the characters at Grantley Police Station, than in following the series of grisly murders. The central relationship of retired DCI Kate Burrows and a gangland boss, Patrick Kelly, a strange romantic pairing, is broken apart by the case.  Kate Burrows is the wrong side of fifty and worries about her fading looks, her boss is a creep and she finds the jealousy of her understudy, DCI Annie Carr difficult to handle. A growing series of prostitutes working out of nice houses and flats have been gruesomely murdered. The murderer has had the time to work undisturbed and clean up the crime scenes, leaving the police with very little to go on.

Kate sat back at the kitchen table… “We’re missing something, we have to be. There’s nothing we can find that ties the girls together in any way…”

My rating: 3 out of 5

The Ladybird Book of Motor Cars

One of my most treasured possessions as a child was the Ladybird Book of Motor Cars. I don’t still have the copy I had as a child, I moved too many times, but I did pick up a copy as an adult from a secondhand book store.

Ladybird Book of Motor Cars cover
Ladybird Book of Motor Cars (1968)

I had three different editions as a child the 1966 edition, the 1968 edition and the 1972 edition. There was also a 1960 version. The book featured 72 cars illustrated by David Carey, with a paragraph of information on each and some technical details.

In the self-isolation brought about by COVID-19, I have tried copying some of the illustrations with pencil and paper, my skills, I fear, are rather rudimentary.

Ladybird Book of Motor Cars drawing
copying the illustrations

I realise now, that the book gave me a warped impression of the size of some cars, like the Lancia Flavia Saloon, a full 20 inches longer than an Austin 1800, but which looked small in the picture, or the Volvo “Amazon” 131 which looks small in comparison with the MG MGB below.

 

 

The book began with small engined cars like the Reliant Regal, Fiat 500 F and Honda N600 and finished with the big American-engined cars: the Jensen Interceptor, Buick Riviera and Cadillac Eldorado.

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Final Pages: the Cadillac Eldorado has the largest engine of all the cars in the book

If I still had my childhood copies, they would have been marked with spots as I would often sit at the window marking down the cars I saw drive past. I don’t remember seeing an Eldorado, but the pages with the Morris Minor and Ford Escort were very spotty.

Some of the first words I learnt were related to cars, now I teach my grandson, Lazare to identify the car badges as we walk in the street. He likes the Lexus logo as it is an L in a circle and his name begins with an L.

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Lazare pointing to the Lexus logo

In the 1968 book, there was no Lexus, the brand didn’t exist, there were only two Japanese cars, a Honda N600 and a Daihatsu. Maybe half the cars were British; in the index at the back are listed 5  Triumphs and 6 Austins, two marques sadly gone as Britain no longer has its own mass produced car companies. Jaguar and Land Rover are still made in England but they are now owned by the Indian Tata company. Even the Rolls Royce, the archetypal English car is now German owned. The world has changed significantly since the book was published.

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Index includes 6 Austins and 5 Triumphs

Despite my keen interest in cars from an early age, the cars I owned in real life have been rather mundane: an Opel Corsa, a VW Polo, a Citroen ZX, a Honda Civic and a Peugeot 306. Living in a big city, I don’t have a car at present, preferring to walk or use public transport and not have the headache of finding somewhere to park.

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page 44 Jaguar E Type, Daimler Majestic and Ford Mustang
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I’m happier with this than my first attempts to copy the pictures but still not happy with the wheels…

I do have several hundred little cars, this is another nostalgia thing which I examine in more detail in another post: Why I collect Model Cars.

I like to find the cars in the book, my favourite era for cars is the late sixties and early seventies.

 

 

I was asked recently, what my favourite books were as a child, and I thought of books like those of Roald Dahl and Dr Seuss, but on reflection I think my absolute favourite as a kid was this The Ladybird Book of Motor Cars, much as I loved Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Cat in the Hat, this book got more, erm… mileage out of me.

Pages from the 1961 edition (like that below) can be seen here: Ladybird Book of Motor Cars (1961)

Ladybird Book of Motor cars 1961 Aston DB4
From the 1961 edition, in the 1968 edition the illustration of the Aston DB4 here was tweaked to show the Aston DB6.

 

 

 

Book Review: “Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens

“There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.”

Oliver Twist is not one of these books but it is not one of Dickens’ best.

Oliver Twist
Bull’s Eye on the cover of Oliver Twist

The story of Oliver Twist is possibly the most well-known of all Dickens’ novels, partly because of the hit 1968 musical Oliver!, starring Ron Moody, Oliver Reed and Shani Wallis. For many Oliver Twist or Christmas Carol are our gateway drugs into the Dickensian world.

This novel is perhaps most famous for the infamous scene in the parish workhouse, in which the young Oliver – egged on by his fellow half-starved waifs – politely asks for more gruel.

Please, sir. I want some more.

