Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Book Review: The Portrait of a Lover by John Wheatcroft

 The Portrait of a Lover by John Wheatcroft is available from Amazon

When Sarah decided to attend a class in choral singing, she could not have known that this would change her life forever. From the moment David Olanski walked up to the conductor’s rostrum, things could never be the same again. This is a sensitive telling of a lifetime of unrequited love, or perhaps not in truth fully unrequited; we are left wondering . It is not, however, a sad story. Sarah was born to be an outsider, standing hesitantly on the edges of society. Her feelings for David Olanski, and the ways in which they guided her life choices, served to keep her alienation under control.

This novel will please readers who enjoy exploring the inner world of a literary protagonist. Although male, the author succeeds in presenting the life story of someone whom society would stereotype under the term: “old spinster”.    
John Wheatcroft has written his tale in unashamedly literary style. His words are finely nuanced, sometimes weaving complex sentences. It is a type of writing that is infrequently met today. I was not surprised to learn that Wheatcroft is a professor emeritus of English literature. He has been active as an author since the 1960s and has other novels, poems and plays to his credit. I had not been aware of John Wheatcroft before reading Portrait of a Lover, but I intend to explore his works further in future.

The Portrait of a Lover by John Wheatcroft is available from Amazon
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book for review purposes.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Science, religion and belief

Recently I had great fun answering a question, where I based my answer strongly on the ideas of Thomas Kuhn as put forward in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions (follow the link to get the book with 30% discount and free delivery worldwide).

There are strong similarities between science as described by Kuhn and religious fundamentalism.

1. Kuhn's basic premise is that science generally operates within what he calls a paradigm, which is defined as a set of received beliefs.

Religious fundamentalists operate within the scope of beliefs defined by their scriptures/holy books. 

2. What Kuhn calls the "educational initiation" through which a person becomes permitted to work as a scientist (school exams, BSc, MSc, PhD, etc.) is firmly based on these beliefs. The rigorous nature of scientific education means that these beliefs take a deep hold on the minds of most students.

In fundamentalist circles, there is a strong emphasis on educational activities such as bible study, which serve the same purpose as above.

3. The truth of a paradigm is seen as being absolute and self-evident. Scientific research during what Kuhn terms as "normal" scientific activity (as opposed to revolutionary, paradigm-breaking science) assumes the truth of the paradigm and the same time is held up as supplying further proof of the paradigm.

Fundamentalists operate within the same sort of closed circle. They claim truth is absolute and self-evident, interpret their experiences in the light of this "truth" and then hold up those experiences as proof of what they believe. 

4. The specialised language of scientists insulates them and their scientific activity from the rest of society. Moreover, scientists as a group tend to be unconcerned by the opinions lay society has about them.

Fundamentalists often urge their followers to keep away from the "evils" of the outside society. Many restrict their dealings with non-believers to "witnessing" and otherwise stay in the company of other fundamentalists. 

5. People who have a fundamental problem with the paradigm and try to put something else in its place tend to be excluded from the scientific community.

Those seen as heretics or lapsers are rapidly excluded from and ostracised by religious fundamentalist groups.    

In science, the heretics and revolutionaries do triumph at times, outworn paradigms are demolished and new ones constructed. Interestingly, Kuhn describes the acceptance of a new paradigm by scientists as being more akin to a process of religious conversion than to a process of scientific logic and deduction!

The question concerned was: Is Physics a religion? (follow the link if you wish to read my answer)

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Even less reason to choose Helium instead of Hubpages

Hubpages earnings increase substantially

Recently, Hubpages announced a new deal with respect to the ads that are placed on our hubs. Earnings were predicted to rise as a results. In the first month of the scheme, I have been pleased to see that my income from hubs has indeed risen substantially.

For just under 25 hubs, I have earned $17.50 from the Hubpages earnings programme plus approximately another $2.50 from Adsense. Adsense earnings drop if you go on the Hubpages programme, however most people find the changeover works in their favour.

My total of about $20 earned from Hubpages in October is 3-5 times higher than earnings in previous months.

How does Helium compare? 

I have six more articles on Helium than on Hubpages at the time of writing this blog entry. My total earnings from Helium for October amount to $0.78!  

The difference in earnings is now more than 25-fold in favour of Hubpages compared to Helium.

I have been spending an hour or so every 2-3 months being bored out of my mind while rating Helium articles so as to retain my revenue share. For the return I get, it is really not worth effort. Unfortunately, Helium will not let me delete my material to use elsewhere.

Incidentally, Helium seems to have been hurt far more than Hubpages by the Google Panda algorithm updates. Most of my hubs manage to be on the first pages of Google search results even with fairly loose search terms. Helium articles only show up if I search on the exact title. My experiences are not exceptional it seems. There have been many laments on the Helium forum recently about how earnings have plummeted.

I am very glad I did not invest more effort in Helium. I would not be surprised if the site folds as writers desert in droves.

If you want to write and are not sure where to start, join Hubpages. You will learn valuable lessons, which can then be applied to your own sites.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Adsense earnings come quicker with WebAnswers

I have been very pleasantly surprised by the slow but steady increase in Adsense earnings I have experienced during my first month with WebAnswers. With just over 250 questions answered while taking breaks from my real work, I am currently earning more than for all my other web ventures combined and for far less effort. For those who do not have one yet, WebAnswers also offers a relatively painless and fast way to get an Adsense account approved.

Basically, the site looks a bit like Yahoo Answers or WikiAnswers. You pick questions that interest you and answer them. After answering 50 questions, you will be invited to supply your Adsense ID or to apply for an Adsense account if you do not have one yet.

The beauty of the concept is that your Adsense code does not go exclusively on the answers for which you receive awards. A secret algorithm (ah, these inhuman rulers of our destiny!) is used to determine your quality score based on the length and grammatical accuracy of your answers, and on how many are awarded best answer status. That score decides how often your code will appear on other parts of the site. So far, all my earnings have derived from these other views. This means you do not have to worry quite so much about the types of questions to answer and about SEO-ing the wording of your reply. That said, people with the skills to do this are probably the ones who report monthly earnings in the 100s rather than in the 10s.

