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Books do furnish a room

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  • Birthday 07/18/1960

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    Newfoundland by Rebbecca Ray
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  1. A Book blog 2021 by Books do Furnish a Room

    That is definitely one to be avoided Hayley Burley Postbox Theft by Nicola Barker This is an epistolary novel of sorts. It is set in Yorkshire in a village near Ilkley, up in the moors. The local post box has been broken into and some letters stolen. The book starts with a local police sergeant writing to a local police constable, enclosing the letters, 26 of them and asking him to investigate. The book then consists of the letters themselves, some of them quite long. It ends with a couple of other letters which give alternate explanations of the whole thing. It is set around 2007/8. In this day of e-mails I’m not sure you could write this again. The whole throws light on an array of typical village characters, many of whom are obsessive, eccentric and really rather disturbing. If you remember the recent headlining Handforth Parish Council you will get a flavour. This is where the book stands or falls. Over the course of the novel you build up a picture of the community and some characters recur. There is a strong comic element to it and a great deal of caricature which doesn’t always work and becomes rather tedious. There is a very long letter about the problems of dogshit in the village by a very pernickety writer. Way too long. There are some amusing asides, like the member of the Burley Cross Toilet Watch (devoted to ensuring the local gay community can’t misuse toilets) managing to get himself arrested for what he is guarding against. There is a promises auction that goes horribly wrong. Sometimes it moves into Archers territory (A British rural radio soap), sometimes it is more League of Gentlemen, but mostly it didn’t work for me. A couple of them I was rather uncomfortable with, a few were mildly amusing. I seem to be having a poor run of books at the moment! 5 out of 10 Starting Oh Happy Day by Carmen Calil
  2. A Book blog 2021 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Mr Camus by Peter Ackroyd This is a bit of a confused concoction for such a short novel. It looks like an English village crime pastiche, but isn’t. It is set in the early 1980s in a small English village (Little Camborne). Two late middle aged spinsters and cousins (Millicent and Maud) live in either end of a set of three adjoined cottages. Into the middle one moves the slightly younger Mr Cadmus, he is suave and sophisticated and from the Mediterranean island of Caldera (a very small island). He also has a parrot. All three have memories and secrets from the war. There are elements of the gothic, a bit of magic realism, village folklore, crime, revenge and some “romance”. The plot is rather confused and involves elements such as treasure hunts with X marks the spot), a swearing parrot, misdeeds in the war by soldiers from Little Camborne, an unwanted baby smothered and thrown into the Thames, a vicar who runs off with Church funds/treasures, amethysts appearing in odd places (and orifices) around a Mediterranean island, a volcanic eruption like Pompeii but with molten crystal (??), mysterious deaths of aged ex-servicemen, poisonings, nasty accidents with machinery, ghosts, odd purple birds and probably a good deal more. The whole lot is rather odd with many loose ends, lots of pastiche, satire and an ending which doesn’t really end the book. Well, if you like that sort of thing …. Starting Rite out of time by Margaret Houlbrooke
  3. A Book blog 2021 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Scorper by Rob Magnuson Smith A scorper is a type of chisel used in engraving wood or metal. Well, the premise is straightforward. John Cull is an American who is having some sort of existential crisis; he’s only 30, so it’s not mid-life. He decides to visit the village of Ditchling in Sussex where his grandfather (also John Cull) came from. Ditchling is significant: it was the home of an artistic community led by Eric Gill. Eric Gill was a famous (infamous, but more of that later) sculptor, engraver, typeface designer and even architect, part of the Arts and Crafts movement, Fabian and socialist. He has left his mark on many municipal buildings in Britain and on the continent. He is responsible for a significant number of war memorials, the Stations of the Cross at Westminster Cathedral, various assorted sculptures on various municipal buildings. John Cull comes to research his ancestor. This is an odd book as it rapidly becomes rather surreal and Ditchling seems to turn into Royston Vasey from The League of Gentlemen (a local town for local people): it really is that silly. We have incest, plenty of gothic interludes, an odd bed and breakfast establishment, a prophecy that involves chopping off a stranger’s hand (really!) The plot is convoluted and misleading and Eric Gill keeps popping up and talking to Cull. More on Gill. He kept extensive and detailed diaries and was rated one of the most talented artists of his time. You probably use one of his many typefaces (about 20 in all). It wasn’t until a biography in the late 1980s that what was in the diaries was revealed. Gill was a paedophile. He sexually abused his daughters from their early teens and kept detailed records and measurements. He had a sexual relationship with his sister for many years. He also records his sexual adventures with the family dog (dogs). It doesn’t seem to have completely destroyed his reputation; the Stations of the Cross he sculpted are still in Westminster Cathedral. Then why bring him into this and not even bother to mention or explore the obvious issues you raise if you do. Don’t bother with this. 2 out of 10 Starting the Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
