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      Late Autumn Supporter Giveaway   11/27/2020

      I know that winter is well on the way, but I'm sneaking the autumn giveaway in here, right at the end of the season...     I thought this giveaway seemed particularly appropriate for this year: Dear Reader: The Comfort and Joy of Books by Cathy Rentzenbrink.  I'm sure some of you will have heard of this book. It came out in September and has had brilliant reviews. It's been described as a love letter to reading and I think all of us have truly appreciated 'the comfort and joy of books' this year.  It is also a really beautiful hardback. Please excuse my picture-taking skills, it's really hard to get a good picture of something that's shiny!   As always, patreon supporters will be automatically entered into the draw. If you're not a supporter but you'd like to join our patreon you can do so here:  bookclubforum.co.uk is creating a book community | Patreon
Books do furnish a room

A Book Blog 2020 by Books do Furnish a Room

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Thanks Athena

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

This was voted as one of the best African books of the twentieth century. Written in the late 1980s, it is set in what was then Rhodesia (and is now Zimbabwe) in the 1960s and 1970s. It is actually the first of a trilogy; the third part of which has just been published this year (This Mournable Body, it has been longlisted for the Booker Prize). Dangarembga has also just been arrested for protesting against corruption in Zimbabwe. This novel is partly autobiographical. The title is taken from Sartre’s introduction to Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. Colonialism, poverty and gender are the key themes in the novel.

The main protagonist is a young girl called Tambu. She only gets to go to school because her older brother has died. As the male child he was the one to be educated.  The opening sentence: “I was not sorry when my brother died”, grabs the attention of the reader. Tambu leaves her own home and parents to live with her uncle Babamukuru and his family at a mission station where she goes to school. Her relationship with her cousin Nyasha is central in showing a different set of issues relating to gender and oppression. Men and women have their place and the novel focusses on the different reactions of the various female characters. The clash of cultures particularly affects Nyasha. She has spent some time in England and is struggling with her African identity and her father’s very traditional concept of what she should be. As she says to Tambu: “I’m not one of them, but I’m not one of you.” Tambu comes to her own conclusions:

“The victimisation, I saw, was universal. It didn’t depend on poverty, on lack on education or on tradition. It didn’t depend on any of the things I had thought it depended on. Men took it everywhere with them. Even heroes like Babamukuru did it. And that was the problem … But was I didn’t like was the way all the conflicts came back to this question of femaleness.  Femaleness as opposed and inferior to maleness.”

Tambu’s mother sees things in a different way and resents the way her children are taken from her to be educated and are not available to help with the housework and crops:

“And these days it is worse, with the poverty of blackness on one side and the weight of womanhood on the other.   Aiwa!  What will help you, my child, is to learn to carry your burdens with strength.”

Tambu herself does well at her studies and wins a scholarship to a mostly white college run by nuns:

“For was I – I Tambudzai, lately of the mission and before that the homestead – was I Tambudzai, so recently a peasant, was I not entering, as I had promised myself I would, a world where burdens lightened with every step, soon to disappear altogether?  I had an idea that this would happen as I passed through the school gates, those gates that would declare me a young lady, a member of the Young Ladies College of the Sacred Heart.  I was impatient to get to those gates.

Although at the very end of the novel Tambu is reassessing her views:

“For I was beginning to have a suspicion, no more than the seed of a suspicion, that I had been too eager to leave the homestead and embrace the ‘Englishness’ of the mission; and after that the more concentrated ‘Englishness’ of Sacred Heart. The suspicion remained for a few days, during which time it transformed itself into guilt, and then I had nightmares.”

Nyasha is the one who sees things more clearly as she battles with an eating disorder and rebels against her parents:

“It’s not their fault. They did it to them too.  You know they did,’ she whispered. ‘To both of them, but especially to him. They put him through it all. But it’s not his fault, he’s good.’ Her voice took on a Rhodesian accent. ‘He’s a good boy, a good munt. A bloody good kaffir,’ she informed in sneering sarcastic tones.  Then she was whispering again. ‘Why do they do it, Tambu,’ she hissed bitterly, her face contorting with rage, ‘to me and to you and to him? Do you see what they’ve done? They’ve taken us away.”

This is a very good coming of age story with strong characters, all of whom are well rounded and human with their own faults. The real villains are colonialism and patriarchy. Tambu’s journey is telling and I think I will be reading the rest of the trilogy.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Ships of Heaven by Christopher Somerville

Edited by Books do furnish a room
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The Clear Stream by Marion Shaw

This is a biography of Winifred Holtby. She was a journalist, writer and campaigner and friend of Vera Brittain. She is the subject of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Friendship. She wrote seven novels and her most famous South Riding was published posthumously. Holtby was an active campaigner for feminism, socialism and pacifism. She was on the board of the magazine Time and Tide which was a feminist journal. Holtby was also the first person to write a critical study of Virginia Woolf in 1932 (with Woolf’s cooperation). She was also active in the League of Nations. Holtby spent some time in South Africa where she was lecturing for The League of Nations and campaigning for the unionisation of black workers. Virago have published all Holtby’s novels and short stories.

Shaw has not structured this biography in a conventional way. Each chapter focusses on a particular figure in Holtby’s life. There are chapters on her mother, Vera Brittain, Jean McWilliam, Margaret Rhonnda, Harry Pearson and Virginia Woolf amongst others. It does help to have a little knowledge of Holtby before reading this. Ho;yby died very young (37), but she certainly lived a full life and Shaw manages to comprehensively cover her writings and political activities. She does skirt around Holtby’s sexuality little. Holtby never married and had a sort of on/off relationship with Harry Pearson (mostly off), but there has always been speculation about her relationship with Brittain. They were obviously close and after Holtby’s death when Brittain came to look at publishing their letters she redacted all the terms of endearment in them.

