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  1. A Book Blog 2020 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Arrest Me for I Have Run Away A collection of short stories by Stevie Davies and they are of good quality and are broad in scope, but focus on small specifics as well as the bigger issues. I will let Davies herself explain: “My own interest in writing short story came late: as a novelist I’ve loved the complexity, magnitude and duration of the novel’s imaginative world. Sometimes episodes have broken away from a novel’s narrative and taken their own direction: I could neither use nor lose them. ‘Oud, 1942’ concerns expats in wartime Cairo and was dreamed up while writing my novel set in Egypt, Into Suez, as was ‘Red Earth, Cyrenaica’, the aftermath of a man’s wartime experience in the desert, and the anomalous love that has haunted him ever since. His wife knew nothing about it. Or did she? Short story thrives on small epiphanies, twists and divagations. I notice that they {the stories} are often concerned with magnitude and the infinitesimal. Perspective zooms in and out: the microscopic appears in close-up, in, for instance, the monologue ‘Pips’ in which an elderly widower in a dentist’s waiting room focuses on a pip lodged between his teeth. The pip is nothing and everything: he has taken his entire life along with him into that waiting room, as we do. In ‘Bead’, a child’s plastic bead becomes a figure for memory and its equivocations. In ‘Woman Recumbent’, Libby has fallen catastrophically and spends the night helplessly on the floor. Into her ken comes an ant, ‘the most minor of miracles. A creaturely presence’ which ‘no longer seemed as minuscule, but a companionate presence which she tacitly saluted. And there beside it, one human hair.’” Davies looks at grief in a couple of the stories, in one focussing feelings through a musical instrument (a cello). Musical instruments also play a role in other stories. The role of parenting runs through many of them and the links with abuse. There is great psychological depth and wisdom here. As always with Davies I was not disappointed and Woman Recumbent is a masterpiece. 10 out of 10 Starting The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
  2. At the start of 2020 I am currently reading The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende Newfoundland by Rebbecca Ray The Salt Path by Raynor Winn Winter by Ali Smith The Five by Hallie Rubenhold Folk by Zoe Gilbert The Pinecone: the story of Sarah Losh by Jenny Uglow The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
  3. A Book Blog 2020 by Books do Furnish a Room

    No Signposts in the Sea by Vita Sackville-West This is Vita Sackville-West’s last novel, written in the late 1950s. It is set on a cruise and was also written on one. It concerns a political journalist, Edmund Carr, who discovers he has about four months to live. He has no family or close ties and decides to go on an extended cruise, partly because a woman he knows a little is also going on it. Inevitably the book focuses on the nature of life and love and reflections on death. Carr is also an acerbic commentator on his fellow passengers and his own idiosyncrasies as he becomes closer to Laura, a woman he already knew. Carr is quite clear about the reasons for spending his last days on a cruise: “I want my fill of beauty before I go. Geographically I do not care and scarcely know where I am. There are no signposts in the sea.” It is obviously quite handy that he has the sort of terminal illness (unnamed) that shows no symptoms and from which you die quite suddenly with little notice. The book itself appears to be Edmund’s random jottings in his journal. Sackville-West makes her views on relationships on relationships and marriage pretty clear and these reflect the openness of her own marriage. She and her husband, Harold Nicholson both had male and female lovers. The reviews generally heap praise on this. Haunting, compelling, exquisite, elegiac and so on. There are certainly some good descriptive passages and reflections on life and its end: “Then come mysterious currents which rock the ship from below without much visible convulsion. Where do they come from, these secret arteries of the sea, tropical or polar? They are as inexplicable to me as the emotions which rock my own heart. I do not let them appear on the surface but am terribly aware of them beneath. Sometimes, churned by a gale, the waters grow angry and the blue expanse turns black and white, tossing us remorselessly, the waves crashing with a sound as of breaking biscuits, the rain hissing as it obliterates all vision, and again I draw the parallel between the elements and the surprising violence I have discovered in myself.” However much I appreciated the reflective nature of the novel there were some serious issues for me. These related to race and disability and were very marked, particularly those related to race. These were persistent as the ships moves from port to port. Carr is also supposed to have come from humble working class roots, but this doesn’t sit easy with his character and attitudes. These were issues I could not overlook. “I realised for the first time how greatly our apprehension of people depends on the variation of conditions under which we see them, and thought it possible that we may never truly perceive them at all.” 6 out of 10 Starting A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli
  4. A Book Blog 2020 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Missing Fay by Adam Thorpe This is a novel about a missing fourteen year old girl and consequently it is bound to draw comparison with Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor. It is also set in Lincoln where I live. I remember reading Ulverton many years ago, but have read nothing else by Thorpe. The geography of the area is a bit hit and miss. Fay lives on the Ermine estate, well known in Lincoln. He characterises it as being a typical run down white working class housing estate which you would find in many cities. This is a bit of an over simplification and there are a few other liberties with the geography, including the addition of a street of shops which doesn’t exist! We hear a set of voices including Fay’s. She is portrayed as a tough streetwise fourteen year old with a sharp tongue and a troubled home life: still very vulnerable and inseparable from her dog (who goes missing with her). The other voices include a very irritating tourist and his family on the Lincolnshire coast, a retired steelworker, a second hand bookshop owner, the manager of a children’s clothes shop, a Rumanian care worker and a postulant monk in a nearby monastery. We also periodically hear from Fay. The polyphonic nature of the novel is at the same time a strength and a drawback. The first and the last voices I found particularly annoying. In fact, although the characters are well drawn, I found them pretty stereotypical. The bookshop owner in his 50s was portrayed as slightly creepy and a little desperate (very unfair on the bookshop owners I know). The clothes shop manager was a late 40 something woman looking for love and again appearing as slightly desperate. There are links between the characters, some rather tenuous. Fay does work experience in the clothes shop and steals a book (on dogs) from the bookshop. The care worker finds Fay’s abandoned coat. A couple of the characters only see the missing posters. The last voice (apart from Fay’s) is the postulant monk and there are a couple of oblique suggestions about Fay’s fate, but nothing substantial. The ending is open so the reader is left to wonder what happened. Thorpe tells a story well and all of his characters are flawed and rather sad. It is set in 2012, so before the Brexit fiasco, but there are hints of the area being somewhat hostile and xenophobic. I wonder what the story of Fay adds to the novel and as I said there is an element of stereo typing as well. It just felt unconnected and the messing about with some of the geography irritated me. 6 out of 10 Starting No Signposts in the Sea by Vita Sackville-West
  5. A Book Blog 2020 by Books do Furnish a Room