This is by no means the first answers site to which I have contributed. Years ago, I answered questions at the now defunct InfoRocket. Although many of the questions were trivial and poorly paid, the site funded quite a few bottle of vintage Bollinger champagne over a couple of years and I got the ultimate accolade of an InfoRocket t-shirt sent to me. Unfortunately, InfoRocket then tried to change from a mainly Internet-based to a mainly telephone-based service, at the same time pushing the psychic helpline aspect, at which point I said goodbye. Shortly afterwards it went bust.

After that, I spent several extremely happy years as a GAR on Google Answers. The GARS were a brilliant, supportive and ever-helpful community, the questions paid extremely well, some being set at $100-200 per answer. I did briefly think about giving up employment to become a full-time GAR. Luckily, I was not brave enough to take the plunge, because eventually Google pulled the plug on the service.

A Q+A site appeals to me because I love chasing down obscure bits of information. To get paid to do so is heaven! Here are three of my favourites from the questions I have answered:

In Greek mythology, why is the sky blue?
Actually, it isn't, but finding out why raised an interesting question about different manners of perception.

Are there any words that rhyme with orange?
Believe it or not, there are two words that give a pure rhyme with orange, and one half-rhyme.

What is a rhyme scheme?
I enjoyed explaining this using the sonnet form as an example. This gave me the opportunity to showcase a sonnet from an excellent book by an accomplished modern poet, who uses fun and fantasy to exemplify different poetic forms.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Flushing inspiration down the toilet

I've mentioned how, unlike Helium, Hubpages offers its authors the freedom to produce hubs to a reasonably open choice of subjects, bar the ones that will get the Google puritans hot under the collar. Sometimes, though, inspiration may be lacking. One potential recourse is the pool of questions asked at HP. Maybe, just maybe you will find ideas there, although the majority are as moronic as typical questions placed on Yahoo Answers.

For some time, in addition, we had the HubMob concept, facilitated by non-staff HP members. Basically, this involved a fairly broad topic being suggested once a week. People would produce hubs relating to the topic, and all these hubs would be interlinked through a RSS feed. There used to be some element of fun in those days. Regrettably, HubMobs are now a thing of the past, and instead we have the "Weekly Topic Inspiration" provided by HP wage minions working to an agenda.

WTI is about as uninspiring as it can get. Recently, it has literally plumbed the lowest depths. Apparently, a new advertiser on HP Ads is a Yankee drain cleaning company - whoopee! So we have had one  "Weekly Topic Inspiration" on kitchen plumbing, which is now being followed by a second one on bathroom plumbing. Truly topics to get the creative juices flowing - not! All bow to the great god Mammon seated on the toilet.

I was about to flag one of these plumbing hubs as low quality, then I noticed vociferous praise had been given to it by an HP minion, sigh...

I still stand by my statement that Hubpages has a way better return than Helium. However, I am very, very glad that membership of HP does not involve an obligation to write "crap" relating to HP Ads advertisers. The day this is enforced is the day I leave.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Free writing websites: Hubpages or Helium after Panda?

via Wikimedia Commons
Helium was the first writers' web site I found. I joined Helium nearly two years ago and then found Hubpages a few months later. I started by running them in tandem, although with not a large number of articles on either. However, I am now convinced there are numerous reasons to keep on with Hubpages and no reasons at all to continue with Helium. These reasons relate to earning potential, freedom and flexibility, the community, quality and post-Panda performance.

1. Earning potential for hubs versus Helium articles

Monthly earning 5-10 times higher with Hubpages than with Helium.

Most people signing up with writers' sites want to write to earn money online. When I first joined the two sites nearly two years ago, there was a big difference between Helium and Hubpages in that Helium paid by number of views. Helium also offered upfront payments for the first article written to a title. In contrast, Hubpages offered the potential to earn through Adsense clicks and through sales made via Ebay and Amazon capsules inserted by the writer into the hub. Thus, there was a guarantee of some income with Helium, while Hubpages was more risky. People with the SEO knowledge to gain from Adsense seem to have always done vastly better on Hubpages. Since I am weak in that area, my earnings were initially comparable on both sites.

Now things have changed dramatically. Helium no longer offers guaranteed upfront payments, except in occasional short-term promotions. It does have contests and it is also possible to write articles commissioned by publishers. Better paying commissioned articles are restricted to certain groups of writers and sometimes are open to as many as 50 authors to battle it out for the payment. There is no limit whatsoever to competition entries. Thus this is rather a large risk in terms of time and effort.

The latest development at Hubpages is to provide the opportunity to earn money through page views as well as by the other routes.

Easier earnings and more sources of income with Hubpages

Hubpages has introduced the HP Ads programme, which pays for impressions not clicks and which is used in addition to Adsense. Signing up for HP Ads means Adsense clicks become much less frequent. Nonetheless, many are reporting increased earnings overall with HP Ads, although Adsense veterans generally say they do better sticking to Adsense alone.

At the moment, I am earning somewhere between five and ten times as much on Hubpages as on Helium each month, despite having 40% more articles at Helium than at Hubpages. Because most of my hubs focus on information rather than on sales of specific products, I am doing better with HP Ads + Adsense than with Adsense alone. My Amazon earnings are miniscule. Since Ebay changed its criteria at about the time I started on Hubpages, I was unable to sign up for that affiliate programme via Hubpages.

There is also the possibility to insert one or two affiliate links into a hub. Not all links are permitted; for example no Clickbank links are allowed at all. However, this does provide even more earning potential at Hubpages.

It is impossible to give definite reasons for the difference in earnings, because Helium provides its writers with no information at all on their page views and CPM (payment per 1000 views). In contrast, Hubpages displays personal statistics on page views, as well as on ad impressions and CPM for HP Ads, while Adsense provides statistics on page views and Adsense clicks. In addition, Hubpages does at least disclose that it takes the revenue during 40% of the hub's viewing time, although it does not give statistics of when during the day this is applied. Helium provides no disclosure whatsoever about how much revenue it keeps back for itself.

