Book Reviews

Everywoman, Jess Phillips (Hutchinson, 2017)

Every so often someone asks me why damesnet is so important to me. Reading Everywoman by Jess Phillips is a powerful reminder of why women still need to make their voices heard every day.

The book’s subtitle is ‘One Woman’s Truth about Speaking the Truth’.  Jess Phillips has been the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley since the 2015 General Election. Before this she worked at Women’s Aid with victims of domestic violence, sexual violence and human trafficking.

Phillips happily refers to herself as ‘that gobby MP who has a tendency to shout about stuff I care about’, someone who wears ‘big hoop earrings that I buy in pound shops’.   Her book traces the experiences of her and her friends facing the social pressures on young teenage girls, becoming a mother unexpectedly at the age of 23, and then deciding to run for Parliament chiefly because she didn’t see why she couldn’t.

She addresses all the key topics relevant to a young, socially committed, caring, feminist, fiercely ambitious woman. Speaking out, growing up, taking on a new career, equality, violence, sisterhood, campaigning, motherhood and trolling are all aired from her direct experiences of life.  The advice she gives is the same that has been expounded by feminists since the term was coined, but it is no less valuable for this.

She makes the point that speaking the truth is not easy, but she believes it is worth it.  Women must continue to speak out, demand to be heard, create their own networks, and dare to believe they can make a difference. Above all women are encouraged to deal with their own version of ‘impostor syndrome’.  Phillips uses the job interview as a classic example of this, claiming that a man will be prepared to apply for a job if he can manage 50% of what is required, while a woman is more likely to hang back until she is sure she can do 90% of the task.

What comes across most of all is that Jess Phillips refuses to be cowed despite numerous attempts to side-line or silence her. There is an amusing account of her response to MP Philip Davies’s attempts to get a debate on International Men’s Day.  Phillips noted that ‘You’ll have to excuse me for laughing. As the only woman on this committee, it seems like every day to me is International Men’s Day.’  It is these sorts of ripostes, and many more controversial ones, that have made her the target of some particularly vicious online abuse.

She was a close friend of Jo Cox, the MP who was murdered just before the June 2016 European Union  Referendum, and the two of them would give each other moral and practical support as the abuse poured in through every social media channel available. One feels the sense of shock and horror that Phillips experienced when this virtual hatred converted into physical murder; it is clear that on this point she has no words to express her anger and loss.

Scroll down for reviews of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell, Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, Rupert Thomson’s Katherine Carlyle,  and Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell (Wordsworth Classics 2012)

It is always satisfying when you read a book that has been lurking on your shelves for years – well, decades, in this case, and particularly when it’s one of those landmark publications you feel you ought to have read.

My copy of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is pale of spine and yellow of page from constantly being passed over in favour of newer books, and I can sort of see why: it’s 587 pages of cramped type on spongy paper, demanding a certain amount of commitment and stamina from whoever picks it up.

Though it is not without its flaws, this epic of radical literature repays the effort. Once you can accept that it is never going to make up its mind whether it’s a realist novel about a group of house painters at the turn of the last century, a searing polemic developing the theories in The Communist Manifesto, or a mordant satire on small-town hierarchies and hypocrisies, it’s easier to stick with it.

It was not published in its entirety until 1955, some 40 years after it was written. Earlier editions omitted the lengthy passages in which the two socialists among the house painters attempt to explain to their C/conservative fellows how the system could be changed to their advantage. The chapter entitled ‘The Great Oration’ takes up 43 pages – and comes immediately after the comic set piece of a chapter entitled ‘The Beano’, describing the group’s uneasy truce with the bosses for a summer outing to a distant pub for a slap-up meal.

But the true power of the book lies in its detailed descriptions of the everyday lives of the workers. This is the heyday of zero-hours contracts, but with no health and safety legislation, and no NHS to turn to once semi-starvation and overwork in dangerous conditions have taken their toll on your health – hmm. Tressell himself had first-hand experience of the hardships of the job and he spares us none of the details: ‘In order to get this [varnish] off it had been necessary to soak it several times in soda water, and although Joe was as careful as possible he had not been able to avoid getting some of this stuff on his fingers. The result was that his nails were all burnt and discoloured and the flesh around them was cracked and bleeding . . . his right arm and shoulder aching from the prolonged strain and in the palm of his tight hand there was a blister as large as a shilling, caused by the handle of the stripping knife.’

Just in case I’m not selling this to you, I should add that the chunks of socialist theory and the wretched squalor of the workers’ lives, at home and on site, are leavened by Tressell’s broad satire. Few escape power of his spleen: bovine workers who cling stolidly to the devils they know, tight-fisted bosses who rip off their customers and bleed their casual labour dry, the corrupt great and good of the town council, but he reserves his most corrosive contempt for the clergy, and in particular the gluttonous Rev. Mr Belcher, ‘in consequence of gross overfeeding and lack of natural exercise, afflicted with chronic flatulence, which manifested in frequent belchings through the mouth of the foul gases generated in the stomach by the decomposition of the foods with which it was generally loaded.’ Incredibly, a collection is taken up among the starvelings who attend his Sunday School, supplemented by a dollop from the church’s tidy nest egg, as a result of which, ‘at a special meeting held last Friday evening, your dear Shepherd was presented with an illuminated address and a purse of gold sufficient to defray the expenses of a month’s holiday in the South of France.’

Belcher is not the only one to enjoy a name descriptive of his activities: here are businessmen by the name of Didlum and Starvem, the decorating firm of Dauber and Botchit, the skiving foreman is Crass, and at the top of the tree stands Sir Graball d’Encloseland, local gentry. The newspaper given most credence among the house painters is the Obscurer.

