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A Book blog, 2019 by Books do Furnish a Room

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I would agree with you pretty much the whole way, including not really seeing why it made the top 100. I haven't read all of her books yet, being about half way through, but even so have certainly enjoyed others more.  Best to date, for me, has been A View of the Harbour.

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I think A View from the Harbour is also my favourite Willoyd

Period Piece by Gwen Raverat

This is a memoir of a Cambridge childhood in the 1890s and early 1900s. Gwen Raverat was an artist and wood engraver and also a granddaughter of Charles Darwin. Much of this memoir recalls her large and eccentric family, especially her many aunts and uncles and her mother’s rather odd ideas about parenting. All the art work in the book is done by Raverat. The memoir is themed, so each chapter covers a different topic: Education, propriety, childhood fears, religion, clothes, uncles and aunts, theories, Newnham Grange (the family home), Down House (the Darwin family home), sports, society, ladies and a chapter about her mother’s early life. Raverat writes with humour and a sharp wit:

“The first religious experience that I can remember is getting under the nursery table to pray that the dancing mistress might be dead before we got to the Dancing Class.”

Her upbringing was not that of a conventional late Victorian child, as she found out at school:

“Not that I wanted to leave school; I wanted to stay on, if only I could manage to bear it; for I was very curious about the extraordinary habits of the girls. For instance, that first day, they were all singing: 'I am the Honeysuckle, You are the Bee.' Why? What on earth was it? (I had never heard a popular song in my life.) And they were all busy making hat-pin knobs out of coloured sealing-wax. Now why in the world did they like doing that? Nearly everything they did mystified me.

Raverat’s mother was American and had strong views about bringing up children who were independent, but there were plenty of relatives and cousins and of course the shadow of Charles Darwin:

“My grandfather said once: ‘I have five sons, and I have never had to worry about any one of them.’ Well, that is not quite right. One ought to have to worry sometimes about young people, because they ought to be growing out in new ways and experimenting for themselves. But my grandfather was so tolerant of their separate individualities, so broad-minded, that there was no need for his sons to break away from him; and they lived all their lives in his shadow.”

The account mixes affection with sharp observation, some ridicule and clarity. It was a privileged upbringing, upper middle-class and the deprivations of the commonality of humanity are mostly absent.

There are lots of points of interest. Within the current debates about trans issues I often hear arguments about this being a new or modern thing. It isn’t, here is Raverat talking about her feelings as a child:

“Of course I wanted still more, more than anything in the world, to be a man. Then I might be a really good painter. A woman had not much chance of that. I wanted so much to be a boy that I did not dare to think about it at all, for it made me feel quite desperate to know that it was impossible to be one. But I always dreamt I was a boy. If the truth must be told, still now, in my dreams at night, I am generally a young man!”

Another point of interest is the subject of eugenics. Raverat’s uncle Lenny was president of a Eugenics society:

“Uncle Lenny used to shock me when, in talking about Eugenics, he maintained that a money standard was the only possible criterion in deciding which human stocks should be encouraged to breed”

This is a selective memoir though. There is no mention of her brother Lenny who died when Raverat was fourteen, nor of her nanny who died from cancer. There is a certain level of censorship here and a good deal of privilege. There are anecdotes and amusements, but the backdrop is a rather enclosed society, cut off from the life of much of society.

The chapter on clothes is interesting, as is Raverat’s description of sharing a room:

“This is what a young lady wore, with whom I shared a room one night – beginning at the bottom, or scratch:

  1. Thick, long-legged, long-sleeved woollen combinations

  2. Over them, white cotton combinations with plenty of buttons and frills

  3. Very serious, bony grey stays, with suspenders

  4. Black woollen stockings

  5. White cotton drawers, with buttons and frills

  6. White cotton “petticoat-bodice”, with buttons and frills

  7. Rather short, white flannel petticoat

  8. Long Alpaca petticoat, with a flounce round the bottom

  9. Pink flannel blouse

  10. High, starched, white collar, fastened with studs

  11. Navy blue tie

  12. Blue skirt, touching the ground, and fastened tightly to the blouse with a safety-pin behind

  13. Leather belt, very tight

  14. High button boots. “


There’s not much to say after that! There are some interesting insights into quite a narrow life and it is illuminating.