One reason for lower earnings on Helium is that the site gets far fewer visitors and ranks much lower than Hubpages. At the time this post is being written, according to Quantcast, Hubpages gets nearly 500,000 views from the US per day, compared to Helium's approx. 34,000. According to Alexa, Hubpages currently ranks at 344 globally and 215 US, while Helium ranks at 2,836 and 1,360, respectively.

A major drawback at Helium is that writers only earn income from their page views if they constantly participate in the rating of other articles. In rating, articles written to the same title are presented in pairs and one is rated up over another. In order to get a good score, a rating has to agree with that of a mysterious rating algorithm and with ratings of other members. The level of agreement and volume of rating awards "rating stars". There are a number of complaints on the Helium forums from people who cannot retain even one rating star despite spending hours on this immensely tedious task. The main reason for this problem is that they actually try to rate in a critical manner as readers looking for quality of style and content.

In fact, the algorithm, being non-human, cannot judge on those criteria, so the simplest approach to rating is to guess the rules it applies. I consistently maintain a rating score of 80-95% by following some simple rules I have deduced, mainly based on formatting and the presence or absence of references. I rate at odd moments between work during one afternoon or evening every two or three months, which is enough to keep one or two rating stars. However, I consider it outrageous that writers are forced to do rating to claim their share of revenue.

One snag to earning with Hubpages is that you need an Adsense account to join the HP Ads programme, even though payments are made directly from Hubpages into Paypal for HP Ads earnings, while Adsense earnings from hubs are paid by Google in the usual way. Pretty well the only reason to consider Helium as a source of earnings is if you are unable to obtain an Adsense account or have been banned from Adsense. Helium payments go directly from Helium into a Paypal account. Like Hubpages, many other revenue-sharing writers' sites require users to have their own Adsense accounts.

2. Greater flexibility and freedom for writers at Hubpages

Hubpages wins over Helium regarding the control retained by writers over their work and also because of the writing interface.

Writers' control over their work

Helium contravenes the rights of their authors by denying them full control over their content.

Once an article is placed on Helium, it cannot be deleted by the author, although it can be deleted at whim by Helium. Requests for articles to be deleted can only be made by elite 5-star writers. Writers are not allowed to place the same article elsewhere for 12 months following acceptance at Helium. Even after the 12 months is up, the original article still remains on display at Helium, thus making it pointless to use it elsewhere due to penalties for duplication.

In contrast, writers at Hubpages are free to remove articles and place them elsewhere whenever they wish.

The second, almost unbelievable injustice done to writers at Helium is that they cannot freely edit their articles as and when they wish. It is possible to request correction of very minor typos by sending an email to the administration. However, any writer wishing to make any bigger changes, for example to update the content, has to undergo the indignity of "leap-frogging". The old and new versions of the article are subjected as a pair to the rating process. If raters select the old version, the new version is rejected. At least seven days must pass before another attempt can be made. This is another issue that provokes many complaints on the Helium forums. The reason given for this policy is so that writers cannot deliberately sabotage their articles in order to get them deleted by the administration.

Thus, in order to prevent a potential consequence of one right being contravened, Helium contravenes yet another right!

Writers on Hubpages can edit their hubs with no outside interference. 

On Helium writers are forced into the straitjacket of writing to pre-fixed titles. It is possible to suggest a title, but then you have to wait for the title to be approved. 

On Hubpages, apart from some subjects that would go against Adsense policies, writers are free to write about anything they want. If they have SEO knowledge and skills, they can optimise titles as well as the rest of their content. 

Helium provides a platform for writers who have no idea of what topics to write about. Those who know what subjects they wish to cover and how they wish to do this are better off at Hubpages. 

Plain text at Helium versus rich content at Hubpages

The only input possible for a Helium article is plain text, with no special characters permitted. It is impossible to control formatting or insert images. The finished product looks ugly due to the distraction of many blocks of advertisements above, below, to the sides, and in the middle of the text. 

Hubpages enables a certain degree of formatting, although more would be desirable. However, it is possible to insert capsules containing images, video, quizzes, tables, maps, rss feeds, as well as sales capsules for Amazon and Ebay. Sales capsules now require there to be at least 50 words of article text for every capsule inserted. HP ads does not insert as many ad blocks as Helium does. 

The appearance of hubs is much more colourful and interesting than that of Helium articles. 

5. The community

The Hubpages community is incomparably more friendly and helpful than the Helium community

My experience of the writers' community on Helium was extremely negative. The forums are dominated by smug moderators and their cronies, who will rapidly start a witch hunt against anyone who dares to criticise the site in any way. 

Not only is the Helium community unfriendly, it is also very introverted. There is very little on the forums apart from endless navel-gazing about rating stars and policies, writing stars and other totally in-house matters. 

In contrast, the Hubpages forums buzz with conversations on every subject under the sun. It can get a bit heated in the political and religious threads and temporary banning of members is fairly common. On the whole, however, it is a friendly and helpful community. 

Among active members on the Hubpages forums, there is a significant number of people who are highly knowledgeable about all aspects of how to earn money online. They are always ready to answer questions and offer good advice to those starting out on this path.  

The community at Hubpages is one of the best web communities I know. The forums can be addictive. Depending on your viewpoint, this can be a plus or a minus. Either way, the help and information that can be found there is of enormous value. 

4. Quality and post-Panda performance

Hubpages has more variable quality than Helium, but seems to be performing better 

The quality of hubs on Hubpages is very variable. There are very many truly excellent hubs of all types: informative articles on all subjects, poetry, short stories and even whole novels, sales hubs and satire. 

