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      BCF on Patreon!   11/10/2018

      I'm very excited to finally share with you that BCF now has patreon! I'm sure some of you are familiar with patreon already, but for those who aren't here's what it means for the forum:   You will now be able to support the forum monthly. The amount you'd like to give is entirely up to you but, the more you give, the more rewards you get. The rewards (this is the most exciting part!) include entry to a monthly competition when you donate $2 or more. I really cannot wait to show you the first competition prize!   I really do need your support to keep this forum running and I hope that with patreon I can give something back to those who do support too. I am also aware that there's a possibility this might not work. For that reason, I'll be running it on a 6 month trial and I would really appreciate your feedback in that time.   Members who are current supporters will get automatic entry into the competitions until their current years membership runs out (although obviously you can still join the patreon before your current membership runs out if you want to!)   If you have any questions just send me a message, or come to the 'Changes' section of the forum.   If you'd like to get started on patreon, you can find the Book Club Forum here... https://www.patreon.com/bookclubforum       

Books do furnish a room

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About Books do furnish a room

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  • Birthday July 18

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    Poor People William Vollmann
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  1. A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

    Poppy Shakespeare by Clare Allan A tragi-comic satire on the mental health system in this country that pulls no punches. If you are going to write about mental health and mental illness you’d better not be an outsider writing about what you haven’t experienced. Clare Allan is not an outsider, not at all. She spent ten years inside a variety of the mental health institutions of the 1990s and has been sectioned under the Mental Health Act. In an interview she lists some of the things she has been diagnosed with: “..paranoid psychosis, psychotic depression, developing schizophrenia, manic depression, major psychotic disorder and borderline personality - a list which she claims was "about as much use as covering a parcel with 'fragile' stickers."” The lists of medication Allan has been on is equally impressive, including medications to counteract the effects of other medications. She explains the humour in the book by saying that: “It was just a case of doing the patients justice. The longer I stayed there the more I realised how people use humour to cope with completely desperate situations.” The novel itself revolves around the Dorothy Fish hospital, and especially the day care units, whose attendees live in the run down council estates surrounding it. The story is told by N, who is tasked to show round a newcomer called Poppy Shakespeare. Unlike most of the denizens of the hospital Poppy is insistent that she is sane and does not want to be there. However she needs legal aid to help her prove she is sane and to get legal aid she has to be on “MAD money” (the term Allan uses for welfare benefits and she creates a complex system of assessment) and to get “MAD money you need to have a mental illness. This is the catch 22 the novel revolves around. One of the characteristics of the book is N’s narrative voice, it does not conform to any linguistic rules and punctuation and grammar are also casualties of N’s distinctive train of thought. She starts the novel: “I’m not being funny but you can’t blame me for what happened. All I done was try and help Poppy out” At a monthly assessment N is asked a question: "Do you find it hard to make decisions? I seen the trap straight off: if I said I strongly agreed they could say I was lying on account of I just made one, and if I said I disagreed they could say there were nothing the matter. So in the end I gone with neither agree nor disagree." Those who attend the day centre are called “dribblers”. The sane are known as “sniffs” and full time residents who live on the higher floors of the hospital are known as “flops”. The supporting characters can appear cartoonlike because of the names Allan gives them: Middle Class Michael, Astrid Arsewipe, Slasher Sue (so-named because of her self-harming), Brian the Butcher, Verna the Vomit (bulimic), Marta the coffin (so depressed that, "hearses used to toot her as they gone past down the street") and so on. This is close to the bone and would be unacceptable from the so-called normal but Allan pulls it off and her insights into the systems and its inhabitants make the novel terribly sad as well as funny. All of those involved with Dorothy Fish are desperate to stay there and not be discharged because it is the only life they know. However we are in the 1990s and there is a drive to improve outcomes and improve the system and so discharges begin to happen and those discharged are cast out with no support and often disintegrate. This I know to be true as in my work I still come across ex residents of some of these institutions. They are invariably socially isolated, often self-neglecting and have been totally abandoned by the state which is no longer interested in them. This isn’t a novel looking for sympathy for the mentally ill, it isn’t a memoir or autobiography, but it is a satire on mental health policy. N is a spectacularly unreliable narrator, but she has some insight into her life and that of her friend Poppy. It illustrates many of the concerns of the recovery movement. It is easy to get sidetracked by the language but the message is a powerful one. As the quote from Chekov at the beginning says: ‘Since prisons and madhouses exist, why, somebody is bound to sit in them’ 9 out of 10 Starting I write what I like by Steve Biko
  2. A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