  4. A Book blog 2021 by Books do Furnish a Room

    The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel The last part of Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy covering 1536 to 1540, from the execution of Anne Boleyn. Everyone knows how it ends, but Mantel still manages to build tension and she tells the tale well. It is interesting to note (as some reviewers have done) that in this era of fake news, that this is precisely what Cromwell is a victim of. Not that he hadn’t manufactured plenty of it in his time. Mantel’s powers of storytelling are significant and she manages to make Cromwell sympathetic. In many ways she succeeds in this. Humbert Humbert isn’t sympathetic, but Cromwell, an unscrupulous political operator who often has his opponents killed is. The evidence is there to show that he should not be sympathetic, but yet the reader is drawn in by passages such as this: “He too is guilty of retrospection as the light fades, in that hour in winter or summer before they bring in the candles, when earth and sky melt, when the fluttering heart of the bird on the bough calms and slows, and the night-walking animals stir and stretch and rouse, and the eyes of cats shine in the dark, when colour bleeds from sleeve and gown into the darkening air; when the page grows dim and letter forms elide and slip into other conformations, so that as the page is turned the old story slides from sight and a strange and slippery confluence of ink begins to flow. You look back into your past and say, is this story mine” There is a shift in this third novel though. In the first two Cromwell and hence the reader is ahead of the game. Now the reader feels that they are a step or two ahead of Cromwell and can see what he doesn’t. That gives a slightly different perspective. I think I would like to read a historical analysis of Cromwell to get some perspective. I don’t think is the strongest of the three novels. The historical events are a bit more blurred and the key issue of the marriage to Ann of Cleves doesn’t seem to quite make sense. It is not clear in this account why it happened and why Cromwell made the mistakes he did. The epitaph from Petrarch doesn’t really fit: “For you perhaps, if as I hope and wish you will live long after me, there will follow a better age. When darkness is dispelled, our descendants will be able to walk back, into the pure radiance of the past.” The book is too long and too short; there is too much material here compared to the first two books, enough for two novels. The reader gets less of a sense of what is going on. The Pilgrimage of Grace is dealt with in a bit of a rush and as I said the Ann of Cleves episode was confusing. This was my least favourite of the trilogy, but it is still Mantel writing well and in control of her material. 7 and a half out of 10 Starting The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe
  5. A Book blog 2021 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Fenny by Lettice Cooper This is my third novel by Lettice Cooper and was published in 1953. It is set primarily in Italy from 1933 to 1949. Ellen Fenwick (known as Fenny) is a young teacher from the north of England. Following the death of her mother she decides to take a summer job as a governess in Tuscany. The novel is split into four parts: 1933/4, 1938/9, 1945, 1949. It is not an autobiographical novel, but it does contain some of Cooper’s enduring concerns. The North/South division is explored in a different way; class is also a factor and as always this is well written and reads easily. The time jumps leave a lot of gaps in the narrative which makes the reading interesting and leaves some loose ends and unresolved plot lines. This may irritate some, but suited me fine, because it felt more realistic. These days Cooper is mostly out of print and this is the virago edition. The novel charts a journey from youth to middle age and like Cooper, Fenny remains single. There is also the backdrop of world events, which begin to be marked in the second part with the build up to war. In the first two parts Fenny is a governess. She spends the war in an internment camp in Italy. In the last two parts she is living independently doing a variety of teaching work. Part of the strength of the novel is Cooper’s clear love of the landscape: ‘Every evening the sun set in splendour over the town of Florence, and as the red faded to rose and the last stain of rose died from a sky the colour of old turquoise, the sombre green cypresses became hard black shapes against the deepening blue and the appearing stars.’ It is written in the third person and is an interesting character study. The two main female Italian characters are rather negative with some predictable tropes in place. The whole is an interesting exploration of character, some of the endings are a little predictable but Fenny herself is likeable. 7 and a half out of 10 Starting The Glass House by Monique Charlesworth
