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A Book blog 2021 by Books do Furnish a Room

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First completed read of the year

Homecoming by Colin Grant

This is about the Windrush generation in Britain; those who came to Britain in the 1940s to 1960s. Grant has collected their views by doing interviews, accessing Mass Observation records and newspaper quotes and articles at the time. This generation are becoming older and an oral history of this kind is important in recording how those who came to Britain from the Caribbean were treated and how they made homes here. Grant is a radio producer, author, fellow at the Centre for Carribean Studies  and has written other works about the Windrush generation and he marshals his facts well. There is a potted biography of all of those in the book (some with more details than others). The chapters are organised by themes which include arrivals, work, housing, carnival, daily life (including food), inter-racial relationships, the 1958 Notting Hill riots and so on. There are many recollections some of them heart-breaking and horrifying, some downright funny. The stories open a window onto aspects of British history which many would rather forget.

The interviewees are from all over the Caribbean, many arrived as children or young adults. The level of racism they experienced was high; being asked to leave a Church and not come back, not being allowed to have a bank account, struggling to find a room to rent, coping with a lot of outright hostility, the list is a long one. The separation of parents and children was one very difficult aspect that came out. Many children were left in the Caribbean with grandparents for some years and re-establishing family life was often difficult. Grant noted that there was a matter of factness in the descriptions of racism, a sense of “that’s the way it was”. He also noted that when he asked them to reflect more deeply on their experiences they often became emotional. It may be that some of the memories of how bad things were have been somewhat repressed. This leads to the danger that we begin to think “it wasn’t that bad” which is an easy get out for those in power and those who still have the long-established racist views prevalent in Britain.

Grant examines through the interviews the different strands of thought in the West Indian community with the “dreamers” and “realists” being two ways of looking at the move to Britain. He does deal a little with the recent Windrush scandal and the Circumlocution Office which is the Home Office, but maybe he could have added more detail about these events.

This is essential reading for those who wish to understand racism in British society. There are a few structural issues with the presentation (all the biographies are at the back), but these are minor issues. This is a must read.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Picasso I want my face back by Grace Nicholls

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Venus and Aphrodite by Bettany Hughes

This is a biography and history of the goddess Aphrodite/Venus running through ancient history to the modern day. It is a surprisingly brief tome and consequently there are times when it feels a little thin or brief. It would have benefited from more detailed analysis. It reads easily but it felt a little superficial at times. There are plenty of brief anecdotes sometimes loosely linked together. Thought provoking statements are not always furnished with arguments.

There are though plenty of interesting historical facts. There is information about Enheduanna, the first named female author in history, describing Inanna, an early version of Aphrodite:

Lady of blazing dominion

clad in dread

riding on fire-red power

flood-storm-hurricane adorned

battle planner

foe smasher

It’s all pretty warlike and the wildness of war clearly took female form as well. Enheduanna also said “you can turn man into woman, woman into man”. The chapter on sexuality again contains interesting information, but its brevity leads to a certain muddling of terms.

One of the pluses is the amount of art and artefacts pictured charting the development of Aphrodite as she gradually changes and becomes part of the Christian tradition as Eve and the Virgin Mary. The changing role of Aphrodite also mirrors the changing role and perception of women.

All in all a mixed bag, perhaps most useful as an introduction. There are interesting facts and references for further reading, but I was a bit underwhelmed.

6 out of 10

Starting Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

 

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Picasso I Want My Face Back by Grace Nichols

This is another very good volume of poems by the Guyanese poet Grace Nichols. The first poem in the collection relates to the book cover, a reproduction of Picasso’s weeping woman. The portrait was of Dora Maar, a surrealist photographer, who was his muse and lover at one time. This is an ekphrastic poem which gives Maar a critical voice and she becomes subject rather than object. Nichols give her an agency which she does not have, her own history is unlocked. Here is a selection from the poem put together by the Guardian:

2

Even my hat mocks me
laughing
on the inside of my grief –

My twisted mouth
and gnashing teeth,
my fingers fat and clumsy
as if they were still wearing
those gloves –
the bloodstained ones you keep.

What has happened
to the pupils
of my eyes, Picasso?

Why do I deserve
such deformity?

What am I now
if not a cross between
a clown and a broken
piece of crockery?

3

But I am famous.
People recognise me
despite my fractures.

I'm no Mona Lisa
(how I'd like to wipe
the smugness from her face
that still captivates.)

Doesn't she know that art, great art,
needn't be an oil-painting?

I am a magnet
not devoid of beauty.

I am an icon
of twentieth-century grief.

A symbol
of compositional possibilities

My tears are tears of happiness –
big rolling diamonds.

14

Picasso, I want my face back
the unbroken photography of it

Once I lived to be stroked
by the fingers of your brushes

Now I see I was more an accomplice
to my own unrooting

Watching the pundits gaze
open-mouthed at your masterpieces

While I hovered like a battered muse
my private grief made public.

15

Dora, Theodora, be reasonable, if it weren't for Picasso
you'd hardly be remembered at all.
He's given you an unbelievable shelf-life.
Yes, but who will remember the fruits of my own life?

I am no moth flitting around his wick.
He might be a genius but he's also a prick –
Medusa, Cleopatra, help me find my inner bitch,
wasn't I christened Henriette Theodora Markovitch?

Picasso, I want my face back
the unbroken geography of it.

The rest of the poems are much briefer and consider art, landscape and memory (as the blurb says. A number about laughter, some about travel (I vaguely remember travel), some relating to events (the Iraq war for example). They are all good and are better listened to than read: plenty of examples on You Tube, but Weeping Woman is a great poem.  

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Nobody Nowhere by Donna Williams

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Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

The book consists of a novella (Kitchen) and a short story (Moonlight Shadow). There is a focus on loss and grief and its effects and the ensuing loneliness:

“Usually, the first time I go to a house, face to face with people I barely know, I feel an immense loneliness. I saw myself reflected in the glass of the large terrace window while black gloom spread over the rain-hounded night panorama. I was tied by blood to no creature in this world. I could go anywhere, do anything. It was dizzying. Suddenly, to see that the world was so large, the cosmos so black. The unbounded fascination of it, the unbounded loneliness…For the first time, these days, I was touching it with these hands, these eyes. I’ve been looking at the world half-blind, I thought.”