This book may be something of a baggy beast, but that doesn’t stop it being a salutary read. I take the renewed appetite for increased taxation to support public services that pollsters recently detected as a sign that few people want a return to such abject misery for the least advantaged in our society.

The Outrun, Amy Liptrot, Canongate (2016)

When it comes to Nature, I’m a bit selective. I like Nature when it’s offering ancient dappled woodlands in the shimmering heat, with the scents of pine and herbs, and all insects observing the five-metre exclusion zone around me – so it was with some misgivings that I approached Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, a brutal account of her rehabilitation from alcoholism through a return to her native Orkney, land of gale-force winds and raging seas.

Ten years previously, she couldn’t wait to get away, to hit the bright lights of London and make it as a music journalist. In fact, her drinking started well before this, while she was still at school, but long days among the lotus eaters of London Fields seem to have set the seal on her addiction.

Although there was always another gallery opening, secret party or gig in a cool pop-up venue to attend, she would find herself leaving the gathering to go and drink faster on her own. But even the brief moments of feeling invincible and euphoric could not neutralise the blow when her boyfriend had finally had enough and moved out, leaving her in a free-fall through lost jobs, a series of increasingly squalid flat shares and bedsits, and a violent assault.

‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in’, said Robert Frost, and this is what cements Liptrot’s salvation. Having successfully completed the twelve-week treatment programme that a final shred of resolve drove her to sign up to, she goes home, to consolidate her gains. This time she is able to walk off the ferry from Aberdeen by herself, rather than be helped off by strangers after a seven-hour crossing spent in the bar.

The miracle of the book is how it transforms a self-imposed exile to the edge into a personal accession to all the delights of a forbidding kingdom; they are all there, but you need the determination, the attentiveness, and the endurance to discover them.

After a spell helping her father on his farm, followed by a stint counting corncrakes, she heads even deeper north, to the tiny island of Papa Westray, pop. 70. As she embraces life in all four elements, and the mystical history of these islands, this harsh terrain begins to glow in the imagination like a distant country on an early map: here be sunfish – ‘gigantic circular fish like a tractor wheel’, mirages that can turn lighthouses upside down, noctilucent clouds made of ice crystals, and ‘the grimlins’ – midsummer nights when darkness never comes.

But this is not a return to some Celtic twilight. Throughout it all, the internet is Liptrot’s constant companion. She keeps abreast of the increasingly alien activities on her friends in London via Twitter, but it is cyberspace that brings her even closer to all dimensions of island life: the residents use it to summon one another to witness passing pods of orca whales or show off their pictures of the Northern Lights; webcams allow watchers worldwide to see grey seals calving; and various apps and sites allow Liptrot to identify the stars in the heavens,  the ships on the horizon, and the planes above – ‘I feel omniscient, watching how global-transport logistics dance and intersect, never crashing, like starlings.’

As her knowledge of her small corner of the planet teems and grows in complexity, so does her understanding of her changing negotiation with her craving. Her increasing adaptation and resilience to the harshness of her surroundings reflects her increasing confidence in her ability to remain sober.

It’s a vivid and redemptive book – and one that will have you looking up the ferries to Kirkwall.


A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel (Viking, 1992)

There are history books, there are historical novels, and then there are books written by Hilary Mantel which somehow manage to convince you that what you are reading is not just another novel about a period in history, but that this is how it happened.

Having never formally studied the French Revolution – apart from a couple of minor historical summaries – it was the images from Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities that had dominated my mental tableau of the times.  Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bringing up the Bodies had me completely hooked from start to finish, but somehow I had missed A Place of Greater Safety, which was published 17 years earlier. So there was every incentive to get on and read it.

The book follows the trajectory of three of the key figures of the Revolution: Danton, Desmoulins and Robespierre.  Mantel establishes a detailed family portrait for each one, starting from country childhoods through to their law studies and then on to Paris, where the three develop a close association and symbiotic relationships that support their at times conflicting approach to the overthrow of the monarchy and nobility.

Danton becomes the powerful front man, often in a state of conflict between his own self-interest and the greater cause.  At the other end of the emotional and rational spectrum is the ascetic, cerebral Robespierre, who for much of the story is seen as quietly formulating and influencing the policy from the peace of his office. He is portrayed as having a complete revulsion for violence even as the Terror escalates, yet he is the one who betrays his closest allies and collaborators. Desmoulins is mercurial and inflammatory, sexually ambiguous and opportunist, the go-between for the other two.  It is he who Mantel chooses to quote as saying:

“For the establishment of liberty and the safety of the nation, one day of anarchy will do more than ten years of National Assemblies.”

The steps on the path to the overthrow of the status quo are painstakingly recorded and analysed; at the same time the book explores the effect of power, success, temporary glory and failure on these three men and the other collaborators.  Also prominent are the women who share the fortunes and mistakes of the main protagonists; Mantel gives them a powerful voice with which they question, challenge and at times suffer the results of others’ actions.

Above all, this book highlights how the architects of the French Revolution had the highest hopes and ambitions, yet were prone to all the weaknesses and imperfections of the human condition, which they acknowledge, as well as the flaws inherent in the great project they have undertaken:

“I shall maintain the Republic,” Danton said.
“Because it is the only honest thing there is.”
“Honest? With your people in it?”

“It may be that all its parts are corrupted, vicious, but take it altogether, yes, the Republic is an honest endeavour.”

At the end the guillotine – that great leveller – claims all three; they have achieved great change but at a price that is impossible to comprehend or accept.  The suffering and deprivation of the ordinary people have not been relieved; indeed one doubts whether this was ever one of the main aims of the revolution.