This scene comes very early in the book, it is part of the second chapter of 53. Oliver soon leaves the workhouse and walks from his local parish to London. (The subtitle of the book is ‘The Parish Boy’s Progress’.) There, of course, he meets the Artful Dodger, Charley Bates (mischievously referred to as ‘Master Bates’ throughout), and the rest of the gang of pickpockets, led by Fagin (who himself is under the thrall of the criminal mastermind, Bill Sikes).

This is Dickens’ second novel, the portrayal of Fagin as a despicable and ugly Jew with “a countenance more like that of a snared beast than the face of a man“, is rather unsettling, the anti-semitism of Dickens was largely redeemed by his later writings, notably in “Our Mutual Friend” where Mr Riah is a Jew and a very sympathetic character. In the first 38 chapters, Fagin is often referred to simply as “the Jew”.

If you are only familiar with the 1968 film, you will think of Fagin and Sikes as the two main villains, but in the book the principal villain is Monks, whose scheming tries to keep Oliver in abject misery.

The character of Oliver, I found a little insipid, he doesn’t seem like a real child. Dickens later wrote much better child characters such as David Copperfield, Pip and Jenny Wren. Even in Oliver Twist, Jack Dawkins AKA “The Artful Dodger” is a more interesting and engaging character than young Oliver, who cries and swoons an awful lot.

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Oliver is taken on a pickpocketing trip with the Artful Dodger and Master Bates

Dickens is wordy, the lengthy descriptions of the squalour of the less salubrious parts of London are fantastic. Dickens balances the dark descriptions with lighter humorous scenes, Dickens wanted to critique the Poor Law of the times but knew to reach a wide audience he would need to entertain them. Throughout his novels he creates wonderful, memorable characters.  Oliver Twist holds together as a novel better than Pickwick Papers, the many plot threads running throughout the tale are brought together neatly at the end. In the preface to the novel’s third edition, in 1841, Dickens writes that he “wished to show, in little Oliver, the principle of Good surviving through every adverse circumstance, and triumphing at last.” Maybe this is why the character of Oliver is so dull, the darker characters like Sikes, Fagin, the Artful Dodger and Nancy are more engaging. The plot is too reliant on coincidence to be credible, but Dickens is a fantastic writer and many features of the tale recur in subsequent stories: orphans, misers, the underbelly of London society, transportation, adoptions, the River Thames etc…

My rating : 4 out of 5

 

My progress through Dickens’s novels

Charles Dickens left us fifteen novels, and in an ideal world everyone would read all of them. I am slowly working my way through Dickens’ novels:

I read Pickwick Papers (1836) in 2019, his first novel.

Hard Times — (1854), I read this in 2016, unusually for Dickens this was set away from  London in a fictitious mill town in the north of England called Coketown.

A Tale of Two Cities (1859) I reread this in 2016, it is a historical novel and lacks a lot of Dickens’ usual humour.

Great Expectations  (1861). Many lists rank this as the greatest of Dickens’s novels. I read it in 2006, when I was a member of a book club in Worcester (UK). I loved it.

Our Mutual Friend (1865)… I read at the beginning of the year, so far it is my joint favourite along with Great Expectations.

The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) I read in 2019. Like Oliver Twist it is rather un-PC, the principal villain Quilp being a hideous dwarf.

I still have eight left to read:

Nicholas Nickleby (1839)

Barnaby Rudge (1841)

Martin Chuzzlewit (1844)

Dombey and Son (1848)

David Copperfield (1850)

Bleak House (1853)

Little Dorrit (1857)

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) (six of twelve numbers completed)

Which should I start next?

Book Review: “Tolstoy Selected Stories” by Leo Tolstoy

I found Tolstoy in translation much easier to read than Vazha-Pshavela in translation, sadly I am as yet unable to read either author in their original language. Tolstoy Selected StoriesA collection of 20 morality tales of which 2 really stand out :The Story of Ivan the Fool and The Death of Ivan Ilych
Ivan Ilyich is a decent man. He has all of the trappings of a “successful life”: respectable family, respectable job, respectable home. He is by all intents and purposes content with his position in life.

But has he truly lived? Socrates said that an unexamined life was not worth living.

Tolstoy describes Ivan Ilyich’s failing health in such a way that the reader can almost feel what it was like for him. The gnawing ache in his side, the pain… unrelenting, demoralizing… every simple facet of existence plagued by torturous, insufferable, incurable pain. It’s agonizing. He cannot escape it. Ivan Ilych’s awakening comes through the realization of death which ignites within him fear, anger, contemplation and eventually acceptance. The story is probably the best account of the physiological and psychological panic, a man feels when so close to his own death.

Some of the other stories read like biblical parables and included bible verses and even the occasional imps and angels. Count Lyov can certainly tell a good story.

Book Review: “Three Poems” by Vazha-Pshavela

Three poems by Vazha-Pshavela translated by Donald Rayfield. The three poems are Host and Guest, Aluda and Snake Eater.