This is a well written biography, which I enjoyed and it helped to have a little knowledge of Holtby to begin with.

7 out of 10

Starting The Familiars by Stacy Halls

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The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey

This is a historical novel set in 1491 in the imaginary village of Oakham in Somerset. It is a sort of whodunit (or whydunnit). The narrator is John Reve, the village priest and it is set in the four days before Ash Wednesday. The wealthiest man in the village Thomas Newman has died in the river, but was it suicide, an accident or murder? The antagonist is Reve’s superior, the Dean, who wants a reason for the death and pokes around the village being nosey and generally unpleasant. One thing to note, the story is told backwards, starting on Shrove Tuesday and working back four days. The village is a poor one, unlike surrounding villages.

The prose is rich and some of the descriptions are really good, particularly the cold wet February weather!

“As I waited in silence I felt the universe fall about me in timeless cycles, I heard planets roll and hawthorn come to bud; the church’s stone smelt of a vast deep lake, and the oak panel smelt of autumn woodland, and the pain in my bruised knees was a surge of sweet, hard life

The relationship between Reve and the Dean is a tense one, the reasons for which become clear only gradually. The strands within the novel are complex and woven together well. There are tensions between new ideas and tradition, the importance of ritual, the vital importance of the Church and its structures, the ever present threat of disease and death and grief and loss. Harvey has said that one of her purposes was to explore the nature of confession (and Confession).

I had a few problems with this in terms of historical accuracy (I’m a historian by original training). Reve has a confessional box in his Church, seventy years before they were actually first used. In the descriptions of things European, it feels way too modern and probably owes more to Brexit. There was particular mention of other nearby villages trading in sugar. This was before sugar beet (three hundred years or more before) and before sugar was widely available for anyone but the rich. There was also mention of tea again way before it was available (the first tea houses opening in the mid-1600s). There were other minor niggles in relation to clothing. Although these might be fairly minor they were an irritant.

The relationship between Reve and the Dean is interesting and moves the novel along with their contrasting views of religion and humanity. Some of the other local characters are less well defined. I did enjoy this, but was niggled by the historicity. There are plenty of descriptions of human functions and disease which might make it not for the squeamish but there is a humanity and depth that was warming.

6 and a half out of 10

Starting The Road to Cleethorpes Pier by Margaret Royall

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Disoriental by Negar Djavadi

Where to start? Well I really enjoyed this and there is a great deal to it. It is narrated by Kimia Sadr who escapes from Iran to the West when she is 10 in 1979 with her mother and sisters (her father having left some months earlier. Her father was an academic who had managed to anger both the Shah’s secret police and then Khomeni’s regime in fairly equal measure. It is not a linear story and it just around: as the narrator says:

“Talking about the present means I have to go deep into the past, to cross borders and scale mountains and go back to that lake so enormous they call it a sea. I have to let myself be guided by the flow of images and free associations, the natural fits and starts, the hollows and bumps carved into my memories by time.”

There isn’t a smooth logical progress, so some concentration is required by the reader. It is beautifully written and easy to read (it’s a good translation in my opinion). There are multiple themes running through it: obviously immigration and exile, political dissent, but also motherhood and sexuality, even fertility. The novel won the Lambda literary award for bisexual fiction in 2019. It is also a family history going back to the early twentieth century. Kimia’s father is one of six brothers. We are the audience, a silent witness:

“But you know as well as I do that, to claim to get inside a man’s head, first you need to really know him—to absorb all of the lives he has lived, and all of his struggles, and all of his ghosts. And believe me, If I start there […] I’ll never get around to telling you what I am about to tell you.

The French title combines the words Oriental and desorienter (losing orientation or direction).

Djavadi manages human emotions skilfully and there is something of the Scheherazade about her, but the storytelling is not to please. She writes to define to express the meaning of her history and not to let it disappear:

“With the passage of time, the flesh of events decomposes, leaving only a skeleton of impressions on which to embroider. Undoubtedly there will come a day when even the impressions will only be a memory. And then there won’t be anything left to tell.

There is a snapshot of Iranian history and culture and a dislocation with the move to France:

“In Paris, we didn’t talk to each other anymore, about anything. None of us. Each of us was shut up in a silence mode of stupefaction and adjustment. In a state of unconsciousness. The past was just anecdotes now that could be retold, but were only a vast, white, ruined wasteland.

There are parallel journeys going on with various characters but we follow Kimia through her childhood, adolescence and early adulthood from loving and obedient daughter to rebellious punk. The narration changes and amidst serious events and tragedies there is a vein of humour. The narration revolves around THE EVENT. This is something which occurs in the early 1990s and is pivotal in the family history. As well as a family saga, there is a little bit of love story, a coming of age and remembrance. It is a little Proustian as well.

This is creative and well written. It may have benefitted from being longer, or even a few volumes, but that’s probably me being greedy. Well worth reading.

9 and a half out of 10

Starting The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

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The Road to Cleethorpes Pier by Margaret Royall

This is a recollection of a Lincolnshire childhood in the late 1940s, 50s and 60s. It is written in a combination of prose and poetry with a number of reproduced photographs. A note from the author indicates that the poetry is written in the haibun style. I was born not too far from Cleethorpes and it was the nearest seaside town to where I lived. Consequently my sister and I were taken there on a pretty regular basis in the 1960s and early 70s: so this is rather nostalgic for me. There are periodic historical notes which are helpful.

Royall captures the feel of her childhood looking at school, relatives, the church (her parents were staunch Methodists) and recreation. There is a strong sense of place and I remember the fish and chips quite vividly as well. Royall also captures the feel of the Lincolnshire Wolds as well; something else I have fond memories of.

A good example of the poetic content is one which captures two of Royall’s great aunts and paints a picture of how they lived.