    I agree Willoyd, I think she should have been the outright winner. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell This is a first novel, one of the things remarkable about it. It is, effectively an alternative history of England set in the early nineteenth century. It is about magic and the assumption is that magic once existed in England. It had been lost but is now returned in the forms of Gilbert Norrell and Jonathan Strange. This fits into a bewildering variety of genres. There is an element of the historical novel. The whole business of magic is treated as serious and scholarly and there are footnotes, lots of footnotes (almost DFW and Gaddis territory). There is an element of fantasy about it, but being set in the early nineteenth century there are links to the Romanticism of the period (Byron takes some part in this) and there are pastiches of many different styles. I can see elements of Austen and Dickens as you would expect and it’s certainly gothic. The world building/adjusting is impressive. There are a number of themes and issues addressed. The central relationship between Strange and Norrell runs throughout and their relationship/friendship runs through the book even when they are in opposition. There is also a sense of there being a relationship between mental illness, magic and the world of faerie which is interesting. Clarke also looks at Englishness and the relationship (and differences) between the north and south of England. These differences do exist: I come from the north and have lived in the south (for a while): it is almost a different country. The novel creates atmosphere in bucketloads and it has been televised (haven’t seen it), won lots of awards and even been turned into a board game! I’m not going to drag you all through the plot, it’s a little complex and would take too much space and time. The book itself, all 782 pages of it almost seems to finish in a rush and too soon (I rarely say that). It’s not really a book to quote and in some ways it feels like an introduction to the world. I was puzzled by the maleness of the magicians, but a follow up set of short stories has righted this and Clarke has outlined her reasons for keeping the two separate. This was an enjoyable fantastical journey through early nineteenth century England and I was surprised to enjoy it as much as I did. 8 and a half out of 10 Starting Jasmine and Stars: Reading more than Lolita in Tehran by Fatemeh Kehavarz
  6. A Book Blog 2020 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Girl. Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo Joint winner of the 2019 Booker Prize and a host of other accolades. It is almost a set of short stories and involves 12 women, black and British, moving through the decades of the twentieth century. Evaristo says of the novel: “I wanted to put presence into absence. I was very frustrated that black British women weren’t visible in literature. I whittled it down to 12 characters – I wanted them to span from a teenager to someone in their 90s, and see their trajectory from birth, though not linear. There are many ways in which otherness can be interpreted in the novel – the women are othered in so many ways and sometimes by each other. I wanted it to be identified as a novel about women as well.” Evaristo looks at gender, sex, race, class, patriarchy and history, linking all the stories together through the first night of a play written by one of the characters. There is variety in the characters in terms of class, sexuality, politics and the whole holds together rather neatly. The oldest character is 93 and the youngest in her teens. The tone of the whole is well set by Evaristo’s dedication: “For the sisters & the sistas & the sistahs & the sistren & the women & the womxn & the wimmin & the womyn & our brethren & our bredrin & our brothers & our bruvs & our men & our mandem & the LGBTQI+ members of the human family.” There is great humour, warmth and lightness to this. It has been described as polyphonic. It is worth noting that not long after the ceremony a BBC news presenter referred to the other joint winner of the Booker, Attwood, by name, but referred to Evaristo as “another author”. Evaristo commented on Twitter: “How quickly & casually they have removed my name from history – the first black woman to win it. This is what we’ve always been up against, folks.” A pertinent comment. The characterization is rich and deep and is almost a history of Black British women charting the racism of the 50s and 60s and moving to the present. Each woman is portrayed warts and all, but also in relation to each other. Evaristo gives black women a voice and the voices are varied: ranging from one who has recently voted for UKIP to the debates about trans within feminism. This book is a joy to read and is life-affirming and certainly deserves the accolades it has had. 9 out of 10 Starting Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
  7. A Book Blog 2020 by Books do Furnish a Room

    The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins Set in the early nineteenth century, culminating in 1826, this is another in a number of recent novels which take a look at the slave trade. It is certainly gothic and rather bleak. Frances (Frannie) is a slave girl with a black mother and a white father on a plantation in Jamaica. At the start of the book she is in prison in London accused of the murder of Mr and Mrs Benham where she worked as a maid. In the novel she describes the journey from the plantation to London and eventually to prison. The book ends with the trial. The artwork on the cover is striking and this is a first novel. There is a good deal going on here and very few likeable characters and some horrifying moments. There is an element of Jane Eyre, some insights into how the anti-slavery movement developed between the abolition of the trade, the hypocrisy of those involved in the movement, the speculations of those trying to work out whether the various races of humanity were substantially the same or not. There are contrasts made, when Frannie is brought to London and given to the Benhams to work as a maid, she is technically free, which leads to comparisons between the servant classes and slaves on a plantation. Frannie has been educated and reads when she can: enjoying Moll Flanders amongst other works. Candide makes an appearance and the links to Frankenstein become obvious as the novel goes on. There is a Paradise Lost element as well, the name of the plantation was Paradise. Throw in a lesbian affair and a brothel called The School specialising in birching, flogging and spanking: very English. Occasionally a bleak shaft of humour shows through, Frannie reflects on one of her clients: “Men like him were the ones who wanted scarring, always happier to let themselves loose under the whip hand of a black. That put the white girls’ noses out of joint. But we’d already been in the bondage business, no matter that it had been at the other end.” There is prizefighting and the rowdiness of 1820s London. There is no saintliness here and suffering does not improve. It is a bleak and nasty gothic novel in its intention. The reveal of what actually happened is a slow gradual one over the course of the whole book. The gothic is overarching, but there are also elements of slave narrative, romance, murder mystery and prison novel. I liked the way reading was portrayed as a transformative experience. I also appreciated the way that what united some of the women, black and white was anger in response to oppression and the denial of an outlet for their abilities. Collins writes of her character: “I wanted Frannie to say the things many people in her position would have been afraid to say. I wanted her to be irreverent and to comment on her masters’ inability to see their own mistakes.” This Frannie does and that can make the narrative seem a little stretched at times and leaves the reader questioning whether this could have happened. Frannie narrates as she writes in prison awaiting trial: “I write this by tallow light, having now paid sufficient guineas to be moved to a cell of my own. No law says I can’t read and write here, but for all I know the turnkeys would throw these pages away if they caught me at it, same as they did with Madame’s letter when I was first brought in. One click of a key, one turn of the knob, and I’m ready to shove paper, pen and ink under my skirts. They’re always spying, which means I must speed my pen. Now it’s a case of gobbling backwards. As if I spent my whole life putting those words in, and now I’m spitting them back out.” On the whole I think this is a good gothic novel. It sometimes challenges the readers’ preconceptions of what a gothic novel should be and nothing is ever quite as it seems. There were some niggles, but not enough to put me off entirely. 7 and a half out of 10 Starting Women who Blow on Knots by Ece Temelkuran