    Courage calls to Courage Everywhere by Jeanette Winterson On the same line as recent shorts by Mary Beard and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This is an adaption of Winterson’s Richard Dimbleby Lecture and also commemorates the one hundredth anniversary of some women getting the vote. The cover has a pattern in the colours of the Suffragettes. As well as the lecture there is a transcript of a speech by Emmeline Pankhurst called Freedom or Death, delivered in Hartford Connecticut in 1913. There is a brief look at the suffrage movement and an assessment of how things have progressed (or not). There is also an outline of the current state of women’s issues with a look at the #MeToo movement, education and medicine. Winterson also looks at the future and argues that more women need to be in technology and IT. This is not theoretical analysis or closely argued and reasoned, it is polemical and passionately argued as you would expect from Winterson. It is a call to arms and action and a timely reminder that we have a long way to go. Pankhurst’s speech at the end is well worth reading and is also a call to action and revolt and it ends thus: “So here am I. I come in the intervals of prison appearance. I come after having been four times imprisoned under the “Cat and Mouse Act”, probably going back to be rearrested as soon as I set my foot on British soil. I come to ask you to help win this fight. If we win it, this hardest of all fights, then, to be sure, in the future it is going to be made easier for women all over the world to win their fight when their time comes.” One wonders what Pankhurst would have made of today’s situation. 7 out of 10 Starting After me comes the flood by Sarah Perry
  3. A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

    Pride against Prejudice by Jenny Morris This is one of the seminal works of the disability rights movement and so it is surprising that it appears to be so little read. It approaches the subject of disability from a feminist perspective. This was written in the early 1990s and much has changed since then (for better and worse). The book covers debates about quality of life, the representation of disability, institutionalization and care homes, debates within feminism, the politics of disability and community care. There is an interesting look at disability and its representation in western culture. This includes a look at the Third Reich, but also at modern film and TV. Films like My Left Foot and Born on the 4th of July which Morris argues portray how awful dependence is for a man, wheelchairs making the dependency more vivid. She argues disability is used as a metaphor for dependency. She also reminds the reader of the portrayal of the disabled as villains (Captain Hook for example). Morris also analyses the way disabled women are represented in literature and film, which is often very passive and helpless (for example Audrey Hepburn in Wait until Dark) with a heroic non-disabled person as rescuer. In contrast Morris describes at the end of the book being part of a protest against Children in Need by a disabled activist group called Campaign to Stop Patronage. They were on the pavement outside Broadcasting House and Morris, with some relish describes the reactions of people queuing to go in: initially thinking the group in wheelchairs were supporting the charity and then reacting with shock and disbelief when they realised it was a protest against it. Morris writes with great clarity: “Our disability frightens people. They don’t want to think that this is something which could happen to them. So we become separated from common humanity, treated as fundamentally different and alien. Having put up clear barriers between us and them, non-disabled people further hide their fear and discomfort by turning us into objects of pity, comforting themselves by their own kindness and generosity. It is this response which lies at the heart of the discrimination we face – in employment, in housing, in access to all the things that non-disabled people take for granted.” There are harrowing descriptions of life in various types of institutional care and a look at the assumption that disabled lives are lives that are not worth living. This is particularly prescient following the developments in genetic engineering. Morris looks closely at the debates within feminism, especially in relation to community care. She goes on to make a distinction between “organisations of” disabled people and “organisations for” disabled people. Morris covers a wide range of arguments and this is a comprehensive analysis of why society treats disability in the way it does and is really a must read for all of us. 9 out of 10 Starting Courage calls to Courage Everywhere by Jeanette Winterson
  4. A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

