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A Book blog 2021 by Books do Furnish a Room

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A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin

My first foray into Le Guin, something I should have done in my teenage years when I read Tolkein. This is different to many of the other fantasy worlds, for a start this is less than two hundred pages long. The principal character, Ged, the apprentice wizard, is a youthful and flawed character. He doesn’t come mature and complete like Gandalf, so inevitably there is a coming of age element. The world building is pretty competent and I’m sure that will develop as the series continues. The world is an archipelago with many and varied islands and races. There are also dragons!

There are a variety of themes apart from the obvious coming of age. Balance is an important concept in the magic of Earthsea. As Ged is taught at mage school:

“But you must not change one thing, one pebble, one grain of sand, until you know what good and evil will follow on that act. The world is in balance, in Equilibrium. A wizard's power of Changing and of Summoning can shake the balance of the world. It is dangerous, that power. It is most perilous. It must follow knowledge, and serve need. To light a candle is to cast a shadow

The wizard school idea has been taken up by others, I don’t need to mention who!

Naming is also important and to know someone’s true name is to have power over them. Ged is generally known as Sparrowhawk. One thing Le Guin does under the radar is to make most of the cast non-white. There are very few white characters, most are various shades of copper, brown and black. Le Guin doesn’t play with the gender dynamic in the same way she does with race.

There is no primary villain, Ged’s real opponent is himself and the consequences of his actions. The world is secular, there is no priest caste. Wizards have to work mostly and most towns have one. This is told in epic style.

On the whole there are positives and negatives, the pace and style are good and a mostly non-white cast was unusual for the 1960s. It all seems a bit rushed sometimes and that may be the shortness of the whole. There are plenty of well used tropes form fantasy literature, but many of them stem from this series. This is the first fantasy I’ve read in a while. It was enjoyable rather than memorable.

7 out of 10

Starting Zami: A new spelling of my name by Audre Lord

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Black writers in Britain 1760-1890

This is a collection of writings by black people in Britain. Nineteen people or groups are in the collection, three of them women. There are a couple of accounts that were transcribed by others and one from a group of settlers from Sierra Leone. It isn’t fiction: there are autobiographical accounts, many relating to escapes from slavery, letters of request for assistance, support or thanks, accounts of what it was like to be black in Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, accounts of the campaign against slavery, descriptions of the colony for liberated slaves in Sierra Leone, some religious questions. There are some stand out pieces of writing.

Mary Seacole’s account of her time in Crimea is probably fairly well known now. Mary Prince’s autobiography (published 1831) is a very powerful account of the brutality of slavery and I think is the first substantial account of slavery written by a woman. Olaudah Equiano is there as you would expect. Towards the end of the collection there are a couple more political pieces by JJ Thomas and Edward Blyden. Blyden, in particular, influenced Marcus Garvey and Elijah Muhammad.

This collection is interesting and there are leads to other works and to the primary works sampled here.

8 out of 10

Starting Europe Central by William T Vollmann

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Joanna Godden by Sheila Kaye-Smith

This is a novel of place and that place is Sussex, more specifically the marshes around Rye and on the Kent border. Kaye-Smith is a Sussex author and her novels find their centre there, as Hardy’s do in Wessex. This is another book from Virago and from an author I haven’t read before. The novel was published in 1921. The sense of place is so strong here that Kaye-Smith records the speech patterns of the marshes and I think this adds to the whole.

The plot is fairly straightforward In 1897 Mr Godden dies leaving two daughters: Joanna the elder and Ellen, the younger. He leaves the family farm to Joanna, and significantly he adds no clause saying she must marry to inherit. It is expected that she should marry fairly promptly so a man can run the farm and there are plenty of suitors. She shocks local opinion by deciding to run the farm herself and everyone expects her to fail: she doesn’t. But underlying everything is Kaye-Smith’s social and moral conservatism:

“She forgot her distrust of the night air in all her misery of throbbing head and heart, and flung back the casement, so that the soft marsh wind came in, with rain upon it, and her tears were mingled with the tears of night. ‘Oh God!’ she moaned to herself – ‘why didn’t you make me a man?”

Although Joanna Godden is on the whole a success as a farmer, even she still feels she lacks a man and there are a couple of men throughout the book who enter her life, one good, one not. I felt there were contradictions in the characterisation and the ending was ambiguous (not necessarily a fault), but it felt like a betrayal and some earlier established principles. Women can break some conventions, but not all of them. There is an instance of blatant and unpleasant racism towards the end.

Kaye-Smith has created an irrepressible and larger than life character and there is certainly much of interest, but there are issues and it feels like Kaye-Smith having created her character spends much of the novel trying to rein her in.

6 out of 10

Starting Don't look at me like that by Diana Athill

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Black and British by David Olusoga

The contents of this book should really be on the school curriculum. It really is essential reading and only starts to fill a gaping gap in British historiography. It also accompanied a TV series, which I remember being pretty good. The book is on a different scale to the TV series, being over five hundred pages, meticulously researched and much more detailed.

