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The diaries are certainly interesting Janet!


Memento Mori by Muriel Spark


This is Spark at her witty and acerbic best with a novel that is funny with a good dose of macabre. I sometimes think that Spark doesn’t really like her characters and here she really puts them through it. The title is Latin for “Remember you must die” and the book revolves around a group of elderly friends, a number of whom start to receive anonymous phone calls, where a voice says “Remember you must die”. The caller seems to know where people are as calls are received at the houses of friends and relatives as well and sometimes if the person isn’t available a message is left.

The recipients of the messages are a group of upper middle/upper class English worthies. Company owners, a novelist, an ex-policeman, a Dame. All quintessentially English and they are all mercilessly satirised and exposed for what they really are. Their reactions to the calls are very different and Spark is a very good observer of human nature.

Death is really the star, but is only given free rein to create to create havoc towards the end. The protagonists are in their 70s and 80s and Spark takes us round genteel nursing homes, long stay hospital wards, upper class dining rooms and into the realm of sometimes tyrannical servants. It is a world that even in the 1950s was beginning to disappear. But Spark livens up what may seem to be rather staid with a murder, a secret wedding, a fake death, a car crash, an irresponsible and wastrel son and an elderly man with a penchant for stockings. But then Spark picks out little details in life, as when the policeman’s wife is feeding her grandson:

Mrs. Mortimer [aged 74] was opening and closing her mouth like a bird. This was because she was attempting to feed a two-year-old boy with a spoon, and as he opened his mouth to take each spoonful of soft egg, she involuntarily opened hers. “

Then linked to that her husband talks to the group of friends receiving the calls:

“If I had my life over again, I should form a habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practice which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. Without an ever-present sense of death, life is insipid. You might as well live on the whites of eggs.”

There is also an interesting juxtaposition between the long stay ward where Jean Taylor; one of the servants now put out to pasture, resides and the rest of the novel; the discussion about whether the faithful family retainer should reside is telling:

“Two years ago, when [Jean] first came to the ward, she had longed for the private nursing home in Surrey about which there had been too much talk. Godfrey had made a fuss about the cost, he had expostulated in her presence, and had quoted a number their friends of the progressive set on the subject of the new free hospitals, how superior they were to the private affairs. Alec Warner had pointed out that these were days of transition, that a person of Jean Taylor’s intelligence and habits might perhaps not feel at home among the general aged of a hospital.

“If only,” he said, “because she is partly what we have made her, we should look after her.”

He had offered to bear half the cost of keeping Jean in Surrey. But Dame Lettie had finally put an end to these arguments by coming to Jean with a challenge, “Would you not really, my dear, prefer to be independent? After all, you are the public. The hospitals are yours. You are entitled…” Miss Taylor had replied, “I prefer to go to hospital, certainly.” She had made her own arrangements and had left them with the daily argument still in progress concerning her disposal.”

There are plenty of twists and turns in the telling and Mrs. Pettigrew makes an interesting villain. The minor female characters on the long stay ward are excellent and really add to the comic element (and the sinister as well). Spark has great fun bumping the cast off; a lesser author would have focused on who was making the calls and turned it into a crime novel and Spark resists that temptation. Funny, witty and a reminder that we are all mortal.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting The Ballad and the Source by Rosamond Lehmann

Edited by Books do furnish a room

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The Richer The Poorer by Dorothy West


Dorothy West was a novelist and short story writer, best known for being part of the Harlem Renaissance in the late1920s and early 1930s. West wrote two novels, but a lot of shorter fiction and journalism. This is a collection of shorter fiction with some journalism. The collection ranges over sixty years form an early short story in 1926 to the late 1980s. West hailed from the middle class black community in Boston; she reflects and explains their attitudes whilst critiquing them as well. West also describes the black community on Martha’s Vineyard and she lived there for many years.

West’s stories critique the attitudes she sees around her, but she does also address race and gender as well. There is variety in the collection and West employs a variety of narrative strategies. The writing is effortlessly charming and West has a way of making her points quietly and in an understated way; but still very effectively. The writing has a strong sense of place. It is slightly puzzling that West isn’t better known and she seems to be excluded from discussions about American Modernism and little mentioned in discussions of black female authors, because I found her writing very good. She is very good at seeing both sides of an issue whilst still being able to come to a conclusion. She explores the nature of class and poverty and the desire for education.

West deals with the simple day to day realities of life and looks at the way the American Dream relates to those she writes about. For me, West should be more widely read and appreciated.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi

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Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin


This novel is partially autobiographical and tells the story of a day in the life of 14 year old John Grimes and his preacher stepfather (Gabriel), his mother and his aunt with plenty of flashbacks to build the scene. It is centred on the life of the Pentecostal Church and its role in the African-American community. Baldwin was also the son of a preacher and this is written with great passion and eloquence. The backdrop is late 1930s Harlem; but we are taken back to the South for Gabriel’s complex history.

Although Baldwin was sceptical about religion, he really does capture the sheer physicality of worship and the atmosphere of a gospel meeting. The book is the build up to John’s first religious experience and about the real tensions between him and his holy and rather violent stepfather. There are vivid descriptions of hellfire and damnation sermons which emphasize human sin, the need for repentance and the danger of hell. They are exactly the sort of thing I recall from my childhood. This isn’t Baldwin’s critique of religion (that comes in later work); here he really inhabits the character and tells it straight. Even though he does that Baldwin does give clues about the future.

Baldwin evokes 1930s New York and the sights and feel of the city and John’s relationship to it; this is John in Central Park;

“He did not know why, but there arose in him an exultation and a sense of power, and he ran up the hill like an engine, or a madman, willing to throw himself headlong into the city that glowed before him. But when he reached the summit he paused; he stood on the crest of the hill, hands clasped beneath his chin, looking down. Then he, John, felt like a giant who might crumble this city with his anger.”