7 out of 10

Starting The Last of the Greenwoods by Clare Morrall

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Death in Ten Minutes by Fern Riddell

This biography illustrates how we often sanitise history for our own purposes. Kitty Marion was born in Germany in 1871 and left for England when she was fifteen following years of abuse from her father. She did a variety of jobs before becoming a music hall performer. In music hall she discovered the nineteenth century equivalent of the casting couch and how often bookings could depend on performing favours for the manager or agent. Marion fought and spoke up against this and found work hard to get. She joined the burgeoning suffragette movement and became one of their leading activists and joined a more radical group called the Young Hot Bloods. She was imprisoned many times and force fed over 200 times. Being of German origin she had some problems during the First World War and moved to the US. There she linked up with Margaret Sanger and started promoting and arguing for birth control: seeing it as an extension of her work for the suffragettes, also assisting Marie Stopes.

Yet Kitty Marion is hardly remembered. The suffragettes are well remembered for civil disobedience, for Emily Wilding Davison throwing herself in front of the king’s horse. What isn’t clearly remembered is the depth and extent of the suffragette campaign. It was a violent campaign involving arson, bombs (including nail bombs) and acts of terrorism. Politicians and opponents were directly targeted and may of their homes were burnt down. There were literally hundreds of these attacks and there was panic and opprobrium in the press. The violence has been painted out, but Kitty Marion was in the middle of it and Riddell has painstakingly researched her life and told her story:

“As conservative feminism took a vice-like grip of our history and the suffragettes began to sanitise their own history, the women who saw sex, freedom and independence as a universal right were ignored, as were the real lives and experiences of the women who had fought so hard and risked so much. We need to understand that those who have sought to be in control of our history of women decided to only tell one story and to exclude those voices, those women’s lives that did not conform. These are stories that need to be told.”

This leads to the polemical part of the book. Riddell looks at two strands of feminism: one she describes as conservative and tending towards purity and morality and seeing birth control as just giving men another means to abuse women. On the other hand she describes a sex positive feminism which believed in birth control and giving women freedom and control of their own bodies. Riddell puts Marion firmly in the second category.

This is a very good account of a too little known suffragette and an interesting account of some less well known (read forgotten) events. It also gives a good account of part of the birth control movement. There is polemic as well, which is interesting whichever side of the argument you are on.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting The Railway Accident and other stories by Edward Upward

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The Loony Bin Trip by Kate Millett

Kate Millett is most famous for her feminist text Sexual Politics, she help develop modern ideas of patriarchy. She was also an artist and sculptor and an activist in a number of areas. This book however charts Millett’s battles with mental ill health and the anti-psychiatry movement. In 1973 Millett was committed with the assistance of family and friends who were worried about her and diagnosed with what was then called manic depression (now bi-polar). She ended up on Lithium, which has a number of unpleasant side effects.

This book charts a period of time from 1980 where Millett decided to come off lithium. She was living for the summer on a farm she owned with her lover Sophie and a group of younger women who had come to stay and help out for board and lodging. Millett charts the summer from her point of view along with attempts by family and friends to get her committed again. Then there is a trip to Ireland which goes disastrously wrong when Millett ended up being committed to a very unpleasant asylum and had to be rescued by friends. On her return to the US she entered a deep depression and ended up back on Lithium. That is the bare outline of the book which is told from her own perspective by Millett. She came off lithium for good a few years later.

Millett argued that conditions like bi-polar and schizophrenia are labels society and psychiatry places on people who do not behave in conventional or socially acceptable ways and that the labels themselves cause many of the problems, "When you have been told that your mind is unsound, there is a kind of despair that takes over”. The self-fulfilling part of the psychiatric infrastructure is well described when Millett is in the asylum in Ireland:

Imagine anything at all, for after all one is free to do it here. That is the purpose of this place; it was made for you to be mad in. And when you give in and have a real fine bout, they have won. And then they have their evidence as well. But the temptation in the long hours is hard to resist, and it comes over you like the drowsiness of the powders. . . .

The moments of clarity are the worst. You burn in humiliation remembering yesterday's folderol, your own foolish thoughts. Not the boredom of here, the passive futility of reality, but the flights of fancy, which would convict you, are the evidence that you merit your fate and are here for a purpose. The crime of the imaginary. The lure of madness as illness. And you crumble day by day and admit your guilt. Induced madness. Refuse a pill and you will be tied down and given a hypodermic by force. Enforced irrationality. With all the force of the state behind it, pharmaceutical corporations, and an entrenched bureaucratic psychiatry. Unassailable social beliefs, general throughout the culture. And all the scientific prestige of medicine. Locks, bars, buildings, cops. A massive system.”