It starts in Roman Britain, up near Hadrian’s Wall where a regiment of black Romans were stationed. It also uses new evidence provided by DNA and advances in archaeology to identify black Britons from burials in York and on the South coast. Their numbers are entirely unknown and inevitably some must have settled in Britain and their descendants probably still live here.

The book moves on to the Tudor period where there are a number of well documented cases of black residents of Britain. There is a large gap between Roman Britain and Tudor Britain where, at present, we simply have no evidence either way as to whether there were any black Britons resident in between. Olusoga takes the reader through the era of the slave trade and its abolition: well-worn territory, but he sheds new light on it and the detail is impressive. There is always something to learn and the eighteenth century legal battles relating to whether black residents of Britain could be slaves was new to me. Those legal decisions gave impetus to the abolition movement. Olusoga also tells the parallel story of the slave ports in Africa and the plantations of the West Indies.

Moving into the nineteenth century there is an account of the effects of the Civil War in the US and the links between the anti-slavery movements in both countries, and indeed the links between American pro slavery elements and industry in Britain. Olusoga identifies a distinct change in attitudes to race in the second half of the nineteenth century with the development of Social Darwinism and racial theories. There is an account of the virulent racism espoused by Thomas Carlyle, which many of his fans these days neglect to remember. Other writers are also quoted. Trollope wrote:

“The negro’s idea of emancipation was and is emancipation not from slavery but from work. To lie in the sun and eat breadfruit and yams is his idea of being free.”

Dickens wrote passionately against slavery, but still used the racial caricatures common at the time. The racial theorists, whose ideas became popular, even went as far as to discuss philanthropic massacres.

Olusoga covers both world wars and the role of Empire and brings the story forward to the present. There are inevitably gaps, even in a five hundred page history. This is a start in a missing historiography, which I am sure will be gradually built up. It is essential reading.

In an interview with the Guardian Olusoga says hostility to his work has been growing:

"to the point where some of the statements being made are so easily refutable, so verifiably and unquestionably false, that you have to presume that the people writing them know that. And that must lead you to another assumption, which is that they know that this is not true, but they have decided that these national myths are so important to them and their political projects, or their sense of who they are, that they don’t really care about the historical truths behind them... They have been able to convince people that their own history, being explored by their own historians and being investigated by their own children and grandchildren, is a threat to them."

There is still a great deal to do.

9 out of 10

Starting Square Haunting by Francesca Wade

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The Saga of Gosta Berling by Selma Lagerlof

This was Selma Lagerlof’s first novel, published in 1891. Gosta Berling is a defrocked Lutheran minister. His life is saved by the mayor of Ekeby. She allows him to become one of the pensioners living in the manor of Ekeby. The group go on to have lots of adventures. Lagerlof employs all the vagaries of the natural world and climate as well as folklore and fairy tale. There are plenty of good people and plenty of villains and the whole does have a gothic feel in the sense that there are plenty of exaggerations and much that is absurd. It is written with gusto and there is a comic side to the absurdity, but there is also strong seam of sadness too.

There is a silent film (Garbo’s first I think), which is an immense three hours long. The novel itself is a series of shorts, all linked together and from a variety of viewpoints. There are plenty of interesting devices employed and I found it interesting and enjoyable.

8 out of 10

Starting Star Rider by Doris Piserchia

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Don't look at me like that by Diana Athill

This is Diana Athill’s only novel and was written in the mid 60s (set in the 1950s). She wrote a few short stories and several volumes of memoirs in her long life. Her main work was in publishing and the list of authors she worked with is impressive. Her personal life was also very interesting and much too complex to examine here!

The novel revolves around a young woman called Meg Bailey. She has a cloistered upbringing, the daughter of a clergyman who is as impecunious as the mythical church mouse. When grown, following art school, she moves to 1950s London and has some of the usual adventures of youth, but in particular an affair with her best friend’s husband.

The opening and closing of the novel are striking:

“When I was at school I used to think that everyone disliked me”

“There’s something almost enjoyable in having one person in the world I can truly hate.”

At one level this is a simple coming of age novel that focuses on belonging:

“I wanted to rush on into unknown territory forever, safe in the warm intimacy of the car, the blanket rough against my chin, the men singing and joking, Roxane reaching into the back from time to time to feed me a chocolate, and neither of the two in front knowing that my hand was fast in Dick’s. I was eighteen and no one had ever held my hand before. Wilfred had always been too shy to attempt physical contact beyond bumping into me occasionally. This was a new move in the game, and a big one.”

It is also an examination of women of a certain type and class and at one level not a great deal happens, but with Athill there are twists. One of the significant characters in the book is Egyptian. The novel covers the period of Suez and Nasser and Jamil’s reaction is nuanced and complex.

On the whole this is fairly short, easy to read, though a little flimsy, but the ending is interesting and it evokes 1950s London.