Baldwin is very clear about the issue of race and John’s anger is related to his exclusion because of his colour. There are also clues to what would come later in relation to sexuality with John’s relationship with another young leader in the Church, Elisha. Even when John is undergoing his conversion experience and “the Holy Ghost was speaking” John feels “a tightening in his loin strings” and “a sudden yearning tenderness for Elisha... desire, sharp and awful".

As many others have said the novel is drenched in the King James Bible and the Blues. The character of Gabriel Grimes is mesmerizing in a horrific sort of way. His treatment of the women in his life contrasted with his religious life is stark. There is a strong sense of the importance of women in the community and in reality holding things together. John’s struggle can be linked to a Biblical reference; akin to Joseph in the Book of Genesis, trying to come to terms with the nightmare of his family. In terms of literature I have seen John Grimes compared to Stephen Dedalus and the narrator in Proust. That leads me to one of my few niggles; I wanted it to be longer!

9 out of 10


Starting Black Poppies: Britain's Black Community and the Great War

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The Ha-Ha by Jennifer Dawson


I must admit that Jennifer Dawson wasn’t a novelist who was really on my radar; but thanks to virago here we are! She should have been on my radar as she writes about mental health and this, her first novel (which won the James Tait Black memorial prize in 1961) is mainly set in an institution designed to contain those whom society deemed to have a mental illness which necessitated removal from what we laughingly called normalcy.

Dawson came from a Fabian family and stayed within a politically radical tradition; she was an early member of CND. Among a number of teaching roles and working for publishers Dawson was also a social worker in a psychiatric hospital in Worcester. I am always a little wary of those who write about mental health having known only the coercive, controlling and managing side of the spectrum. However Dawson, whilst she was at Oxford University was admitted to one of those hospitals (Warneford in Oxford) she later worked in following what was described as a breakdown. This does show I think and clearly the protagonist Josephine is partially autobiographical. She too is studying at Oxford and her interior world begins to intrude too much into her daily life. As Dawson herself said; "The story was really about a girl who did not have the knack of existing, and the images in it reflected my own preoccupations."

Dawson wrote a perceptive afterword to the virago edition, giving a historical context, which is relevant. Dawson wrote the novel just after the 1959 Mental Health Act. As she points out it was just before the libertarian mental health movements of the 60s; before Laing, Szasz and Kesey had really started their critiques. Most importantly before writers like Sedgewick (in Psychopolitics) had begun to question the way society classifies mental health and linking it to the ills of capitalism. The novel also falls just before the feminist movement of the 60s. Dawson is eloquent bout the role of women at the time and Josephine is exposed to “women as objects” attitudes from a number of directions.

The title is interesting. The website devoted to Dawson gives the classic definition:

“A ha-ha is a turfed ditch used to keep grazing livestock out of a garden or estate whilst providing an uninterrupted view from within. The name "ha-ha" was given to the feature because, when walking towards it from the garden, the ditch only becomes apparent when the observer comes very close to it.”

In the book the ha-ha is the place in the grounds where Josephine met with Alasdair, a patient in the male side of the hospital and it comes to have symbolism for them both. However the idea of an invisible divide, only obvious as you get near it is also symbolic of the contrived divide between the residents of the hospital and the outside world (including the staff).

The writing itself is understated and quite descriptive of Josephine’s state of mind from her own point of view. Descriptions are often matter of fact, as with the use of ECT at one point. Initially the reader can be fooled into thinking there might be a love story in the offing, but it develops into a protest about mental health practices and as one critic noted there develops an “atmosphere of quiet terror”. Dawson also emphasizes the importance of small gestures and little acts (positive and negative). At times Josephine does interact with the boundaries of the clinic, even though at times these seem quite loose and even the often mild Josephine can react;

“The committee? Regrade? I knew they graded eggs and milk, I did not know that they also had this word for humans. Regrade me?…As what?”

In her afterword Dawson says this of her first novel;

“If I could write The Ha-Ha again, I suppose I'd make it clearer at the end that the heroine's experience was sharpened and that she didn't just drift into the irrevocable madness of disrelation; that her surprise-response was quickened, not slowly closed down; that the silver dew on the spider's web glittered in the mornings, but did not blacken; that she became more open to receive. Greedy even.”

This is an interesting and thought provoking novel, not nearly as well-known as it ought to be, but certainly worth reading and I will certainly look for more of Dawson’s novels.

8 out of 10

Starting Travel Light by Naomi Mitchison

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I love your reviews, I look forward to them.


You might be interested in Shock by Kitty Dukakis and More, Now, Again by Elizabeth Wutzel.

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Thank you Anna; I will keep an eye open for the two you mentioned.


Black Poppies by Stephen Bourne


“The near-total exclusion from our history books of black servicemen in the First World War is shameful…. Some black servicemen made the ultimate sacrifice … and like Walter Tull, died on the battlefields but with the passing of time, with the exception of Tull, the contributions of black servicemen have been forgotten”

Part of my periodic reading concerning WW1; this fills many of the gaps in conventional histories. It charts the involvement of black soldiers in the conflict and the reactions to them by the army hierarchy and the lower ranks. Bourne charts their struggles and tells the story of a few of the individuals. He does much more than this; outlining the history of black communities in Britain, which goes back to the 1500s (possibly earlier). In 1914 there were approximately 10,000 black Britons and this had trebled by the end of the war.

The book also looks at the home front and some of the women of the black community. Two in particular sparked my interest. Amanda Aldridge and Avril Coleridge-Taylor. Avril Coleridge-Taylor was Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s daughter and as I am sure you are all aware, he was a well-known composer. What I didn’t know was that his daughter was also a composer. Amanda Aldridge was a singer and singing teacher. One of those who later studied with her was Paul Robeson.

