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.