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A Book blog, 2019 by Books do Furnish a Room

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Thanks for the review of We, I've wanted to read it for years but never seem to get round to actually picking it up for some reason.

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I have heard of We but never really knew much about it, other than it being dystopian. It sounds really interesting though, I might have to add it to my to-read list!


Invisible Cities is a book I've been interested in for a while so I look forward to reading your review of that!

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Thank you Hayley and Brian

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming

This book has its origins and setting in Chapel St Leonards, a village on the Lincolnshire coast. Being a Lincolnshire lad I therefore had to read this. Laura Cummings’s mother was brought up there and Cummings has set out to piece together her mother’s upbringing. Her mother was born in 1926, is still living and was adopted at the age of three. It was not until many years later and Cummings and her mother discovered that in 1929 three year old Betty was kidnapped from Chapel Sands and was not found for five days: dressed in entirely different clothes and unharmed. She has no recollection of the event. Cummings in this account pieces together the mystery of her mother’s upbringing from some clues, some accounts from the descendants of those involved and an assortment of photographs. Cummings is an art historian and manages to get more from photographs than most of us would be able to: she takes objects and gives them meaning and pieces together life in an English village in the 1930s. She also examines Betty’s adoptive parents, George and Veda, already in their 40s, trying to isolate Betty from everyone around them and stop her mixing with others. For there are secrets in the village and in the neighbouring village of Hogsthorpe. There is a fine array of local characters and the narrative also stretches to the other side of the globe. Cummings traces Betty’s real mother and father (with a few real twists), the reasons for the kidnapping, Betty’s original name (Grace) and much more. Veda and George are examined closely: Veda is old enough to remember seeing Tennyson striding along Chapel Sands when she was a girl and Tennyson’s poetry crops up periodically.

Cummings’s mother writes what she knows to help in her daughter’s quest (which takes many years to complete):

“Because you have asked me, dear daughter, here are my earliest recollections. It is an English domestic genre canvas of the 1920s and 1930s, layered over with decades of fading and darkening, but your curiosity has begun to make all glow a little. And perhaps a few figures and events may turn out to be restored through the telling.”

The memoir reflects the depth and complexity of family and village life and seeks to explain. Cummings, in an interview reflects on the process:

“I had her memoir, I had my writings over many years about her, who I love very dearly, and I had many thoughts about this story. And I told the story, a specific aspect of the story, which is the baker’s van, which arrives from the windmill at Hogsthorpe and never stops at her house. I wanted to get to the bottom of this and I saw the thing to do, with my mother’s blessing.

I went to Chapel St Leonards. I took a room in a farm nearby and I spent a long time on the beach. Every day I’d go to the beach and I’d think about this scene.

I’d go up to the Beacon and I went to the house where my mother lived and I’d have a drink in the Vine. I went round and round. I did the walk from Chapel to Mablethorpe. I did the walk from Chapel to Skegness and I thought about this period in time. And local historians in and around Chapel have done a wonderful job of publishing a lot of beautifully written local history. In Skegness Library you can look up old copies of the Skegness Times. It was very evocative.

The book came into the form it’s in simply from being in the landscape in Lincolnshire. I’d stand on those sands and she was there, my grandfather was there, the Vikings were there. The compression of time was a great advantage for me.”

I really enjoyed the writing and the unravelling of the background to the tale; it helped a little having some awareness of the geography. It illustrates well the complexity of families:

“Everyone has a mother, everyone has an uncle who wasn’t really their uncle, or whose sister was in fact their mother, or whose grandparents aren’t their grandparents. It’s completely common. All family photo albums are full of things we don’t notice and that’s the campaign of the book: look more closely. There’s always a figure in the background or someone who is not there. Who’s taken the photograph?”

This was a pleasure to read, capturing a lost time without sentimentality or nostalgia.

9 out of 10

Starting We have always lived in the castle by Shirley Jackson

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The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin

This book tries to be many things, too many really and there is a great deal going on. To begin with the cover art is good. The novel is set in 1831, so it is pre-Victorian, but is set in a London that Dickens would have known. There is a touch of the Gothic about it and mystery part of the novel involves disappearances of the “lower” sort of person. There are some suitably roguish characters and the trade of the resurrection men, supplying London’s anatomy schools with corpses is obviously at the centre of it all. The reader guesses this from early on. The novel is also a lesbian romance centred on the two main characters, Hester and Rebekah. The romance is suitably stop/start and takes a while to come to fruition (most of the novel in fact). The biggest problem for me is the ending, or rather two endings. I think the last chapter and epilogue have been added as Carlin wasn’t brave enough to stick with the original ending and felt a happy ending was required. I think the novel would have been stronger without that.

Carlin can describe and set a scene well:

“Instead of the majesty of Westminster Abbey and the grandeur of the Banqueting House, here the houses spill over each other; dishevelled and ugly. A sickly, rotten stench rises from the streets and the rain-bloated gutters. Some thoroughfares bulge with black mud where pools of fetid water have collected, while others are narrow and meandering. All are swart with the lack of daylight and connected by alleyways and byways that seep over the scabbed ground.”

The scene setting does take rather a long time and the sense of mystery and danger takes a while to become evident. The narrative voice is Hester’s and this works well in the slower paced first half of the novel, less so in the more hurried second half. There is an increasing amount of competition in this genre and this is certainly in the tradition of Sarah Waters. It is based on an issue that was real in the 1830s, the provision of bodies for anatomical studies and on one of the more illegal ways of solving the problem. The limited length of the novel means that none of the themes can be as thoroughly explored as they need to be and this, for me, led to a sense of truncation in all of the themes.

This was ok for a debut novel and I would certainly read Carlin again (next one due out in 2020). Carlin writes well and the novel moves on well.

6 and a half out of 10

Starting Call of the Curlew by Elizabeth Brooks

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I'm still torn about whether I want to read The Wicked Cometh after your review! The review I read that put me off originally suggested that the plot just felt too contrived and was based on far too many unlikely coincidences. Did you feel like that was the case?

