Cecily's book reviews

In general I've written reviews of every book I've read since I joined GoodReads (RIP) in May 08, along with one or two I read prior to that. More recent reviews tend to be longer (sometimes a tad too long?). I always carry a book, though I don't get as much time as I'd like to get engrossed - life is busy, but in a good way. Too many of my favourite authors died without writing enough! Apart from reading, and writing about reading, I enjoy Scrabble, good restaurants, woodland, and attending the theatre.

Whimsy 4/5*

Figures of Speech - Mervyn Peake

A delightful little bit of fun for die-hard fans of Peake's illustrations and those who like wordplay.

It's a simple (but beautifully produced) little book of 29 (why 29?) illustrations of figures of speech, with a list of answers at the back. 

The one on the cover, illustrated at the top of this review, is "Grin and bear it", which gives you an idea of what it's like.

It could make a good party game (as a one-off): a few are easy to guess, most a little tricky, and one or two, very hard indeed.

Beautiful, poignant, insightful 5/5*

Writings & Drawings - Mervyn Peake

There is much overlap between this 1974 book by Peake's widow and a collaborator, and Peter Winnington's "Mervyn Peake: The Man and His Art" (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...) from 2007. This one is limited to black and white, but in addition to his art, it includes significant excerpts of his writings: poems, novels (including parallel passages of an early and late draft of "Titus Groan"), and apparently, the whole of "The Craft of the Lead Pencil". The layout isn't great, so you have to keep your wits about you, but it's worth it; the former is also true of this review!

The tragic and beautiful cover picture is of Jo, a crossing sweeper, from Bleak House, which was Peake's favourite Dickens. See "Sketches from Bleak House" (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...).

This book opens with a three-page biography by his widow, after which it is a sweeping, chronological overview of Peake's works, but linking his works to events in his life, his health etc. I've summarised much of this in my review of Maeve's memoirs, but the key points are that he was born and raised in China until the age of 11, went to boarding school, then art school, did national service but was invalided out after a nervous breakdown, became a war artist and was traumatised by what he saw at Belsen, died prematurely of a combination of Parkinson's, depression and the treatment thereof (but it took a decade).

One key point is that Peake was initially very much an artist (he went to art school and later taught, as well as taking commissions); writing was a private hobby, and most of his writings were illustrated anyway. 

Some of his thoughts about art are covered: the fact that the text he wrote is called "The Craft of the Lead Pencil" is significant, as is demonstrated by the content included here. He exhorts students to learn to see and to be expressive - skills that are also evident in his writing. 

He also says, "Line... is language" and "Rhythm - a quality inherent in all forms of art". It is possible that Peake was a synaesthete: in her memoirs ("A World Away" -https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), Maeve mentions that he tended to think of each number as either male of female. 

In addition to "The Craft", Peake explained his theories of drawing in a lengthy introduction to a collection of his drawings, but I don't think he ever wrote about writing in the same way.

I've reviewed Peake's writings at length in individual reviews (see my Gormenghast-Peake shelf:https://www.goodreads.com/review/list...). However, I will mention this painful poem, written during a hospital stay:
"Heads float about me, come and go, absorb me;
Terrify me that they deny the nightmare
That they should be, defy me;
And all the secrecy; the horror
Of truth, of this intrinsic truth
Drifting, ah God, along the corridors
Of the world; hearing the metal
Clang; and the rolling wheels,
Heads float about me haunted
By solitary sorrows."

In 1941, poet Walter de la Mare wrote an amusing fan letter about the illustrations to a book of Nursery Rhymes, concluding:
"How many nurseries you may have appalled is another matter. How many scandalised parents may have written to you, possibly enclosing doctors' and neurologists' bills, you will probably not disclose. Anyhow, most other illustrated books for children look silly by comparison."

CS Lewis described "Titus Groan" and "Gormenghast" thus:
"It has the hallmark of a true myth: i.e. you have seen nothing like it before you read the book, but after that you see things like it everywhere."
I'm not sure I agree with that, but it's something to ponder.

In addition, Winnington mentions that Elizabeth Bowen was a fan, and Joanne Harris is one too.

Peake concurrently portrayed contrasting views, such as portraying Swelter (in Titus Groan) as a ship in full sail and a mass of shifting lights and colours.

There is an anecdote about an unpleasant encounter with a camel in China when he was a boy, which is used to explain the number of nasty camels that crop up in his works, and that I hadn't really noticed.

There is a good bibliography of works by and about Peake.

Won over to nonsense 4/5*

A Book of Nonsense: The Centenary Edition - Mervyn Peake, Maeve Gilmore, Sebastian Peake, Benjamin Zephaniah

Nonsense isn't a genre of which I'm especially fond, but combined with Peake's drawings, this is a delightful collection. 

There is considerable variety: some are very short, while others are longer, narrative poems. Many are illustrated in Peake's inimitable style, and his way with words is given full rein, with a smattering of invented ones, and odd rhymes, such as "horrible" and "deplorable".

There are a few links to other works, most notably, "It Worries me to Know", whose final line is ["Across the roofs of Gormenghast". (hide spoiler)]

Pirates have a mention, of course. The poem "Of Pygmies, Palms and Pirates" lists lots of apparently random things and ends that of these things, "I have no more to say", which perhaps makes it some sort of post-modern meta non-something.

Generally, I prefer fantastical creatures and paradoxes to outright nonsense, and these are present, e.g. "I saw all of a sudden No sign of any ship."

My favourite poem in this collection is "I cannot give the Reasons", for its imagery; here are the third and fifth/final verses:
"In gorgery and gushness
and all that's squishified
My voice has all the lushness
of what I can't abide.
Among the antlered mountains
I make my viscous way
and watch the sepia fountains
throw up their lime-green spray."

Others that stood out for me were "The Trouble with Geraniums", which is fairly traditional nonsense, and the formulaic (but funny) "Aunts and Uncles" ("When Uncle/Aunty X became a Y...").