  8. A Book Blog 2020 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Walking Naked by Nina Bawden One of Nina Bawden’s lesser known novels it takes place on one day. It concerns Laura, a writer and her husband Andrew. The day is split into four parts. The first part consists of going with her husband whilst he plays a game of real tennis with a client. The second part is a lunch time buffet at a close friend’s house (to celebrate the boat race). Thirdly a visit to prison (Wormwood Scrubs) to visit Laura’s son from her first marriage who is serving six months on a drugs charge. Finally there is a visit to Laura’s parents as her father is unwell. Each of these events is linked to a set of memories from Laura’s past and gradually a picture is built up over the day which gives the reader an insight into Laura and her life. On the surface Laura is happily married and successful; the day strips away the veneer. It is set in the 1970s when Laura is in middle age. There is a strong cast of secondary characters who are gradually revealed and on the whole Bawden is pretty good at character building. The characters and settings are thoroughly middle class and that can be a bit wearing, but there is a knowingness about it and Bawden always makes her characters flawed and believable. Laura is a flawed narrator and in terms of evaluating a situation, not always reliable. The narrative voice occasionally switches and there are the occasional knowing asides which I found rather irksome. There is also a portrayal of serious mental health issues in one character which were a little predictable as was the selection of which character in the novel to drop it on. Of course they are going to be alone, unable to hold down a job and with a tragic history. Not really convincing. This was ok, but didn’t really hold my attention. 6 out of 10 Starting Arrest me for I have run away by Stevie Davies
  9. A Book Blog 2020 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Late Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davis Mike Davis focuses on the last quarter of the nineteenth century, looking at the extreme climatic conditions of the times which led to droughts, floods and famines. He looks at the El Nino events and there is a good deal of meteorology in the book. Davis focuses on India, China and Brazil in particular, but also partially on Southern Africa, Indonesia, Ethiopia and Sudan. The death tolls are immense 12 million in China and 6 million in India in 1876-8 alone. Davis provides a detailed analysis which shows that the real problem was the way the Imperial powers managed the problem, sticking to the principles of free trade leading to hikes in grain prices and very little famine relief. The European powers (particularly Britain) are the main culprits, but also to a lesser extent the US and Japan. Davis concludes that the imposition of free market economics was cultural genocide and it’s difficult to argue with that conclusion. Davis points out that there was no increase in India’s per capita income between 1757 and 1947 and the British systematically dismantled the Indian manufacturing sector. In the mid eighteenth century the average European standard of living was slightly lower than the rest of the world and India actually produced a quarter of the world’s manufactures. The Raj soon changed all that! There is a political history and a scientific history contained within this book and Davis has done his research. The total death toll due to famine in India, China and Brazil 1876-1902 was around sixty million. Two points stand out: “They died in the golden age of Liberal Capitalism; indeed many were murdered... by the theological application of the sacred principles of Smith, Bentham and Mill.” And “Although crop failures and water shortages were of epic proportion.. there were almost always surpluses elsewhere in the nation or empire that could have potentially rescued drought victims.” Of course the railroads were a possible solution, but: “The newly constructed railroads, lauded as institutional safeguards against famine, were instead used by merchants to ship grain inventories from outlying drought-stricken districts to central depots for hoarding (as well as protection from rioters). Likewise the telegraph ensured that price hikes were coordinated in a thousand towns at once, regardless of local supply trends.” The pictures of famine victims look similar to those of people in later concentration camps. This completely blows any illusion that Empire was in any way “good” for colonized peoples and should dispel any nostalgia for a lost imperial past. One small niggle: a chapter to round it all up at the end would have been helpful. 8 and a half out of 10 Starting Red Shelley by Paul Foot
  10. A Book Blog 2020 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Willoyd: I agree with most of your list. Would struggles with Stopes because of her views on Eugenics. The Three Sisters by May Sinclair It was May Sinclair who coined the term “stream of consciousness” when reviewing Dorothy Richardson. Sinclair was a suffragist and modernist who also was influenced by Freud and psychoanalysis. This novel was published in 1914 just as war started. This novel is set in Yorkshire. The three sisters of the title are the three daughters of a vicar. They have moved to a parsonage on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. Sound familiar? Well Sinclair had just completed writing introductions to the Bronte novels and written about the sisters in The Three Brontes. This is a sharp look at the role of women in the late Victorian era and a critique of marriage. There are no Byronic heroes here to rescue maidens and the role of men is also under scrutiny. The Vicar of Garth is a patriarchal bully who tries to control his daughters. Their reaction and revolt make up the central thrust of the novel. There is a contrast between the one eligible male, the local doctor, Rowcliffe and Jim Greatorex who seems to be a combination of Heathcliff and Branwell Bronte. The novel looks at the struggle for self-development that Victorian women. The reader can see Sinclair struggling with how to represent the conscious and unconscious and female sexuality. This is a tension she later resolves when she adopts the stream of consciousness mode of writing. There are some issues, the dialect being one. The Yorkshire accent of the local villagers is very heavy and not easy to understand. The focus on trying to make sense of the storms of inner life can feel a little clunky at times, but there is a clear commitment to exploring the lives of women and the breakdown of Victorian social and moral certainty. The interplay between the classes is interesting as are the reactions to the marriage across the class divide. All three sisters are looking for a space of their own and all three have to face the reality that they have to get that through a male, be that a husband or father. The picture of religion is pleasantly unflattering and Sinclair even manages to add the Church of England/Methodist rivalry and the tensions in the Established Church when a high church curate arrives from the Additional Curates Society. This is an interesting early modernist novel which deserves to be better known and raises some interesting talking points. It almost feels suspended between the Victorian classic novels and modernism. 7 and a half out of 10 Starting The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall
  11. A Book Blog 2020 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Willoyd: I wouldn't want to include Thatcher, but would have done so. Probably no royalty. There was too long a gap between Boudicca and Elizabeth I. The only living women: Quant and Sturgeon? Probably not, but maybe Westwood. I might have included Nusrat Pinky Lilani, who is very influential, but not well known. I may have considered someone like Vera Lynn, Dusty Springfield or Vera Brittain. There are lots of possibilities. Isobars by Janette Turner Hospital This is the first time I have read anything by Janette Turner Hospital. Australian by birth, her fiction moves between Australia, Canada and the US, following her moves. The themes are universal ones: loss, memory, the nature of desire. The stories tend to focus on moments of tension and crisis and Hospital seems to be able to focus on the mess of human existence. Past and present collide: in one story a professor sees his first wife on the New York subway on the day she dies in Australia. In another a town that was flooded following the building of a dam surfaces following a drought: this triggers memories in an older woman who was raped in the town many years before. Many of the stories involve acts of violence against women, but also acts of caring between women, a sense of sisterhood. Many of the men in the stories are older and seemingly well intentioned, looking for something redemptive. Others are younger and more unpredictable. There is often fragmentation and lack of resolution. Hospital addresses the