Quite a few people seem to agree with you about the ending too. It's interesting that you said there are two endings though. How does that work, is there literally an alternative ending you can read afterwards? 

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Hayley: on the whole I enjoyed The Wicked Cometh. There is what feels like an ending about a chapter before the end, but it feels like the author felt she couldn't end it there. To explain more would be a huge spoiler!


Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

This is a sort of homage to Marco Polo’s travelogue and consists of Polo describing 55 different cities to Kublai Khan, each city having a woman’s name. It is divided into nine chapters. Each chapter is started and finished with a brief conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. The cities are split into eleven groups of five and each group has a particular theme. There is a particular mathematical structure which has been tabulated and is freely available on the internet if you are so inclined. This isn’t really surprising as Calvino was a member of the Oulipo group. It is also true that as Polo says, all the descriptions of the various cities are really aspects of his own city, Venice. The writing is certainly poetic and beautiful and it is easy to read. It has also had acres of praise from other authors and critics.

Here is Gore Vidal:

“Of all tasks, describing the contents of a book is the most difficult and in the case of a marvellous invention like Invisible Cities, perfectly irrelevant.”

Jeanette Winterson:

“The book I would chose as pillow and plate, alone on a desert island.”

Minna Proctor:

Calvino’s fiction isn’t a story; it’s an ordering and reordering of the emotional and philosophical reverberations of our civilized world, our human condition”

Here is Calvino himself:

“For example, when I began writing Invisible Cities I had only a vague idea of what the frame, the architecture of the book would be. But then, little by little, the design became so important that it carried the entire book; it became the plot of a book that had no plot.”

Yes that’s right, there is no plot, there is structure and framework. It has also been turned into an opera …. And a ballet.

Calvino does pull together fragments and comments that have resonance and provoke thought:

The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space

“…the people who move through the streets are all strangers. At each encounter, they imagine a thousand things about one another; meetings which could take place between them, conversations, surprises, caresses, bites. But no one greets anyone; eyes lock for a second, then dart away, seeking other eyes, never stopping… something runs among them, an exchange of glances like lines that connect one figure with another and draw arrows, stars, triangles, until all combinations are used up in a moment, and other characters come on to the scene.”

The cities are not all medieval as although this is a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, Calvino is not limited by time and space and his comment that “all of the world’s airports are really the same” may resonate with many. This is a travel book without the travel as the conversations indicate.

Inevitably a whole industry of study and analysis has grown around the novel: discussions of Calvino’s notions of nonchronological temporality, applications of Deleuze’s temporal theory to provide a systematic analysis of Calvino’s radical notion of time and I’m not even going to mention synthesizing “the repetition of instants”.

I enjoyed the language and the poetic flow of it all, but like some other “classics” I had some misgivings. All the cities are set in the East and they have their fair share of camels, goats, bearded women, naked women of great beauty and various “sideshow” type predictabilities, all named after women and all available for the male gaze, inert. I also had Said’s Orientalism running through my head as well.

So, I finished it with some hesitations in my mind, but I’m glad I read it.

 6 out of 10

Starting The Corset by Laura Purcell

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69 Things to do with a Dead Princess by Stuart Home

The Times review said that here Home does for the novel what Viz did for the comic strip. It is certainly an anti-novel and I think is deliberately badly written. It is also an attack on modernism and literary fiction. A mash up of many forms, from Penthouse to archaeological study. There are plenty of references to pulp fiction (not the film), but also plenty of analysis of modern and rather obscure literature.

There is a sort of plot. Anna Noon is a student (about 20) who is supposed to be attending lectures and writing a dissertation; she lives in Aberdeen.  She meets an older man, Alan Macdonald, and starts to spend a great deal of time with him. This involves a great deal of sexual activity, visiting all the ancient standing stones in Aberdeenshire (there are a lot of them), more sexual activity outdoors on and near the stones, talking about obscure and unusual novels in some detail, an analysis of Islay malt whisky, a lot of eating and drinking in supermarket cafes and local coffee shops. Now is probably the time to mention that Alan has a ventriloquist’s dummy called Dudley who accompanies them on some of their adventures. And yes he also participates in some of their sexual escapades (before you ask, yes it is wooden) and on several occasions becomes sentient, even to the extent of driving. Anna may or may not murder Alan late in the book and Alan may or may not become a bloke called Callum. The book has footnotes and there are several different endings in the footnotes.

There is a good deal to discuss! Home writes from a female point of view here and has received some criticism for doing so. He does write rather badly and is not in the least convincing; but I am another male saying this and of course, it may be written deliberately badly.

There is a great deal of explicit sex very much in the 1970s pornographic magazine style. Unfortunately the language is a bit too redolent of the butcher’s slab and is not in the least erotic. The addition of the dummy doesn’t help matters either. There seem to be a lot of random strangers in Aberdeenshire who are happy to join in sexual activity in the open air when they stumble across it. The sex is also boring (again maybe this is the point) and very hetero and there isn’t a great deal of imagination, despite the variety and earthy language.  

The section on Islay malt whisky was interesting. There seem to be an awful lot of stone circles and monoliths in Aberdeenshire and we visit many of them. There are lots of references to antiquarian tomes, a whole reading list of obscure books on the stones and the various sites are described in detail. The novel also self-references a good deal in relation to this. In the novel there is a reference to a novel with the same title by K L Callan, where the author is taking the corpse of a certain princess around the standing stones of Aberdeenshire. He is doing this because in reality Diana was murdered at Balmoral (the car crash was a cover story) and Callan has to dispose of the body. All done in the best possible taste!

There is as much literary discussion and consideration of obscure and forgotten novelists as there is sex and they are all bona fide novelists. Some are better known than others: Alexander Trocchi for example. Others, well, anyone remember Missing Margate?