7 out of 10

Starting Dead Man's Walk by Larry McMurtry

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Sounds and sweet airs by Anna Beer

This book accompanied a Classic FM series a few years ago and focuses on eight women composers who you may not have heard of. I must admit that I had only heard of four of them.

Francesca Caccini 1587-1641; Barbara Strozzi 1619-1677; Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre 1665-1729; Marianna Martinez 1744-1812; Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel 1805-1847; Clara Wieck Schumann 1819-1896; Lili Boulanger 1893-1918; Elizabeth Maconchy 1907-1994.

Beer gives a potted biography of each one, looking at their life and work, the barriers they faced, which were many and predictable. It is worth noting that some of the women in the early modern period had more freedom than those from later periods. At the end of the book Beer provides a suggested playlist and where recordings might be found and a few suggested websites.

It’s written with passion and enthusiasm. There are a couple of supportive husbands, an unsupportive husband (Robert Schumann) and a rather paranoid brother (Felix Mendelssohn). There are also Medici patrons and unsupportive musical establishments: plenty of struggles against the odds.

I know the title comes from Shakespeare (The Tempest I think), but sweet airs doesn’t sound right. All the composers are white European, but this is certainly a step in the right direction. There’s plenty of scope for follow up volumes as there are plenty of gaps (no medieval composers). Despite the gaps this was well researched and a good introduction to composers who should be better known.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting Still Life by A S Byatt

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The Reef by Edith Wharton

This novel revolves around four characters. Anna Leath is a widow who now resides in a French Chateau with her nine year old daughter Effie. Owen Leath is her step son. George Darrow is an American diplomat in London who knew Anna prior to her marriage and they are now planning to get married. Sophy Viner is Effie’s new governess and she and Owen wish to marry (this is a problem because of the difference in class). At the start of the novel Sophy and George meet (before she takes up her post as governess) and they spend a few days together. When Darrow goes to the chateau he discovers Sophie is working there. They decide to keep their liaison quiet. The novel works through the drama which follows.

Apparently this is supposed to be partly autobiographical with Sophy and Anna representing different aspects of Wharton. It was also at this time that she discovered her husband was having a string of affairs and she also had an affair.

A great deal of the novel focuses on the interior life of the characters and as a result has been compared to Henry James’s work. This narrowness does make the novel feel rather claustrophobic. The two proposed marriages both run into some difficulties. Anna in particular realises that she will be marrying the former lover of her stepson’s wife and Owen, her stepson, would be marrying his stepfather-in-law’s former mistress. Sexuality is crossing generational boundaries. Observant readers will have recalled that at the beginning of the book, when George introduces Sophy to Paris theatre, the play he takes her to see is Oedipus. The title implies that sexuality is like a reef which will damage unwary boats.

It is beautifully written, but the whole cast managed to irritate me intensely; and then there are paragraphs like this:

“That bliss, in the interval, had wound itself into every fold of her being. Passing, in the first days, from a high shy tenderness to the rush of a secret surrender, it had gradually widened and deepened, to flow on in redoubled beauty. She thought she now knew exactly how and why she loved Darrow, and she could see her whole sky reflected in the deep and tranquil current of her love.”

Of course it is about disillusion and there is depth and subtlety here, However as I was reading it I kept remembering a quote from Colson Whitehead when he was asked about why he wrote so much about slavery:

“Q: Why write about slavery? Haven’t we had enough stories about slavery? Why do we need another one?

A: I could have written about upper middle class white people who feel sad sometimes, but there’s a lot of competition.”

My irritation with this continued with the rather odd ending.

6 out of 10

Starting Company of Liars by Karen Maitland

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Emma by Jane Austen

I seem to have been reading an Austen a year recently and this year it’s Emma. The plot is well known and there have been numerous TV and film adaptations. It has been reviewed or commented on by most well-known critics and novelists since. The range of those disliking her includes Nabakov, Conrad, Lawrence and Charlotte Bronte. On the other side are Beckett and Woolf, to name a couple.

Despite this being as Austen said a novel about “three or four families in a country village” it is revolutionary. As John Mullan says in a Guardian article, although the narration is in the third person Austen developed what is now known as free indirect style, combining the internal and external.

There are plenty of well-developed characters in the novel and Emma herself is certainly not as likeable as other Austen leading characters. Although Emma learns and grows throughout the novel. But this is not The Taming of the Shrew because Emma is not mastered by a man and learns from her own mistakes. Emma has been debated over and analysed by a whole range of critics and there are acres of print devoted to her. It was Woolf who said that Austen was:

‘a mistress of much deeper emotion than appears upon the surface. She stimulates us to supply what is not there. What she offers is, apparently, a trifle, yet is composed of something that expands in the reader’s mind and endows with the most enduring form of life scenes which are outwardly trivial.’

I would tend to agree and there is much more going on than meets the eye.

One interesting aspect is the incident with the “gypsies”. In the two hundred years since the tropes don’t seem to have changed. They are still an underclass associated with thievery, violence and general criminality.