The most surprising piece is a draft of a narrative poem, "The Adventures of Footfruit". It is about non-conformity in a totalitarian state (echoes of Gormenghast - or am I looking too hard?),subliminal advertising to stoke consumer demand, and where "Priests are the salesmen to whom one confesses not owning".

This edition has a recent forewords (2011) by his son, Sebastian, and ranting poet, Benjamin Zephaniah, as well as the original introduction by his wife, Maeve. Maeve mentions Peake's love of The Diary of a Nobody, saying it "overjoyed his permanent sense of the ridiculous, but he was not immune to the perfections of Jane Austen, the world she presented being equally ridiculous, only more proper". I'm not sure what Janeites would say to that!

Piratical fun from Peake 5/5*

Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor - Mervyn Peake

A delightful children's book written (handwriting) and illustrated by Mervyn Peake, though like all really good children's books, it can also be enjoyed by adults.

Note that this is unrelated to Mr Slaughterboard, which is a longer, less illustrated story of a bibliophile, and is included in "Peake's Progress" (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...).

This book reflects Peake's familiar love of pirates and islands, though it's really a simple story of friendship, fun and adventure.

The opening strikes a change from the traditional "Once upon a time", yet somehow has a fairytale familiarity:
"Far beyond the jungles and the burning deserts lay the bright blue ocean that stretched forever in all directions. There were little green islands with undiscovered edges, and whales swam around them in this sort of way." (and there is a picture).

The illustrations use a few solid colours (it was first published in 1939), but there is a wealth of detail in the lines, shading and stippling. This is especially true of details: tattoos, body hair, fabric, plants, sea creatures, and patched repairs of people(!), clothes and ship.

The publication date also means there are hints of colonialism, but in context, I have no problem with that. The lack of women reflects the plot and setting, and the gay subtext is just a subtext that will go over the heads of small children and shouldn't be an issue for anyone else (most cowboy stories and many pirate ones have similar, tacit, themes, which is why Brokeback Mountain was startling).

There is a panoply of fantastical creatures, with suitably exotic names, including the lonely Mousterashe, croaking Hunchabil, lazy Guggaflop, melancholy Saggerdroop, loathsome Squirmarins, along with the prosaically named Yellow Creature.

Short and charming. 

Memoirs of a white African childhood in the 1970s and 1980s

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood - Alexandra Fuller

The memoirs of the childhood of a white girl (Alexandra, known as Bobo), raised on African farms in the 1970s and 1980s, along with her sister, Van(essa). But it's not a gilded, ex-pat life: her parents lose their farm in forced land distribution, after which they are itinerant farm managers, who move where the work is, often to disease-ridden and war-torn areas. They also have their own problems with bereavement and alcohol. It is perhaps closer to misery lit, although the tone is mostly light, and the worst episodes glossed over. 

It is told in a chatty and slightly childish and rambling style (she is a child for most of the book), mostly in the present tense. This means the precise sequence of events is not always clear, but overall, it is an endearing insight into some troubled lives and times. It does rather fizzle out at the end, though.


The opening is a startling demonstration of how mundane life-threatening danger can become. "Mum says, 'Don't come creeping into our room at night.' They sleep with loaded guns beside them... 'Why not?' 'We might shoot you.'" Not very reassuring to a small child who might want a parent at night. By the age of 5, all children are taught to handle a gun and shoot to kill. There are many more examples throughout the book. For instance, the parents buy a mine-proofed Land Rover with a siren "to scare terrorists", but actually its only use is "to announce their arrival at parties". At the airport, "officials wave their guns at me, casually hostile". 


The Fullers are white and apparently upper middle class, but heavily in debt (though they manage to pay school fees). Mum says "We have breeding... which is better than having money", and they're pretty bad at managing what little money they do have. Often, they live in homes that are really dilapidated and lacking basic facilities.

Bobo feels neither African (where she spends most of her childhood) nor British (where she was born). At a mixed race primary school, she is teased for being sunburnt and asked "Where are you from originally?" and when at a white school that then admits African children, learns what it is like to be excluded by language (they talk Shona to each other). She is also very aware of her family's thick lips, contrasting with their pale skin and blonde hair.


One aspect that some have objected to is the attitude and language relating to the Africans. However, as I read it, Fuller is merely describing how things really were: casual, and sometimes benevolent racism were the norm. 

As a small child, she resists punishment by saying "Then I'll fire you", which is awful, but reflects a degree of truth, and similarly, her disgust at using a cup that might have been used by an African is a learned reaction. However, as she grows older and more questioning, it's clear she is no racist. 

It would be very sad if fear of offence made it impossible to describe the past honestly, though the list of terms by which white Rhodesians referred to black ones might seem unnecessary.

I suppose you could argue she should have done more to challenge the views around her, such as when Mum is bemoaning the fact that she wants just one country in Africa to stay white-run, but she was only a child at this point.

In her parents' defence, they treated their African staff pretty well, including providing free first aid help, despite the fact they were so short of money they had to pawn Mum's jewellery to buy seed each year, then claim it back if the harvest was good. "When our tobacco sells well, we are rich for a day." Only a day.

What to make of an observation like this? "Africans whose hatred reflects the sun like a mirror into our faces, impossible to ignore."

There is beautifully written passage describing driving through a European settlement and then Tribal Trust Lands: "there are flowering shrubs and trees... planted at picturesque intervals. The verges of the road have been mown to reveal neat, upright barbed-wire fencing and fields of army-straight tobacco... or placidly grazing cattle shiny and plump with sweet pasture. In contrast, the tribal lands "are blown clear of vegetation. Spiky euphorbia hedges which bleed poisonous, burning milk when their stems are broken poke greenly out of otherwise barren, worn soil. The schools wear the blank faces of war buildings, their windows blown blind by rocks or guns or mortars. Their plaster is an acne of bullet marks. The huts and small houses crouch open and vulnerable... Children and chickens and dos scratch in the red, raw soil and stare at us as we drive thought their open, eroding lives." Those are not the words of a racist.


There are some very dark episodes (including deaths), and at one point, even the dogs are depressed, and yet the book itself is not depressing. For instance, the four stages of Mum's drunken behaviour in front of visitors is treated humourously. 