The image is still so clear:

a simple two-up-two-down,

crudely furnished, covered in dust,

its cardboard characters spun from lives

of drudgery in the local factories,

stooped bodies witness to spartan living

 

Great Aunt Nellie swathed in shawls

Squatting on her three legged stool;

her sister Jessie, dripping pail in hand,

returning from her trek to the spring

a life stripped bare to the bones;

cooking simple meals over the fire,

repairing laddered stockings by gaslight.

 

The piano in the parlour groaned

Beneath nests of wooden dolls, tubs of spills,

Whittled by idle hands in slack times ….

On Sundays hymns were belted out full throttle,

Eyes shining in the flicker of candlelight

 

Out in the yard a crude wooden privy yawned,

Old Aunt Sara’s sacking coat, limp on its

peg, offering comfort to generations

of reluctant visitors in inclement weather

 

Royall is good at capturing a sense of place and it is a window into a world that has disappeared to a large degree (although the fish and chips remain!!). The whole is heartfelt and poignant. For me it was a bit of a trip down memory lane and for that reason I loved it.

9 out of 10

Starting Summerwater by Sarah Moss

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Saltwater by Jessica Andrews

This is a debut novel and it won the Portico Prize earlier this year. The Portico Prize is biennial and is awarded to writers from the north of England. I have read a couple of the books on the shortlist (doesn’t have to be a novel) and they have been of a good standard. This one was no exception. It is a coming of age novel, but much more. There is a focus on mother/daughter relationships, but it is also about class. The protagonist Lucy is brought up in a working class area of Sunderland: she leaves to go to university in London. Some time after graduation she goes to spend some time in her late grandfather’s cottage in Ireland. The chapters are short, often very short and not entirely linear. At times this was a minor irritation, but no more. The novel is also about divided loyalties, feeling torn: North vs South, urban vs suburban vs rural, coping with an alcoholic father, trying to fit in. There are strong women characters here, often dealing with alcoholic and unpredictable men and it runs through generations, even Lucy’s grandmother:

“They walked around the streets in the cold, trying to stay wrapped up in the orange fur that pulsed from the street lights. When enough time had passed, my grandmother took them home and they crept up the stairs, being careful not to wake him as he snored on the settee with his mouth open.”

Class and gender are central and it is unusual to read a strong working class northern female voice. It is semi-autobiographical and parts of it mirrors Andrews’ own experience. Andrews looks at stereotypes and her own experience and the tensions growing up and moving on bring:

“When I was a teenager, you would go out in your little dress and your high heels with no coat and loads of make-up. But my more middle class friends didn’t wear make-up and is that a betrayal if you start to mould yourself in this other way of dressing or pressing yourself? It can feel like a betrayal of the women you’ve left behind.”

As Lucy says in the novel:

"I come from a line of immaculately turned-out women, experts in dusting make-up over their faces to conceal the tremors that ran through their lives."

It is set in the late 1990s and 2000s and captures some of the generational tensions:

“I would like to have something to believe in, but it is difficult. Everything my generation was promised got blown away like clouds of smoke curling from the ends of cigarettes in the mouths of bankers and politicians. It is hard not to be cynical and critical of everything, and yet perhaps there is an opening, too. When the present begins to fracture, there is room for the future to be written.”

The novel begins with Lucy’s birth, “It begins with our bodies . . . Safe together in the violet dark and yet already there are spaces beginning to open between us.”

Andrews deals frankly with youth, puberty, finding identity (and losing it), plenty of adolescent angst, but no wallowing in it.

It isn’t dialogue driven and focuses on Lucy and her interior journey. The interiority doesn’t grate because of Andrews’s descriptive powers, which are excellent. Some of the memories may resonate with those of a certain age (much younger than me!) This is a good debut and I will certainly look out for the next novel.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting The Offing by Benjamin Myers

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The Familiars by Stacey Halls

This is a historical novel, set in 1612, the year of the Pendle Witch trials and the trials are the backdrop to the novel. It is also a debut novel and Halls was brought up in the area. She weaves the novel around historical figures and centres it on nearby Gawthorpe Hall. The main protagonist is Fleetwood Shuttleworth, seventeen years old and mistress of Gawthorpe Hall. She is pregnant and desperate to keep the child as she has recently had two miscarriages. The other main actors are her husband Richard, his friend Roger Nowell, a magistrate and Alice Grey, a local woman who acts as Fleetwood’s midwife/wise woman. It is a first person narrative, which can be limiting at times in terms of what else is happening in the local area. Halls does build a sense of dread though with a recurring dream and some clues found by Fleetwood that indicate that her husband may be planning for her demise.

One aspect of the novel is the role of animals. The Pendle witch trials were noteworthy for the descriptions of the use of animals. Victoria Carr has done some work on this and sums up the background well:

“The animal familiars of the Pendle witches feature throughout Thomas Potts’s 1613 pamphlet The wonderfull discoverie of witches in the countie of Lancaster, where we can read reproductions of the examinations taken during these trials. These accounts tell us about the furred imps of the accused witches: Alice Whittle alias Chattox’s dog familiar, named Tibbe; Elizabeth Device’s dog, Ball; James Device’s dog, Dandy; Jennet Preston’s unnamed foal; and the unnamed dog of Alizon Device. These familiars were said to have helped the accused witches harm and even kill their enemies, in exchange for which the witches were told to give their soul to the devil and turn against Christ. Part of what made these creatures so fearsome were their unnatural abilities to cause harm paired with an innocuous appearance that allowed them to extend the witch’s harm beyond her own physical reach.