    The Windeater by Keri Hulme A collection of short stories by Keri Hulme. Having enjoyed The Bone People I decided to try this collection and wasn’t disappointed. The stories are certainly experimental and at times could be described as having elements of magic realism. A wide variety of styles makes this feel like a collection by several writers. Hulme is part Maori and the culture and influence comes through. This collection has been criticised for being negative, violent and even horrific. Well guess what: this isn’t sanitised culture for the rugby field, it speaks of oppression and injustice and of the many Maoris at the edge of society in New Zealand. Hulme’s voice is strong and her feminism shines through as well: “I remember the words and I remember the sting, and I still hate all that shhhhhhh, men being tapu, and women being noa. Don’t eat here; don’t put your head there. Don’t hang your clothes higher than the men’s; never get up and talk on the marae. ‘Our women don’t talk out front,’ you said. ‘Arawa women speak only from behind their men.’ And you wonder why I went city?” Themes of death, dying and maiming may seem bleak but there is a very strong and physical connection to the natural world which feels very much like a character in many of the stories. Inevitably the writing has a strong poetic content as Hulme is also a poet: “What can I say to you? That is clean, new, untrammeled, Free from smears and fresh from mother tongue? and the rain is all around a pin to skewer a cloak of flesh. “solitary tall hills, Sometimes walk, sometimes meet” {Sacred knob/holy top/Puketapu} And from ancient halls mounds vestibules Spinning out of the golden past Sommmetimes the resonance of words, Naming” Isolation and alienation are also important themes. I may not seem to be selling this too well but these are remarkable and haunting stories which stand well with some of the greatest short story writers. 8 out of 10 Starting The End We Start From by Megan Hunter
  5. A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

    Infidel by Hyaan Hirsi Ali This is a fascinating autobiography describing a Muslim childhood and upbringing in Somalia, Kenya and Saudi Arabia. Ali has had a fascinating life and one of the strengths of this book is her descriptions of her childhood. The book goes on to cover Ali’s avoidance of an arranged marriage and her move to Holland, her gradual learning of the language and customs. She went into Dutch politics and later became well known for her collaboration with Theo Gogh to highlight the situation of Muslim women. His subsequent murder and the threats to her life are well documented and the book ends at this stage of her life. The autobiographical sections relating to Ali’s childhood are gripping. There are descriptions of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and accounts of life in three different countries. Family is a constant as are regular beatings. Ali focusses on the role and position of women in Islam, including arranged marriage and FGM. Ali argues passionately about the role of women in Islam and their need for liberation. She has been criticised for adopting Western attitudes and mores and becoming an apologist for the west, calling for the defeat of radical Islam. Writing here, Ali is pessimistic about the possibility of Islam changing and reforming and she argues that there is no hope for Islam as the Islam she experienced cannot change. It’s an interesting argument and having been brought up in a fundamentalist Christian sect I do understand how she feels. Like her I am now an atheist. However to argue that the extremists and fundamentalists are the only face of Islam and that deep down all Muslims are like this I think goes too far. It would also be going too far to say the deep down all Christians are the same as the hellfire breathing fundamentalists. It is certainly not my experience. I disagree fundamentally with the concept of religion but I acknowledge the right to freedom of thought and I can distinguish between the many fundamentally good people who practise religion and the extremists. This is a challenging and interesting account of a difficult childhood which illustrates that patriarchy does not just exist in the west. However I do disagree with some of the conclusions Ali draws and her too easy acceptance of some western values. 6 out of 10 Starting Winter in the Morning by Janina Baumann
  6. A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

    A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor This is the third novel by Taylor I have read and I think this is the best so far. It is set in a small seaside town in southern England. It is a quite claustrophobic piece focussing on a small group of the town’s residents. Not much happens, but the whole is nuanced and there is a tension between the artistic and domestic. But don’t let Taylor deceive you: she’s sharp, she makes her point at a time when women novelists were expected to fit a certain role. The rather creepy librarian says to the owner of the waxworks museum, Lily Wilson: “That’s a fine and powerful story. ...No need to be prejudiced against lady novelists. In literature the wind bloweth where it listeth. ...Ladies – and you notice I say “ladies” – have their own contribution to make. A nice domestic romance. Why ape men?” One of the main characters, Beth (a variation on Elizabeth maybe), is a writer and this gives Taylor a chance to reflect on the trials of being a writer: ‘This isn’t writing,’ she thought miserably. It’s just fiddling about with words. I’m not a great writer. Whatever I do someone else has always done it before, and better. In ten years’ time no one will remember this book, the libraries will have sold off all their grubby copies of it second-hand and the rest will have fallen to pieces, gone to dust. And, even if I were one of the great ones, who in the long run cares? People walk about in the streets and it is all the same to them if the novels of Henry James were never written. They could not easily care less. No one asks us to write. If we stop, who will implore us to go on? The only goodness that will ever come out of it is surely this moment now, wondering if “vague” will do better than “faint”. Or “faint” than “vague”, and what is to follow; putting one word alongside another, like matching silks, a sort of game.’ The characters are well developed, not too many for confusion and we have an affair, a local gossip who monitors comings and goings, a local public house and its denizens, a doctor and his wife (the doctor having the affair with wife’s divorced best friend who lives next door, a rather dashing but slightly aging artist who is definitely a hit with the ladies, various younger elements who are discovering what life is about and a few minor characters. The themes are not new, intimacy and betrayal, art and life, the masks we all wear. All the characters are well drawn, very flawed. All of the characters feel very alone, but brush up against the others in their aloneness. There is also a death bed scene and having been at a few death beds, this is very well written and resonated with me, the best part of the book as far as I was concerned, along with Edward’s letters to his mother. 9 out of 10 Starting A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor
  7. A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