So that’s it: sex, books and standing stones with a dash of whisky.  Home has written a great deal of fiction and non-fiction and his range is startling and varied and he seems to have passionate likes and dislikes. This makes him easy to read and to dispute with. I haven’t read enough Home to place this within his writing. It is certainly unusual. Home seems to have a hatred for Baudrillard and Martin Amis and a liking for Trocchi. His rants are sometimes very funny and on the mark; at other times they are annoying or just plain offensive. One reviewer (Jenny Turner in the London Review of Books) believes she knows the reason for the pornographic sex:

“It’s an insurance policy taken out against the possibility that a reader might somehow get past all the other blocks and barbs put in to repel her and find the text beautiful, or identify with the narrator, or otherwise recuperate the work in the conventional way.”

Home describes himself as “radically inauthentic” and says of himself:

“I have attempted to continually reforge the passage between theory and practice, and overcome the divisions not only between what in the contemporary world are generally canalized cultural pursuits but also to breach other separations such as those between politics and art, the private and the social.”

The audiobook seems to be on you tube if your curiosity has been piqued. There are lots of problems with this, but Home does provoke a reaction.

6 out of 10

Starting The Order of the Day by Eric Vuillard

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The Order of the Day by Eric Vuillard

I am not sure what this book is meant to be. It has been described as a novel, possibly a historical novel: or could it be just plain history. The author refers to it as a “recit”, a sort of historical essay with a few extras. One of the purposes of the author is to warn: “Great catastrophes often creep up on us in tiny steps”.

Vuillard looks at the meeting in February 1933 between Hitler and 24 leading German industrialists, with names that are still prominent today in big business (Siemens, Krupp, Bayer, Farben etc). The aim was to encourage donations to the Nazi party, and it succeeded.

He then looks at the Anschluss in Austria in 1938 in a little more detail. Meetings between Hitler and the Austrian Chancellor; the German demands, designed to humiliate Austria and turn the country into a vassal state. Looking at the role of Seyss-Inquart, Schussnig, Miklas and the various Nazi players. There is even a description of a dinner in London where Ribbentrop is dining with Chamberlain, other members of the cabinet and Churchill amongst others, with the telegram letting Chamberlain knowing about the Anschluss arriving in the middle.

The question of historical accuracy is a significant one. The dinner with Ribbentrop actually happened the day before the Anschluss (the author got his date from Churchill’s memoirs and Churchill was notoriously hazy about dates). The story about the German armour breaking down on the way to Vienna again comes from Churchill and is contradicted by Guderian, who was a lot closer to what was going on than Churchill. Vuillard’s research and factual accuracy is obviously questionable. This would be less important in a novel when such precision can be stretched or changed for effect. It’s certainly not a historical essay. What Vuillard does do is assess the internal thoughts of some characters and make moral judgements on them. The sketches though are fairly light and insubstantial and this feels like history as postmodern performance.

Although the whole is rather flimsy, there were for me to very powerful points, both briefly touched on and both deserving of much more attention. One is the very high number of suicides on the day of the Anschluss and on the days following. Many of them were Jews, some not, but there was very quickly a ban in the press on reporting them: this means actual numbers are not known. The second involves big business and the big names of German industry. They used concentration camps as recruiting grounds for cheap labour, slave labour in fact. The numbers who died whilst working for firms like Siemens, Krupp, Farben and the rest were very high and very few lasted more than a few months.

These two points stood out for me and more focus on them and less on the internal reflections of the politicians would have made the whole stronger.

6 out of 10

Starting Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

A slice of American gothic and an everyday tale of mass murder and agoraphobia. The plot is pretty well known, although the plot of the recent film may confuse this as it bears limited relation to the book. It must be said that Jackson can write well and can set a scene. It is also interesting to see that American authors can write about entitled upper class families as well as English authors. This lot are as dysfunctional as anything Waugh created. Jackson has also added to the pantheon of prominent American teenage characters of this era: Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, Holden Caulfield, Esther Greenwood from The Bell Jar, to name a few. Merricat is an entirely unreliable narrator and it is pretty clear from very early on, who actually poisoned the family with arsenic. This is a trope which bothered me, women are always the ones who kill by poison.

The beginning does grab the reader’s attention:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood.  I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance, I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had.  I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise.  I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cap mushroom.  Everyone in my family is dead.

Cousin Charles, who arrives about halfway is a good portrayal of an entitled patriarchal male and is unable ultimately to destroy the running of the household. Charles has that sense of entitlement you expect of his class and gender, but unfortunately the two sisters have it too and the author’s attempts to make Merricat likeable didn’t work with me.

Despite the villagers being portrayed in a negative light, my sympathies were with them, they at least worked for a living. Merricat’s dislike of them and her descriptions of them as being, grey, colourless and an anonymous mob speak of a sort of upper class entitlement and a hatred of the outsider which is as disturbing as the shenanigans within the family. I recognize there are themes of women taking back power but, this is limited by the stultifying setting.

Although well written, I just didn’t find this convincing and much of it irritated me.

5 out of 10

Starting The Body: A guide for occupants by Bill Bryson

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Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault

This is the first of Mary Renault’s trilogy about Alexander the Great. It covers the period up to his father Philip’s death when Alexander is in his late teens. Renault’s sources are the usual ones (Plutarch and co) and she then adds to the bare historical bones. She takes part of the mythology and uses it for her narrative purposes adopting a third person omniscient narration. Renault does not shy away from Alexander’s sexuality and clearly portrays him as bisexual, which the historical records indicate he probably was. The relationship with Hephaistion is central to the book and the strength and depth of their relationship is important to Alexander. Hephaistion understands his role in supporting Alexander:

“You’re with me,’ Hephaistion said. ‘I love you. You mean more to me than anything. I’d die for you any time. I love you.”

In parallel with this Renault, at least in this novel, implies that sex itself wasn’t that important to Alexander:

“He’s as chaste as Artemis; or nearly”

“One might have supposed that the true act of love was to lie together and talk.”

Renault draws the comparison with the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus and Alexander is very conscious of this.

Parts of Alexander’s character also feel quite modern: consider this exchange with his younger sister towards the end of the book as she discovers she is to marry her uncle:

“He crossed over and drew her against his shoulder. He had scarcely embraced her since their childhood, and now it was in Melissa’s arms that she had wept. ‘I am sorry. You need not be frightened. He’s not a bad man, he has no name for being cruel. The people like him. And you’ll not be too far away.’