In terms of content quality, Helium cannot compare with Hubpages at its best. It is probably a combination of having to write to a title set by someone else, and the rigid rules applied at all stages that makes the majority of Helium articles (at least the ones I have read) as dull as dishwater. They give the impression of being essays dashed off by unwilling school pupils. It does not help that large numbers of people sometimes contribute to one and the same title, resulting in a slew of repetitive material. 

On the other hand, because anything that does not trip automatically controlled stop words can be published, Hubpages also has many very poor hubs with incorrect use of English, spun text or other spammy content. 

It was the latter type of material that has caused Hubpages to take such a pounding by the Google Panda algorithm. As a result, Hubpages brought in some stringent measures to try and raise the quality. Unfortunately, some of the new requirements also affected long-standing and successful hubbers, who left the site as a consequence. 

Very recently, Hubpages moved all its members to individual subdomains. The hope is that quality writers will get better results, while poor writers will be pushed further down search engine rankings. At the moment, people's experience is very variable. Nevertheless, the majority impression is that recovery is starting. 

I have already referred to Hubpages outperforming Helium on Alexa and Quantcast scoring. 

I have one hub and a Helium article on the same fairly narrow topic. My hub comes up on the first page of Google for the most obvious key word. Pages further down, I still was not able to see the Helium article. Admittedly, this is a miniscule experiment, but, together will all the above, it is enough to convince me not to bother with producing more content for Helium. 

Ultimately though, the way forward is through my own web sites. With respect to this also, I consider that Hubpages provides me with far more valuable training and experience than Helium, as well as with all the help and advice obtained from the Hubpages community.  

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

WriteAngled’s Top 100 reads: an annotated list (in no particular order!)

This annotated list of my top 100 reads makes no attempt to score books by defined notions of literary merit nor does it focus on books that “ought to be read” because some choose to define them as “classics”. Nevertheless, a few standard classics are included. These are one hundred books, which have made enough of an impact for me not to forget them, hence for me they are top reads. They include fiction of diverse genres and some non-fiction, old titles and somewhat newer titles, although not current bestsellers. I regret sometimes  that the massive attention given to the newest titles causes some marvellous less new works to be neglected. 

I would love to have your comments and find out some of your top reads.

I’ve placed links to these books at The Book Depository, which sells books at discount prices and ships them worldwide with no added shipping charges. Targeted AbeBook (used book seller) links are available there for books, which cannot be sourced new. 

1. Possession by A.S. Byatt
Probably my all-time favourite book. It tells the parallel stories of two Victorian poets and their love affair and of the modern day man and woman who are researching into the lives of these poets. Not only is the story gripping, but Byatt has even composed poems that were "written" by her protagonists. Although this could be classed as a love story, it is never sickly and sentimental. 

This is an extended essay about how lack of money and personal space and other factors have prevented women developing their talent. Although she talks mainly about writing and I am not a writer, it blew me away. I read this at a time in my life when I was in a bad marriage, totally dependent on my then spouse for money, denied real privacy, and constantly subjected to thought police tactics if I dared have opinions and beliefs that differed from his.

I love this author so much! He seems to have dropped out of fashion now, but was all the rage when I was a student in the mid-1970s. All his works are allegorical. This one uses the life of an Indian man as a framework. I’ve decided to list only one book by any given author in my main list, but other favourites by Hesse include: Journey to the East, Glass Bead Game, and Narziss und Goldmund.

Barcelona is my favourite city and this book is Barcelona at its most atmospheric. The city forms the background to the story. A boy is captivated by a book and wants to find out more about the author. Instead, he finds that his copy of the book is the last one still in existence and that a mysterious person is intent on eradicating everything to do with the author. He spends many years in pursuit of the truth. The language is so poetic. I know that the book has flaws, but for me it is nevertheless magical. 

This is a BIG book (1000+ pages) set in India at the time the country was adjusting to its newly-gained independence and following the stories of four families. What I like is the way it gave me a feeling of being a “fly on the wall”, listening in to the private conversations of the characters. Some people have found it boring, but I was really sorry when I reached the end.

This is a complex tale of several nested stories, moving from the present, through various historical eras to ancient times and back again. Marvellously written and a real page turner. It all starts when a girl attempts to find out what happened to her father through reading his letters... 

I have always been a bit wary of reading Kazuo Ishiguro. I somehow had the opinion that I might find his works difficult or even, dare I say it, boring. However, this book blew me away completely. Set in the UK and Shanghai of the 1930s, it concerns the search by a detective for his parents, whom he lost as a small child. This is the overt plot, but the story moves into a dream world of memory and illusion. I cannot really define what makes this book so compelling and haunting, but it is one of a handful of books that I could hardly bear to put down once I had started reading.

An ever insightful and sometimes very funny description of Chile, Chileans and Allende's family.

I really could not leave this out! At the age of 10, I was recommended The Hobbit by the school librarian and loved it. I wanted to read more and had to persuade the adult section of the local public library to lend Lord of the Rings out to me. Later on, I purchased my own copy and read it several times in my 20s. Then, in my 30s, I read it to my daughters as a bedtime story over many weeks. I think I'm due for a re-read soon! What makes it so special is the manner in which Tolkien uses fantasy to treat major issues of good and evil, human failings and the victory of love.

Another fantasy, the first of a series of four books, about the development of a young wizard and the moral issues he faces. In my opinion, it is incomparably superior to Harry Potter in writing style and in content.

Another book dealing with a search through time, this time to find out about a skeleton wearing a scold’s bridle, who was buried in the narrator’s garden. The writing style and story held me riveted, so much so that I could not put the book down and read it within a day. This is a story about identity, spirituality, love, historical parallels, defiance of convention and so much more. This is one of the most amazing books I have ever read.

An account of three generations of women in China, from before, during and after the revolution. Eye-opening account of a world about which I know so little.

This is a book containing a bit of everything that appeals to me: books, mystery, the occult and a good dash of quirky wittiness.

Totally scurrilous, totally silly and very, very funny.  Mark Gatiss provides a spoof on several types of literary genre, bringing together murder, mystery and mayhem and set off magnificently by the Beardselyesque illustrations. Definitely not for the prudish!