There is also a section on the 1919 anti-black riots in London, Liverpool and Cardiff. Bourne has done his research and has produced a very informative account which I am sure ought to be part of every school history curriculum. The history of black Britons is almost totally absent from British historiography and this books helps to begin to restore the balance. There is an excellent and moving collection of photographs included as well. There are also references to other important works, to diaries, novels and accounts that are too neglected.

Bourne reports that he was affected by some of the information he researched;

“For example, I was deeply moved by the tale of Private Herbert Morris, a sixteen-year-old Jamaican lad who joined the British West Indies Regiment but was traumatised by his exposure to the noise of guns on the front, where he stacked shells. Consequently he was executed for desertion, though pardoned in 2006.  Also moving is the story of Isaac Hall, another Jamaican, working in Britain, who was imprisoned as a conscientious objector when conscription was introduced in 1916. He suffered bullying and horrific injuries during his internment at Pentonville Prison but was saved from his ordeal by the pacifist, Dr Alfred Salter.”

Bourne describes himself as a community historian and this is a very competent introduction to Black British history.

8 out of 10

Starting Afterwords; Letters on the death of Virginia Woolf by Sybil Oldfield

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Journal of a Somerset Rector 1803-1834 by John Skinner

Journal of the Rev John Skinner, Rector of Camerton near Bath (in Somerset), 1803-1834; with a very perceptive introduction by Virginia Woolf. I have read a few clerical journals in my time, including Kilvert, Woodeforde and Gilbert White. This is unlike them in many ways; it’s grim in places and Skinner is difficult to warm to. He is very much aware of his position in society and feels his position should be respected, he can be irascible and short-tempered. He is conservative, worrying about Methodism and the possibility of Catholic emancipation and fears they that are all out to do him out of his tithe (remember at this time some clerical income still came from tithes from local farmers and this was very much resented). He grows to heartily dislike his parishioners feeling they are a godless bunch who don’t pay him enough respect and way too many of them are Methodists. There is a coal mine in the parish and the colliers are worse than most. In turn his parishioners dislike him as well and are frequently surly and disrespectful and often downright rebellious. He had long running complaints about the Red Post public house, which Skinner feels is a den of immorality. I’m not really painting a good picture here!

Many parsons at this time did very little work and spent their time hunting and generally wasting time. Skinner was an antiquary and journal keeper. He had a passion for Roman and pre-Roman history in Britain and did a good deal of excavation and recording. His journals included his studies and also his daily trials and tribulations. They run to some one hundred and fifty volumes, many of which were transcribed and bound by his brother. He was also competent at drawing and sketching. Skinner’s life was marked by tragedy. One of his brothers died in 1809, followed by a three month old daughter and his wife in 1812. He also lost a fourteen year old daughter and then one of his two sons in 1832, most of them from consumption. It seems clear to me, reading Skinner’s descriptions of his state of mind and mental health, that he was prone to depression. He also managed to fall out with his children as they grew up, banishing them from his house when they displeased him and they, in turn learnt to treat him with contempt. Skinner had a strong sense of duty; visiting the sick and dying are a constant and this is very important to him. He gives quite vivid descriptions of some of the industrial accidents that the colliers were prone to. He also describes the conditions of those living in severe poverty, especially the elderly. He assists those who he feels are deserving and others are referred to the parish as these are the days of the Poor Law. Skinner also expends a good deal of energy complaining about petty and corrupt officialdom.

Woolf captures well the tensions Skinner and others felt;

Behind him lay order and discipline and all the virtues of the heroic past, but directly he left his study he was faced with drunkenness and immorality; with indiscipline and irreligion; with Methodism and Roman Catholicism; with the Reform Bill and the Catholic Emancipation Act, with a mob clamouring for freedom, with the overthrow of all that was decent and established and right”

Skinner also had a number of run-ins with the Jarrett family who were the local family of importance; their wealth having come from plantations in Jamaica. He felt that their privileged position meant they had certain responsibilities, which he often felt they neglected. One interesting point was Skinner noting that there was a black worker at the colliery. He doesn’t seem overly surprised and indicates that around ports like Bristol there have been black communities going back centuries.

This account ends in 1834 and Skinner took his own life with a pistol in 1839. The coroner’s verdict;

"The Rev. gentleman's health had been declining for sometime and his mind had latterly been very much affected. On Friday morning, in a state of derangement, he shot himself through the head with a pistol, and was dead in an instant."

I must admit that I didn’t really like Skinner, but I did feel sorry for him as all his certainties were eroded. There are lots of interesting snippets of social history and the people of Camerton come across very much as people everywhere at all times; they also appeared rather bemused by their often angry Rector.

6 out of 10

Starting The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym by Edgar Allan Poe

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Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi

I was hoping that Saadawi would win the Nobel Prize this time round; sadly it wasn’t to be. However I suspect she was not surprised, as she says;

I am still ignored by big literary powers in the world, because I write in Arabic, and also because I am critical of the colonial, capitalist, racist, patriarchal mind set of the super-powers.”

However she is much more than just a novelist/writer; she originally trained as a doctor, then went into politics (Public Health). She lost her job because of political activism and spent some time in prison. Her political activism involves challenging FGM, arguing that women are oppressed by the patriarchal religions and highlighting a range of women’s issues.

This novel is based on Saadawi’s meeting with a woman soon to be executed in prison in the early 1970s. She was so affected by the meeting that she wrote the novel in a week. Saadawi explores the issues she has written about over the years, but principally the role of women and their powerlessness in the society she was observing.

In the novel Firdaus tells her life story from a level of childhood innocence, through FGM, abuse from a relative, the death of her parents, school, an arranged marriage to a much older man (whom she leaves when he abuses her), time with another man (starts well but ends in control and abuse), time as a prostitute in a brothel (well-paid but Firduas realizes that the woman cannot protect her), then as a prostitute on her own, then a menial job in a local office, falls in love and thinks it is reciprocated, Firduas is betrayed and goes back to prostitution, when a pimp moves in to try to control her she has to kill him. She has to kill him because the only way for women to liberate themselves from men is to kill them. This, Firduas says, is why she has to die.