She thought, You took for granted you’d choose the best; when you chose, you had only to lift your finger. When they find you a wife, you can go to her if you choose, or stay away with your lover. But I must be grateful that this old man, my mother’s brother, has no name for being cruel. All she said was, 'The gods are unjust to women.’

'Yes, I have often thought so. But the gods are just, so it must be the fault of men.”

Renault seems to want to make Alexander a benevolent and consistent tyrant. The historian in me doesn’t approve at all. However for novelistic purposes it works overall and I’m glad that Renault does not shy away from the question of sexuality. The characterisation and the portrayal of Alexander’s context are both strong. The descriptive passages have bothered some readers because it means the novel doesn’t flow so well, but Renault isn’t writing an action novel! This passage comes from Alexander’s boyhood:

The mild summer day declined to evening.  On the salt lake of Pella fell the shadow of its island fort, where the treasury and the dungeons were.  Lamps glimmered in windows up and down the town; a household slave came out with a resined torch, to kindle the great cressets upheld by seated lions at the foot of the Palace steps.  The lowing of homebound cattle sounded in the plains; in the mountains, which turned towards Pella their shadowed eastern faces, far-distant watch fires sparked the grey.
The boy sat on the Palace roof, looking down at the town, the lagoon, and the little fisher-boats making for their moorings.  It was his bedtime, and he was keeping out of his nurse's way till he had seen his mother, who might give him leave to stay up.  Men mending the roof had gone home, without removing their ladders.  It was a chance not to be wasted.
He sat on the tiles of Pentelic marble, shipped in by King Archelaos; the gutter under his thighs, between his knees an antefix in the shape of a gorgon's head, the paint faded by weather.  Grasping the snaky hair, he was outstaring the long drop, defying its earth-daimons.  Going back he would have to to look down; they must be settled with beforehand.
Soon they gave in, as such creatures did when challenged.  He ate the stale bread he had stolen instead of supper.  It would have been hot posset, flavored with honey and wine; the smell had been tempting, but at supper one was caught for bed.  Nothing could be had for nothing.
A bleat sounded from below.  They had brought the black goat, it must be nearly time.  Better now not to ask beforehand.  Once he was there, she would not send him away.
He picked his way down the long spaces of the ladder-rungs made for men.  The beaten earth-daimons kept their distance; he sang himself a song of victory. From the lower roof to the ground; no one was there but a few tired slaves going off duty.  Indoors Hellanike would be searching; he must go around outside.  He was getting too much for her; he had heard his mother say so”

There is much more like this. I’m glad I read this and I like the understated way that Renault gets her points across. One interesting aside; Oliver Stone’s film is very much based on Renault’s trilogy.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting Queer Africa edited by Makhosazana Xaba and Karen Martin

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I wish there was some way to 'like' a review without necessarily having to comment. Just to say that I always read your reviews with great interest and enjoyment, even if the book doesn't appeal - your reading is generally somewhat different to mine, but I love the different and detailed perspective your reviews provide. And on occasions, they do inspire me to put it on my TBR list - On Chapel Sands is there based pretty much entirely on your review for instance! 

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Thank you Willoyd, that's very generous of you.

Reflecting Rogue: Inside the mind of a feminist

This is a collection of essays, fourteen in all, which cover a range of topics, academic and personal. Some are autobiographical, as Gqola says:

“There are reflections of and on living, loving and thinking as feminist. One feminist.”

There are personal essays about motherhood, parents, education and essays about the issues within South Africa. Other essays cover those Gqola respects and reveres: all cover her experience with “racist capitalist patriarchy”. There is a brilliant essay on Femrite, the Uganda women’s writers association, an essay about a controversial art exhibition. She writes about feminists like Wambui Otieno with some interesting reflections on Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and the Nobel laureate and activist Wangari Maathai. Gqola speaks about, “rogues – unapologetically disrespectful of patriarchal law and order, determined to create a world in which choice is a concrete reality for all.”

This is powerfully written and Gqola has better words to express what she’s about than I do:

“ .. it is to reject the idea of writing as safe and rioting as dangerous; to recognise the power of women’s writing in our contexts. As African feminist literary scholars, we insist on reading imaginative agency in the material resisting cultures whether textual or embodied as theorising, partly in flagrant disregard for the pressure to reinscribe the Cartesian or Enlightenment logic that posits the body of knowledge docile to interpretation, which is an episemic reinscription of how African raw material is docile and ready for processing elsewhere to ready it for easy/ready consumption. It is not possible to hold on to an idea of writing as safe against the background of South African Miriam Tlali’s consistent banning or Egyptian Nawal el Sadaawi’s detention. These African feminists were not treated as people engaged in safe activity by the regimes that recognised how loaded and revolutionary their work was. Miriam Tlali buried dozens of books in her back yard in Soweto because she understood both how precious the written word is, and how deadly the consequences of being found with the wrong book could be in apartheid South Africa.”

These essays work on a number of levels: they engage and stretch the mind, challenge assumptions, promote feminist justice, challenge racism, engage at a personal and emotional level and for me, give me a whole range of writers and thinkers to add to my reading.

9 out of 10

Starting The Periodic Table by Primo Levi

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A Hero for High Times by Ian Marchant

The full title of the book:

A Hero for High Times (Being an Account of the Life and Times and Opinions of Mr Robert Rowberry)

Or: A younger readers guide to The Beats, Hippies, Freaks, Punks, Ravers, New Age Travellers and Dog-on-a-rope brew crew crusties of the British Isles 1956-1994.

It is a great read and is a comprehensive history of the counter-culture. The whole thing is built around Bob Rowberry who has lived through most of it. Bob now lives in an old school bus in a wood in Wales where he makes and mends stuff, with solar panels providing his electricity and a wood burner his heat.