The animals in this novel play significant roles, especially Puck, Fleetwood’s dog and their presence adds another layer. The novel also focuses on the role of female friendships (the men being singularly unreliable or untrustworthy). The character development in relation to Fleetwood is quite significant and does stretch belief a little, But Halls does build tension when Alice is arrested for witchcraft;

‘Even in life I had been the little ghost, and now I was consigned to death. I held my stomach, and imagined disappearing. It would come soon, no doubt, but it would not be gentle, like the light leaving the sky. It would be painful, and terrifying, and lonely, with no cool hand on my head, no amber eyes willing me calm. There would be a trial, and Alice would die, then I would die, both of us killed in an outbreak of misfortune.’

The book is very readable and the story moves along at a good pace. We see little of the actual trials as the focus is on Fleetwood and her particular issues. There is a distinct gothic edge and perhaps shades of Du Maurier’s Rebecca. There are flaws, but it is an undemanding read and good for the darkening evenings.

7 out of 10

Starting Crime on the Fens by Joy Ellis

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Thanks Madeleine

Summerwater by Sarah Moss

This is a fairly brief novel set in a day, the longest day of summer. It is set in Scotland in the Trossachs, next to a loch where a group of holiday cabins sit. The novel consists of the day from the various perspectives of the occupants of the various cabins, except one of the cabins. There is a cross section of ages with a variety of concerns about day to day life. The weather for the day is appalling, cold and raining: high summer in the UK! It starts at dawn and ends in the dark in the late evening. There are brief one page forays into the natural world which separate the perspectives of the various residents of the cabins. There is also a tent in the woods where someone is living. The torrential rain has an effect on everyone, especially the children who find it a struggle to play outside. Moss does write teenage angst very well and she manages as well to bring some sympathy even to the less likeable characters. The title is from a poem by William Watson (The Ballad of Semmerwater).

There is something distinctive about all of the characters, a quirk, an illness, a small despair, an obsession. It is very much set in the present and Brexit is in the background. In the unmentioned cabin are a group of foreign workers: polish, Bulgarian, Ukrainian, we are never sure. They are the focus of some opprobrium and hostility just for being there (aren’t they supposed to have gone home?) and especially for appearing to have a good time and playing loud music at night. There is a range to the voices, but also a marked similarity. The innate racism shows through. There is also some good observational comedy too. The reader realises that there is a build up to something and there are a few near misses, but the something is right at the end of the book.

As always with Moss we are ever close to the natural world:

“The sky turned a yellowish shade of grey, the colour of bandages, or thickened skin old old white feet. Rain simmers in puddles. Trees drip. Grass lies low, some of it beginning to drown in pooling water…”

Moss writes damp and soggy very well! She also explores unquestioned prejudice and its effects in a telling way.

This is well written and feels very prescient for our times and is the third novel I have read by Moss. It won’t be the last.

8 out of 10

Starting The face in the Glass and other Gothic tales by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

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Ships of Heaven by Christopher Somerville

To write this Christopher Somerville spent a year of his life visiting twenty of Britain’s cathedrals (or ships of heaven as he calls them): Wells, Lincoln, Salisbury, Chichester, Canterbury, York, Durham, Ely, Worcester, Gloucester, Hereford, Kirkwall, St David’s, St Paul’s, Westminster, Armagh, Liverpool, Coventry and Inverness. In Armagh and Liverpool he takes in the Catholic and Anglican cathedrals as they are so close together. As a result it is a bit of a dash around with limited time on each. Somerville has an eye for odd stories and unusual bits of architecture. Thankfully he doesn’t populate the book with lots of bishops and clerics (there are a few), but there are plenty of masons, vergers, guides, glaziers, cleaners, background workers and random members of the public who happened to be there when he was.

There is plenty of architecture and descriptions of interiors and Somerville delineates all the times various bits of buildings have burned down, collapsed, fallen down and blown over. This makes the reader realise that these structures have their frailties and weaknesses. Somerville has an eye for detail as well, picking out some of the idiosyncrasies of the medieval masons. Characters that might be straight from a Breughel painting and Green Men abound. The descriptions of the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral after the War are moving and the destruction of the old one with the new one adjacent to the ruins. The stories throughout are fascinating and Somerville is an entertaining narrator and even manages to get in a verse of Robert Wyatt’s Shipbuilding.

Much ground is covered and that is a strength and a weakness. I enjoyed reading about Lincoln Cathedral, something I look at every day. I suspect there may be a limited audience for this but it captures a sense of these buildings by juxtaposing a number of them.

7 out of 10

Starting Reality and Other Stories by John Lanchester

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Jubilee by Margaret Walker

A historical novel running from the period before the American Civil War, through the war and to the aftermath. It follows Vyry, a slave with a black mother and a white father (the master of the plantation) through slavery in the ante-bellum years to freedom charting the struggle of freed slaves to make a living and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Walker researched the history behind this for thirty years and it is basically the story of her great grandmother. Comparisons have been drawn with Gone with the Wind, but this is from the perspective of a slave. This is a well told story which ought to be better known than it is and it is told from Vyry’s perspective and is one of the first novels to focus on an enslaved black woman’s experiences.

There is a day to day ordinariness about it whilst the horrors of slavery are lived and survived (or not in some cases). The novel is populated by strong female characters and a matrilineal model of tradition. Vyry learns from the older women in her life:

 “Vyry was so devoted to Aunt Sally she would never have told anyone how often she saw her steal great panfuls of white folks’ grub, and how many pockets she had in her skirts and her bosom where she hid biscuits and cakes and pie, even though Big Missy threatened more than once to have Aunt Sally strung up and given a good beating if she even caught her stealing.”

What Walker also does is draw links with other subjugated groups and points to a more collective history and a wider perspective on white supremacy and colonialism:

“One time they posted a sign with an Injun head on it, and it said that Injun had smallpox and everybody keep away from him; and another time the poster read how it was agin Georgy law (still is) for nary nother piece of paper, pencil, pen, writing papers, books, newspapers or print things to get in black hands, slave or free.”