Firduas has lead a life where choice has been absent and this is the point; freedom is illusory, as Janis Joplin sang “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”. It may all sound quite grim and given the subject matter that is inevitable, but Saadawi does write lyrically as well:

It was clean, paved thoroughfare, which ran along one bank of the Nile with tall trees on either side. The houses were surrounded by fences and gardens. The air which entered my lungs was pure and free of dust. I saw a stone bench facing the river. I sat down on it, and lifted my face to the refreshing breeze.”

However the crux of the matter relates to choice and control, the lack of choices women have and the control men have:

“How many were the years of my life that went by before my body, and my self became really mine, to do with them as I wished? How many were the years of my life that were lost before I tore my body and my self away from these people who held me in their grasp since the very first day?”

Saadawi gives agency to the voiceless and the reader is drawn into Firduas’s life and feels the inevitability of her action. The men, as set in the culture, have all the power and all the choices. The novel provides a powerful analysis of the nature of control and coercion wrought upon women by men. It’s also a well written novel. So why didn’t she get the Nobel?

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Spring Cleaning by Jean "Binta" Breeze

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I am embarrassed by my country's death penalty.


Thanks for the review :)

Edited by Anna Begins

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Hope you enjoy it Bobblybear.

I know what you mean Anna; there are plenty of things in my country's past and present that bother me!


Travel Light by Naomi Mitchison


Ever wanted a Tolkeinesque saga with a female lead? Look no further this is it, and from someone close to Tolkein who proof read Lord of the Rings before it was published. This was published in 1952, before Lord of the Rings in 1954.

This really ought to stand alongside The Hobbit and Harry Potter and other such tales to be read as one grows up. For some reason it doesn’t and its remarkable author is not considered part of the canon.

Mitchison lived to be 101 and her life and the scope of her interests and activities is quite remarkable. Part of the Haldane family, her early success was as a geneticist, she then volunteered as a VAD during the war. She was a lifelong feminist and campaigner for birth control, an active socialist and a very prolific writer. She published over ninety books including historical novels (one critic has described her as the greatest historical novelist of the twentieth century), science fiction, politics, sexuality, travelogue, fantasy, memoirs and numerous articles.

Travel Light is the tale of Halla, born to a king but cast out to die, she is raised first by bears and then by a dragon. When she eventually returns to people she has the gift of languages and can speak to all people and animals. Halla has a particular dislike of heroes (especially because they tend to slay dragons) and is known as heroesbane for a while. There is magic here and lots of travel, an appearance from Odin Allfather (who advises Halla to travel light and keep moving), a Valkyrie who keeps popping up when heroes die to carry them off to Valhalla (which is definitely not what the heroes think it is), crooked princes and governors, duplicitous clerics to name but a few. Halla communicates with all kinds of animals and travels for a while with a group of men on a quest for justice. Halla deals deftly with the usual male desire to tie her to home and hearth and continues to travel light. It’s great stuff and Mitchison makes her moral points gently along the way. Halla is an interesting protagonist and is much more Gandalf than Bilbo Baggins. Although this is a fable, it does not have the usual fable structure. There are links to Beowulf; the Grendel family has a walk on part. The word hero is in this tale, a pejorative term for someone who makes their living from killing and murder. Established religion is corrupt and distinct from true belief which is important, but not to be held onto blindly. Mitchison is teaching respect, understanding and tolerance with a light touch.

This is a book I wish I had read when I was younger. My main quibble is that it is too short. One reviewer, a writer of fantasy (Amal El Mohtar) has wondered what would have happened if she had read this as a child;

“But, most crucially for me, I wonder: Where might I have gone if, instead of a middle-aged Hobbit enamored of his pantry, I had embraced a girl who lost three homes before choosing the open road?”

Who knows indeed; this should be a classic.

9 out of 10

Starting A Saturday Life by Radclyffe Hall

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Afterwords; Letters on the death of Virginia Woolf edited by Sybil Oldfield


This is rather an oddity. A book of letters written in reaction to Virginia Woolf’s suicide. You might think that this would only be of interest to avid Bloomsbury fans, but there is more of interest. Most of the letters are to Leonard Woolf, some to Vanessa Bell. Those to LW are split into four sections; VW’s friends, LW’s friends, joint friends and the general public. Oldfield also provides potted biographies of quite a number of the letter writers, which is very useful.

A number of the letters ouch on a controversy shortly after VW’s death. The main suicide note was misquoted by the coroner. Here is the note;



I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that — everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.

I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.


The second sentence mentions “those terrible times”; the coroner read it as these terrible times and concluded the reason for her suicide was the war and its progress. This prompted a letter to The Times by Kathleen Hicks, wife of the Bishop of Lincoln;

“Many people, possibly even more ‘sensitive,’ have lost their all and seen appalling happenings, yet they take their part nobly in this fight for God against the devil. Where are our ideals of love and faith? And where shall we all be if we listen to and sympathise with this sort of ‘I cannot carry on.’”

This prompted reactions from many, including Leonard. It may be that it was more comfortable for some to believe that it was the war that was the reason for what happened.

Obviously letters of condolence can be repetitive and there is an element of that and there are also letters from those closest to Woolf. There are also letters form many, including members of the public who are saying that they had suffered with mental ill health or had close family members who did. Many of the letters from the general public just simply say how much Woolf’s work had inspired them. There was great eloquence and compassion.

There was also a chance to glimpse figures that I knew little about, feminists and socialists somewhat lost to history whose writings may well be worth looking for. For example the Argentinian writer and feminist Victoria Ocampo, who translated Woolf into Spanish, wrote “The dead whom we love dwell in us”.