And, of course the title has its relevance:

“The place I like best in this world is the kitchen. No matter where it is, no matter what kind, if it’s a kitchen, if it’s a place where they make food, it’s fine with me. Ideally it should be well broken in. Lots of tea towels, dry and immaculate. White tile catching the light (ting! ting!).”

Kitchen is the story of Mikage and Yuichi. Mikage loses her grandmother with whom she is living and she is alone in the world and has to move out of her grandmother’s apartment. She moves in with Yuichi and his mother Eriko, who is transgender. There are many nuances of pain, loss and hope here. There’s also a great deal of food:

“This katsudon, encountered almost by accident, was made with unusual skill, I must say. Good quality meat, excellent broth, the eggs and onions handled beautifully, the rice with just the right degree of firmness to hold up in the broth — it was flawless.”

Food is part of what holds the characters together and part of the healing process. Inevitably part of me wants to ask if the centrality of the kitchen for Mikage and the fact she is drawn to cooking is just another way of saying the way of happiness for women revolves around domesticity. The transgender parent might indicate a different attitude to conventional family life. However the working out of the story points to a more conventional sense of family, but that obviously is a matter of opinion. It could be argued Eriko is a victim of society’s hatred and transphobia or that Eriko’s removal eases the way to a conventional heteronormative ending.

Nevertheless the approach to grief is sensitively handled and there is no minimizing of it. There is an unavoidable truth; life ends, for all of us.  But in the meantime life goes on:

“Despair does not necessarily result in annihilation that one can go on as usual in spite of it. I had become hardened. Was that what it means to be an adult, to live with ugly ambiguities? I didn’t like it, but it made it easier to go on.”

7 out of 10

Starting Eclipsed by Danai Gurira

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The Glamour Boys by Chris Bryant

This is a largely untold slice of queer history. The Glamour Boys were a group of largely Conservative MPs who opposed appeasement in the 1930s, supporting Churchill’s stance in Parliament. They were all either homosexual or bisexual at a particularly difficult time to be gay because of the way the law was applied and the still looming shadow of Wilde. It is written by Labour MP Chris Bryant, who has an interesting background himself, long campaigning for LGBTQ+ rights. The first civil partnership ceremony held in Westminster was that of Bryant and his partner. I also remember an appearance of Gaydar wearing just his pants in 2003 (I kid you not), which was not usual for a sitting MP and the right wing press having a field day. This isn’t his first outing as a historian and this is well researched and detailed.

The Glamour Boys were 17 strong, but Bryant focuses on ten of them: Rob Bernays, Victor Cazalet, Robert Boothby, Jack MacNamara, Harry Crookshank, Ronnie Cartland (Barbara’s younger brother), Ronnie Tree, Harold Nicolson (Vita Sackville-West’s husband), Philip Sassoon and Jim Thomas. Five of them were dead by the end of the war and they are largely forgotten. Their name was coined by Neville Chamberlain and his dirty tricks team and was meant to be deliberately ambiguous as all of them were very aware that because of their sexuality there was always a danger from the police and justice system.

They were all familiar with Germany, having taken full advantage of the sexual liberality of the Weimar Republic. Bryant takes the reader through the lives of each of the characters from the late 1920s to the end of the war. As they were all familiar with Germany they noticed the changes in the culture and political climate in the early 1930s when the Nazis became more prominent. The Night of the Long Knives in 1934, when many prominent gay Nazis were killed, confirmed how thing were going. Many still had friends in Germany and were aware of the rising anti-Semitism and the concentration camps.  

This led the Glamour Boys to realise that fascism had to be opposed and they sided with Churchill in arguing against appeasement in Parliament. This meant that they were taking a very unpopular stance in Parliament and in the country as well as always in danger of prosecution because of their sexuality. Chamberlain, who doesn’t come out of this well, set up a dirty tricks department to discredit them and tapped their phones; they had to be very careful. A couple of them were Jewish and that added even more to the dangers they faced. Bryant maps in detail the role they played in opposing appeasement and goes as far as to say:

“Had it not been for the Glamour Boys’ campaign against Chamberlain we would never have fought, let alone won, the Second World War.”

Bryant did a great deal of research for this book and discovered that a good deal of information had either been ignored or erased. Barbara Cartland destroyed most of her brother’s papers before she died. So Bryant had to do detective work and piece together information from many sources to put this together. There are lighter moments as well. Bryant runs through a number of the meeting places for gay men (many of them in the military) in London, including the basement bar at the Ritz, which became known as the “Pink Sink”. The army often provided something of a refuge for gay men at the time and Bryant does describe the complex net of relationships that went to protect gay men in some areas of army life. Cazalet was in charge of an anti-aircraft battery during the first part of the war and it became known as the “Buggers Battery” amongst other things.

Cazalet, Bernays, Cartland and MacNamara all died in action during the war: Sassoon died of natural causes. Bryant has uncovered a story that was little known and little told and has done a good job of telling it.

9 out of 10

Starting Boy Blue by Stevie Davies

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Eclipsed by Danai Gurira

Eclipsed is a play by Danai Gurira. As well as being a playwright, she is also an actress, having had parts in The Walking Dead and Black Panther. It is set during the second Liberian civil war in 2003 and has an all-female cast of five. Four of them are wives of the commanding officer of the camp. Wife one Helena, wife two Maima, wife three Bessie and wife four the girl. The fifth character is Rita who works for a peace organisation. The play is written in dialect, but it isn’t difficult to pick up and follow. The wives and essentially chattels and sexual objects to be used. Gurira’s purpose was to illuminate those that are obscured by war; not the men, but the women and at the same time to look at the sisterhood between the women and how they survive. The title indicates that the women are the ones who are eclipsed/obscured. It is an analysis of the tyranny of war seen through the eyes of the five women, living with their own tensions and their own sisterhood. The play focuses on women’s lives, but male power is never far away.