This is a disturbing account and a good advertisement for the anti-psychiatry movement. I have long thought there is a good deal to say for the movement and mental health services today still hold many of the same assumptions they did at the time this book was written. Millett describes depression as dread and not mania and argues her depression was more about grief and brokenness, not “madness”.

This is powerfully written and difficult to read at times, but the point Millett is making through her own experiences is valid and I agree with her.  

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna

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Thank you itsmeagain!

Up the Country by Emily Eden

Emily Eden was the seventh daughter of Baron Auckland, one of her descendants was Anthony Eden, the Tory prime minister. Her brother George was the Governor-General of India from 1835-1842; he was responsible for the First Afghan War (1838-1842), which was a total disaster and the start of European meddling which still goes on. Emily and her sister Fanny accompanied George and Emily kept a journal which she sent in letter form to another sister in England. This virago volume covers the period from October 1837 to 1840 when George went on tour in the upper provinces meeting local rulers and potentates with a caravan of staff, followers and soldiers which often numbered up to 20,000 people.

The book is extracts form Emily’s journal/letters of this tour. It is an interesting look at life in the English upper classes in India before the mutiny and before Victoria was proclaimed Empress. Eden is an artist and sketcher as well, so she has good descriptive powers and spent a good deal of time looking for scenes, architecture and ruins to sketch. There is little political analysis as this didn’t interest Eden, she was entirely uncritical of her brother: there is though plenty of gossip and descriptions of what Eden saw as the oddness of local rulers. Social functions, durbars, balls and the like are covered in detail as is the interminable exchange of presents when they meet another local ruler.

Her brother’s prosecution of the war is not covered and it wasn’t until 1858 when it was discovered that the beloved George had totally misrepresented the case against Dost Muhammed Khan, the incumbent ruler in Kabul. The daily movement of the caravan across the plains and into the hills is described in detail as is the climate: the heat of the plains and the much milder hill country. Eden is quite witty about those around her and has quite a sharp tongue and seems to matchmake quite a bit (she never married). Eden also spends quite a lot of time waiting for letters and news from home and for the latest Dickens instalment. Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist are mentioned.

All this is very well and illuminates a life and times long gone (thankfully). There are also however relationships and interactions with Indian servants and the local population. Whilst I am sure there were much worse examples of the British in India, Eden appears fond of most of her servants. Her feelings are based on a sense of superiority and an underlying contempt. At one point Eden noticed a mother with a starving child (there are occasional hints of famines). For a couple of days this has novelty value and Eden speaks of providing food and support; then she seems to get bored and there is no further mention of the child. There are periodic oddities when they come across ex-soldiers or members of the British community who have taken on local culture and married local women: Eden struggles to know what to make of them. Eden often writes of missing England and disliking India. She doesn’t want to be there, but it doesn’t occur to her that she (and the rest of the British) shouldn’t be there.

5 out of 10

Starting Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

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Old Baggage by Lissa Evans

One of the things I liked about this book is the fact that the protagonist is a woman in her late 50s. This is a prequel to Evans’s novel Crooked Hearts and continues the story of Mattie Simpkin a former suffragette. The time is 1928 and Mattie Simpkin tours the country giving talks about the suffragette movement and women are about to vote for the first time. Mattie lives in Hampstead in a house called The Mousehole. A reference to the Cat and Mouse Act, one of the pieces of legislation used to deal with the suffragettes. She lives with Florrie Lee, known as The Flea and together they make a formidable couple. The stirrings of fascism are in the air and there is a good deal of admiration for Mussolini around. A group for young people called the Empire League, based on Mussolini’s teachings are flourishing. Mattie decides that something must be done and starts a weekend group for young women called the Amazons. There are strong female characters in this and all the men are peripheral. The point of the book is to reflect on what happens when a struggle is over:

“What do you do next, after you’ve changed the world?”