What defines Englishness? This was an amusing and illuminating read of observations made by a professional anthropologist who wanted to put her own culture under the microscope. I was interested to see how much would apply, because I grew up in a Polish émigré family in a London suburb with a large Polish community. Of course, it is difficult to evaluate oneself totally objectively, but my conclusion is that perhaps I am less prone than the true English to some of the inhibitions that are discussed, although I am probably as socially dysfunctional as the best of them!!!

True stories of the lives of Chinese women. I found this book harrowing and at times barely believable, especially the story of the girl who kept a fly as a pet.

I loved this book and actually put off reading the final pages for some time because I could not bear to finish it. The story line held me all the way through, although I do wish the author had allowed something not to happen that did and something to happen that did not. This is a tale of the defence of the West, which draws all the strands of the Western esoteric tradition into a desperate stand at the gates of Vienna under Turkish siege. The author obviously has a fairly broad esoteric background and extensive knowledge thereof. Below the seemingly chaotic mix of Venetian feuds, Viking longboats and Viennese breweries is a pointer to the inherent underlying unity of magical thought and action.

Followed by The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road - the trilogy is called the Fionavar Tapestry. This is a tale of four students who are drawn into the war between good and evil in a parallel fantasy world. Beautifully told and heart-wrenching at times.

Exciting, often surreal, tale of a young man who falls into a parallel universe set in the sewers and tunnels of London. Gaiman is a master storyteller. This was the first of his books that I read, but I also recommend American Gods and his short story collection Smoke and Mirrors

This is the story of three women of three different generations, who are each at a major life transition point. We are led into the history and the innermost being of these women by means of a narrative style that blends human warmth, intellectual erudition and mythical symbolism into a very special kind of literary magic. I loved this book!

This is based on historical fact and is set in the witch-hunting era of the 17th century. I was totally absorbed in this book from start to finish. Good characterisations, descriptions and dialogue as well as clever turning of historical facts into an excellent plot.

I found out recently that this was Golding’s own favourite out of his works. It is the story of a tribe of Neanderthals and their encounters with the first humans.

An account of a trip through South America. Che, together with his friend, is mostly occupied with trying to bum lifts, beds and meals, and they get into some hilarious situations while doing so. However, the underlying political consciousness and identification with the common people that later made Che take the path he took are also evident, as is a gift for writing and a poetic imagination.

The semi-autobiographical story starts in 1908 at the "Convent of the Five Wounds" school in London. This is actually the Convent of the Sacred Heart school in Roehampton, London. It is a boarding school. During 1965-1972, I attended the day school run by the same order of nuns in Hammersmith, London. Although more than 50 years separate me from Nanda Gray, the heroine, the descriptions of the school and its attitudes match my experiences totally. An eye-opener to anyone who has not gone through a standard Roman Catholic education (and yes, in the eyes of my old school I would be seen as having turned out bad ;) )  

Anna Wulf records her life in four notebooks: black for the struggle to be a writer, red for her political activities, yellow for her relationships and feeling and blue for daily life. It is only when she starts a fifth, golden, notebook that she starts being able to make sense of her life and to transform it. On first reading,I identified so much with Anna. That was more than 30 years ago. Perhaps it's time for a second reading.

I loved this book from the very first page. Calvino uses the images, although not the usual attributions, of the tarot to retell classic, archetypal stories, at the same time showing how they are all intertwined in the great matrix of human consciousness and the human psyche.

Surreal, fascinating tale of Clodagh, who escapes the meaninglessness of her life by running across the rooftops of London with her new friends. Absolutely gripping.

I found this in a secondhand bookshop and started to read it while walking home, causing much consternation to passers-by each time I burst out laughing. This book is a real gem. It is a re-telling of traditional fairy tales so that they do not give offence to those who feel it necessary to impose political correctness so as to guard our collective “morality”.

First of a superb trilogy set in a parallel universe which mirrors mediaeval Europe, but in which religion includes, for some, SM practices. Phedre is one such, and her calling leads her along strange paths. I experienced some deeply emotional moments while reading.

One representative of the very extensive Deverry series. I believe the books have different titles in the US. This is a Celtic universe caught up in the fight between good and evil. What makes this series unique to my mind is that the author goes back and forth through time and through various reincarnations, where the same characters encounter each other over and over in various different relationships. In a sense, it doesn’t matter in which order these books are read. I keep finding some new pieces fall into place each time I read them.

The title is the same in the English translation. Classic story of young love, longing and nostalgia. The author was killed at the age of 28 in World War I. A boy becomes separated from his friends and finds himself at a wedding party in a country house. There he meets and falls in love with a young girl, but is unable to find her again. This is a story of adolescence and growing up, the romantic ideal and our search for that which we cannot have.

Superb retelling of the Arthurian legend from the viewpoint of the women who were involved. The sequels are just as good, but this book is also a very satisfying standalone read.

This is described as a study of alienation, creativity and the mind of modern man and was a huge success when it first appeared in 1956, being taken as an apologia for the "Angry Young Men" of that period. Wilson looks at famous individuals, both real and fictional, who felt they did not fit into the normal world of others. It still has relevance today.

This is a wonderful book. It consists of two related stories, one set in 1900-1910, and the other in 1997-1998; both are love stories, but not standard romance fodder, and deal with the relationships of two Western women with Egyptian men and their families. I read this book while on holiday in Egypt and enjoyed comparing the descriptions of Cairo with my own experiences. The book also manages to provide a lot of information about the development of Egypt and Egyptian nationalism during the 20th century, but this is never allowed to get in the way of the plot. The writing style is refined and sensitive. The book was described as being the best runner up for the 1999 Booker Prize, and certainly merits the prize itself in my opinion. I classed this as my best read in 2004.