However the things that Bob has done in his time are surprising. He has lived rough in London and Liverpool, frequented Soho Jazz clubs, busked with Eric Clapton (when he played the banjo) and Rod Stewart, was the first person to sell acid to R. D. Laing, the band Procul Harem took their name from his cat, was the first person to bring Afghan Coats into the country (much beloved by hippies), arrested in Iraq in the late 60s and interviewed by a military officer called Saddam Hussain (whatever happened to him). He played a small part in the Profumo affair, acting as bodyguard to Ronna Ricardo, one of the witnesses in the case. Bob spent time in a few jails. The one in Mexico was memorable as he was freed by the local population! Bob has dealt in cannabis and acid and used most drugs, but never been an addict. The story about Bob’s encounter with Wavy Gravy and the Hog Farm is very 1960s (look it up). He’s played a tambourine on stage with Led Zeppelin. There’s much, much more and Bob’s love life (mainly women, but some men as well) is very picturesque.

Marchant weaves Bob’s story in and out of the times but covers music (central to it all), Situationism, anarchism, the Angry Brigade, the decline of deference, hippies and their beliefs and the fascination with Eastern religions. Marchant links this fascination with Said’s Orientalism to provide a good analysis of the phenomenon. There’s a great deal about alternative lifestyles, building a bender and living away from society. He charts those who dropped out and looks at what happened to them and where they are now. The history of the Women’s movement plays its part, but not prominently enough. There’s plenty about punk and the role of the NME and the story draws to a close with raves and New Age Travellers: until the Tories put a stop to it all in 1994 and effectively killed off the counter culture. Marchant also links the end to the gradual changes in the university fee structure and the rise of managerialism as well as Thatcher.

It’s a great read and there are references to lots of books. In the appendix there is a reading list and a music and film list with links to useful websites. It’s rather long, but full of interesting stuff. Bob is portrayed warts and all and there’s no sentimentality. It’s clear where Marchant stands politically and I’m pretty much with him. He hopes he can inspire younger readers by telling stories about what is possible and what has gone before.

9 out of 10

Starting Flush by Virginia Woolf

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Enchantress of Numbers by Jennifer Chiaverini

This is a historical novel based on the brief life of Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron and a mathematician of genius. It follows fairly closely the details of Lovelace’s life as it is known, but is rather selective about what is focussed on. There is a great emphasis on the relationships with her mother, who spends her whole time trying to ensure her daughter does not develop her father’s imaginative and poetic traits. The relationship is shown as often distant and adversarial. In fact there is a good deal of time spent on social and entertainment situations and too little on the more interesting aspects of her life.

Lovelace worked closely with Charles Babbage and Mary Somerville. Her contribution to the development of Babbage’s plans for his Difference Engine and Analytical Engine has been much debated, but here there is no real contribution to that debate. There is much more discussion from Lovelace about how much she would like to be assisting Babbage rather than discussion of their work. The novel is limited by the fact that it is narrated by Lovelace herself and by its limited discussion of Lovelace’s work. There is very little mention of Lovelace’s relationships with other men, particularly John Crosse, to whom she left the only relics she had of her father. There is only a fleeting mention of Lovelace’s gambling addiction and her attempts to use her mathematical skills to assist her gambling on the horses. Little is also made of her relationship with the other leading female mathematician of the age, Mary Somerville.

The first person narration does grate and the novel is over long for all the wrong reasons, the interesting aspects of her life were not prominent enough and there was too much uninteresting detail. Perhaps I would better have appreciated a decent biography. Mary Somerville was interesting and I think should be better known for her pioneering work. Lovelace herself is an interesting character and her work isn’t explored in enough detail here. Her refutation of the possibility of artificial intelligence was important enough for it to be examined and addressed by Alan Turing when he wrote about artificial intelligence.

An interesting subject let down by a less than satisfactory novel.

5 out of 10

Starting Ridge and Furrow by Neil Sentance

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Call of the Curlew by Elizabeth Brooks

I seem to be reading a number of books at the moment set in the marshes and fens of the East of England and this one also fits that bill. The cover, by the way, is quite arresting. The sense of place here is important and the portrait of the marsh and its surrounds is central to the mood of the book. It is the story of Victoria Wrathmell who is an orphan. She is adopted by Lorna and Clem in 1939 at the age of ten. They live at Salt Winds, a house on the edge of Tollbury Marsh in Essex (now a nature reserve). The book moves between 1939-41 and 2015 and a now 86 year old Victoria, still living in Salt Winds. Brooks herself calls the novel, “her homage to immersive and evocative writing of Charlotte Bronte”. A rather big claim.

The cast is fairly limited: Lorna, Clem and Victoria, a German pilot who crashes in the marshes, Max Deering, a family friend who is well portrayed as a creepy predatory male, and his children. There are a few other minor characters. There are also oblique references to other films/novels. This description of Max’s car is redolent of Rebecca, given Max’s name:

It was difficult to explain the car’s pull on her imagination – not without sounding silly – but there was something about its predatory grace that made it seem like a living thing.  The lane from Tollbury Point to Salt Winds was pitted with holes and bumps, but Mr Deering’s Austin 12 never seemed to mind. It just glided forwards, silent and slow, the way a shark glides over the ocean floor.’ 

There is a haunting quality to the book and the start is meant to draw you in:

“Victoria Wrathmell knows she will walk on to the marsh one New Year’s Eve and meet her end there. She’s known it for years. Through adolescence to adulthood she’s spent the last days of December on edge, waiting for a sign. So when one finally arrives, in her eight-sixth year, there’s no good reason to feel dismayed.”

The sign is the skull of a curlew. It would be a mistake to see this as a ghost story, it certainly is not. The double track narrative is a little clumsy at times and there are a couple of little twists that for me didn’t really work. Max Deering makes for a convincing villain and his sense of male entitlement to anyone in his path is convincing. There is a tremendous sense of place which worked for me, despite reservations about the nature of the plot and the gaps in the storyline.

