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What's it Like Out by Penelope Gilliat

This is a collection of nine short stories written in the mid-1960s when Gilliatt was married to the playwright John Osborne. Gilliatt also wrote a few novels. Interestingly, one of them was about London during a pandemic. The stories were originally published in the New Yorker magazine. Gilliat picks up on the odd and unusual and has a good eye for dialogue. The characters are portrayed warts and all and often communication and connection are the key and character is crucial.
Gilliatt is also very good with one liners. An older couple who have ceased to speak to each other:
“No one understands loneliness if they haven’t been married,”
The Redhead covers a whole life and Harriet is the redhead of the title. She is very tall and does not look conventional and her mother doesn’t like her:
"Mrs. Buckingham's dislike gave Harriet a sort of bristling resilience. She had from the beginning an immunity to other people's opinion of her, which isn't a characteristic that is much liked in women."
And also when she was an orderly in the First World War:
“Boadicea with a bedpan”
A review in the New York Times noted:
“All the stories deal with separation and disintegration: marriages break up, partnerships split; people grow away from each other, even as they fear the pain of parting.”
On the whole the stories are enjoyable. There were some tropes which were too obvious and a few issues with language. The novel about the pandemic looks interesting, but only because we are in one!

6 out of 10

Starting Glitter of Mica by Jessie Kesson

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Glitter of Mica by Jessie Kesson

This is the third novel I have read by Jessie Kesson. It tells the story of an isolated community in rural Scotland over a period of 30 years, mainly through the eyes of the head dairyman on one of the farms, Hugh Riddell. The novel does periodically switch to other points of view: to Hugh’s wife and daughter and other local residents. The community of Caldwell seems unchanging and insular, but modernity is creeping up. The setting is post Second World War, but the narrative is not really linear. There is a particular incident referred to near the beginning of the book and taking place near the end round which the whole thing revolves. There is a social hierarchy which the War has begun to loosen, but it is still there and Kesson is charting the start of its downfall.

At times the book feels as bleak as the landscape. There is the occasional flash of humour: for she was a tight woman and had she been a ghost she would have grudged giving you a fright”. And the character of Sue Tatt brings a certain humour, but her portrayal is as poignant as it is amusing.

There are times when the dialect is a little difficult and for me I enjoyed Kesson’s other two novels I have read more. But if you like bleak then this may be for you!

6 and a half out of 10

Starting Shorts and Thoughts by Maggie Fogarty

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Red Shelley by Paul Foot

Of all the upper and middle class white boy poets of the early nineteenth century: Keats, Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley, Southey, Coleridge etc, for me there has only really been one that mattered: Shelley. Paul Foot has eloquently reminded me why. It was Marx who allegedly said that if Byron had lived he would have become a bourgeois reactionary (like Wordsworth), but if Shelley had lived he would have remained radical and been in the vanguard of socialism and revolution. This may come as a surprise to some who may be used to reading the Shelley they find in the anthologies and peddled by the Shelley society. Foot looks at all of Shelley’s writing and shows that his prose is as important as his poetry and that his views were truly radical for the time. He also expressed his anger eloquently. Take the beginning of The Mask of Anarchy, for me his most important poem, where he reacts to the Peterloo massacre. Castlereagh is the prime minister of the time and Shelley was in Italy:

I

As I lay asleep in Italy

There came a voice from over the Sea,
And with great power it forth led me
To walk in the visions of Poesy.

II

I met Murder on the way -

He had a mask like Castlereagh -
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him:

 

III

All were fat; and well they might

Be in admirable plight,

For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.

Foot deals with a number of aspects of Shelley’s thought. His atheism is pretty straightforward and stayed with him throughout his life. Those who have tried to tame Shelley have tried to argue he moved towards religion in later life, but Foot deals with this effectively. His republicanism is again incontrovertible. Foot also deals with his attitude to women and his attitudes to reform and revolution. Shelley was always aware of injustice. This is from a pamphlet called “Address to the people on the Death of Princess Charlotte”:

“Thus much the death of the Princess Charlotte has in common with the death of thousands. How many women die in childbed and leave their families of motherless children and their husbands to live on, blighted by the remembrance of that heavy loss? How many women of active and energetic virtues—mild, affectionate, and wise, whose life is as a chain of happiness and union, which once being broken, leaves those whom it bound to perish, have died, and have been deplored with bitterness, which is too deep for words? Some have perished in penury or shame, and their orphan baby has survived, a prey to the scorn and neglect of strangers. Men have watched by the bedside of their expiring wives, and have gone mad when the hideous death-rattle was heard within the throat, regardless of the rosy child sleeping in the lap of the unobservant nurse. The countenance of the physician had been read by the stare of this distracted husband, till the legible despair sunk into his heart. All this has been and is. You walk with a merry heart through the streets of this great city, and think not that such are the scenes acting all around you. You do not number in your thought the mothers who die in childbed. It is the most horrible of ruins:—In sickness, in old age, in battle, death comes as to his own home; but in the Season of joy and hope, when life should succeed to life, and the assembled family expects one more, the youngest and the best beloved, that the wife, the mother—she for whom each member of the family was so dear to one another, should die!—Yet thousands of the poorest poor, whose misery is aggravated by what cannot be spoken now, suffer this. And have they no affections? Do not their hearts beat in their bosoms, and the tears gush from their eyes? Are they not human flesh and blood? Yet none weep for them—none mourn for them—none when their coffins are carried to the grave (if indeed the parish furnishes a coffin for all) turn aside and moralize upon the sadness they have left behind.”

I could add similar quotes on Ireland and on other subjects: Shelley’s prose surprises. So does his poetry. This is called A Ballad and wasn’t published until 120 years after his death. I wonder why?

A woman came up with a babe at her breast

Which was flaccid with toil and hunger-

She cried- “Give me food and give me rest

We die if I wait much longer-

 

The poor thing sucks and no milk will come;

He would cry but his strength is gone –

His wasting weakness has left him dumb -

Ye can hardly hear him moan.

 

The skin round his eyes is pale and blue –

His eyes are glazed – not with tears –

I wish for a little moment that you –

Could know what a mother fears.

 

Give me a piece of that fine white bread;

I would give you some blood for it –

Before I faint and my infant is dead –

O give me a little bit.

