Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker

I used to live and work in Durham, in the University bookshop. It’s a beautiful city and I loved working there (although I lived in a pit village outside the city – the centre was way beyond my budget as a bookseller living on my own). I really enjoyed working with academics and students (no, honestly, I loved it), we coped with the waves of tourists who replaced students in the summer and, best of all, we had our own literature festival. It was, as they say, small but perfectly formed – all the bookstalls were done by me and one other bookseller (with Rob providing the motorised transport of books to venues) – and attracted some pretty big names. As I recall there were probably about a dozen or so events over a week and the biggest name we got was Richard Dawkins. Which is pretty big. I also recall wearing a Mog costume for one event (I think I wore it, but seem to recall a photo of me with Mog so maybe it was Michael in the suit) and dressing up in medieval kit for another (I vaguely recall it may have been a kids event based on a Robin Hood theme…). Happy days. Anyway, one person who was a bit of a shoo-in for the festival was Pat Barker, because she was a local author. This was, I think, after the publication of Regeneration but before Barker won the Booker with Ghost Road so she was a biggish name but not huge. I’m happy to say she is also a lovely person (the festival used to invite us booksellers along to the post-event meals, all the authors were polite to us but Pat Barker was especially friendly).

38470228In The Silence of the Girls Barker returns to the wartime setting she worked with so well in the Regeneration trilogy but with a few key differences: this time she is focussing on the events of the Trojan War and she writes largely from the point of view of the women whose lives are so brutally changed by the conflict. Life for women in this period is a bit of a mixed bag. The women of the upper classes have all the material benefits – palaces, jewels, beautiful clothes, the best food and wine – but they don’t have the freedoms we take for granted. They can’t walk around freely, they have to be heavily veiled, and they are not free. Even the women who are not slaves are the property of their fathers or husbands – the only women who are not property are the prostitutes and they are, effectively, treated as common property. Of course the main character, Briseis, Queen of a city near Troy, doesn’t realise that her life is as good as it will get. She is very young and feels dominated by her mother in law but this is nothing compared to her life once the Greeks have defeated her city. The men and boys are killed – even pregnant women are slain in case the child they carry is male – and the women are now become the property of the Greeks. Briseis is awarded to Achilles as a trophy – property once again, but now she has no power or status and, in fact, becomes a pawn in the struggles between Achilles and the Greek king Agamemnon.

The history here is told well – I don’t know the Iliad that well but I’m pretty certain Barker sticks to the events within it – but the real meat of the book is Briseis and the way she survives what life (and the Trojan War) has thrown at her. Her inner strength as she submits, in body at least, to the change from Queen to bed-slave; her determination to stay alive, even as some of the women who share her fate chose suicide; her certainty that, even though she must share the bed of a Greek hero, and may even grow to love or respect them, she is still a Trojan woman. And, thanks to Pat Barker, the voices of those Trojan women are silent no longer.



Bitter Orange – Claire Fuller

As I sit here thinking what to write I’ve been having a conversation with Rob about how many 1960s songs got covered in the 80s (or at least how many 60s sounding songs there were – Tracey Ullman’s Breakaway, Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin’s It’s My Party, even the Flying Lizards). We decided that the teens and young adults of that period had an interest because it was the decade they (and we) were born in. How well, however, did we know the 1960s? For us it was all Mary Quant dresses, blocky bobs and Lulu singing Shout but reality was somewhat different. I asked my Mum once what the swinging 60s were like – she pointed out that by that point she was a single mum of three living in Essex. Carnaby Street was a world away. As is the world of Claire Fuller’s 1969-set Bitter Orange.