issues of post-colonial cultures, particularly in Canada and Australia, although there is a story about the Indian diaspora in Canada. Racial tensions are examined in “Bondi” and reveal some of the ugliness that lies beneath the Bondi hedonism following an incident on the beach: “It’s the wogs. The wogs started it. They were bothering a white girl, they threw sand in a white lady’s face, they kicked a football right into a little kid’s head, a little white kid, he’s got concussion. Theories fly as fast as punches, as thick as blood. Go get ‘em, send the buggers back to where they bloody well came from.” A refrain I have heard many times, as I am sure many of you have too. One of the stand out stories is “The Last of the Hapsburgs” about a school teacher (Miss Davenport) teaching far away from home (exiled because of an unnamed scandal) in Northern Queensland; she feels displaced. As a result she identifies with two of her pupils. There is Hazel who is an Indigenous Australian and displaced in her own land and Rebecca, whose parents are survivors of the Holocaust. Two of the three have escaped to Northern Queensland, one is already trapped there. The finale of the story shows they are all trapped there. There is a very good modern ghost story linked to terrorism. On the whole this is a very sharp and perceptive set of stories with enough to challenge and maintain interest. There are a few language issues but this is an author I will return to at some point as I would like to read some of her longer work. 7 and a half out of 10 Starting Walking Naked by Nina Bawden
  12. A Book Blog 2020 by Books do Furnish a Room

    A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray This pretty much does what it says on the cover and provides a pen picture of twenty-one significant women in British history. These are only pen pictures, ten to twelve pages; she has done a similar book for world history. The list is Boudicca (Murray insists on Boadicea), Elizabeth I, Aphra Behn, Caroline Herschel, Fanny Burney, Mary Wollstoncraft, Jane Austen, Mary Somerville, Mary Seacole, Ada Lovelace, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Emmeline Pankhurst, Ethel Smyth, Constance Markievicz, Gwen John, Nancy Astor, Barbara Castle, Margaret Thatcher, Mary Quant and Nicola Sturgeon. It is a list that can be debated. The only two living women are Sturgeon and Quant. There is no Virginia Woolf, only one black woman (Mary Seacole) and no Asian women. And would I have included Thatcher? There is a focus on the struggle for the vote with suffragettes and suffragists. Nancy Astor is included as the first female MP to take her place in the Commons. Also included is Constance Markievicz who was the first woman elected. She stood in Ireland for Sinn Fein and even then Sinn Fein had a policy of not sitting in parliament. What stands out if Fanny Burney’s account of a mastectomy she had without anesthetic at the age of 59. It is a vivid and horrific piece of writing. This also reminded me that I must read Ethel Smyth’s memoirs. It was Carlyle who said: “The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” and Murray provides a good counterpoint. One grumble is that there is no bibliography. This is a simple straightforward introduction to the lives of 21 women. Information and analysis is limited and I didn’t agree with all of her choices. A book club read. 7 out of 10 Starting Isobars by Janette Turner Hospital
  13. A Book Blog 2020 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann This is scholarly and well researched: a continuation of Kaufmann’s PhD thesis: in other words a proper history book. There is a myth that there were very few people of colour in England in the Tudor period and that Elizabeth 1 made an effort to get rid of those that were. Strictly Kaufmann extends her range to the mid-1620s. Here ten particular men and women are identified and their stories told. Kaufmann does have a tendency to wander off the point and give background detail, probably because her source material is fairly thin. The main sources of evidence are parish and court records: deaths, baptisms, court cases of variable kinds. We start with a trumpeter at the early Tudor Court, John Blanke who was present at Henry VIII’s coronation and end with Cattalena of Almondsbury in Gloucestershire whose possessions at her death were recorded (including her cow) in the early seventeenth century. She was a free and single woman, living alone in an English village: supporting herself. Another woman, a widow was designated as her executor. We know there were Africans living in England in the Roman period. By the end of the Tudor period there were communities in most of the ports, but especially in London. Kaufmann has identified 360 people identified as being black in records of the time. As records are only partial there were likely a significant number more. She also identifies that the very confusing Admiralty records have been little researched and they will have much more information as a number of those identified were certainly sailors. This is before the slave trade (apart from a couple of abortive voyages by Hawkins in the 1560s) and before there were any major colonies. Some were here as a result of trade with the West African coast; others were liberated from Spanish or Portuguese ships; some came with particular skills like Jacques Francis who was part of a team of divers who were charged with swimming down to the wreck of the Mary Rose and salvaging what they could. Kaufmann has an awareness of the times in which she writes: “as debate about immigration becomes even more vituperative and divisive, it is vital to understand that the British Isles have always been peopled by immigrants. The Black Tudors are just one of a series of different peoples who arrived on these shores in centuries past.” The science of DNA has added to weight of evidence as well. A man in Wales was able to trace his family tree back to Tudor times and a black servant in one of the great houses. This man, known as Jetto has descendants in many parts of the Britain and even as far as Australia. By the nature of humanity many of those who settled here married as well. All of these migrants were free; slavery wasn’t legal at the time, not in England. There is evidence that many of the pirate ships had crews that were often up to half black, mostly escaped slaves from the Spanish and Portuguese colonies. This is a fascinating account and being a historian by original training I appreciated the scholarship that went into it. This is very much a starting point and I am sure research will develop the story. There were a few niggles and a few tangents, but on the whole this is a good counterpoint to some traditional Tudor histories. 7 and a half out of 10 Starting Missing Fay by Adam Thorpe
  14. A Book Blog 2020 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Life, End of by Christine Brooke-Rose Life, End of It’s a bit ironic that as I have read this the Covid 19 pandemic has taken hold: it was entirely coincidental. This is Brooke-Rose’s final novel, semi-autobiographical about a writer struggling with the limitations of old age and changing relationships with those around her. The novel is very much bound by the physical limitations of the body as it begins to stop working. I haven’t read much be Brooke-Rose. I sort of enjoyed Textermination, but my thoughts at the time I think were a little over enthusiastic and subsequent reflection has somewhat adjusted them. That being said Brooke-Rose certainly has a way with words and she plays quite effectively with the language of the illnesses of older age: polyneuritis, Zimmer frame and cardio-vascular. However I did have some problems with the throwaway comments and judgements. Like this one when talking about the struggles with eyesight fading her character has: “Oh of course blindness is nothing, thousands of people are blind, even children. But are there many both blind and very lame? The two don’t go together. A blind person needs legs to learn from touching walls and furniture; a lame person needs at least one eye to guide the zimmer or the wheelchair. The two together mean total dependence, even guiding a fork to the lips or tea to the cup.” This is quite a negative approach to disability and at odds with the strengths based approach that social work takes today. There are better bits. The descriptions of trying to complete ablutions at a sink when one can barely stand. Some reflections on American imperialism (The Unilateral States of America). Cardiovascular problems becoming a play on Vasco da Gama: de Harmer, then Charmer, Qualmer, Alarmer and so on. The narrator splits everyone into two groups T.F.s (True Friends) and O.P.s (Other People). Inevitably the O changes into other, otiose, obstreperous, obsolete, over-sensitive, obtuse, obdurate, oxymoronic and so on. There is lots of this punning, so of it multilingual, some of it very funny: on discovering an eye can have an infarction “How can the eye have a heart-attack? Because it loves, it loves”. And then the end of the novel with the punning about Descartes: “Dehors before the cart, after all. A cruising mind, as against the mere word-play fun. Meanwhile: Les jeux de maux sont faits” Parts of this were good and hit the spot, other bits really irritated me, so a mixed bag. 6 out of 10 Starting The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins
  15. A Book Blog 2020 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Newfoundland by Rebbecca Ray This is a long book; at over a thousand pages. Most books of a similar length tend to have an epic sweep about them: Les Miserables, War and Peace and the like. This one doesn’t. It focuses on an imaginary Welsh small town near Aberystwyth called Ynys-morlan. It is a seaside town that is gradually crumbling; hit by decline, by holidays taken abroad and a lack of investment. The cast of characters is limited, not many more than a dozen significant ones and we spend a thousand pages with them. Into this mix comes an American woman, Charlotte Weyland, who buys a house on a hill near the town and does it up. She strikes up a friendship with a local woman, Ruth Lewis, who helps her in the garden. Charlotte has a legacy from her mother which she does not want. It is £33 million and she decides to give it to the town to renovate it. That is the plot, the effects of suddenly getting what you always wanted for your house/business. Beware of what you wish for. Ray looks at the effects on the community and on the relationships of the main characters. This is not a book with humour in it. The effects of the money are mainly negative for the relationships of the current occupants, although good for the infrastructure. The pace of the novel is slow and some of the slow build tragedies reminded me a little of Hardy. There is a very good exploration of domestic abuse and Ray tries to get into the minds of both parties with some success. Ray’s attempt to explain and understand the mind of the abuser struggles a little with brutal masculinity and attempts to redeem it by explanations of misplaced love and aimless life. Maybe, but I wasn’t convinced, maybe he’s just a brutal thug. Although this is set in Wales, it does not feel Welsh, the sense of place isn’t that strong, and that’s not entirely true, there is a sense of bleak abandoned seaside town. With the houses that "looked like a line of driftwood that had been piled here by the sea". There are a few loose ends, a few happyish endings and more tragedies. There are also things which took place which made me think: “That would never happen”, particularly a couple of the sexual encounters. It’s a character driven novel with deeply flawed characters that you get to know very well because you spend a thousand pages in their company. If you like that sort of thing then this may be for you. I wanted to like it more. 5 and a half out of 10 Starting Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo
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    The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende This is a book I’ve been meaning to read for years and is Allende’s first novel. It covers ninety years of Chilean history and is written in the form of a family saga with a strong element of magic realism. In part it charts the rise and fall of Salvador Allende, who was deposed in 1973. Although Allende prefers to see it as reflecting the history of Latin America. The novel covers three generations of the Trueba and Del Valle families. The character running through the whole is the family patriarch Esteban Trueba. Allende wrote it in reaction to the news that her grandfather was dying. There is a great deal about the passing of time and the nature of family: “At times I feel as if I had lived all this before and that I have already written these very words, but I know it was not I: it was another woman, who kept her notebooks so that one day I could use them. I write, she wrote, that memory is fragile and the space of a single life is brief, passing so quickly that we never get the chance to see the relationship between events; we cannot gauge the consequences of our acts, and we believe in the fiction of past, present, and future, but it may also be true that everything happens simultaneously.” There is a substantial cast of characters, most of them well drawn and substantial. Esteban Trueba is someone you wouldn’t want to know in real life, a violent bully, prone to rages and a “self-made man” who eventually becomes a right wing senator. However Allende expertly weaves all the themes together so that they flow smoothly and the family and the political blend with all the clairvoyance, religion and revolution. The female voices in this are most interesting as is the way they navigate a particularly strong and overbearing patriarchal character. The women strive to maintain their own identities in a setting and context that rejects their agency and experience: “Clara also brought the saving idea of writing in her mind, without paper or pencil, to keep her thoughts occupied and to escape from the doghouse and live. She suggested that she write a testimony that might one day call attention to the terrible secret she was living through, so that the world would know about this horror that was taking place parallel to the peaceful existence of those who did not want to know, who could afford the illusion of a normal life, and of those who could deny that they were on a raft adrift in a sea of sorrow, ignoring, despite all evidence, that only blocks away from their happy world there were others, these others who live or die on the dark side.” This is a great novel and I enjoyed it more than One Hundred Years of Solitude. You don’t need me to outline the plot, but it is a reminder of what a tragedy the overthrow of Salvador Allende was and of the brutality of the Pinochet regime. 9 and a half out of 10 Starting A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray
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    Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kandasamy This is the follow on work from “When I Hit You” and there are links between the two. It is also an experimental novel with two parallel streams of narrative on the same page. One narrative is the story being written, the other is a sort of commentary on it, on Kandasamy’s life, on the current political context, especially on Mohdi’s India. The author is present on the page in a very obvious way and there is inevitably an interaction between writer, text and reader. This could have been irritating, clumsy or just over clever. However the interrelation is very pertinent and works well. The reader does have a choice about how to read the text and in what order, but the themes in both texts are linked. A note about the title: “Exquisite Cadavers” was the name of a game surrealist artists played, very similar to consequences. It is also a reference to the Oulipian technique of assembling artworks from pieces contributed by a variety of people. Kandasamy was angered by reviewers describing her previous novel as a memoir, and in her parallel text she comments about her western audience: “writers like me are interesting because – we are from a place where horrible things happen, or, – horrible things have happened to us, or, – a combination of the above. No one discusses process with us. No one discusses our work in the framework of the novel as an evolving form. No one treats us as writers, only as diarists who survived” There is an epigraph in the novel which says, “The purpose of avant-garde writing for a writer of colour is to prove that you are human”. Kandasamy has commented that writers of colour are seen not so much as artists, but as “diarists who have survived” The main novella is the story of a couple Karim (a Tunisian film maker at a film school in London and Maya, a dual heritage British woman. We follow their angsts and Karim’s struggles with his tutors when he tries to make the films he wants rather than the ones they think he ought to make. The parallel text documents Kandasamy’s struggles to feel some empathy for her female protagonist. She finally decides Maya should be pregnant, as she is: “I cannot make her me. Then again, I cannot relate to her if I do not share anything with her.” And then another aside about Maya: “I make her relatable to the British readers, I steal a little of every Englishwoman I see to build the composite. Amy Sarah Claire Naomi Gill Lucy Allison and god yes Kate.” Kandasamy addresses contemporary issues such as #MeToo, immigration, sexual violence, film criticism, the damage families do to each other, selfhood and the relationship between the individual and history. The marginalia are almost like a diary. This may challenge your reading habits but it is well worth the effort and this is a thought provoking novel. Kandasamy is fast becoming one of my favourite authors. 8 and a half out of 10 Starting Life, end of by Christine Brooke-Rose