  6. A Book blog 2021 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Somewhere Like this by Pat Arrowsmith Pat Arrowsmith is remarkable and still alive: over 90 now. Her life has been an unusual one. Born to middle class parents (in 1930) and privately educated at Cheltenham Ladies College, Cambridge and then a Fulbright scholar. She was a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a lesbian and activist for gay rights, working for Amnesty International and campaigning for British troops to leave Ulster in the 1970s. All of this made her a fully paid up member of the awkward squad and she was not afraid of controversy or conflict. She has been to prison eleven times as a result of her anti-nuclear, anti arms trade and political protests (mostly in the UK, but once in Thailand and once in Greece); she was force fed whilst on hunger strike in 1960 in Gateside prison. She has been an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience (twice). She escaped from prison once and says she regrets not escaping more often. She refuses to pay fines for her protests at military bases and when arranging an interview with the Guardian in 2008 she asked the reporter to ring 3x as she was also expecting the bailiffs. She was the first person to “come out” in Who’s Who. Her father did not approve of her lifestyle and left a clause in his will to say she could only inherit if she married. She duly did; had the marriage annulled the same day and then gave most of the inheritance away to causes she supported. This novel is set in the mid 1960s (published in 1970) in HMP Collingwood: a rather thinly disguised Holloway before it was refurbished and updated. Arrowsmith points out that it is not autobiographical as it does not reference political prisoners. The characters are petty thieves, prostitutes, abortionists and similar minor criminals, mostly in prison for minor offences and short stays. The depiction of the conditions and types of relationships is based on Arrowsmith’s experiences. Arrowsmith provides a set of characters within the prison whose lives she follows for a few weeks. They are a mixed bunch; some are lesbians and Arrowsmith often uses the butch/femme distinction. She does manage to subvert that distinction as well. Some are clearly bisexual, some temporarily whilst in prison. As you would expect many are confused, distressed and defensive. Their prison officers are as mixed up as the inmates. The plot is fairly thin and revolves around a series of flirtations and affairs. It is not a literary classic, but it does what Arrowsmith intended and depicted relationships between women in a straightforward and non-sensational way. But it is essentially a humane narrative, not salacious and it doesn’t pathologize. It questions the assumptions of the normal “women in prison” novels and TV series. These women are not “deviant” and criminality is not linked to the usual tropes. They are from the social margins and are depicted as having the normal daily concerns. Prison is ultimately pointless an Arrowsmith’s critique is a basically feminist one. The irony is that prison, awful though it is does provide structure and a relief from the outside. I remember Arrowsmith from my student days when she campaigned tirelessly for CND and for the Troops Out (of Northern Ireland) movement. She was formidable. She can write a bit too. 7 out of 10 Starting Eva Luna by Isabel Allende
  7. A Book blog 2021 by Books do Furnish a Room

    The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard Many people regard this as a masterpiece, one of the great novels of the twentieth century. It does work on a number of levels and in one sense it is a love story, but there is plenty of unrequited love and unhappy endings. Two Australian sisters (Caroline and Grace Bell) move to England to stay with their ward. There are flashbacks to Australia where they were brought up by their rather difficult sister. Meanwhile Ted Tice is a young astronomer who goes to study with a more eminent one, who happens to be the ward of the two sisters. Ted falls in love with Caroline: she doesn’t fall in love with him. She finds upcoming playwright Paul Ivory more attractive. He is about to marry for money and position> He is amoral, ruthless and essentially the villain of the piece. Ted stays in love with Caroline. Grace is more conventional. This could have become rather sentimental, but manages not to. Be careful with the ending, although it is true to say that the ending is at the beginning as Hazzard does say what happens to the main characters very early on; but it is easy to forget and be deceived by what seems to be a happy ending. This is a bit cryptic, but it’s cleverly wrapped up. The whole is complicated and rather gloomy, no one is really happy and everyone finds the grass greener elsewhere. Hazzard certainly writes well: “It was simply that the sky, on a shadeless day, suddenly lowered itself like an awning. Purple silence petrified the limbs of trees and stood crops upright in the fields like hair on end. Whatever there was of fresh white paint sprang out from downs or dunes, or lacerated a roadside with a streak of fencing. This occurred shortly after midday on a summer Monday in the south of England.” “A man stood on a white porch and looked at the Andes. He was over