Some critics have expressed their doubts about how Mantel approaches her historical themes, but the sheer thrilling experience of reading this book means I am perfectly happy to go along with Mantel’s reasoning behind her writing:

“Like a historian, I interpret, select, discard, shape, simplify. Unlike a historian, I make up people’s thoughts.”


The Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall, Penguin Modern Classics

well-of-lonelinessThe Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall’s groundbreaking lesbian novel first published in 1928, has always been in my sights as a classic I probably should have under my belt, but as it hasn’t had a reputation as a particularly good read, I always felt a bit faint-hearted at the prospect of picking it up.

Having taken the plunge, I did not regret it. To be sure there, there is an awful lot of purple prose: ‘The night with its large summer stars and its silence was pregnant with a new and mysterious purpose, so that lying at the mercy of that age-old purpose, Stephen would feel little shivers of pleasure creeping out of the night and into her body.’ But if you can stick with it, there are rewards to be had.

Stephen is the only child of Sir Philip and Lady Anna Gordon, and from the very start chafes against her female identity. (It clearly goes deeper than Sir Philip having given her a boy’s name.) At the age of seven, she develops a passionate crush on the housemaid, and, given the current anxiety about children and sexuality, this part of the book seems to tread far more dangerous ground than the later passages of imagistically expressed desire.

During her childhood and adolescence Stephen is protected from the world by her father, who understands only too well what his daughter is – an ‘invert’ in the parlance of the time – yet cannot bring himself to explain it to her. But following his death and the scandal of her affair with the capricious wife of a local businessman, she finds herself cast out by her cold and intransigent mother: ‘This thing that you are is a sin against creation.’

Luckily for Stephen, she is immensely wealthy and can afford to walk away from her stately pile and set herself up in a house in Chelsea, and then in Paris.

For the modern reader, perhaps the most successful part of the book is when Stephen volunteers for an all-female ambulance corps serving in World War I in northern France. There is not only historical interest, but Hall must abandon her prolix style to convey the immediacy of working at great personal risk so near the front line to rescue men with appalling injuries. It is in the ambulance corps that Stephen meets the love of her life, Mary, a young Welsh girl.

At the end of the war, there follows a brief period of bliss when they return to Paris, but even in such a forgiving city, the pressure of being social outcasts weighs on them. Their hopes are raised when they meet the rather grand but obtuse Lady Massey, who takes to them both and invites them to her Christmas country house party. Stephen and Mary are overwhelmed by expectation and excitement, only to be crushed when Lady Massey rescinds her invitation days before they are due to travel, writing ‘. . . I must consider my position in the county . . . rumours have reached me about you and Mary . . . I must ask you not to come.’

From this point on, they feel themselves thrown into outer darkness, and Hall displays a remarkable degree of loathing, and even self-loathing (since the book parallels her own experience fairly closely) in describing those whom Stephen and Mary must accept are ‘their kind’: ‘There they sat, closely herded together at the tables, creatures shabby yet tawdry, timid yet defiant – and their eyes, Stephen never forgot their eyes, those haunted, tormented eyes of the invert.’

The Penguin Modern Classic edition of the book has an invaluable introduction by Maureen Duffy, who places it in its historical context, with fascinating information on the obscenity trail arising from its original publication, and the support for it from literary London. Absorbing in its exploration of family and social relationships, harrowing, and often even funny, the book stands as a reminder in these dark days that there has been irreversible progress in some areas.


Katherine Carlyle, Rupert Thomson, Corsair (2015)

Katherine CarlyleConsider the case of Katherine Carlyle: 19 years old, beautiful, filling in the weeks before she takes up her place at Oxford by swanning around her city – Rome – on her scooter, with her rich and glamorous friends. Why would you want to turn your back on all that?

But she does. Taking her cue from apparently random signs around her (a crumpled phone number on a café table, a playing card found in the street) that speak to her in some way, she decides to let chance dictate her future. She literally throws away her current life by casting her mobile phone in to the Tiber. On the basis of a conversation overheard at the cinema, she heads for Berlin, and so unfolds the story of a modern-day Alice in Wonderland who chooses to launch herself headlong down a rabbit hole.

Like Alice, she is intelligent and self-possessed, not cowed by those bigger or older than she is. She speaks to all the people she meets with the same imperiousness, and yet, as with Alice, her fundamental innocence and over-confidence in her own abilities lead her into some dangerous situations.

Katherine fell into place for me as Alice at the moment when the realist world of the book – governed by time and space and technology as we know it – briefly and terrifyingly gives way to a world of magic and malice, when she confronts sinister twins who speak in riddles in a backstreet in Archangel. This is what Thompson is so good at: conjuring in his cool affectless prose a retreat from the normal, the safe, the knowable, into unease, uncertainty and menace. All of a sudden the predictable threats from a brutish Croatian oligarch or a louche American expat pale beside the unknowable threat earmarked for her in a bleak mining town in the Arctic Circle.

What drives Katherine along this dizzying journey is the strange manner of her conception. The eight years she spent as a frozen embryo waiting for implantation have imprinted themselves on her. Her sophistication belies a feeling of isolation drawn from waiting in a test tube, frozen and silent, and passed over again and again as other embryos are selected for implantation in other mothers. This haunting by her pre-birth past magnifies the trauma from her mother’s early death and her father’s frequent absences (professional necessity or something less rational?), urging her onwards to self-imposed frozen isolation at the ends of the earth.