More troublingly, a victim of a sexual assault is just told not to exaggerate, and the whole thing brushed away. There is equally casual acceptance of the children smoking and drinking from a young age.

There is fun, but also a lack of overt love, particularly touching (the many dogs are far luckier in this respect!); aged only 7, Bobo notes "Mum hardly even lets me hold her hand". That is a legacy of multiple hurt and grief - and the consequent problems. 

Then there is a life-changing tragedy, for which Bobo feels responsible: "My life is sliced in half". Afterwards, "Mum and Dad's joyful careless embrace of life is sucked away, like water swirling down a drain."

A later tragedy has more severe consequences, and these passages are described more painfully:
* "In the morning, when she's just on the pills, she's very sleepy and calm and slow and deliberate, like someone who isn't sure where her body ends and the world starts."
* "When Mum is drugged and sad and singing... it is a contained, soggy madness" but then "it starts to get hard for me to know mere Mum's madness ends and the world's madness begins."
* "She hardly bothers to blink, it's as if she's a fish in the dry season, in the dried-up bottom of a cracking river bed, waiting for rain to come and bring her to life."
* "Mum smiles, but... it's a slipping and damp thing she's doing with her lips which looks as much as if she's lost control of her mouth as anything else."
* "Her sentences and thoughts are interrupted by the cries of her dead babies."
* "To leave a child in an unmarked grave is asking for trouble."
* She is grieving "with her mind (which is unhinged) and her body (which is alarming and leaking)".

* A new home "held a green-leafy lie of prosperity in its jewelled fist".
* When they stop a journey at a fancy hotels, the opulence is unfamiliar: "the chairs were swallowingly soft".
* "The first rains... were still deciding what sort of season to create."
* "It is so hot outside that the flamboyant tree outside cracks to itself, as if already anticipating how it will feel to be on fire... swollen clouds scrape purple fat bellies on the tops of the surrounding hills."
* Captured wild cattle give "reluctant milk" and even after adding Milo milkshake powder, "nothing can disguise the taste of the reluctant milk".
* A German aid worker "is keen on saving the environment, which, until then, I had not noticed needed saving".
* The ex-pat lives were typically "extra-marital, almost-incestuous affairs bred from heat and boredom and drink." When they go to England for good, they remember Africa with "a fondness born of distance and the tangy reminder of a gin-and-tonic evening".

An extraordinary, lyrical book that is about the power of storytelling in - and about - our lives.

Lighthousekeeping - JEANETTE WINTERSON

An extraordinary, lyrical book that is about the power of storytelling in - and about - our lives. 

Other themes are light/dark/blindness (literal and metaphorical), outcasts, and the contrast between permanence and immobility (symbolised by the lighthouse) and change (people and the sea).

The fictional characters (one of whom has strong parallels with Winterson - see below) have some interaction with real characters and their works (Darwin, Robert Louis Stevenson and Wagner), and a broadly realistic story is sprinkled with slightly fairytale-like qualities, especially at the start, which also has comical aspects! Yet somehow, Winterson conjures this odd medley into something coherent, beautiful and profound.


There are two main narrative strands, both set in the small and remote Scottish village of Salts, and its lighthouse: mysterious Victorian priest, Babel Dark, and Silver, a girl orphaned in 1969. 

Silver is the narrator, and the opening chapters reminded me of a Roald Dahl's children's story: she and her shamed mother live outside the village, in a house cut into the hill such that it has a sloping floor, furniture has to be nailed down, they can only "eat food that stuck to the plate", and their dog has developed back legs shorter than the front.

A tragi-comic accident leaves Silver an orphan. After a short spell with a Dahlian spinster, she goes to live with Pew the blind lighthousekeeper, and the book loses the comedy, but retains some magic. "Some of the light went out of me, it seemed proper that I should go and live in a place where all the light shone outwards."


Don't expect a single, linear narrative of a consistent style. "A beginning, a middle and an end is the proper way to tell a story. But I have difficulty with that method." It doesn't matter because "The continuous narrative of existence is a lie... there are lit-up moments, and the rest is dark."

Pew is a master storyteller, and Silver weaves his stories into the one she is telling. The boundaries of fact and fiction are often blurred within her world (as in this book itself, with its mention of real historical figures): Pew will describe doing something that happened before he was born, and when challenged, dismisses it as his second sight or "well, the Pew that was born then", whilst retaining the suggestion that in some mysterious way it was actually him.

Perhaps part of the reasons for Silver's blending of fact and fiction was prompted by this: a psychiatrist defines psychosis as being out of touch with reality, and her response is "Since then, I have been trying to find out what reality is, so that I can touch it."

The musings on stories are the most lyrical and magical aspects, and suggest the tangled ways in which they thread through our lives. "In fairy stories, naming is knowledge" and that is reflected in this story in several key ways.

Most stories never finish, "There was an ending - there always is - but the story went on past the ending - it always does". Similarly, "There's no story that's the start of itself, any more than a child comes into the world without parents."

"All the stories must be told... Maybe all stories are worth hearing, but not all stories are worth telling... The stories themselves make the meaning."

If you had forty minutes to tell your life story, what would you say? (This isn't a long book, but there's more than forty minutes' worth.) 

The final chapters are more overtly philosophical, with less actual story. I think they're none the worse for that, but some may be disconcerted by the chane. 


Winterson's first book, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), was explicitly a fictionalised version of her childhood, and recently, she published the more factual "Why be Happy when you Could be Normal?" (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), but there are many aspects of Winterson in this as well: an orphan born in 1959, who finds solace in stories and libraries, "had to grow up on my own", and forges her own life. Some of the problems Silver encounters in later life also echo Winterson's own [(e.g. consultations with mental health professionals)(hide spoiler)]. She also finds the positive in the hardest circumstances, "We are lucky, even the worst of us, because daylight comes" (in "Why be Happy", she is grateful that the church taught her how important it is to concentrate on good things).

