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      Something Wicked This Way Comes...   10/09/2019

      The Autumn Supporter Giveaway!       Welcome to the very first of the seasonal BCF supporter giveaways! This month also marks one year since I took on the forum, so I want to say an extra huge thank you to all of you for keeping this place going. I have a little bit more to say about that later but, for now, let's get to the giveaway!     The Autumn Giveaway winner will be getting two Penguin Little Black Classics, The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe and To Be Read At Dusk by Charles Dickens. Both of these little books contain three atmospheric short stories, perfect for autumnal evenings. The winner will also get Mary Shelley tea (a lavender and vanilla black tea) from Rosie Lea Tea's Literary Tea Collection (https://www.rosieleatea.co.uk/collections/literary-tea-collection) and a chocolate skull, to really get that spooky atmosphere .   and...   A special treat for a special month. The winner will choose one of the following recent paperback releases from the independent bookshop Big Green Bookshop:       The Wych Elm by Tana French A House of Ghosts by W.C. Ryan Melmoth by Sarah Perry The Familiars by Stacey Halls  The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White   The winner will be chosen via the usual random selection process in one week. Patreon supporters are entered automatically. If you aren't a patreon supporter but you'd like to join in with this giveaway, you can support here: https://www.patreon.com/bookclubforum.   I really hope you're all going to like this introduction to the seasonal giveaways. It's been a lot of fun to put together. Other chocolate skulls may have been harmed during the selection process…     

Books do furnish a room

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  1. A Book blog, 2019 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault This is the first of Mary Renault’s trilogy about Alexander the Great. It covers the period up to his father Philip’s death when Alexander is in his late teens. Renault’s sources are the usual ones (Plutarch and co) and she then adds to the bare historical bones. She takes part of the mythology and uses it for her narrative purposes adopting a third person omniscient narration. Renault does not shy away from Alexander’s sexuality and clearly portrays him as bisexual, which the historical records indicate he probably was. The relationship with Hephaistion is central to the book and the strength and depth of their relationship is important to Alexander. Hephaistion understands his role in supporting Alexander: “You’re with me,’ Hephaistion said. ‘I love you. You mean more to me than anything. I’d die for you any time. I love you.” In parallel with this Renault, at least in this novel, implies that sex itself wasn’t that important to Alexander: “He’s as chaste as Artemis; or nearly” “One might have supposed that the true act of love was to lie together and talk.” Renault draws the comparison with the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus and Alexander is very conscious of this. Parts of Alexander’s character also feel quite modern: consider this exchange with his younger sister towards the end of the book as she discovers she is to marry her uncle: “He crossed over and drew her against his shoulder. He had scarcely embraced her since their childhood, and now it was in Melissa’s arms that she had wept. ‘I am sorry. You need not be frightened. He’s not a bad man, he has no name for being cruel. The people like him. And you’ll not be too far away.’ She thought, You took for granted you’d choose the best; when you chose, you had only to lift your finger. When they find you a wife, you can go to her if you choose, or stay away with your lover. But I must be grateful that this old man, my mother’s brother, has no name for being cruel. All she said was, 'The gods are unjust to women.’ 'Yes, I have often thought so. But the gods are just, so it must be the fault of men.” Renault seems to want to make Alexander a benevolent and consistent tyrant. The historian in me doesn’t approve at all. However for novelistic purposes it works overall and I’m glad that Renault does not shy away from the question of sexuality. The characterisation and the portrayal of Alexander’s context are both strong. The descriptive passages have bothered some readers because it means the novel doesn’t flow so well, but Renault isn’t writing an action novel! This passage comes from Alexander’s boyhood: “The mild summer day declined to evening. On the salt lake of Pella fell the shadow of its island fort, where the treasury and the dungeons were. Lamps glimmered in windows up and down the town; a household slave came out with a resined torch, to kindle the great cressets upheld by seated lions at the foot of the Palace steps. The lowing of homebound cattle sounded in the plains; in the mountains, which turned towards Pella their shadowed eastern faces, far-distant watch fires sparked the grey. The boy sat on the Palace roof, looking down at the town, the lagoon, and the little fisher-boats making for their moorings. It was his bedtime, and he was keeping out of his nurse's way till he had seen his mother, who might give him leave to stay up. Men mending the roof had gone home, without removing their ladders. It was a chance not to be wasted. He sat on the tiles of Pentelic marble, shipped in by King Archelaos; the gutter under his thighs, between his knees an antefix in the shape of a gorgon's head, the paint faded by weather. Grasping the snaky hair, he was outstaring the long drop, defying its earth-daimons. Going back he would have to to look down; they must be settled with beforehand. Soon they gave in, as such creatures did when challenged. He ate the stale bread he had stolen instead of supper. It would have been hot posset, flavored with honey and wine; the smell had been tempting, but at supper one was caught for bed. Nothing could be had for nothing. A bleat sounded from below. They had brought the black goat, it must be nearly time. Better now not to ask beforehand. Once he was there, she would not send him away. He picked his way down the long spaces of the ladder-rungs made for men. The beaten earth-daimons kept their distance; he sang himself a song of victory. From the lower roof to the ground; no one was there but a few tired slaves going off duty. Indoors Hellanike would be searching; he must go around outside. He was getting too much for her; he had heard his mother say so” There is much more like this. I’m glad I read this and I like the understated way that Renault gets her points across. One interesting aside; Oliver Stone’s film is very much based on Renault’s trilogy. 7 and a half out of 10 Starting Queer Africa edited by Makhosazana Xaba and Karen Martin