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    Liza's England by Pat Barker This was originally called The Century’s Daughter, because the main character was born in 1900. Barker wrote this in the 1980s and it is her third novel. Barker’s first three novels can be seen as a trilogy in themselves. They all concern working class women in the north of England and the toughness of their lives. This is about the life of one particular woman, Liza. The themes are familiar for those who know Barker’s work: mental health, the effects of war, family relationships and great structural change. The novel is set in the 1980s when Liza is living alone (apart from a parrot called Nelson, who has been with her since the local pub closed in the 1960s) and in one room in the downstairs of her house. The houses are being knocked down and she is the only one remaining, all of the rest of the houses in the street are now empty, but Liza is refusing to move. During the novel we see Liza’s life as she looks back. In the present she is visited by Stephen, a social worker and we follow his story a little as well as he tries to come to terms with the local disaffected youth. He is gay and has his own problems to contend with as well. He visits Liza for the first time: “He saw how time had moulded, almost gouged out, the sockets of her eyes, how two deep lines of force had been cut into the skin between nose and lip, how the hand that came up to grasp the scarlet shawl was brown-speckled, claw-like, but finely made. He saw, too, that her neck was grained with dirt, that there was dirt in the lines of her face, that the scarlet shawl was stained with parrot shhhhhhh. None of this mattered. Like a rock that wind and sea have worked on since the beginning of time, she needed to apologize for nothing, explain nothing.” On one occasion Stephen takes her out to look at the local landscape: “The wind keened across the brown land, and it seemed to Liza that it lamented vanished communities, scattered families, extinguished fires. Mourned the men who’d crowded to the ferry boat, at each and every change of shift, their boots striking sparks from the cobbles as they ran. She saw her father among them, and his voice echoed down the road that was no longer a road. Ginger-black, afraid of nobody. Men spilling out of the pubs to watch him race” Barker is very accurate in her descriptions of industrial decline and alienation which marked Thatcher’s Britain. The themes of violence, poverty, class and ambivalent community weave in with the nature of aging. We see Liza throughout her life as a strong woman, but in older age she is still at the mercy of cultural constructions of aged bodies and identities. Liza, who has been strong and vocal throughout her life is becoming silent, invisible and powerless. The powers that be are trying to prove she is “senile” to making moving her easier. The men in this novel are as powerless as the women, but they express their frustration and find relief in drinking, fighting and f**king. This is Barker at her sharpest when it comes to telling the story of class and alienation. Liza is a likeable character, with flaws but a good representation of strong working class women in the north of England. Barker is always worth reading! 8 and a half out of 10 Starting The Three Sisters by May Sinclair
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    The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson This is an account of the 1854 cholera epidemic in London and of the work of John Snow who through his scientific investigations managed to establish that cholera was waterborne and that the source of this outbreak was the Broad Street pump. This was going against the scientific opinion of the time a miasmic theory which argued that air, small and conditions were responsible. The book covers a variety of areas: history, biography, detective work, epidemiology and scientific investigation. Johnson uses a Victorian novelist’s trick and takes a chapter to introduce each player. The first chapter introduces the city of London and then the main players, John Snow, Rev Henry Whitehead, Edwin Chadwick and William Farr. The account of Snow’s investigations is fascinating. The descriptions of the conditions in London before the sewer system was built was pretty stomach churning. I never realised that most basements/cellars were used as cesspits. Also the descriptions of the myriad citizens who in varying ways made a living out of the waste has its own fascination. It’s a great story and I knew a bit about Snow, but I was less aware of the role of Whitehead. He was working as a vicar in the area and knew and visited many of those who died. He did a good deal of the detective work that supported Snow’s thinking. Snow, of course, was already known for his work on chloroform and anaesthesia and would have had a place in the history of medicine just for that. Johnson’s introduction to the book is a good summation: “This is a story with four protagonists: a deadly bacterium, a vast city, and two gifted but very different men. One dark week a hundred fifty years ago, in the midst of great terror and human suffering, their lives collided on London’s Broad Street, on the western edge of Soho. This book is an attempt to tell the story in a way that does justice to the multiple scales of existence that helped bring it about: from the invisible kingdom of microscopic bacteria, to the tragedy and courage and camaraderie of individual lives, to the cultural realm of ideas and ideologies, all the way up to the sprawling metropolis of London itself. It’s the story of a map that lies at the intersection of all those different vectors, a map created to help make sense of an experience that defied human understanding.” The book is somewhat repetitive at times: and then there is the epilogue, which leaves the subject of the book and is much more speculative. Johnson looks at increasing urbanization, arguing we are becoming a city planet and looking at what might put this at risk. He focuses on various types of terrorism, individual with weapons and explosives, portable nukes, chemical and biological. Here Johnson is in a more reflective mode, but it is very speculative and not really on the mark with too much painting terrorists as pantomime villains and not enough analysis. Skip the last chapter. 6 and a half out of 10 Starting Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kandasamy
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    Comyns is well worth a try Willoyd But You Did Not Come Back by Marceline Loridan-Ivens This is a brief novella written in the form of a letter written by Loridan-Ivens to her father. Loridan-Ivens is a French Jew and in 1944 when she was fifteen she was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau with her father. She returned from the camps, he did not: hence the title. As you would imagine the descriptions of the camps are difficult to read. This describes the arrival of a group of Hungarians: “They undressed them, sent them to the gas chamber – the children, babies and old people first, as usual” The very ordinariness of the phrase is what is chilling, it becomes normal. Loridan-Ivens takes her father through her life, in the camps and afterwards. One thing she does return to again and again is that whilst she was in the camp her father did manage to send her a note starting, “to my darling little girl”. However, apart from that one phrase she cannot remember the rest of the note and cannot understand why. The description of the difficulties of life after the camps is telling, as is the guilt of those who were not sent to the camps (her brother and sister who escaped the camps, both committed suicide). Loridan-Ivens vividly describes her struggle to make any sense of her life: “Why was I incapable of living once I’d returned to the world? It was like a blinding light after months in the darkness. It was too intense, people wanted everything to seem like a fresh start, they wanted to tear my memories from me; they thought they were being rational, in harmony with passing time, the wheel that turns, but they were mad, and not just the Jews — everyone! The war was over, but it was eating all of us up inside.” With her second husband Joris Ivens, she made documentaries looking at issues of oppression. As she writes this she is in her late eighties and laments the rise of Anti-Semitism again and in particular in France. Her film work is significant and especially “A Little Birch Tree Meadow” from 1973 which follows the life of a survivor of Birkenau. She was very much involved in the intellectual ferment of the left bank in Paris in the 50s and 60s and in the struggle for Algerian independence. A brief and powerful account of one survivor of the Holocaust with a passionate defence of humanistic values. 8 and a half out of 10 Starting Late Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davis