Of course there are always fresh struggles and new challenges and Mattie begins to find these. The character of Mattie Simpkin is well drawn:

“Miss Simpkin by contrast, had a face as readable as a penny newspaper, enthusiasm and exasperation, encouragement and the odd gust of rage chasing across her features. ‘Thar she blows!’ some of the bolder girls would whisper, as Mattie sounded off about Mussolini, or dogs with docked tails, or vegetarians.”

Mattie is very human, makes mistakes (one in particular resonates). Florrie is the calming influence and her relationship with Mattie is central to the book. There is a great deal of humour in the novel:

““I have no party affiliation, merely the aim of encouraging the girls to take their rightful places in the modern world. Knowledge, confidence, ready laughter and a strong overarm throw will equip them for many arenas.”

She was watching the teams as she spoke: why on earth Jacko had chosen to clothe the League in garments the colour of a municipal drainpipe was quite beyond her. By contrast, the Amazons, aligning themselves for a photograph, were a frieze of splendid non-conformity.”

There isn’t a great deal of plot, but the novel is character driven and full of what Mattie would have called splendid non-conformity, making serious points about aging and fighting against injustice.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting A Hero for High Times by Ian Marchant

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The Last of the Greenwoods by Clare Morrall

I wanted to like this book and there are many parts of it that I enjoyed and which resonated with me. The essential theme being life is for living. There are two main plotlines. This is well written, slow paced and has a good sense of place and it’s sort of a mystery novel as well. It is billed as a story of people on the margins and to an extent it is, but it is also full of tropes which are sometimes rather leaden and the focus on identity becomes rather trying. However, for me, there is a significant problem, more of that later.

The plot revolves around two brothers Nick and Johnny Greenwood. They live in a field in two adjacent railway carriages that their father furbished and set up with water and electricity. They haven’t spoken for a number of years. There is a tragedy in the past. Almost fifty years ago their older sister Debs disappeared along with her best friend Bev; Debs was 22 at the time. Only one body was found and this was identified as Debs because of a tattoo. However a letter arrives from Canada from someone claiming to be Debs and she is coming to visit and subsequently does.

The letter was delivered by the postwoman Zohra Dasgupta and here we have the link to the second plotline. Zohra belongs to a group that are renovating a railway line and steam train in the local area. Zohra lives with her parents who run a local shop. She is troubled by events which occurred just as she left school (A levels) a few years ago. She was the victim of a Facebook bullying campaign. There are a few twists to this which are revealed as the novel progresses. The railway station and line are on the land of a member of the aristocracy with an old decaying house; named Perry (where are all these decaying aristos? I never seem to meet them). His son Crispin is the driving force behind the restoration. There is also Nathan, who is portrayed as being very literal and emotionally immature. There is no real explanation but Morrall is clearly pointing towards the autistic spectrum. There is also Mimi and her husband Freddie who live on Zohra’s post round. Mimi is one of those who may or may not have been involved with what happened to Zohra. Add to this a romance that may be developing between Zohra and Crispin.

Morrall has good powers of description:

“The carriages, linked end to end on an old rusty track, are almost submerged by trees. Clearly, no one here is familiar with the concept of pruning: the trees are spreading wildly – up, out, down – embracing the carriages with passion, wrapping them in vigorous greenery. Branches tumble on the roofs, lean over the sides and take advantage of the light breeze to make their presence felt, tapping against the windows with a mischievous glee.”

I think Morrall was aiming at a sweet heartwarming story with unusual and quirky characters: but the writing does wander a little. The ending doesn’t have a lot of resolutions and that generally does not bother me: life is like that. However, for me, there is a serious problem with the ending which many reviewers seem to have ignored. Morrall introduces a generally positive character which what appears to be autism (the lack of character development means the reader has to put the pieces together) and some mental health difficulties. But then what does she do? With almost no warning the character becomes a monster, a villain with no feelings or concern for others. The condition is used to push the plot along in a negative way and the character becomes a total caricature. For me it ruined the whole thing.

3 out of 10

Starting The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

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The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

A hefty slice of Victorian gothic which builds atmosphere very well; a ghost story very much in the Susan Hill mould. It is set in three different times. The first is a Victorian asylum in 1866. Mrs Elsie Bainbridge is being held, she is implicated in several deaths and a fire. She is also unable to speak and a sympathetic doctor is trying to get her to write her story. The second and primary setting is a crumbling country house called The Bridge in 1865. Elsie Bainbridge recently married the owner Rupert, but he has died and she is pregnant and has come to The Bridge to stay until the child is born. The house is neglected as her late husband didn’t live there and the servants seem to be an uncooperative bunch. The final setting is also The Bridge in 1635 and earlier generations of the Bainbridge family where superstition and fear of witches is strong and anyone with a disability is suspect. One thing to note in this world: don’t be a servant, they tend to meet with grisly ends.
There are lots of things going bump in the night, weather in abundance, surly locals, doors that won’t open and then open, furniture that moves, old diaries, written messages in dust and on windows and most of all the silent companions. Silent companions were made of wood and were a sort of painting/sculpture combination. They were made of a piece of wood shaped like a person and painted as realistic, almost life size depictions of men, women and children. They were popular in the seventeenth century, especially in the Netherlands. There were several of these in The Bridge and they make ideal tools for horror and gothic and Purcell uses them very effectively to link past and present:
“‘It’s not a painting.’ Sarah said. ‘That is – it’s painted, but it is not a canvas. It seems to be free-standing.’ She put her book down, pushed forwards and poked her head around the back of the figure. ‘Ah, no. It is flat. But it has a wooden prop, you see?'”
The diaries of Anne Bainbridge in the 1630s link the past and the present and explain the presence of the silent companions. They reminded me of the weeping angels in Dr Who. Purcell also manages to put across that is women who are labelled by society as hysterical, “mad”, witches and responsible for much evil. The men in the book are generally weak or easily led, but mostly bullying. There is still the question of the reliability of the two main narrators. The whole works well, there are some niggles. The prose is from the 1630s certainly not authentic, but I don’t think that matters much in this context. There are a few unresolved loose ends, but on the whole if you enjoy gothic you will enjoy this. The scariest thing of all, of course is the ability of human beings to inflict pain on each other.

8 out of 10

Starting A Touch of Mistletoe by Barbara Comyns

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Great review of The Silent Companions, the most informative I’ve seen! I’ve been trying to decide whether I should buy this for a while (after enjoying The Corset by the same author) and you’ve convinced me that I need to try it :)

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They really reminded me of the Weeping Angels too!

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Thanks Hayley. Yes Madeleine, I think a TV adaptation would be effective as well.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

The novel is split into five sections with each looking at the point of view of a particular character. It has been nominated for a few prizes and won one of them. The themes are difficult ones, involving a Muslim family and the attraction of Isil, linking in to the nature of family, love and being British. Shamsie based the whole on Antigone, the Greek tragedy; this indicates that things really aren’t going to go well for those involved!

Isma, Aneeka and Parvaiz are three siblings (Aneeka and Parvaiz being twins). Their father had been a jihadist in the 1990s and early 2000s and had died in American custody. This is set at the time when the attraction of going to Raqqa was there for some Muslim youth and the family are being watched because of their father. The other two primary characters are Eamon (Ayman) Lone and his father Kamarat. Kamarat Lone is the Home Secretary, brought up a Muslim he has been very critical of British Muslims, saying they are not British enough. Shamsie characterises his views when he gives a speech:

You are, we are, British. Britain accepts this. So do most of you. But for those of you who are in some doubt about it, let me say this: don’t set yourselves apart in the way you dress, the way you think, the outdated codes of behaviour you cling to, the ideologies to which you attach your loyalties. Because if you do, you will be treated differently – not because of racism, though that does still exist, but because you insist on your difference from everyone else in this multi-ethnic, multitudinous United Kingdom of ours. And look at all you miss out on because of it.’

His son Eamon meets Isma when she is studying in the US and later he meets Aneeka in the UK. Parvaiz seems like an ordinary youngster, into tech and helping out at his local library. However he meets a couple of people who talk to him about the Caliphate and about his father and he ends up going to Raqqa in Syria. He doesn’t like what he finds and wants to return home. Shamsie makes an interesting point in an interview when she says that Parvaiz was groomed rather than radicalised, given that he was only eighteen/nineteen. The ending is shocking and credibility is a little stretched, but the whole is powerful and an interesting exploration of identity, loyalty and family. I felt the novel would have been better at twice the length as this would have given more time for character development, which was necessarily a little limited. Apart from that it is well written and the tension builds well. There are no solutions as to how society gets out of these cycles of hatred and violence, but Shamsie poses the question well.

7 out of 10

Starting All God's Children Need Travelling Shoes by Maya Angelou

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