On the whole I enjoyed following the alleyways of the plot and the even more labyrinthine alleyways of the later critiques and analysis.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting West by Carys Davies

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Star Rider by Doris Piserchia

I have had this science fiction novel on my shelves since the late 1980s. It was part of a series published by the Women’s Press. It was Piserchia’s second novel published in 1974. It is set in the very distant future. Humanity has gone in three different directions.

There are jaks who are nomadic and often solitary. They have developed along with the ancestors of dogs and the two have a strong psychic link. Jaks are able to move great distances almost instantaneously across the galaxy by means of something called jinking (it’s best not to overthink it as it doesn’t really make sense). There are gibs, who live on a planet called Gibraltar. They are more similar to humans as we know them and are pretty much oppressed and do as they are told. Then there are the dreens who are effectively a policing and monitoring class who manage the gibs and who believe in order. They seem to fit neatly into modern notions of order and oppression. The Varks are a separate species who are effectively humanity’s guardians and have to see that they don’t get into too much trouble.

I must admit, it took me a while to connect with this and to suspend logic and follow the story. It is narrated by Lone (later called Jade), an adolescent female jak. Like all jaks, she is looking for a planet called Doubleluck, which is supposed to by a sort of utopia: an El Dorado type search. This turns out to be earth which is uninhabited and a bit of a mess. Jade has a series of adventures with her mount Hinx and spends most of her time wondering why everyone wants to lock her up, contain her, marry her, limit her powers and the reader (and she) gradually learns why. The ending has a bit of a communal, if we work together it might work out ok feel about it (very 60s).

There is something of a feminist feel to this and Jade has to resist various types of male attention. Jade turns out be very independent. It’s a bit fuzzy and optimistic at times and who wouldn’t want a loyal telepathic dog for a companion and sidekick! It wasn’t a challenging book, but it was quite fun.

7 out of 10

Starting The Quickening by Rhiannon Ward

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West by Carys Davies

This feels like an extended short story and could easily be read in one sitting. The setting is the US in the early nineteenth century. It feels a bit like a fable and consequently the reader has to suspend a certain amount reliance on historical accuracy.

Cyrus (Cy) Bellman lives in Pennsylvania where he breeds mules. His wife has died and he lives with his daughter Bess who is ten years old. He reads reports of an expedition to the Midwest (largely unexplored) where the remains have been found of very large creatures, presumably dinosaurs or possibly mammoths. Bellman speculates that these creatures may still be living out there. Bellman decides to go looking for them. Bess is to stay where she is, to be watched over by his sister Julie and the hired hand on the farm Elmer Jackson. There are no prizes for parenting here. Bellman buys himself a stovepipe hat and takes lots of trinkets and tools to trade with the locals. A French trader provides him with a young Native American guide when he reaches a trading station and off he goes into the wilderness. Time passes, two years and Bess is growing up whilst Elmer Jackson is turning into a stalker.

Bellman does question what he has done:

“You had so many ways of deciding which way to live your life. It made his head spin to think of them. It hurt his heart to think that he had decided on the wrong way.”

The narrative switches between Bellman and his daughter. Bellman is searching for monsters that don’t exist whilst his daughter is navigating her way around those that do.

The writing is spare and luminous but I found myself not really engaging with the wilderness part of the narrative:

“The intermittent appearance of natives now, though he’d come by this time to expect it, amazed him: the presence of people in the vast wilderness around them. Even though he was used to the rhythm of their journey – that he and the boy could travel for a month and see no one, and then without warning encounter a large camp, or a group of savages walking or fishing. Noisy children and men whose bodies gleamed with grease and coal, women loaded like mules with bundles of buffalo meat. A whole mass of them together, undifferentiated and strange, and present suddenly amidst the course grass and the trees, the rocks and the river, beneath the enormous sky. All of them wanting to touch his red hair. Half of them enthralled by his compass, the other half trying to examine his knife and the contents of his tin chest. All of them fearful of his guns and eager to traffic a little raw meat for some of his treasures.”

 

Bellman is out there for over two years in winters where he would have frozen to death meeting people who had no reason to welcome settlers who displaced them from their lands.  There is a whimsicality to this, which is fine, but I struggled with the juxtaposition to the sheer unbelievability of half of the tale.

6 out of 10

Starting Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

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Zami: A new spelling of my name by Audre Lorde

“Maybe that is all any bravery is, a stronger fear of not being brave.”

“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives.”

Lorde refers to this as a biomythography, which is a combination of biography, myth and history. Lorde says that the word Zami is a Carriacou word (Carriacou is a small island in the Caribbean where Lorde’s mother was born) which means women who work together as friends and lovers. This is, amongst other things, a book about love. It follows Lorde’s formative years and takes us up to around 1960. There is a great deal about racism, being a lesbian in 1950s America, friendship and community and Lorde’s difficult relationship with her mother.

“Images of women flaming like torches adorn and define the borders of my journey, stand like dykes between me and the chaos. It is the images of women, kind and cruel, that lead me home.