It goes further: the beloved mother in this "longed for me to be free, and did everything she could to make sure it never happened", and in "Why be happy", she makes an identical observation about the awful Mrs W (quoted in my review, linked above).


For such a carefully crafted book, it is a little heavy-handed at times. These are minor faults in the overall context and content and are recorded here more for my personal records than to spoil it for anyone else, hence the spoiler tag.

[In particular, the names Dark and Lux are as subtle as a sledgehammer. Also, the symbolism of the lighthouse is occasionally spelt out more than it needs to be: a birth coinciding with completion of this phallic symbol, and a passage, "He was like this lighthouse... He was lonely and aloof... The instruments were in place... but the light was not lit." (hide spoiler)]

* "A silent, taciturn clamp of a man."
* "She was one of those people for whom yes is always an admission of guilt or failure. No was power."
* "I was not much longer than my socks."
* "The wind was strong enough to blow the fins off a fish."
* "Our business was light, be we lived in darkness... The darkness had to be brushed away... Darkness squatted on the chairs and hung like a curtain across the stairway... I learned to see in it, I learned to see through it, and I learned to see the darkness of my own."
* "As dull as a day at sea with no wind."
* "Someone whose nature was as unmiraculous as a bucket."
* "He turned as pale as a skinned plaice."
* "The fossil record is always there, whether or not you discover it. The brittle ghosts of the past. Memory is not like the surface of water - either troubled or still. Memory is layered."
* When contemplating writing Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde, Stevenson posits (in this book) that all men have atavistic qualities: "Parts of themselves that lay like developed negatives? Shadow selves, unpictured but present?"
* "Women raising empty forks to glossy famished lips".
* "The light was as intense as a love affair."
* "I went outside, tripping over slabs of sunshine the size of towns. The sun was like a crowd of people, it was a party, it was music. The sun was blaring through the walls of the houses and beating down the steps. The sun was drumming time into the stone. The sun was rhythming the day."

Raw, important, but disappointing

The Garlic Ballads - Mo Yan, Howard Goldblatt

It feels wrong to give a Nobel prize-winner only 3*, but I didn't enjoy this enough to give it four.


It is based on a true incident in the 1980s (though life is so basic, it's a shock to realise how recent it is), when farmers rioted after the government refused to buy all the garlic it had told them to grow, because there of the resulting glut. I presume the individual characters are inventions, or composites.




Each chapter starts with a few lines of a ballad that outline the bare bones of the story, as sung by Zhang Kou, a blind minstrel.


The main text follows individual characters: how they became involved with the uprising, their relationships with each other, what happened afterwards etc. There are two main timelines, though it isn't always immediately obvious when some sections are set, which I found irritating. Another annoyance was a few passages that suddenly switched to first-person, in a somewhat jarring way.


The main characters are Gao Yang who has a blind daughter and newborn son, and Gao Ma, a younger (and single) man, along with Jinju and her mother, Fourth Aunt Fang.




Because it is describing a political injustice with devastating consequences, along with corrupt officials inclined to torture those beneath them, it is painfully graphic a lot of the time. The brutality of family and neighbours is almost as bad. Such incidents need to be documented, but it's hard to read, at times.


At first, the explicitness is more subtle, conjuring poverty in more subtle ways. For example, instead of saying that Gao Yang is too poor to buy new shoes, it says "Baked earth burned the soles of his feet; the intense heat made his eyes water. With the sun beating down on his bare back, he scraped caked-on dirt from his chest."


The visceral descriptions of pain, flesh and bodily fluids that follow are relentless, although they are counterbalanced with poetic descriptions of plants, birds, and landscapes. At times, the link is explicit, as when one captive "took a last look at the poplar tree where he had been [agonisingly] shackled, and actually felt a tinge of nostalgia." Another time, colourful parakeets are bloodily slaughtered, "clouds of living colour that whirled above... until, wing-weary, they fell like stones, thudding like heavy rain drops".




Despite all the blood, pus and urine, tears are probably more important, especially the desperate desire not to shed them (and to deny it when doing so). A typical refrain is "Gao Yang's eyes were awash with tears. 'I'm not crying', he reassured himself".


There are also certain plants and crops that are mentioned in ways that makes me think they contain additional associations that I am unaware of, principally indigo, jute and corn. (The garlic is more obvious.)


It is all so painfully real, a fleeting mention of ghosts - as if they are entirely real - comes as an anachronistic shock.


Of course, the main theme is about the incompetence and corruption of government, and how it is the peasant farmers who suffer. Standing up for what is right is very dangerous. I should probably state that Mo Yan is a pen name that means "don't speak" in Chinese.




The ending was incomplete for many characters (which I don't mind), but the final scene felt forced and clichéd.




  • "Stars shone brightly in the deep, dark, downy-soft canopy of heaven, beneath which cornstalks, straining to grow tall, stretched and rustled."
  • "The two strings sing out with a muffled scratchiness slowly rounding out to crisp, mellow notes that tightened around his listeners' eager hearts."
  • "I am lying in the cornfields gazing at clouds being carved up by sharp-edged leaves above me... White sap beads up and dangles from downy filaments, reluctant to fall earthward, like the tears on her lashes."
  • "Her feelings for her brother matched her feel for his game leg: pity on occasion, disgust the rest of the time. Pity and disgust, an emotional conflict that entangled her."
  • A neglected cornfield "protested uneasily in the breeze: withered tassels and stalks retaining barely a trace of moisture no longer enjoyed the resiliancy of their youth, when they had been bent before the wind, their emerald leaves fluttering gracefully like ribbons of satin with each gust to form cool green waves; just thinking about it brought tears to her eyes, for now the wind made the stalks shudder as they stood tall and rigid, their once graceful movements just a memory."
  • In a society where you're told what to believe, lack of direction is troubling: "not knowing what thoughts she should force into the emptiness of her mind".
  • In prison, "benches painted an unknowable colour".
  • "The dew-laden silkworm droppings falling on his legs seemed to him to be the excrement of heavenly constellations."
  • When desperately thirsty and finally getting water, "he heard the crackling sounds of bone-dry organs being irrigated."
  • "crinkled skin - a face that looked lie a soybean soaked in water, then set out to dry."
  • "He could scarcely believe that in the space of twenty-four hours a vigorous man like him had been turned into a worthless, panting shell of a human being."
  • In court, he "understood the presiding judge's words but little of his meaning... he sensed vaguely that the events being chronicled had little to do with him" - although of course the did (allegedly).
OFF-TOPIC: The Story of an Internet Revolt by G.R. Reader - G.R. Reader Sad that this had to be written, but in the circumstances, good that it was.