  2. A Book blog, 2019 by Books do Furnish a Room

    We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson A slice of American gothic and an everyday tale of mass murder and agoraphobia. The plot is pretty well known, although the plot of the recent film may confuse this as it bears limited relation to the book. It must be said that Jackson can write well and can set a scene. It is also interesting to see that American authors can write about entitled upper class families as well as English authors. This lot are as dysfunctional as anything Waugh created. Jackson has also added to the pantheon of prominent American teenage characters of this era: Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, Holden Caulfield, Esther Greenwood from The Bell Jar, to name a few. Merricat is an entirely unreliable narrator and it is pretty clear from very early on, who actually poisoned the family with arsenic. This is a trope which bothered me, women are always the ones who kill by poison. The beginning does grab the reader’s attention: “My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance, I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cap mushroom. Everyone in my family is dead.” Cousin Charles, who arrives about halfway is a good portrayal of an entitled patriarchal male and is unable ultimately to destroy the running of the household. Charles has that sense of entitlement you expect of his class and gender, but unfortunately the two sisters have it too and the author’s attempts to make Merricat likeable didn’t work with me. Despite the villagers being portrayed in a negative light, my sympathies were with them, they at least worked for a living. Merricat’s dislike of them and her descriptions of them as being, grey, colourless and an anonymous mob speak of a sort of upper class entitlement and a hatred of the outsider which is as disturbing as the shenanigans within the family. I recognize there are themes of women taking back power but, this is limited by the stultifying setting. Although well written, I just didn’t find this convincing and much of it irritated me. 5 out of 10 Starting The Body: A guide for occupants by Bill Bryson
  3. A Book blog, 2019 by Books do Furnish a Room

    The Order of the Day by Eric Vuillard I am not sure what this book is meant to be. It has been described as a novel, possibly a historical novel: or could it be just plain history. The author refers to it as a “recit”, a sort of historical essay with a few extras. One of the purposes of the author is to warn: “Great catastrophes often creep up on us in tiny steps”. Vuillard looks at the meeting in February 1933 between Hitler and 24 leading German industrialists, with names that are still prominent today in big business (Siemens, Krupp, Bayer, Farben etc). The aim was to encourage donations to the Nazi party, and it succeeded. He then looks at the Anschluss in Austria in 1938 in a little more detail. Meetings between Hitler and the Austrian Chancellor; the German demands, designed to humiliate Austria and turn the country into a vassal state. Looking at the role of Seyss-Inquart, Schussnig, Miklas and the various Nazi players. There is even a description of a dinner in London where Ribbentrop is dining with Chamberlain, other members of the cabinet and Churchill amongst others, with the telegram letting Chamberlain knowing about the Anschluss arriving in the middle. The question of historical accuracy is a significant one. The dinner with Ribbentrop actually happened the day before the Anschluss (the author got his date from Churchill’s memoirs and Churchill was notoriously hazy about dates). The story about the German armour breaking down on the way to Vienna again comes from Churchill and is contradicted by Guderian, who was a lot closer to what was going on than Churchill. Vuillard’s research and factual accuracy is obviously questionable. This would be less important in a novel when such precision can be stretched or changed for effect. It’s certainly not a historical essay. What Vuillard does do is assess the internal thoughts of some characters and make moral judgements on them. The sketches though are fairly light and insubstantial and this feels like history as postmodern performance. Although the whole is rather flimsy, there were for me to very powerful points, both briefly touched on and both deserving of much more attention. One is the very high number of suicides on the day of the Anschluss and on the days following. Many of them were Jews, some not, but there was very quickly a ban in the press on reporting them: this means actual numbers are not known. The second involves big business and the big names of German industry. They used concentration camps as recruiting grounds for cheap labour, slave labour in fact. The numbers who died whilst working for firms like Siemens, Krupp, Farben and the rest were very high and very few lasted more than a few months. These two points stood out for me and more focus on them and less on the internal reflections of the politicians would have made the whole stronger. 6 out of 10 Starting Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver
  4. A Book blog, 2019 by Books do Furnish a Room