6 and a half out of 10

Starting Lanny by Max Porter

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Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

A gothic tale set in the fens and marshes of Eastern England, most specifically Suffolk. It is set between 1906 and 1913 when many of the old folklore and customs of the fens and marshes were still believed. There are all too few truly wild fens and marshes left, but this is set in one of them. There is a prelude set in 1966, when Maude Stearne aged 69 looks back on the childhood when the novel is set. At the centre of the story is her tyrannical and misogynist father Edmund. There are no spoilers as the novel is about why rather than what. Her father, one day in 1913, committed a horrific murder and spent the rest of his life in an asylum where he painted (loosely based on the painter Richard Dadd). The rediscovery of these paintings is the focus of the section set in the 1960s. The medieval mystic Alice Pyett is based on Marjorie Kempe. The medieval painting “The Wakenhyrst Doom” is also based on the Wenhaston Doom, discovered in the 1890s. It is a graphic painting portraying the horrors of hell. In the doom in the novel the demons are painted as denizens of the fen. This has been described as an homage to M R James with a feminist sensibility. Indeed the approach here is as much psychological as supernatural.

Although none of the characters are particularly likeable, but the portrait of Edmund Stearne is a powerful study of self-obsessed tyranny. People are more frightening than the su

A gothic tale set in the fens and marshes of Eastern England, most specifically Suffolk. It is set between 1906 and 1913 when many of the old folklore and customs of the fens and marshes were still believed. There are all too few truly wild fens and marshes left, but this is set in one of them. There is a prelude set in 1966, when Maude Stearne aged 69 looks back on the childhood when the novel is set. At the centre of the story is her tyrannical and misogynist father Edmund. There are no spoilers as the novel is about why rather than what. Her father, one day in 1913, committed a horrific murder and spent the rest of his life in an asylum where he painted (loosely based on the painter Richard Dadd). The rediscovery of these paintings is the focus of the section set in the 1960s. The medieval mystic Alice Pyett is based on Marjorie Kempe. The medieval painting “The Wakenhyrst Doom” is also based on the Wenhaston Doom, discovered in the 1890s. It is a graphic painting portraying the horrors of hell. In the doom in the novel the demons are painted as denizens of the fen. This has been described as an homage to M R James with a feminist sensibility. Indeed the approach here is as much psychological as supernatural.

Although none of the characters are particularly likeable, but the portrait of Edmund Stearne is a powerful study of self-obsessed tyranny. People are more frightening than the supernatural here. There is a terrific sense of place and the fen is a character in its own right. Paver draws on folklore and tradition and there is an interesting description of eel-glaving. Some of these traditions continue and you can buy eels at my local farmers market. The combination of Edmund’s patriarchal tyranny with his puritanical protestant classicalism makes it chilling to watch his road to committing murder. The struggles of the imaginary Alice Pyett make for interesting reading as well.

On the whole this is more gothic than ghost and fen fiction rather than fan fiction (sorry couldn’t resist!). I do wonder if this sort of tale is better as a short story or a novella rather than a full length novel, as at times it did feel a little stretched. The real horror however is the treatment of women and the privilege and hypocrisy of men.aulpernatural here. There is a terrific sense of place and the fen is a character in its own right. Paver draws on folklore and tradition and there is an interesting description of eel-glaving. Some of these traditions continue and you can buy eels at my local farmers market. The combination of Edmund’s patriarchal tyranny with his puritanical protestant classicalism makes it chilling to watch his road to committing murder. The struggles of the imaginary Alice Pyett make for interesting reading as well.

On the whole this is more gothic than ghost and fen fiction rather than fan fiction (sorry couldn’t resist!). I do wonder if this sort of tale is better as a short story or a novella rather than a full length novel, as at times it did feel a little stretched. The real horror however is the treatment of women and the privilege and hypocrisy of men.

7 out of 10

Starting Paul Bowles The Sheltering Sky

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I have Wakenhyrst on my kindle and I'm glad you said it draws on folklore and supernatural traditions because I love that sort of thing!



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Hope you both enjoy it!

Ridge and Furrow by Neil Sentance

In this brief book Neil Sentence creates brief vignettes of his extended family going back into the early twentieth century to chart the changes in rural life over the time period. The setting is Lincolnshire, although one family member ends up in Denmark and Sentance writes in relation to himself when he was living on the continent.

This is not so much Magic realism as muddy realism in the flat clay fields:

“The clay heaps under his feet, the furrows lengthening all the way to the stripped hedgerows beyond. A hare makes to scamper across his path, but sees him, coils and bolts the other way, gone in a breath.”

This is a follow up volume to Water and Sky and it records and commemorates people seldom heard from or recorded. It charts war, poverty and change. There is an interesting collection of photographs (black and white) mainly from the 40s, 50s and 60s, but some earlier. The portraits are haunting and wistful; portraying the tough life of agricultural communities and the rapid changes of the twentieth century.

This is a fascinating and poignant collection which preserves voices often lost; a form of oral history of those history would easily forget.

8 out of 10

Starting Newfoundland By Rebbecca Ray

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Lanny by Max Porter

Not quite sure why I’m reading this because I struggled with Porter’s first novel, Grief is a Thing with Feathers”. Like the previous novel this has several interspersed narrators. It is set in an English village about sixty miles from London. Like many English villages it is a cruciform shape revolving around a pub and a church; and like many English villages it has been there for centuries. The prime voices are Richard Lloyd and his wife Jolie (although her name isn’t divulged until later in the novel), an artist called Pete who has hippy credentials and is now getting on in years and there is one other main narrator. Here we wander into myth and legend. English history and folklore is littered with Green Man legends, portrayed in many churches with tendrils growing out of his mouth, a sort of ancient spirit/sprite/Puck who can also be corporeal and who has always been part of this village. Here he is named as Dead Papa Toothwort and he takes an active part in this narrative. He feeds off the life of the village and he is named after a parasitic plant (toothwort) which feeds off other plants as it has no chlorophyll of its own.

The narrative revolves around Lanny, the young son of Robert and Jolie. Lanny is curious, sweet and enigmatic and comes out with odd sayings:

“I’m a million cameras, even when I’m sleeping,” or “Which do you think is more patient, an idea or a hope?”