Eclipsed was the first all-black, all-female play on Broadway. It is a play and it is meant to be performed, so reading it doesn’t feel quite right, but I suspect it is a while before we will all be sitting in theatres again!

8 out of 10

Starting Sisters by Daisy Johnson

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Dead Epidemiologists by Rob Wallace

Rob Wallace has been going on about the dangers of pandemics, escaping viruses, agricapitalism and the like for many years. In 2013 he even bought an N95 mask as a response to a developing avian influenza outbreak. Although it ended up at the back of a cupboard, as he puts it:

‘So out-of-step Rob circa 2013 helped sourly vindicated Rob 2020’ 

This is a collection of essays, articles, interviews and commentaries all published/collected during the first six to eight months of the pandemic. Consequently you do get a sense of development throughout the book. Wallace also charts the arrival of many new pathogens in the last thirty years or so, including African swine fever, Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, Cyclospora, and Ebola, E-coli, foot - and - mouth disease (not entirely new), hepatitis E, Listeria, Nipah virus, Q fever, Salmonella, Vibrio, Yersinia, Zika and a variety of influenza variants. Many scientists have been expecting this for a while and we were shockingly ill-prepared. As Wallace says:

“near-nothing real was done about any of them. Authorities spent a sigh of relief upon each reversal and immediately took the next roll of the epidemiological dice, risking a snake eyes of maximum virulence and transmissibility.”

Wallace argues that the development of these viruses is not just about genetics, but also about deforestation, the commercialisation of agriculture (not just meat here but other commodities as well), large concentrations in agriculture (like the seven storey hog hotels in China): the whole panoply of big agriculture, but also the trade in bush meat and wild animals like pangolins and bats. Very pertinently Wallace says:

 "agribusiness is at war with public health. And public health is losing"

This is all done for profit. The food chains we have and the concentrated nature of agriculture mean there are no natural firebreaks to prevent the spread of viruses and their mutations.

Wallace marshals his facts well and outlines the problem well. He isn’t sure where this particular virus came from (apart from China of course) and there are several possibilities, but he is clear that most governments have managed the pandemic particularly badly. He is also clear that there are likely to be more viruses on the way.

He does propose some solutions which are essentially socialist in nature. One solution he does not propose is moving to entirely plant based agriculture as he sees this as a northern Americo/Eurocentric solution which would case great damage to pastoral farmers, mainly in the South living traditional and sustainable lifestyles. Wallace argues that solutions have to be small and local and driven by those who work in agriculture and on the land. This is rather a salutary read. We did all this to ourselves and there is no real sign yet we are capable of changing path. This isn’t an easy read and I skim read some of the more technical bits, but the message is clear and I think correct.

9 and a half out of 10

Starting The Anarchy by William Dalrymple

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Black Car Burning by Helen Mort

This is a debut novel and Mort is a poet. This is obvious from the way the novel is written. It is very much a novel of place and is set in Sheffield and the Peak District. I know Sheffield well, I went to university there and lived there for some years afterwards. A third of the city of Sheffield is actually in the Peak District. To me the geography is familiar and Mort gives it a voice in the sections between chapters. The title does not refer to a random act of vandalism, but to a climb in the Peak District. The four main characters in the book are climbers in one way or another. Sheffield is allegedly built on seven hills and despite it being a city there are lots of trees around. Part of the novel takes place near the village of Hathersage, a few miles outside the city and Stanage Edge (popular with climbers and the location of the climb in the title).

There are four main characters Alexa, a PCSO (Police Community Support Officer): Caron who is Alexa’s girlfriend and a fanatical climber: Leigh works in an outdoor equipment and climbing shop: Pete is an ex police officer who manages the climbing shop. The city is a character in itself, but behind it all is a shadow, that of the Hillsborough disaster. Pete was a very young policeman on duty that day and as a result left the force. Alexa and Caron are polyamorous, this fits seamlessly into the novel. Mort also focuses attention onto tensions in parts of the city in relation to the Roma community whose relatively recent presence is resented by other sections of the community.

There are lots of themes: grief, pride and shame and the devastating effects of Hillsborough: trust is also important and Mort weaves the whole together very well. Mort looks at the ties that bind us, quite apt in relation to the climbing community. The world of the novel is female focussed, even though the climbing fraternity is often defined by a very macho approach. I did learn a bit about climbing (not something I would ever normally go anywhere near):

“None of them knows what it’s like to climb so hard you put all your breath, all your hope into one small movement, one small step that might not matter, but might be everything.”

The language adds to the impact of the novel:

“Above the valley, the moon is a blood moon, tinged pink like the residue left inside an egg, a wound in the clouds, an incredulous mouth, the sky around it seeping.”

The dialogue is also spot on, the relationships well drawn and realistic. The city and the countryside has a voice which captivates. Class and race tensions are present (there is a march by the English Defence League) and addressed. The whole feels untidy in a good way and I really enjoyed this. Mort has been compared with Lawrence, but that is unfair: I enjoyed this much more than Lawrence.

9 out of 10

Starting The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davies

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Thank you Lau_Lou

One of Ours by Willa Cather

This won Cather the Pulitzer Prize in 1923. It has been dubbed her war novel and was heavily criticised by Sinclair, Hemingway and Menken to name a few. Of course that at least convinced me to give it a chance! It starts in Nebraska and ends in France, following the life and adventures of Claude Wheeler.