Shelley didn’t stop at the observation of poverty, he wanted to know why people are poor and what could be done about it. He even developed a form of what became known as The Labour Theory of Value and talked about liquidating landed wealth and privilege in his notes on Queen Mab. This is Shelley asking what freedom is from The Mask of Anarchy:

 

“Thou art not, as impostors say,

A shadow soon to pass away,

A superstition, and a name

Echoing from the cave of Fame.

 

                              

`For the labourer thou art bread,

And a comely table spread

From his daily labour come

In a neat and happy home.                                            220

 

              

`Thou art clothes, and fire, and food

For the trampled multitude--

No -- in countries that are free

Such starvation cannot be

As in England now we see.”

 

Although Shelley argued for universal suffrage, he also warned that the granting of it would not solve the problems we faced as power and privilege would remain. How right he was.

 

His approach to marriage was clear. This is from The Revolt of Islam:

 

“Well with the world art thou unreconciled;

Never will peace and human nature meet

Till free and equal man and woman greet

Domestic peace; and ere this power can make

In human hearts its calm and holy seat,

This slavery must be broken”

 

And this:

 

“Can man be free if woman be a slave?

Chain one who lives, and breathes this boundless air,

To the corruption of a closèd grave!

Can they, whose mates are beasts condemned to bear

Scorn heavier far than toil or anguish, dare

To trample their oppressors? In their home,

Among their babes, thou knowest a curse would wear

The shape of woman--hoary Crime would come

Behind, and Fraud rebuild Religion's tottering dome”

 

His approach to society is clear in Men of England:

 

 

Men of England, wherefore plough

For the lords who lay ye low?

Wherefore weave with toil and care

The rich robes your tyrants wear?

The seed ye sow, another reaps;

The wealth ye find, another keeps;

The robes ye weave, another wears;

The arms ye forge, another bears.

Sow seed—but let no tyrant reap:

Find wealth—let no imposter heap:

Weave robes—let not the idle wear:

Forge arms—in your defence to bear.

 

There is much more in this and similar vein in The Revolt of Islam, Queen Mab, The Mask of Anarchy, Swellfoot the Tyrant and Peter Bell the Third.

 

Foot does not hero worship or idolize Shelley; he delineates his faults and inconsistencies. What he does do though is show that at heart he is a radical who believed in radical solutions (for the time) to society’s problems. Some of those solutions would still be radical for our times sadly. For me there is only one of that group of poets who stays with me and that is Shelley.

9 out of 10

Starting Seahenge by Francis Pryor

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Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

I read this in conjunction with Jasmine and Stars: Reading more than Lolita in Tehran by Fatemeh Keshavarz. The second is a reaction to the first and I found reading them in conjunction very helpful. The publicity blurb for the book is helpful:

“Every Thursday morning for two years in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a bold and inspired teacher named Azar Nafisi secretly gathered seven of her most committed female students to read forbidden Western classics. As Islamic morality squads staged arbitrary raids in Tehran, fundamentalists seized hold of the universities, and a blind censor stifled artistic expression, the girls in Azar Nafisi’s living room risked removing their veils and immersed themselves in the worlds of Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov.”

This is primarily a memoir. Nafisi describes her experience in Iran from the Revolution until she left for the US in 1997. For some of that time she taught literature at Tehran University. The class described above took place in the last two years before she left. The memoir jumps around a good deal and ranges around the 1980s and late 1970s. The discussions around books mainly revolve around Nafisi’s lectures. The Thursday meetings seem to revolve around more mundane matters like food, relationships, and issues around wearing the veil.

Much as I disapprove of the Iranian regime, as I disapprove of any regime based on religion, I found many of Nafisi’s criticisms rather short-sighted and simplistic whilst not minimizing the problems she faced. I could also have done without the teaching on James and Fitzgerald! There are more important concerns. Much of the criticism of this book centres on what is called New or Neo Orientalism. Hamid Dabashi accused Nafisi of playing the role that Thomas Macaulay had asked of the class of Indian civil servants in the Raj:

'We must do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, a class of persons Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, words and intellect.'

It is based on Said’s original concept which examined European justifications for being involved in the Eastern Hemisphere. New Orientalism scapegoats Islam for many ills and negates all nuanced interpretation. It has a tendency to prefer Western culture and politics. Keshavarz argues that often this New Orientalism is cloaked in an insider perspective as in this narrative. She names a number of others as well. There is a danger that books like this feed into the vehemently anti-Islamic and anti-anything but the West narratives and feelings in Western culture. There is a hostility in our culture to otherness and I think this is in danger of feeding that. That doesn’t negate the author’s experience, but reading the two books together was illuminating. Reviewing them separately is trickier! Keshavarz seemed much more sympathetic to the Iranian people and I learnt more from her account (review to follow).

5 and a half out of 10

Starting Mean Little Deaf Queer by Terry Galloway

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Jasmine and Stars: Reading more than Lolita in Tehran by Fatemeh Keshavarz

Keshavarz wrote this as a response to Reading Lolita in Tehran (RLT) and I have read the two books together. She was concerned that Nafisi had misrepresented Iran and Iranian culture, but especially Iranian women. As Keshavarz says herself:

“The greatest omission in the content of Nafisi’s book is that it overlooks the agency and presence of Iranian women in the social and intellectual domain.  That is ironic particularly because the book’s main claim is to tell the untold story of women in post-revolutionary Iran.  If Reading Lolita in Tehran is the only book you have read about Iran, you would not be able to imagine that vibrant Iranian women writers such as Shahrnush Parsipur, Simin Behbahani, and Simin Danishvar ever existed, let alone imagine that they wrote during the same period that Nafisi’s book covers.  You would not guess that post-revolutionary Iranian cinema has women writers and directors as outspoken as Tahmineh Milani and Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, or that women activists such as the Peace Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi spoke and wrote about women and children’s rights during the same period.  And these are only a few examples.”

This is not a negative book. Keshavarz looks at Iranian culture and literature pre and post revolution including poets and mystics. There is a close reading of Shahrnoush Parsipur's Women Without Men (1989), she describes the effect on her classmates of the early death of the poet Forrough Farrokhzad. There are poets, mystics, novelists, film makers, philosophers and many more.