    Racism 101 by Nikki Giovanni This is a collection of essays by the poet and writer Nikki Giovanni. Giovanni is old enough to remember the segregation of the 1950s and she was involved in the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s. This collection is from the mid-1990s. The subjects covered are very varied and include racism, education, writing as a profession, family life, food, Christmas, a critique of Spike Lee, identity, Toni Morrison, her childhood, Star Trek and much more. Although there subject matter is often serious, there is a lightness of touch, “Life is far too serious to take seriously.” Giovanni is thoughtful and passionate and there is a great variety here which is refreshing. She makes some good points about education: “It is called education because it is learned. You do not have to have had an experience in order to sympathize or empathize with the subject. That is why books are written: so that we do not have to do the same things. We learn from experience, true; but we also learn from empathy.” But she is just as easy talking about Malcolm X, getting annoyed with Spike Lee or talking about food. The writing is warm and vivid, Giovanni makes her very serious points elegantly, and she is a shrewd observer of people. As Virginia Fowler’s forward says: “These pieces are artistic expressions of a particular way of looking at the world, featuring a performing voice capable of dizzying displays of virtuosity.” 7 and a half out of 10 Starting Poppy Shakespeare by Clare Allan
  8. A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

    Bitch Doctrine by Laurie Penny A collection of essays and writings from the ever interesting and stimulating Laurie Penny. These are short pieces, collected from a variety of sources. They are grouped under several topics: the American election and Trump, love, violence, culture, agency, gender, backlash and violence. As always Penny passionately champions feminism, patriarchy and what she sees as the current move to the right in the US. Her remit is wide-ranging: “You cannot separate issues of gender and identity from issues of political and economic struggle. They are the same struggle.” What I do like about Penny is that she is prepared to tackle difficult issues, including the debate within feminism about transgender issues. Her radicalism though is a caring variety and she acknowledges that what needs doing will be difficult, “Rapid social change is uncomfortable, even for people who like to see themselves on the right side of history”. She is clear though about where she is coming from: “I understand that a great many people are aggrieved that women, migrants and people of colour no longer seem to know their proper place. I understand that a great many otherwise decent human beings believe that more rights for black, brown and female people means fewer rights for ‘ordinary people’, by which they mean white people. But just because you’re angry doesn’t mean you’re right.” She is also clear that the future won’t be easy: "I have no hopeful messages to convey, like ‘Go home and chill out. Everything will work out,’ because nothing works out on its own. There is a lot of effort awaiting us,” And "Although patriarchy is a structural problem, a lot of people believe it is about many individual incidents that have nothing to do with each other. To me, living in this world as a woman means experiencing all instances of violence or sexism in ways that are always interlinked.” Penny is cogent and as you can see, very quotable and she illustrates difficult arguments very well: “Trigger warnings are fundamentally about empathy. They are a polite plea for more openness, not less; for more truth, not less. They allow taboo topics and the experience of hurt and pain, often by marginalized people, to be spoken frankly. They are the opposite of censorship.” There is a great deal of humour as well as anger in these essays. My only real frustration was that because these are essays/journalistic pieces there is no extended analysis, but that is a minor point. This is well worth reading. 8 out of 10 Starting The Coffin Path by Catherine Clements
  9. A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

    Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf One of Woolf’s non-fiction works and a follow up to A Room of One’s Own, published in 1938. This essay is structured as a response to a letter from a man asking Woolf to join him in trying to prevent the looming war and asking how war can be prevented. Woolf’s response centres on a number of things. She refers to two other letter: a request for money to help support a women’s college and a request to assist an organisation to help women enter the professions. This enables Woolf to take a close look at women’s education and women in the professions in constructing her response about war. She does not pull her punches in her assessment of the situation: "Behind us lies the patriarchal system; the private house, with it nullity, its immorality, its hypocrisy, its servility. Before us lies the public world, the professional system, with its possessiveness, its jealousy, its pugnacity, its greed." Woolf’s arguments are at times subtle and detailed but she focuses firstly on the difficulty that women have entering the professions, with mention of the lack of equal pay for men and women and secondly on the problem of education for women. It is certainly an anti-fascist polemic, but it is also a polemic which denounces imperialism, capitalism and patriarchy. Woolf goes as far as to argue that the roots of fascism lie in the patriarchal family. Three guineas is certainly an angry book. The original publication contained five pictures, not of fascist dictators, but of people Woolf felt represented patriarchy, people well respected and part of the establishment: former Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, Archbishop of Canterbury Cosmo Gordon Lang, Lord Chief Justice Gordon Hewart, founder of the scouting movement and war hero Sir Robert Baden-Powell and finally the state trumpeters of the Household Cavalry. There is a photograph of each juxtaposed with their image from the back of cigarette cards which were very popular in the 1930s. The implication is that each of these are implicated in the perpetuation of war. The oppression of women in Britain is linked quite clearly to the perpetuation of war and to Continental fascism. Woolf, in talking about war speaks about photographs of dead children and ruined houses, photographs you might expect to see in a book opposing war. However they aren’t there and their absence is significant as is their replacement by the photographs included. It is almost as though Woolf is saying they are responsible for all this. Many editions of Three Guineas don’t include these pictures and that is a significant loss; they give the book an extra dimension. This is a powerful and well-argued polemic which is more radical than it first appears with a clear call for the destruction of patriarchy and its link to private property. There are reflections on religion and education as well as war and a close look at how their exclusion of women have contributed to the perpetuation of war. Powerful stuff. 9 out of 10 Starting Racism 101 by Nikki Giovanni
  10. A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

    The Raven's Head by Karen Maitland This is the first Maitland I have read: it’s a piece of historical fiction set in the 13th century. The plot is quite convoluted and certainly rather gothic, focussing on the practice of alchemy, very prevalent at the time. The story involves three protagonists whose destinies gradually intertwine. The narrative voices are written in different ways (first person, third person etc.) and this doesn’t always make for smooth reading and makes the whole a little disjointed. The three voices are all young, Vincent (later Laurent) is an apprentice librarian in France (although he is English) he comes upon a secret which he tries to use to his own ends with disastrous consequences and he finds himself on the run with an intricate silver raven’s head. He ends up in a town in Norfolk, where we find Gisa. She is the niece of an apothecary who helps her uncle prepare his potions and to find unusual things for the local lord. She is then charged with going to the local manor every day to help Lord Sylvian with his alchemical experiments. The third narrative voice is Wilky, a young boy who is given by his parents to the White Friars to pay off a debt, in the same town. Wilky, now called Regulus, discovers that the boys who are there have a purpose, at night the head of the order carries out alchemical experiments on one or two of them. Sometimes those boys don’t return. The three lives are drawn together as the alchemists’ experiments become more sinister. The plot runs along fairly well, but Vincent is not easy to like or relate to as a main protagonist. The background is well set and I did like the writing. The twists and turns at the end take some suspension of belief and the twist on the last page didn’t feel right to me at all. I enjoyed it and will read some of her more well-known novels at some point. However it did send me off to sleep at night. 6 out of 10 Starting A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor
  11. A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

    Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson This is a dystopian science fiction novel set in the Toronto of the future, where the centre of the city has been isolated and abandoned following riots and is now ruled by a crime lord whilst the rest of society has moved out of the city. The inhabitants of the city get along by barter and people grow things and there is still some trade with the outside world. There is little law and order, plenty of violence and feral children roam the streets, some of whom periodically disappear. The novel revolves around Ti-Jeanne and her lover Tony who is a henchman of the crime lord Rudy. The plot is a little far-fetched and involves the harvesting of organs. Central to the plot though are strong female characters, all of whom are Caribbean Canadian. Ti-Jeanne and her grandmother have the skill of healing passed through the generations, they also have contact with the spirit world and practice Obeah. The novel is effectively a struggle between good and evil and the tension between use of Obeah powers for good or evil. This is Hopkinson’s first novel and was recommended by Octavia Butler, which drew me to it. There is some local and Caribbean idiom present, which isn’t off putting and isn’t difficult to understand. Hopkinson argues that science fiction is a good way of portraying the lives of outsiders and can provide hope because it suggests paradigm shifts which other genres may not so easily do. She feels science fiction offers hope of change: “I tend not to read what I would call ‘mimetic’ fiction or fiction that is imitating reality. In mimetic fiction the world is not reflecting me back to myself.… I grew up so depressed, I felt there was no room for me in the world. Reading mimetic fiction just feels to me like more depression.” It can be noted that Ti-Jeanne is a female version of Walcott’s Ti-Jean from his play Ti-Jean and his Brothers, but instead of a fraternal trio, there is a maternal trio. The women throughout are striving to make things better and are coming up against male violence and male structures. This is certainly a feminist reworking of Obeah, used for the good of society and in direct conflict with evil. There is some graphic violence and the ending is a little too well tied up, but this is a first novel. I have to ask, would I read more by this author and yes I would. She does interesting things with myth, reworking in a feminist way. 7 out of 10 Starting The Windeater by Kerri Hulme
  12. A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

