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The Fell by Sarah Moss

This is a lockdown novel, set during the second UK lockdown in November 2020. It is from the point of view of four voices and is set in an English village on the edge of the Peak District. It is told from the point of view of four different voices. There is Kate, a middle-aged single mother who has been in contact with Covid and is in the middle of two weeks of isolation. Matt is her teenage son who is fed up with school online and spends a lot of time gaming:

“Matt and Kate are, what do they call it, self-isolating, one of those horrible new nonsensical phrases, social distancing, whoever came up with that, there’s not much that’s less social than acting as if everyone’s unclean and dangerous, though the problem of course is that they are, or at least some of them are and there’s no way of knowing. Medical distance they should call it, or why not just safe distance?”

Alice is their next door neighbour, an older woman who has recently finished chemotherapy and is clinically vulnerable and isolating. Rob is a mountain rescue volunteer.

This is pretty brief and Moss says she wrote it pretty quickly. I suspect there will be a plethora of lockdown novels to come, who knows even a canon of lockdown novels! The build-up is slow and understated and Moss makes some use of stream of consciousness. The main premise of the novel is that Kate gets fed up with isolation and goes for a walk on the fells:

 She won’t be long, really she won’t, only a sip of outside, fast up the lane and over the fields, just a little way up the stone path for a quick greeting to the fells.”

She falls and breaks a leg and is stranded on the moors as night falls. There is another voice on the moors, a Raven. We are not in Poe territory here, as one reviewer has pointed out, it’s more the blasted heath of Lear and the Raven makes a good Fool. There is a gothic edge to the second half:

“Maybe she’ll die without ever touching another human, maybe she’s had her last hug, handshake, air-kiss.”

Moss does capture something of the feel of lockdown and isolation, the oddness and isolation and its intensity:

“Dust we are and to dust we shall return, well get on with it then, wouldn’t it be better sometimes just to do the returning than spend your life cowering away, weeks and months ticking by like this, not as if there weren’t epidemics then too, the original inhabitants, but they got on with it, didn’t they, people died and they were sad but they didn’t wall themselves up, they didn’t stop educating the children and forbid music, the living were allowed to live if you can call it that, Victorian mining, not that they lived long but maybe length isn’t how you want to measure it.”

Moss picks apart some of the language of the pandemic and this becomes a reflection on the human condition and indeed on the tension between individual freedom and collective responsibility. There are reflections on the current environmental issues and as Kate says to the Raven:

"One of the things we're learning, we of the end times, is that humanity's ending appears to be slow, lacking in cliffhangers or indeed any satisfactory narrative shape."

This is well written and the wholes does work, it will no doubt be part of the pandemic canon one day. Don’t let that put you off, it’s good.

8 out of 10

Starting Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford

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Shirley by Charlotte Bronte

This was Charlotte Bronte’s second novel, written over the period when her three siblings died. This is a historical novel set in 1811-12 during the period of the Napoleonic wars. It was also set during an industrial depression where many workers were being laid off. New machinery was replacing people and this machinery was being destroyed by the Luddites. The locations (country house wise) and some of the events are based on historical events.

An interesting note: up to this point Shirley had been a man’s name and it was Bronte’s use of Shirley for the name of the main character which led to Shirley to primarily a female name. This novel has a third person narrator, unlike Bronte’s other two novels.

Relationships between the sexes is a major focus in Shirley and especially men’s expectations of women:

“If men could see us as we really are, they would be a little amazed; but the cleverest, the acutest men are often under an illusion about women: they do not read them in a true light; they misapprehend them, both for good and evil: their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman almost always a fiend.  Then to hear them fall into ecstasies with each other’s creations, worshipping the heroine of such a poem – novel – drama, thinking it fine – divine! Fine and divine it may be, but often quite artificial – false as the rose in my best bonnet there.  If I spoke all I think on this point; if I gave my real opinion of some first-rate female characters in first-rate works, where should I be?  Dead under a cairn of avenging stones in half an hour.

Although there is a fair amount of romance in the novel and you can’t really escape it in the last quarter, but as the narrator points out there is more to it:

“If you think, from this prelude, that anything like a romance is preparing for you, reader, you never were more mistaken. Do you anticipate sentiment, and poetry, and reverie? Do you expect passion, and stimulus, and melodrama? Calm your expectations; reduce them to a lowly standard. Something real, cool, and solid, lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning, when all who have work wake with the consciousness that they must rise and betake themselves thereto.”

There is an element of this being a “condition of England” novel and there were others around by Gaskell, Disraeli and Carlyle. There are descriptions of Luddite disturbances, but as Carlyle says of the working class:

“that great dumb toiling class which cannot speak

They don’t really get a voice here either, what they do say is laced with what is perceived to be religious and political extremism. The real solution to the problems here is (like many other Victorian novels) a sort of laissez-faire paternalism where the enlightened middle classes do what’s right by the poor ignorant workers. That’s very important to Bronte here, there is a distinct contrast between the good and bad clergy and between good and bad mill owners.

As a result of all this the novel is many-layered and the characters interesting and sometimes contradictory. There are plots and sub-plots meandering around and the analysis of gender relations is very good

8 out of 10

Starting The Way we Live Now by Anthony Trollope

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Lullaby by Leila Slimani

This is described as a gripping psychological novel. According to an interview with Slimani she was writing about nannies and their rather interesting role in families and finding the whole thing a bit of a chore. She then read an article about the murder of two children in New York by their nanny. Bingo, just throw a homicidal nanny into the mix. That isn’t a spoiler, it happens on page one. Indeed, the first line of the novel is:

“The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds.”

The main body of the novel is just exploring why someone who appears at first to be a perfect nanny ends up killing the children. Be warned though, you don’t really find out why, although there are clues. The nanny, Louise, starts as Mary Poppins and ends as, well … add your own monster. This felt to me pretty slight and Louise’s character was too impenetrable for this to work for me. I know this has won prizes and has had generally positive reviews but I didn’t like it.

Starting This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangaremba

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I'm Not Complaining by Ruth Adam

Another discovery from Virago: an author I knew nothing about. This is set in the 1930s at the time of the Depression. It is set in an industrial town in the Midlands/north of England where there is poverty and factories are closing. The main setting is a school and the novel is told from the point of view of Madge Brigson who is thirty, single and a teacher. The novel revolves around the school and its teachers. They are all women and have to be single. If they marry they have to leave their jobs. Each chapter is almost stand alone, but they do follow and. The novel covers the whole of a school year and Adam develops the characters of the teachers and some of the pupils and parents. There is a cross section amongst the teachers: a communist, someone who would have been described as promiscuous, some more conservative. There is a local Church of England curate who might also be described as a “Red”.

Adam describes the poverty and the struggles of the poorer families and their children pretty well:

“It was the last mild day. At the end of that week the winter began in deadly earnest, as though the cold days before had been merely a temporary substitute for the real thing. I had a persistent sensation, as we plunged deeper into those short, icy days, with their lowering fogs, that the town was plunging down with us. It was frightening. We all seemed to be one — the huge husks of the great factory buildings whose heart-beats had stopped — the grey, stained houses round them, the tragic men who stood for ever at street-corners, and the children who came to school in fewer and fewer warm clothes, because as the weather got colder they were pawned for food. I would like to have been detached from it — a visitor, coming down to work and then going away. But I could not get the feeling of detachment. I was part of it, bound irrevocably to their miseries because my work was their children.”

Adam is not afraid to address difficult and controversial issues such as abortion, the after-effects of shell shock, cruelty and abuse to children and the politics of the time, including hunger marches. There’s even a bit of a riot thrown in with police brutality thrown in! The police don’t come out of this particularly well. The characters are all flawed and often not particularly likeable and all show their prejudices. She was an elementary teacher herself

There are shades of Holtby and E H Young here. There is a little double twist at the end. Initially I thought Adam was going to ruin the whole novel: but she didn’t thankfully. It’s a good novel, nit without flaws, but Adam is a bit of a discovery and I will read more. I believe Persephone have also published one of her novels.

8 out of 10

Starting Sistersong by Lucy Holland

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The Century Girls by Tessa Dunlop

Writer and broadcaster Tessa Dunlop decided to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of women getting the vote in the UK by talking to six women of around one hundred years old and who had lived through the first hundred years of women getting the vote. She then tells their stories chronologically over the century. This can at times make the book seem a little disjointed.

The six are a varied bunch. There is the academic Joyce Reynolds, a pioneer amongst women academics and tutor to Mary Beard. Olive was born in Guyana and was one of the Windrush generation who came to Britain in the 1950s. Edna was born in Lincolnshire to a poor family and spent many years in service. Helen was born in Wales to a farming family and lived local to her birth all her life. Ann is a London Bohemian working in Art and publishing. Phyllis was born in India in the time of the Raj and ended up in Scotland. Some of them married, some did not, some had children.

The women have led interesting and different lives and Dunlop charts them in some detail. They are the stars of the show and are all remarkable. This is a good slice of twentieth century social history and is certainly an interesting charting of how women lives have developed and changed (or not) over a century.

8 out of 10

Starting Deerbrook by Harriet \martineau

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A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago

A historical novel and literary thriller which the blurb and reviews say is immersive! It is perhaps not so much a thriller as it is a retelling of a historical scandal and following trial and so the outcome is never in doubt. The setting is the Court of James 1 in the 1610s and the central figure and narrator is Anne Turner, a seamstress and dresser. The novel revolves around the relationship between Anne and Frances Howard, then Countess of Essex. Howard is in an abusive marriage and wishes to get an annulment and marry her lover Robert Carr, a favourite of the King. Anne’s own personal life is also complex and weaves in and out of the novel. There are a number of obstacles to the annulment, one of them being Carr’s mentor Sir Thomas Overbury, whose untimely demise is also central to the book.

This retelling does centre on female friendship and agency and is a counter to the more traditional accounts.

“We are all caught, from the highest to the lowest, in nets of custom and propriety; those that cut themselves free do not swim away but are destroyed.”

This is well researched and engages the reader. As others have said it can feel a little stilted, but it is enjoyable. Jago consciously wrote about the scandal from the point of view of the women involved and she has also referred to it as a sort of seventeenth century Thelma and Louise.

There are some fascinating bits and pieces about James1’s fascination with silk and silkworms and the unfortunate animals in the royal menagerie. The descriptions of some of the odours of seventeenth century London are also well written. The decadence and corruption of the court form a backdrop along with the city itself. The epilogue at the end seemed a little unnecessary to me, but it tied up a few loose ends, especially for those not aware of the historical events. Jago also draws on the hysteria about magic and witchcraft prevalent at the time. As Hilary Mantel says:

“We do not passively consume the past but actively create it in each act of remembrance”

This seems to be exactly what Jago is doing here and it works pretty well.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Unsettled ground by Claire Fuller

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The Yangtze Valley and Beyond by Isabella Bird

Isabella Bird spent a great deal of her life travelling, writing about it and taking photographs. She travelled all over the world, often to places that were little known. This trip to China took place in the late 1890s when Bird was about 68 and involved travel along and close to the Yangtze for over two thousand miles. Bird appears to be indefatigable and did something few others had done. There were very few other Europeans in the areas of China she visited, the occasional missionary. Diplomat or trader as Bird very much went off the beaten track. I read the folio edition which has a wealth of Bird’s remarkable photographs in it.

Bird has a great love for facts and figures and the whole book is stuffed full of them. Lengths of journeys, populations of towns, villages and cities, exports, tonnage of exports, types of exports, destinations, means of travel. There are copious descriptions of architecture (grand and modest), accounts of food and drink, descriptions of religious practices and local culture.

I admire Bird for actually doing what she did, even if when she was not travelling on the river she was being carried in a sort of sedan chair. There were a number of close calls including being hit on the head by a rock when the welcome at one particular town was not very friendly.

Bird’s attitude to the Chinese seems variable. She can come out with statements like this:

“The mannerless, brutal, coarse, insolent, conceited, cowardly roughs of the Chinese towns, ignorant beyond all description, live in a state of filth which is indescribable and incredible, in an inconceivable beastliness of dirt, among odours which no existing words can describe, and actually call Japanese “hideous dwarfs”! I wondered daily more at the goodness of people who are missionaries to the Chinese in the interior cities, not at their coming out the first time, but at their coming back, knowing what they come to. The village people are quite different and doubtless have attractive qualities and it must be admitted that Christianity does produce an external refinement among those who receive it, which is very noticeable. Having relieved my hoarded disgusts by these remarks, I will proceed with my narrative.”

In contrast Bird can be positive at times towards the religion and culture. The whole does feel contradictory and it is certainly Eurocentric. Many of the good things come from the missionaries. Bird recognises the economic power of China and its potential. There’s a fair bit about opium, its use and cultivation. The passages where Bird is approaching Tibet and the interactions with the peoples there is also very interesting and sets a bit of a contrast with her interactions with the Chinese.

Bird does provide information and narrative coupled with some remarkable pictures she took herself and the book is worth reading for that. It was a remarkable achievement for someone in their late 60s. However this is tempered by the racism and periodic contempt for those she was living amongst,

5 out of 10

Starting Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K Dick

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Urban Outcasts by Loic Wacquant

This is a comparative sociology which looks at and compares the black ghetto of Chicago and the banlieue of urban Paris. Wacquant does conclude that urban marginality, although it may on the surface appear the same, does fundamentally differ when contrasting Europe and the US. This is heavy going at times but worth the effort. Wacquant does throw in some good quotes and one that is particularly apposite is from the seventeenth century from Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. It still resonates today:

“In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no Culture of the Earth; … no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

Wacquant draws a clear distinction between the two areas he is looking at:

“A paired comparison between neighborhoods of relegation in Chicago's 'Black Belt' and the Parisian 'Red Belt' shows that the declining French metropolitan periphery and the Afro-American ghetto remain two sharply distinct sociospatial constellations. And for good reason: they are heirs to different urban legacies, produced by different logics of segregation and aggregation, and inserted in different welfare state and market frameworks, all of which result in markedly higher levels of blight, segregation, isolation, and distress in the US ghetto.”

Wacquant introduces the idea of advanced marginality and uses the following criteria:

·       The fragmentation of a marginalised population

·       Desocialization of labour

·       Localised disconnection from macro-economic trends

·       Loss of a viable hinterland

·       Dissolution and place and what Wacquant calls “territorial fixation”

This last point he defines in the following way:

“Rather than being diffused throughout working class areas, advanced marginality tends to concentrate in well-identified, bounded, and increasingly isolated territories viewed by both outsiders and insiders as social purgatories, urban hellholes where only the refuse of society would accept to dwell.”

Wacquant is attempting to understand and define: he does not stigmatize the poor. He uses a quote from Alejandro Portes to illustrate this:

“The grave mistake of theories on the urban slum has been to transform sociological conditions into psychological traits and to impute to the victims the distorted characteristics of their victimizers”

This is a well presented and argued thesis and Wacquant is not a distant academic and there are lessons to be learnt here in relation to urban marginality.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Reflective Practice by Gillie Bolton

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Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller

The different lives they could have lived are too big to comprehend.”

This was shortlisted for the women’s prize for fiction in 2021. It certainly resonated with me and I was pleasantly surprised by it. Set in rural England, it takes a clear look at the underside of society and the gaps that the vulnerable fall between. The novel revolves around Julius and Jeanie Seeder, fifty-one year old twins who have always lived with their mother Dot. Dot dies suddenly and their world and all they have begins to disintegrate, nothing that was certain now seems to be so. Julius does casual labour when he is able, they live rent free in a run-down cottage, a historical arrangement with the farmer who owns it, mysteriously linked to an incident in which their father died many years ago. Jeanie helps her mother and tends the vegetable patch. They are all musical and the family plays music together. Neither of the twins know much about money, Jeanie can neither read nor write. Her mother has told her she has a longstanding heart condition and must live a quiet life. The modern world and its complexities pass them by.

When Dot dies they discover debts they did not know existed and find it difficult to comprehend the complexities of managing a death and funeral. There is no money:

“They rarely discussed money in the past and it comes awkwardly now, and they never talked in any depth about the agreement, they know it simply as an arrangement that was negotiated between Dot and Rawson a year after their father’s death – an event that was only ever alluded to, all of them orbiting an incident so horrific they were unable to shift themselves closer.”

There is a cast of supporting characters, some friendly, many less so, all aspects of human personality are here. Jeanie and Julius don’t have a bank account, don’t receive any benefits and wouldn’t know how to claim them. They are part of an underclass who very much exist but who are mostly unseen.

Fuller writes well and the descriptive writing captures beauty as well as pathos:

“The morning sky lightens, and snow falls on the cottage. It falls on the thatch, concealing the moss and the mouse damage, smoothing out the undulations, filling in the hollows and slips, melting where it touches the bricks of the chimney. It settles on the plants and bare soil in the front garden and forms a perfect mound on top of the rotten gatepost, as though shaped from the inside of a teacup. It hides the roof of the chicken coop, and those of the privy and the old dairy, leaving a dusting across the workbench and floor where the window was broken long ago”

The journey Julius and Jeanie go through is a harrowing one involving living in a dilapidated and unsanitary caravan in the woods, a nasty eviction, issues with local thugs and real poverty. There are those who help along the way but the twins continue to resist help unless they absolutely have to. The ending has been much discussed and is often seen as bit of a let-down. I would disagree. Modern life does intrude at the end with some level of support with Occupational Therapy and Physiotherapy and some modernisation. The tension here is do these modern intrusions relieve and help or destroy. The answer is, of course both. But, abject poverty is not noble or fun. The other question relates to what happens to Julius and I am avoiding spoilers but many have said that his fate is cruel. A careful reading indicates that what did happen did not change his fate that was already set.

There are many people in our society like Jeanie and Julius and I meet the like on a regular basis. They fall through the cracks and often find modern life baffling and this novel does manage to illustrate the problems pretty effectively.

9 out of 10

Starting a Gathering of Ghosts by Karen Maitland

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Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford

Set in an imaginary London borough called Bexford, this novel has its genesis in a historical event. In 1944 a V2 rocket hit the New Cross branch of Woolworths. One hundred and sixty-eight people died, including fifteen who were under eleven. Spufford has chosen five imaginary five year olds who could have been in the shop and assumed that instead of dying they lived: Vern, Alec, Ben, Jo and Val. We get a snapshot of their lives at 5 years after 1944 and then every 15 years until 2009.

It’s inevitably experimental and the jumping around takes some getting used to, it’s a bit disjointed, but the snapshots, evocations and descriptions are very good. There is also a strong religious thread running through the whole, something I didn’t particularly appreciate, but Spufford does dispense his own justice. The Nazi thug and the property developer get their comeuppance, the vulnerable with mental health issues find some comfort and resolution. If only real life were like that. I’m not sure that the device that underpins the novel was absolutely necessary, why not pick five ordinary lives? Spufford is, I think, influenced by Woolf: the structure is similar to The Waves. The themes of mental illness and mortality tally with this as well. Another theme is from Spufford himself and is called HPtFtU (Human Propensity to fudge things Up): that I can relate to!

Other reviewers have described reading this as a juggling act and I understand that. There is a flow and a move to the book, but it is a flow towards death, towards disintegration: “Come, dust”. There are instances of deeper thought. Alec is contemplating his fellow passengers at rush hour on the tube:

“Every single one of these people homeward bound, like him, to different homes which are to each the one and only home, or else outward bound, to different destinations at which each will find themselves, as ever, the protagonist of the story. Every single one the centre of the world, around whom others revolve and events assemble. So many whole worlds, therefore, packed in together, touching yet mutually oblivious. So much necessarily lost, skated over, ignored, when the mind does its usual trick of aggregating our faces.

I have mixed feelings about this one, there are points of interest and some wonderful descriptions but the structure I found irritating and some of the religious aspects I could have done without. But on the whole it’s humane and some of the snapshots were spot on.

6 and a half out of 10

Starting Peterloo Jacqueline Riding

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SPQR by Mary Beard

This is what I call a proper history book, well written and well researched. The timeline is basically the first Roman millennium. From the alleged founding of Rome in the 700s BCE to the death of the Emperor Caracalla in the early 200s CE, the Emperor who granted citizenship to all Romans. Beard’s history is wide ranging rather than intensely detailed. She looks at themes and questions and this isn’t just a history of great men. Beard debunks a few myths along the way and tries to give an insight into the lives of everyday Romans. Although it’s over five hundred pages it isn’t really detailed or comprehensive given the masses of source material that exist. It’s actually an excellent introduction and starting point. It isn’t straight chronology, but it generally flows. The lack of a linear narrative has irritated some, but I think that it isn’t really a problem and Beard’s academic sensibilities shine through as she considers her arguments.

Obviously all histories of Rome reflect the concerns of the time they were written in (just look at Gibbon) and Beard spends a good deal of time looking at how Romans defined liberty and who was it for. Beard also makes use of modern archaeological techniques and discoveries. Because Beard focuses on structures rather than personalities we do get glimpses of everyday Romans, even slaves. Beard looks at culture, food, obvious problems such as feeding a large city like Rome and the issue of disease and sanitation. The tone often feels chatty rather than academic, but there is erudition running through it and the chattiness keeps the reader engaged.

Beard makes the case as to why a history of Rome is still important:

“Ancient Rome is important. To ignore the Romans is not just to turn a blind eye to the distant past. Rome still helps define the way we understand our world and think about ourselves, from high theory to low comedy. After 2,000 years, it continues to underpin Western culture and politics, what we write and how we see the world, and our place in it. Rome has bequeathed to us ideas of liberty and citizenship as much as of imperial exploitation, combined with a vocabulary of modern politics, from ‘senators’ to ‘dictators’. It has loaned us its catchphrases, from ‘fearing Greeks bearing gifts’ to ‘bread and circuses’ and ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ – even ‘where there’s life there’s hope’. And it has prompted laughter, awe and horror in more or less equal measures. There is much in the classical world – both Roman and Greek – to engage our interest and demand our attention. Our world would be immeasurably the poorer if we did not continue to interact with theirs.”

This is engaging and easy to read and I’m a great fan of Mary Beard.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Nettles by Adam Scovell

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Nettles by Adam Scovell

Set in 2001 on the Wirral, this is a powerful novella. The unnamed narrator, clearly based on Scovell himself has to return to his childhood home to pack up his things as his mother and her partner are moving. We move between 2001 and 20 years later, the moving date. The novel focusses on childhood, the start of secondary school when Scovell was eleven (he is clearly the unnamed narrator) and is about bullying, the narrator is the victim of significant bullying. During school lunch times the narrator often takes refuge in some adjacent waste/marsh land called The Breck. This is called Psychogeography and the locale and its folklore is as strong a character as the human actors. As Benjamin Myers says:

“Adam Scovell is an archaeologist of the imagination, forever unearthing stories like treasure from the soil, raising ghosts, finding links and shining a flickering light into England’s hidden corners”

Certainly the marsh feels like significant presence in the novel:

“I had fallen into the habit of talking to the marsh, aiming words under the motorway but firm in the belief that they were heard. Sometimes the marsh replied, but I could never remember what was said.

There is a strangeness to this, a gothic and almost horror edge to it. What is most powerful are the descriptions of the bullying which starts on the first day of secondary school:

“It was the first day of term when He whipped my thin legs with nettle stems.” 

“I was weak and He was strong. I was shy and He was confident. I was afraid of violence, whereas He thrived on it.”

Scovell very effectively highlights the nature and terrors of bullying: it happens to the physically weak, shy, different, eccentric, those not good at sports, the differently abled and the lonely. I know, I was there and I understand very well how it works having been on the receiving end for many years. Scovell captures the strategies, tactics and bargains the bullied use to survive very accurately and as this novel is partly biographical it feels like he has been there too.

This really is beautifully written and the landscape and the elements really do play their part:

 The monotony of dark, wet mornings, waking up before it was light and coming home just as wintry dusk fell. It was unbearable to think about. Winter would be long. All light would be stolen from our lives, minute by minute.”

The other focus of the book is the narrator’s home life and the breakup of his parents’ marriage which happens around the same time.

There is also a brief excursion into climbing as a renowned climber who lived in the area and learnt to climb on the Grannies Stone is recalled. He died climbing in the Himalayas in 1986 and Scovell imagines his death as being part of the bargain with the spirit of the marshland. The narrators own bargain is terrifying:

“It was the first day of term when He whipped my thin legs with nettle stems. The sun was glaring behind the clouds, and I knew then that I would have to kill Him. I did not know how or when, but as the stings lashed my skin and my body quivered with pain, His fate was sealed, cast in marble. He would die in the Mosslands.”

That is the fantasy of many who are bullied and a bargain is made:

“I wanted him to disappear. I wanted to be free of His presence forever. I wanted to walk home from school and not fear the potential of being followed. I wanted revenge. I wanted Him dead. …

What would I give for this simple request? Would I give myself wholeheartedly? Would I give the lives of my parents? No that could not be. If my desire was to be rid of Him, it made little sense to exchange those I loved. Would I give something lesser in exchange for His removal, His disappearance? What could I give?

I stared into the stone

The happiness of home? It was a strange, alien phrase. It certainly wasn’t something I’d have thought of myself.

Would I trade the happiness of home to get rid of Him? His actions and violence coloured my days. Home was not a happy place when He existed, as I brought back the sadness He burdened me with. Home was safety but not immunity.

Yes, I would give that. How could an unhappy home be worse than His all-encompassing presence?

Leaves lifted from the ground in swirls, giving shape to the wind, almost like a person. I stood forward from the rock sharply, aware that I had been daydreaming and that autumn darkness was approaching. The leaves dropped suddenly to the ground. I thought little of it afterwards.

Such fantasies were common when I was young.”

Scovell captures the way those who are bullied find to blame themselves for other things too.

Poetic, powerful and moving portrayal of memory and violence built into a particular landscape. Excellent, but then it resonated with me.

9 and a half out of 10

Starting Cecily by Anne Garthwaite

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K Dick

The 1968 novel that was the basis of Blade Runner. It is a dystopian science fiction classic sent in actuality in 2021 following a nuclear war when much of humanity now lives in a series of colonies off planet. The population on Earth is limited. Those with low IQs (known as “chickenheads”) have to stay. Those who move to colonies are given androids to help with everyday life. Some androids periodically escape back to earth and have to be hunted down. Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter tasked with hunting down six new type androids who are particularly adept at escaping detection. A few other things worthy of note. There is a new religion called Mercerism which plays a significant role in the novel, but not in the film. Mercerism requires an Empathy Box, where you can request a mood and attitude for the day (including despair). Most animals are now extinct, so owning an animal is now particularly desirable for those with the means to do so. There are lots of electronic animals to be owned for those who can’t afford real ones. Many species are extinct and real ones are rare:

“What happens when you find – if you find – an animal believed extinct? (…) It happened so seldom. Something about a star of honor from the UN and a stipend. A reward running into millions of dollars.” 

The role of animals in the film is somewhat less than in the book. Earth is portrayed as polluted, bleak and dusty. TV plays an important role in many lives and is available 24/7 with its stars (Buster Friendly) being central to people’s lives.

Interestingly the humans don’t have a strong sense of freedom. However the androids do, possibly because they are effectively slaves. In the novel the Rosen Organisation who make the androids make a sales pitch which points to the links with the Old South.  The novel never addresses this inequality. Even when Deckard feels his profession is wrong, he still does it:

 “You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe.”

Empathy is another key concept in the novel. All the tests on androids are based on empathy and reactions to theoretical situations which should create an empathy response. Mercerism is designed to promote empathy. One of the conundrums is when Deckard starts to feel empathy for the androids. The line between androids and humans does become blurred. One of the ongoing debates is whether Deckard is an android or not. I think the novel does answer this, but the debate goes on. Deckard and a colleague take the tests because they do wonder whether they are androids. The line becomes blurred. It becomes even more blurred when Pris, one of the androids, cuts some of the legs off what may be a real spider to see if it can still walk. It seems the androids have learnt cruelty, a particularly human trait.

Dick also looks at entropy and he does this through one of the human characters, John Isidore, who shelters three of the androids. Dick invents a new word, kipple:

“Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday's homeopape. When nobody's around, kipple reproduces itself.... We can't win.... No one can win against kipple ... except temporarily and maybe in one spot, like in my apartment I've sort of created a stasis between the pressure of kipple and nonkipple, for the time being. But eventually I'll die or go away, and then the kipple will again take over. It's a universal principle operating throughout the universe; the entire universe is moving toward a final state of total, absolute kippleization.”

It is also interesting to look at the women in the novel. Iran Deckard escapes into a virtual world to express her feelings: reality seems to be dominated by her husband and his wants and needs. The android Rachael Rosen assists Deckard in his work, whilst expressing her opposition to what he is doing, but is still available sexually. It is almost as though Dick can’t really see an existence for women that is separate from their sexual usefulness to men. Each of the women is described in terms of their attractiveness.

A number of the other ideas are left largely unexplored, probably because this is a novella, and that just felt rather unsatisfactory. Lots of interesting ideas, lots of dead ends. Same old toxic masculinity!

5 out of 10

Starting Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

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10 hours ago, Books do furnish a room said:

A number of the other ideas are left largely unexplored, probably because this is a novella, and that just felt rather unsatisfactory. Lots of interesting ideas, lots of dead ends. Same old toxic masculinity!

5 out of 10

I still want to read this book but I'm quite glad I had this warning first!


On 30/06/2022 at 6:10 PM, Books do furnish a room said:

Nettles by Adam Scovell

This sounds like it would be heart-breaking, although your review makes me feel that it must be brilliantly written! I'm torn about whether I'd like to read it or not!

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Hayley, I think the film is better. Nettles is wonderful though.

Sistersong by Lucy Holland

This was an ideal read for me during a period of recuperation, not too demanding but with enough to interest. It is a cross between historical fiction and fantasy, being set in Britain between the departure of the Romans and the arrival of the Saxons. It is very loosely based on an old murder ballad/tale called the Twa Sisters. The setting is in a semi-fictional kingdom called Dumnonia, which is loosely in the Devon/Cornwall area. King Cador is holding out against the Saxons. He has three daughters, Keyne, Riva and Sinne who are all very different. There is another struggle going on, between the old religion and its ways and Christianity, which is spreading in the land.

This tale is steeped in myth and folklore and there is magic available to use against the Saxons, although it is beginning to fade with the onset of Christianity. The magic is sort of based on the elements and each of the three sisters has a different type of magic. Various semi-mythological figures pop up and there are elements of Arthurian legend as well. There is a Merlin figure, here known as Myrdhin/Mori, a gender fluid character and a magician and meddler. Gildas also shows up as a priest as he is in Arthurian tradition and the cultural struggle between the two ways of life is central to the novel.

The three sisters narrate the novel, each with a different perspective. The arrival of a stranger, Tristan, causes tensions between Riva and Sinne. One of the sisters is transgender and for once this doesn’t feel forced. The whole mixture seems to work well. Each sister develops their own particular gifts as the Saxons draw ever nearer. There is plenty of love, betrayal and treachery and another bit of myth, a bone harp (really, don’t ask). Holland explains a bit of her reasoning:

“Tension between the pagan traditions of tribal Britain and incoming Christianity was very real and lasted centuries. I felt a Pagan-inspired magic system would be the strongest way of channelling this conflict. The old magic needed a champion; so just as Christianity has Gildas, the Land has Myrdhin. Like Arthur, the figure of Merlin has some historical basis, but he has become a powerful mythic symbol that I hoped readers would automatically associate with magic, nature and wisdom.

There is also a touch of the YA about this. Most of all it’s a good story, which is precisely what I needed at the moment. Holland plays with the myth and folklore in a pleasing way and the story held my attention.

9 out of 10

Starting Beyond a Boundary by C L R James

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The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

A novel based principally in Zambia (with a few excursions). I initially thought this was a historical novel, but the fact that it won the Arthur C Clarke award means I should have realised science fiction was involved as well. It is also multi-generational, covering well over one hundred years. The first narrator is an Englishman, the real life Percy Clarke who set up a souvenir shop at the Victoria Falls in 1903. Three intertwined families are involved. The grandmothers Sibilla, Agnes and Matha; the mothers Sylvia, Isabella and Thandiwe: and finally their children Joseph, Jacob and Naila. There is a mosquito chorus as well. The novel looks at colonialism, Zambian independence, the Zambian space program, the Kariba Dam, the AIDS epidemic and the search for a vaccine, mass surveillance and drones: hairdressing plays a significant role too.

This is ambitious for a debut novel and almost six hundred pages, drifting across genres as well. There is certainly an awareness of colonial history and its consequences:

“This is the story of a nation — not a kingdom or people — so it begins, of course, with a white man.”

There are some actual historical characters as well as Clarke: Edward Nkoloso for example and Serpell did extensive research on him. There are also elements of magic realism and Serpell also shows significant medical and scientific knowledge when she addresses AIDs and the search for a vaccine. Most of the central characters are women, who often have unruly bodies and great ambitions. Circumstances and surroundings provide limitations which provides the joys and sorrows of the novel.

I think there are echoes of Allende and Morrison here and I enjoyed the journey. There were times when the novel was difficult to follow and the genealogy charts were very necessary! There are lots of ideas, a deep vein of humour as well as tragedy, pretty good for a debut novel.

7 and a half out of 10

Starting Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au

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This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga

This is the third part of a trilogy set in Zimbabwe from the late 1960s through to the post-colonial period. This final part is set around the turn of the millennium and follows Tambu into her forties. The narration is in the second person. This can take some adjustment, but “you”, the reader, experience what happens to Tambu and how she behaves in a more direct way.

“You do not shrink back as one mind in your head wishes. Instead you obey the other, push forward.”

There is a tension in the novel between personal and national history. Tambu is haunted by her lack of success, by the racism, the after effects of the struggle for independence, by her own expectations of herself, by gender inequality and her self-loathing. At the beginning of the novel Tambu and sees herself as being hideous. Dangarembga has commented on this:

“She is consumed with self-loathing, and this goes back to, how being black is, if you have not really made that psychological and internal journey, one can still take on all the negativity around blackness from society and internalise it, so in her bid to become educated and shake off everything that she sees as negative and simply disastrous from her life in the village, she has internalised all that, and this is what she sees when she looks into the mirror. She sees a hideous monster that she doesn’t want to have anything to do with. And the whole book really is trying to bring her perception of herself and her actual self together in a healthier manner.”

Dandarembga also examines the tourism industry, especially eco-tourism, in the second half of the book. She illustrates the commodification of lives for the needs of eco-tourism. This is an effective critique of neo-liberal capitalism. Tambu’s behaviour is a defence mechanism and Dangarembga proposes a different type of business approach (unhu/unbuntu), at the end of the novel.

No one who has read the first two novels will be surprised by Tambu’s breakdown and hospitalisation and this is well portrayed, especially as it is juxtaposed with the only really decent job (as a teacher) that she has had. There are ongoing reflections about what the war for independence was fought for from some of the characters:

“Sometimes I ask if people forgot that many people went to war. Because if they have not forgotten, these people in this country, what is going on with them? Why are they so foolish? Do they think we went for this? … This is not what we went for and stayed for without food and blankets, even clothes, without our parents or relatives. Some of us without legs. Yet now we are helpless and there is nothing we can do to remove the things we see that we didn’t go to fight for.”

This trilogy is well worth reading, but do read them in order, it does help and sets the context for the final part. Tambu is a complex and complicated character. She is well educated, but very isolated with few friends and little contact with her family. She isn’t meant to be particularly likeable and she makes poor decisions: all her endeavours turn to dust.

8 out of 10

Starting The Women of Troy by Pat Barker

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Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au

This is a novella by the Australian author Jessica Au, a little over 90 pages. It involves a mother and daughter visiting Japan for a holiday, although it is only the daughter who narrates. The prose is spare and luscious and beautifully written: like this description of a visit to a Monet exhibition:

“They had seemed to me then, as now, like paintings about time. It felt like the artist was looking at the field with two gazes. The first was the gaze of youth, awakening to a dawn of pink light on the grass and looking with possibility on everything, the work he had done just the day before, the work he had still to do in the future. The second was the gaze of an older man, perhaps older than Monet had been when he painted them, that was looking at the same view, and remembering these earlier feelings and trying to recapture them, only he was unable to do so without infusing it with his own sense of inevitability.  Looking at them, I felt a little like I felt sometimes after reading a certain book, or hearing a fragment of a certain song.

This is basically a bit of sightseeing, some reminiscence with reflections on relationships and yet it does work. The atmosphere is created as much by absence as presence and is filtered through the daughter. It has been described as spectral and enigmatic:

Through the sheets of rain, the landscape looked almost like a screen painting that we had seen in one of the old houses. It had been made up of several panels, and yet the artist had used the brush only minimally, making a few careful lines on the paper. Some were strong and definite, while others bled and faded, giving the impression of vapour. And yet, when you looked, you saw something: mountains, dissolution, form and colour running forever downwards.”

There are lots of flashbacks and this is as much about the past as the present. The narrator reflects on parts of her past and on fears of being on the outside:

“When a girl in my class spoke of a particular film in relation to Antigone, she did so smoothly and naturally, her eyes flicking across the room as if to see who else recognised this name.  When her eyes went to me, I immediately looked down.  How did they know all these people, all these works?  How had they managed to read and watch so much in only the first few weeks of the semester?  The girl knew so much without seeming to try, and she seemed complete, defined in some way that I wasn’t.”

There is a line between being trite and dull and being understated. For me, Au is on the right side of it. I probably read this at the right time, being off work at the moment as I was able to take my time with nothing to make me rush. There are reflections and odd thoughts scattered throughout, for example, this on some fabrics in a museum:

“Their patterns were at once primitive and graceful, and as beautiful as the garments in a folktale. Looking at the translucency of the overlapping dyes reminded me of looking upwards through a canopy of leaves. They reminded me of the seasons and, in their bare, visible threads, of something lovely and honest that had now been forgotten, a thing we could only look at but no longer live. I felt at the same time mesmerised by their beauty and saddened at this vague thought. “

I am sure there are those who will hate this, but I wasn’t one of them.

9 out of 10

Starting After Sappho by Selby Schwartz

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Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

My first Murdoch in some years and it probably wasn’t a good idea to go for her first novel! It’s from 1954 and is set in 1950s London with an eclectic bunch of Bohemian characters. The narrator is Jake, a hack writer, who has a set of fairly picaresque adventures. This being Murdoch, there is a fair amount of philosophy flung about the place (one of the characters is a philosopher) with Beckett and Queneau both being referenced. The net referenced in the title is a net of abstraction, generalisation and theory. Indeed the title is explained by a quote from the title character’s own book!

"All theorizing is flight. We must be ruled by the situation itself and this is unutterably particular here. Indeed it is something to which we can never get close enough, however hard we may try as it were to crawl under the net.”

Well that’s obviously clear then.

The plot is best not described in detail: Jake is always looking for someone and rarely finding them, He has a fairly tangential relationship to the law and as this is Murdoch contingency raises its head:

 “There are some parts in London which are necessary and others which are contingent. Everywhere west of Earls Court is contingent, except for a few places along the river. I hate contingency. I want everything in my life to have a sufficient reason.”

Murdoch, throughout her writing stresses the importance of the accidental, unpredictable and life’s messiness. That is also contingent and Jake experiences all this by the bucketload.

There are some good minor characters. For example, the chain-smoking cat lover Mrs Tinckham, who owns a newsagents shop:

“In the midst sits Mrs Tinckham herself, smoking a cigarette. She is the only person I know who is literally a chain-smoker. She lights each one from the butt of the last; how she lights the first one of the day remains to me a mystery, for she never seems to have any matches in the house when I ask her for one. I once arrived to find her in great distress because her current cigarette had fallen into a cup of coffee and she had no fire to light another. Perhaps she smokes all night, or perhaps there is an undying cigarette which burns eternally in her bedroom. An enamel basin at her feet is filled, usually to overflowing, with cigarette ends; and beside her on the counter is a little wireless which is always on, very softly and inaudibly, so that a sort of murmurous music accompanies Mrs Tinckham as she sits, wreathed in cigarette smoke, among the cats.”

Mars, the aged Alsatian is also a star turn. Jake however is pretty self-centred and unlikeable (like a number of Murdoch’s leading men) and spending most of the book in his company is a bit wearing:

‘I am myself a sort of professional Unauthorized Person; I am sure I have been turned out of more places than any other member of the English intelligentsia.’ 

In a sort of way Jake is trying to find himself and although the novel is only about 250 pages, he seems to take a long time to do so!

It isn’t all bad, there are some well-drawn minor characters and the picaresque areas are entertaining (and probably contingent).

6 out of 10

Starting Mrs England by Stacey Halls

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Peterloo by Jacqueline Riding

The Mask (Masque) of Anarchy was Shelley’s reaction to the Peterloo massacre: a few extracts:

Last came Anarchy: he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse.

And he wore a kingly crown;
And in his grasp a sceptre shone;
On his brow this mark I saw -

With a pace stately and fast,
Over English land he passed,
Trampling to a mire of blood
The adoring multitude,

And a mighty troop around,
With their trampling shook the ground,
Waving each a bloody sword,
For the service of their Lord.

And with glorious triumph, they
Rode through England proud and gay,
Drunk as with intoxication
Of the wine of desolation.


As flowers beneath May's footstep waken,
As stars from Night's loose hair are shaken,
As waves arise when loud winds call,
Thoughts sprung where'er that step did fall.

And the prostrate multitude
Looked - and ankle-deep in blood,
Hope, that maiden most serene,
Was walking with a quiet mien:

And Anarchy, the ghastly birth,
Lay dead earth upon the earth;
The Horse of Death tameless as wind
Fled, and with his hoofs did grind
To dust the murderers thronged behind.

A rushing light of clouds and splendour,
A sense awakening and yet tender
Was heard and felt - and at its close
These words of joy and fear arose

As if their own indignant Earth
Which gave the sons of England birth
Had felt their blood upon her brow,
And shuddering with a mother's throe

Had turnèd every drop of blood
By which her face had been bedewed
To an accent unwithstood, -
As if her heart had cried aloud:

'Men of England, heirs of Glory,
Heroes of unwritten story,
Nurslings of one mighty Mother,
Hopes of her, and one another;

'Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you -
Ye are many - they are few.’


This was Shelley’s call to arms.

The Peterloo massacre took place on 16th August 1819 at St Peter’s Field in Manchester where a large meeting called to support Reform was charged on by military and yeomanry on horseback. Estimates of the crowd vary between 60 and 200 thousand. There were fifteen deaths (including women and children) and over 400 injuries. These numbers are likely to be an under estimate as many dies from their wounds at a later date. There is an excellent chapter on Peterloo in E P Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class. It is a piece of working class history which has been somewhat neglected (swept under the carpet). Riding wrote this for the 200th anniversary in 2019 and the introduction is by Mike Leigh, who directed the film released about the same time.

This is a detailed and well researched account of the lead up to Peterloo with a close look at the reformers like Bamford and Hunt and those in government and power who were organising the oppression. One of the interesting aspects of the account is Riding’s look at a neglected area, the female Reform societies. It is not widely known that there were female reform societies and Riding suggests that this is partially the birth of later movements for women’s suffrage. Women like Mary Fildes who are much less well known than reformers like Henry Hunt and Samuel Bamford, are given their place. Fildes was injured on the day. Riding outlines the difficulties of opposing the government with accounts of the repressive legislation and the persecution of this who opposed the government and agitated for reform. The name Peterloo was coined because of Waterloo just four years earlier. The contrast being that here the army was attacking their own. There were Waterloo veterans on both sides.

Some would have you believe that this was a one off, it wasn’t, there were other examples but even less is remembered about them. This is well worth reading.

9 out of 10 

Starting Anny by Henrietta Garnett

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That sounds like a good one. I chose The Masque of Anarchy as my A-level English poem (we were allowed to research and choose any poem we wanted, which was great) and it was the first I'd heard of the Peterloo Massacre. I was shocked even then that it seemed to have been largely forgotten about (or, at least, was little discussed). It's quite disturbing how easily such a horrific even can be swept under the carpet!

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Hayley, yes it's a good account, well worth reading

A Gathering of Ghosts by Karen Maitland

I have been reading quite a lot of historical fiction recently and this is another example. This is set in 1316 on Dartmoor. If you like cold, wet, windy and bleak moors then this may be for you! It is narrated by four voices, three women and one man. The story centres around an ancient well. It was a place of pagan worship and gods, particularly the goddess Brigid. A few years prior to the novel’s setting The Church has taken it over and it is now the priory of the Sisters of the Knights of St John who have dedicated it to St Lucia. The local villagers are still mainly pagan and follow the old ways. On the moors there are also tinners, groups of people mining for tin to smelt in very difficult conditions.

One of the voices is Nicholas, one of the Knights who has been dispatched to inspect the priory because there are suspicions of shady dealing. Prioress Johanne is determined that Nicholas will not find what he is looking for and to protect those who live in the priory. Morwen is a pagan living on the moor and is able to communicate with the spirits on the moor. Sorrel is a woman with a disability and is with the group of tinners.

“You’ll need more than a sword to protect you up there. Other side of that priory stands the most accursed hill on the whole moor. You can hear the dead whispering among those rocks. Hungry ghosts, they are. There’s many has heard them talking, and some even followed the voices into the caves up there. Followed them in, Brothers, but never came out”

Maitland uses all the myth and folklore about Dartmoor in this tale: ghosts of the dead, Brigid, pigseys (pixies), black hounds (wisht hounds), Ankow to name just a few. Conan Doyle tapped into some of this in The Hound of the Baskervilles.

It’s a fair tale with some predictability and the pagans being much more honest and human than the Christians (no complaints there). I read some of this whilst recovering from an anaesthetic and so it’s a bit hazy, that probably helped!

6 out of 10

Starting Archipelago by Monique Roffey

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The Women of Troy by Pat Barker

This is a follow up to The Silence of The Girls and continues Barker’s retelling of the myths around the fall of Troy, Achilles, Odysseus, Helen, Paris etc. It is told form the point of view of the women involved and narrated, as before, by Briseis. This is now clearly going to be one of Barker’s trilogies (or possibly more) as there is another on the way. There are a few brief pieces of narration by Pyrrhus, the 16/17 year old so of Achilles. This jars a little with the female centred telling, but works on the whole because it gives the reader insight into his thinking which helps the telling: although entering the mind of a teenage boy is always messy!

The novel follows on from the sacking of Troy. The Greeks are unable to leave because of the prevailing winds and are getting restless in case the gods are punishing them. The women of Troy (that survive) have been distributed as slaves. Briseis is pregnant with Achilles’ child and married to his friend Alcimus as arranged by Achilles.


“So, what did I feel for this baby whose father had killed my husband and my brothers and burned my city down? I felt it wasn’t mine. At times, it seemed more like a parasitic infestation than a pregnancy, taking me over, using me for its own purposes — which were there purposes. Kill all the men and boys, impregnate the women — and the Trojans cease to exist. They weren’t intent on killing individual men; they meant to erase an entire people.”


And Briseis’s feelings for Achilles:


“Then – and now – people seem to take it for granted that I loved Achilles. Why wouldn’t I? I had the fastest, strongest, bravest, most beautiful man of his generation in my bed – how could I not love him?


He killed my brothers.


We women are peculiar creatures. We tend not to love those who murder our families.”

Priam’s body has been left out in the open and not given the proper funeral rites and a number of the plotlines revolve around this.

Barker has been examining war and all that surrounds it for many years and here there is no romance and no heroism. We look at slavery and the aftermath of war from the point of view of the women. The usual suspects are present, Helen, Hecuba, Cassandra, Andromache etc.

This is a well imagined novel and a good counterpoint to the usual tellings of the Greek myths and Barker gives voice to the voiceless. The voices are angry, tender, crude and grieving. There is an edge of humour as well, Barker translates the well known:

timeo Danaos et dona ferentes as ‘don’t trust the f u c k ing Greeks’. 

 Barker, as she is dealing with myth, is able to adjust how the story progresses. Barker has also left much to be written about and I believe the next one is about Cassandra. This is a good retelling of the age old truths about war with a pointed feminist perspective.

8 and a half out of 10

Starting Under Fire by Henri Barbusse

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On 28/07/2022 at 4:10 PM, Books do furnish a room said:

This is set in 1316 on Dartmoor. If you like cold, wet, windy and bleak moors then this may be for you!

... This might be for me :lol:. I don't think I've ever read a book set on Dartmoor and I love myths and folklore!





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I think it definitely is for you Hayley!

Cecily by Annie Garthwaite

“Women have no swords, brother. We do our work by talking.”

Another historical novel. This time we are in the fifteenth century and looking at a woman who lived from 1415 to 1495 for what has been called a feminist retelling of the Wars of the Roses. It is certainly a study of how women made their way in the world. Cecily Neville was the wife of Richard, Duke of York and so was firmly in the Yorkist camp. She gave birth to twelve children, seven of whom lived. Two of her children became Kings of England, Edward VI and Richard III. She outlived them both. The novel covers the period 1431 to 1461, pretty much the period of her marriage. This was a slight disappointment as I would like to have followed Cecily for longer. The political situation is complex and the various alliances shift periodically. Garthwaite does a good job of charting them. The genealogies at the back are useful. There is no focus on battles or blood and gore, these take place in the background.

Garthwaite sums up her interest in Neville:

“For me, the stand out character of the 15th century has always been Cecily Neville. She experienced power in both directions: wielding it and having it wielded against her. She survived eighty years of tumultuous history, mothered kings, created a dynasty and brought her family through civil war. She met victory and defeat in equal measure and, in face of all, lived on. Last woman standing, you might say.”

All the kings and queens of England since are descended from her. This is an excellent account of a too little known character.

8 an a half out of 10

Starting The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

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