 The novel has a broad sweep. There is something of a follow on from the Pioneer novels. Claude is the son of a pioneer and there is a sense of the ending of an era. Claude feels other pulls which don’t sit easy with his family and roots. He gets some education and wants to go to university. He doesn’t and ends up managing the farm on which he grew up, out of sorts, but competent enough. He goes on to marry a woman he does not love and who does not love him and is more interested in missionary work. The war intervenes and Claude signs up, gaining a sense of purpose. The novel moves from pioneer to pandemic. On the troop ship crossing the Atlantic there is an outbreak of influenza which kills many of the soldiers on board. Then there is France and the war. There are some pretty horrific descriptions of trench warfare and Cather seems quite obsessed with gases escaping from dead bodies. It’s true that the writing about warfare doesn’t compare with those who had been there. There is also a fair amount about comradeship between men. Cather also comments on the inability of many men so fit back into society leading to a number of suicides:

“Some do it in obscure lodging houses, some in their office, where they seemed to be carrying on their business like other men. Some slip over a vessel’s side and disappear into the sea.” 

The character of Claude seems rather aimless until he finds purpose in the war. The purpose seems to begin when he is on the boat and the flu epidemic starts. Claude is an officer, a lieutenant and he starts to have a sense of duty towards his men:

“This grey wall, unshaken, mighty, was the end of the long preparation, as it was the end of the sea. It was the reason for everything that had happened in his life for the last fifteen months. It was the reason why Tannhauser and the gentle Virginian, and so many others who had set out with him, were never to have any life at all, or even a soldier’s death. They were merely waste in a great enterprise, thrown overboard like rotten ropes. For them this kind release,—trees and a still shore and quiet water,—was never, never to be. How long would their bodies toss, he wondered, in that inhuman kingdom of darkness and unrest”

On the whole this is a mixed bag and I have been ambivalent about Cather (still am), but there is an aspect to this which surprised me. Claude develops a close relationship with David, a fellow officer. There is a scene near the end of the book when I suddenly realised that this was more than a friendship. The clues are all there. Most unexpected.

I will admit to enjoying this despite its flaws.

7 out of 10

Starting The transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard

 

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Boy Blue by Stevie Davies

This is Stevie Davies’s first novel and it won the Fawcett Prize. On the surface this is a family saga set over a couple of generations from 1944. The war is still going with rationing and the new threat of V2 bombs. The novel is set in Salisbury in a working class area and follows the Gartery family. Chrissie is eighteen and falls in love with a soldier about to go to Italy (Jim). They marry quickly and Chrissie became pregnant. The focus is on Chrissie, her mother and father, her two sisters Minnie and Lilian and Chrissie’s daughter Florence.

It is written in typical Davies style, with much more going on beneath the surface. The effects of war and a warrior culture are charted in terms of the lives of women and Chrissie dreads giving birth (especially to a boy child) in a time of war:

“ One night she dreamed … of giving birth to a ten-pound bomb, which slid out from between her legs in a trail of cold slime, and when she touched it the skin of her hand stuck to the freezing body. She woke the other girls in the dormitory with her screams. She would not survive. She realised this.”

Chrissie is admitted to a truly awful maternity home and gives birth to twins: a boy and a girl. She bonds with the girl, but not with the boy and she arranges for the boy to be adopted without telling her family or husband. The notion of the missing boy twin runs throughout the novel. The effects of this visceral reaction last. The book charts how war alienates men from the feminine and women from the masculine.

The men in the novel are a mixed bunch. Minnie’s husband is a violent abuser. Chrissie’s father was seriously debilitated by depression. The book is full of strong women who essentially get on with things. The focus is on the experience of women. It’s a good novel, not Davies’s best and there are language problems in relation to Downs Syndrome. It is though an interesting exploration of alienation.

7 out of 10

Starting The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor

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Nobody Nowhere by Donna Williams

This is the first of Donna Williams’s autobiographies and covers her childhood and early adulthood until she is about 25. She identified as autistic and this is her account of how she experienced the world and other people. Narratives of illness and disability can be difficult, especially if they stray into self-help or preaching. This mostly doesn’t. Williams also suffered significant abuse from her mother and a sibling. She related to the world through two other personalities, Carol and Willie, each of whom had different functions. Matters were complicated when she was diagnosed with schizophrenia (wrongly, as it happens). Williams had a significant fear of other people and communicated through objects. Like many who are not neurotypical she was met with fear, misunderstanding and abuse. Williams collected the usual words attached to those who appear different: “mad, stupid, retarded, insane, wild, disturbed and so on.” Williams explains the problems she had eloquently, with some humour (which can help as the subject matter is difficult) and can explain what she was experiencing:

 "I knew the meanings of the words they used. I could even make meaning of many of their sentences. I could have tried to make a match with some information I had linked to key words they used. But I didn't understand the significance."

As Oliver Sacks has pointed out, whatever medicine can do, only those experiencing a condition or state of mind can tell us what it is really like. Williams describes her experience of what might be termed common emotions remarkably well:

"I used to think that nobody else really felt love because I didn't (or, if I did, then constant systems shut-downs made it a highly inconsistent and fragmented, almost unintelligible experience). I had learned how to pretend its existence, so I assumed that was what others did. To me, the illusion of love as a real thing was a sort of agreed-upon, mass social conspiracy to self-delude."

There are a couple of chapters at the end where Williams explains more technically what her autism consists of and what it isn’t; she then gives some indicators as to how to approach someone with autism, adult or child. Some of this information would seem to be very useful, although I had some issues with the use of the word retardation. I have some experience with autism in terms of my work and there are as many different approaches and solutions as there are people.

This is a very good account of a difficult and abusive childhood, adolescence and early adulthood from someone who has the ability to write eloquently about it all and to clearly explain how she experienced the world.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

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Sisters by Daisy Johnson

I am a fan of Daisy Johnson. Increasingly so and this is her latest novel (well, novella) and is suitably gothic and disturbing. The premise is a fairly simple one and as always with Johnson there is proximity to water. July and September are teenage sisters born only ten months apart and are closer than twins, almost seeming to know what each other are thinking. They live with their mother in Oxford. Their estranged (and abusive) father is dead.