    The Man Who Wasn't There by Pat Barker A rather brief novel from Barker, but cleverly constructed. It is set in the 1950s in the decade after the war and concerns Colin, a twelve year old boy. Colin lives with his mother Vivienne. His father, he knows nothing about and it seems he disappeared in the war. His mother will not tell him about his father which leaves Colin plenty of scope for imagination. His mother works in a night club and is having an affair with her married boss and Colin is on his own a great deal, looked after by an assortment of friends of his mother and neighbours. Colin imagines what his father may have been like and in his imagination he creates a story which weaves in and out of his daily life and is written as a screenplay. The story he creates involves the French Resistance: “Colin plodded up the hill, half moons of sweat in the armpits of his grey shirt. In the distance, lampposts and parked cars shimmered in the heat. All around him was the smell of tar. Gaston jerks himself awake. A sniper is crawling across Blenkinsop’s roof, but Gaston has seen him. He spins round, levels the gun, and fires. The sniper—slow motion now—clutches his chest, buckles at the knee, crashes in an endlessly unfurling fountain of glass through the roof of Mr Blenkinsop’s greenhouse, where he lands face down, his fingers clutching the damp earth—and his chest squashing Mr Blenkinsop’s prize tomatoes. Gaston blows nonchalantly across the smoking metal of his gun, and, with never a backward glance, strides up the garden path and into the house. As he passes through the hall, Gaston taps the face of a brass barometer, as if to persuade it to change its mind. No use. The needle points, as it does unswervingly, in all weathers, to Rain. Madame Hennigan, the landlady, believes in being realistic, and no mere barometer is permitted to disagree. Gaston clatters up the uncarpeted stairs to the top-floor flat. Where he becomes, abruptly, Colin again.” It’s a while since I was a twelve year old boy, but I think Barker captures the time and place well. There are brief glimpses of school and boyhood friendships which rang true. Colin’s longing for a father runs through the whole as he sees those around him struggle. He hears his mother and her boss in the bedroom next to his at night. He sees the adolescent fumblings of his older friends and the petty cruelties of teenagers. It is well written and not sentimental. There are lots of loose endings and nothing is resolved but the whole is compelling. There are messages about identity, adolescence and loneliness. I felt it could have been longer, but that’s a personal opinion, but it’s by Barker, so it’s good! 7 and a half out of 10 Starting Pride against Prejudice by Jenny Morris
  13. A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