    69 Things to do with a Dead Princess by Stuart Home The Times review said that here Home does for the novel what Viz did for the comic strip. It is certainly an anti-novel and I think is deliberately badly written. It is also an attack on modernism and literary fiction. A mash up of many forms, from Penthouse to archaeological study. There are plenty of references to pulp fiction (not the film), but also plenty of analysis of modern and rather obscure literature. There is a sort of plot. Anna Noon is a student (about 20) who is supposed to be attending lectures and writing a dissertation; she lives in Aberdeen. She meets an older man, Alan Macdonald, and starts to spend a great deal of time with him. This involves a great deal of sexual activity, visiting all the ancient standing stones in Aberdeenshire (there are a lot of them), more sexual activity outdoors on and near the stones, talking about obscure and unusual novels in some detail, an analysis of Islay malt whisky, a lot of eating and drinking in supermarket cafes and local coffee shops. Now is probably the time to mention that Alan has a ventriloquist’s dummy called Dudley who accompanies them on some of their adventures. And yes he also participates in some of their sexual escapades (before you ask, yes it is wooden) and on several occasions becomes sentient, even to the extent of driving. Anna may or may not murder Alan late in the book and Alan may or may not become a bloke called Callum. The book has footnotes and there are several different endings in the footnotes. There is a good deal to discuss! Home writes from a female point of view here and has received some criticism for doing so. He does write rather badly and is not in the least convincing; but I am another male saying this and of course, it may be written deliberately badly. There is a great deal of explicit sex very much in the 1970s pornographic magazine style. Unfortunately the language is a bit too redolent of the butcher’s slab and is not in the least erotic. The addition of the dummy doesn’t help matters either. There seem to be a lot of random strangers in Aberdeenshire who are happy to join in sexual activity in the open air when they stumble across it. The sex is also boring (again maybe this is the point) and very hetero and there isn’t a great deal of imagination, despite the variety and earthy language. The section on Islay malt whisky was interesting. There seem to be an awful lot of stone circles and monoliths in Aberdeenshire and we visit many of them. There are lots of references to antiquarian tomes, a whole reading list of obscure books on the stones and the various sites are described in detail. The novel also self-references a good deal in relation to this. In the novel there is a reference to a novel with the same title by K L Callan, where the author is taking the corpse of a certain princess around the standing stones of Aberdeenshire. He is doing this because in reality Diana was murdered at Balmoral (the car crash was a cover story) and Callan has to dispose of the body. All done in the best possible taste! There is as much literary discussion and consideration of obscure and forgotten novelists as there is sex and they are all bona fide novelists. Some are better known than others: Alexander Trocchi for example. Others, well, anyone remember Missing Margate? So that’s it: sex, books and standing stones with a dash of whisky. Home has written a great deal of fiction and non-fiction and his range is startling and varied and he seems to have passionate likes and dislikes. This makes him easy to read and to dispute with. I haven’t read enough Home to place this within his writing. It is certainly unusual. Home seems to have a hatred for Baudrillard and Martin Amis and a liking for Trocchi. His rants are sometimes very funny and on the mark; at other times they are annoying or just plain offensive. One reviewer (Jenny Turner in the London Review of Books) believes she knows the reason for the pornographic sex: “It’s an insurance policy taken out against the possibility that a reader might somehow get past all the other blocks and barbs put in to repel her and find the text beautiful, or identify with the narrator, or otherwise recuperate the work in the conventional way.” Home describes himself as “radically inauthentic” and says of himself: “I have attempted to continually reforge the passage between theory and practice, and overcome the divisions not only between what in the contemporary world are generally canalized cultural pursuits but also to breach other separations such as those between politics and art, the private and the social.” The audiobook seems to be on you tube if your curiosity has been piqued. There are lots of problems with this, but Home does provoke a reaction. 6 out of 10 Starting The Order of the Day by Eric Vuillard
  5. A Book blog, 2019 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Hayley: on the whole I enjoyed The Wicked Cometh. There is what feels like an ending about a chapter before the end, but it feels like the author felt she couldn't end it there. To explain more would be a huge spoiler! Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino This is a sort of homage to Marco Polo’s travelogue and consists of Polo describing 55 different cities to Kublai Khan, each city having a woman’s name. It is divided into nine chapters. Each chapter is started and finished with a brief conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. The cities are split into eleven groups of five and each group has a particular theme. There is a particular mathematical structure which has been tabulated and is freely available on the internet if you are so inclined. This isn’t really surprising as Calvino was a member of the Oulipo group. It is also true that as Polo says, all the descriptions of the various cities are really aspects of his own city, Venice. The writing is certainly poetic and beautiful and it is easy to read. It has also had acres of praise from other authors and critics. Here is Gore Vidal: “Of all tasks, describing the contents of a book is the most difficult and