Yet all the while she longs for her father to track her down. She simultaneously sets him the challenge of doing so, yet erases all the clues that might help him as she goes along.  She passes long periods in detailed reveries about his pursuit, his supposed conversations with the people she has met elaborated in great detail.

I have read several of Rupert Thomson’s books, and each one has haunted me, providing me with scenes, ideas, and points of reference that I find myself pondering quite frequently. With Katherine Carlyle he has yet again made a unique contribution to my mental furniture.


Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese  (Vintage Books, 2010)

cutting for stoneIf you faint at the sight of blood, this is not the book for you, as its recurring motif is surgery, lovingly observed and graphically described.  But it is a motif running through a work of such richness, humour, humanity, and wry social commentary, that it is worth risking a little queasiness for the pleasures and insights that Verghese’s writing brings.

The twin boys born to Sister Mary Joseph Praise at the Missing Hospital in Addis Ababa are abandoned instantly when their mother dies and their father disappears.  The task of caring for the babies jolts Doctors Ghosh and Hema into a relationship neither had been quite brave enough to embark on earlier.  With this odd couple as their adoptive parents, the twins thrive, but grow apart, and take up surgical careers in contrasting settings, the one setting up a women’s clinic in the hospital that has always been his home, and the other tending to the flotsam and jetsam of New York’s streets.

The book works on so many different levels: as a vivid and sometimes dramatic picture of Ethiopia, a coming-of-age novel,  an uncomfortable exploration of health inequalities between and within countries, a not altogether forgiving portrait of the legacy of colonialism, and not least a gripping narrative peopled with distinctive and rounded characters.  The writing itself is controlled and assured, no matter how harrowing the content. Here Verghese describes the arrival at Missing Hospital of a young girl with an obstetric fistula, resulting in incontinence:  ‘ . . . a frail, barefoot girl, no older than twelve, came stiff-legged up the hill. . . . An unspeakable scent of decay, putrefaction and something else for which the words remain to be invented reached our nostrils . . . Worse than the odour . . . was to see in her face the knowledge of how it repulsed and revolted others.’

At the heart of the novel is the relationship between the twins, who were actually conjoined at the scalp at birth, and in their infancy operated seemingly as one organism. It is for this reason that every divergence in interest and ability seems like a snub, and lays the groundwork for the life-changing betrayal to come.

This is a book to inhabit, but once you finish it – reluctantly – many of the scenes will stay with you for a long time.


Springfield Road, Salena Godden (Unbound, 2015)

Springfield roadI knew I was going to like this book when I discovered that the author had been described as ‘everything the Daily Mail is terrified of’. Actually, I couldn’t find anything at all frightening about Salena Godden. Instead this memoir from her childhood is a vivid, unsentimental evocation of what it was like growing up as a mixed race child in the 1970s with an absent father.

Godden is a writer, poet and broadcaster. Her father was an Irish poet and jazz musician, while her mother was an athlete and dancer. When Selena was three and her elder brother Gus was seven, her parents decided to separate; her father sailed off to play in the resident jazz band on the QE2, and her mother moved the family to be near her parents in Corby.

The book takes us through a series of childhood experiences, most of which occur before Godden’s tenth birthday. One by one we meet key family members – first her beautiful mother, who was born in Jamaica and moved to England in 1951, then her mother’s parents, and grandparents. Then we are introduced to her paternal grandfather, who lived in Springfield Road in Hastings. The warmth and love of these early years are dashed when her mother remarries, and Salena and Gus are subjected to strict house rules imposed by their new stepfather.

But this is no maudlin, depressing tale of a broken child. Godden has wit, intelligence and a feisty spirit, and her childhood days are full of adventures and friendships. Yet much of her experiences are refracted through her longing for her father to come back into their lives. And one day he does, unannounced. The account of those precious few hours that the children spend with him manages to convey the full gamut of emotions generated by this unexpected contact with their long lost parent: surprise, joy, anxiety, unease, pride, confusion, need, relief – and love.

Not long after, the children receive the shattering news that their father has died, having committed suicide, and once again their young lives are torn apart. Salena has to struggle to understand that he will never return, and that all her hopes and dreams of enjoying the family life she observes in many of her friends’ houses are lost.

I hope that writing this book proved cathartic for Salena Godden. She shares her experiences and feelings with an intensity and richness which envelop the reader and take you with her, through the good times and the bad. You spin around on her roller skates, feel rage at the name-calling by the other children, shove snowballs down her classmates’ necks, and wince at the stick wielded by her stepfather on her open palm. Standing at her father’s grave, which she locates only after much searching, you say farewell with her, and experience the closure which has eluded her for so long.

This is a tender book which will charm and uplift the reader and I look forward to exploring more of Godden’s work.


your-father-sends-his-love-9781447280576Your Father Sends His Love, Stuart Evers (Picador 2015)
This is Evers’s second collection of short stories. The first, Ten Stories about Smoking, which was published in 2011, was my introduction to this talented author. This time we move on to a very different focus – stories written following his experiences of early fatherhood, but ones which take the reader through birth on to death and beyond.

The front cover has a quote from Eimear McBride: “Evers’s everymen break my heart”. They broke mine too; these twelve tales explore relationships between parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, husbands and wives, siblings, lovers, friends. They cut through traditional generational boundaries, and although each set of characters is completely different, somehow each one captures an element of that Everyman. The people we meet all have a quality, a trait or a foible that we can identify with, whether it is the junkie son in the title story ‘Your father sends his love’, or the avenging father in ‘Lakelands’.