The arguments are convincing and she goes through RLT in detail pointing out inconsistencies and the flatness of many of the players. Keshavarz draws on New Orientalism perspectives to make her point; she also points to the Westernization of goodness in RLT, an unqualified attribution of good things with the West. One of the problems is that readers, especially in the West, tend to bring many preconceived ideas with them about Islam and the situation in the Middle East and RLT just reinforces them with no thought or analysis.

Keshavarz sets the record straight and as a result my to be read list has suddenly grown a little longer!

8 out of 10

Starting  The long way to a small angry planet by Becky Chambers

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Shorts and Thoughts by Maggie Fogarty

This is a set of short stories designed to make you think and to have an edge, creating a little disturbance with a twist along the way. The themes are obsession, life changing decisions, growing old, loss, life changes and the lonely and isolated. There are eight in all. What drew my attention to the collection was the fact that the author is donating half the profits to the Social Work Benevolent Fund. Being a social worker myself, how could I resist! Maggie Fogarty worked for Social Work Today in the 1980s and has reported on social affairs issues for many years. She has worked as a TV producer and journalist, but also writes. She has written a novel and some novellas. This collection was put together to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the British Association of Social Workers.

The stand out story for me was Two Doors, partly because it resonated for me personally. It is about a Child Protection social worker who has a decision to make; there are two urgent visits that need to be done, but which one does she prioritise. Inevitably she prioritises the wrong one and a child dies. She is vilified in the press and has to leave her job and change her identity. The story is brief and looks at her new life whilst reflecting on her old one. Although I work with adults and not children I face decisions like that several times a week. Although I manage a team of social workers I make sure the buck stops with me. I have more work to allocate than people to allocate to. So I have to decide who gets seen and when. It is difficult and often there are no right answers, just the lesser of the evils and no one notices when we get it right.

Other stories of note involve a woman finally confronting her father who was responsible for a childhood trauma, a woman with an acquired brain injury who wakes up every day with no memories of the day before and relies on notes and diaries to start again (yes, I know this has been done before, but this is shorter and more effective). There is a man recalling his life with his wife, a radio agony aunt who gets very involved in a domestic abuse situation. A woman who was an ex surveillance officer in the police force carries on what she did as work into her daily life without work; she researches the lives of those she comes across and “tries to help” with somewhat disturbing results. Unravelling Freddie is about a group of council workers whose job it is to dig into the lives of people who die alone and try to find family friends and connections. Deadline is about a woman who sits on a government committee whose task it is to think the unthinkable. Her area is end of life.

This is a good collection of stories which grew on me because they stay with you after reading and they do make you think. You may find things to question ore disagree with, but you do have to react. Recommended and cheap (at £3.99) with enough edge to satisfy.

9 out of 10

Starting A Lost Lady by Wi;;a Cather

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A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

This is a fairly brief work by Cather; written after the Plains trilogy and before her more reflective later works. It is set in a western town called Sweet Water built on the Transcontinental Railway. It tells the story of Captain Forrester and especially his younger wife Marian. It is mainly told by a young man Niel Herbert. His uncle Judge Pommeroy is the local lawyer. The centre of the book is the character of Marin Forrester who might be described as a socialite somewhat stifled by an older husband and the limited local society. The novel is a study in change and decline.

One of the themes in the novel is the harking back to a better and more noble times. Men like Captain Forrester were amongst the original pioneers of the west:

“One day was like another, and all were glorious: good hunting, plenty of antelope and buffalo, boundless sunny sky, boundless plains of waving grass, long fresh water lagoons yellow with lagoon flowers, where the bison in their periodic migrations stopped to drink and bathe and wallow. “An ideal life for a young man,” the Captain pronounced.

There is an idealized nostalgia in the novel as new and younger men (like Ivy Peters in the novel) came along and took over from the old pioneers. It is a common trend: the English do it as well. There is a golden age in the past, ruined by the nastiness of the present. In this case, what is missed is the fact that the pioneers had taken land that was already owned and settled by Native American peoples. Whilst Cather looks back with warmth:

"He had seen the end of an ear, the sunset of the pioneer. He had come upon it when already the glory was nearly spent. So in the buffalo times a traveller used to come upon the embers of a hunter's fire on the prairie, after the hunter was up and gone; the coals would be trampled out, but the ground was warm, and the flattened grass where he had slept and where his pony had grazed, told the story."

The reality was very different.

The novel is well written and is really a study of character. Hermione Lee in her introduction identifies three parallel plots. Firstly Captain Forrester’s gradual decline, secondly Marian Forrester’s story with its passion and contradiction and finally the framing story of Niel Herbert. Marian’s story is also clearly a narrative of female sexuality, in this case a pathologized sexuality. This is the point where Niel realises that Mrs Forrester has taken a lover following her husband’s stroke:

“In that instant between stooping to the window-sill and rising, he had lost one of the most beautiful things in his life. Before the dew dried, the morning had been wrecked for him; and all subsequent mornings, he told himself bitterly. This day saw the end of that admiration and loyalty that had been like a bloom on his existence. He could never recapture it. It was gone, like the morning freshness of the flowers.

Niel is a rather prim and irritating young man, who has a particular view of women and what they should be. Take his recollection of when he first saw Marian Forrester:

“He could remember the very first time he ever saw Mrs Forrester, when he was a little boy. He had been loitering in front of the Episcopal Church one Sunday morning, when a low carriage drove up to the door. Ben Keezer was on the front seat, and on the back seat was a lady, alone, in a black silk dress all puffs and ruffles, and a black hat, carrying a parasol with a carved ivory handle. As the carriage stopped she lifted her dress to alight; out of a swirl of foamy white petticoats she thrust a black, shiny slipper. She stepped lightly to the ground and with a nod to the driver went into the church. The little boy followed her through the open door, saw her enter a pew and kneel. He was proud now that at the first moment he had recognised her as belonging to a different world from any he had ever known.”

There is also an example of racist language in a comment from Judge Pommeroy to Mrs Forrester. He is talking about the contrast between modern business and the pioneers:

“By God Madam, I think I’ve lived too long! In my day the difference a business man and a scoundrel was bigger than the difference between a white man and a n****r”

It isn’t just a casual reference, it’s a comparator.