This book will probably not be to everyone's taste. I think it helps to know a little about Christian theology, the different strands of the Anglican church and depth psychology (e.g. Jung) and be interested in the phenomena of psychism, gnosis, possession and exorcism. These are the elements that Susan Howatch interweaves into a work that is simultaneously a thriller, a gripping account of a spiritual path, and a discussion on the interplay between religious experience and psychology.
This is superb writing for children, which manages to mix the modern and the mythological (Celtic) and magical without being contrived or twee.

Very powerful writing. It is a book that makes heavy demands on the reader, due to the complexity of the setting and the plot, and more delicate (squeamish) folks will be additionally challenged. Basically, it takes place in a series of parallel worlds inhabited by a demon race, whose members are either living or dead but still active, other fantastical beings, and humans somewhere in the background. There is much darkness, but also compassion, tenderness and love. A young girl, who is seemingly incompetent in the basic abilities of witchcraft nevertheless manages to cross between the worlds and do things that have been thought impossible. She is sucked into a web of power games and at the same time must battle with the darkness within her own family. In order to survive, she must form some extraordinary friendships. This is the first part of the Black Jewels trilogy.

Three stories, two in the ordinary world, one in a decrepit castle where Quiss must play strange games in order find the answer to a riddle, but a riddle to which he does not know the question. In the end these tales merge, but what is real and what is not?

A wonderful parable, with so many phrases that go straight to the central issue, and told beautifully, like the best spiritual teachings, in the form of an extended joke. A call to listen to the urgings of the inner Fool.

Eliot is a true mystic and amazing poet. His dramas were an eye opener to me as well. If I have to choose, then the Four Quartets poem cycle is my favourite.

This was a very powerful, revelatory read. I have always been a loner, for various reasons and my friendships have mainly been confined to a few male lovers at certain phases of life. There have been times, when I felt sad about my lack of success in forming friendships - perhaps my expectations are too high and my definition of "friend" too rigorous, who knows. Margaret Attwood's exposition of female "friendship" makes me feel that maybe I have not missed out on much at all. At least books and music cannot scar a person for life in the same way that so-called friends can.

Smilla refuses to accept the official explanation for the sudden and violent death of a disturbed six-year-old boy and goes in pursuit of the truth. I was totally gripped from start to finish. I am certainly not as brave as Smilla, and have no feeling for snow or ice - can't keep my balance! - but I did find many points of contact with her character.

Although Adams is better known for his rabbit story Watership Down, which I also liked very much, I found this tale of a bear taken into captivity even darker and more compelling.

Another "animal story”, this time of moles, and again an allegory of good and evil and personal sacrifice. There are several sequels to this book. Some very powerful statements are made about religion. I like the fact that Horwood uses real locations in England and Wales as a background for his tale.

Eye witness account by an American journalist of the events of the October Revolution in Russia in 1917. We hear so many negative things about this that it is sometimes difficult to imagine why it should have received the support of ordinary people. Reed shows us the other side, the hope, the aspirations, the dedication, the excitement of those first days, before things went wrong.

Another eye witness account, this time of the Spanish Civil War, by a brilliant novelist who went there to fight against Franco. Being in the anarchist POUM rather than in the Communist International Brigades, Orwell had first hand experience of how Stalin cynically manipulated matters and betrayed the anti-fascist cause to serve his own interests. An important but also eminently readable book.

This is not an easy book to read due to its concepts and dense style, but it is an absolute eye opener. Kuhn looks at the workings of scientific research and demonstrates how most scientists actually work against the processes of true discovery and progress.

Graves, a major poet himself, subtitled this “A historical grammar of poetic myth”. He looks at the interrelationship between mythology, goddess worship and the work of the poet. This book is crammed with the most fascinating information. The emphasis is on Celtic material, but there is a lot more besides.

This is a huge study of mythology, religion and magic ranging over many traditions. Knowledge has progressed further in many of the areas covered, but this book is still unique and valuable in trying to bring it all together.

This is an exploration of the "new physics” for non-physicists. Zukav has a talent for explaining the most abstruse matters in a way that is understandable. I like the parallels he draws between some of latest theories and the ideas that were developed centuries ago in the philosophies and mysticism of the East.

Box set of the five children’s books that make up this series. Another fantasy, based mainly on Celtic mythology. Some of the best writing for older children that I have ever read.

 This is a parody of Gothic fiction, which was very popular in Jane Austen's time, and also pokes fun at the people who read it. It is very funny!

Beautifully expressed thoughts on life, love and spirituality. The piece about children is perfect!

The character of Zorba is one of the most memorable ever. He represents an ecstatic love of life, that is set against the bookishness of the narrator of the book. The description of Zorba dancing on the beach is fabulous. I also recommend two other books by Kazantzakis, Freedom and Death about events during the rebellion against the Turkish rule of Crete, and Christ Recrucified, a retelling of the Passion in the time of the Turkish occupation of Greece.

Jung’s ideas have had a huge influence on me, so I naturally enjoyed reading these autobiographical notes plus thoughts by one of my intellectual heroes. While Jung’s writing can be dense and difficult to follow, this books forms an easy introduction.

The story of a poor boy in Anatolia, who flees into the mountains, from where he fights against the greedy landlord who are destroying the people of his village. Kemal has written three more books featuring Memed, of which I’ve read and enjoyed They Burn the Thistles

One of the most charming fantasies I have read. It is a mixture of satire, gentle humour, parable and fairy tale of Schmendrik, a very unsuccessful magician, and his companion Molly Grue, who try to help a unicorn find others of her kind. I loved the animated film and loved the book even more when I finally found it.

Comic science fiction featuring a crazy religion. This is one of very few books that make me laugh out loud, laugh so hard that it hurts. His Cat’s Cradle, which features another crazy religion, does the same, but Sirens has the edge as far as I’m concerned.