What struck me most was the different narratives about depression. The establishment narrative reflected the views expressed in The Times, but those who knew Woolf and those who suffered in a similar way establish a different narrative.

7 and a half out of 10


Starting Coercive Control by Evan Stark

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Brixton Beach by Roma Tearne

This is the first I have read of Roma Tearne. She is a Sri Lankan artist and writer whose family moved to Britain in 1964. Tearne had a Tamil father and Sinhalese mother and the long-running civil war was very immediate to her and runs through her work. This book is a family saga with a dual setting; Sri Lanka and London.

The novel revolves around Alice Fonseca and her family; at the beginning of the novel she is nine and living in Sri Lanka; she has a Tamil father and Sinhalese mother. The first half of the book takes place in Sri Lanka and has the feel of an idyll at the very beginning. Alice spends a good deal of time with her grandfather Bee, collecting on the beach and watching him in his studio, learning a love of art. However the storm clouds do begin to gather. The civil war gets closer and more dangerous, Alice’s mother loses a child at birth owing to the negligence of a Sinhalese doctor (further alienating Alice’s Tamil father). Bee and his wife assist Tamil refugees and put themselves in danger. The descriptions of light and place clearly mark Tearne as an artist and this is one of the great strengths of the book:

“Words were not his thing; explanations were best done with brushes. The colour of a place, the angle of the light, a tree, these spoke volumes”.

Tearne also writes with a sense of musicality, hence this description of the civil war:

“The war began drumming again. After months of silence it marched in two-four time; a two-conductor orchestra without direction”.

Alice and her parents move to London where her parents’ marriage breaks up and her father spends much more time with working for the Tamil Tigers whilst her mother gradually withdraws from life. Alice survives because of her art which provides her with a way of expressing herself. Alice marries an Englishman and has a child. This relationship does not last and Alice moves her mother in to live with her and her son and names the house Brixton Beach. Tearne’s description of Alice’s mother’s dementia is well written and coherent and done with a light touch. Towards the end of the novel Alice begins a new relationship. The novel begins and ends with the 7/7 bombings in London. As a plot device it is a little forced, but provides a link between the terrorism provoked by western involvement in the Middle East and the very bloody, but ignored, civil war in Sri Lanka.

Tearne does not spare the readers emotions and the female characters are very strong. However, apart from Bee (who holds the whole thing together), the male characters are rather two-dimensional and there are some rather trite moments as well. Despite the faults the novel reads well and the descriptions of Sri Lanka are vivid and the strongest part of the whole novel. The point is also made that the obsessions of the west are not the only things that are happening in the world and that British imperialism had a good deal to do with the working out of events as well.

7 out of 10

Starting The Ventriloquists Tale by Pauline Melville

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Spring Cleaning by Jean Binta Breeze

I always find reviewing poetry a challenge and especially so here as Breeze’s poetry is really meant to be spoken. Jean Binta Breeze began as a dub poet in her native Jamaica; she is recognized as the first woman to write and perform dub poetry in what was a very masculine arena. Her work has developed and moved on and is very varied (including writing scripts, choreography, directing and dancing). Breeze deals with difficult topics and highlights injustice, but she does so in quite an oblique way. She looks at the experience of black women in a more subjective and experimental way.

Breeze is very clear about what she thinks though; she doesn’t like the word colonialism:

“Let’s not call it colonialism, that is an academic term. Let’s call it what it is – international theft of resources and robbery of people’s land. Colonialism doesn’t say that.” She talks about the debt of poorer countries in a similar way:

“All our countries are in debt to the World Bank and the IMF. We are in debt to the very ones who stole from us in the first place.”

Her range in her poetry is very wide and forward looking:

“There is this suggestion that we are all there trying to deal with our colonial heritage, instead of actually being at the forefront of what is happening politically in the world today.”

Some of the poems here are particularly striking; “Riddym Ravings (The Mad Woman’s Poem) is an exploration of the experiences of a homeless black woman, informed by Breeze’s own mental health history. The title poem “Spring Cleaning” is about Breeze’s mother and is intertwined with the hymn “The Lord’s my Shepherd” and is very moving.

I enjoyed this collection and there is plenty of footage of Breeze reading her poems on you tube; take a look.

8 out of 10

Starting Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas by Maya Angelou

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Have you read Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo? If you haven't, you might be interested, it's very good.

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I'll look out for it Anna

The Ballad and the Source by Rosamond Lehmann


This is my first reading of Lehmann and was probably not the best place to start. Lehmann came from a Liberal family (her father was an MP); her brother was a publisher and her sister an actress. Lehmann wrote several novels and many short stories.

This novel was published in 1944. It is written from the point of view of ten year old Rebecca. It revolves around the figure of Sybil Jardine, an older woman and one of the great literary creations. The back of the virago edition sums up;

“Ten-year-old Rebecca is living in the country with her family, when Sibyl Jardine returns to her property in the neighbourhood. The two families – once linked in the past – meet again, with the result that Rebecca becomes drawn into the strange complications of the old lady’s life.”

The novel is a series encounters/conversations Rebecca has concerning Sibyl Jardine. These encounters take place just before and after the First World War. The story ranges from mid Victorian times to about 1918. Rebecca pieces together Sibyl Jardine’s story, first of all from Tilly, a sewing maid/family servant, then from Sibyl Jardine herself (the major part of the book). There are also encounters with Mrs Jardine’s granddaughter Maisie and with a couple of other characters.

The novel is quite complex and the story unfolds slowly like a jigsaw puzzle, looking at the different facets of a life and personality. Sibyl Jardine is a compulsive character and Rebecca is initially drawn to her, but the picture becomes much more nuanced because Jardine is a powerful and dominant character who uses people for her own ends. The story revolves around love and betrayal over generations as Sibyl abandons her child to live as she pleases and years later her own daughter does the same thing to her children. This is no heartwarming tale, there is hatred, treachery, violence and despair. The ballad is the novel and the source is Sibyl Jardine; charming, generous and tender, but a manipulative liar as well. There are elements of Greek myth here as well; Demeter searching for her daughter Persephone.