fifty, white-haired, thin, with a stooping walk that suggested an orthopaedic defect, but in fact derived from beatings received in prison. His appearance was slightly unnatural in other ways—pink, youthful lips and light, light-lashed eyes: an impression, nearly albinic,that his white suit intensified.” She can do humour as well: "It was hard to imagine the Major in wooing mood. One suspected he had never courted anything but disaster." But the whole isn’t comfortable. The most amoral and unscrupulous character is gay. The most decent character is terminally unhappy and their end is tragic. One of Caroline’s friends delivers her verdict on her: “For her part, Valda considered Caro as a possibility lost. Caro might have done anything, but had preferred the common limbo of sexual love. Whoever said, ‘When you go to women, take your whip’, was on to something deep, and deeply discouraging.” The quote is, of course, from Nietzsche. And there are comments like this: “the men with their assertions great and small, the women all submission or dominion” And “Nothing creates such untruth in you as the wish to please” “Even through a telescope, some people see what they choose to see. Just as they do with the unassisted eye.” He said “Nothing supplies the truth except the will for it.” Love is an illusion, life is sad. Hazzard writes well and is perceptive, but there is just something that niggled with me, what felt like a rather conventional approach to gender relations, it is always illuminating to look at least likeable characters and see who and what they are. But I would encourage people to read it, I could be wrong about this. 7 out of 10 Starting Women of Sand and Myrrh by Hanan Al-Shaykh
  8. A Book blog 2021 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Crudo by Olivia Laing This is Laing’s first foray into novel writing. The novel is set in the summer of 2017, a turning point in Laing’s life. She turned 40, got married to a much older man and wrote a novel. The backdrop is an unsettled international situation with fears how Trump might handle the situation with North Korea, the rise of neo-Nazis, Grenfell Tower and much more. The main character is what can only be described as a mash up of Laing herself and the late novelist Kathy Acker, all inhabiting Laing’s life. “Kathy, by which I mean I, was getting married”. This novel is certainly an oddity. Laing herself has offered an explanation of where it came from, citing five points of origin. The first of these is Kraus’s biography of Acker (After Kathy Acker) where he describes the way Acker took other people’s books and changed them into the first person. Laing decided to take her life and times and put them into Acker. Laing points out that Acker writes about a world which is frightening and broken and the themes of violence and misogyny are central. Another point of origin is Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin where he writes about his own sexual liberation whilst at the same time charting the rise of the Nazis. The domestic continues even when the external world is threatening. Laing references Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway when talking about how to write about the present moment. Finally Laing references Gary Indiana’s account of the Versace murderer Andrew Cunanan which shows truth can be stranger than fiction. It makes for an interesting work of fiction, but it does help to know the above. It’s not an action based novel and is very much centred on the Laing/Acker character: “How had all this happened? Some sort of gross appetite for action, like the Red Wedding episode only actual and huge. It didn’t feel actual, that was the problem. It felt like it happened inside her computer. She didn’t watch the news or listen to the radio, in fact she’d imprisoned the TV inside a cupboard she’d had specially built. If she walked away from her laptop what was there: a garden, birches, that Malcolm XXX man chatting in the queue. Walk back, Armageddon. A bird had landed in the tallest birch. She couldn’t make it out with her glasses on, or with them off. 40, not a bad run in the history of human existence but she’d really rather it all kept going, water in the taps, whales in the oceans, fruit and duvets, the whole sumptuous parade, she was into it thanks, she’d like that show to run and run.” There are reflections on the writing process as the protagonist is also writing a novel: “Kathy was writing everything down in her notebook, and had become abruptly anxious that she might exhaust the present and find herself out at the front, alone on the crest of time—absurd, but sometimes don’t you think we can’t all be moving through it together, the whole green simultaneity of life, like sharks abruptly revealed in a breaking wave?” The novel does feel rushed and breathless at times, it was certainly written quickly. It certainly feels alive and is funny at times. This is stylish autofiction, but there is an emptiness to it as well: “This was the problem with history. It was too easy to provide the furnishings but forget the attitudes, the way you became a different person depending on what knowledge was available.” It is easy to forget and maybe that is the problem. This may soon feel dated, enjoyable though it was. 7 out of 10 Starting Mr Cadmus by Peter Ackroyd