in the case of a marvellous invention like Invisible Cities, perfectly irrelevant.” Jeanette Winterson: “The book I would chose as pillow and plate, alone on a desert island.” Minna Proctor: “Calvino’s fiction isn’t a story; it’s an ordering and reordering of the emotional and philosophical reverberations of our civilized world, our human condition” Here is Calvino himself: “For example, when I began writing Invisible Cities I had only a vague idea of what the frame, the architecture of the book would be. But then, little by little, the design became so important that it carried the entire book; it became the plot of a book that had no plot.” Yes that’s right, there is no plot, there is structure and framework. It has also been turned into an opera …. And a ballet. Calvino does pull together fragments and comments that have resonance and provoke thought: “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space” “…the people who move through the streets are all strangers. At each encounter, they imagine a thousand things about one another; meetings which could take place between them, conversations, surprises, caresses, bites. But no one greets anyone; eyes lock for a second, then dart away, seeking other eyes, never stopping… something runs among them, an exchange of glances like lines that connect one figure with another and draw arrows, stars, triangles, until all combinations are used up in a moment, and other characters come on to the scene.” The cities are not all medieval as although this is a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, Calvino is not limited by time and space and his comment that “all of the world’s airports are really the same” may resonate with many. This is a travel book without the travel as the conversations indicate. Inevitably a whole industry of study and analysis has grown around the novel: discussions of Calvino’s notions of nonchronological temporality, applications of Deleuze’s temporal theory to provide a systematic analysis of Calvino’s radical notion of time and I’m not even going to mention synthesizing “the repetition of instants”. I enjoyed the language and the poetic flow of it all, but like some other “classics” I had some misgivings. All the cities are set in the East and they have their fair share of camels, goats, bearded women, naked women of great beauty and various “sideshow” type predictabilities, all named after women and all available for the male gaze, inert. I also had Said’s Orientalism running through my head as well. So, I finished it with some hesitations in my mind, but I’m glad I read it. 6 out of 10 Starting The Corset by Laura Purcell
  6. A Book blog, 2019 by Books do Furnish a Room

    The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin This book tries to be many things, too many really and there is a great deal going on. To begin with the cover art is good. The novel is set in 1831, so it is pre-Victorian, but is set in a London that Dickens would have known. There is a touch of the Gothic about it and mystery part of the novel involves disappearances of the “lower” sort of person. There are some suitably roguish characters and the trade of the resurrection men, supplying London’s anatomy schools with corpses is obviously at the centre of it all. The reader guesses this from early on. The novel is also a lesbian romance centred on the two main characters, Hester and Rebekah. The romance is suitably stop/start and takes a while to come to fruition (most of the novel in fact). The biggest problem for me is the ending, or rather two endings. I think the last chapter and epilogue have been added as Carlin wasn’t brave enough to stick with the original ending and felt a happy ending was required. I think the novel would have been stronger without that. Carlin can describe and set a scene well: “Instead of the majesty of Westminster Abbey and the grandeur of the Banqueting House, here the houses spill over each other; dishevelled and ugly. A sickly, rotten stench rises from the streets and the rain-bloated gutters. Some thoroughfares bulge with black mud where pools of fetid water have collected, while others are narrow and meandering. All are swart with the lack of daylight and connected by alleyways and byways that seep over the scabbed ground.” The scene setting does take rather a long time and the sense of mystery and danger takes a while to become evident. The narrative voice is Hester’s and this works well in the slower paced first half of the novel, less so in the more hurried second half. There is an increasing amount of competition in this genre and this is certainly in the tradition of Sarah Waters. It is based on an issue that was real in the 1830s, the provision of bodies for anatomical studies and on one of the more illegal ways of solving the problem. The limited length of the novel means that none of the themes can be as thoroughly explored as they need to be and this, for me, led to a sense of truncation in all of the themes. This was ok for a debut novel and I would certainly read Carlin again (next one due out in 2020). Carlin writes well and the novel moves on well. 6 and a half out of 10 Starting Call of the Curlew by Elizabeth Brooks