 

This is not an easy read and repays time and careful reading. It is a great book, one that really should be much more widely known, especially here in the UK. Lorde expresses herself very well:

“I remember how being young and Black and gay and lonely felt. A lot of it was fine, feeling I had the truth and the light and the key, but a lot of it was purely hell.

There were no mothers, no sisters, no heroes. We had to do it alone, like our sister Amazons, the riders on the loneliest outposts of the Kingdom of Dahomey. We, young and Black and fine and gay, sweated out our first heartbreaks with no school nor office chums to share that confidence over lunch hour. Just as there were no rings to make tangible the reason for our happy secret smiles, there were no names nor reason given or shared for the tears that messed up the lab reports or the library bills.

We were good listeners, and never asked for double dates, but didn’t we know the rules? Why did we always seems to think friendships between women were important enough to care about? Always we moved in a necessary remoteness that made “What did you do this weekend?” seem like an impertinent question. We discovered and explored our attention to women alone, sometimes in secret, sometimes in defiance, sometimes in little pockets that almost touched (“Why are those little Black girls always either whispering together or fighting?”) but always alone, against a greater aloneness. We did it cold turkey, and although it resulted in some pretty imaginative tough women when we survived, too many of us did not survive at all.”

Lorde writes very well and has the ability to sum things up in a rather pithy way, as she sums up the 1950s:

"The Rosenbergs had been executed, the transistor radio had been invented, and frontal lobotomy was the standard solution for persistent deviation."

Lorde writes about her lived experience of marginalisation and she really is a pioneer. One of my favourite reads.

9 out of 10

Starting Underland by Robert Macfarlane

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Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

A collection of eleven short stories, definitely Gothic, all linked in subtle and disturbing ways almost circular in the way they connect. The prose is spare and matter of fact. In the first story a woman goes into a bakery to buy strawberry shortbread:

 

“I’m buying them for my son. Today is his birthday.”
“Really? Well, I hope it’s a happy one. How old is he?”
“Six. He’ll always be six. He’s dead.”

 

This is more Poe than King, but could be taking place anywhere, in any place. There is plenty of death, decay and food, much of the death takes place slightly off-screen: there is a certain amount of subtlety. Ogawa plays with death, with age, with gender and does so very well as there are plenty of twists and surprises. Age and gender often seem to blur into each other as do the characters. There is an elegance to the storytelling. Out of place details can be more powerful than gore and monsters. The stories are set in an unnamed city. At the centre is a clock tower which seems to pop up in a number of the stories:

 

“The bell in the clock tower began to ring. A flock of pigeons lifted into the sky. As the fifth chime sounded, a door beneath the clock opened and a little parade of animated figurines pirouetted out—a few soldiers, a chicken, and a skeleton. Since the clock was very old, the figurines were slightly discolored, their movements stiff and awkward. The chicken’s head swiveled about as if to squawk; the skeleton danced. And then, from the door, an angel appeared, beating her golden wings.

 

Images and devices repeat themselves. I think there is probably a key to all this. There is a writer who appears periodically and I wonder whether the author is inserting her into her work.

This is different and disturbing, definitely one to read as the nights draw in.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier

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The Quickening by Rhiannon Ward

This is a slice of gothic historical fiction set in 1925. The main protagonist is a photographer, Louisa Drew, who lost her husband in the War and her two sons in the flu epidemic. She receives a commission to photograph some of the contents of a country house whose occupants are moving to India. Inevitably the house has a gothic and sinister feel to it. Not only that the occupants intend to re-enact a séance that took place thirty years earlier, which ended badly. Those who were there originally are to be there again, including a certain Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife. Throw into the mix, a curse, sinister goings on in the ice house, changes in temperature, ghostly music, possible ghostly sightings and footprints in the snow. Louisa is heavily pregnant and has pretty much abandoned her new husband to take the commission. Of course the house doesn’t feel right to Louisa from the start and it appears to dislike her! Louisa is assisted by the son of the journalist who was at the original séance and is reporting on this one. There is a cast of the upstairs and downstairs elements of the household, some of whom know more than they are letting on.

The novel is from the perspective of Louisa with periodic flashbacks to the original séance. If you like gothic fiction you are likely to like this and it’s ideal for this time of year. I found the romance subplot irritating (that may be me!!) Some of the menace was a little low key and some of the working out of the ending didn’t convince, but it’s best not to overthink this.

6 and a half out of 10

Starting  Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley

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Dead Man's Walk by Larry McMurtry

This is the first chronologically of the Lonesome Dove novels, but the third written. I think it is also the first Western novel I have read. It introduces McCrae and Call the central characters in Lonesome Dove just as they join the Texas Rangers, both are about twenty. This is set in the 1840s and involves two expeditions into the wilderness and several encounters with Native Americans (some of whom feature in future books), Comanche and Apache. Both expeditions are shambolic.