9780241341827Frances Jellico is not very ’60s’. She is 39 and has lived all her life with her mother: in the last few years she has been her mother’s sole carer. Freed by her mother’s death Frances takes a job at Lyntons, a dilapidated yet grand house, cataloguing the garden buildings and statuary and there she meets Peter, doing a similar job in the house itself, and his fascinating Irish wife Cara. Frances could have stayed her staid, studious self (she even meets a vicar who seems to take an interest in her, perfect) but she becomes drawn into the younger couple’s glamorous and thrilling orbit. It soon becomes obvious that Cara is a rather troubled young woman, prone to emotional outbursts (often in Italian), and she gradually tells her story to Frances. Or what she wants to be or thinks is her story: Peter also tells the tale of how they met, fell in love and made their way to Lyntons and the two stories only match up in parts. The novel moves from the summer of 1969 to twenty years later where Frances lays, on her deathbed, in an institution which is not fully described until towards the end of the novel. In the later sections it becomes clear that not only does something terrible happen in the heady atmosphere of Lyntons but also that this is not Frances’ first brush with tragedy.

This is a lush and overheated novel, evoking the decay and overgrown nature of the house and grounds Frances and Peter are meant to be cataloguing. The writing is sensuous – lots of descriptions of luscious food, overblown emotions and traumatic self-doubt – and yet claustrophobic. A darkly beautiful tale perfect for reading during heatwaves and summer storms.




May round-up

I don’t usually do a monthly round-up. They are popular with book bloggers, as are posts showing planned reading for the month, book hauls etc, but I would prefer to be posting a bit more regularly. I suppose other bloggers also do author interviews, Q&As, blog themes and the like but I enjoy reading and telling you what I’ve read. To quote a famous Russian, ‘simples’… However, sometimes life gets in the way. Over the last month I have had a holiday (which may get mentioned in a bit…), changed my hours at work (dropping my hours – which should mean more blogging time but I have been trying to get back into my running and gardening) and been doing lots of other non-reading stuff. Also I discovered Microsoft Jigsaw. If you want to be productive at all, in any way, don’t even think about Microsoft Jigsaw…Anyway, here are a few of the things I’ve been reading in May.

Whistle in the Dark – Emma Healey

whistledark.jpgI managed to miss Healey’s first book, Costa-winner Elizabeth is Missing, but I heard such good things about it that I was keen to read this. The story is told by Jen and describes the aftermath of what must be one of any parent’s worst nightmares. Lana, Jen and her husband Hugh’s teenaged daughter, went missing for four days while on a painting holiday in the Peak District. The holiday itself and the four days of parental panic are skimmed over a little: what we are really exploring in this book is the relationship between mother and daughter and Jen’s reactions to both the disappearance and Lana’s refusal (or inability) to say what happened.

It is understandable why Jen is worried – Lana has had episodes of depression in the recent past, culminating in an overdose attempt which led Jen to visits to all local pharmacies with a request not to sell painkillers to her daughter – but it seemed to me that Jen is experiencing mental health issues of her own. She obsesses over what could have happened – fearing all the usual worsts since Lana had befriended a teenaged boy on the holiday and was eventually discovered by a man on an isolated farm – becoming anxious, suspicious and a bit paranoid. The whole situation isn’t helped by the fact that the media follows the story closely and that one of the other people on the painting holiday is a slightly strange man whose religious beliefs include the possibility that some children can travel to hell and back. Jen almost stalks her own daughter to try to find answers – listening in on phone calls, searching bedrooms and following her to school – but doesn’t find them until she returns to the Peak.

Not quite a psychological thriller this is a fascinating look into the mind of a woman driven to extremes by the fear of what could have happened to her daughter. The characters are realistically drawn, both Jen and Lana but also Hugh and the older daughter, Meg, and the situation is plausibly dealt with. The final answers (which I won’t give away) are perhaps a little more far-fetched but possible all the same. I’m not a parent but the pain and worry of learning to deal with the fact that a beloved child is both growing apart from you and potentially putting themselves in danger seems very well described.