As in the first collection, these stories benefit from rereading: revisiting the characters alters your impressions and perceptions of them. I found that the judgements made on first meeting required some reconsidering on review. In ‘These are the days’, my sympathies initially lay exclusively with the grandfather and granddaughter; their long-term, easy, loving communication is one which I would hope to emulate with my grandchildren. On second reading, I felt a rush of empathy with the father in the middle, so out of touch with his father and his daughter.

In ‘Swarm’, our observation of the father/son relationship takes on a new dimension. We are flies on a virtual wall, but with the female protagonist our voyeurism goes too far, and we are sickened by the outcome.

The title story is based on the true life experience of entertainer Bob Monkhouse. I knew very little about his personal life and certainly had no idea that he had one son with cerebral palsy and another who died of a heroin overdose. But nestling in the tragedy of the story is the compassion of a father towards his son, the enduring love that is expressed so tenderly in ‘Frequencies’: “When he heard Jack screaming he ran up the stairs, just as a father should; just like that, exactly as he should.”
Read these stories – they have a haunting quality that merits the most careful attention.


The Lost and Found Life of Rosy Bennett, Jan Birley, Kindle Edition, 2015

The Lost and Found Life of Rosy Bennett

The Lost and Found Life of Rosy Bennett

Jan Birley has recently published, on line, her first novel, with the second one to follow shortly. She has spent most of her adult life in Wandsworth, London, but now lives in Dorset. With The Lost and Found Life of Rosy Bennett, she has put her knowledge of South West London and Dorset to full use, as well as her knowledge of stroppy teenage boys!

The book concerns Rosy Bennett, who loved her London life – her job in a designer shop, her gorgeous West London family house and of course her gorgeous family (although young sons are enough to test anyone at times). All that disappears when, one unremarkable morning, after one unremarkable school run, her husband collapses on a crowded tube carriage and dies. As she struggles her way through the grief, she discovers her husband’s secret life: secrets accounts, secret deals that their solicitor knew nothing of, secret debts and what looks like a secret ‘very close friend’ at least.

Totally unprepared and suddenly in debt, Rosy is forced to leave London to start a new life in the countryside with her incredibly reluctant boys. Can angst-ridden urban teenagers cope with life on an alpaca farm, let alone enjoy it? More to the point, can their mother? It’s certainly not going to be easy but when you are at rock bottom the only way is up.

This is a lovely read, with a family you get to know and characters you can really care about. For chick-lit lovers there is plenty of detail about fashion (Rosy is a designer), some gorgeous men – which one will Rosy choose – the hunky vet or the handsome lord of the manor? The children are realistic, complete with James’s appalling language and obsession with computer games – but it only makes you love the alpacas more! The writing style is concise and almost brisk, but this works well particularly in periods of high drama, of which there are many. The brisk style gives an edge to the suspense. The characterisation is excellent: none of them are angels, they are just trying to cope with a life that none of them really wanted. Death, dying and grieving are dealt with realistically, but the book has lighter moments, too. Diving into a new life as they have to do creates an exciting and absorbing story. For a wet weekend, you can’t do better than pour a glass of wine and settle down for this treat of a read.



Where Did I Come From?/Peter Mayle/Arthur Robins/Macmillan Press

Where Did I Come From?/Peter Mayle/Arthur Robins/Macmillan Press

Where did I Come From? Peter Mayle and illustrations by Arthur Robins, (Macmillan London Ltd, 1978)

Having become a grandmother, I thought my daughter and grandson would enjoy a book in the nursery library (posh term for bookcase) that she had enjoyed and read throughout her childhood, that deals with all those embarrassing questions that parents fear when their little darlings ask any question on the facts of life.

Where Did I Come From?  is one of these amazing books that every home with  children of any age needs. It is humorous, kind and ultimately completely truthful, using grown-up words. The book takes the reader, or picture viewer, from all the different places children thought they might come from – delivered by the stork, found by the Christmas Fairy to ‘Mum found me in the hospital’ – to the differences between men and women’s bodies, to making love, and sperm (like tiny tadpoles) finding the egg, the pregnancy, birth, and ultimately that the book is about YOU.

A typical excerpt (over a picture of a little boy looking at his teeny little penis): ‘The important thing to notice is that the man has something hanging between his legs that the woman doesn’t have. All you boys have one and yours will grow bigger as you grow bigger…’

Sex is described as being like a long, lovely tickle and an orgasm like a sneeze with lots of sticky stuff. However, like playing football, or running or skipping, you won’t want to do it all day.

The illustrations are delightful and all ages can appreciate the pictures and later the text. It is written in a very straightforward way that you can’t get embarrassed about, and  the illustrations make the book, that was originally published in 1978, a complete delight and essential tool in any family home.

This book comes in two editions, one with black people and one with white. I hope it will now be expanded to include all the different kinds of families that now exist.

Man and Woman/Arthur Robins/Macmillan Press

Man and Woman/Arthur Robins/Macmillan Press


The Poet and the Murderer, Simon Worrall (Fourth Estate, 2002)

A NeThe Poet and the Murderer v2w England library bought the manuscript of an Emily Dickinson poem from Sotheby’s, the purchase being funded in part by town residents. This book tells the story of how the town’s librarian turned sleuth and unmasked it as a forgery. It is a thoroughly American tale: corrupt auction houses, questionable religions, small-town life and a reclusive poet are only part of the story.

Simon Worrall follows the trail of the forged poem and his journey of discovery leads him, via the casinos of Las Vegas, to Salt Lake City and the darkly compelling world of Mark Hofmann, one of the world’s most daring literary forgers and a remorseless murderer. Deeply researched but with the narrative pace of a novel, Worrall’s investigation into the life and crimes of this charismatic genius is a real-life detective story you simply won’t be able to put down. Dickinson was enigmatic and charismatic; by contrast Hofmann is deceptively bland, conservative and mild, but the author likens him to Hazlitt’s description of Iago: ‘Diseased intellectual activity, with an almost perfect indifference to moral good or evil.’