This is meant to be one of Cather’s better works: I hope not! I understand the nostalgia industry and the portrayal of a decline of mores and standards and some of the characterisation is interesting, but the whole was problematic for me.

5 out of 10

Starting A Clear Stream by Marion Shaw

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The Tale of Genji

I read the Royall Tyler translation and the Folio Society edition. One of the bonuses of the edition I read is the marvellous art work. Well over a thousand pages long and over a thousand years old (written between 1000 and 1012). I can well understand how people can spend their whole lives studying this and around this. Sadly I didn’t discover this in my youth but nevertheless it was a wonderful reading experience. Not easy to follow all the time as there is a myriad of characters and it is most important to remember that they are identified by rank or role rather than by name as a rule. It has a claim to be the first novel and was written by a woman.

The tale is primarily about Genji and his doings (and misdoings), although he does die about two thirds of the way through, but there are also strong female characters. Woolf was a fan and she noted that it was originally meant to be read aloud:

“listeners ... were grown-up people ... absorbed ... in the contemplation of mans nature; how passionately he desires things that are denied; how his longing for a life of tender intimacy is always thwarted; ... how beautiful the falling snow is, and how, as he watches it, he longs more than ever for someone to share his solitary joy.”

I will avoid the controversies (and there are many) and just say it is well worth taking out time to read this. Read a version with explanations and footnotes, these are very necessary.

9 out of 10

Starting Call me Ahab by Anne Finger

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That's a monumental read - well done.  I've been intrigued by this for some time.  I was put off actually reading by several reviews from people whose judgement I respect, who said that it was like a lot of myths/legends, telling what happened without much development of character or much else.  But then, I respect your reviews too - they've so often been right on the nail in how I think.  Several doorstoppers to tackle - better make a start soon!

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On 19/07/2020 at 10:39 AM, Books do furnish a room said:

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

 

This is meant to be one of Cather’s better works: I hope not! I understand the nostalgia industry and the portrayal of a decline of mores and standards and some of the characterisation is interesting, but the whole was problematic for me.

5 out of 10

 

That comment suggests this is your first Cather book?  If so, I'd suggest reading My Antonia or O Pioneers, both books in the Plains trilogy, before coming to a conclusion.If, however, part of the problematic issue is the exclusion of Native Americans, then they probably won't help, as the focus is completely on the pioneer settlers, and Native Americans simply don't feature.

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I've been thinking about getting a copy of The Tale of Genji once I finally finish with 1001 Arabian Nights so thanks for your review.

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The Tale of Genji isn't easy and I would suggest a copy with plenty of notes and explanations it makes a huge difference.

Willpyd, I've read Shadows on the Rock, which I enjoyed more, but I will read more at some point.

 

The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

If you are looking for cheerful and uplifting, don’t start here: the title gives it away. The main protagonist is Stephen Gordon, named Stephen because her father wanted a boy and stuck with the chosen name when a girl arrived. This is a very English novel:

“Not very far from Upton-on-Severn–between it, in fact, and the Malvern Hills–stands the country seat of the Gordons of Bramberly; well-timbered, well-cottaged, well-fenced and well-watered, having, in this latter respect, a stream that forks in exactly the right position to feed two large lakes in the grounds.”

Stephen is upper class and whatever else she suffers in the novel, she is never poor.

It’s impossible to avoid mentioning the trial for obscenity in 1928. The impetus came from the tabloid press and the obscenity?

"she kissed her full on the lips, as a lover" and "and that night, they were not divided"

It was really about the depiction of a lifestyle, especially the sections set in Paris after the First World War. However battle lines were drawn and writers like Shaw, Eliot, the Woolfs, Forster, Smyth, Jameson and Wells amongst others. Although only a limited number (such as Woolf and Forster were prepared to testify). The outcome was a foregone conclusion and the novel was not published in the UK until 1949, after Hall’s death.

Inevitably there has been a great deal of debate about this book over the years with views and opinions changing and ebbing to and fro. One ongoing discussion is whether Stephen as she is described was transgender. As she says to her mother: "All my life I’ve never felt like a woman, and you know it."

There is a particular use of language as well. The use of the term invert stems from the work of Havelock Ellis. It is not, thankfully, a term that has survived.

Hall covers a good deal of ground in the 450 pages and the depiction of the bars and sub-culture of Paris in the 1920s are well drawn. France did not have the laws against homosexuality that some other countries had.

On particular aside, some of the minor characters are very strong. Puddle, one of Stephen’s later governesses, who is clearly lesbian is well portrayed. The animals in particular play an important role and are well written.

Reactions to this novel have been strong in both directions, for many it was the only lesbian novel they had heard of. Mary Renault, who read it in 1938 recalls it as being earnest and humourless. However one Holocaust survivor noted:  "Remembering that book, I wanted to live long enough to kiss another woman."

The ebb and flow go on. Hannah Roche has recently reassessed The Well:

“Was Hall cleverly turning to a Victorian mode in order to critique the politics of modernism, challenging the value of aesthetic experiment and obscurity? I argue not only that The Well was stylistically as impressive as the most celebrated of ‘difficult’ 1920s novels, but also that, by boldly appropriating an accepted (and heteronormative) genre, Hall makes a statement about the rightful position of lesbian writing that dares to strike its readers in ways more direct and profound than the audaciously avant-garde.”

For me, I understand its importance and I wasn’t expecting a happy ending (I wasn’t disappointed in that). Puddle’s advice to Stephen is powerful:

“You’re neither unnatural, nor abominable, nor mad; you’re as much a part of what people call nature as anyone else; only you’re unexplained as yet–you’ve not got your niche in creation. But some day that will come, and meanwhile don’t shrink from yourself, but face yourself calmly and bravely. Have courage; do the best you can with your burden. But above all be honourable. Cling to your honour for the sake of those others who share the same burden. For their sakes show the world that people like you and they can be quite as selfless and fine as the rest of mankind. Let your life go to prove this–it would be a really great life-work, Stephen.”

There’s still an element of apologizing for who you are and carrying a burden, but then even today the struggle continues.

Many problems in the novel arise from a lack of communication, but nothing has changed there! You can see the ending coming from a long way off, although the means is not obvious until late in the book. It’s not that well written and doesn’t stand up well to Orlando, which was published in the same year. Another point is that pity is not the best way of trying to get people on your side.