The older members of the community bear the culture; the wisdom of the women in the novel, the preacher brother Ezekiel, and music and song which plays a central role. It all adds to a sense of wistfulness for Vyry:

“She stood on the hill and watched the sunrise and saw the ribbons of mist hanging over the valley […]. This was her favourite spot in the early morning, but oh, how she wished she were going some place. She wishes herself out where the fields ended, where the wagon road was winding, and the Central Railroad of Georgia was puffing like a tiny black fly speck along the tracks. […] She would like to go far beyond Aunt Sally’s voice calling her back to her morning chores of picking up chips, feeding chickens, finding that setting dominicker hen”

The sense of a growing movement called abolitionist grows only slowly and even when the war starts it feels distant at first. Parallel with the political developments is Vyry’s relationships with the two men she marries and the birth of her children and the novels shows her developing into one of the strong women who raised her. There is a bit of idealisation going on as well:

“She was only a living sign and mark of all the best that any human being could hope to become. In her obvious capacity for love, redemptive and forgiving love, she was alive and standing on the highest peaks of her time and human personality. Peasant and slave, unlettered and untutored, she was nevertheless the best true example of the motherhood of her race, an ever present assurance that nothing could destroy a people whose sons had come from her loins.”

But there is a political engagement and identity and a sense of collective courage driven the women of the novel. It’s also a damn good story with real power and purpose.

9 out of 10

Starting Essex Girls by Sarah Perry

 

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The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

This is a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and sticks quite closely to the plot (not completely). The story moves from London after the 2008 crash and moves to the US and the fictional city of New Bohemia, which feels a little like New Orleans. The novel, like the play revolves around revenge and forgiveness, a child (Perdita) abandoned and found. The parallels with the play are clever and original and there is humour running through the tale as well as revenge, tragedy and forgiveness:

“And the world goes on regardless of joy or despair or one woman’s fortune or one man’s loss. And we can’t know the lives of others. And we can’t know our own lives beyond the details we can manage. And the things that change us forever happen without us knowing they would happen. And the moment that looks like the rest is the one where hearts are broken or healed. And time that runs so steady and sure runs wild outside of the clocks. It takes so little time to change a lifetime and it takes a lifetime to understand the change.”

Those of you that recall the plot will remember the jealousy of Leontes (Leo) in regard to his wife MiMi and his friend Xeno. Leo has installed a camera to spy on his heavily pregnant wife so he can catch her out with Xeno. On this occasion Leo’s PA Pauline is also present as well as Xeno. It’s all innocent and nothing untoward is happening. However Leo’s mind is working overtime:

“Was Pauline a Top? All Leo knew about lesbian sex came from porn sites but he was pretty sure there had to be a Top and a Bottom. But Mimi was eight months pregnant—she couldn’t have sex on her back. If she couldn’t be a Bottom—and she couldn’t be a Top because, damnit, she was his wife—then she must be a Side. Do lesbians have Sides as well as Tops and Bottoms? They must do.”

Winterson uses humour throughout which balances well with the tragedy. Now I know there have been quite a few reviewers that didn’t really like this, but I really did. It read very easily and Winterson’s take on the play worked for me.

“Lead us from hence, where we may leisurely
Each one demand an answer to his part
Perform’d in this wide gap of time since first
We were dissever’d: hastily lead away.

8 out of 10

Starting The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe

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4 hours ago, Books do furnish a room said:

 

Starting The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe

 

I look forward to see what you think of this.

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Crime on the Fens by Joy Ellis

It is very rare these days that I read a crime novel. But I thought I’d try this one as it was set in the Lincolnshire Fens in a made up area which vaguely approximates to Kings Lynn. It follows a well tried formula with a Detective Inspector and a sidekick Detective Sergeant (as in Morse and Lewis). In this case the DI is a maverick who has worked her way through a variety of partners because of her abrasiveness and being generally difficult to work with. Ellis makes her DI a woman and her DS a man. She also creates backstories for each of them and adds a little complexity to their interaction. She throws in a big council estate, plenty of disaffected youth, plenty of drugs, some nasty villains, some villains who were less nasty and a little helpful. There are characters that will no doubt be around in later novels. The plot is a little wooden, but pretty much works and doesn’t have too many holes. There are apparently at least ten more of these.

On the whole it was ok and didn’t irritate me too much; at some point a may read another.

6 out of 10

Starting Rose under Glass by Elizabeth Berridge

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Essex Girls by Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry, an Essex girl herself, takes the pejorative term and turns it on its head. She sets the scene:
“Essex Girls are disreputable, disrespectful and disobedient.
They speak out of turn, too loudly and too often, in an accent irritating to the ruling classes.
Their bodies are hyper-sexualised and irredeemably vulgar.
They are given to intricate and voluble squabbling.
They do not apologise for any of this. And why should they?”
The misogynist scapegoating is noted and then Perry picks a number of women to illustrate her points. There is Rose Allin, a Protestant martyr part of the movement that insisted that the scriptures were for all the people, not just priests. Anne Knight was a Quaker and abolitionist, campaigning on after the initial abolition because slavery still existed in the Empire. She also wrote what is regarded as the first pamphlet on women’s suffrage. Emily Hobhouse was the woman who exposed the brutality of the British concentration camps that were set up for women and children during the Boer War (yes they were a British invention) and which killed many Boer women and children. Harriet Martineau was a writer and social activist and notably an atheist in a time when that was most unfashionable. The letters between her and Henry Atkinson which argued against conventional Christianity and the Genesis account of Creation was published eight years before Darwin.
This is a brief account, less than ninety pages and there is plenty of polemic. It shines a much needed light on women who are pretty much forgotten or little known and who were argumentative and awkward and campaigned for what they believed in. There are a few flaws but the whole is a reminder that some cultural tropes need to be overturned.