As the story reaches its gripping climax, Hofmann becomes trapped in the web of his own deceptions and turns to murder.

This is a cracking tale: the labyrinthine story Worrall uncovers is beautifully paced and as complex as any conspiracy theory: a work of non-fiction, it reads like a thriller. Worrall has the journalist’s knack for reeling the reader in with a line. ‘His voodoo was more powerful than theirs’ is his summation of Hofmann’s forgeries of early manuscripts bought by the Church of Latter-Day Scientists (the Mormons). While it is thought the majority of his forgeries aimed to discredit the early history of the Mormon Church, Hofmann also forged hundreds of documents by authors as wide ranging as Mark Twain, Jack London, John Quincy Adams, Walt Whitman and George Washington. There are probably two dozen Daniel Boone forgeries alone still in circulation, as well as hundreds of forged coins. One letter Hofmann created from Daniel Boone was so convincing ‘you can hear the crack of gunfire as you read it’.

Hofmann is in jail serving a life sentence, but his work lives on. Large amounts of his forged documents are still being bought and sold on the art market as original manuscripts, even though the provenance should show that they have been handled by a company or person linked to Hofmann. This probably says more about the art market than anything else. Buyer beware.


the-illuminationsThe Illuminations, Andrew O’Hagan (Faber and Faber, 2015)

This is a beautiful book about love, secrets, memory and ageing. Various relationships are explored, but the most significant and positive one is the closeness between Annie, a former well-known documentary photographer and her grandson Luke, a captain in the Army.

Annie is in the early stages of dementia and lives in sheltered accommodation; her neighbour Maureen is fiercely protective of her and fascinated by the glimpses she gets into Annie’s former life through the odd photograph or comment. For Annie the past is a mixture of vivid recollections and confusion and the reader is trying to understand, along with Maureen, just where fact and fantasy meet. The novel shifts key when we follow Luke on his final tour of duty in Afghanistan; the stress-ridden unreality of the world of the soldier is conveyed through stark opposites. One moment they are preoccupied with the dull minutiae of life on standby in their barracks, and then the tension of taking a convoy of equipment through the desert erupts into horror as the mission Luke is leading goes terribly wrong.

Luke’s return home leads us into the final section of the book; we now see the tender quality of the relationship between Luke and Annie, as he decides to take her to the Blackpool guesthouse where she used to live. As Luke starts to make sense of his recent experiences in the theatre of war, Annie’s reunion with the people she lived with and knew so well starts to unlock her fragmented memories. Her photographs are discovered and secrets are revealed.

Illuminations feature everywhere in the book – there is of course the spectacle of the famous Blackpool lightshow; we see the tracer lights in the night sky in Afghanistan. And then there are the bright sparks of memory in Annie’s head, as she battles with the confusion in her brain.

Despite the crude army language and references, this is a gentle book that guides us through the tricky path between truth and illusion, in peace or at war. By the end of the book the Annie we have discovered is so much more than the confused old lady we meet at the beginning, a reminder for a society obsessed by youth and status that all is not always what it seems.


Women in Dark Times, Jacqueline Rose (Bloomsbury, 2014)

Women-in-Dark-TimesIn this book a series of courageous women are held up as models of female independence of thought and action. They are all characterised by a willingness to confront everything that is darkest and most unsettling in the struggle to build better political futures; the author uses their life stories to provide a new template for feminism.

The book is in three sections, but Rose deftly interweaves the experiences of all the key actors to help illuminate and support the experience of one of the others.

The first section focuses on three women: Rosa Luxemburg, the Polish-born writer, philosopher and revolutionary socialist; Charlotte Salomon, the German Jewish painter and… Marilyn Monroe. This last for me was the surprise element – the women’s lives follow and overlap in approximate chronological order, but reading this section forced me to reappraise Marilyn completely. Each woman’s life and achievements are viewed through a feminist lens that highlights the challenges they met and surmounted.

They all led troubled lives, full of challenge and conflict, and all three died untimely, violent deaths. Luxemburg was shot in the head and her body flung into the Landwehr Canal in Berlin. Salomon died on arrival at Auschwitz. Like many other pregnant women who arrived at the camps, Salomon stepped forward to confirm she was expecting a child, possibly thinking she might be eligible for more favourable treatment such as extra rations. But pregnant women were shot on arrival; the last thing the Nazis wanted was for more Jews to be born. So it was for Salomon. Monroe died from barbiturate poisoning, but it is possible that it was homicide.

Each of their lives was characterised by a fierce and unconventional approach that enabled them to achieve their intellectual and creative potential. Luxemburg’s politics and activism constantly led to clashes with the authorities in the various countries in which she lived. Salomon, whose personal family history was a series of tragic suicides, told her story in a sequence of paintings while living in southern France from 1941-43, knowing that time would soon run out and she would be rounded up and sent to the death camps. Monroe fought against the producers and directors who primarily wanted her to be no more than a beautiful and compliant face and body.

The middle section of the book brings us sharply to the present time with a study of some of the most well-known recent ‘honour killings’, including the murder in the UK of Shafilia Ahmed by her parents. At her trial her two sisters took diametrically opposing positions. One said that her parents were innocent, despite the evidence of her own diary. The mother dramatically changed her story during the course of the trial, accusing her husband of having been the sole perpetrator, and it was the combination of her evidence with the diary notes that helped convict the parents. Rose weaves this and other specific examples into the historical and cultural contexts surrounding honour killings in the 21st century. It should be noted that this book takes the reader to some very dark places, and it is hard to know whether this section or the one preceding it scores higher on this particular scale.