  9. A Book blog 2021 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Frida by Hayden Herrera A pretty hefty biography of Frida Kahlo, which mostly impresses, but can frustrate as well. Kahlo’s life is pretty well documented and she is very much respected as an artist these days. Herrera spends a good deal of time analysing the art, after all that is her forte. She puts Kahlo into context as an artist, managing to explode the myth that she was a surrealist. Kahlo was steeped in her native Mexican culture and folklore and its vivid culture and imagery. As she says herself: “I paint my own reality. The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint always whatever passes through my head, without any other consideration.” Also central to the book is, inevitably, her relationship with her husband and fellow painter Diego Rivera. The relationship was a tempestuous one and they divorced and remarried at one point. Rivera was serially unfaithful and didn’t see it as a problem. Kahlo sometimes appeared not to see it as a problem, but sometimes she clearly did. Kahlo also had male and female lovers over the years. Inevitably Rivera didn’t object to the female lovers, but was jealous of the male ones. A fairly typical male reaction. Herrera spends some time outlining her relationships with men. However she says very little about her relationships with women and this made me feel there was a lack of balance. The real strength of the work is the artwork and Herrera’s descriptions. As she says of Kahlo: “She approached the body and face schismatically. Her body … she painted in the passive role of pretty object or victim of pain … By contrast, looking at her face in the mirror, she perceived herself as depictor, not as object depicted. She thus became both active artist and passive model, dispassionate investigator of what it feels like to be a woman and passionate repository of feminine emotions.” Herrera also charts Kahlo and Rivera’s political journey, which was central to both of their lives. Their relationship with Trotsky and their on/off attachment to the communist party was central to both of them. This is contrasted with their relationships with some pretty wealthy Americans, including the Rockefellers. I think sometimes Herrera seems a little baffled by Kahlo’s complexity and I am not sure how much of her depiction of her relationship with Rivera I accept. Nevertheless I learnt a great deal and appreciated the art. 6 out of 10 Starting Scorper by Rob Magnuson Smith
  10. A Book blog 2021 by Books do Furnish a Room

    The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor This is Gloria Naylor’s first novel, published in 1982 and set between the 1940s and the mid-1970s. It is a series of seven interconnected stories about mainly African American women who have reached a low point and have ended up in Brewster Place, where the apartments are run down and the landlord does as few repairs as possible. This is a tale of the dispossessed, but also a tale of female bonding based on a shared oppression. Most of the women are black, but there are two lesbians as well who have moved to Brewster Place to escape what people are saying about them. All of the women have dreams and aspirations, despite their subjugation. They have all suffered at the hands of men and in Brewster Place they find new beginnings. But this is not sentimental, it’s tough and there is suffering. This is well written and holds the attention. The stories are powerful. I have never seen the TV series, but I may now look it up. The role of men is interesting and has been analysed in depth. The men here ae sexual predators and abusers, hence the description of some of the young men who roamed Brewster Place: “These young men wouldn’t be called upon to thrust a bayonet into an Asian farmer, target a torpedo, scatter their iron seed from a B-52 into the wound of the earth, point a finger to move a nation, or stick a pole into the moon—and they knew it. They only had that three-hundred-foot alley to serve them as stateroom, armored tank, and executioner’s chamber. So Lorraine found herself, on her knees, surrounded by the most dangerous species in existence—human males with an erection to validate in a world that was only six feet wide” The journeys of the women are the dominant force in the novel and they are memorable characters who will live in the memory. 8 and a half out of 10 Starting Somewhere like this by Pat Arrowsmith
  11. A Book blog 2021 by Books do Furnish a Room

    The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davies Reading two detective/mystery books at the same time, this is unheard of for me! As it happens this is for one of this year’s challenges, reading a book written by a woman for each year of the 1980s. This is the first of a series which runs for twenty or so books and this one is set around 70 in the first year of the Emperor Vespasian and moves between Britain and Rome. Marcus Didius Falco is thirty years old and an ex-soldier. He is a sort of Imperial agent who does odd jobs. This books sets up the characters for the rest of the series. The title references some rather heavy ingots (pigs) which contain silver ore and have been stolen from Britain. There is plenty of corruption in high places, dubious senators, dodgy officials, assorted rogues and plenty of twists. There is a bit of a noir feel about this and Falco narrates in a rather self-deprecating way. It’s an easy read with pretty brief chapters and the reviews are pretty good. This novel reminded me of some others in this genre and here is Falco: “'Now don't be worried!' I reassured her. 