    Fen by Daisy Johnson A collection of short stories as a literary debut which are really difficult to classify but are impressive. They are set in the fens. The fenlands cover parts of East Anglia, Cambridgeshire and southern Lincolnshire. I am a Lincolnshire lad: I wasn’t born or brought up in the fens, but I know them fairly well. One thing you do get a lot of in the fens is eels (not quite as many as there used to be). Coincidentally I went to a farmers market this morning and inevitably there were eels (filleted and smoked, whole and smoked and jellied). Although reading the first story in this collection may make you wary of eating any. The fens are flat ad can be bleak depending on the weather. There is a sort of edgelessness to them because of the flatness and there is a real wildness. Daisy Johnson herself uses the word liminal to describe the fens and the stories (look the interview up on you tube). You could describe the stories as surreal, but that wouldn’t quite describe them. They contain myth, a kind of wild magic and metamorphosis. The wildlife of the fens plays a significant role; eels and especially foxes, the lines between animals and people blur. The protagonists are all women and there are interesting explorations of female sexuality, and women’s relation to men. The story about three women living together stands out in this respect; they lure men back home not just for the usual reasons, but to eat them and the analysis of men is interesting: "When we were younger we learnt men the way other people learnt languages or the violin… We did not care for their thoughts; they could think on philosophy and literature and science if they wanted, they could grow opinions inside them if they wanted. We did not care for their creed or religion or type; for the choices they made and the ones they missed. We cared only for what they wanted so much it ruined them. Men could pretend they were otherwise, could enact the illusion of self-control, but we knew the running stress of their minds." The stories totally ditch the idea that the male gaze is what matters and Johnson can write pastoral gothic like no one else I have read; she starts ominous and gets more so. These are modern stories and are unsentimental, as in How to Lose It: "Virginity was a half-starved dog you were looking after, wanted to give away as quickly as possible so you could forget it ever existed. It was the lingo of sales and stocks; what was the best deal, when was the right time to sell it all." And “You do not shave your legs or pubic hair. It is not a wedding night, nor a parade or a party or an invitation. You are not a welcome mat.” Along with some sharp analysis: “You watch yourself pretend you’ve never known anything in your life and never much felt the compulsion to. You want to make him think you have no history or education; that you might have had language once but it’s gone now. You want to make him think you’re so scrubbed clean of any sort of intelligence that he can lay himself out on you and you’ll soak him up.” The stories continue to surprise. The first one Starver seems set up to be a standard teenage anorexia story when a girl announces she is going to stop eating, and does. But metamorphosing into an eel is very much not part of the standard script. And is there a link to the last story where a female lighthouse keeper encounters a fish that seems to have almost human qualities. Look out in that one for the representations of male sexuality which wants to possess rather than enjoy. There are touches of fairy story, myth and magic: a house that falls in love, a woman made of fen clay reading Madame Bovary (“she would not tell him about being more field than human ... On hot days she heard the internal crackings of her baked insides, felt the make-up run from her clay skin.”), a young man who dies tracking a fox whose spirit may now be in the fox and look out for the one with the albatross (not a bird you see on the fens) which comes out of leftfield. Then there is an earthiness about them as well, as in How to fudge a Man you Don’t Know: “When he says he likes your boobs or that your bottom is tight or that you’re pretty fun aren’t you, you tell him words are cheap enough to spit and push his face the place you want it to go.” These stories are inventive, well written and quite brilliant. The writing and language sometimes seem to flatten like the landscape, there is much that is wild and other, but rooted in people we can recognize and places that are real. People brought up in small towns may recognize these reflections from a fifteen year old girl: “There wasn’t anything special about either of them except they thought they didn’t belong there. But didn’t everybody, she’d say while her friends leant back and watched the mudded thighs of the boys playing football on the school field, didn’t everybody want to bloody leave? … We’re boring. It was the truth. In a town where there was nothing to do they did well at doing nothing…they had never gone further than the nearest city; they had never done anything worth doing.” These stories will haunt you. I already have her first novel, just published and on the Booker longlist. 9 and a half out of 10 Starting Bitch Doctrine by Laurie Penny
  14. A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

    The Bishop of Hell and other stories by Marjorie Bowen A collection of twelve tales by Marjorie Bowen, mostly ghostly and supernatural tales. Bowen wrote to support her family and wrote a great number of novels and short stories under a great variety of pen names. She is renowned for her gothic novels and her short stories, but she also wrote crime novels and a wide variety of other genres. These stories are set in the late seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. There’s plenty of melodrama, unhappy marriages, abused women, atrocious men (most of them get their comeuppance), obsessive lovers, marry in haste and repent at leisure, plenty of revenge, a few twists, a bit of clairvoyance and kidnap as a technique for attracting the opposite sex. The Crown Derby Plate is an interesting story, a ghost story based on china collecting. Martha Pym buys a Crown Derby service at a house sale after the death of its occupant, sadly it is missing one plate. Many years later, she is in the area again which is very remote and isolated and hears that the current occupant is a very old woman. She decides to visit to see if the plate is there: “"Do you really do everything yourself here and live quite alone?" she asked, and she shivered even in her thick coat and wished that Miss Lefain's energy had risen to a fire, but then probably she lived in the kitchen, as these lonely eccentrics often did. "There was someone," answered Miss Lefain cunningly, "but I had to send her away. I told you she's gone, I can't find her, and I am so glad. Of course," she added wistfully, "it leaves me very lonely, but then I couldn't stand her impertinence any longer. She used to say that it was her house and her collection of china! Would you believe it? She used to try to chase me away from looking at my own things!" "How very disagreeable," said Miss Pym, wondering which of the two women had been crazy. "But hadn't you better get someone else." "Oh, no," was the jealous answer. "I would rather be alone with my things, I daren't leave the house for fear someone takes them away—there was a dreadful time once when an auction sale was held here—"” The stories are brief and some of the endings are easy to anticipate. The Scoured Silk is one of the best stories, really creepy. Kecksies (a dialect name for hemlock) is particularly nasty. There are plenty of examples of the murkier side of human nature, especially of the male variety! This is a variable mix of stories, not as good as M R James, but for aficionados of classic ghost stories, it’s worth reading. 7 out of 10 Starting The Man who wasn't there by Pat Barker
  15. A 2018 Book blog by Books do Furnish a Room

    Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor One of my favourite books this year. The novel is set in a village in Derbyshire, the Peak District (the well dressing gives that away). It starts at New Year in the early 2000s with the disappearance of a thirteen year old girl, staying in a holiday rental with her family. The village is a tourist spot close to the moors and the title refers to a series of reservoirs in the hills above and beyond the town. The narrative consists of thirteen chapters, each of them covers a year, the chapters being split into smaller passages covering each month or so. There are snippets from the lives of the villagers, all ages and statuses and the reader gradually gets to know each of them. As a plot structure it is interesting and here’s how McGregor explains it: “As a writer, any time something dramatic happens, your instinct is to spend a number of pages on that incident. But when I was writing, say, February, I kept finding, This couple is going to get married, this couple is going to split up, this boy has fallen off a rock, but I’ve only got two pages to tell those stories. I had to leave it, and wait a year, and see what they looked like a year later. And that became a really interesting way of looking at narrative. These things in our lives sometimes take years to play out, and I hadn’t really thought about that before. I tricked myself into seeing it.” Much of the first year revolves around the disappearance of the girl, inevitably. Over time the reader becomes more focussed on the lives and loves of the villagers. Over the years you see the teenagers in the village grow up, go to university and return again. Some die, some move in, others move on. There are gettings together and breakings up, minor crime and vandalism, an arrest for child pornography, the closing and opening of shops. Some events are set and the year revolves around them; the New Year fireworks, the annual cricket match with a nearby village, the well dressing and so on. All aspects of life are cleverly run together and humour and tragedy sit easily side by side. As the New York Times review says, McGregor mixes “the mundane and the ecstatic”. You also get a strong sense of transition and change: “There were cowslips under the hedges and beside the road, offering handfuls of yellow flowers to the longer days.” It is very much a novel of voices and in that respect it reminded me a little of The Waves by Virginia Woolf. The voices can also be collective and the village itself seems to have a voice at times, for example when the local butcher and his wife break up: “There was talk she was planning on opening a shop of her own. Organics. They went for that type of thing in Harefield. It was noticed that Martin was often away from the house. He was in the Gladstone or he was walking through the village, down the lane past Fletcher’s orchard to the packhorse bridge.” This isn’t a neat novel which ties up all the loose ends, lives are left mid-stream at the end; McGregor does not seem to feel the need to provide that most modern of things, closure. There is a strong sense of the natural world, the seasons and rhythms of nature: “As the dusk deepened over the badger sett at the far end of the woods, a rag-eared boar called out a sow … The woods were thick with the stink of wild garlic and the leaves gleamed darkly along the paths. Jackson’s boys went out to the fields and checked the sheep.” McGregor is also quite at ease employing a little local language and dialect: “Jackson’s sheep had taken the fear and scattered through a broken gate, and he’d been up all hours bringing them back.” There is a great sense of rhythm about this book and I think in its own way it’s a masterpiece (according to the Irish Times, a “humane and tender masterpiece”). There may be those who are irritated by the structure, but for me it carries the book along and McGregor makes the narrative stretch and shift its focus: “There was a fight in the Gladstone, and talk it had something to do with Facebook. On the television there were pictures of explosions, fires, collapses, collisions. Broad beans started coming off the allotments by the carrier-bagful, and were shucked into saucepans from their softly-lined pods. The gentle cushioning of the broad-bean pod was one of nature’s senseless excesses. The work was a tedious delight. In his studio Geoff Simmonds took each newly fired pot from the tray and smashed it against the floor. He worked at a methodical pace. The rhythm was soothing.” The novel starts with a horrifying event, but moves on and documents the life and lives of the villagers and pulls the reader away from the expected focus of the novel (without diminishing the horror) and says look over here at what is happening. Life goes on. 9 out of 10 Starting Fen by Daisy Johnson