The final section celebrates three contemporary artists, Esther Shalev-Gerz, Yale Bartana and Thérèse Oulton. Their work insists that we focus on the overlooked, the rejected and the unseen. Some of their pieces are examined in great depth, and at times it is difficult to follow some of the detailed descriptions of a particular piece of art or film Rose is describing, in the visual absence of the work itself. Nevertheless, these accounts hold the imagination and spur the reader to further investigation of the artists.

Perhaps more than anything, Women in Dark Times graphically illustrates how, as Rose expresses it, the progress of women in society, always tortuously slow, is liable to go into reverse at any moment and for this reason we all need to be vigilant.


ramayana croppedRAMAYANA – A Retelling, Daljit Nagra (Faber and Faber, 2013)

I have for many years been fascinated by the Hindu epics the Mahabharata and Ramayana. I have read classical versions of them in various forms, and have also seen various dramatic interpretations, including the epic version of the Ramayana made in India but shown on TV a few years ago. The Ramayana is more accessible in terms of continuous plot, and I was intrigued to learn of this new version written by Daljit Nagra. He grew up in West London and Sheffield, and heard tales from the Ramayana at his mother’s and grandmother’s knee. They were from the Punjab, but Nagra describes his version of the story as the product of a globalised Western writer who lives among many faiths and cultures, and who seeks to represent voices from as many villages as possible with the same passion as the version he heard as a child.

This Ramayana is an extraordinary mix of linguistic influences. The writing glides effortlessly from formal language to Hindi slang. Nagra is first and foremost a poet, and his Ramayana reads like an epic poem exploding with imagery and characters that wrap the reader in colour, noise, texture and sensation. The actual plot of the classical work is a straightforward morality play: Rama is a prince who represents all that is good and righteous, and his enemy, Ravana, has fallen from grace and embodies all that is evil. Rama calmly renounces the throne that is his birthright following his step-mother’s intervention in favour of her son ascending the throne, and voluntarily goes into exile in the forest for fourteen years, accompanied only by his brother Lakshman and his wife Sita. Ravana hears of Sita’s beauty and manages to abduct her. In the battle to reclaim her Rama enlists the help of an army of monkeys and together they rescue Sita from captivity in Ravana’s palace on the isle of Lanka, where she has refused all Ravana’s amorous advances. Good triumphs over evil at every level, nowhere more so than at the end, when Sita undergoes an ordeal by fire and is rescued by Agni, the god of fire.

The Hindu festival of Divali celebrates this magical ending and Rama’s return to his kingdom to take up his throne. I was fortunate enough to be attending a performance of Nagra’s one-man stage version of his book on the day of Divali itself this year. On arrival we all received a little badge with a monkey’s face displayed on it. Wearing our badges with pride, we hooted and screeched when invited to help Hanuman the leader of the monkeys and his horde win the battle.

The stage set had a backdrop of wild and wonderful graphic images of the key players. Nagra took the show to Bridport, Cheltenham, Durham, Exeter, Isle of Wight, London, Manchester, Norwich and Nottingham.

Read the book – it is both beautiful and crazy and has some of the most imaginative language I have come across in a long time— a verbal feast that isn’t quite like anything else. And if Nagra takes his one-man show on the road again, be sure to catch it for two hours of zany imagery.


Brenda Brenda Monk is Funny crop1Monk is Funny, Katy Brand (Unbound)

If you notice a distinct lack of female comedians in this country, you’d probably be right. Watch quiz shows on the box and there’ll be the token one. It’s irritating, but what can you do?

Well, Katy Brand is one of that rare breed. And she’s good, whether you go to watch her do stand up or catch her on a TV or radio panel. In this book, Brenda Monk is Funny, she weaves a tale about a woman whose sex life is mined by her partner for his award-winning comedy material.

Then one memorable day she is literally dared into performing stand-up herself by another female comedian. The question is, will she give up the day job and where will she find her material? As the book progresses, we travel with Brenda and find out what she is – and isn’t – prepared to use, and its impact on personal relationships.

We are offered an insight into the camaraderie and bitchiness (I’m talking about men here as much as women) of those on the comedy circuit, the unpaid gigs as they search for a voice and build a reputation, the trips to festivals around the country with Edinburgh proving the zenith.

As a read, it’s one of those that is impossible to put down, with numerous twists and turns. The humour is black, and it is surprisingly candid about what goes on behind the scenes at gigs. And I thought it was tough for actors! At least they don’t have to make up their own lines on a nightly basis.

A highlight is the chapter where Brenda and her erstwhile partner are booked to perform a comedic duel on Valentine’s Day. They riff in turn about what constituted their relationship. I won’t give away who wins, but Brenda gets more than she bargained for at the end.

Just as interesting is the fact that this book is crowd funded, so my thanks go to those who made it happen. More, Katy, more, please.

The Wolf Border, Sarah Hall (Faber & Faber, 2015)

As far as I’m concerned, one of the best things about the Christmas break – food, drink and conviviality excepted – is the chance to settle down with a good book, preferably in front of a roaring fire, but41kur1oNyDL._AA160_ definitely somewhere warm, cosy and peaceful. I then gloat over my new Christmas books and wonder which to read first. What I am hoping is that some of damesnet’s readers will have been given a copy of The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall, and that if not, you might be tempted to seek it out for yourself.