It’s a great piece of writing, but I had some reservations, about aspects of the novel. I wasn’t wholly convinced by the use of a ten year old girl as the repository of complex adult actions and emotions. Rebecca really does not feel ten most of the time. The treatment of Ianthe’s character is also problematic. She is Sibyl Jardine’s daughter; abandoned by her mother and in her turn abandoning her children. She turns up at the end of the novel and is portrayed as having a significant mental illness. I found this part entirely unconvincing because the portrayal is far too melodramatic and stereotypical, the attempt at a Scottish accent for Aunty Mack is a caricature and doesn’t work. The cockney Character Tilly also feels a little stereotypical.

It is an interesting novel despite the faults and Sibyl Jardine is a powerful and flawed creation.

6 and a half out of 10

Starting A Sea-Grape Tree by Rosamond Lehmann

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The Virago Book of Women and the Great War edited by Joyce Marlow

This is an anthology of women’s writings during the First World War edited by Joyce Marlow. It is arranged by year and is very varied, including diaries, letters, newspaper articles, extracts from novels, autobiographies and much unpublished material. It includes women nursing at the front and elsewhere, those at home, professional women, women now working for the first time because of a shortage of men as well as professional writers and journalists. Most of the material is British, but there are pieces from France, the US, Germany, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Russia. It includes women of all ages and classes, some very much in favour of the war, others very much against it. It also charts the suffragist movement and its activists over the war years and the book ends with the vote in parliament giving women the vote.

There are well known voices as you would expect, but it is the lesser and unknown voices which are most interesting. Unfortunately I now have yet another list of interesting authors on my tbr list. The diaries of Sarah MacNaughton look very interesting, as do the writings of Olive May Taylor (which seem to be impossible to find). Many of the extracts are moving; such as the Prime Minister’s wife (Margot Asquith) writing about the death of her son. The accounts of the frontline nurses are particularly powerful, as is the writings of pacifists on all sides. It is very easy to dip in and out of and the editor has provided potted biographies of many of the women.

There are gaps and this is acknowledged. It is heavily weighted towards the Allies and though this is 400 pages long, I suspect it could have been much longer. Voices from Africa and India are largely absent and would have been an interesting addition. Nevertheless it is an important source of a variety of writings about the war which are not normally in the mainstream.

8 out of 10

Starting Felix Holt by George Eliot

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The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym by Edgar Allan Poe

This is Poe’s only novel; published in1838. I haven’t read any Poe for many years, having read some of his poetry and his short stories in my teens. This is an odd novel. Arthur Gordon Pym and his friend Augustus are teenagers in search of adventure. Augustus’s father is a sea captain. A voyage is in the offing and Augustus contrives to enable Pym to stow away. A series of adventures ensues; each more farfetched than the previous. There is a bloody mutiny, followed by a shipwreck with Pym and a small number of survivors left on the wreckage of the ship. A long period of floating around leads to cannibalism, an encounter with a ship floating aimlessly with only corpses on board and finally rescue by another ship. This ship is on a fur collecting expedition and it continues to slaughter lots of seals. It sails into the Antarctic regions, which prove to be surprisingly warm. Poe attempts to invent lots of new species of bird and when habitable islands are reached invents a few mammals as well. Inhabited islands are reached populated by “natives” who are primitive but appear friendly. They prove to be unfriendly and most of the crew are killed and the ship destroyed. Pym and three others manage to escape in a canoe and head for the South Pole as the descriptions become increasingly surreal. The ending gives a nod to Reynolds and the hollow earth theories popular at the time.

On the surface this reads like one of many nineteenth century adventure novels by writers such as Haggard, Stevenson and Kipling; comparisons are also drawn with Moby Dick. This being Poe, of course, there is more going on; indeed there is a whole industry of interpretation. There are clearly allegorical and autobiographical elements and there are also elements of cryptography (an interest of Poe’s). Some of the allegorical elements are said to be religious (not convinced by that).

The novel was obviously written in haste and there are lots of continuity errors. Poe is also a bit of a geek about the sea and sailing and there are long descriptive passages about navigation, climate, latitude and longitude, which although well written can be irksome. However it is on lots of best novel lists; Borges rated it and Freud was fascinated by it as he felt it explored man’s unconscious desire for annihilation.

However you analyse and break down this novel (and it is well written with some interesting and experimental aspects), there is an issue which stands out and that is race. Poe was from the South and this was written when slavery and everything that went with it was still in place. Poe’s biographers have pointed out that Poe did not approve of the abolition and believed that black people were inferior.

It is noteworthy that one of the principal mutineers was the black cook who portrayed as a monster with no redeeming features;

“The bound seamen were dragged to the gangway. Here the cook stood with an axe, striking each victim on the head… In this manner twenty-two perished.”

The stereotypes keep coming. The islanders who are amazed at the white skins of their visitors are portrayed as primitive and almost sub-human; they are also treacherous. Poe describes them thus;

“In truth, from every thing I could see of these wretches, they appeared to be the most wicked, hypocritical, vindictive, bloodthirsty, and altogether fiendish race of men upon the face of the globe.”

You could blame the times Poe was writing in, but this isn’t good enough. Poe in his article “The Philosophy of Composition” argues that writing (both poetry and prose) should show truth and meaning. The meaning here is that black is bad and white is the opposite. Toni Morrison has forcibly made this point;

“Africanism is the vehicle by which the American self knows itself as not enslaved, but free; nor repulsive, but desirable. Africanist idiom is used to establish difference or, in a later period, to signal modernity.”