The House of Islam – Ed Husain

39988957I’m an atheist but I would never deny others the right to follow any religion – although I would really prefer their religion to promote tolerance, peace and fairness. I have friends who are Jewish, Christian, Sikh, Hindu and, since I live and work in Bradford, many who are Muslim. I am always interested in learning about what other people believe in and also how their faith is reflected in their everyday life so I was keen to read Ed Husain’s House of Islam. I read his earlier book, The Islamist, an account of his youthful brush with the world of more politicised, radical Islam and how he moved away from it: this book promised to be a more rounded and mature look at a major world religion.

Firstly we get a pretty comprehensive history of Islam – its origins, its early schisms and spread around the world. The rise of various sects is covered and some of them are fairly roundly criticised. What is important to Husain – whose particular brand of Islam is based on Sufism, a very spiritual form of the faith – is the essence of the religion, the feelings it should create, rather than strict obedience to man-made laws. As a person who doesn’t follow the directions of any religion this is a good distinction – I like the idea of a world filled with good people rather than Christians/Jews/Muslims/Jedi who follow a set of rules which can cause difficulties, or even suffering, to those who are not following in the same way. Specific areas are considered – sharia law (which almost certainly doesn’t mean what you think it does…), the role of women, education and sex, the relationship between Islam and Judaism and attitudes to death – and some suggestions are made. These mostly seem to be a plea for a greater understanding  of the full range of possibilities for Islam. Although there are many Muslims in the West the view of them held by many non-Muslims is that of one particular aspect of the faith. Often this is that of more extreme versions of what is, at heart, a peaceful faith.

I realise that Husain is giving his opinion here. He doesn’t speak for all Muslims, or even for all moderate Muslims. But he does speak very passionately and persuasively about something he seems to believe in wholeheartedly. Solving the problems of extremism (in all religions) can never be easy but a deeper understanding of other faiths would be a good place to start. I feel I have gained some of that understanding by reading this book.

Travellers in the Third Reich: The Rise of Fascism Through the Eyes of Everyday People – Julia Boyd

34594504Okay. So this doesn’t, on the face of it, sound like fun holiday reading but it was actually fascinating. It looks at the rise of the Nazi party in Germany between the two world wars from the first hand reports of non-Germans visiting or living in the country. The reports – diaries, journalism, letters and memoirs – are from a wide range of people. Diplomats, tourists, socialites, opera-buffs and school children are all represented and British, American and New Zealand voices are heard. Some are serious reports and some are more jokey in tone but, as we are repeatedly reminded, none of these people have the benefit of hindsight.

The majority of the travellers in this book (school-children excepted) are of an age to remember the Great War. This means that many of them are willing to accept many things in order to prevent another conflict. It seems shocking that so many were convinced, even after the persecution of the Jews began, that Hitler was the best hope for peace in Europe but, again, we have history to inform us and they did not. One of the points repeatedly made is that anti-Semitism was widespread and generally accepted in this era (although there is no suggestion that the methods ultimately used by the Nazis to deal with the issue would have been accepted in the same way). These reactions and reasonings are given without criticism – after all, we have no way of knowing what future generations will think of the way we are dealing with the global issues we face today. The main lesson I would like to draw from this gripping book is that we must not fall for smooth-talking political leaders who try to persuade us against our personal morality. Whatever religion (or none) we draw that morality from.


The Hazel Wood – Melissa Albert

Even when I’m reading a proper physical book rather than an e-galley I try not to read too much about a title before I start it. I might glance at the blurb but I will avoid other people’s reviews and the like – I quite like doing my own discovering. Often the blurb will give you a very accurate idea of what sort of book you are getting – a historical novel of the 14th century, a Regency romance or a children’s adventure story with rabbits – but sometimes it will appear to be one thing when you start reading and then, rather wonderfully, become something else entirely. The Hazel Wood turned out to be just such a story.

35997403At first the story involves Alice – who is seventeen, lives with her mother, step-father and step-sister, and goes to school and works weekends in a coffee shop. She and her mother spent many years moving around before this marriage: bad luck had dogged them all Alice’s life. Her earliest memories are of leaving – midnight flits, long car journeys and being made to feel unwelcome in a series of spare rooms and sofas. At first I thought this would be a novel about a feisty teen learning how to take her place in the more affluent, privileged world she finds herself in but then, well, it all started to go a lot darker.  The cover suggests that we may be about to enter the world of crime fiction or psychological thrillers but no – this is the world of magic, the supernatural and of fairy-tales.