8 out of 10

Starting Bad Behaviour by Mary Gaitskill

 

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Reality and Other Stories by John Lanchester

A collection of short stories (eight to be exact) which are meant to be chilling and unsettling as the nights draw in here in the UK. They have modern settings and often involve technology and things we are all aware of, like reality TV. The author clearly had fun dreaming up this set of scenarios. There are some clever twists: many of them pretty predictable.
The Signal is set of a New Year weekend where a couple and their two technology go to stay at a rich friend’s houseparty for the celebrations. The house has many gadgets and a tall helpful gentleman with a mobile phone shows the children how to use the gadgets and access the wi-fi.
Coffin Liqour is narrated by a witty and cynical academic at a conference in Romania, where he is bored. Following a bit of sightseeing. He downloads the e-book of Great Expectations to listen to instead of the conference, but the description of Pip on the marshes seems ghastlier than he remembers as something horrific follows Pip off the marshes. He then downloads another book and the same description of something following is still there. He tries Richard Dawkins on atheism and yes there is the description of something horrific following.
Which of these would you like is a short story about a prisoner whose guards show him a catalogue every day consisting of various articles for the cell and various ways to be executed. He has to choose.
We Happy Few is about a group of rather pretentious academics having coffee together and is about the nature of reality: how alone are we? Very forgettable.
Reality takes place on the set of a reality TV show with six contestants and is as shallow as you would expect. But is it reality? Is it hell? Will it ever end?
Cold Call is a tale about a father-in-law and daughter-in-law who don’t get on. He is always calling for random assistance at very awkward times and is never ever thankful. Will the calls ever end?
The Kit concerns a piece of kitchen equipment that breaks down and needs replacing. A father and his four sons debate how soon the replacement needs to be purchased. This one is pretty predictable, but makes a rather salient point.
Charity is about a selfie stick that arrives at a charity shop and is sold. As you would guess there is more to it than meets the eye. Actually unexpectedly this one makes quite a powerful point about colonialism.
Couple of these are much stronger than the rest and a couple are pretty weak. Also much depends whether you like your chilling tales in the James tradition or if you like them modern and up to date.

7 out of 10

Starting The River by Rumer Godden

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The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

I always seem to find Lessing difficult to read, and this was no exception. This is Lessing’s first novel and it is set in what is now Zimbabwe in the 1940s. The title is from Eliot’s The Wasteland. Dick Turner is a poor white farmer who wants a wife: he meets Mary and asks her to marry him. The novel starts with Mary’s murder by Moses, one of the black workers on Turner’s farm. The rest of the novel is a linear chronology up to that point.
It shows Mary’s disillusion with her life, her disillusion with her rather incompetent husband Dick and her total inability to relate to the black workers on the farm. Their neighbours try to be neighbourly but to no avail and Lessing vividly describes the heat:
“she went out to look at the sky. There were no clouds at all. It was a low dome of sonorous blue with an undertone of sultry sulphur colour because of the smoke that filled the air. The pale sandy soil in front of the house dazzled up waves of light and out of it curved the gleaming stems of the poinsettia bushes, bursting into irregular slashes of crimson.”
This is an extended diatribe about the immorality of the farming system and that is clear, but it also feels like Lessing is also being negative about the natural world the farmers inhabit. The climate and landscape almost feel like characters in themselves. The language consists of frequent racial slurs and the main black character, Moses is not very well drawn. As his relationship with Mary develops the reader sees all of Mary’s issues and angsts but Moses seems more inscrutable because his character is not developed. The failed farming and strained relationship Lessing takes from observation of her parents and presumably relationships with the black workforce came from there as well. Lessing does sum up well Mary Turner’s attitudes to race:
“She had never come into contact with natives before, as an employer on her own account. Her mother’s servants she had been forbidden to talk to; in the club she had been kind to the waiters; but the ‘native problem’ meant for her other women’s complaints of their servants at tea parties. She was afraid of them, of course. Every woman in South Africa is brought up to be. In her childhood she had been forbidden to walk out alone and when she had asked why, she had been told in the furtive, lowered, but matter-of-fact voice she associated with her mother, that they were nasty and might do horrible things to her.”
Some of the attitudes are much more visceral. I have speculated why Lessing chooses not to enter the minds of the black characters. It may be that she didn’t really know how to. Maybe she wanted to focus on the arrogance of the white farming community. It was published in 1950 and certainly held a mirror up to the racism of the she was brought up within. Lessing writes from a position of privilege, but one thing she does very well is analyse the roots and nature of the white supremacism she saw in her home country. Where she is on less sure ground I think is her description of Mary’s mental disintegration and the murder. I found this section of the book less convincing. Nevertheless this is a powerful description of the racism prevalent in 1940s Rhodesia.

7 out of 10

Starting The Mighty and Their Fall by Ivy Compton-Burnett

Edited by Books do furnish a room

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The Offing by Benjamin Myers

This is one of those novels that evokes a time and has someone looking back to that time. It bears comparison to Carr’s A Month in the Country and The Go-Between by Hartley. It is set just after the Second World War. Sixteen year old Robert Appleyard lives in a mining village in the north east England, near Durham. He decides to set off on foot to walk and have adventures and explore the coast before settling to work. He works for board and lodging on farms and smallholdings; places where the men have not returned, “or seen them return depleted, decrepit or broken, parts of them missing like second-hand jigsaw puzzles”.
Near Robin Hoods Bay he chances upon what seems like a fairy tale cottage in which lives Dulcie Piper. She is a bohemian free spirit. Her age is never specified but the sense is that she is in her late 50s or 60s. She lives alone and the reader discovers that at the beginning of the war her German poet and lover (Romy Landau) had drowned herself. There is a run-down studio in the meadow and a good deal of overgrownness. In return for being fed Robert stays for a while and restores the studio and tidies up the grounds. As the studio is renovated Robert discovers some work by Landau and Dulcie starts to come to terms with her loss. Robert tells the story looking back in old age.
The novel is about friendship, the beauty of nature, art, good food, wine and not forgetting a dog called Butler. There is very much a sense of living in the present, close to nature:

“At times like this, or when hoeing soil or sanding wood, or just sitting on a bench with my face turned to the sun, I appeared to slip out of the moment so entirely — or, conversely, perhaps was so deeply immersed in the here and now — that I forgot who I was. The slate of self was wiped. Gone were all thoughts of past and present, of the stale air of classrooms and of looming exam results, coal boards and pitheads and pension plans, as all worries and concerns were diluted away to nothingness and I drifted in and out of the day, brought back into being only when either the sky or my stomach rumbled, or birdsong broke the silence.
These were the lingering states in which I was happy to revel, as night replaced day and day replaced night, and time became not a linear thing but something more elastic, stretching and contracting at will, one minute expanding into a day, one week gone in the blink of an eye. Petals unfolded, willow blossom took to the breeze and hogweed stems grew towering in the shaded dell at the bottom of the meadow, and time itself was measured only by the clock of green growth, and marked out by the simple routine of working, eating, swimming, sleeping.”

The writing is beautiful and evocative describing a summer long gone but always remembered. The character of Dulcie is memorable and refreshingly open and non-judgemental.
This is a wonderful novel. The only real niggle is that Myers is required to write some poetry written by Romy Landau who was supposedly a poet of genius. Now Myers is a good poet, a very good poet even; but a poet of genius? But that’s a minor point.
“That distant stretch of sea where sky and water merge. It’s called the offing.”

9 and a half out of 10

Starting A Cheesemongers History of the British Isles

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The River by Rumer Godden

This is the first work I have read by Rumer Godden. She was an Anglo-Indian writer who spent a good deal of her childhood in India and lived there as an adult. She left when India gained independence. In her writing she often used experiences from her own childhood and this novel is no exception. Born in 1907, Godden was in India at the height of Empire. Although she could be critical of the British, she also felt they did a great deal of good. When Nehru said, “My quarrel with the British is that they left a land of poverty-stricken wrecks” Godden leapt to the defence of the British. She seemed to confuse individual acts of charity and goodness with the mechanisms of imperialism.

This is a fairly brief novel and is really about the end of childhood. Harriet is the focus of the novel and she is approaching puberty. Her older sister is no longer a playmate and her younger brother she feels is still a child. There are lots of beginnings and ends. The world for Harriet is limited and is mainly the large house and garden with her siblings and nanny. Her parents are a little distant and her mother is pregnant. There are Indian servants around, but it is the interior world of the end of a childhood that is central. The domestic staff are the only way the children learn of the culture of India. There has been a recent war (it is not clear which). A wounded soldier is staying nearby, (Captain John) and he plays a central role for the two older girls and is an object of fascination. The garden and its surroundings do feel very much like a Garden of Eden. There is even a real serpent and a river running through. Gooden does capture some of the disconnectedness of childhood and the changes from seeming very young and then quite grown up. This is an idyll, but real life intrudes with jealousy, death and burgeoning sexuality. I have a vague recollection of Jean Renoir’s 1951 film of this, but really don’t remember how closely the plot was followed.

The colonial backdrop is really only a canvas to hold a very Eurocentric plot. The human element of the canvas seems to be irrelevant and the focus is the climate, vegetation and animal life. There is no real plot (not necessarily a problem),  but most of all there is no sense that anything in particular is going in in the outside world (wars, riots, famine, the push for independence). It isn’t possible to completely avoid the imperial backdrop as this novel tries to do. There are also a couple of short stories at the end where Godden tries to write from the point of view of the indigenous population. These descend into sentimentality and are patronising: talk about primitive spectacle and the imperial gaze!

5 out of 10

Starting The Glamour Boys by Chris Bryant

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The Face in the Glass by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

A collection of fourteen gothic tales from Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Braddon was a prolific Victorian novelist and short story writer. She is best known for Lady Audley’s Secret (on my virago shelves but not yet read). After a brief stint as an actress she spent her life writing. The Victorian era saw a great interest in ghost stories and the supernatural and these are some of Braddon’s efforts. Braddon is very good at setting a scene and creating atmosphere.

On the whole they are typical Victorian ghost stories: there is plenty of melodrama, some unintentionally amusing moments. The women tend to be strong characters and there is even a vampire tale thrown in. Shadows and mirrors play their part. They aren’t all ghost stories and there is a little subversion going on. There is as much human evil as ghostly goings on, but there are a couple of standard ghost stories. One point to make is that Braddon isn’t a writer who ensures good triumphs and evil suffers. She is quite capable of developing likeable characters and then killing them off. If you enjoy Victorian gothic tales you will enjoy these.

6 out of 10

Starting Home Coming by Colin Grant

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The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe

Oh dear, what was my teenage self thinking of when liking this? It is a piece of literary journalism which looks at the roots of the hippie movement and the origins of the use of LSD. The book centres particularly on Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. Kesey took LSD very early (1959) in a trial to test its effects (funded by the CIA, although Kesey was not aware of this). He liked it and felt it was something that everyone should try, in fact he became a bit of a zealot in promoting it, gathering a group of disciples around him. With some of his literary earnings he bought a property in La Honda in California where a group of devotees congregated. They bought a bus, decorated it and went on a road trip. They also filmed a good deal of it and there are hours of film. The bus was driven by Neal Cassady, already immortalised as Dean Moriarty in “On The Road”. The collection of people on the bus became known as the Merry Pranksters. Copious amounts of drugs were taken, not just LSD, which was not yet illegal. The police were never far behind. As they travelled they set up Acid Tests, parties involving LSD and various types of lighting. The in house band morphed into The Grateful Dead.