It describes the background and response to GoodRead's sudden change of policy which resulted in some reviewers having allegedly "off-topic" reviews deleted without notice. It's a better read than it sounds!

It's written with love, sadness and humour, rather than the bile, paranoia and hyperbole that triggered the problem being written about.

I'm also glad to see it has a thorough and hyperlinked index, with nested entries. ;)

I've voted for it in the GoodReads Choice awards in the non-fiction and debut author categories: https://www.goodreads.com/choiceawards/best-nonfiction-books-2013 (I did wonder if Humor and Horror might have been more apt!).

However, as well as actual nominations, it also needs ratings, so please consider adding the book to your shelves and rating it.

And if you review it, you will have the ego-massage of LOTS of likes in a short space of time. (It won't push you up the rankings, as everyone else gets lots of likes for reviewing it, but no matter.)
Amalgamemnon - Christine Brooke-Rose Recommended by Lynne, whose rave review is here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/740335813?utm_content=comment&utm_medium=email&utm_source=friend_updates
Mr. Pye - Mervyn Peake Oh dear. Much as I love Peake (his writings and his art), such whimsy is not to my taste. Sadder still, the wonderfully rich language of the Gormenghast books is largely absent. Consequently, I find it hard to give it a meaningful rating, but have tried to judge it in its own right, rather than as a work of Peake.

Perhaps I should side with Tintagieu, when she asks "Can't a thing just be itself without its having to mean something?"


It's an odd little book that both reflects and contradicts aspects of Peake, his life and his beliefs.

It is set on the small island of Sark, where he lived for two very happy periods of his life (and where his youngest child was born), and pokes gentle fun at the sort of characters that live there, including an artist. Too many passages in the opening chapters read like a travel guide. I suppose that emphasises the importance of place (as in Titus Groan and Gormenghast), but it's rather too much, not very interesting, detail for those unfamiliar with the island.

The eponymous Mr Pye is an evangelist of an unspecified faith, who refers to God as the Great Pal and wants to bring love and joy to a community divided by petty differences. In contrast, although Peake's parents worked at a missionary hospital, he was not religious at all (though his wife was raised a Catholic, so they sent their children to Catholic schools).


It's more of a situation than a plot; it rambles along, and you keep waiting for something to happen (or some rich descriptions), but mostly in vain.

Middle-aged Mr Pye goes to Sark, and sets about exploring the island, then people's hearts, and then, he hopes, to bring them together in harmony. He uses self-esteem, self-confidence and charm to ingratiate himself: "Not all [islanders] were pleased to be accosted... but their impatience was drained away as [he] smiled back at them with such demonstrable love." That, and a whistle that is callow, saucy and knowledgeable, plus "the electric current of his love"!

His vision is "a Sark purified by its own recognition of the supernatural, purified by the ceaseless battle for self-improvement" but without "private grievance, jealousy and feuds".

We never learn what prompted him to evangelism in general or Sark specifically, and we don't really know what happens at the end of the story. We don't really get to see how he intends to implement his grand ideas or what the consequences would be. We don't really get to know anything much about his beliefs, and no religious books or figures are mentioned, other than his Great Pal.

The most interesting part is when he sprouts angelic wings. As these become increasingly prominent and inconvenient, he struggles to make them go away, eventually concluding that he is too good, and therefore needs to sin a bit. Then, he develops a taste for inept mischief and although the wings go, horns develop. You can guess most of the rest. However, even that feels like a series of anecdotes, rather than anything more.

Despite all the detail of the island and its residents, and its quasi-religious theme, neither of the island's churches is mentioned, and I think a vicar is only mentioned once. You'd think he might feel threatened by the competition and crop up more often.


I guess it's about good and evil and the balance between the two, and also the difference between mere naughtiness and actual evil, but it's not funny enough to be an outright comedy, but it doesn't really seem to have much of a point about these themes, other than comedic.


I found a few:

* "The sun gloating on the unrippled water and the blank and zoneless bliss of an empty mind."

* "The imprisoned harbour where the emerald water had become rippled with expectancy."

* "Everything he did or said seemed curiously out of focus."

* He was so frustratingly nice that "Miss Dredger, fighting down a desire to smash the window to let out her soul".

* "Along the tortuous passages of the caves the hollow echoes rumbled and the billows hissed and slapped the slimy walls."

* "his face naked with integrity"

* "a walk so hesitant as to look almost like a disease of the legs"

* A full moon "ribbed the edges of the precipitous cliffs and was reflected in the sheen of the sands"

* "the gloating light; the rhythm of the rocks"

* "so flat a face that it seemed to have been created by some sculptor who, experimenting with the art of low relief, was inquisitive to know quite how low a relief could go without disappearing altogether."

* "A faint thickening of the horizon implied France, and piled above this tenuous implication there were great domes of cloud."

* "A gaunt, cadaverous man and it was impossible to see him without being reminded of the bone formations that underline the flesh."

* "The charm was still there, but it was now more like the charm of something vaguely dangerous, like a baby with a razor."

* in a "claustrophobic skirt... her legs were screaming for freedom."

* Re painting (remember, Peake was an artist as well as a writier), "colour... is a process of elimination. It is the distillation of an attitude. It is a credo."

* "An absolute silence not only reigned but appeared to extend its empire."
They Knew Mr. Knight - Dorothy Whipple This is a pitch-perfect period piece: middle class couple in their mid 40s, living in middle England, mid wars. It could have been hackneyed, or just dull, but it isn't - and it's beautifully written.