  7. A Book blog, 2019 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Thank you Hayley and Brian On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming This book has its origins and setting in Chapel St Leonards, a village on the Lincolnshire coast. Being a Lincolnshire lad I therefore had to read this. Laura Cummings’s mother was brought up there and Cummings has set out to piece together her mother’s upbringing. Her mother was born in 1926, is still living and was adopted at the age of three. It was not until many years later and Cummings and her mother discovered that in 1929 three year old Betty was kidnapped from Chapel Sands and was not found for five days: dressed in entirely different clothes and unharmed. She has no recollection of the event. Cummings in this account pieces together the mystery of her mother’s upbringing from some clues, some accounts from the descendants of those involved and an assortment of photographs. Cummings is an art historian and manages to get more from photographs than most of us would be able to: she takes objects and gives them meaning and pieces together life in an English village in the 1930s. She also examines Betty’s adoptive parents, George and Veda, already in their 40s, trying to isolate Betty from everyone around them and stop her mixing with others. For there are secrets in the village and in the neighbouring village of Hogsthorpe. There is a fine array of local characters and the narrative also stretches to the other side of the globe. Cummings traces Betty’s real mother and father (with a few real twists), the reasons for the kidnapping, Betty’s original name (Grace) and much more. Veda and George are examined closely: Veda is old enough to remember seeing Tennyson striding along Chapel Sands when she was a girl and Tennyson’s poetry crops up periodically. Cummings’s mother writes what she knows to help in her daughter’s quest (which takes many years to complete): “Because you have asked me, dear daughter, here are my earliest recollections. It is an English domestic genre canvas of the 1920s and 1930s, layered over with decades of fading and darkening, but your curiosity has begun to make all glow a little. And perhaps a few figures and events may turn out to be restored through the telling.” The memoir reflects the depth and complexity of family and village life and seeks to explain. Cummings, in an interview reflects on the process: “I had her memoir, I had my writings over many years about her, who I love very dearly, and I had many thoughts about this story. And I told the story, a specific aspect of the story, which is the baker’s van, which arrives from the windmill at Hogsthorpe and never stops at her house. I wanted to get to the bottom of this and I saw the thing to do, with my mother’s blessing. I went to Chapel St Leonards. I took a room in a farm nearby and I spent a long time on the beach. Every day I’d go to the beach and I’d think about this scene. I’d go up to the Beacon and I went to the house where my mother lived and I’d have a drink in the Vine. I went round and round. I did the walk from Chapel to Mablethorpe. I did the walk from Chapel to Skegness and I thought about this period in time. And local historians in and around Chapel have done a wonderful job of publishing a lot of beautifully written local history. In Skegness Library you can look up old copies of the Skegness Times. It was very evocative. The book came into the form it’s in simply from being in the landscape in Lincolnshire. I’d stand on those sands and she was there, my grandfather was there, the Vikings were there. The compression of time was a great advantage for me.” I really enjoyed the writing and the unravelling of the background to the tale; it helped a little having some awareness of the geography. It illustrates well the complexity of families: “Everyone has a mother, everyone has an uncle who wasn’t really their uncle, or whose sister was in fact their mother, or whose grandparents aren’t their grandparents. It’s completely common. All family photo albums are full of things we don’t notice and that’s the campaign of the book: look more closely. There’s always a figure in the background or someone who is not there. Who’s taken the photograph?” This was a pleasure to read, capturing a lost time without sentimentality or nostalgia. 9 out of 10 Starting We have always lived in the castle by Shirley Jackson
  8. A Book blog, 2019 by Books do Furnish a Room

    We by Yevgeny Zemyatin This is an early dystopian novel from the early 1920s and Zamyatin was Russian. We has inspired many other writers including Orwell, Vonnegut, Nabakov, Le Guin, possibly Huxley (he disputed this) amongst others. However Zamyatin in turn was influenced by H G Wells and especially by When the Sleeper Wakes. The novel takes place hundreds of years into the future in a society called One State. The citizens are known by numbers and the protagonist is D-503. He is the chief engineer building a spaceship called The Integral. One State is a glass city where the whole of life is regimented on strict principles. Zemyatin applied the principles of Taylorism which were popular at the time (still are in some areas!) to depict a highly monitored society. D-503 meets a woman called I-330 who seems to break the rules and he begins to have feelings for her. She shows him aspects of the society that he isn’t aware of and even that there is a world outside of the glass city. There is a movement to overthrow One State called Mephi and a revolution is attempted in which I-330 is involved. The results play out at the end of the novel. These days novels about highly regimented societies are not unusual. Zemyatin was using lots of allusions and there are numerous biblical references and the novel is as much a critique of organised religion as military atheism. There is an interesting conversation between D-503 and I-330: “Do you realise that what you are suggesting is revolution?” “Of course, it’s revolution. Why not?” “Because there can’t be a revolution. Our revolution was the last and there can never be another. Everybody knows that.” “My dear, you’re a mathematician: tell me, which is the last number?” “What do you mean, the last number?” “Well, then, the biggest number!” “But that’s absurd. Numbers are infinite. There can’t be a last one.” “Then why do you talk about the last revolution?” There are several other messages; one is that you can’t extinguish human imagination. Another is that you really should not trust technology. This is a multi-layered novel with a focus on forbidden knowledge, especially in relation to science and art. But the goals of One State mean spreading their knowledge, even into space, which is what the Integral is designed to do: “A thousand years ago your heroic forebears subjugated the whole of planet Earth to the power of OneState. It is for you to accomplish an even more glorious feat: by means of the