Matt Johnson’s novel Pym is an interesting counterpoint where a good black protagonist encounters white savages in the Antarctic; and the point is made;

“You want to understand Whiteness, as a pathology and a mindset, you have to look to the source of its assumptions. … That’s why Poe’s work mattered. It offered passage on a vessel bound for the primal American subconscious, the foundation on which all our visible systems and structures were built.”

I wanted to like this, but I’m with Toni Morrison on this one.

3 out of 10


Starting Everything Belongs to the Future by Laurie Penny 

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Everything Belongs to the Future by Laurie Penny


This is Penny’s first foray into fiction I think. I am already a fan of her blogging and political writing. This is a dystopian novella set in Oxford in 2098. As one reviewer has aptly put it; it is “a tale of pharmadystopian, immortal gerontocrats.”

The idea is a simple one. In the early 21st century a drug is developed that maintains youth. It is very expensive, so only the rich can afford it. It is available with some job packages and the wealthy company owning the rights give it to some writers and artists. Society is more divided, the rich being richer and the poor much poorer. The main protagonists are a bunch of activists and anarchists who share a house; Nina, Alex, Margo, Fidget and a few others. They attempt to steal the youth giving drug and give it out mixed in free food for the poor and homeless. They meet Daisy, a disillusioned scientist who helped to develop the drug and who wants to make amends. Action is planned, but what the reader knows but the activists do not is that Alex is working undercover for the drug company.

This is an easy read and could be read quite comfortably in one sitting. Penny has the ability to create believable characters quickly. They all have flaws and are all believable. Penny also uses characters who are transgender in a way which feels natural and unforced. Penny raises the sort of issues you would expect, given her politics; macro issues like climate change, scientific ethics, class, poverty and issues related to gender identity, sexuality, aging and individual responsibility.

The prose and the pacing are good. At times the plot can appear clunky and disjointed and this highlights the main problem for me; the book needs to be longer, much longer. There is plenty of content here that would allow a full length novel and with that sort of space the characters could be given more space to develop and the plot not rushed.

A sharp and thought provoking read.

8 and a half out of 10.

Starting Fenwomen  by Mary Chamberlain

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A Saturday Life by Radclyffe Hall


This is the first time I have read anything by Radclyffe Hall and this is an oddity, published in 1925. Spoilers ahead.

The protagonist is Sidonia and we follow her from about eight years old until her mid-twenties. Her father is dead and her mother (Lady Shore) is a well-known Egyptologist who is buried in her studies and finds her daughter a complete puzzle. Lady Shore has a friend Frances who has a great deal to do with Sidonia’s upbringing. Sidonia is a child and later young woman who goes through phases of having passions for particular pastimes in a very single-minded way. These pastimes include dancing, painting sculpture and singing. Sidonia has talent at all of these and progresses very well; her teachers believing she has enough talent to go far. There is a strong comedic element in this as Sidonia is as irritating as Frances is wry and sardonic as she attempts to parent Sidonia (Lady Shore having become very bemused by it all). Eventually Sidonia and Frances go to Florence after Sidonia wins a travel prize for her sculpture; it is here she meets the Ferrari family and takes up singing. She spends a couple of years in Florence and then returns to England for a serious audition. She meets David, a rather wealthy and very traditional young man and gives up her singing to marry him. Sidonia suddenly becomes a conventional upper class wife and bears her husband a son and heir. The obvious conclusion should be that only by marrying and having children can a woman be fulfilled.

I’m sure it is not that simple. The character of David is so much of a caricature and so much of a contrast to the rest of the book that it feels for me like an elaborate joke. Go with convention and you will sacrifice all your creativity. There is also the thought that Sidonia may get bored with being a wife and mother if she stays with type. This is the origin of the title of the novel. Frances finds a book in Florence which describes a personality type which moves from one activity to another staying with none for too long. These people have been reincarnated seven times and have little new to learn. This type of person is said to lead A Saturday Life. Hall is not pushing belief in reincarnation (she was a Catholic), but inviting the reader to consider the nature of time and its link to morality. Sidonia’s mother prefers to spend her time in ancient Egypt. The singing teacher Miss Valery believes she is the reincarnation of a Greek courtesan. Unfortunately she is unable to cope with Sidonia deciding it is very much better to dance without clothes and other parents are scandalised.

There are also other messages and the character of Frances is fascinating. There are lots of clues to indicate that she is partially modelled on Hall. The teaching of Havelock Ellis about sexual inversion were very current and the clues are there. Hall asks questions about artistic endeavour and the difference between talent and genius.

The ending is enigmatic; Sidonia sees her husband through the eyes of love, but Hall shows the reader the real person. The reader also sees that by the end of the novel David has been replaced in Sidonia’s affections by her son.

There is a rather irritating sense of middle class superiority about it all and the faithful servant is a caricature, but the whole is funny.

7 out of 10

Starting The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

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While I am all for feminism and equality, saying that you are ignored by the literary world because you write in Arabic and critical of the racist mind set of others is just bs. Jean Paul Sartre refused the Nobel and Boris Pasternak could not receive it due the political context at the time but they never cried about being ignored by the literary world. George Orwell was also critical of his country's colonial power and yet he was not ignored. Simone de Beauvoir was very critical of patriarchal mind set (after all, she did write the feminist bible - The Second Sex) yet she was not ignored by the literary world. So I have no idea what Saadawi is talking about and I'll just assume it's her bitterness and envy that made her say that. 


But still... I am now curious to read her work. Might add it on my TBR list. 

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MrCat: I disagree with you about Sadaawi. Just look at the Nobel lists for literature and see how many women there are and how many there are from the continent of Africa.