'Tell me, how old are you?' She was sixteen. O Jupiter! 'Married?' 'Do I look like a person who is married?' She looked like a person who soon should be!” And “When the girl came rushing up the steps, I decided she was wearing far too many clothes.” Yet more “I like my women in a few wisps of drapery: then I can hope for a chance to remove the wisps. If they start out with nothing I tend to get depressed because either they have just stripped off for someone else or, in my line of work, they are usually dead.” Is it just me, or does this feel a bit like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe? Or one of the other world weary and misogynistic PIs of the 1930s? It felt somewhat formulaic. 5 out of 10 Starting Fenny by Lettice Cooper
  12. A Book blog 2021 by Books do Furnish a Room

    The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie I think this is my first Agatha Christie, although I may have read one in my teenage years. This is her first novel and introduces Hercule Poirot, her Belgian detective. It was published in 1916 and is set in the War in rural England. It was generally well received at the time and has what is now a standard type detective plot with plenty of clues and red herrings. It also introduces two of Poirot’s foils: Captain Hastings and Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard. It was written at a time when the world was changing and Christie does manage to imbue the novel with a sense of that change. A way of life is disappearing. Hastings is the narrator and he can be a little irritating at times. Here is the introduction of Poirot: ‘Poirot was an extraordinary-looking man. He was hardly more than five feet four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, but he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound. Yet this quaint dandified little man who, I was sorry to see, now limped badly, had been in his time one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police. As a detective, his flair had been extraordinary, and he had achieved triumphs by unravelling some of the most baffling cases of the day.’ Christie starts to build the relationship between Hastings and Poirot, which has its moments of levity: ‘“We must be so intelligent that he does not suspect us of being intelligent at all.” I acquiesced. “There, mon ami, you will be of great assistance to me.” I was pleased with the compliment. There had been times when I hardly thought that Poirot appreciated me at my true worth.’ It is worth noting that Christie does not try to subvert any gender stereotypes, rather to reinforce them. As one critic has noted the female characters are “garrulous, talking inconsequentially and at length about irrelevancies”. The spinster trope is also well used her in the figure of Evie Howard. The women here are all perceived in relation to the men around them. A cursory reading of this will highlight the attitudes towards women. It also depends of course, whether you enjoy tales of the English upper-middle classes bumping each other off in country houses. 6 out of 10 Starting Burley Cross Post Office Theft by Nicola Barker
  13. A Book blog 2021 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Sisters by Daisy Johnson I am a fan of Daisy Johnson. Increasingly so and this is her latest novel (well, novella) and is suitably gothic and disturbing. The premise is a fairly simple one and as always with Johnson there is proximity to water. July and September are teenage sisters born only ten months apart and are closer than twins, almost seeming to know what each other are thinking. They live with their mother in Oxford. Their estranged (and abusive) father is dead. The relationship between the two sisters is explored and is quite disturbing. They play a version of “Simon says”, now “September says” which often leads to July self-harming at her sister’s instruction. As July says “I was the puppet and had to do whatever she said”. The bond went back a long way: “Sometimes I think I can remember the days when we were so small we slept in one cot, four hands twisting above our heads, seeing the world from exactly the same viewpoint,” September was also July’s protector at school. At the start the family is driving north from Oxford following an unspecified incident involving the two sisters at school. They are being lent somewhere to stay by their mother Sheela’s sister-in-law. It is on the North Yorkshire coast very close to the sea, Settle House. It is the house where September and their late father were born. The house is a little run down: “rankled, bentoutashape, dirtyallover” And becomes a character in itself in a rather gothic sort of way. Small things happen, like a light bulb shattering. As July notes, “I can feel all the rooms behind me”. The narrative is mainly told by July with couple of short passages narrated by Sheela, the mother. There is a pretty significant twist towards the end, which I think that most readers will guess. One reviewer has referred to Johnson as the “demon offspring of Stephen King and Shirley Jackson”. Comparisons have certainly been made between this novel and Jackson’s “We have always lived in the Castle”. I think these comparisons are spurious as in this novel the characters lack the sense of entitlement of Jackson’s and there are no villagers to contend with. This certainly could be classed as horror as everything is fractured as we explore love and abuse. I’m trying to avoid spoilers (not easy in this case), but the prose is magnificent and it is fairly brief. It captures the power and danger of teenage emotions: "My sister is a black hole. My sister is a tornado. My sister is the end of the line my sister is the locked door my sister is a shot in the dark. My sister is waiting for me." 9 out of 10 Starting Crudo by Olivia Laing