The interesting contrast between Stephen and Valerie Seymour is also illustrative. Seymour hosts a salon and is a pagan, no rleigion and has no problems with ethical dilemmas as a result of her lesbianism. Stephen holds onto the structures of Catholicism (on and off) and can’t manage to square her sexuality with her faith. Stephen’s relationship with her mother (who rejects her) also runs through the novel.

I can understand the importance of this novel at the time, but that time has gone and it feels more like a historical document, but I am glad I read it. The story is unbearably sad, but you can’t always have happy ever after.

7 out of 10

Starting Disoriental by Negar Djavadi

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The boy with the perpetual nervousness by Graham Caveney

This is a memoir of adolescence and of abuse by a Catholic priest/headmaster. Caveney was born in 1964 into a working class Catholic family in Accrington. He describes a typical adolescence of an intelligent working class boy and obsessions with music, girls, friends, drink and literature. He attends a Catholic school and his headmaster Father O’Neill takes an interest in him and his adolescent ramblings and takes him to theatre, cinema and concerts. Caveney describes the grooming process very well and the sexual abuse. He also charts the effect it had on him:

“The abuse leads you to f**k up your life, and a f****d-up life means that you’re a less credible witness to the abuse that f****d you up in the first place. It’s an ironic trick of memory and survival: abuse makes you want to forget the abuse.”

Most of the descriptions of Caveney’s adolescence are pretty typical for the time. As he says himself “bad poetry, Beckett and dread”, music by Joy Division (with him there), The Fall, Patti Smith and so on. Left wing politics, the SWP, Marx, Wilde, Shelley, Paul Foot, Tom Robinson, Sartre and so on. It all sounds very familiar. However I was lucky enough not to go to Caveney’s school.

The abuse is a dominant theme inevitably and Caveney has plenty of questions:

“Was it me or simply my youth that gave the priest the hard-on? It’s a stupid question isn’t it? How can I possibly separate out who I was from the age I was?”

There is a powerful passage in the book which examines the music industry and its penchant for glamourizing young women in inappropriate ways. Mentioning the treatment of Lena Zavaroni, Don’t stand so close to me by the Police, Sonny Boy Williamson’s Good Morning Schoolgirl (covered by Van Morrison, ZZ top, The Yardbirds and the Grateful Dead, Fourteen by The Vandals, Young Girl by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, Jailbait and I am a Predator by Ted Nugent. We haven’t even mentioned Gary Glitter, Bill Wyman, Jerry Lee Lewis or Chuck Berry.

Caveney also talks a great deal about coming to terms with the abuse and some of the contradictory processes this involves:

“In disclosing my experiences of sexual abuse I am bound to sell myself short. The available language is inadequate and so I have to cut my experiential cloth accordingly. I tidy it up or minimise it. I may ironize, or dramatize, or contextualize and yet after each statement what I want to shout is: But it’s not that. Not really. It’s something else.

This is, I think, one of the many reasons people are reluctant to come forward. There is not only the shame, the fear, the guilt, but there is also the sense that what they have to say is so deeply embedded (and embodied), that talking about it would be failing to do it justice. Each statement or revelation would in a sense be just one more injustice, another thing stolen from you, just another way the inner world and the outer world fail to connect. “

Caveney did eventually report O’Neill in the early 1990s (following a suicide attempt). He was still headmaster at the time. He did admit it with the comment “it takes two to tango”. He was allowed to retire with honours and was sent to the US for “therapy”. He was never charged with any crime and died in 2011. At his and Cavaney’s old school there is now a wing named after him. The Church still has a long way to go.

One of Caveney’s friends in the SWP made a pertinent point:

“Our society is organised violently or has violence at its core. All of our transactions and interactions are conducted from a place of inequality, which means there is someone who has got the power and someone who hasn’t.”

This memoir is told with brutal honesty and Caveney is clear about his own faults and shortcomings, talking a little about his therapy and his struggles with alcohol and drugs. But the real villain here is a priest in charge of a school who abused a fifteen year old boy (and who knows who else) and who essentially got away with it thanks to the Catholic Church.

9 out of 10

Starting Black Teeth and a brilliant smile by Adelle Stripe

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Having read The Well of Loneliness, I found your review particularly interesting. I can't disagree with any of it, other than, perhaps, the score at the end!  I have to agree with Mary Renault - I found it very earnest, utterly humourless, and (although she doesn't say this?) as dull as ditchwater; I can't say I can describe myself as actually glad to have read it.  Your description of it as more like an historical document rather nails it for me.  I gave it 2/6.

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Mean Little Deaf Queer by Terry Galloway

This memoir by Terry Galloway is brutally honest, an account of her life and struggles with deafness. Her mother was injected with an experimental drug when she was pregnant. This caused problems in Galloway’s childhood and at the age of nine she began to lose her hearing and see visions:

“Until they turned menacing, I kept my visions strictly to myself.  I took to thinking of them as fragile wonders…  If I didn’t keep them private, shield them from idle prying, ridicule or disbelief, they’d wither into dust, the same way my own secret heart would wither if I ever admitted aloud the longing for other little girls that was growing there.” 

She records the way other people changed towards her, trials and tribulations at school and having to go to summer camp with those described as “special”. Her struggles with sexuality are equally hilarious and heartrending. One of Galloway’s passions is theatre and her theatrical adventures are worth reading. She has been a theatre artist and an advocate of disability rights. Galloway charts the history of the way she experienced discrimination for her disability and her sexuality. Galloway admits at various times having desires for both men and women and switches between masculine and feminine gender identifications.

Galloway is very frank and not afraid to outline her own mistakes and deficiencies. There is humour as well as controversy. She also talks about her sexual escapades:

 "One side effect of my deafness is that I'm always presuming a physical intimacy, usually where there is none. … I can't tell you the number of ill-conceived affairs I've had as an adult that started with me putting my hand on someone's collarbone ( which conducts sound like a hollow reed ) and fastening my gaze on their lips as if it were all I could do not to bite. It was an inadvertent pickup technique I ought to have found (but didn't) shameful and misleading."

Galloway does ramble off the point sometimes, but this is well worth reading and she is thought provoking.

7 out of 10

Starting Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

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Women who blow on knots by Ece Temelkuran

This is a book about sisterhood and a road trip through the Arab Spring. There are three younger women and one in her 70s. They travel through Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and finally The Lebanon by car, boat and camel. The title of the novel is from the Koran:

 “The verse begins with a decree ’Keep away from the inauspicious women who blow on knots’. Keep away from the inauspicious enchantresses For God knows just what we are capable of.”

It has also been given other titles on translation, “What good is a revolution if I cannot dance to it,” referencing Emma Goldman. Both titles are quite apt.

‘And that is how it all began. We were three women fated to take refuge in a story, looking out for each other as we moved forwards, three women soon to become four.’

And the novel begins:

“We’re on the run. Barreling south in a white car at a hundred and forty kilometers an hour. I’m in the back. On my left a woman with a yellow wig aslant on her head, as still as stone. On my right a bald woman wearing a white headscarf, her leg bouncing up and down. An elderly one-eyed man is at the wheel. An old grey-haired woman dressed in lilac silk is riding shotgun with her face to the wind, without a care in the world.

The bald woman says, “Where are we going?”

The old woman, “South.”

Angry, the bald woman digs in:

“Just how far south?”

The old woman replies:

“Way down south.”

Not long ago I was about to make my way back to Istanbul. Now I’m on the brink of the most terrifying and wonderful trip I’ve ever taken. I remember how it all began and to this day I still have a hard time believing it ever really happened.”

 

The narrator is a Turkish journalist, Amira is a Tunisian dancer and blogger, Maryam is an Egyptian academic and Madam Lilla is possibly a courtesan, possibly spy-mistress and who knows what else, belying her seventy something years.

There is a good deal about goddess myths and particularly Dido, plenty of problems with travel (especially the camels), some talk about men (who play a relatively minor role), talk of politics and the Arab spring, food and drink, plenty of silliness, a brief brush with the Russian mafia, a small amount of magic realism, plenty of frivolity and intellectual musings. Along with the social comment and satire there is something filmic about it. The characterisation is excellent and there is no stereotyping, all are believable. Temelkuran says that the main concept of the book “is that women blow life into things, into men, into children, into anything. They create life.”

The motivations and the stories of the women are told gradually and the stories, especially that of Madam Lilla build gradually.

I really enjoyed this; it took a while to get going, but it’s an interesting look at four countries during the Arab spring: and it’s a road trip!

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Jubilee by Margaret Walker

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Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile by Adelle Stripe

“Cause it's a bittersweet symphony this life
Trying to make ends meet, you're a slave to the money then you die.

 

This one matters.

 

This is a novel about the life of playwright Andrea Dunbar, fiction but with a strong basis of reality and using many of Dunbar’s own words. Dunbar was born within a year of me and I remember her name from the 1980s and particularly from the film version of her play “Rita, Sue and Bob Too”. Dunbar was born lived and died in Bradford, on the Buttershaw estate. It is one of the edge of town council estates so prevalent in the north of England: bleak, run-down, brutal, abandoned sinkholes so typical of Thatcher’s Britain. Ignored by successive governments (apart from a few weasel words), dominated by benefits culture, debt, poverty, violence and despair. There is a sense of community but it is under siege and very much against the world.

Dunbar began writing in her teens and wrote three plays, The Arbor, Rita Sue and Bob Too and Shirley. The first was written at the age of 15 whilst she was still at school as a CSE assignment; the story of a Bradford schoolgirl who gets pregnant to a Pakistani boyfriend on a racist estate. This mirrored Dunbar’s own life as she went on to have her first child in exactly these circumstances. Dunbar wrote what she heard and had a genius for dialogue. Her prose is straight from those around her. Dunbar died in 1990 from a brain haemorrhage, with three children from three different fathers. She found the world of the Arts, Theatre and Film entirely alien and unwelcoming and hated the publicity from her work. Dunbar had been pilloried in the tabloids for her bleak portrayal of working class life in Rita Sue and Bob too. She disowned the film version because it had been made too comedic and the end had been rewritten to make it a little less bleak.

The dialogue in this novel is brilliant, the characters are not there for likeability and Dunbar captures it all. The tabloids were not impressed and there was a lot of hostility. At the press conference for the first screening of Rita Sue and Bob Too (which Dunbar refused to go to) George Costigan, the actor who played Bob said: “How do you know what the realities are of life in the north”. Dunbar led a tough life, she was the victim of domestic violence on numerous occasions and Stripe documents some of these: they are difficult to read. Dunbar also spent time in a Women’s Aid refuge and it was while she was there that her work came to the attention of Max Stafford-Clarke at the Royal Court.

The men in this novel are pretty grim, drunkards and abusers on the estate. Towards the end of her life Dunbar did say that she no longer wanted to work with men after her experiences of them. Stripe comments about the young men on the estate in the novel “they already had the face of old men, drinkers and robbers”. This is depressingly true.

This isn’t hagiography, but you do get to know Dunbar well and this is a brilliant novel.

9 out of 10

Starting The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey

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Call me Ahab by Anne Finger

These short stories are a reimagination of characters who have some form of disability in history and literature; changing settings or times and rethinking. There are nine stories: Van Gogh is in Reagan’s New York, a retelling of Moby Dick from Ahab’s point of view, the story of Ned Ludd the legendary originator of the Luddites, an imaginary meeting between Frida Kahlo and Helen Keller, a retelling of King Lear where a gay man descended from the Boston Brahmins is dying of AIDS (instead of daughters he has sons), another imaginary meeting between Rosa Luxemburg and Antonio Gramsci, the story about Mari Barbola the dwarf pictured in Velazquez’s “Las Meninas” splices sharply into that of Lia Graf a dwarf in Auschwitz, a modern retelling of David and Goliath is from Goliath’s point of view in the midst of the modern conflict in the West Bank/Gaza, The Blind Marksman is set in a Soviet Republic.

The stories vary in quality: Vincent is sharp and imaginative, but others like The Blind Marksman and the meeting between Luxemburg and Gramsci less so. The author inhabits her characters well and so we see the workings of Goliath’s mind and his feelings. Endings are rarely tidy and we are left often on the verge of something decisive happening, but not quite there, an anticipation. There are queer histories in Helen and Frida, Moby Dick or the Leg and Gloucester (the Lear retelling). Our Ned is worked like a nineteenth century bildungsroman and took me back to my historical studies and the history of the Luddites. Captain Ahab has miraculously survived on a pacific atoll and arrives in the modern world to discover Moby Dick and Ishmael’s version of his story. He has to put the facts as he sees them.

A certain historic and literary knowledge is required and all of the stories are interesting. The reader doesn’t feel like a tourist or voyeur and these are not self-improvement tales of overcoming disability. The reader is challenged and made to think. On the whole the stories are worth reading and one or two will stay with me.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting Say Something Back by Denise Riley

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Seahenge by Francis Pryor

Although the title of this indicates this might be about the discovery of a henge in the sea at Holme in north Norfolk in the late 1990s, but this only really comes to the fore in the last quarter of the book. This is more a history of Pryor’s own career and his work in the Fenland digs around Peterborough. Pryor is very engaging and there is an immediacy about this which makes it engaging. The book focuses particularly on four sites; Fengate, Etton/Maxey, Holme and Flag Fen.

What you get is a good deal of detective work and analysis because many of the structures did not have an obvious use. Pryor shows again and again that starting assumptions can be wrong and that it is a mistake to impose our own assumptions. I learnt that objects generally survive better in the damp, peaty, fenlike environments than dry ones. The timescale covered ranges from around 4000BC to about 800BC. Pryor is a practical archaeologist: he farms as well, can drive his own digger and gets his hands dirty. All this means he looks for practical solutions to puzzles rather than esoteric ones. A simple example is the separating of cattle into pens was thought by some to be for ritualistic reasons. Pryor pointed out that it was probably just to keep your herd separate from your neighbours and prevent inbreeding. He is sceptical about a lot of the mythology about druidism and the Celts: although he does accept the vital importance of trees. He rather thinks that ritual and the sacred was very much woven into everyday life.

Pryor does make some good points:

“Past times are just that – times that have past. Any mystery and magic inherent in them are mystery and magic that were there when they were in the present. The passage of time in itself adds nothing. But neither does it remove anything. That’s one reason why we must be careful not to patronise the lives and achievements of people who after all cannot speak for themselves.”

Pryor warns against what he calls chronocentrism: using a past culture for one’s own ends, whether to legitimate a spurious political history or to give false roots to a modern ideology. It’s another form of imperialism.

If you are interested in the past and don’t mind a bit of technical archaeology, you may enjoy this.

8 out of 10

Starting Intimations by Zadie Smith

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Intimations by Zadie Smith

It is inevitable that there will be a slew of books, memoirs, stories and reflections about lockdown and its effects. Zadie Smith seems to have got her contribution in first, this was published at the end of July. There is a nod to Marcus Aurelius and his meditations. Although Smith said that for her writing in lockdown was an obvious thing to do. She compares it to baking banana bread, playing Minecraft or working out to Joe Wicks (that may be a UK thing). On a personal note, I didn’t get a chance to do any of those things, having to go to work! Anyway I would probably have read! This is a brief read, only seventy pages or so.

There are half a dozen essays here; the longest is a series of sketches. They are mostly very personal and Smith also is sharply perceptive about herself in relation to others. This relates to a woman on her block in New York, who was normally aloof and appeared self-contained:

“Thing is, we’re a community, and we got each other’s back. You’ll be there for me, and I’ll be there for you, and we’ll all be there for each other, the whole building. Nothing to be afraid of – we’ll get through this, all of us, together.” “Yes, we will,” I whispered, hardly audible, even to myself”.

There is another conversation at a bus stop in London where she meets a family friend she hasn’t seen for a while. The woman is 58 and hasn’t yet reached the menopause: she is on her way to the doctors:

“I’m walking right in there and DEMANDING he brings it on, right now, because this is just silly business at this point.”

It is an intensely personal set of recollections, but there are big ideas here as well and the pandemic and Black Live Matter weigh heavily as an underscore to it all. There is a brief and brilliant piece of writing about contempt where talks about the Dominic Cummings fiasco and the death of George Floyd: the link being the absolute contempt with which those with power treat those they rule. Contempt is the real virus thinks Smith.

Then there is a brief piece about a meme popular during lockdown entitled “Suffering like Mel Gibson” which explores the idea that “misery is very precisely designed and is different for each person”.

There are reflections on contemporary America and particularly death in contemporary America:

 “in America, all of these involved some culpability on the part of the dead. Wrong place, wrong time. Wrong skin color. Wrong side of the tracks. Wrong Zip Code, wrong beliefs, wrong city. Wrong position of hands when asked to exit the vehicle. Wrong health insurance—or none. Wrong attitude to the police officer…. America has rarely been philosophically inclined to consider existence as a whole, preferring instead to attack death as a series of discrete problems. Wars on drugs, cancer, poverty, and so on. Not that there is anything ridiculous about trying to lengthen the distance between the dates on our birth certificates and the ones on our tombstones: ethical life depends on the meaningfulness of that effort. But perhaps nowhere in the world has this effort—and its relative success—been linked so emphatically to money as it is in America.”

This is a quick easy read, some reflection, some polemic, very personal and thoughtful. It would have benefitted from some tighter editing, but maybe that’s the point.

8 out of 10

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Intimations by Zadie Smith

It is inevitable that there will be a slew of books, memoirs, stories and reflections about lockdown and its effects. Zadie Smith seems to have got her contribution in first, this was published at the end of July. There is a nod to Marcus Aurelius and his meditations. Although Smith said that for her writing in lockdown was an obvious thing to do. She compares it to baking banana bread, playing Minecraft or working out to Joe Wicks (that may be a UK thing). On a personal note, I didn’t get a chance to do any of those things, having to go to work! Anyway I would probably have read! This is a brief read, only seventy pages or so.

There are half a dozen essays here; the longest is a series of sketches. They are mostly very personal and Smith also is sharply perceptive about herself in relation to others. This relates to a woman on her block in New York, who was normally aloof and appeared self-contained:

“Thing is, we’re a community, and we got each other’s back. You’ll be there for me, and I’ll be there for you, and we’ll all be there for each other, the whole building. Nothing to be afraid of – we’ll get through this, all of us, together.” “Yes, we will,” I whispered, hardly audible, even to myself”.