A Sea Grape Tree by Rosamond Lehmann


This is the sequel to The Ballad and the Source, written over 30 years later in 1976. It is set in the early 1930s and concerns Rebecca Landon, now an adult and recovering from an affair with a married man. It is set on an unnamed Caribbean island and the ex-pat community there. The other link to the previous novel is Sibyl Jardine the focus of that novel. Rebecca discovers that Sibyl spent her last years on the island and died there a couple of years previously.

The feel and tone of this novel is very different to the first one. In 1958 Lehmann lost her daughter Sally very suddenly and this heavily influenced her thought. She began to believe in other worlds and levels of reality and experience. Lehmann felt that she knew that we survived death. This makes for a different type of writing and the critical reception was not positive at the time. The prose is more stream of consciousness style and the narrative shifts backwards and forwards from third to first person. The prose is distinctive:

“Stereoscopically vivid in the powerful lens, the sea-grape tree reared up, its pale trunk twisting smooth and serpentine, its branches carrying a canopy of glaucous blue-fleshed leaves and pendant clusters of green berries, sterile and hard as stone. Beneath the tree the hut: a sort of Cottage orné set up on stilts, with a high-pitched roof of rosy shingles, its walls stuccoed a deep shade of tawny pink; ornamented with shell encrustations: silvered-bronze shells, pearl, honey-coloured, milky flushed with rose and violet; shells of all shapes and sizes in convoluted patterns. A clumsy tarred old rowing boat was pulled up close to the front step, its oars propped against the tree. In the lambent twilight between lingering end of sunset and rise of the full moon every detail was still sharply defined. The close of day suffused the images in a dramatic darkly rose-gold light, defining every detail. Next moment all was blotted out. A long low whistle, an owl’s hoot twice repeated floated up from the direction of the hut. Who was the inhabitant?”

The ending is left open; apparently because Lehmann intended another novel. There is a postscript in the virago edition where Lehmann sketches out the plot for the final novel. The plot here is fairly thin and mostly based on the peccadilloes of the expatriate community and the amusing behaviour and superstitions of the black community who provide the maids and servants (sigh). There is the mandatory gay couple, drunken ex-army types with their longsuffering spouses, a psychic and a handsome ex fighter pilot who has physical and emotional scars called Johnny. Rebecca and Johnny fall hopelessly in love. Rebecca also has a late night encounter with the late Mrs Jardine, who dispenses her usual wisdom. The novel is about hope, healing and romance.

I did struggle with a good deal of this. Being a bit of a sceptic I struggled with the other worlds stuff. With a ghost story you know what you are getting, but this wasn’t a ghost story. The plot was almost non-existent and the characterisation was for me, unsatisfactory. This was especially true of the servants who were mostly portrayed as avaricious and primitive. The prose was good and had a certain limidity to it. You do need to have read The Ballad and the Source before this or it will make even less sense than it does.


5 out of 10

Starting Walter Sickert: a conversation by Virginia Woolf

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Oh so now it's about being a woman and being African, not about " I write in Arabic and because I am critical of the colonial, capitalist, racists, patriarchal mindset of the super powers".  :roll:   And I don't really think that the Nobel reflects an author's literary value. Many (most?) great authors never won the Nobel or were published before it even appeared. 

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Oh so now it's about being a woman and being African, not about " I write in Arabic and because I am critical of the colonial, capitalist, racists, patriarchal mindset of the super powers".  :roll:   And I don't really think that the Nobel reflects an author's literary value. Many (most?) great authors never won the Nobel or were published before it even appeared.


Oh c'mon. The 'I write in Arabic and because I am critical of the colonial, capitalist, racist, patriarchal mindset of the super powers' was a quote from Sadaawi and the being a woman and being African was what Book do furnish a room said himself. Two different things. 


I agree with you in that the Nobel prize is not what people ought to go by when it comes to authors and great literature. But I also agree with Bdfar when he said one ought to look at how many women and Africans have won the prize.


While I am all for feminism and equality, saying that you are ignored by the literary world because you write in Arabic and critical of the racist mind set of others is just bs. Jean Paul Sartre refused the Nobel and Boris Pasternak could not receive it due the political context at the time but they never cried about being ignored by the literary world. George Orwell was also critical of his country's colonial power and yet he was not ignored. Simone de Beauvoir was very critical of patriarchal mind set (after all, she did write the feminist bible - The Second Sex) yet she was not ignored by the literary world. So I have no idea what Saadawi is talking about and I'll just assume it's her bitterness and envy that made her say that. 


But still... I am now curious to read her work. Might add it on my TBR list.


Jean-Paul Sartre was a white European male, Boris Pasternak was a male who wrote in Cyrillic script. (Why would they cry about being ignored by the literary world when they were given the Nobel prize?)  George Orwell.. A western male. A western male can be very confrontational about many things, whereas I believe people in minorities are not granted the same liberties. 


How many authors, universally known and celebrated, can you name, who write in Arabic? 

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Again, it's not about being white, black, male, female, European or African. Stop this, it's getting pathetic. It sounds like something I'd hear from a feminist on tumblr and not what I assume to be, read and smart people. 


Literature is a product of time, history and context. Many great works would not have been written if not for certain events or social conjunction that appeared at the time (like To Kill a Mockingbird, Beloved, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, A Room of One's Own) but also due to quality literature.  Saadawi is so anchored in the present impact of her work that she thinks her work is not taken into consideration because of very different and wrong reasons. 


Frankie I love how you argued the authors I named but did not mention Simone. She's also European and white by the way but it seems that because she is a woman, she was given a pass. Thx for proving my point. 


Also, it's not really relevant how many authors that write in Arabic I can mention. Replace "that write in Arabic" with "that write in Vietnamese" or Korean or "how many native american authors that are universally known and celebrated do you know" and you more or less get the same answer. 


Oh and fyi, Pasternak could not get his Nobel because of politics and he really cared about that and Orwell just got his recognition a few years before his death but who cares right? They are white males so they can't complain. 

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