glass, the electric, the fire-breathing INTEGRAL to integrate the indefinite equation of the universe. It is for you to place the beneficial yoke of reason round the necks of the unknown beings who inhabit other planets – still living, it may be, in the primitive state known as freedom. If they will not understand that we are bringing them a mathematically infallible happiness, we shall be obliged to force them to be happy. But before taking up arms, we shall try what words can do.” Reminded me a little of the Borg in Star Trek. It is also interesting to see D-503’s internal struggle as he writes his journal: "I am completely bewildered. Yesterday, at the very moment when I thought that everything was already disentangled, that all the X's were found, new unknown quantities appeared in my equation." "Of course, it's clear: in order to determine the true value of a function it is necessary to take it to its ultimate limit ... Hence, if we designate love as 'L' and death as 'D,' then L = f(D). In other words, love and death --- yes, exactly, exactly." "Every equation, every formula in the surface world has its corresponding curve or body. But for irrational formulas, for my square root of -1, we know of no corresponding bodies, we have never seen them ... But the horror of it is that these invisible bodies exist ..." I found a fascinating website about mathematics in literary fiction which discusses We in depth! Nerds of the world unite!! There’s acres of print about We and it is an interesting dystopian novel which is worth reading. The comparisons with 1984 are interesting. I haven’t read much of Wells’ dystopian stuff to compare, but it is certainly firmly within a tradition which stretches to some of the modern YA dystopias. There are a couple of examples of racist language. The chapters are brief and it is easy to read, although D-503 is irritating at times! 6 and a half out of 10 Starting Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
  9. A Book blog, 2019 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Yes, the cover is rather good. And I'm also intrigued by the idea of Nesbit writing horror! The Other Mrs Walker by Mary Paulson-Ellis This is a rather complex and convoluted novel that defies easy description. It is certainly a detective novel without a detective, there is a gothic edge and it is reminiscent of a Victorian novel. The setting is 2010-2011 but the novel jumps back in time, starting in the 1930s and then onwards but not sequentially. Margaret Penny is in her late 40s and is returning to a cold grey December Edinburgh to see her mother (Barbara), after many years absence. Her life in London has fallen apart. She is now looking for a job/something to do. She ends up taking a job researching the recent death of an elderly woman in an Edinburgh flat. Mrs Walker died alone with few clues as to her identity and origins: “Everyone leaves something behind, if you only know where to look.” The search takes her back to London and as you might guess the outcomes are closer to home than might be realised. The journey starts in the 1930s and centres on the London of the Blitz. The history is rather grim and involves abortionists, child abuse, alcoholism, mental illness and asylums, missing documents, a very crooked and seedy firm of solicitors and much more. The plot is slow moving at times and information is teased out slowly. This is a book about secrets, their keeping and disclosing. It is also about family ties, close knit and loose. The various bits of narrative come together at the end, but the ending is rather contrived. There are also too many hints as to the solutions during the narrative to make this a real detective story. However what this also turns out to be is a history of the lives of the women of a family. A struggle for survival in a brutal world where children die, men abuse and society constricts. There is a bleakness to this and secrets are central to it: ‘And somehow shed always known that she would end up like this. In a small square room, in a small square flat. In a small square box, perhaps. Cardboard, with a sticker on the outside. And a name. What was that name? Lost, along with everything else she’d ever owned’ There are significant objects and documents scattered throughout and each of these has a story to tell, whether it be orange pips, a small piece of jewelry or other trinkets. There is lots of imagery and the reader has to put it together. The timeline can be confusing and the ending is unsatisfactory, but the narrative held my attention and portrays a picture of some of the hidden horrors of wartime London. More positives than negatives, just. 6 and a half out of 10 Starting On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming
  10. A Book blog, 2019 by Books do Furnish a Room

    The Story of the Treasure Seekers by E. Nesbit I asked myself a few times why I was reading this. The reason of course is that it is part of this year’s reading women challenge; one of the books being a children’s book. Nesbit, of course, wrote The Railway Children and many other children’s books. Nesbit was a follower of William Morris and co-founded the Fabian Society. Her main focus was children’s writing, although she did write some adult novels, short stories, and some horror. This novel (although it is almost a collection of short stories) is about six siblings, the Bastable children: Dora, Oswald, Dicky, Alice, Noel and Horace Octavius (H.O), set in the 1890s. They live with their father and their mother has recently died. They have all noticed that their father must be struggling with money as there have been economies and there are less servants around! The children are at home and are not attending school as father can’t afford the fees! There is, of course, no question of them attending school in the local area with the lower orders! The children are aware of their straitened circumstances and decide to find a way to make their fortunes. They all make suggestions and over the course of the book they try most of them getting into various scrapes