It’s all very repetitive and the portrayal of Kesey is a bit too messianic for me. You also have to wade through writing like this:

“EXCEPT FOR HAGEN’S GIRL, THE BEAUTY WITCH. IT SEEMS LIKE she never even gets off the bus to cop a urination. She’s sitting back in the back of the bus with nothing on, just a blanket over her lap and her legs wedged back into the corner, her and her little bare breasts, silent, looking exceedingly witch-like. Is she on the bus or off the bus? She has taken to wearing nothing but the blanket and she sheds that when she feels like it. Maybe that is her thing and she is doing her thing and wailing with it and the bus barrels on off, heading for Houston, Texas, and she becomes Stark Naked in the great movie, one moment all conked out, but with her eyes open, staring, the next laughing and coming on, a lively Stark Naked, and they are all trying to just snap their fingers to it but now she is getting looks that have nothing to do with the fact that she has not a thing on, hell, big deal, but she is now waxing extremely freaking ESP. She keeps coming up to somebody who isn’t saying a goddamn thing and looking into his eyes with the all-embracing look of total acid understanding, our brains are one brain, so let’s visit, you and I, and she says: ‘Ooooooooh, you really think that, I know what you mean, but do you-u-u-u-u-u-u-u- ueeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee” — finishing off in a sailing trémulo laugh as if she has just read your brain and !t is the weirdest of the weird shhhhhhh ever, your brain eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee —

A good deal of it is just bloody annoying (a bit like the hippies), but did you spot something else. The drugs clearly affected some more than others and there were some vulnerable people involved as well. The attitude to women and race is pretty awful (plenty of use of the word “spade”). There is also a level of cruelty which I found disturbing. Perhaps it would be more accurate to sat there was a level of self-absorption which drugs can bring leading to a lack of awareness of the needs of others.

In fact Wolfe does portray all this as similar to the birth of a new religion:

“In fact, none of the great founded religions, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, none of them began with a philosophical framework or even a main idea. They all began with an overwhelming new experience, what Joachim Wach called ‘the experience of the holy,’ and Max Weber, ‘possession of the deity,’ the sense of being a vessel of the divine, of the All-one.”

The ironic thing is that the whole thing was funded by the royalties from “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” Kesey’s famous novel. Capitalism funding psychedelia! Wolfe did all his research in three weeks when he was with the Pranksters and never took LSD himself, so there is almost an element of parody and ridicule. Given what I have quoted above there is the issue of whether the cruelty, racism and misogyny comes from Wolfe himself or the original Pranksters. Given Wolfe’s history being reactionary and racist I would question the veracity of anything he wrote. As the book says:

“You’re either on the bus…or off the bus.”

I’m definitely off it!

2 out of 10

Starting The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

 

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The Mighty and their Fall by Ivy Compton-Burnett

This is the first time I have read any Ivy Compton-Burnett and this novel is almost entirely dialogue. It reads very much like a play. Compton-Burnett was born about the same time as Woolf, Lawrence and Joyce but she was a very different writer. She wrote as thought the Victorian still continued and tended to look at what lurked behind conventional domesticity. Contemporary reviews compared her to Faulkner. There is a sharpness to her dialogue and Elizabeth Bowen made a pertinent point:

“Miss Compton-Burnett as ever, makes few concessions: she has not, like some of our writers, been scared or moralised into attempting to converge on the “real” in life. But possibly life has converged on her.”

This particular offering focusses on an upper middle class family whose fortunes are fading slightly. There is Ninian Middleton, a widower and patriarch, his elderly mother, five children, their governess and Hugo, who lives with them all and is also middle-aged. Ninian is a charming tyrant and has been relying on his eldest daughter Lavinia for companionship since his wife’s death. Add to this a potential spouse for Ninian and step mother for the children, a returning prodigal, a disappearing letter, some jiggery-pokery with wills and sharp-tongued perceptive children. There is some sharp observation of the role of women and the tyranny of men as when Hugo compares Ninian to a Biblical patriarch:

“I have never believed in God. I believe in him now. We have known he is a father. And I see that he is yours. There are the anger, jealousy, vaingloriousness, vengefulness, love, compassion, infinite power. The matter is in no doubt.”

People don’t talk in the sort of dialogue Compton-Burnett writes, I doubt if they ever did and it reads like a play because it is only dialogue. However it certainly does expose some of the less pleasant aspects of human nature. You can have too much of English middle class angst, but this is quite perceptive.

6 and a half out of 10

Starting A Month in Siena by Hisham Matar

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Bad Behaviour by Mary Gaitskill

This is Mary Gaitskill’s first published work (1988) and is a set of nine short stories. The first four are from a male point of view, the last five from a female point of view. The themes are loneliness, destructive behaviour, sexuality, romance, love, drug addiction, sadomasochism, living in New York and aspirations to be a writer. The characters are often troubled, disillusioned or bored: teenage runaways, jaded sex workers, rootless businessmen. Discomfort and angst is pretty much a default setting and a great deal goes on beneath the surface. Inner conflicts are laid bare and the complexities and problems of human connection are analysed. Gaitskill writes from some of her experiences as a teenage runaway and she worked for a time as a stripper and a call girl. It is centrally about women’s inner conflicts and their response to men; whether lovers, husbands, clients, fathers and sons. There is an interesting tale about family life at the end which examines mother/daughter relationships. Women here seem to make better connections than men but there is always something just beneath the surface. The men are not cardboard cut-outs or stereotypes and there is nuance. Somehow the nuance makes the betrayals and the violence worse.

Reading these is sometimes like watching a car crash in slow motion and Gaitskill doesn’t really do neat and tidy happy endings. One of the stories, Secretary, was turned into a Hollywood movie. The story here is much bleaker than the movie. Gaitskill does discomfort as a default setting, but the stories provoke thought and discussion.

7 out of 10

Starting The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

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