It opens with exquisite descriptions of the minor niggles of a slightly dull life; the precise annoyances being different for husband and wife, although the latter generally has a great "capacity for contentment". Each mundane thought and task (even shaving) sheds delicate light on the character involved, setting the scene for what follows.


There is a clear arc to the plot - and indeed, the characters in it. Thomas Blake runs what was his family engineering business (sold because of his late father squandered money, mostly on drink). A chance meeting with entrepreneur Laurence Knight gives Thomas the chance to better himself, and thus his family. It cleverly portrays the excitement and expectation felt by characters, even when the reader suspects the future may not always be so rosy. It's poignant, without ever being sentimental.


Thomas and Celia have three children, who are teens at the start and young adults by the end: Freda, Ruth and Douglas. Each has a distinct and different character, and the way they are shaped by events has a certain inevitability with hindsight, even though none of the precise details feel predictable.

In addition, Thomas supports his widowed mother, spinster sister and feckless brother (Edward).

The eponymous Laurence Knight is a wealthy man, returned with his wife, to the town he grew up in.

The problem with mixing in these three different levels of society is that it involves a degree of unfamiliarity or even pretence and fear of being found out: "she was always... finding herself in company to which she felt either superior or inferior" - but never comfortably equal.


At one level, this is a small family saga with a predictable plot (transformation through rise and fall - not just of the main characters). But that is only true in the most superficial sense. Within that familiar framework, many issues are vividly explored.

There are minor spoilers in this section, so you may prefer to skim the headings and then jump to the quotations at the end.

Role of Women

Celia is a wonderful mother, loving wife, and diligent and competent housewife. However, she is ill-educated in matters of business and finance, and ponders "briefly, how helpless women and children are; their fates are decided for them by men". She is cross when Thomas assumes decision-making power about Douglas' schooling on the basis that he's the man; she makes her points, but doesn't dare be really firm.

In such an environment, it's no wonder that the childless women come across as sad, unfulfilled and, in the case of neighbour Mrs Greene, an unpleasant busy-body, loathed by all.

However, when times are tough, it is Celia (and to some extent, Ruth) who is the strength of the family.

Growing Pains - Parenting Teens

Celia, struggles to understand each of her children and react appropriately to the challenges that arise with each, letting them make their own mark - and mistakes - but hating the hurt that sometimes resulted. Issues about parties, friends, fashion, heartbreak, embarrassing family members etc are just as pertinent now as then. "She was beset with the desire, common to all anxious mothers, to press into service food, sunshine, cushions, distractions, everything she could think of... to make him better."

Freda is a dreamy, self-centred snob: "when involved in any disagreeable situation, Freda's instinct was to escape". When she has a perm, against her mother's wishes, she is "almost frightened by her own behaviour" but ultimately "vanity drove out remorse". Freda blames her mother for everything that is less than perfect in her life, and her mother "didn't know whether Freda was really trivial or merely being perverse".

Ruth is outwardly more practical, but finds it hard to complete things. However, she shares her parents' capacity for love and loyalty, and proves to be a shrewd judge of character, especially with her grumpy grandmother.

Douglas is passionate - mainly about chemistry, which would be fine, were it not for the fact his father runs an engineering business.


All the marriages have a delicate dynamic, and several include an imbalance of love or loyalty that is only acknowledge by one partner.

For one couple, the apparently pragmatic reasons for swapping between double and single beds have much deeper resonance and cause "a slight barrier... between them, of which poor [other half] was entirely unaware".

For another, the wife was "ashamed sometimes of clinging where she wasn't wanted... 'He'll be old sometime, and then he'll want me.'".

By contrast, there is a beautiful example of the transformative power of love.


Prosperity makes barely-dreamed of luxuries almost commonplace, but it also provides new stresses, whether of fitting in, spreading wings, not having enough to do - or all three.

Thomas thought "Celia ought to be very satisfied... to be so well set up in this house, with these maids. She had nothing to do now but enjoy herself." But the extra staff "kept their places and saw that she kept hers. There was none of the hearty coo-operation of maid and mistress that there had been at The Grove". This, and endless bridge, which she only does "because there seemed to be nothing else to do" lead to depression: "my top life is all right... But my underneath life is all wrong".

Conversely, "the bitter bread of dependence" affects many characters in the book at different times, and each reacts differently: some are strengthened by it, and others are weakened.


Thomas and Celia are non-religious (unusual in those days), though they take their children to church because "it was safer. No good taking away when they had nothing to offer in place."

Nevertheless, Whipple was a Christian, and the book is laced with subtle messages about avarice, snobbery and Faustian pacts, bundled with non-preachy lessons about pride, forgiveness and honesty. These are discussed more explicitly in an excellent afterword.

However, towards the end, there is a much more explicit section that feels out of place with the tone of the rest of it. A shame, imo, and the only real weakness in the book.


* Her daughters "had her smooth skin now, her perished bloom. She had flowered, borne fruit, and was now fading". Later "Beauty was fugitive now. It came and went" (she was only 41 at this point!).

* "It was the sort of house where one could speak upstairs and be heard down. Smells, too, travelled easily in it."

* "The tram careered on, without having stopped. It had a reckless air."

* A grand car "arrested his attention by its discreet magnificence".

* "He continued to read the paper as he talked, because he often found it easier to talk to his children that way."

* The spinster aunt came "bringing an atmosphere of martyrdom. 'I was chopping cabbage,' she announced."

* "They had no money and lived in a small, uninteresting way."

* "Edward was fortified by the knowledge that he was the most respected frequenter of The Swan... as comfortable at The Swan as the Blakes were in their own sitting room until he entered it." Ouch: the sting in the final phrase.

* The perils of making something for an ungrateful relative: "The jacket... gave more pleasure to the maker than it would to the recipient... They gave her double gifts... presents and causes for complaint."

* "The murk of the night curling in at the window."

* "She even managed to keep an expression of disapproval during mastication."

* "Man is not constituted to bear suspense. He can bear adversity, suffering, parting, death, but not suspense."