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Vazha-Pshavela is one of the giants of Georgian literature. I often ask my Georgian students who their favourite writer is and Vazha Pshavela comes up in more responses than any other writer. I wanted to see what the fuss was about, so I was happy to find this English translation of his poems at Dry Bridge Market. This was published in Soviet times in 1981. Unfortunately, the translation didn’t inspire me, I don’t know why. It may be that Georgian is so difficult to translate meaninglfully into English, particularly when it comes to poetry. Donald Rayfield has translated many Georgian writers and written books on Georgian Literature, he is an expert on the subject.

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My wife and friends in Khevsureti

Maybe, I will just have to learn Georgian, so I can appreciate the original words. The three poems are about the Khevsurs and their conflict with the Chechens set against a backdrop of the Caucasus Mountains . It is about heroes and shows the problems raised by the interaction of the individual with a mountain society. In the Snake Eater , Mindia, a captive attempts to kill himself by eating a snake: “Mindia thought, if he ate the snake he would be free of his troubled life.” but instead of dying he gains occult powers: “from that day on he understood what birds sang, plants and animals spoke when they were glad or suffering.” Vazha-Pshavela is also writes idiosyncratic and evocative depictions of Nature – for which he felt a deep love. In Host and Guest , Joqola, a Muslim and Zviadauri, a Christian meet by accident as they are hunting in a damp forest. Joqola invites his new companion to his home to celebrate their kill but this hospitality flouts the tradition of enmity between the two tribes and Musa, the rabble rouser, turns on Joqola:

You headstrong fool, we’ll tie you too, if you defy the common voice. How dare you mutiny against that which we decree is right?

Book Review: “10 lb Penalty” by Dick Francis

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It has been a while since I previously read a Dick Francis novel, I went through a spate of reading them in the early nineties, my fiance at the time was crazy about horses and had lots of them (Dick Francis novels not horses…). This was one I missed at the time, because I see it was first published slightly after this time. It brings back memories, the central character, like the author, is connected to the horse racing world and tries to get to the bottom of some mystery and is often beaten up or falls off a horse part way through the book and slowly recovers.

He landed in a heap throwing me off forwards. I connected with the ground in one of those crunching collisions that tells you at once that you’ve broken a bone without being sure which bone.

Here the protagonist is Benedict Juliard, whose father is a hotshot politician. Ben wants to race horses but his father is keen for him to study at Exeter University first. Ben is helping his father get elected, when someone takes a potshot at them in the town square, later there is a mysterious fire, where they are staying. Ben is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery. Ben is younger than the typical Dick Francis protagonist at the start of the book he is just seventeen. It is a quick page turning read as Dick Francis takes us into the murky world of politics. Oddly, the names of the political parties are not mentioned and Ben’s father is running for election in a fictitious Dorset town called Hoopwestern.
The 10 lb penalty of the title is the maximum a rider might carry with him to slow him down “in practice a 10 lb penalty is the most a horse will be faced with.”

Book Review: “The Loss of El Dorado” by V S Naipaul

This is the best book I have read on the history of Trinidad, but then it is the only book I have read on the subject…

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The Loss of  El Dorado

Imperial uprooting of populations don’t make for a smooth organic tale writes V S Naipaul halfway through the narrative, I would concur. Naipaul won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001. He has written many novels but this was a departure from his fiction. The book is well researched, he spent two years working on it. The Loss of El Dorado is an attempt to draw out an older, deeper history of Trinidad, one preceding its commonly taught history as a British-run plantation economy of slaves and indentured workers. The history focuses on two important historical figures, Sir Walter Raleigh and Francisco Miranda. In 1595 Raleigh made a raid on Port of Spain, in Trinidad, a port established by the Spanish as a base for their delusional search for El Dorado, a mythical city of gold.

The first part of the book focuses on Raleigh’s exploits in the New World, the second part is dominated by the handling of Trinidad at the time of the Napoleonic wars. The British, French, Dutch and Spanish all had interests in Trinidad, control frequently changing hands.   Basically whatever gunboat was in the harbor was the ruling entity. Trinidad was officially Spanish until 1797, largely settled by French colonists, then it was administered by the British using Spanish law until 1814 when it fell officially into British hands by the Treaty of Paris (1814).

It is a rather dry history of colonialism. Lots of names and specificity that are important for history but got me bogged down. In 1797 there were 159 sugar estates, 130 coffee estates, 60 cocoa estates, and 103 cotton estates. The black slaves throughout the book are referred to as “Negroes”, there is much detail of their punishments and poisonings, which makes for grim reading.  Empire viewed up close is often petty as cruel. There was no El Dorado to be found and apart from a few sparks Trinidad in the nineteenth century fell into being a colonial backwater of little interest. The highly localized narrative of a small colonial island is, unfortunately rather dull. What rescues the readers from boredom is the lucid and artful depiction of the events, suffused thoroughly with dry humour.

This is the first book I have read relating to the history of the Caribbean. Previous histories I have read have tended to be related to Europe or Australia. I would be interested to read some of Naipaul’s fiction.

My rating 3 out of 5.