Rachel Caine is a zoologist who has been working in Idaho for some years, far away from her family roots in Cumbria. She is invited by the eccentric Earl of Annerdale to take charge of his controversial scheme to reintroduce the grey wolf to the English countryside, more specifically the Lake District. Her decision to return to the UK and take up the post coincides with an unplanned pregnancy – the father is one of her co-workers at the Idaho reservation.

The book is a wonderful evocation of the wild in all its complexity: nature, landscape, human and animal. Sarah Hall’s writing is textural and sensual, the soft colours of the Cumbrian landscape blending with the wolves as she observes their habituation to their new environment.  As Rachel’s pregnancy develops, so does her relationship with the wolves that have been introduced to the landscape. At the same time she reconnects with her brother, whose life is also undergoing a major change.

The Earl is comfortable in his privileged status, and his ambitions shape developments in an unexpected way. He is influential within the political establishment (on one occasion the Prime Minister is helicoptered in to supper) yet independent and more than prepared to buck the trend if it furthers his aims.

Grey wolves/Ronnie Macdonald/flickr

Grey wolves/Ronnie Macdonald/flickr

His agenda is set against the background of Scottish independence and land reform both political and ecological. The possibility of Scottish separation from the United Kingdom could lead to it being a wilder, less managed place. The book takes us to the conclusion that was narrowly avoided in the 2014 referendum vote: Scotland has become a separate nation and this new reality allows the Earl to achieve his objectives. The wolves have a guaranteed future, but not the one that Rachel had been led to believe.

Throughout the narrative Rachel maintains a scientific, dispassionate approach to both her changing circumstances and the efforts to sabotage the project that move from hints and innuendo to actual reality. This objectivity is carried through in her sexual relationships, her pregnancy and experiences of early motherhood, her role in the project and her attitude to the decisions that need to be made in regard to her child’s father.

Her recently deceased mother also wields influence; her mothering was random and erratic, and this impacts on how Rachel takes up the challenge of parenting. It also provides the glue which helps to bind Rachel and her brother close together – through the ‘terrible shared knowledge’ of their mother.

This is a book wild and gentle, simple yet complex. It made me want to revisit the Lake District as soon as possible.


Melvin Bragg12 Books That Changed The World, Melvin Bragg (Hodder & Stoughton 2006)

When we think of great events in the history of the world, we tend to think of war, revolution, political upheaval, or natural catastrophe. But throughout history there have been moments of vital importance that have taken place not on the battlefield, or in the palaces of power, or even in the violence of nature, but between the pages of a book.

In our digitised age of instant information, it is easy to underestimate the power of the printed word. In 12 Books That Changed The World, Melvin Bragg writes a vivid reminder of the book as agent of social, political and personal revolution. This book presents a rich variety of human endeavour and a great diversity of characters including surprises. The 12 books are as follows in Bragg’s own order of not wanting them to be in any particular order:

  1. Principia Mathematica, Isaac Newton, 1687
  2. Married Love or Love in Marriage, Marie Stopes, 1918
  3. Magna Carta, Members of the English Ruling Classes, 1215
  4. The Rule Book of Association Football, A Group of Former English Public Schoolmen, 1863
  5. The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin, 1859
  6. The Abolition of the Slave Trade, William Wilberforce, 1789
  7. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft, 1792
  8. Experimental Researches in Electricity, Michael Faraday, 3 volumes 1839, 1844 and 1855
  9. Patent Specification for Arkwright’s Spinning Machine, Richard Arkwright, 1769
  10. King James Bible, William Tyndale with 54 scholars appointed by the King, 1611
  11. An Enquiry Into The Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith, 1776
  12. The First Folio, William Shakespeare, 1623

Whilst I had heard of all the books apart from Married Love or Love in Marriage, I had heard of Marie Stopes and the clinics that are named after her. A small publisher first published the book in March 1918, after many other larger publishers had turned her down because of the content. It rapidly sold out, and was in its sixth printing within a fortnight. The US Customs Service banned the book as obscene until April 6, 1931, when Judge John M. Woolsey overturned that decision. Woolsey was the same judge who in 1933 would lift the ban on James Joyce’s Ulysses, allowing for its publication and circulation in the United States of America.

It was the first book to note that women’s sexual desire coincides with ovulation and the period right before menstruation. The book argued that marriage should be an equal relationship between partners. Although officially scorned in the UK, the book went through 19 editions and sales of almost 750,000 copies by 1931. In 1935 a survey of American academics said Married Love was one of the 25 most influential books of the previous 50 years, ahead of Relativity by Albert Einstein, Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud, Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler and The Economic Consequences of the Peace by John Maynard Keynes.

12 Books puts  A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792), written by the 18th-century British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, into historical context. It is one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. In it, Wollstonecraft responds to those educational and political theorists of the 18th century who did not believe women should have an education. She argues that women ought to have an education commensurate with their position in society, claiming that women are essential to the nation because they educate its children and because they could be ‘companions’ to their husbands, rather than mere wives. Instead of viewing women as ornaments to society or property to be traded in marriage, Wollstonecraft maintains that they are human beings deserving of the same fundamental rights as men.

Although it is commonly assumed now that the Rights of Woman was unfavourably received, this is a modern misconception based on the belief that Wollstonecraft was as reviled during her lifetime as she became after the publication of William Godwin’s Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798). The Rights of Woman was actually well received when it was first published in 1792. One biographer has called it ‘perhaps the most original book of (Wollstonecraft’s) century’.

12 Books That Changed the World is definitive, always illuminating and sometimes controversial, the hidden story of these twelve books demonstrates the enduring impact of one of the world’s great inventions – the book.