McMurtry is a creative writer and his powers of description are good. The characters did feel a bit flat at times and I suspect some of this is backfilling for the later novels in the timeline. There is no idealising or romanticizing the old west and there is plenty of brutality from all sides. McMurtry can carry a story and this is easy to read, containing all the things you would expect from a classic western.

Some of this was a bit surreal and by the end it felt like the author had painted the surviving characters into a bit of a corner. The device used to get them out of it is completely unbelievable. McMurtry does manage to treat both sides of the conflict with Native Americans fairly equitably without exploring the real tensions present. The focus is on the action. I think a lot of the point of the book was to get McCrae and Call from A to B. But I will read more.

7 out of 10

Starting George under a Paper Moon by Nina Bawden

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22 hours ago, Books do furnish a room said:

If you like gothic fiction you are likely to like this and it’s ideal for this time of year. I found the romance subplot irritating (that may be me!!)

I think I would feel exactly the same way. I saw this book recently though and did think it sounded like a great book for autumn! I do really love a spooky séance in a book.

 

Brilliant reviews, as always :) 

 

 

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George beneath a Paper Moon by Nina Bawden

This is a 1974 novel from Nina Bawden and it was an oddity which didn’t know what it intended to be. Bawden herself said:

“I intended a comedy, a love story, a thriller. And maybe it’s also a bit of a moral tale.”

Unfortunately Bawden attempts to add all of these things, most of them in the last three or four chapters. So the whole thing is a bit of a mess.

The novel is about the George of the title who is a successful travel agent. George sets up adventures for others and doesn’t have them himself. He feels “the important things happened while his back was turned”. He has a fairly comfortable life and is in his mid-30s. He has good friends in Sam and Claire (a married couple) with whom he was at university. Sam and Claire have a fifteen year old daughter, Sally. Fifteen years earlier George and Claire had an affair because Claire wanted a child and it was very unlikely that Sam would be able to provide one. It is therefore likely that Sally is George’s child. Just to complicate things and add a Nabokov element George is in love with Sally. However Sally also has a teenage crush on George.

Bawden is good at creating unsympathetic characters and George marries Leila and decides to be a supportive husband, you can imagine how that goes.

The whole thing moves to Turkey for the end of the book. Introduce a few suave English diplomats and assorted locals who clearly do not know the “English” way of doing things. Sally is on sort of exchange with a Turkish girl and there are assorted youthful political things going on (Sally is about seventeen by now). George and Leila are there as well. The comedic touches are present throughout. How then do you sort out the tangle of the moral, love and thriller narrative threads? Of course, you have an earthquake.

5 and a half out of 10

Starting All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison

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Company of Liars by Karen Maitland

Well, this is a pandemic novel, set in 1348 in England, the year of the Plague. I have found myself reading a bit of rather trashy historical fiction recently and have been wondering about the attraction. It may be my age I suppose, it’s certainly escapism. I think sometimes the stresses and strains of battling against injustice and working for Vulnerable Adults in what often seems like a ceaseless losing battle means that I need something in my reading diet that moves me away from it. This appears to be it! Unfortunately my critical faculties seem to wake up or at least wander back when I sit down to write a revue.

It is pretty loosely based on The Canterbury Tales and there is also a touch of the Decameron lurking in there as well. It involves a group of travellers thrown together, each with a particular secret (inevitably). There are healers, sorcerers, storytellers, musicians, ex-priests and I did begin to wonder if I was playing Dungeons and Dragons. They also appear to be being followed by a wolf (there were still wolves in England at that time), which they heard at night but never saw;

“We were just preparing to settle down for another cold night when we heard the wolf again. A wolf’s howl, however often you hear it, still sends shivers down your spine.

The whole lot are pretty disreputable and each has a story which unfolds. The thriller element kicks in as they begin to die one by one and it all begins to feel a bit Agatha Christie.

There is also a state of the nation feel about it (possibly then and now) as Maitland brings it the plight of the Jews in fourteenth century England, being queer, xenophobia (dislike of foreigners is nothing new), religious superstition, fear of those who do not conform, incest and a well signalled twist at the end. Some of the stories are not given much depth and there is a bit of unreliable narration. The whole thing falls apart a bit at the end and I felt Maitland was unsure how to end it.

The whole thing is a bit of a mess but it had a soporific effect on me at the end of the day

6 out of 10

Starting King Rat by China Mieville

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Still Life by A S Byatt

This is the last book in my Reading Women challenge this year; 35 books in all (I’m already planning next year). This is from the 1980s section (a book from each year of the 1980s). It is also the second part of a quartet (a fact I wasn’t aware of). The quartet is about the Potter family and as it is called the Frederica Quartet, one of the main characters, Frederica, is one of the daughters of the family. This book covers her Cambridge years (from just before to just after); deep joy!! Stephanie, her older sister has left academia and married a clergyman and produces two children during the book. Marcus her younger brother is portrayed as being intelligent but problematic. Byatt here may be trying to portray someone on the autistic spectrum. Presumably the first in the series covered childhood and Stephanie’s university career.