There is another conversation at a bus stop in London where she meets a family friend she hasn’t seen for a while. The woman is 58 and hasn’t yet reached the menopause: she is on her way to the doctors:

“I’m walking right in there and DEMANDING he brings it on, right now, because this is just silly business at this point.”

It is an intensely personal set of recollections, but there are big ideas here as well and the pandemic and Black Live Matter weigh heavily as an underscore to it all. There is a brief and brilliant piece of writing about contempt where talks about the Dominic Cummings fiasco and the death of George Floyd: the link being the absolute contempt with which those with power treat those they rule. Contempt is the real virus thinks Smith.

Then there is a brief piece about a meme popular during lockdown entitled “Suffering like Mel Gibson” which explores the idea that “misery is very precisely designed and is different for each person”.

There are reflections on contemporary America and particularly death in contemporary America:

 “in America, all of these involved some culpability on the part of the dead. Wrong place, wrong time. Wrong skin color. Wrong side of the tracks. Wrong Zip Code, wrong beliefs, wrong city. Wrong position of hands when asked to exit the vehicle. Wrong health insurance—or none. Wrong attitude to the police officer…. America has rarely been philosophically inclined to consider existence as a whole, preferring instead to attack death as a series of discrete problems. Wars on drugs, cancer, poverty, and so on. Not that there is anything ridiculous about trying to lengthen the distance between the dates on our birth certificates and the ones on our tombstones: ethical life depends on the meaningfulness of that effort. But perhaps nowhere in the world has this effort—and its relative success—been linked so emphatically to money as it is in America.”

This is a quick easy read, some reflection, some polemic, very personal and thoughtful. It would have benefitted from some tighter editing, but maybe that’s the point.

8 out of 10

Starting Saltwater by Jessica Andrews

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Say Something Back by Denise Riley

I often struggle with poetry and sometimes decoding this wasn’t easy. There are a great many references to other things and other works. The focus is often on death and particularly the death of Riley’s adult son Jacob. She looks from many angles including the effect on her feelings about her daughter:

What is the first duty of a mother to a child?
At least to keep the wretched thing alive – Band
Of fierce cicadas, stop this shrilling.

 

My daughter lightly leaves our house.
The thought rears up: fix in your mind this

Maybe final glimpse of her. Yes, lightning could.

 

I make this note of dread, I register it.
Neither my note nor my critique of it
Will save us one iota. I know it. And.’

There is bleak humour and self-analysis. Riley questions her ability to turn her private mourning into the public presentation of poetry. It’s all an account of grief and survival. This his Riley’s first foray back into poetry since 2000; in the meantime she has been concentrating on feminist theory and language.

There’s some interesting word play as well. Riley looks at a few Biblical verses. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:11-12

“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. [12] For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.”

Riley rewrites:

“When I was a child I spoke as a thrush, I
thought as a clod, I understood as a stone,
but when I became a man I put away
plain things for lustrous, yet to this day

squat under hooves for kindness where
fetlocks stream with mud – shall I never
get it clear, down in the soily waters.”

As one reviewer says that really does muddy the waters.

The central theme is the heart wrenching loss of a child:

“Each child gets cannibalised by its years.
It was a man who died, and in him died
The large-eyed boy, then the teen peacock
In the unremarked placid self-devouring
That makes up being alive. But all at once
Those natural overlaps got cut, then shuffled
Tight in a block, their layers patted square.”

And

“Dun blur of this evening’s lurch to
Eventual navy night. Yet another
Night, day, night, over and over.
I so want to join you.”

“The souls of the dead are the spirit of language:

 you hear them alight inside that spoken thought.” 

The poems are deeply moving and immediate. They ae also erudite and scholarly. This is poetry of a high order springing from grief.

8 out of 10

Starting The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

 

Edited by Books do furnish a room

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The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

This is part of my reading women challenge for this year and it is the sci-fi element. It was originally self-published as part of a kickstarter campaign before it was picked up by a big publisher. It is the first of a series and focusses on character development rather than action. The novel follows a spaceship, The Wayfarer, on its various journeys. Relationships amongst the interspecies crew is the primary driver of th novel. It has a soap opera feel to it (well space opera I suppose). The book is more about the journey than the arrival. The series is very popular: you can tell, it has a wiki for the fans. It reminded me a little of Star Trek. Instead of the Federation there is the Galactic Commons (GC), but this isn’t human dominated.

The characters are nuanced and well developed over the book. There is plenty of diversity, a fair amount of inter species coupling (I’ll avoid the details) and Chambers has some fun with gender and gender roles as she builds her characters. There is a fair amount of what might be described as polyamorous activity and some messing about with the notion of family. The description of the ship near the beginning establishes that we are dealing with something more akin to the Millennial Falcon than a posh space ship:

 It was blocky and angular, with the exception of a bulging dome that stuck out from the back like a warped spine. This was not a ship designed for fussy commercial passengers. There was nothing sleek or inspiring about it. It was bigger than a transport ship, smaller than a cargo carrier. The lack of wings indicated that this was a ship that had been built out in space, a ship that would never enter an atmosphere. The underside of the vessel held a massive, complex machine—metallic and sharp, with rows of tooth-like ridges angled toward a thing, protracted spire. She didn’t know much about ships, but from the mismatched colours of the outer hull, it looked as though whole sections had been cobbled together, perhaps originating from other vessels. A patchwork ship.

There isn’t really a great deal to the plot; Chambers concentrates much more on developing characters. It’s easy to read and undemanding. If you like a sharp and focussed plot it may not be for you. There are niggles that aren’t addressed: the status of AIs for instance, although I believe the second in the series addresses this more. The word nice has been used many times in reference to this and there is a certain comfortable fluffiness about it. Considering I read a good deal of it whilst recovering from food poisoning, that didn’t seem to matter.

7 out of 10

Starting Viral Modernism by Elizabeth Outka

 

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I loved The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. I'm glad you liked it! Nice to read your review on it. Yes, the concept on AIs gets explored more in the second book, there is a third book as well though I enjoyed the first one the most and the third one the least.

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