The relationship between the two sisters is explored and is quite disturbing. They play a version of “Simon says”, now “September says” which often leads to July self-harming at her sister’s instruction. As July says “I was the puppet and had to do whatever she said”. The bond went back a long way:

“Sometimes I think I can remember the days when we were so small we slept in one cot, four hands twisting above our heads, seeing the world from exactly the same viewpoint,”

September was also July’s protector at school.

At the start the family is driving north from Oxford following an unspecified incident involving the two sisters at school. They are being lent somewhere to stay by their mother Sheela’s sister-in-law. It is on the North Yorkshire coast very close to the sea, Settle House. It is the house where September and their late father were born. The house is a little run down:

“rankled, bentoutashape, dirtyallover

And becomes a character in itself in a rather gothic sort of way. Small things happen, like a light bulb shattering. As July notes, “I can feel all the rooms behind me”. The narrative is mainly told by July with couple of short passages narrated by Sheela, the mother. There is a pretty significant twist towards the end, which I think that most readers will guess.

One reviewer has referred to Johnson as the “demon offspring of Stephen King and Shirley Jackson”. Comparisons have certainly been made between this novel and Jackson’s “We have always lived in the Castle”. I think these comparisons are spurious as in this novel the characters lack the sense of entitlement of Jackson’s and there are no villagers to contend with. This certainly could be classed as horror as everything is fractured as we explore love and abuse. I’m trying to avoid spoilers (not easy in this case), but the prose is magnificent and it is fairly brief. It captures the power and danger of teenage emotions:

"My sister is a black hole. My sister is a tornado. My sister is the end of the line my sister is the locked door my sister is a shot in the dark. My sister is waiting for me."

9 out of 10

Starting Crudo by Olivia Laing

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The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

 

I think this is my first Agatha Christie, although I may have read one in my teenage years. This is her first novel and introduces Hercule Poirot, her Belgian detective. It was published in 1916 and is set in the War in rural England. It was generally well received at the time and has what is now a standard type detective plot with plenty of clues and red herrings. It also introduces two of Poirot’s foils: Captain Hastings and Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard. It was written at a time when the world was changing and Christie does manage to imbue the novel with a sense of that change. A way of life is disappearing. Hastings is the narrator and he can be a little irritating at times. Here is the introduction of Poirot:

‘Poirot was an extraordinary-looking man. He was hardly more than five feet four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, but he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound. Yet this quaint dandified little man who, I was sorry to see, now limped badly, had been in his time one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police. As a detective, his flair had been extraordinary, and he had achieved triumphs by unravelling some of the most baffling cases of the day.’

Christie starts to build the relationship between Hastings and Poirot, which has its moments of levity:

‘“We must be so intelligent that he does not suspect us of being intelligent at all.”
I acquiesced.
“There, mon ami, you will be of great assistance to me.”
I was pleased with the compliment. There had been times when I hardly thought that Poirot appreciated me at my true worth.’

It is worth noting that Christie does not try to subvert any gender stereotypes, rather to reinforce them. As one critic has noted the female characters are “garrulous, talking inconsequentially and at length about irrelevancies”. The spinster trope is also well used her in the figure of Evie Howard. The women here are all perceived in relation to the men around them. A cursory reading of this will highlight the attitudes towards women. It also depends of course, whether you enjoy tales of the English upper-middle classes bumping each other off in country houses.

6 out of 10

Starting Burley Cross Post Office Theft by Nicola Barker

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The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davies

Reading two detective/mystery books at the same time, this is unheard of for me! As it happens this is for one of this year’s challenges, reading a book written by a woman for each year of the 1980s.

This is the first of a series which runs for twenty or so books and this one is set around 70 in the first year of the Emperor Vespasian and moves between Britain and Rome. Marcus Didius Falco is thirty years old and an ex-soldier. He is a sort of Imperial agent who does odd jobs. This books sets up the characters for the rest of the series. The title references some rather heavy ingots (pigs) which contain silver ore and have been stolen from Britain. There is plenty of corruption in high places, dubious senators, dodgy officials, assorted rogues and plenty of twists. There is a bit of a noir feel about this and Falco narrates in a rather self-deprecating way. It’s an easy read with pretty brief chapters and the reviews are pretty good.

This novel reminded me of some others in this genre and here is Falco:

“'Now don't be worried!' I reassured her. 'Tell me, how old are you?'
She was sixteen. O Jupiter!
'Married?'

'Do I look like a person who is married?'

She looked like a person who soon should be!”

And

“When the girl came rushing up the steps, I decided she was wearing far too many clothes.”

Yet more

“I like my women in a few wisps of drapery: then I can hope for a chance to remove the wisps. If they start out with nothing I tend to get depressed because either they have just stripped off for someone else or, in my line of work, they are usually dead.”

Is it just me, or does this feel a bit like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe? Or one of the other world weary and misogynistic PIs of the 1930s? It felt somewhat formulaic.

5 out of 10

Starting Fenny by Lettice Cooper

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The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor

This is Gloria Naylor’s first novel, published in 1982 and set between the 1940s and the mid-1970s. It is a series of seven interconnected stories about mainly African American women who have reached a low point and have ended up in Brewster Place, where the apartments are run down and the landlord does as few repairs as possible. This is a tale of the dispossessed, but also a tale of female bonding based on a shared oppression. Most of the women are black, but there are two lesbians as well who have moved to Brewster Place to escape what people are saying about them. All of the women have dreams and aspirations, despite their subjugation. They have all suffered at the hands of men and in Brewster Place they find new beginnings. But this is not sentimental, it’s tough and there is suffering.