This is set in the mid-1950s and is very much a novel of the English middle classes of the sort that I am beginning to feel I have been put on this earth to warn against. This is articulate, clever with assorted intelligent dons and plenty of analysis of poetry, and religion. The poor are not present apart from being there to be done unto by the goodly middle class folk. There is a bit of stuff about painting, hence the title. There are some odd names here too, some of which for me evoked Hardy and not in a good way. The younger brother Marcus apparently has what would now be called PTSD, following an incident in the first book. This portrayal for me didn’t really work and seemed very muddled.

Another annoyance was the author suddenly intervening, like this:

“The language with which I might try to order Frederica's hectic and somewhat varied sexual life in 1954-55 was not available to Frederica then.”

And this:

“The germ of this novel was a fact that was also a metaphor: a young woman, with a child, looking at a tray of earth in which unthinned seedlings on etiolated pale stalks died in the struggle for survival. She held in her hand the picture of a flower, the seed packet with its bright image. Nasturtium, Giant Climbing, mixed.”

This became annoying and I felt there was really no need for it.

It is undoubtedly clever and perceptive and perhaps captures a time and place for a certain class. There are lots of clever references and literary links and some will love this, I didn’t.

6 out of 10

Starting

Natives by Akala

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Square Haunting by Francesca Wade

This book focuses on five women who all lived in Mecklenberg Square in London at various points between the wars. The link (apart from the Square and the fact they are all middle class) is the theme of female autonomy and there is a Room of One’s Own thread running through it. There are two academics: the historian Eileen Power and the classicist Jane Harrison. The poet and novelist Hilda Doolittle (HD). Novelist and writer Dorothy L Sayers. Finally and inevitably Virginia Woolf. The Square is close to the British Museum and at times all of them used the Reading Room there. The title is taken from a 1925 diary entry by Woolf when she talks about the joys of “street sauntering and square haunting”. They didn’t all live there at the same time and they didn’t know each other well, although some were acquainted. Wade tells a story about Woolf eating biscuits in the kitchen at one of Power’s parties. Multiple biographies are quite the thing these days, but Wade does have a particular focus, which she tends to stick to: autonomy, the right to talk, walk, and write freely, to live invigorating lives’.

I was particularly interested in the section on Eileen Power, I have admired her historical work since the 1970s.

“I am extremely jubilant at present, because I have, after much travail & tribulation, found a charming half-house in Mecklenburgh Square, looking on to an enormous garden of trees & I hope to move in at the end of term. I have found a convenient friend to share it, of the sort who is never there except on weekends, when I am often away. My idea of life is to have enormous quantities of friends but to live alone. And I do not know whether Girton or the study of medieval nunneries did more to convince me that I was not born to live in a community!

Power’s work is much underrated and she comes across as an impressive character.

The links are tenuous, although each essay (which is effectively what they are) has some interest in its own right. Wade sums up her aims thus:

“These chapters capture each woman in a moment of transition, of hope tempered by uncertainty, as she left behind a version of herself in the home or community she was abandoning, and sought to reinvent her life in a new place. . . . During the time all these women spent there . . . they produced groundbreaking writing, initiated radical collaboration, started (and ended) significant relationships and thought deeply about their values and ambitions.”

Wade also draws links between some of the women:

“Harrison’s work gave Woolf a new, subversive model of history which informed all her subsequent novels and essays: one whose revelations offered powerful ‘mothers’ for women to ‘think back through.’ And which revealed as man-made—and flimsy—the construct on which patriarchal society rests.”

I also discovered that Mary Beard has written a biography of Harrison, so I will be looking out for that.

Whilst I think there are issues with the concept of this, for me, there was enough here to maintain interest.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting The Transgender Issue by Shon Faye

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My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier

My first foray into Du Maurier. This combines (sort of) romance and thriller with an edge of gothic. Du Maurier is a good storyteller and this one has a first person narrator. It is set in what seems to be the mid nineteenth century (there is a corpse hanging on a gibbet early in the book). Philip is a young man of 23/24. He is an orphan and has been brought up by his cousin (older by twenty years) Ambrose. It is mainly set on a Cornish estate and the household is all male (including all the servants). So Philip has been brought up without knowing or understanding women. This book is really about male power and male fragility. Philip has a guardian who will manage his affairs until he is 25. Ambrose has poor health and decides to go to Italy for the winter. Here he meets his half Italian cousin Rachel (ten years younger than Ambrose and ten years older than Philip) and falls in love: they marry. Philip is of course horrified (at a distance as he is still in Cornwall). Ambrose stays in Italy for a while. His letters become more rambling and he starts to complain of headaches and talks about his suspicions of Rachel. Ambrose dies and Philip is convinced she killed him. Rachel eventually turns up in Cornwall. Inevitably Philip falls in love with her. There follows lots of male sulking, some fun with wills, jewellery, poisons, sex, jealousy and much more. The more perceptive will realise that Philip is a rather unreliable narrator and there is a sort of whodunit throughout.