Lanny is late primary school age and doesn’t really fit in with his classmates. His mother comes up with the idea of letting Lanny have art lessons with Pete. Pete, being an aging hippy type, doesn’t really do lessons, but they start to draw together and get along very well. Meanwhile Dead Papa Toothwort speaks like this:

“He leaves the village riding the smells from the kitchens, spinning and surfing, wafting and curling, from Jenny's lasagne to Larton's microwave stroganoff, Derek's hotpot-for-one, such rich sauces, so much sugar, was never so varied as this, not-very-recently-dead meat dressed in fancy flavours, he laughs, funny busy worker bees of the village stuffing their faces and endlessly rebuilding and replacing things. All they are is bags of shopping and bags of rubbish. He takes such offence to the smell of Pam Foy's stir-in jalfrezi sauce that he tears a bit of his nightmare skin off and shoves it through her window. A truly horrid dream. Sleep well Pam, he chuckles, as he floats homeward across the field.”

There is on particularly gruesome passage where Jolie finds a hedgehog trapped in a drain and is unable to free it, so she decides to put it out of its misery and basically smashes it to bits. It is a very unpleasant passage, but here is Dead Papa Toothwort’s reaction:

“He was crouched in the septic tank watching this and he found it very pleasing. He saw in it an aspect of himself, of his part in things. He watched the boy’s mum mashing a hedgehog, turning panic stricken animal into watery blood-spike soup, and he loved it very much, same as Mrs Lartan stamping on a poisoned mouse to finish it off, same as John and Oliver shooting Jackdaws at the tip, same as Jean drowning wasps in her jam trap. One day as good as any in the human war against others. He loved the foot and mouth culls and spent those months slipping in and out of burning livestock; nothing new to Toothwort, veteran witness of the bovine burcs, the flus, the wonderful rinderpest, rain rot and sheep scab, the cycles of mange, mastitis and pox, he’s seen things die in thousands of ways.”

Dead Papa Toothwort also listens in to conversations and you see little snippets in the text. They tend to be randomly strewed around, non-sequential, diagonal and printed sometimes on top of each other. This may be meant to be novel, clever or a different way of looking at the text: I just found it irritating.

In the middle of the novel Lanny disappears and Porter gets the opportunity to look at how people react to this sort of occurrence. Obviously the relationship between Lanny and Pete is questioned by the police and the village. Even a watertight alibi doesn’t stop him getting beaten up for being a peadophile. The parenting skills of Richard and Jolie are questioned: why was he allowed to go out alone and why was he allowed to visit an older male alone. Porter tries to highlight the best and worst of human nature and looks at the nature of Englishness:

“The thugs who will beat up an old man on the basis of a groundless rumour. The discord between what England believes itself to be and what it really is”

The character of Richard is drawn well: he is rather shallow, thinks his son is a bit of a freak, watches porn on his phone thinking his wife doesn’t know (she does) and is a typical entitled middle class male.

The ending, I found to be ridiculous and unbelievable, but I suppose the premise is if you have already read and accepted the folklore come to life that is Dead Papa Toothwort then you can accept the end of the book; unfortunately I didn’t.

There are some funny moments and some of the snatches of conversation that Dead Papa Toothwort overhears are spot on.

The portrayal of an English village as the centre of mysterious happenings has been done many times and I kept thinking of Agatha Christie and Miss Marple!

What does it all add up to? On the whole this has been very well received and I think Porter does make some interesting points about human reactions to the disappearance of a child and the fears and prejudices surrounding it. However I think it was better done in Reservoir 13. I also think that you have to take care when using folklore in a modern context (I’m not saying don’t do it), especially in the way it was used here. Some may love this, but it didn’t convince me, especially the ending.

6 out of 10

Starting Academy Street by Mary Costello

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Flush by Virginia Woolf

This, on the surface is an oddity: a biography of a dog, Elizabeth Barrett’s cocker spaniel, Flush. It is a stream of consciousness novella, written straight after The Waves. Inevitably, because of the subject matter it is treated as a less serious work. Woolf certainly worried about it:

“I open this to make one of my self-admonishments previous to publishing a book. Flush will be out on Thursday and I shall be very much depressed, I think, by the kind of praise. They’ll say it’s ‘charming,’ delicate, ladylike … I must not let myself believe that I’m simply a ladylike prattler.”

Woolf felt that the point she was making would not be understood and said so to her friend Sybil Colfax when she appreciated the novel:

“I’m so glad that you liked Flush. I think it shows great discrimination in you because it was all a matter of hints and shades, and practically no one has seen what I was after.”

There are a number of themes addressed by Woolf. One of these is class, Flush is a pedigree dog whose antecedents are approved by the kennel club and who is above other mongrel dogs. He knows this, but over time he changes, through experience, and begins to realize that he is no different from the dogs on the street.

It is also by its nature a commentary on the life of Barrett both before and after her involvement with Browning. Woolf’s obsession with London and its various glories and horrors also takes centre stage.

Woolf scholar Jane Goldman makes some interesting points about Flush. It needs to be noted that although Barrett herself was an abolitionist, her family wealth came from plantations in Jamaica. The point is made that the collars and chains Flush wears can be seen as referencing those worn by slaves. A walk along Wimpole Street is seen as a slave arriving in a new country:

“he stopped, amazed: defining and savouring until a jerk at his collar dragged him on”

Flush has a previous existence in the country before he was given to Barrett:

“the old hunting cry of the fields hallooed in his ears and he dashed forward to run as he had run in the fields at home … But now a heavy weight jerked at his throat; he was thrown back on his haunches. Why was he a prisoner here?”

Flush was also intended to parody Lytton Strachey’s work on Queen Victoria. In addition there is the more obvious point that dogs were considered property in the same way that women were and are and links are drawn between the tyrannies each suffer. There’s plenty of sharp social comment here, although Woolf’s worries that it might be dismissed as sweet and sentimental; which given the attitude of the English towards animals was probably a credible worry.

