The Corset by Laura Purcell

Here’s a mini review simply because I am a little busy at the moment but had to say how much I enjoyed this book.

The Corset by Laura Purcell

This is such a clever story. It twists and turns, smoothly and abruptly. You think you know what is happening, then you don’t and THEN we have the last few pages which I guarantee you will read more than once.

I really enjoyed this book. It is an historical murder with a distinctly gothic supernatural twist set in the nineteenth century. Ruth is a young seamstress accused of murdering her employer and Dorothea is the upper class lady who visits her in prison listening to her story and in some way being her benefactor.

The historical setting is excellent, the motley crew of characters is extremely well written and I highly recommend this.

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Little – Edward Carey

I have gradually heard more and more about this book over the past 6 months through book tube and reviewers and it kept catching my attention. Even after listening to an excellent review of it on the Tea or Books? podcast I still don’t know why I delayed in reading it, but that has been remedied now.

Little is the fictionalised story of Madam Tussaud’s life, originally Anne Marie Grosholtz; being born in Switzerland, growing up in revolutionary Paris and then finally moving to London. It is fantastic. Little’s (i.e. Marie’s) voice throughout the novel is perfect. Her unsentimental narration feels realistic and convincing.

In a way this is a Bildungsroman, a coming of age narrative for Marie.We read about her lack of independence, how she slowly takes control of her life and escapes her low standing in society, through hard work and dedication. The novel explores a couple of very interesting themes; the boundary between life and death and how close they are in these characters lives and the concept that we can change how we are perceived by others by changing our clothing, whether to ensure conformity and therefore safety or to transcend class boundaries. Never forgetting that ‘under the skin’, whether literal skin or clothing, we are all the same; the essential self does not change.

I really, really, enjoyed this book and read it in one sitting, something I haven’t done for a long time. Special mention also goes to the illustrations of body parts which Edward Carey drew himself, they really add something a little different to the book.

After Me Comes the Flood – Sarah Perry

I had no intention of reading another Sarah Perry book so soon after Melmoth but I accidentally picked up After Me Comes the Flood, Perry’s first novel, then put it back down again. Two weeks later it was still niggling at the back of my mind so I decided just to read it, it didn’t take too long.

The story starts with John driving to his brother’s to escape the city heatwave, his car breaks down and he goes to ask at the nearest (creepy) mansion if they can give him some water for the engine. There is something a bit Scooby Doo about the story line already. John is mistaken for a visitor the household is waiting for but instead of enlightening his hosts he decides to stay for the week. Not a normal course of events.

Here we have a host of mentally unstable characters, who appear to have escaped from an asylum, living together in a rather peculiar fashion. They are thrown at us en masse at the start and it takes a little reading to become clear who is who. I started the book not entirely sure what was going on and finished only slightly more enlightened. In truth, I would have liked more depth to the characters, however, there is something about it that is sticking with me and makes me curious. I can see why it caught a publisher’s attention and if I had read this novel first, it would have made me curious to look at more of Perry’s writing.

And so I did. This book of Short stories looks interesting. It is published by English Heritage and has the interesting premise that eight authors were allowed after hours entrance to their choice of English Heritage site and then used that experience as inspiration to write ghostly short stories which have been collated in this volume. Apart from Sarah Perry, the book also includes work from Kamila Shamsie and Jeanette Winterson.

After listening to Perry on the Bookseller podcast (she has a lovely voice and this is an excellent new podcast) I’m interested in her next book, currently in the making, even though it is supposed to be a Romance. An interesting genre jump from Gothic to Romance. Will it work? We shall see.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead – Olga Tokarczuk

I think this may be the best title for a book I have seen in a long time. Tokarczuk is a Polish writer and was the recent winner of the Man International Book prize for her novel Flights but I decided to start reading her work with this one after listening to a podcast where the speaker couldn’t sing her praises enough. Sorry I can’t remember the podcast but I think it may have been Vintage books or Guardian books. Anyway, I thought this was excellent.

Essentially, on the surface, this is a murder mystery involving a little, old, eccentric lady who has an interest in astrology. Underneath, it is so much more than that. It looks at fate, our lives being predestined i.e. written in the stars, and it looks at man’s cruelty to animals including eating them.

The little old lady tries to see patterns in everyday things, trying to understand why things happen using astrology, but she just seems to be surrounded by death. She has even calculated the date of her own death. Then her neighbours start to die and she has some interesting ideas as to who murdered them.

Given the depth to Tokarczuk’s writing the genre of Murder mystery felt unusual but I did enjoy it. Although I think we all kind of know who the murderer is from early on. Credit must also be given to Antonia Lloyd – Jones, the translator, she has done a fantastic job. Since this was so enjoyable I really want to read Tokarczuk’s new book Flights. It looks much more experiemental and hopefully will be something to get stuck into.

The World Broke in Two – Bill Goldstein

If you are even remotely interested in Modernist writers then this book is a gem. Goldstein has researched the lives of Virginia Woolf, T S Eliot, D H Lawrence and E M Forster in the year 1922 and he has done an absolutely excellent job of it.

There is not a single stone left unturned and we move through the year, month by month, learning about the authors’ work, personal lives and health. The crafting and structure of this is excellent, each chapter focusses on one author and each one moves us through the year, month by month.

The whole book is fascinating but there are some details about the authors which particularly made me smile. One of my favourites is that of T S Eliot wearing green face powder to make himself look ill and therefore live up to the idea of a suffering artist and his reputation. The face powder was something Virginia Woolf noticed at a dinner party and later commented on.

One result of Goldstein’s excellent research is the further reading I now want to do. I need to find a Virginia Woolf story called Byron and Mr Briggs, where apparently Mrs Dalloway is at a dinner party with other Virginia Woolf characters. I am going to finally read The Waste Land by T S Eliot and D H Lawrence’s Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious. Trust me, there are many more.

I am going to highly recommend this book but I’m also fully aware that many people are not remotely interested in these writers. Therefore, read it, it’s great, but only if you like Modernist writers and the 1920’s.

Difficult Women – David Plante

Rather than a memoir, I would say this is a collection of notes about the time Plante spent with three difficult women; Jean Rhys, Sonia Orwell and Germaine Greer. I picked it up because of Jean Rhys. I find her writing unique and have been suspicious that it was very much based on her own life experiences. I knew she was an alcoholic and had lost a child due to neglect but I wanted to learn more about her. It appears in her later life she was self centred and unpleasant but at the same time fragile and reliant on others. Sonia Orwell (George’s wife for only 14 weeks before he died) is also hard work and I am pretty sure that Germaine Greer would not be at the top of my list for a dinner party invite. In fact, all of these women are portrayed as being particularly tiring to spend any time with. They demand attention, have emotional swings and whether consciously or not, dictate the mood of any conversation or party.

This is not a complementary memoir, in fact when the book was first published in 1983, Plante made himself very unpopular in literary circles with other writers and friends of the women in question. He talks frankly about this in an article in The Paris Review, written in September 2017. He doesn’t apologise as he feels he was merely describing their relationships as they were. I find his writing a little arrogant and as self centred as his subjects.

Even so, I did enjoy this book and raced through it in 24 hours but I can’t help feeling that in some way it is a breach of confidence. Plante is telling stories about his friends and I agree with Parul Sehgal in his review in The New York Times when he says,

“Difficult Women” is creepy, it is cruel, it is morally indefensible – and it is exhilarating.

Seghal, Parul, ‘With a Friend Like Him, They Didn’t Need Enemies’, The New York Times (September 2017).

Was Plante truly their friend or did he commit ‘literary treachery’ as Sehgal suggests? However you feel about this does not take away from the fact that he brings these women to life. If you are at all interested in Rhys, Orwell or Greer, give it a go. They are perfect little character studies and a fascinating read.

Friday Black – Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Every now and then something catches my eye, I buy it and read it straight away. There is no rhyme nor reason. Friday Black is one such book. It is a book of short stories by a debut author and comes in at just under 200 pages. It is a very interesting little book of short stories, all are dark and all deal with current important issues, for example, racism, poverty, violence and a post nuclear war, apocalyptic world (hopefully not a pressing concern at the time of writing this!).  The difference with these stories over others is that they are told in the form of science fiction, an alternative reality or a supernatural basis. Probably the best comparison for them is with the TV series Black Mirror, which I love. Apparently there is a new four part series on Netflix this Christmas.  Can’t wait!

I know I don’t do spoilers but I want to try and explain the genre a little better. The story ‘Friday Black’ (of book title fame) is very clever. It looks at the ugly side of capitalism through the phenomenon of Black Friday in an American store but, and this is what I like, it is written as if it is a Hunger Games or zombie movie. Which in itself is a very apt metaphor and describes the madness and crowd mentality perfectly.

Short stories must be hard to write as the author needs to engage the reader right from the very start, fortunately, these stories manage to do that perfectly. I would like to say that I enjoyed every single story and I did to an extent but there are a couple that aren’t as strong as the others.

 I had no idea what to expect when I started reading this book and I haven’t been disappointed. I look forward to seeing more from Adjei-Brenyah as I think he has a lot to say and is saying it from a very clever, new angle.