Philip is not a likeable character, he is petulant, privileged and has a sense of entitlement, others are of like account. It is important to point out that we only ever see Rachel through the eyes of men like Philip and Ambrose. Rachel’s choices are prescribed by her sexuality and gender by the men around her. Philip has his thoughts about men and women:

“We were surely different, with our blunter comprehension, moving more slowly to the compass points, while they, erratic and unstable, were blown about their course by winds of fancy.”

Rachel’s determination not to remarry completely baffles Philip. Du Maurier quite purposely I think, genders the places involved. Cornwall/the estate is clearly masculine and Florence clearly feminine. As Sally Beauman points out in the virago introduction Du Maurier:

“writes in the guise of a man, in a novel that explores, inter alia, the full implications of male authority”

Du Maurier has written a pretty good account of misogyny and male privilege. Rachel remains an enigma because we only know her through male eyes.

7 out of 10

Starting The Life and Death of Emily Wilding Davison by Liz Stanley and Ann Morley

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All among the barley by Melissa Harrison

An author I have never read before and a novel about rural England in the 1930s with a fourteen year old unreliable narrator. What could go wrong? Actually, not much. Another writer I respect, Jon McGregor, called this a masterpiece and yes, it is really good.

The setting is rural Suffolk in the early 1930s on a fairly poor tenant farm. It is narrated by fourteen year old Edith Mather, which adds a coming of age element. The Great Depression is one of the backdrops. The other is the Great War which casts a long shadow and the gaps left in families are still obvious. There are tensions between what are called the “old ways” and modern farming methods. The novel revolves around the arrival of a stranger, Constance FitzAllen who has come to record and document old farming methods, songs, pastimes, recipes and all things agricultural. She is treated warily at first, but gradually gains some trust. She also takes time to get to know Edith, who is shy and rather bookish and has reached the point where she has to think about what to do with her life.

Harrison creates a sense of place in terms of the farm and the natural world. There are maps at the beginning of the novel, one of the farm and one of the farm in relation to the nearby village of Elmbourne. Neil Gower the illustrator says of the maps:

“The completeness of Harrison’s maps indicated that they had been an integral part of the novel’s creation. She inhabits the landscape intimately, like her characters, who seem to have emerged straight from it as readily and naturally as the flints they clear from the soil each year.”

The writing about nature is also very strong:

“On a cornland farm, such as ours, the pause between haysel and harvest is like a held breath. The summer lanes are edged with dog-roses and wild clematis, the hedges thronged with young birds. At last the cuckoos leave, and you are glad of it, having heard their note for weeks; but the landrails creak on interminably, invisible among the corn. The nights are brief and warm, the Dog Star dazzles overhead; the moon draws a shadow from every blade of wheat. All day, dust rises from unmade roads and hangs in the air long after a cart or a motor-car passes. Everything waits.”

This however is no rural idyll. The farm is struggling. Edie’s father tends towards drink and doesn’t like to be contradicted and everyone knows he is violent towards Edie’s mother. The newcomer Connie it transpires is a fascist and there is much about strength and tradition and England for the English. The target then was the Jews and in the after note Harrison reminds the reader of Orwell’s essay on Antisemitism in England. Her views find some support and some opposition from union members and socialists among the farm hands. This, of course, leads to more tensions.

Edie is trying to negotiate growing up. She is fascinated by stories of witches and wise women, wondering if she is part of that tradition herself. At the beginning of the book she is reading Lolly Willowes, which helps to fuel her imagination. She starts to get attention from boys and from one boy in particular. There is uncertainty on all sides:

“It isn’t easy to conceive when you are growing up, that the world could be any different than how you find it, for the things you first encounter are what normality comes to consist of, and only the passage of time teaches you that your childhood could have been otherwise.”

Edie’s narration hints at a number of things throughout the novel which begin to add up. A glimpse of her fifty years later in Thatcher’s Britain highlights another sinister aspect of twentieth century British history. All is not as it seems and this is not a sentimental novel, there are flaws in the rural idyll.

9 out of 10

Starting Mr Godley's Phantom by Mal Peet

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On 07/10/2021 at 8:13 PM, Books do furnish a room said:

Company of Liars by Karen Maitland

I have this book and I'm glad I read your review because it sounds a bit different to what I expected! I'm actually glad that it seems to be a lighter read than I thought, I expected it to potentially be quite depressing with the plague theme!

 

On 07/10/2021 at 8:13 PM, Books do furnish a room said:

I think sometimes the stresses and strains of battling against injustice and working for Vulnerable Adults in what often seems like a ceaseless losing battle means that I need something in my reading diet that moves me away from it.

I didn't know you did that. It must be incredibly frustrating. There's so much that's stupid and broken in the system. But that makes people who keep going to try to change those injustices even more special and appreciated :hug:

 

On 22/10/2021 at 9:00 PM, Books do furnish a room said:

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier

Also one I really want to read!

 

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I loved Company of Liars.  Hope you like it too.

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