There is a philosophical element to Flush as well, consider the problem of what is real:

“Then she would make him stand with her in front of the looking-glass and ask him why he barked and trembled. Was not the little brown dog opposite himself? But what is ’oneself’? Is it the thing people see? Or is it the thing one is? So Flush pondered that question too, and, unable to solve the problem of reality, pressed closer to Miss Barrett and kissed her ’expressively’. That was real at any rate.”

There are recollections of Proust and collective memory:

“Then with all her poet’s imagination Miss Barrett could not divine what Wilson’s wet umbrella meant to Flush; what memories it recalled, of forests and parrots and wild trumpeting elephants; nor did she know, when Mr Kenyon stumbled over the bell-pull, that Flush heard dark men cursing in the mountains; the cry, ‘Span! Span!’ rang in his ears, and it was in some muffled, ancestral rage that he bit him.”

As there usually is with Woolf, there is much more going on than meets the eye and I suspect a second reading will be required. It can be read as a rather cute biography of a dog as Woolf feared: but it really is so much more than that.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

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Really interesting review.

Whilst I'm generally a major fan of Woolf's work, I have to say that Flush did absolutely nothing for me when I read it a couple of years ago.  Reading your review, I wonder if that may at least partly be because I didn't 'get it', and your review highlights areas I should probably reconsider.  Looks like I need to reread it!

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Thanks Willoyd

The Corset by Laura Purcell

Death by embroidery? Really? This is a gothic and menacing offering from the author of The Silent Companions (which I quite enjoyed). It is pure Victoriana and is well written and well told. The settings are pure Dickens with some typical prison and sweat shop scenes.

There are two main characters. Dorothea Truelove (yes really) is an heiress who is unmarried and in her 20s. She does good works and is very much persuaded by phrenology and believes that the shape of the skull can give clues about the criminal propensities of the owner of said skull. Phrenology was quite popular in the mid nineteenth century. Dorothea is being pushed to marry a man of quality, but is actually enamoured of a policeman called David. Their relationship drifts through the book not really going anywhere.

The other main character is Ruth Butterham. She is a young seventeen year old waiting to be tried for murder and most likely hanged. Dorothea visits Ruth and their stories alternate throughout the book. Dorothea visits the women’s prison regularly in the hope of persuading the inmates to allow her to feel their skulls and test her theories. Ruth has a tragic backstory and has to help her mother with her sewing from an early age. Circumstances lead Ruth to believe that she has the ability to damage people with her sewing and embroidery and there are various instances where this appears to be the case. Ruth is left orphaned and ends up in the equivalent of a sweat shop working for a tyrannical mistress called Mrs Metyard. The life is brutal and the punishments harsh, one even leading to the death of a young black girl called Miriam.

The plot works itself out and Ruth seems to work some of her malevolence through her needle, Mrs Metyard comes to a sticky end and there are a couple of twists near the end which don’t come as a total surprise, but are quite baffling as the plot seems to get lost.

So far, so gothic. It’s well told and the menace builds as it should. The whole thing doesn’t really seem to know whether it’s a crime novel or a supernatural chiller.

Here’s the problems I have with it. The torture scenes are rather graphic and are being inflicted on young girls. Mrs Metyard, the one character in the book with no redeeming features, is even more of a problem. She is brutal and sadistic, especially when she has a reason to punish someone. At these times she emerges as The Captain, in male dress (possibly that of her late husband) and there is an unpredictability as to when The Captain will be present. So we have a combination of mental ill-health and tropes related to cross dressing/transgender being used to provide the role of antagonist. That did grate. Too much repetitious torture, misused tropes, not quite knowing what it’s meant to be and an inability to decide whose story it was.    

5 out of 10

Starting The Pinecone by Jenny Uglow 

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The Body: a Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson

I am joining a book club; unusual for me because I am not a hugely social animal. It is based at the university where I work for one day a week and it meets a lunch time, once every two months. This is the book for January; it’s not something I would have read in normal circumstances.

Bryson employs his usual wry and laconic style and applies it to the human body. This isn’t a medical text book, but it is detailed and covers pretty much what you would expect. Bryson does cover the history and development of medicines, surgery and approaches to the body. He also uncovers some of the lesser known pioneers of medicine, those history has forgotten. Bryson tells their stories and uncovers their foibles in an entertaining way.

The book is full of facts, it must be a dream for someone who goes to quizzes a lot, although there are some interesting ones as well. Bryson estimates that austerity in Britain has led to about 120 000 preventable deaths. He attributes the fact that Americans die at a younger age the Europeans to lifestyle. Bryson also takes a more global perspective and looks at the battle with infectious diseases and our overuse of antibiotics which has led to antibiotic resistant bugs. Bryson takes a look at the opioid crisis and at some of the medical techniques that did not stand the test of time; lobotomy for example.

There are lots of interesting facts, many obscure diseases, lesser known medical operatives and trillions of cells. It is informative and Bryson is, as ever, a great raconteur. However I was left asking WHY? What’s it all for, interesting though it is? I’ll keep you posted on the book club!

7 out of 10

Starting The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

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I read The Corset recently and really enjoyed it, although I agree whilst it does tick several Gothic boxes, it's not really a supernatural thriller (I think the supernatural idea was all in Ruth's head, I don't think her sewing really poisoned people) but I have to disagree slightly about Mrs Metyard's transformation into her late husband -  I don't think it was a transgender issue, more like a case of a split personality - maybe she was suffering from schizophrenia?  She obviously had serious issue anyway, but I don't think you can look at her issues through modern eyes, especially as attitudes and treatments were so different then.  She was still an appalling character and I think she got the fate she deserved (which was probably preferable to being locked away in an asylum), not so sure about her daughter though, how much of her parents' character did she inherit, as the father sounds like he was a sadist as well.  And the ending is a bit ambiguous isn't it? 


I thought this was better than the Silent Companions though, which was very Gothic and creepy at first but then got too over the top for me as it went on, a case of less is more I thought!

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