Alice’s grandmother wrote a bestselling book of dark fairy tales set in a world called The Hinterland. But Alice has never met Althea Proserpine, her grandmother, the book is impossible to find (no matter how much money you offer) and after news of her death Alice’s mother vanishes in mysterious circumstances. Although she has spent her whole life being told never to go near The Hazel Wood, Althea’s home, she heads there with Ellery Finch, a school friend and Hinterland superfan. And this is the point where the Hinterland drags Alice in: the point where she discovers the truth about her identity and fights to escape her destiny.

I’ve seen a few reviews for this book (after I’ve written this far in mine) which are quite negative. They find Alice to be an unlikable character, full of anger and privilege, and they don’t like the fact that, although the book is a YA fantasy it is in a very real and contemporary setting for much of the book. They have issues, in particular, with how Alice relates to Ellery Finch – who is mixed race – and feel she considers her early life of poverty and drifting to be worse than the attitude he faces as a person of colour. I’m not denying any of these things occur but, without giving away any major plot twists, they are there on purpose. To paraphrase Jessica Rabbit, she’s not bad. She’s just written that way…



On the Bright Side – Hendrik Groen

I first made the acquaintance of Hendrik Groen back in August 2016, when he was 83 and I was, well, younger. Hendrik is now, in this second book, a couple of years older (which I guess I am too…) but, I’m happy to say, he hasn’t decided to reform and become a model for demure old age. With his fellow Old-But-Not-Dead club members he is still a thorn in the side of the authorities running the old people’s home.

bright sideThe group is now short of two of its original members – Eefje, with whom our hero fell in love, has, sadly, died and Gretje is now living on the floor of the home used for those with dementia – but they find some excellent replacements. Geert, who continues to encourage Hendrik to explore on his mobility scooter, and Leonie, a big woman, full of laughter and inappropriate jokes, join the group as they continue their monthly outings and begin a series of culinary adventures as they explore Amsterdam’s restaurants. A reminder, once again, that older people are not fossilised – it’s just easier for us if we assume that they all want to live back in the days of their youth and eat soft food. They also take on the management by reviving the Resident’s Committee and discover that the home itself may be at risk as the government pursues a policy of helping older people to be cared for in their own homes (even if that is not the best for them…). They also have to deal, once again, with loss as a one of their number falls seriously ill.

This is book is about the lives of a group of people in their 70s and 80s so it is a bit light on sexual shenanigans, car chases and explosions. Fair enough – there are enough of those around in other books, films and tv shows. What is does show is realistic people – with all their ordinary faults, idiosyncracies and digestive issues (let’s be honest, when was the last time you read a book not aimed at children that mentioned when people farted?) – living lives which could, one day, be ours. We will, hopefully, become old people ourselves one day – when we do I hope we are like Hendrik: accepting that we may need to give ourselves a bit more time to do things but never closing ourselves off to new experiences. It would be easy to see a book about older people being old, and living in a care home, as depressing. But if you think that you’ve never come across old people as vibrant and, well, full of life as this lot.


Uncommon Type – Tom Hanks

There are many ways to tell stories ranging from the purely visual – painting, photography or even, perhaps, fireworks – to the verbal – novels and poetry. There are ways which blend combinations of images, words and other sounds – film, dance, theatre, songs and graphic novels – but the storytelling is the important thing. A novel, Wuthering Heights, for example, can be adapted into a comic book, a film or a song but we still feel Catherine’s passion and the bleakness of the moorland setting. We do tend, however, to assume that those who help to portray the stories which others have written – actors, singers, dancers – are just interpreters of the creativity of others rather than creators themselves. Skilled interpreters, who can wring realistic emotions from the written word which we, as readers, can only feel echoes of but they need the words of others. Or that is how we think of them. But Hedy Lamarr was an inventor who helped to develop a radio guidance system for torpedoes and Jimmy Stewart trained as an architect, so we shouldn’t be surprised by actors who are able to produce good fiction. Maybe it is the amount of books written by celebrities which make us forget that actors, really good actors, are something very different from celebs…