59. Roads to Freedom by Jean Paul Sartre
In this fictional trilogy, consisting of The Age of Reason,  The Reprieve and  Iron in the Soul, Sartre explores the philosophy of personal freedom and destiny against the background of wartime France. I read this after seeing the BBC TV series in 1970 and found it very powerful. In contrast, when I tried to read Being and Nothingness, Sartre's major philosophical work, I gave up after the first few pages. 
Tale of a fallen Catholic priest, who finds himself the last surviving cleric in a Central American country that is determined to become fully secular. Greene looks into the mind of the priest and also of the secret policeman who is hunting him. Greene seems to have fallen out of fashion, which is a pity because he is a very great writer.
For Greene in much lighter vein, try Travels With My Aunt.

This is a wickedly funny, non-politically-correct satire on the US funeral industry. It’s not the greatest of Waugh’s creations, but is very funny indeed.

This is the first of the Detective Inspector Rebus books I read. I found it in a hotel where I was spending the weekend and kept awake through most of both nights in order to finish it before I left. Set in a superbly atmospheric Edinburgh, with a murder, an Internet game run by the mysterious Quiz Master, and tiny dolls in tiny coffins.

This is a story of the legal and political twists following a hit and run accident involving a rich financial whizzkid and a poor black in New York. It’s marvellous entertainment and a surprisingly quick read for such a long book.

Another tale of crime and punishment, set in an earlier period and far, far darker than the Tom Wolfe book. I read this decades ago and it has remained in my memory over this very long period.

I’ve read quite a number of Zola’s novels and find them all very powerful, however this is the one that has stayed most with me. It is a sad but beautiful story of a priest who dares to fall in love.

Generally, I’m not the greatest fan of Dickens, however I really enjoyed this novel which centres around a long drawn-out legal suit concerning some property and the ensuring emotional and financial damage, not to mention scandal and murder. The opening paragraph about a London fog is one of the best pieces of descriptive writing I have read.

Although the central characters in this story are technically the brothers Paul and William Morel, it is their mother and the hold that she has on them that drives the plot forward. Lawrence wrote this as a semi-autobiographical account of his own attempts to escape the Nottinghamshire mining society and of his relationship with his mother. I first read this for “O” Level English over 40 years ago, and it has stayed with me.

I’m the world’s biggest coward, perhaps this is why I have a fascination for books about travel and adventure, which help me to experience vicariously what I could never dare to do. I revelled in Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki and Ra expeditions as well. I chose to list this particular one because, in addition to the theories inspiring the voyage and the adventures during the voyage, it includes Heyerdahl’s moving account of how he burns the Tigris boat as a public protest against the wars raging in the Middle East.

Lovely fantasy for children about a boy trying to find treasure before it falls into the hands of a group of witches. It’s written by a poet, and this shows. The sequel Box of Delights is worth reading as well.

I had the pleasure of meeting Philip by chance in Bristol in 1989. I looked up some of Philip’s works when I got back home and this won me over totally. It’s a poetry collection, aimed at children, which describes the ghostly goings on in a rather comic haunted house. I love how Philip uses various classical verse forms, thus giving his readers a tour of the possibilities of poetry without it ever feeling that he is “teaching”. 

I think Spanish is the most perfect language for poetry, and Borges writes some of the most perfect poems in Spanish! This is wonderful, lush language full of imagery. This is a bilingual edition by Penguin, which presents the poems in their original Spanish side by side with a translation in English. Another poet I greatly admire, who writes in Spanish, is the Cuban, Nicolas Guillen. Guillen uses poetry to reconcile his mixed black and white ancestry. His most famous poem is “Los Dos Abuelos” (the two grandfathers) in which he addresses his black and his white ancestor, slave and conquistador, respectively. I mention Guillen in this note without giving a book title, because I have only read him in Spanish.

This was great escapist reading for me when I was a child. Totally kitschy derring-do of the supposedly witless fop, Sir Percy Blakeney, who in truth was the daring Scarlet Pimpernel, a masked hero who rescued French aristocrats before they had their heads chopped off. Light frothy reading, perfect for times of being in bed with flu, and similar.

Horror fantasy novel of two teenage boys becoming embroiled in a nightmare travelling fair. Despite the protagonists being young, this is a book for adults not children. The writing is amazing, really atmospheric and spooky. Bradbury is also an absolute master of short story writing and there are many collections of these in print.

This book consists of observations made by Lorenz, scientist and Nobel laureate, of the animals in and around his home. It is a mix of anecdote, comedy, psychology, natural science and more, and altogether makes for a superb read.

This is a small book about relationships and their significance by a Jewish philosopher and Hasidic scholar. Buber divides relationships into two categories: I-It and I-Thou. The second type of relationship is the one that brings significance, that allows for a coming together. It is the I-Thou relationships in our lives that contribute the aspect to the sacred, and bring us into relationship with what Buber calls the “Eternal Thou” and some call “God”.

This is one of many books that I read in the 1970s-1980s when I was active in the Latin American solidarity movement. Domitila speaks of her life as the wife of a Bolivian tin miner, her involvement in political activity and subsequent imprisonment, torture and exile. At times harrowing, at times inspirational, this is an important account about a region of the world that is so frequently forgotten.

Another volume from Latin America, consisting of the collected writings of  Camilo Torres, who exemplified in his life and death the synthesis between the Catholic faith and Marxism that resulted in the school of liberation theology, which had a major impact in Latin America. Camilo was a Roman Catholic priest and academic from Columbia, who felt that he could not continue to preach the gospel from the pulpit while his country was subject to so much oppression and injustice. Searching his own conscience, he came to conclusion that the situation justified him taking up arms. He joined a guerrilla organisation and was killed in action.

This is an account of anti-fascist activity in East London in the 1930s-1940s, including the Battle of Cable Street. Piratin stood as the Communist candidate in the elections in Stepney and was MP for the constituency 1945-1950. I read this in the 1970s, when I was active in a very broad movement against the British National Front party, and it was interesting to note the parallels and the differences.

The Book of Coming Forth by Day (more commonly, but erroneously, called the Egyptian Book of the Dead) is a collection of inscriptions that were painted into Egyptian tombs to help the ba (soul) of the dead person travel through the underworld to find refuge in the halls of Osiris. This immensely beautiful and poetic free translation brings the spirituality of the Egyptians to life in brilliant colour.