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    I enjoyed it Willoyd, got my eye on her biography of Edward Lear as well. Who was Changed and Who was Dead by Barbara Comyns This is set in an English village in the early 1900s, written in 1954. It has the wit and sharpness of Cold Comfort Farm with added corpses. Central to it all is the Willoweed family. A tyrannical grandmother, a son, Ebin who appears to do very little apart from try to avoid his mother and sporadically teach his two younger children, three children Emma, Hattie and Dennis, two maids (Norah and Eunice) and the gardener and handyman Ives who is determined to outlive Mrs Willoweed senior. Hattie is dual heritage, but this does not seem to be an issue and is hardly noted, apart from Ebin wondering where his late wife managed to find a black lover in the middle of rural Warwickshire. The novel opens with a flood: “The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in. Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night. Old Ives stood on the veranda steps beating his red bucket with a stick while he called to them, but today they ignored him and floated away white and shinning towards the tennis court….. Strange objects of pitiful aspect floated past: the bloated image of a drowned sheep, the wool withering about in the water, a white bee-hive with the perplexed bees still around; a new-born pig all pink and dead; and the mournful bodies of the peacocks. It seemed so stark to see such sorrowful things under the blazing sun and blue sky – a mist of rain would have been more fitting.” The characters are overdrawn and larger than life and some of the action rather surreal. Comyns draws her little community and then throws in something incendiary. The baker introduces a new line of bread made from rye and people in the village become unwell, some have hallucinations, some commit suicide and there are a whole range of other symptoms and quite a number die. Ergot, a fungus which grows on rye, turns out to be the culprit, but everything is changed by the time the source is identified: hence the title. There is a sort of fairy tale feel to this, albeit refracted via a cracked mirror. The descriptions are vivid: “As the day went on the hens, locked in their black shed, became depressed and hungry and one by one they fell from their perches and committed suicide in the dank water below, leaving only the cocks alive. The sorrowful sitting hens, all broody, were in another dark, evil-smelling shed and they died too. They sat on their eggs in a black broody dream until they were covered in water. The squawked a little; but that was all. For a few moments just their red combs were visible above the water, and then they disappeared. “ The river running through the village is at the centre of it all and a certain amount of the action takes place on it, especially as grandmother Willoweed insists on travelling on it. There is a figure who is blamed and sacrificed, a sort of Christ figure, but Comyns often does this in her novels It is not as shocking today as reviewers found it at the time, although some of the laugh out loud moments really shouldn’t be. I was slightly irritated by the ending and I don’t think it’s as good as The Vet’s Daughter, but it is Comyns and is a good read. 8 out of 10 Starting But You Did Not Come Back by Marceline Loridan-Ivens
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    The Pinecone by Jenny Uglow This is a competent biography of the little known Sarah Losh who lived from 1786 to 1853. She spent most of her life in Wreay in Cumbria. She is now remembered for her design and construction of Wreay church which she managed and oversaw in detail. This was at a time when women could not be architects. She built other buildings and monuments in her local area which she designed herself. Her upbringing was unusual in that she was educated, her father believing in the education of women. She was fluent in French and Italian and translated Latin. She was allowed to travel and she and her sister Katherine travelled on the continent for a couple of years. Losh never married and lived with her sister. She inherited the family property and improved it. She was undoubtedly middle class, but like others of her class she provided for the poor in her area and built a school. Losh was brought in a radical household, excited by the French Revolution, her family were friends with Wordsworth and the other romantic poets, including Coleridge. It is likely that she was one of the first people to hear “The Ancient Mariner”. Losh’s Church is remarkable in that most of the traditional symbolism is completely missing or discretely hidden (on the backs of chairs for example). Instead the decorations are from the natural world, ammonites, ferns, butterflies, flowers, lotus flowers, pinecones (the universal symbol for fertility), a stork, eagles and much more. There are no saints in stained glass. As Uglow says: “The gargoyles are turtles and dragons. Instead of saints and prophets, the window embrasures are carved with ammonites and coral, poppies and wheat, caterpillar and butterfly. Inside, the light is filtered through strange stained glass, bright leaves on black backgrounds, kaleidoscopic mosaics, alabaster cut-outs of fossils. The pulpit is a hollow tree trunk made from black oak, dug from the bog. An eagle and stork of ferocious energy hold up the lectern and reading desk and on the altar table, instead of a cross, are two candlesticks in the shape of the lotus, immortal flower of the East.” Uglow takes note of the roots of the designs Losh employed and it also indicates the breadth of her reading and scholarship: “Like a geologist demonstrating the strata of belief, she decorated the church with symbols that looked back to the earlier religions, myths and cults that lay buried beneath Christian imagery and ritual, as the wheat of Demeter and the grapes of Dionysus lay behind the bread and wine of the sacrament.” Rossetti, when he saw it in the 1850s found it remarkable as did Pevsner many years later. Losh was influenced by her travels on the continent and the simpler architecture she found in Lombardy. She was very much not a fan of gothic architecture. Her family were also friendly with prominent Unitarians, which may have also influenced the lack of iconography. Another puzzle were several arrows stuck into the walls. Much has to remain a puzzle as Losh’s journals have not been found, so Uglow has to work around that gap. This is also a story of sisters and Uglow draws a parallel with the Austen sisters. She also compares Losh to Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch. It is clear to me that had Losh been born later she would have been a remarkable and world renowned architect. We do have her church and some other buildings local to her and Uglow does a good job of charting herlife and accomplishments. 8 out of 10 Starting Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann
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    Hayley, The Five is really good. I enjoyed Folk and as you say it is more about folk tales. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen Although this was published posthumously it is one of Austen’s earlier works and it is a satire of the contemporary gothic novels. Do I need to outline the plot, probably not? Suffice to say that Catherine Morland is seventeen and has led a very sheltered life. She goes to Bath to see something of society and she has adventures (well, in an Austen kind of way). Particularly “The Mysteries of Udolpho” by Ann Radcliffe. It was published in 1794 and Austen was writing Northanger Abbey about ten years later. Catherine Morland was obsessed by the book as is evidenced by her conversation with Isabella Thorpe: “But, my dearest Catherine, what have you been doing with yourself all this morning? Have you gone on with Udolpho?’ ‘Yes, I have been reading it ever since I woke; and I am got to the black veil.’ ‘Are you, indeed? How delightful! Oh! I would not tell you what is behind the black veil for the world! Are you not wild to know?’ ‘Oh! Yes, quite; what can it be? – But do not tell me – I would not be told upon any account. I know it must be a skeleton, I am sure it is Laurentina’s skeleton. Oh! I am delighted with the book! I should like to spend my whole life in reading it, I assure you; if it had not been to meet you, I would not have come away from it for all the world.” Catherine’s obsession continues into her daily life: “Oh, that we had such weather here as they had at Udolpho, or at least in Tuscany and the South of France! – the night that poor St Aubin died! – such beautiful weather!” And, of course there is the famous Austen quote: “The person ... who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid” The plot is fairly limited, but the satire is sharp and clever and Austen has a purpose in her satirical barbs, but we also see Austen at her most parochial: “Charming as were all Mrs Radcliffe’s works and charming even as were the works of all her imitators, it was not in them perhaps that human nature, at least in the midland counties of England, was to be looked for. But in the central part of England there was surely some security for the existence even of a wife not beloved, in the laws of the land, and the manners of the age. Murder was not tolerated, servants were not slaves, and neither poison nor sleeping potions to be procured, like rhubarb, from every druggist.” Austen’s England is primarily middle and upper class, we see very little of the servants, the producers of food, the poor. And, of course we also know that given the location of Bath (close to Bristol), then a significant part of the wealth was based on the slave trade. That being the case, this is still an easy read and makes some interesting comments about the role of middle class women and the marriage market and Catherine is an engaging protagonist. 7 out of 10 Starting Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
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    Thanks Willoyd, The Five is definitely a stand out book for me too. Where the Poppies Blow by John Lewis-Stempel Lewis-Stempel has written books about the natural world and about the First World War. Here he combines these two interests and looks at the natural world and the war. There are chapters on birds, horses, vermin (four legged and six legged), flowers and gardens, pets (dogs, cats and the like) and hunting and shooting. Between each chapter is an interstice, some contain poetry, others lists of mascots, statistics about disease, lists of battlefield birds and lists of naturalists. There is a good deal of poetry in the book. Lewis-Stempel also uses a large number of journals from soldiers and officers. There’s a lot of what you would expect in this, but there are some interesting observations. The corpses in no man’s land attracted huge numbers of birds like crows and magpies which fed on them. Rats and mice also did the same, which meant there were large numbers of raptors and owls feeding on them. The corpses also accounted for the millions of flies on the western front. Horses were also vital for moving things around, but there weren’t enough in Britain to meet the need and so many were brought across the Atlantic, especially mules, which were better adapted for the mud on the front. Over half a million horses and mules were used throughout the campaign. The soldiers also needed feeding and I wasn’t aware that by the end of the war, most of the fresh food the army needed was grown near the front; celery grew particularly well in trenches! There are the usual stories about hunting, shooting and fishing. Fishing sometimes supplemented rations. The penchant of the English aristocracy and upper classes to go into the countryside and shoot anything that moves didn’t change at war. There is also a good deal of sentimentality when it comes to pets and animal companions. The journal extracts and poetry are interesting (some of the poetry is good, some not so). Ivor Gurney stands out and one of his phrases is striking: “The amazed heart cries angrily out on God” Note that he is not crying out to God, but “On God”, in a poem about pain: animal and human. Another thing to remember is the relationship of many people at this time to the countryside. The Church of England, away from its evangelical and Anglo-Catholic extremes had (and has) a tendency to pantheism. The theologian Thomas Traherne said: “How do we know but the world is that body; which the Deity has assumed to Manifest His Beauty” The countryside he loves is not the handiwork of God, it is God. There is a good deal of this evident in poetic and journal form. Yearning for home is inevitable amidst the suffering and dying. This poem illustrates the feelings of those who got home, it is by Will Harvey: “For I am come to Gloucestershire, which is my very home. Tired out with wandering and sick of wars beyond the foam. I have starved enough in foreign parts, and no more care to roam. Quietly I will bide here in the place where I be, Which knew my father and his grandfather, and my dead brothers and me. And bred us and fed us, and gave us pride of yeoman ancestry Men with sap of Earth in their blood, and the wisdom of weather and wind. Who ploughed the land to leave it better than they did find, And lie stretched out down Westbury way, where the blossom is kind; And lie covered with petals from the orchards that do shed Their bloom to be a light white coverlet over the dead Who ploughed the land in the daytime, and went well pleased to bed.” This is interesting, informative and well researched. There is some sentimentality and some stomach churning moments. There are plenty of lesser known poets and a few of the usual suspects. The glimpses of the front at Gallipoli are also of interest. 7 out of 10 Starting Who was changed and who was dead by Barbara Comyns
  25. A Book Blog 2020 by Books do Furnish a Room

    It is excellent Vodkafan; not sure if there is a connection though. Folk by Zoe Gilbert This is set in the fictional village of Neverness, located on an island loosely based on the Isle of Man. Folklore and tradition is at the heart of the novel and there is a re-working of traditional themes. Although it is billed as a novel, it is really a linked collection of short stories. One of these stories won the Costa short story award in 2014. Interestingly there is no religion and religious imagery in the traditional sense. There is plenty of superstition, which is culturally important and a careful adherence to ritual. These are fairy tales, with no fairies in sight. There is also a strong sense of nature and the natural world. Hares, kites and bees all play starring roles. Neverness is on an island and the narrowness of belief reflects real life concerns. In one tale a woman perceived as a witch and scapegoated. There is no easy chronology here and some natural rules are suspended. A sentence like "Verlyn Webbe has a wing in place of an arm" will immediately put some readers off. There is a shared geography and some shared characters, although major characters in one tale become minor ones later. The stories do build a sense of place and there is violence in the mythography: nature really is red in tooth and claw. Tradition, ritual and a belief in a story seems to make it true. Gilbert is also good at setting a scene: “Listen, for the beat that runs through the gorse maze. It is an early twilight, the opening between last sun and first star, the door of the day closing until, soon, night will seal it shut. There are feet thudding in the gorse’s winding tunnels, hearts thumping in time. Above them the breath of boys hisses. Puffs of their steam are lost in spiny roofs.” One reviewer has referred to this as a map rather than a novel or collection of stories (and there is indeed a map of Neverness in the front of the book) and this certainly makes sense to me. A map of British mythic imagination with a core that repels and entices at the same time. It is vaguely reminiscent of Angela Carter. The boundaries between nature and human life are blurred; there are water spirits looking for female companionship, people able to leave their bodies and soar with the kites (a bird of prey) at night and maybe decide to stay up there forever. It's not a demanding read and if you like myth and folklore you are likely to enjoy it. There is plenty of fluidity of roles, but Gilbert maybe could have extended that fluidity to gender and sexuality as well. 7 out of 10 Starting Liza's England by Pat Barker