tomhanksTom Hanks, as an actor, is agreed to be very good. Double Oscar winner, with lots of other awards to his name, and the star of some of the biggest, and best-loved, films of the past three decades he is a household name. He’s a real celebrity but one with talent and, it appears, principles and plenty of human warmth. All this is apparent in this collection of short stories – in fact I could hear Hanks’ voice in my head as I read them (usually a good sign for me and, it seems, Hanks himself as he reads the audio book version…). Some stories connect to the world of Hollywood actors, which Hanks obviously knows well, but also that of immigrant workers, teen surfers and recently divorced mums. Hanks’ strength as an actor has, for me, always been his ability to be an everyman figure – someone we can all easily identify with – so it is interesting that this extends to his more purely verbal storytelling.

I liked these stories because, as well as being well-written, they are very reminiscent of the kind of films Hanks is involved with. Some romance, some laughs, some heartbreak: no explosions. If you prefer something full of high-speed car chases, special effects and blood then this may not be for you: if you spent the whole of Apollo 13 on the edge of your seat (even though you know how it ends) then give it a try.


The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain – Ian Mortimer

Sometimes I’m a total fool to myself. Case in point: I love reading history books but I have painted myself into a metaphorical corner which means I hardly ever read any actual history any more. Here is my problem – see what you think.  I like to post reviews of as many books as I can – I’ve often been given access to books for free by publishers and authors, the least I can do is feedback what I think. I aim to post reviews here once or twice a week and if I don’t post here I do review on Netgalley, or Goodreads. I didn’t used to interact with Goodreads much but, at the beginning of this year my eye was caught by their ‘reading challenge’ where contributors were saying how many books they planned to read in a year. Many were pledging to read 30 or 40 books and, if you work, have children or other responsibilities, this is an impressive target: but I don’t have any kids and I work 4 days a week in a bookshop so I thought I’d go a bit higher. And because I’m daft I decided that one book a week wasn’t enough – my target is 126 books in 2017. Two books a week. And, because a really good history book can take me a week or so to fully appreciate, I thought I’d have to miss out on all the fabulous publishing on the subject coming out this year. Sad face. However, I managed to get myself two or three books ahead of schedule, so I decided to treat myself to an author whose history books I have previously enjoyed (and found very easily readable). My 2017 history duck has been broken!

17thThe first Ian Mortimer book I read was his Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England and I loved the way that it covered all the aspects of history which are often overlooked. I used to enjoy a bit of light Live Role Playing – which mostly involved being a medieval-style peasant for a weekend – so it was great to be able to read about the food, clothes and toilet facilities I was role-playing. I have never dressed up and pretended to be a Restoration lady (apart from the odd bit of corsetry, but that’s another story) but I think this book would give me some excellent pointers on how to do it. This is a history of all the people – the Kings (and their many hangers-on, wives, and mistresses), the rich and the poor – and it is the history of their whole lives – what they eat, wear, do for fun and where they…well…poo. Mortimer is convincing about why the late 17th century is a period of revolution: not just in terms of Royal succession or religious tolerance but also in the realms of science, literature, the belief in reason as a higher priority than religion in many areas, and also just in attitudes to life. Women are still very much second-class citizens, the property of some man or other, but some of them become the earliest female actors, authors, painters, and travel writers.

The world Mortimer describes is often ( as 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes said) ‘nasty, brutish and short’. It is full of things we find unfair, ridiculous or even barbaric; it is very smelly, unhealthy and downright dangerous but it is also exciting, full of change and development and contains some brilliant writing (note to self: read some Pepys). It is also starting to become more and more like the world we know today.