* A mother, with a son-in-law she dislikes, feels "bitter, uneasy, shut out, able only to ask brightly about the husband's health".

(Recommended by Clare P)
Bluebeard - Kurt Vonnegut Suggested by Rand (as being in a similiar vein to Galapagos).

Another plus point is (presumably) that it touches on Jane Eyre (which I've read many times) and Wide Sargasso Sea (which I have just read for the first time).
Housekeeping - Marilynne Robinson This - or one of her others - suggested by Clare P
Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys I think the idea of one author piggy-backing, uninvited, on the characters and plot of another, is decidedly dodgy. However, this is widely regarded as a classic, and as I've read Jane Eyre many times (review here: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/23324130), I thought I should finally try this prequel novella.

With such well-known books, I don't think it's a spoiler to say this imagines the story of the mad first wife in Rochester's attic: from her childhood in Jamaica, through to her marriage to Rochester, and a final epilogue that ties the two novels together, set in her attic at Thorfield. She travels from privilege to poverty and then to something else altogether.

NOTE: The book and this review use the N word occasionally (and appropriately, imo).


The novel is set shortly after the emancipation of the plantation slaves, and Antoinette (aka Bertha in Jane Eyre) is the creole daughter of a former slave-owner.

Colour (in ever sense), and its contrasts and consequences, is at the heart of the novel, such as when "marooned" is used as a literal description and a metaphor, when Antoinette is looking at her mother.

The lush and multitudinous colours of the Carribean ooze from almost every page (see quotes at the end), but it's the colour of people that is more problematic.

Antoinette is mixed-race, but mostly accepted as white. Except that "accepted" isn't really true. When her widowed mother marries Mr Mason ("we ate English food now"), she notices how English he is, how un-English her mother is, and is less sure about herself. A black person describes her as a "white cockroach" and the English think of her as a "white nigger", but the blacks say that a "black nigger is better than white nigger". She muses, "I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong".

Colour determined the balance of power in colonies like Jamaica. Freeing the slaves changed that, but didn't entirely reverse it. With the story set at this turning point, it's not only Antoinette who is questioning her identity and her place in life, and to some extent, her personal change of circumstances, and Rochester's role in that, echo those of colonial people in general.

The rich colours sometimes have an unreality about them, and that seems prescient when dreams and drugs appear to muddle reality and unreality ("Only the magic and the dream are true — all the rest's a lie."). But they are transient, I think.

What of madness? I was expecting this book to be about what madness means, and the use and abuse of the label (especially by men, about women), and perhaps it is. Nevertheless, the overwhelming theme for me was colour.


The story is initially told by Antoinette. Later Rochester has a turn, and they swap a couple more times. In narration and dialogue, it wasn't always immediately clear who was talking. Not a huge problem, but a definite irritation.

More provocatively, if Antoinette really IS mad, how can she can tell her story so coherently, and if she ISN'T really mad...? In fact, Rochester's final passage is more muddled and rambling than any of Antoinette's.

Given this, and the way Rochester was tricked into the marriage (stated in Jane Eyre, but given detail here) and some of what happens in this book (rumours and lies to turn him against his wife, black magic, potions), one has to ask whether he is as much of a victim as Antoinette is.


The heat of this book is in stark contrast with the cold that pervades much of Jane Eyre: here the passions are out in the open; in that, they are often suppressed.

Apart from the characters (though Rochester is never named), there are echoes of what is to come, perhaps designed to reinforce local ideas of of the power of obeah (magic): arson causes the family to flee their home; her mother apparently goes mad (from shock and grief); manic laughter; nightmares; a nearly cancelled wedding. The colour red is strong in both, in the literal sense (furnishings, flowers, fabrics, sky etc), and perhaps as a foreboding of fire of temper and of flames.

A more Biblical omen comes from several mentions of a cock crowing: just before the wedding; when collecting a black-magic potion ("That is for betrayal, but who is the traitor?"), and persistently when Rochester is planning taking Antoinette back to Spanish Town.


Having opened by saying I dislike the idea of adding to another author's story, I was intrigued by Daniel to the extent that if there was a book about him, I might be tempted to pick it up: what sort of man is he really, and what are his motives?

Daniel claims to be one of many illegitimate half-siblings of Antoinette. Her (white) father was well-known for his philandering ways with local women, but the authenticity of Daniel's personal claim is disputed.

Baptiste tells Rochester that Daniel is "a very superior man, always reading the Bible" and, a few sentences later, "Daniel is a bad man and he will come here and make trouble". Is this poor editing, or deliberate and significant?

In his house, there is a framed text reading "Vengeance is mine" and Daniel is jealous of Sandi (the favoured illegitimate son, who passes as white, and is wealthy). His feelings about Antoinette are less clear, and his motives for telling Rochester about her mother's madness and other gossip are also uncertain: does he want to protect Antoinette in some way, is he hoping Rochester will be so incensed that he will wreak revenge on the Masons (and maybe gratitude on Daniel) and why, at the end of the scene, does he ask Rochester for hush money, when what he's said is apparently common knowledge?. Or maybe I'm reading too much into a minor scene?


* "The diamond-shaped pieces of silk melted one into the other, red, blue, purple, green, yellow, all one shimmering colour."

* An extraordinary oxymoron about her convent school: "my refuge, a place of sunshine and death".

* "light and dark, sunshine and shadow, Heaven and Hell"

* "Everything is too much... Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near."

* A bathing pool has "secret loveliness. And it kept its secret... I want what it hides."

* "It was often raining when I woke during the night, a light capricious shower, dancing playful rain, or hushed, muted, growing louder, more persistent, more powerful, an inexorable sound. But always music, a music I had never heard before."

* "I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it."


I'm really torn between 3* and 4* - and I see the GR rating averages 3.51* On balance, I think 4* - but only just.
The Shipping News - Annie Proulx This is my first Proulx, so I don't know if the unusual writing style is typical, or specially chosen for this particular story. I hope it's the latter, as it works very well.