The reputedly “wickedest man in the world” turns his hand to fiction in this story of a magical war between a white lodge and a black lodge. A number of the characters are based on Crowley’s friends and enemies, and there is a lot of magical detail. It is a surprisingly good read, with an unexpected ending.

This is a classical study of the psychological basis of fairy tales and how they impact on our lives. I found it fascinating.

I borrowed this from the library, was thoroughly enchanted, and spent a couple of decades looking for a copy of my own. Set in the pre-Christian ancient world, it mixes history and myth in the adventures of a young witch, who falls in love with the king she is supposed to destroy after marrying him.

Yet another Celtic-inspired fantasy, which, with its sequel The Moon of Gomrath, captivated me as a child, as did Garner's Elidor and also The Owl Service, a retelling of the story of Blodeuwedd set in modern times. I’ve read them all several times since. Alan Garner uses his local landscape around Alderley Edge as the inspiration for many of his tales.

What I love about Dylan Thomas is the fluid way in which this Welshman uses elements of the English language to create his musical poems. The same expressiveness is found in his radio drama Under Milkwood. If you want a real treat and if you can find it, listen to the original BBC recording of the drama, with the gorgeously sexy-voiced Richard Burton as the main narrator. A Child’s Christmas in Wales is another lovely piece of prose writing of reminiscences. The Outing is a hilarious account of male choir's day trip, which is heading for Porthcawl, but doesn’t quite get there.

I’m not usually a big fan of short stories, because very often they seem to lack meat. Maugham, however, is a true master of the art. It’s a pity that he seems to have fallen out of fashion.

We “did” Betjeman at school, which put me off him for some years. Later, as a student, someone made me listen to Banana Blush, a recording of JB reading his poems over a musical background. It made me realise that many of the poems are quirky, satirical, with a wicked humour, and at times a depth of feeling and meaning I had not previously recognised. JB is now one of my favourite poets.

I became fascinated by the Faust legend after seeing a performance of Gounod’s opera, Faust, in my early teens. This Elizabethan play in blank verse and prose is the most straightforward telling of the story.

Goethe was apparently obsessed by the Faust legend too. His retelling is much more complex, with allusions to classical and metaphysical concepts, and also bringing in the redeeming power of love. I have only read it in translation, but would love to attempt it in the original German one day. This is the version that inspired Gounod’s opera.

This huge complex book brings the Faust story into the early 20th century. The faustian protagonist is a German composer, who having caught syphilis makes a real or imaginary pact with the devil to receive 24 years of being a genius if he gives up love. It is a very symbolic work, with lots of allusions, and is considered a reflection of the moral decay of Germany during the Nazi era. I found it a tough, challenging read, even in English translation, but definitely worthwhile!

90. Faith Hope and Charity Trilogy by Len Deighton
Very complex story of plot and counter-plot, moves and counter-moves set in the Germany of the Cold War. Many red herrings, and even more surprises. It is definitely worth reading all three books of this series. 

A satire on English society in the early 19th century. Most of the characters are shown in their negative aspects. Although Becky Sharp is an “anti-heroine”, being shown as calculating and lacking all moral sense, she is in some ways also attractive, being shown as a woman who actually tried to shape her own destiny.

I first saw the 1988 film with Glenn Close and just had to read the book! It was written near the end of the 18th century and is the story of a man and a woman, both aristocrats, who play a game of rivalry in which they attempt to seduce and other influence the sex and love lives of others. The book has the form of a series of letters written by the various characters.

This is a mixture of reminiscences and philosophical reflections plus two short stories, held together by the fact that the title of each chapter is a chemical element. Primo Levi was an Italian Jew and a chemist, who survived Auschwitz to become a major literary figure.

I neglected work and gave up on sleep to try and grab as much time as possible to continue reading this. The story moves at various paces, but always in a tantalising manner, giving small glimpses of ever bigger things, so that we move from what seems to be a dystopic American Mid-West, to the notion of parallel worlds, alternate realities and more and more. I am now slowly working through the rest of the Dark Tower series.

This is a fictionalised account of the life of Hypatia, an outstanding mathematician, astronomer and Neoplatonist philosopher. She lived in Alexandria during the rise of Christianity and was murdered by a Christian mob. Kingsley was a parson and Hypatia is considered to be his veiled criticisms of tendencies he found undesirable in the Church of England. The book got him into trouble with church authorities.

This is a story of feral cats. One of the things I really liked about this book is how Tad Williams has created a whole feline mythology to underpin the story line.

Fromm looks at the concept of freedom, which he divides into two types, "negative" and "positive" freedom. While the first type, which is freedom from something or someone is the sort of freedom often fought for, Fromm considers it to be of little value if it is not accompanied by the second type, the freedom to do or be something and thus to create a new social order. Fromm also looks at how people try to escape from the uncomfortable feeling freedom can give them through authoritarianism, destructiveness and conformity. A thought-provoking and valuable read.

Teilhard was a French Jesuit and also a palaeontologist, as well as one of the greatest mystics of modern times. Like all true mystics, he got into trouble with his church. He presents a spiritual view of evolution and achieves a truly cosmic vision, which is breathtaking to read. A possible barrier to readers is that he uses the language of Roman Catholicism to express this vision.

A fast entertaining read and amusing story about what happens when the gods of the Greek pantheon go downmarket in a decrepit house in London, and about their cleaner Alice and her friend and hero-to-be Neil.

No longer is there a need for students of the mysteries to have great libraries of treatises on astrology, tarot, alchemy, druidism, hermetic magic, qabbala, etc. etc. This little volume proves all Wisdom founts from the "Great Bear" Winnie (and his companions of course!). A sister volume to Pooh and the Philosophers, in which the Pooh books are shown to contain the whole of Western philosophy. Both are very amusing but also thought provoking in places, but of course make most sense to someone who has also read and enjoyed A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh and House at Pooh Corner