with adults and other children. That pretty much sums up the whole thing. The children generally mean well and manage to more or less avoid total mayhem. There is naturally the obligatory happy ending. It is worth noting that the children, who are all 12 or under are pretty much allowed to run free in a way that modern children generally are not. I was expecting a little more of this as Nesbit was a socialist and must have been aware of the growth of feminism. The gender roles are clearly defined and mostly remain intact. The girls do what girls are expected to do and the boys do what boys are expected to do: apart from Noel, who is a poet! There is an example of racist language towards the end and the last chapter was really irritating, but I am going to avoid spoilers. Will I read the other two in the trilogy, probably not. 5 out of 10 Starting The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin
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    Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna This is quite a hefty tome with a lot going on. Some of the publicity describes it as A Suitable Boy meets The Thorn Birds meets Gone with the Wind. It spans the years1878 to 1936. It is set in the south Indian province of Coorg, in the Sahaydri Mountains. The author comes from this area and it is easy to see that as the landscape is the strongest character in the book. It is also a love triangle (that usually makes me run several miles in the opposite direction, but this is part of a reading challenge), which charts the lives of childhood sweethearts Devi and Devanna and their families. Unfortunately it is more soap opera than historical fiction and raised a number of issues for me. Does those that are abused automatically turn into abusers? One particular incident plays out through most of the book and for me that just didn’t fit. There also seemed to be an almost total lack of a political context until the last one hundred pages. Even then the nationalists were portrayed as more of a nuisance than anything else. I did learn a certain amount about growing coffee and how to deal with the coffee borer beetle! Despite the beauty of the setting the tragedy is pretty relentless and the use of coincidence stretched my credibility somewhat. Some of the characters lacked a little believability and the last third of the book was much weaker than the rest and felt rather rushed. The descriptions of Coorg are beautifully written and makes up for some of the problems with the human characters. 5 and a half out of 10 Starting 69 things to do with a dead princess by Stewart Home
  12. A Book blog, 2019 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna This is quite a hefty tome with a lot going on. Some of the publicity describes it as A Suitable Boy meets The Thorn Birds meets Gone with the Wind. It spans the years1878 to 1936. It is set in the south Indian province of Coorg, in the Sahaydri Mountains. The author comes from this area and it is easy to see that as the landscape is the strongest character in the book. It is also a love triangle (that usually makes me run several miles in the opposite direction, but this is part of a reading challenge), which charts the lives of childhood sweethearts Devi and Devanna and their families. Unfortunately it is more soap opera than historical fiction and raised a number of issues for me. Does those that are abused automatically turn into abusers? One particular incident plays out through most of the book and for me that just didn’t fit. There also seemed to be an almost total lack of a political context until the last one hundred pages. Even then the nationalists were portrayed as more of a nuisance than anything else. I did learn a certain amount about growing coffee and how to deal with the coffee borer beetle! Despite the beauty of the setting the tragedy is pretty relentless and the use of coincidence stretched my credibility somewhat. Some of the characters lacked a little believability and the last third of the book was much weaker than the rest and felt rather rushed. The descriptions of Coorg are beautifully written and makes up for some of the problems with the human characters. 5 and a half out of 10 Starting 69 things to do with a dead princess by Stewart Home
  13. A Book blog, 2019 by Books do Furnish a Room

    A Place for Us by Fatima, Farheen Mirza This is a family drama. It tracks a devout Shia Muslim family in the years after 9/11 and is set in California. It moves backwards and forwards in time, which can be a little confusing, but on the whole this works well. The book revolves around the wedding of the older sister Hadia. Mirza concentrates on family conflicts and tensions within the family, not outside although these are obviously present. There is really just Layla and Rafiq and their children Hadia, Huda and Amar and most of the focus is on Amar, the one who does not conform. The focus on faith is strong, but there is also a recognition that there is now a whole other world out there: “She could hold in her heart a belief in Islam as well as the unwavering belief that every human had the right to choose who they loved, and how, and that belief was in exact accordance with her faith: that it is the individual’s right to choose, and the individual’s duty to empathise with one another. Didn’t the Quran itself contain the verse, “We have created you from many tribes, so that you may know one another”” Although Shia Islam overlays the whole it is really about basic human relationships: love, loss and the joys and grief of being a parent. We see the situation and family life over the years from a number of different perspectives and finally from Rafiq at the end of the novel. That was a good move because it pulls all the threads together. All the characters are flawed and have their weaknesses and the whole is well written and the family dramas could happen to anyone. It is only the lens that changes. All this is good and the interiority of the novel is one of its strengths, but is also a weakness as some of the harder societal issues are less present. If you like an analysis of family and relationships within families you will enjoy this. 7 out of 10 Starting Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault
  14. A Book blog, 2019 by Books do Furnish a Room

    The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck This is one of those novels which is described as a must read, it won the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel committee said it was one of the main reasons Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in 1962. Then there is the 1940 film starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad. There is no sense in going over the details of the plot as it is so well known, set in the time of the Great Depression and charting the economic hardship and changes in the nature of agriculture, the dustbowl and the movement of poor tenant farmers forced of the land, travelling to California. One of the book’s strengths is that the reader is made to live with the Joad family and has some investment in their struggles to find food and work. There is no subtlety here and the book is certainly sentimental. It is also laced with religious imagery. There is no mistaking the similarities between the ex-preacher John Casy and Jesus Christ. There were also controversies and the book was as much hated as loved, it was even burnt because it was felt to be socialist or even communist. The landowners and farmers of California in particular felt that they had been unfairly portrayed. Steinbeck talks about ownership thus: “This is the thing to bomb. This is the beginning—from "I" to "we". If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into "I", and cuts you off forever from the "we".” “And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed. The great owners ignored the three cries of history. The land fell into fewer hands, the number of dispossessed increased, and every effort of the great owners was directed at repression.” “Men who have created new fruits in the world cannot create a system whereby their fruits may be eaten. And the failure hangs over the State like a great sorrow. ...and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.” Given the above it is hardly surprising that there were accusations of socialism. There is a whole industry of writing about the book. It is worth noting that the role of female characters is significant and they become more central as the novel progresses; at the end only Ma Joad and Rose of Sharon seem to remain. As the novel progresses Ma Joad seems to transform from a housewife to the leader of the family and there is a clear difference between the ways of the men and the ways of the women. This is one of those “classics” that I am glad I read (Unlike Catcher in the Rye) and I enjoyed the strong political message. The Great Depression and the Dustbowl led to the migrations depicted here. Similar problems mean we have issues with migrations today and we don’t seem to be any better at handling them. Lesson not learnt! 8 and a half out of 10 Starting We by Yevgeny Zemyatin
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    All God's Children need Travelling Shoes by Maya Angelou This is the fifth volume of Angelou’s autobiography and covers the time when she lived abroad, mainly in Ghana. It is set around 1963/1964 and begins when Angelou is 33. Colonialism and Empire is ending and African states are taking over their own affairs. A number of Black Americans felt the draw of Africa, Angelou was among them: “Our people had always longed for home. For centuries, we had sung about a place not built with hands, where the streets were paved with gold and were washed with honey and milk. There the saints would march around wearing white robes and jeweled crowns. There, at last, we would study war no more, and, more important, no one would wage war against us again. The old Black deacons, ushers, mothers of the church and junior choirs only partially meant heaven as that desired destination. In the yearning, heaven and Africa were inextricably combined.” As always Angelou is not afraid to address difficult issues, tensions and mistakes that she has made. There were tensions between Ghanaians and the new US community and a level of distrust and Angelou is not afraid to explore this. The group from the US called themselves the “Revolutionist Returnees”. The Ghanaian people come across as warm and welcoming to what must have seemed quite a puzzling group. Angelou describes a protest organized in front of the American embassy to coincide with Martin Luther King’s march on Washington. The protest gained extra meaning as W.E.B. DuBois, who was living in Ghana, had died the night before. Angelou also describes her struggles with coming to terms with the fact that her ancestors had been sold into slavery with the help of some of the ancestors of modern day Africans. One of the most fascinating parts of the book is the visit of Malcolm X to Ghana. He spends a good deal of time with Angelou and her friends and the reader gets a sense of his charisma and persuasive powers. It was just after he had broken with the Nation of Islam and there was a telling description of a chance meeting with Muhammed Ali at an airport in Ghana. There is as always plenty of humour and Angelou is very good at mixing humour with sad and difficult issues. A case in point is Angelou’s reaction when she discovers her son (who is about 18) is dating someone as old as she is. The community of US citizens in Ghana moves on. Angelou goes briefly to Europe to act in a production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks (with James Earl Jones and Lou Gossett Jr.). Before she leaves Ghana to go and work for Malcolm X Angelou visits a part of the country she hasn’t visited before. It is a very moving part of the book as Angelou thinks she has found the area of Ghana her ancestors originated from; an argument for collective memories perhaps, but it is a fatting ending to a powerful book. 9 out of 10 Starting The Story of the Treasure Seekers by Edith Nesbit