It covers a couple of years (plus some backstory) in the life of thirty-something Quoyle: a big, lonely, awkward and unattractive man, always having or doing the wrong thing. He is a not very successful journalist in New York, who ends up moving, with his young daughters (Bunny and Sunshine) and aunt, to a small, somewhat inbred, community in Newfoundland where the aunt and his late father grew up. Somehow Proulx keeps the reader on the fence: he isn't especially lovable, and yet he elicits more sympathy than mockery in this reader.

I think one weakness is that the mother of the girls is too horrible, and the manner of her departure from their lives stretched my credulity somewhat.


The narrative style is the first thing to hit. It is very distinctive, continues throughout the book, and could be infuriating, though I didn't find it so. It is telegraphic and observational, reflecting Quoyle's job. There are staccato sentence fragments, and some overworked analogies, some of which are wonderfully vivid, and a few of which are laughably awful. Grammar sticklers may struggle to enjoy this book, but it's their loss - context is all, and in this context, I think it works.

If I were as clever and witty as some of my GR friends (you know who you are), I would have written this review in the style of the book.

Anyway, some typical examples:

This is the entire opening paragraph of a chapter:
"The aunt in her woolen coat when Quoyle came into the motel room. Tin profile with a glass eye. A bundle on the floor under the window. Wrapped in a bed sheet, tied with net twine."

Another whole paragraph:
"Near the window a man listened to a radio. His buttery hair swept behind ears. Eyes pinched close, a mustache. A packet of imported dates on his desk. He stood up to shake Quoyle's hand. Gangled. Plaid bow tie and ratty pullover. The British accent strained through his splayed nose."

* "eyes the color of plastic"
* "the sullen bay rubbed with thumbs of fog"
* "On the horizon icebergs like white prisons. The immense blue fabric of the sea, rumpled and creased."
* "parenthesis around her mouth set like clamps. Impossible to know if she was listening to Nutbeem or flying over the Himalayas"
* "In a way he could not explain she seized his attention; because she seemed sprung from wet stones, the stench of fish and tide."
* "eyes like a thorn bush, stabbing everything at once"
* The ghost of his wife, "Petal's essence riding under his skin like an injected vaccine against the plague of love"
* "Fingernails like the bowls of souvenir spoons." (That's the whole sentence.)


Aspects of the town and its characters remind me of David Lynch's 1980s TV series "Twin Peaks": strange characters, often with impairments of mind, body or emotions, slightly strange names, odd superstitions, and dark secrets (murder, incest, rape, insurance fraud).

The town of Killick Claw isn't prosperous, and the environment is still harsh, but it's better than when the aunt grew up there: "The forces of fate weakened by unemployment insurance, a flaring hope in offshore oil money."

The Gammy Bird is the local paper, and it's like no other: lots of adverts (many of them fake), deliberate typos and Malapropisms, libelous gossip (including a regular catalogue of sex abuse cases!), shipping news and "we run a front-page photo of a car wreck every week, whether we have a wreck or not". Poor Quoyle is bemused and has the uneasy and familiar feeling "of standing on a playground watching others play games whose rules he didn't know".


Knots are the most obvious one. Each chapter opens with a quotation pertinent to what it contains, and many are from [b:Ashley Book of Knots|816629|Ashley Book of Knots|Clifford Ashley|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1347299828s/816629.jpg|802526], which Proulx found second-hand, and gave her the inspiration and structure she sought. Knots feature in the plot metaphorically (in terms of being bound or adrift), in a more literal and superstitious sense. We also learn that Quoyle's name means "coil of rope", and I suppose he is pretty tightly coiled for the first half of the book.

Shipping is obvious, too, not just from the title, but because Quoyle ends up writing the eponymous shipping news in the local paper, in a community where everyone needs a boat. Most of the introductory quotes that are not from Ashley Book of Knots are from a Mariner's Dictionary. I confess there were times when the quantity and level of detail slightly exceeded my interest, but I'm glad I stuck with it.

The book is riddled with pain, rejection, estrangement and mentions of abusive relationships (never graphic); many are haunted by ghosts of past events and relationships gone wrong. But although it is sometimes bleak, it is rarely depressing, and sometimes it's funny. Even close and fond relationships often have an element of awkwardness and distance; for instance, Quoyle always refers to "the aunt", rather than "my aunt". Even after living with her for a while, "It came to him he knew nearly nothing of the aunt's life. And hadn't missed the knowledge.

Ultimately, it's at least as much about (re)birth and healing as death and doom. One character slowly realises it may be possible to recover from a broken relationship: "was love then lie a bag of assorted sweets passed around from which one might choose more than once?"


* "a failure of normal appearance" - if you can't even achieve that, what hope is there?
* "believed in silent suffering, didn't see that it goaded"
* In a shop, "the man's fingers dropped cold dimes"
* "fog shuddered against their faces"
* "the house was garlanded with wind"
* In such a harsh environment, "The wood, hardened by time and corroding weather, clenched the nails fast"
* "a few torn pieces of early morning cloud the shape and color of salmon fillets" (I think I'd prefer that one without the fish)
* "the woman in the perpetual freeze of sorrow, afloat on the rise and fall of tattered billows"
* a babysitter "doing overtime in a trance of electronic color and simulated life, smoking cigarettes and not wondering. The floor around her strewn with hairless dolls."

From The Ashley Book of Knots:
"To prevent slipping, a knot depends on friction, and to provide friction there must be pressure of some sort."
The Complete Maus - Art Spiegelman What has always troubled me about the book is that cats are natural predators of mice, so the analogy with the Holocaust seems dangerously wrong.

However, in a comment on Steve's thought-provoking review (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/291528719), Ian pointed out, "My concern is that, if we fail to draw analogies with other, "lesser" conflicts, we might not see the next Holocaust coming. If we think of the Holocaust as qualitatively unique, we might become complacent. I think there are analogies at the level of playground bullying (especially when it leads to murder or suicide)."

Those thoughts, along with some of the other comments, have almost persuaded me to try a graphic novel...

Currently reading

The Illustrated Gormenghast Trilogy
Sebastian Peake, China Miéville, Mervyn Peake
Mervyn Peake