  14. A Book blog 2021 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Nobody Nowhere by Donna Williams This is the first of Donna Williams’s autobiographies and covers her childhood and early adulthood until she is about 25. She identified as autistic and this is her account of how she experienced the world and other people. Narratives of illness and disability can be difficult, especially if they stray into self-help or preaching. This mostly doesn’t. Williams also suffered significant abuse from her mother and a sibling. She related to the world through two other personalities, Carol and Willie, each of whom had different functions. Matters were complicated when she was diagnosed with schizophrenia (wrongly, as it happens). Williams had a significant fear of other people and communicated through objects. Like many who are not neurotypical she was met with fear, misunderstanding and abuse. Williams collected the usual words attached to those who appear different: “mad, stupid, retarded, insane, wild, disturbed and so on.” Williams explains the problems she had eloquently, with some humour (which can help as the subject matter is difficult) and can explain what she was experiencing: "I knew the meanings of the words they used. I could even make meaning of many of their sentences. I could have tried to make a match with some information I had linked to key words they used. But I didn't understand the significance." As Oliver Sacks has pointed out, whatever medicine can do, only those experiencing a condition or state of mind can tell us what it is really like. Williams describes her experience of what might be termed common emotions remarkably well: "I used to think that nobody else really felt love because I didn't (or, if I did, then constant systems shut-downs made it a highly inconsistent and fragmented, almost unintelligible experience). I had learned how to pretend its existence, so I assumed that was what others did. To me, the illusion of love as a real thing was a sort of agreed-upon, mass social conspiracy to self-delude." There are a couple of chapters at the end where Williams explains more technically what her autism consists of and what it isn’t; she then gives some indicators as to how to approach someone with autism, adult or child. Some of this information would seem to be very useful, although I had some issues with the use of the word retardation. I have some experience with autism in terms of my work and there are as many different approaches and solutions as there are people. This is a very good account of a difficult and abusive childhood, adolescence and early adulthood from someone who has the ability to write eloquently about it all and to clearly explain how she experienced the world. 7 and a half out of 10 Starting The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
  15. A Book blog 2021 by Books do Furnish a Room

    Boy Blue by Stevie Davies This is Stevie Davies’s first novel and it won the Fawcett Prize. On the surface this is a family saga set over a couple of generations from 1944. The war is still going with rationing and the new threat of V2 bombs. The novel is set in Salisbury in a working class area and follows the Gartery family. Chrissie is eighteen and falls in love with a soldier about to go to Italy (Jim). They marry quickly and Chrissie became pregnant. The focus is on Chrissie, her mother and father, her two sisters Minnie and Lilian and Chrissie’s daughter Florence. It is written in typical Davies style, with much more going on beneath the surface. The effects of war and a warrior culture are charted in terms of the lives of women and Chrissie dreads giving birth (especially to a boy child) in a time of war: “ One night she dreamed … of giving birth to a ten-pound bomb, which slid out from between her legs in a trail of cold slime, and when she touched it the skin of her hand stuck to the freezing body. She woke the other girls in the dormitory with her screams. She would not survive. She realised this.” Chrissie is admitted to a truly awful maternity home and gives birth to twins: a boy and a girl. She bonds with the girl, but not with the boy and she arranges for the boy to be adopted without telling her family or husband. The notion of the missing boy twin runs throughout the novel. The effects of this visceral reaction last. The book charts how war alienates men from the feminine and women from the masculine. The men in the novel are a mixed bunch. Minnie’s husband is a violent abuser. Chrissie’s father was seriously debilitated by depression. The book is full of strong women who essentially get on with things. The focus is on the experience of women. It’s a good novel, not Davies’s best and there are language problems in relation to Downs Syndrome. It is though an interesting exploration of alienation. 7 out of 10 Starting The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor