Wednesday 29 December 2021

Top Ten Books Read in 2021 (Part One)

This year has been a busy, exciting and fun-filled one - as far as reading goes. If you are interested in seeing what I read this year my traditional listchallenges list is here. If you want to see me trying to shame myself for buying books, my list of shame is here.

As usual I shall split my top ten into two parts and count down from ten, starting with…

10: Folk by Zoe Gilbert

This was an easy book to get lost in, a series of invented folk and fairy tales set on a fictional island called Neverness it manages to weave together a strange and intense atmosphere, close to nature and full of deceit and hardness.

There’s a frank (and rather unromantic) sexuality about these stories, many of them dealing with love superstitions, hatching, matching and dispatching. The book starts with a ceremony in which girls shot arrows with ribbons into thorn bushes and boys root through them, hoping to pick up an arrow and kiss the girl. The girls most hope to kiss the boy with the bloodiest, most thorn-pricked lips. There’s a mistake and a boy ends up being burned within the bush - and that’s not the only time there’s a little bit of Summer Isle about the book.

The stories were full of sea/salt/gorse/mud/cows/birds/rain/wind - with a real texture and sense of grit, many of the stories permeated with chill and cold and strong smells. There were hints of other stories; one suggested selkies, another suggested the song ‘The twa’ swans’, and another had a wendigo vibe. The stories dealt with jealously, love of siblings, postpartum depression - and all manner of other topics, always with a sense of grit and darkness but there were a number of sweet stories also to leaven the book. It made a really wonderful collection overall and I enjoyed it a lot.

9: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

I’d very much enjoyed Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and The Ladies of Grace Adieu and so was excited about Susanna Clarke’s new novel, Piranesi, pre-ordering the paperback copy and reading it immediately.

It’s a novel very different from the earlier, far shorter and tighter with a cast of three characters instead of dozens. Piranesi lives in an immense (possibly infinite) building, with huge rooms filled with statues, where clouds float around the top floors and seas sweep through the lower ones. The seas have fish and seaweed and rush through the corridors in fierce tides. Piranesi explores the rooms, living off the fish and seaweed, blessing the House for its kindness. He guards skeletons, giving them food and flowers, interpreting the flights of birds and the meanings of statues.

He calls himself a scientist but his curiosity isn’t excited by the most obvious discrepancies in his life. First among them, he knows he is not called Piranesi but never wonders what it may have been once. Nor does he see it significant that his journals used to be numbered ‘2012’ but now are named after significant events in the year. He explains it away by arguing that the new system is better as it gives the years more character. If there are things about his past he’s forgotten, he’s happy not to remember.

Another mystery is the Other, the only other living person of his world. The Other sends him to explore the house and report back what he finds, looking for Great Knowledge. The Other is always dressed in an impeccable suit and sometimes gives him items that obviously cannot be provided by the House. Again Piranesi doesn’t question how he knows what a good suit is, nor where these other items come from.

This first half is clearly the best, as the reader is tossed into this strange world and is given frequent hints that things are not as they ought to be. I enjoyed guessing what the real situation may be. In the second half, when the mystery is revealed, it fits with the facts well and is satisfying though wasn’t as fun as the first half.

As well as a mystery, this is a book with humour and heart. The chapter titles frequently make ironic comment on their contents and would probably be more so on a second reading. Piranesi himself is such a guileless, trusting character that it’s a pleasure to be in his company. If anything he seems improved by his life in the House, living within the world rather than against.

Despite the differences between Piranesi and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, there are a number of similarities. Both talk of a time when magic existed before leaving the land, the world of the House looks much like the Fairy Roads, there are two wizards who attempt to bring back the magic and there are ‘lesser’ characters who suffer as a result. Clarke originally planned to write a sequel to the early work which focused on those characters and Piranesi does likewise.

8: We Have Always Lived in a Castle by Shirley Jackson

I went into We Have Always Lived in the Castle expecting to be surprised and wrong-footed and I wasn’t disappointed. Starting with a near perfect first paragraph that casually tells us all we need to know about Merricat, the book’s narrator, it only gets stronger from there.

The Blackwood family are the local horror story, six years ago most of the family were poisoned at dinner. The survivors are a doddery uncle and two young women, the older of which was acquitted for the murders. It’s not like the family were even popular before the incident, with their snobbish and highhanded ways with the local villagers. During the course of the novel, the little family have their delicate equilibrium disturbed and become urban myths in the process.

There are so many ways a reader can interpret why the family were poisoned, why the poison was administered how it was, what the relationships between the three family members is now as well as their relationship with the outside world. The text could generate theories for days.

The key to the slippery (and so fascinating) quality of the book is hidden in the title, that they have always lived in the castle. We receive so little information about what the family dynamic was before the poisoning, that it’s hard to make definite decisions on how its changed them. Merricat is the narrator and for her, they’ve always been like that; Constance has always preferred to stay at home and cook, they’ve always had a pseudo mother and daughter relationship, her idiosyncrasies have always been laughed away with a ‘silly Merricat’. We have no way of finding out if that is the case.

The book ends with the perfect happy ending… for Merricat.

7: Female Quixote by Charlotte Lennox

I’ve written about The Female Quixote extensively, both here and here. What surprises me is how a book I already enjoyed has lingered in my memory more than other books I enjoyed more at the time of reading them.

6: The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

The Water Cure is instantly gripping and unsettling from the first sentence, “Once we have a father, but our father dies without us noticing.” This would imply that the father, known as King, is an incidental part of the character’s lives, which is far from the truth. 

King and his wife live in a secluded spot in an abandoned hotel with their three girls. They escaped there to save the girls from the increasingly poisonous air of the mainland, a poison that seems to be generated by men. King is the only man who doesn’t create these poisons and is the only one strong enough to visit the mainland for occasional supplies. To keep them strong and free of poison, the girls have a vigorous programme of treatments.

Of course, that’s not what’s really going on.

The treatments take the form of tortures and endurance tests, all with their own strange paraphernalia, whether it’s the sweating sacks, the drowning dress or the ice buckets. They don’t remove poisons at all but weaken the girls’ bodies and wills. It’s a not unknown pattern, behaviours that begin as protective but infantilise the subjects leaving them open to abuse. There was a real shock, late in the book when the characters ages were revealed and the girls aren’t girls at all but women. It’s notable that one of the girls, Grace, is pregnant and the only man around is her father.

But that’s not all that’s going on.

There really are problems in the outside world. The world really is heating up, the hotel was a retreat for dozens of sick and dying women who found themselves getting better after undergoing the treatments and the water cure.

It’s all very uncertain. There is much said but far more hinted.

I really liked the three ‘girls’ and how they fit into the dysfunctional family unit in different ways. The oldest, Grace, was positioned to be the handmaiden and successor, Lia the whipping post and Sky the coddled baby. Their views and actions in the book are heavily affected by their place in the family. Lia sees her body as a receptacle of pain, sees herself as too craving of love and puts herself in danger to seek it. Grace has a fatalism, she expects harm to come to them but responds cold and unemotionally. I’d like to have seen more of Sky’s thoughts, with the other two daughters narrating chapters, it almost seems like Sky responds to moments and has little of a mind of her own.

I found the twisted family dynamic really interesting, particularly when it came to the notion of how much the abuse was planned and how much was intended to be protection. How sincere was the false utopia and how real were they dangers they were being protected from?

Then, there’s the allegorical/fable element of the book. The poisons are always called toxins - and the toxins come from men. The ‘girls’ are encouraged to see themselves as weak, their only real defence against men is suicide, which they call life-guarding. And the men do bring trouble.. perhaps they do bring sickness, and the one man who said he was the bastion against the others might have been the most harmful of all, even if he wasn’t trying to be.

It’s not ponderously or showily written but there is a tight control over the whole book which weaves enough of a tale to grab a reader but leaves enough holes to make that reader constantly question and ponder. I really liked it.

Wednesday 22 December 2021

My Year of Reading Women

My year of reading women didn’t start intentionally. I started making a pile of books I wanted to read during the year and I noticed that all the books I had piled were by women writers. I thought it may be fun to keep piling up women writers and to see if a year of reading women taught me anything. I expected it probably wouldn’t, but I kept on anyway.

As a proviso - I have read some men this year. Seven of the eighty-eight books I have read this year have been by men. Two were for the reading circle, two were for work, one was for a video and two because I just had to read them. Also, an additional three books were written by a woman but translated by a man (but they were the Magda Szabó books and I have no regrets).

So, what did I learn?

In some ways, my year of reading women re-enforced my feeling that genre defines a book far more than any other element. Women sci-fi novels were more like sci-fi than anything else, women biographers, women gothic novelists, women fantasy writers - genre always trumps gender.

There have been more female protagonists, which is no great surprise but that’s not to say that many of the books featured men as the main character as well. I suppose family has been a theme more prominent in the books I’ve read this year. Whether it’s been French women tearing apart a family in Someone at a Distance or a French girl proving the perfect daughter in A Daughter in a Fortnight; a cultish family in The Water Clue or the cosy family of Hitlers in Young Adolf - families were a key element. There were surrogate parents, found families, displaced families and feuding families.

Other odd links between books included people who could dream new pasts. There were numerous books that included uses of sympathetic magic that included magic sewing and a magic model town. A number of spinsters looked after their novelist fathers, and two characters were locked up for suspected witchcraft.

This was the year I finished my last Penelope Fitzgerald, exposed myself to more Austen and was introduced to two writers in particular. Magda Szabó entered my life in the delightful Abigail, which balanced school story charm and WWII resistance excitement. Her other novels were a little more bleak; Katalin Street was a complex and engaging look at nostalgia, shame and bitterness, The Door was about independence and pride and so was Iza’s Ballad to a certain extent. Most luckily, I broke my Virginia Woolf taboo, finding her surprisingly warm, with real and fully-developed characters. 

I’ve really enjoyed my year of reading women but maybe because of my varied reading diet, it didn’t bring any amazing revelations. It did, however, lead me to a great many enjoyable books and I shall go through the top ten over the next couple of weeks.

It's funny, some people would be able to write a whole blog out of their experiences in reading a little differently, I barely managed a post.

Wednesday 15 December 2021

Beau Brummell by Ian Kelly at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle


December’s Reading Circle was held online, not because of fears of covid but due to the jet-setting (and Trans-Siberian Railway-riding) exploits of the author Ian Kelly, who joined us from a log cabin in Northern California to talk about his book Beau Brummell: The Ultimate Dandy. This allowed the group to chat about all the exhibitions, theatre and books they wanted safe from their own homes as a storm raged outside. 

Beau Brummell is the biography of a man whose position in history seems to be built on the thinnest of threads; famous for his poise, his wit and his immaculate fashion sense, he dictated the fashionable world of London, influenced the creation of modern West End tailoring and died penniless, raving and incontinent in an asylum in Normandy. The book set out to prove that he was more than a ‘fribble’, a word Johnson defined as the verb ‘to trifle’ but which also came to be used as a noun. 

One of the pleasures of having an author at a meeting is to explore ‘backstage’ of a book, to see what it set out to be and the process that shaped it into what it became. This book started when Kelly was looking up a quote from Brummell to use in his book on the eighteenth century celebrity chef Marie-Antoine Caréme. ‘Who’s your fat friend?’ Brummell asked a friend satirically after being snubbed by the Prince Regent. This jest finally severed the patronage of the admittedly rotund royal. Ian Kelly said he was hoping to write a book about tailoring, the growth and shaping of the West End of London as a shopping hotspot and to explore the realm of masculine fine dressing with the creation of the dandy - or as he put it, ‘a nice book about clothes and shopping.’ It was his discovery of Brummell’s medical records in an asylum in Caen that opened up a whole new line of enquiry when it became clear that the disease which killed Brummell was tertiary syphilis – a discovery which led to a very excited call to his publisher.

Initially though, Brummell led a rather charmed life. His grandparents may have been servants to the wealthy, but his father had got in with the North administration where he’d legally (and most likely less-legally) acquired a fortune. Born the second son of the family in number 10 or 11 Downing Street and later raised in grace and favour apartments in Hampton Court, the young George Brummell had his portrait painted by Reynolds when he was three years old. This almost cherubic figure was sent to Eton where he became everyone’s friend and ‘had a genius for excelling in apparently trivial acts,’ like making cheese on toast. Later he took his inheritance and joined the Hussars, largely because of the fetching uniform. There he became friends with the Prince Regent, even becoming best man at the Prince’s wedding. 

After quitting the army, he used his connections to live off credit where he formed the ‘dandiacal body’, holding levees where the important and fashionable would watch him dress. Unlike the of former macaronis, Brummell’s style was based on muted tones and sharp cuts. Precision and attention to detail were the hallmarks of a gentleman, not flashy excess. He also underwent a vigorous bathing routine and used a series of razors to shave ever closer. Amazingly, many of the shops that supplied Brummell with his clothes are still in business and holding their records so there is a very detailed portion of the book about the skill that went into creating the perfect dandy. Thanks to the wine merchants, The Berry Brothers, there’s even regular accounts of his weight, as it became a fashion to use their scales.

Brummell’s delicate balance of credit was due partly to sales of an item going up if it was known he used it (like macouba snuff) but also due to his relationship with the Prince Regent. As long as people expected him to do well out of a future George IV kingship, the future expectation of money was still there. Like most relationships with ‘Prinny’, Brummell’s was not always a smooth one. Although it suited the prince to adopt the dandy look, his tastes were rather more flamboyant than Brummell’s. What’s more, Brummell’s ‘brand’ relied on a certain cynical and imperious attitude which could offend the thin-skinned royal. After the gaff about the ‘fat friend’, Brummell’s creditors started calling and he had to escape to France.

In Calais, he resumed his celebrity, gained a whole new group of creditors and become one of many British residents who couldn’t go back home but needed a passport to go further into France. When George became king, Brummell started to petition for the position of a consul, which was denied to him until just before George’s death, making Brummell consul to the Norman town of Caen. It was not a strenuous job and he told the government that such a position was probably not needed, hoping to be moved to somewhere more glamorous. The position was axed, but Brummell was not offered anything else.

Unable to live within his means, he found maintaining his lifestyle increasingly difficult, even with a subscription of people back in England to support him. He was put in debtors’ jail until another call for funds across the Channel had him released. The first thing he did was dress up in his best outfit, attend a formal dinner and sit down to a very welcome meal of salmon. By this time he was not well though, sometimes losing control of his muscles and eventually becoming doubly incontinent and strapped to his bed. The hotel he lived in couldn’t help and he was sent to an asylum where he was kept as comfortable as possible until he died.

The book contains a vivid description of syphilis, of how it would have started as a rash and eventually progressed to a horrid and degrading end. There’s a lot of discussion in the book of Brummell’s sexuality. Many previous works had depicted him as asexual, too dedicated to his look to worry about anyone else. From his death though, this is clearly not the case. He certainly moved in circles where sex could be had at any price, attended parties held by ‘The Three Graces’ and other courtesans. He was known to propose marriage frequently, though never to pursue such proposals seriously and he wrote letters that could be construed as ‘flirty’ to a number of women. He also wrote letters that could be construed as ‘flirty’ to men, including Byron. Certainly he lived in a homo-social world, from school to the military, and it’s clear that both men and women looked at him in an erotic way (and, judging from the cut of his trousers, that he wasn’t against encouraging that). Ultimately, it can’t be known when he caught the disease or with whom. Ian Kelly said that one of the features in writing history is that the writer can only present evidence as it is found, leaving readers to decide for themselves.

Ian Kelly described his book as commercially risky, being too long (at 500 pages) about a subject which has an aura of embarrassment which meant there hadn’t been a post-war biography of Brummell. Only recently has the idea of the ‘over-aesthetic’ man been discussed, together with and notions of male fashion and metro-sexuality. It’s interesting how hard it is to pin down George Brummell, to say exactly what he is famous for and what impact he has had. The book starts with the Greater London Council having difficulty describing who Beau Brummell actually was. It was a difficulty we had fun engaging with.

Wednesday 8 December 2021

Review: The Desert Queen by Doris Leslie


I was first drawn to The Desert Queen  by Doris Leslie by its shockingly awful cover. Mine is a ‘Book Club’ reprint and it looks like a pencil sketch by a reasonably talented fourteen-year old with the title slapped anywhichway in an almost unreadable ‘fun’ font. Drawn in by the amateur cover, the blurb sounded interesting, telling the life of Hester Stanhope, the niece of Pitt the Younger who then went off and became a powerful figure in Syria and Lebanon. She had a cameo appearance in Ian Kelly’s Beau Brummell and so I thought I’d find out more and read the book.

This is one of those odd kind of platypus histories, describing itself as a ‘biographical study’ and reassuring the reader in the preface that it is all true, the book then dramatises Stanhope’s life, including all sorts of things nobody could know. At the same time, it wasn’t committed enough to the storytelling aspect of the book to be crafted and shaped into a satisfying novel. 

It’s a shame because Hester Stanhope’s life would make a phenomenal biography, and a shaped version of it a phenomenal novel. 

Niece to Prime Minister, Pitt the Younger, she kept house for the bachelor at ten Downing Street where she stunned with her intelligence and quick wit. Despite being a much sought after bride, she shrugged off all proposals and maintained her independence. After the death of Pitt, her brother and the man she was most likely to marry, she decided to travel to put her troubles behind her. The usual Grand Tour was off the cards due to war, so she went further, dragging her maid and a smitten and devoted doctor. She also picked up a toy-boy on the way whom she was openly having sex with but never married. 

Shipwrecked without clothes, she donned male Turkish dress and continued her journeys. She was lavishly welcomed everywhere she went and became something of a legend, as an androgynous figure who wasn’t afraid of anyone or anything, she kept guns and a sword on her belt. She was led by a growing belief in a prophecy that she was to become the Queen of the Jews. The prophecy was by Richard Brothers, who would later be regarded as the first in a line of eight prophets that included Joanna Southcott and ended in Mabel Balthrop, or Octavia of the Panacea Society. 

‘Crowned’ in Palmyra, the first European woman to go there and celebrated in Damascus, she used her contacts to wipe out a tribe who had killed a visiting European before setting up a base in Lebanon. Growing older (and possibly suffering from dementia) her followers left her, often stealing as they went. Her funds run out and she died a withered hermit on a distant hill - it’s a sad ending.

Her successes came from her looks, her charm and her sheer brazen imperiousness. I don’t think any telling of her story could make her seem like an easy person to get along with, she simply considered herself above others and through force of will made other people consider that too. She was an advocate for freedom yet kept slaves; she bankrupted herself feeding the poor and needy yet whipped those slaves brutally; she loved ‘her people’ but definitely considered them hers. 

The Desert Queen spends a lot of time dealing with the relationship between Stanhope and her boy toy Michael Bruce. The two have a passionate sexual relationship and (in this book at least) Hester desires to become his all. She demeans and belittles him, ignores his advice and generally regards him to be all consumed by her. For a while he is but as they go further and further away from the world they know, and as Hester becomes more and more taken in by her own legend, this falls apart. The book deals with this by having dialogue of their arguments for the central hundred pages or so of the two-hundred page book.

It may be easier if the writing was slightly less painful to read. Here is a typical quote;

   “Her eyes narrowed in appraisement of her beauty; although not strictly beautiful, she emanated beauty as did the rose whose perfumed heart he sensuously inhaled.” Also, characters (particularly at the beginning of the book) tell each other big chunks of information that the person they are talking to already knows - it’s like a Chibnall Doctor Who. Then there are all the things that the author can’t possibly know; a character taking crumbs of cake out of his pocket to feed a swan, a scorpion in bath water, a flutter of the eyes as a character remembers some past bit of exposition. The only footnotes are references to other works by the same author. 

As a result, this book has bad scholarship, bad writing, doesn’t flow at all and makes a fascinating story utterly dull. I don’t recommend it very highly.

Wednesday 1 December 2021

Review: The Foundling by Stacey Halls


The Foundling by Stacey Halls presents itself as a historical novel founded (ahem) on a mystery. Bess Bright has left her newborn baby girl at the Foundling Hospital in London and returns six years later with, she hopes, enough money to pay a restoration fee and take the baby home. She’s shocked to find the baby was collected the day after she delivered it and the records say it was she who collected her. Actually, the mystery is solved very quickly and the book focuses most of its time on character drama and the central question, what does a child need from their mother?

It was very refreshing to see that Bess was not another prostitute and this was not going to be another Fanny Hill or Beggar’s Opera inspired look at criminal London. Bess is a shrimpseller, her father works in Billingsgate and she takes the cooked shrimp around on her hat, selling them as a warm snack for other workers. Other than Leon Garfield (whose books look at coachman, actors, pleasure garden owners, apprentices) most books set in eighteenth century London either tackle lords or courtesans, so I really enjoyed a peek at the run-down but law-abiding lives of these working people. I particularly liked her friendship with a black family who run a second-hand clothes stall in rag-fair, which presented a side of the city not often enough noted, the lives of people just getting on with things. I loved the little details, such as the one that said it was possible to get a free visit to the Tower of London’s lions by bringing a dead dog for them to eat. 

As Bess quickly locates the whereabouts of her missing daughter, she poses as a nursemaid in that household. The child is now called Charlotte (instead of Clara) and believes she is the daughter of Alexandra Callard, the wife of Daniel, the man who had her with Bess. 

Alexandra and Bess share narrating duties and while Bess is straightforward and likeable, it is Alexandra who is the stand-out character. She is a widow who only ever leaves the house to go to church, and then only recently because she realised her daughter needed some exposure to the outside world. It becomes clear that her agoraphobic tendencies (and her intense dislike of any physical contact) existed while she was still married and she knew Daniel went with other women. When her sister travels up north she demands to know the route so she can track it on a map, she obsessively reads papers, locks doors and every day has tea and converses with the pictures of her dead parents. There is a tragic back-story that explains her behaviour, which was well done but I would have preferred it if there hadn’t been and this was just the way she was.

Alexandra’s own insecurities mean that she keeps Charlotte in very close confinement but is unable to provide the warm, physical love a child needs. She clearly cares and loves for ‘her’ daughter but can’t show it and when Bess comes in as nursemaid, she provides the warmth and expressive love the girl needs. However, were she to take Charlotte away, not only would they have to hide from any agents coming to get her back, but Bess simply cannot provide the safety and financial security Alexandra can. This is the real heart of the book; which is best for the child, safety and decent prospects in a cold, unemotional environment, or warm, expressive love without any of that safety? 

I couldn’t think of a decent solution to the problem and for any happy ending, the characters would have to bend significantly.. I don’t wish to reveal how it ends, the paperback only came out last year.

While there’s a lot to recommend this book, it’s an interesting premise, a sharp dilemma and some pretty decent character writing, it’s a surprisingly straightforward one. The central mystery is solved by chance and within a few chapters, the subsequent details are also fairly straightforward and rely a little too much on chance. Like my disappointment with Alexandra’s backstory, everything in this book is a little too neat and tidy, the characters fit in their roles a little too well and the plot moves a little too smoothly. However, like that backstory, it is well done, the book is definitely a page-turner and things fall into place when they should.

Right near the end a new character called Lyle is introduced. His a Slavic immigrant who acts more cockney than cockney and has a slight case of the Dick Van Dyke’s about him. While engaging, he’s much broader than the other people in the book and comes into the story too late to properly bed in, as such he seems a little extraneous. It almost feels a redraft would seed him earlier into the work or remove him completely and that’s where I find myself with this book, that it’s perfectly decent but for it to be remarkable it could have taken a few more drafts.

Wednesday 24 November 2021

Review: The Temple of Hymen by Jacqui Lofthouse


The first book I read this year was Lydia Syson’s The Doctor or Love, a biography of James Graham, a fascinating eighteenth century doctor who experimented with electricity in a grand-standing, showy way, creating a stupendous building called The Temple of Health which functioned something like a modern spa. When I read that book, I thought it would make a fascinating setting for a play or novel, I envisioned it something of a farce. 

The Temple of Hymen by Jacqui Lofthouse is a melodrama with a dark, unsettling tone throughout. There are two narrators, Emilia, who has written her memoirs and Lord Vermillion who is editing them and adding his own comments. It strikes a strange note immediately, with both narrators warning the reader not to be taken in by the honeyed word of the other. There are allusions to great tragedy in the future and it’s clear that the reader won’t be allowed to have solid ground to make their judgements from.

Finding out about the younger Emilia, we learn she believes she murdered her mother and is a devil child. This is furthered by a trip to Bristol to drink healing waters which turn red as blood at the same time she bites a woman who is scaring her. Although the waters turning red has a scientific explanation, she can’t help feeling tainted. The little family move to a house in the Adelphi buildings that her father won in a lottery and they watch as James Graham’s Temple of Health is being set up next door. It’s clear from clues that the family are down on their luck and her father gets Emilia dressed in the latest fashions and she is given the most fashionable hairstyle, a huge, towering concoction of her own hair, wool, fake hair and grease. Because they are not rich enough, the hairstyle is not maintained and Emilia is sure there’s something moving around in it. In a truly horrific scene, Emilia undoes the hairstyle and hundreds of flies buzz out, with a huge writhing mass of maggots at the centre. It’s such a good use of historical research, that such a thing could happen but it is nasty and visceral and completely unnerving. 

Shortly afterwards her father dies and she goes into mourning. One day during that, the Thames freezes over and Emilia decides to go the the Temple of Health next door, as she feels tainted by her feelings of having the devil in her, as shown by her recent infestation. This is something I found very off-putting about Emilia’s character, that it snows and the Thames freezes and Emilia decides it’s a sign for her. Later other events happen, which are large social and weather events and each time she decides it’s happened to specifically give her messages. 

The Temple is described as awe-inspiring and James Graham himself is portrayed as something of a Wizard of Oz figure. Having read a biography of him, he seems like he was charismatic, a natural showman and he had some genuinely good notions about keeping healthy but he struck me as a faintly comical figure (my notes say doofus). In this he’s something of a distant wizard. 

As Emilia tells her story, Vermillion comes in, nominally to set facts straight but really to tell his own. He hints of horrors seen when he happened to be in France during the early days of revolution, of a shocking death of his parents, of his own past as a rake and the gout that now cripples him. There’s something of the carnival barker about him, banging his drum and announcing the mysteries and turns the book will take and it almost gets irritating. Lofthouse has a remarkable skill in knowing when to drop a small revelation just as the reader (or at least this reader) was on the verge of being frustrated with the whole endeavour.

The central villain of the piece is a Lord who has been betrothed to Emilia called Smellie. Much is made of this name and Emilia spends a good few chapters imagining what a fat, farting, obnoxious sort of person a Lord Smellie must be. When he turns up he is something very different, a Macaroni. These were hyper-fashionable young men who set out to shock by their over-the-top clothes, make-up and wigs, their affected speech and their practiced mannerisms. This particular Macaroni turns out to be a particularly nasty piece of work but there is a disgust of such people that taps into fear of clowns (never trust a painted smile) but also one which taps into a threatened masculinity. Part of the point of being a Macaroni was to revel in excess and play with gender and both characters are particularly disturbed by this.

Many things happen in this book, some very shocking, even grotesque. There are quotes from Shakespeare throughout but it borrows most from (possibly my favourite) play, The Winter’s Tale. In theory, we reach a happy ending but the world presented in this book doesn’t seem like one where anybody can be very happy, at least not for long.

Particularly as I write about this book, I admire it but I didn’t really enjoy reading it. Despite the opulence in many of the locations, there’s a grunginess to this book, a deep-seated ugliness which is no doubt intentional and made me feel the way it wished me to feel but which didn’t grip me. Despite the betrayals, tricks and shocks, I found the book dreary and a little po-faced, like it was trying to challenge me in some way. Perhaps another time I would have really taken to the book, found it’s determination to make me feel mildly queasy to be bold. It’s very possible that my catching this year’s tummy bug as I read it may not have helped but I am left with a book I can recognise the quality of but which felt like a slog to read.

Wednesday 17 November 2021

Review: An Almond for a Parrot by Wray Delaney

An Almond for a Parrot is the first novel by Wray Delaney, a pseudonym of Sally Gardner, a successful writer for children - and she’s having a blast.

No longer constrained by a children’s audience or (until the paperback editions) her real name, Gardner is let loose to do anything she wants. As a result, this book is a confusing, often cringeworthy and frequently quite bonkers mix of Fanny Hill and Nights at the Circus in which the chief joy is realising the joy the author had in writing whatever she wanted.

It’s 1756, Tully Truegood is imprisoned in Newgate for murder and is determined to tell her life story as "orphan, whore, murderer?" as the blurb puts it. The blurb fails to mention the ghosts, resurrected dead animals, trapeze acts or flying. The tone is immediately confidential and bouncy, cramming in theatre allusions, Shakespeare quotes and a recipe for hasty pudding. The early chapters often start with a recipe which makes sardonic comment on the chapter in hand; Tully’s own creation is something of a hasty pudding, there’s a recipe for virgin eggs when she begins to sexually awaken, and another for candied fruit when she discovers the joys of dress and make-up. Strangely, this recipe idea, which Tully even mentions as integral to her telling at the beginning of the book, sort of drifts away. It’s feels like while Sally Gardner enjoyed the ironic recipes they were in and when they became too difficult to come up with they are dropped.

The reader is introduced to Tully as a child, locked away in her drunken father’s London townhouse where she sees people that it turns out other people cannot, including a little boy in the grandfather clock and a small girl called Pretty Poppet (whom we later discover is actually named Poppet, which is like genuinely naming a child Swee’Pea). She is ostensibly raised by Cook, which explains the recipes, until her father remarries and brings along two step-daughters called Hope and Mercy.

The ghost element is then abandoned while the book cribs off Fanny Hill for some time. Like Fanny, she experiences some light lesbian fingering before seeing her first cock when she peeks through a hole in a screen, unlike Fanny, she’s not very impressed. There are also elements of the book that mirror Fanny’s relationship with Charles and a section that completely rips-off Fanny’s keeper Mr B, who teaches her French. Most excruciatingly, the influence of Fanny Hill extends to the language surrounding sex. My toes curled up to the ankle when the young Tully views herself in the mirror and realises she has ‘rounded ivory globes’ and the prettiest little ‘mound of Venus’. My toes went all the way to my knees when her seemingly puritanical teacher Mr Smollett wishes her to sit on his lap during lessons and she feels his ‘parsnip’ stir. Again, the only explanation I can think of for the amount and goofiness of the sexual stuff is an awful delighted at no longer being confined to writing for children.

The book barrels along with its plot and the magical elements start to come to the fore with a character called Mr Crease, who teaches her magic as she is also being taught the ways of a high-class courtesan. These elements of magic and sex even come together when she is gifted a ‘pearl hand’ by an elocution teacher at St Bartholomew’s Fair. This power is essentially a magic wanking hand which can bring men to climax at the merest touch, a gift she uses surprisingly rarely and often in public.

The central mystery surrounds a Fleet marriage was forced to take part in when she was twelve, with the main claiming to be her husband wishing to get her back and aided by his sadistic friend/lover. Here, the book that has been largely fluffy, taking the Fanny Hill, Woman of Pleasure attitude to sex and prostitution becomes very dark indeed. The sadistic friend is truly one of the worst people in almost any book I’ve read and his principal pleasures are physical abuse, rape and murder - and he doesn’t really have a limit to how young he’d go. Any comeuppance given to the man in the book is not enough and the grim nature of that part of the plot clashes terribly with the magical fortune telling dogs, secret bookcase passages and a world of caring, kind keepers where the worst thing about being a courtesan seems to be snagging a boring client.

The book is a mess, and with an author delighting in putting anything she fancies in, it was always going to be. However, it can’t be said that it’s ever predictable and there is a certain amount of fun in seeing how much fun the author is having.

Wednesday 10 November 2021

An Odd Question About Narrators.

 A bit of an odd one, this.

I recently read a book called The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen. It tells the story of Judith, a ten year old girl who builds an imaginary world in her room and finds she has miracle powers from God. When she enacts things in her imaginary world, the real world mirrors it. As the novel continues, she begins to fear her power and their unexpected effects.

It was a good novel but what struck me most about it was a philosophical qualm I had in the middle of reading it, which I would roughly formulate thus;

The text in the book is the only depiction of the world the book takes place in.

The text is narrated in first person by Judith.

Judith believes she has magical powers given to her by God.

Therefore - I should accept that it is true, in the world of the book, that she does have magical powers.

… So why did I not?

How was it possible for me to conclude that the powers were all in Judith’s head and a result of a number of coincidences, when the text gave me nothing outside Judith’s head?

I could appeal to reality, that in reality people do not have magic powers but the book is not reality, it’s all made up. Judith, her father, her town, all the ‘concrete’ elements of the book are just as fictional as her powers which, to the narrator, were just as real. There were characters in the book that Judith told about her powers who didn’t believe her, so there was an element of the text which left an ‘in’ to there being no powers but they were also reported to us by Judith. If we accept her reporting of those characters, we should also accept her reporting of her magic powers. 

I could appeal to the author, that perhaps she was writing the book in the belief that although Judith believes in her magic powers, they are the result of coincidence. The trouble with this is that beyond an interview/discussion with the author, her intent is unknown outside the text, which (at this point in the middle of the book) asserts the powers are real. There’s also the interesting side-note that if there are no powers in the book, only coincidences, they aren’t coincidences at all but part of the plan of the author to convince Judith she has powers.

Ultimately, my best answer to explain why I didn’t believe in the powers, despite the book baldly stating their reality, was an appeal to genre. Whereas a fantasy, sci-fi, gothic or some heightened genre has space to have magic powers, this was essentially a realist book. It was grounded in a clear time (1980s) a clear place (a Welsh steel town) and there were a number of concrete markers to locate it (from defunct shops like Kwiksave, to the clothes the characters wore). From my previous genre knowledge, it was impossible for Judith to have magic powers, even if it was possible for her to believe it.

As I said, this little qualm came up in the middle of the book, it could have been that by the end of the book the powers could have been firmly established as true - thus making it a fantasy book hiding under the appearance of realism. Actually, it disproved the powers and Judith realised she’d been wrong about them, justifying my non-belief but I didn’t have that reassurance in the middle.

I’m fond of an unreliable narrator, particularly ones who aren’t purposefully trying to mislead their audience but are mislead themselves. In my own writing, I frequently tell stories from characters who fundamentally don’t properly understand the world they are living in and try to give the reader enough clues to interpret what’s actually happening. There’s also the interesting idea that all narrators are essentially unreliable, telling us the story only as they see it - but that brings us back to the thorny issue of how we can see it differently from them, given as our only information about the world comes from them.

Are there any books you can think of where the narrator doesn’t understand the world they are describing to you? It’s an interesting thing to ponder.

Wednesday 3 November 2021

Samuel Johnson's attitude to books

Samuel Johnson had a an attitude to books that often surprises people. 

Not only was he a towering figure in literature, but much of his work was about literature. His earliest large project was reading and summarising a whole library for a catalogue, his dictionary was based on a wide and intense reading of literature, his other large works were an edition of Shakespeare’s plays and a collection of biographical and literary critiques of poets. Yet he had no respect for books as physical objects at all.

People who leant Johnson books complained that he spilled food on tea on it, visitors to his house were shocked by how he used books as coasters, doorstops and to prop up wobbling furniture. Even his way of reading, pulling the books open, cracking their spines and peering in (his eyesight never being great) was detrimental to them. Boswell reports that he once visited Johnson who was ‘dusting’ his books by vigorously banging them together. People did not like him borrowing their books, Garrick upset Johnson greatly by refusing to lend him his folio Shakespeares.

It does seem there was an element to Johnson who enjoyed being earthier than a man of his achievements should be, that he liked to be something other than an airy academic, that he felt grounded in his time as a Grub Street hack. There’s also the fact that he was raised in a bookshop, a failing bookshop at that. He boasted that he was one of few writers who also knew how to physically make a book as well as to write one. His understanding of how to bind a book may have led him to see them as tools. I think Johnson would have been very supportive of e-readers, he’d have been astonished at how much variety can be carried about and would have made very good use of the font-sizing ability. Whether he’d have looked after the device is another question.

More than that, Johnson didn’t read the way people do today. While people may have many books on the go, they expect to pick a book up and read it through. Johnson claimed to have not read any book all the way through, though I expect that was exaggeration - he must have read Shakespeare’s plays through to review them, and probably his three favourite works; Pilgrim’s Progress, Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe. That said, Johnson seemed to read as a cow in a field, to dip in and out of different works, grazing as he went. He admitted many times to skipping pages, or putting books down which hadn’t grabbed his attention. In modern parlance, he was a huge DNFer.

For a man famous for books that take some strenuous physical wrangling (the dictionary is no light work) he preferred smaller books, declaring;

  “Books, that you may carry to the fire, and hold readily in your hand, are the most useful after all." For a man famous for the seriousness of much of his work, he liked to while away the time reading tales of knights and derring-do.

 Most importantly to his attitude to reading, is that a person should read what they feel like reading and when. He says this multiple times in multiple ways. The sentiment is found in his own writing and in numerous anecdotes by numerous people. 

  "What is read with delight is commonly retained, because pleasure always secures attention but the books which are consulted by occasional necessity, and perused with impatience, seldom leave any traces on the mind.” - Idler 74

For Johnson, the joy of a well stocked library was the means to supply him with the right kind of reading material for whichever mood he was in, which was how he read so much and so widely, because he essentially had every book within reach on the go all the time.

If Johnson was a cow in a huge pasture of reading, I am a squirrel. I hoard books, burying them away on my shelves before picking them out and savouring them one by one. For the past ten years or so, I’ve always finished what I’ve started - I think the last book I didn’t finish was Clarissa and know if I start it again, I shall finish.

Are either of these approaches better than the other? Probably not but the differences are interesting to note.