This is well written and holds the attention. The stories are powerful. I have never seen the TV series, but I may now look it up. The role of men is interesting and has been analysed in depth. The men here ae sexual predators and abusers, hence the description of some of the young men who roamed Brewster Place:

“These young men wouldn’t be called upon to thrust a bayonet into an Asian farmer, target a torpedo, scatter their iron seed from a B-52 into the wound of the earth, point a finger to move a nation, or stick a pole into the moon—and they knew it. They only had that three-hundred-foot alley to serve them as stateroom, armored tank, and executioner’s chamber. So Lorraine found herself, on her knees, surrounded by the most dangerous species in existence—human males with an erection to validate in a world that was only six feet wide”

The journeys of the women are the dominant force in the novel and they are memorable characters who will live in the memory.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Somewhere like this by Pat Arrowsmith

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Frida by Hayden Herrera

A pretty hefty biography of Frida Kahlo, which mostly impresses, but can frustrate as well. Kahlo’s life is pretty well documented and she is very much respected as an artist these days. Herrera spends a good deal of time analysing the art, after all that is her forte. She puts Kahlo into context as an artist, managing to explode the myth that she was a surrealist. Kahlo was steeped in her native Mexican culture and folklore and its vivid culture and imagery. As she says herself:

“I paint my own reality. The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint always whatever passes through my head, without any other consideration.”

Also central to the book is, inevitably, her relationship with her husband and fellow painter Diego Rivera. The relationship was a tempestuous one and they divorced and remarried at one point. Rivera was serially unfaithful and didn’t see it as a problem. Kahlo sometimes appeared not to see it as a problem, but sometimes she clearly did. Kahlo also had male and female lovers over the years. Inevitably Rivera didn’t object to the female lovers, but was jealous of the male ones. A fairly typical male reaction. Herrera spends some time outlining her relationships with men. However she says very little about her relationships with women and this made me feel there was a lack of balance.

The real strength of the work is the artwork and Herrera’s descriptions. As she says of Kahlo:

“She approached the body and face schismatically. Her body … she painted in the passive role of pretty object or victim of pain … By contrast, looking at her face in the mirror, she perceived herself as depictor, not as object depicted. She thus became both active artist and passive model, dispassionate investigator of what it feels like to be a woman and passionate repository of feminine emotions.”

Herrera also charts Kahlo and Rivera’s political journey, which was central to both of their lives. Their relationship with Trotsky and their on/off attachment to the communist party was central to both of them. This is contrasted with their relationships with some pretty wealthy Americans, including the Rockefellers.

I think sometimes Herrera seems a little baffled by Kahlo’s complexity and I am not sure how much of her depiction of her relationship with Rivera I accept. Nevertheless I learnt a great deal and appreciated the art.  

6 out of 10

Starting Scorper by Rob Magnuson Smith

 

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Crudo by Olivia Laing

This is Laing’s first foray into novel writing. The novel is set in the summer of 2017, a turning point in Laing’s life. She turned 40, got married to a much older man and wrote a novel. The backdrop is an unsettled international situation with fears how Trump might handle the situation with North Korea, the rise of neo-Nazis, Grenfell Tower and much more. The main character is what can only be described as a mash up of Laing herself and the late novelist Kathy Acker, all inhabiting Laing’s life. “Kathy, by which I mean I, was getting married”.

This novel is certainly an oddity. Laing herself has offered an explanation of where it came from, citing five points of origin. The first of these is Kraus’s biography of Acker (After Kathy Acker) where he describes the way Acker took other people’s books and changed them into the first person. Laing decided to take her life and times and put them into Acker. Laing points out that Acker writes about a world which is frightening and broken and the themes of violence and misogyny are central. Another point of origin is Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin where he writes about his own sexual liberation whilst at the same time charting the rise of the Nazis. The domestic continues even when the external world is threatening. Laing references Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway when talking about how to write about the present moment. Finally Laing references Gary Indiana’s account of the Versace murderer Andrew Cunanan which shows truth can be stranger than fiction.

It makes for an interesting work of fiction, but it does help to know the above. It’s not an action based novel and is very much centred on the Laing/Acker character:

“How had all this happened? Some sort of gross appetite for action, like the Red Wedding episode only actual and huge. It didn’t feel actual, that was the problem. It felt like it happened inside her computer. She didn’t watch the news or listen to the radio, in fact she’d imprisoned the TV inside a cupboard she’d had specially built. If she walked away from her laptop what was there: a garden, birches, that Malcolm XXX man chatting in the queue. Walk back, Armageddon. A bird had landed in the tallest birch. She couldn’t make it out with her glasses on, or with them off. 40, not a bad run in the history of human existence but she’d really rather it all kept going, water in the taps, whales in the oceans, fruit and duvets, the whole sumptuous parade, she was into it thanks, she’d like that show to run and run.

There are reflections on the writing process as the protagonist is also writing a novel:

“Kathy was writing everything down in her notebook, and had become abruptly anxious that she might exhaust the present and find herself out at the front, alone on the crest of time—absurd, but sometimes don’t you think we can’t all be moving through it together, the whole green simultaneity of life, like sharks abruptly revealed in a breaking wave?”

The novel does feel rushed and breathless at times, it was certainly written quickly. It certainly feels alive and is funny at times. This is stylish autofiction, but there is an emptiness to it as well:

“This was the problem with history. It was too easy to provide the furnishings but forget the attitudes, the way you became a different person depending on what knowledge was available.” 

It is easy to forget and maybe that is the problem. This may soon feel dated, enjoyable though it was.

7 out of 10

Starting Mr Cadmus by Peter Ackroyd

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The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard

Many people regard this as a masterpiece, one of the great novels of the twentieth century. It does work on a number of levels and in one sense it is a love story, but there is plenty of unrequited love and unhappy endings. Two Australian sisters (Caroline and Grace Bell) move to England to stay with their ward. There are flashbacks to Australia where they were brought up by their rather difficult sister. Meanwhile Ted Tice is a young astronomer who goes to study with a more eminent one, who happens to be the ward of the two sisters. Ted falls in love with Caroline: she doesn’t fall in love with him. She finds upcoming playwright Paul Ivory more attractive. He is about to marry for money and position> He is amoral, ruthless and essentially the villain of the piece. Ted stays in love with Caroline. Grace is more conventional. This could have become rather sentimental, but manages not to. Be careful with the ending, although it is true to say that the ending is at the beginning as Hazzard does say what happens to the main characters very early on; but it is easy to forget and be deceived by what seems to be a happy ending. This is a bit cryptic, but it’s cleverly wrapped up. The whole is complicated and rather gloomy, no one is really happy and everyone finds the grass greener elsewhere.

Hazzard certainly writes well:

“It was simply that the sky, on a shadeless day, suddenly lowered itself like an awning. Purple silence petrified the limbs of trees and stood crops upright in the fields like hair on end. Whatever there was of fresh white paint sprang out from downs or dunes, or lacerated a roadside with a streak of fencing. This occurred shortly after midday on a summer Monday in the south of England.

“A man stood on a white porch and looked at the Andes. He was over fifty, white-haired, thin, with a stooping walk that suggested an orthopaedic defect, but in fact derived from beatings received in prison. His appearance was slightly unnatural in other ways—pink, youthful lips and light, light-lashed eyes: an impression, nearly albinic,that his white suit intensified.

She can do humour as well:

"It was hard to imagine the Major in wooing mood. One suspected he had never courted anything but disaster."

But the whole isn’t comfortable. The most amoral and unscrupulous character is gay. The most decent character is terminally unhappy and their end is tragic. One of Caroline’s friends delivers her verdict on her:

“For her part, Valda considered Caro as a possibility lost. Caro might have done anything, but had preferred the common limbo of sexual love. Whoever said, ‘When you go to women, take your whip’, was on to something deep, and deeply discouraging.

The quote is, of course, from Nietzsche. And there are comments like this:

“the men with their assertions great and small, the women all submission or dominion”

And

“Nothing creates such untruth in you as the wish to please”

“Even through a telescope, some people see what they choose to see. Just as they do with the unassisted eye.” He said “Nothing supplies the truth except the will for it.”

Love is an illusion, life is sad.

Hazzard writes well and is perceptive, but there is just something that niggled with me, what felt like a rather conventional approach to gender relations, it is always illuminating to look at least likeable characters and see who and what they are. But I would encourage people to read it, I could be wrong about this.

7 out of 10 

Starting Women of Sand and Myrrh by Hanan Al-Shaykh

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Somewhere Like this by Pat Arrowsmith

Pat Arrowsmith is remarkable and still alive: over 90 now. Her life has been an unusual one. Born to middle class parents (in 1930) and privately educated at Cheltenham Ladies College, Cambridge and then a Fulbright scholar. She was a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a lesbian and activist for gay rights, working for Amnesty International and campaigning for British troops to leave Ulster in the 1970s. All of this made her a fully paid up member of the awkward squad and she was not afraid of controversy or conflict. She has been to prison eleven times as a result of her anti-nuclear, anti arms trade and political protests (mostly in the UK, but once in Thailand and once in Greece); she was force fed whilst on hunger strike in 1960 in Gateside prison. She has been an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience (twice). She escaped from prison once and says she regrets not escaping more often. She refuses to pay fines for her protests at military bases and when arranging an interview with the Guardian in 2008 she asked the reporter to ring 3x as she was also expecting the bailiffs. She was the first person to “come out” in Who’s Who. Her father did not approve of her lifestyle and left a clause in his will to say she could only inherit if she married. She duly did; had the marriage annulled the same day and then gave most of the inheritance away to causes she supported.

This novel is set in the mid 1960s (published in 1970) in HMP Collingwood: a rather thinly disguised Holloway before it was refurbished and updated. Arrowsmith points out that it is not autobiographical as it does not reference political prisoners. The characters are petty thieves, prostitutes, abortionists and similar minor criminals, mostly in prison for minor offences and short stays. The depiction of the conditions and types of relationships is based on Arrowsmith’s experiences.

Arrowsmith provides a set of characters within the prison whose lives she follows for a few weeks. They are a mixed bunch; some are lesbians and Arrowsmith often uses the butch/femme distinction. She does manage to subvert that distinction as well. Some are clearly bisexual, some temporarily whilst in prison. As you would expect many are confused, distressed and defensive. Their prison officers are as mixed up as the inmates. The plot is fairly thin and revolves around a series of flirtations and affairs. It is not a literary classic, but it does what Arrowsmith intended and depicted relationships between women in a straightforward and non-sensational way. But it is essentially a humane narrative, not salacious and it doesn’t pathologize. It questions the assumptions of the normal “women in prison” novels and TV series. These women are not “deviant” and criminality is not linked to the usual tropes. They are from the social margins and are depicted as having the normal daily concerns.

Prison is ultimately pointless an Arrowsmith’s critique is a basically feminist one. The irony is that prison, awful though it is does provide structure and a relief from the outside.

I remember Arrowsmith from my student days when she campaigned tirelessly for CND and for the Troops Out (of Northern Ireland) movement. She was formidable. She can write a bit too.

7 out of 10

Starting Eva Luna by Isabel Allende

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Fenny by Lettice Cooper

This is my third novel by Lettice Cooper and was published in 1953. It is set primarily in Italy from 1933 to 1949. Ellen Fenwick (known as Fenny) is a young teacher from the north of England. Following the death of her mother she decides to take a summer job as a governess in Tuscany. The novel is split into four parts: 1933/4, 1938/9, 1945, 1949. It is not an autobiographical novel, but it does contain some of Cooper’s enduring concerns. The North/South division is explored in a different way; class is also a factor and as always this is well written and reads easily. The time jumps leave a lot of gaps in the narrative which makes the reading interesting and leaves some loose ends and unresolved plot lines. This may irritate some, but suited me fine, because it felt more realistic.

These days Cooper is mostly out of print and this is the virago edition. The novel charts a journey from youth to middle age and like Cooper, Fenny remains single. There is also the backdrop of world events, which begin to be marked in the second part with the build up to war. In the first two parts Fenny is a governess. She spends the war in an internment camp in Italy. In the last two parts she is living independently doing a variety of teaching work.

Part of the strength of the novel is Cooper’s clear love of the landscape:

‘Every evening the sun set in splendour over the town of Florence, and as the red faded to rose and the last stain of rose died from a sky the colour of old turquoise, the sombre green cypresses became hard black shapes against the deepening blue and the appearing stars.’

It is written in the third person and is an interesting character study. The two main female Italian characters are rather negative with some predictable tropes in place. The whole is an interesting exploration of character, some of the endings are a little predictable but Fenny herself is likeable.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting The Glass House  by Monique Charlesworth

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The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

The last part of Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy covering 1536 to 1540, from the execution of Anne Boleyn. Everyone knows how it ends, but Mantel still manages to build tension and she tells the tale well. It is interesting to note (as some reviewers have done) that in this era of fake news, that this is precisely what Cromwell is a victim of. Not that he hadn’t manufactured plenty of it in his time. Mantel’s powers of storytelling are significant and she manages to make Cromwell sympathetic. In many ways she succeeds in this. Humbert Humbert isn’t sympathetic, but Cromwell, an unscrupulous political operator who often has his opponents killed is. The evidence is there to show that he should not be sympathetic, but yet the reader is drawn in by passages such as this:

 He too is guilty of retrospection as the light fades, in that hour in winter or summer before they bring in the candles, when earth and sky melt, when the fluttering heart of the bird on the bough calms and slows, and the night-walking animals stir and stretch and rouse, and the eyes of cats shine in the dark, when colour bleeds from sleeve and gown into the darkening air; when the page grows dim and letter forms elide and slip into other conformations, so that as the page is turned the old story slides from sight and a strange and slippery confluence of ink begins to flow. You look back into your past and say, is this story mine

There is a shift in this third novel though. In the first two Cromwell and hence the reader is ahead of the game. Now the reader feels that they are a step or two ahead of Cromwell and can see what he doesn’t. That gives a slightly different perspective. I think I would like to read a historical analysis of Cromwell to get some perspective.

I don’t think is the strongest of the three novels. The historical events are a bit more blurred and the key issue of the marriage to Ann of Cleves doesn’t seem to quite make sense. It is not clear in this account why it happened and why Cromwell made the mistakes he did. The epitaph from Petrarch doesn’t really fit:

“For you perhaps, if as I hope and wish you will live long after me, there will follow a better age. When darkness is dispelled, our descendants will be able to walk back, into the pure radiance of the past.

The book is too long and too short; there is too much material here compared to the first two books, enough for two novels. The reader gets less of a sense of what is going on. The Pilgrimage of Grace is dealt with in a bit of a rush and as I said the Ann of Cleves episode was confusing.

This was my least favourite of the trilogy, but it is still Mantel writing well and in control of her material.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

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Scorper by Rob Magnuson Smith

A scorper is a type of chisel used in engraving wood or metal. Well, the premise is straightforward. John Cull is an American who is having some sort of existential crisis; he’s only 30, so it’s not mid-life. He decides to visit the village of Ditchling in Sussex where his grandfather (also John Cull) came from. Ditchling is significant: it was the home of an artistic community led by Eric Gill. Eric Gill was a famous (infamous, but more of that later) sculptor, engraver, typeface designer and even architect, part of the Arts and Crafts movement, Fabian and socialist. He has left his mark on many municipal buildings in Britain and on the continent. He is responsible for a significant number of war memorials, the Stations of the Cross at Westminster Cathedral, various assorted sculptures on various municipal buildings.

John Cull comes to research his ancestor. This is an odd book as it rapidly becomes rather surreal and Ditchling seems to turn into Royston Vasey from The League of Gentlemen (a local town for local people): it really is that silly. We have incest, plenty of gothic interludes, an odd bed and breakfast establishment, a prophecy that involves chopping off a stranger’s hand (really!) The plot is convoluted and misleading and Eric Gill keeps popping up and talking to Cull.

More on Gill. He kept extensive and detailed diaries and was rated one of the most talented artists of his time. You probably use one of his many typefaces (about 20 in all). It wasn’t until a biography in the late 1980s that what was in the diaries was revealed. Gill was a paedophile. He sexually abused his daughters from their early teens and kept detailed records and measurements. He had a sexual relationship with his sister for many years. He also records his sexual adventures with the family dog (dogs). It doesn’t seem to have completely destroyed his reputation; the Stations of the Cross he sculpted are still in Westminster Cathedral.

Then why bring him into this and not even bother to mention or explore the obvious issues you raise if you do.

Don’t bother with this.

2 out of 10

Starting the Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

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Mr Camus by Peter Ackroyd

This is a bit of a confused concoction for such a short novel. It looks like an English village crime pastiche, but isn’t. It is set in the early 1980s in a small English village (Little Camborne). Two late middle aged spinsters and cousins (Millicent and Maud) live in either end of a set of three adjoined cottages. Into the middle one moves the slightly younger Mr Cadmus, he is suave and sophisticated and from the Mediterranean island of Caldera (a very small island). He also has a parrot. All three have memories and secrets from the war.

There are elements of the gothic, a bit of magic realism, village folklore, crime, revenge and some “romance”. The plot is rather confused and involves elements such as treasure hunts with X marks the spot), a swearing parrot, misdeeds in the war by soldiers from Little Camborne, an unwanted baby smothered and thrown into the Thames, a vicar who runs off with Church funds/treasures, amethysts appearing in odd places (and orifices) around a Mediterranean island, a volcanic eruption like Pompeii but with molten crystal (??), mysterious deaths of aged ex-servicemen, poisonings, nasty accidents with machinery, ghosts, odd purple birds and probably a good deal more.

The whole lot is rather odd with many loose ends, lots of pastiche, satire and an ending which doesn’t really end the book. Well, if you like that sort of thing ….

Starting Rite out of time by Margaret Houlbrooke

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On 02/04/2021 at 8:54 PM, Books do furnish a room said:

More on Gill.

Wow that is horrific! Scorcher seriously just ignored all of that!? That seems odd in itself. 

 

On 05/04/2021 at 12:37 PM, Books do furnish a room said:

an ending which doesn’t really end the book.

I usually like a bit of weird magical realism/ folklore/ gothic but this description totally puts me off! 

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