Wednesday, 2 December 2020

Victorian Sensation, Michael Diamond

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In the mid-nineteenth century a number of factors came together that made the spread of scandal much easier. Newspapers became cheaper with the removal of taxes, meaning that a much wider readership were able to afford them. The opening of the Divorce Court in 1858 also offered a new source of scandal - court proceedings included personal details that newspapers would not have been able to print. Diamond, in an attempt to show that the Victorians were not all that different to us, walks us through some of the popular scandals of the time. 

There are some famous occurrences that modern readers will be familiar with, such as the Jack the Ripper murders, but Diamond doesn’t dwell too long on these and there’s a wealth of other sensations that the common reader will likely not have come across before. The Tichborne Case, for example, captured the public imagination. Roger Tichborne, heir to title and fortune, was presumed dead after being involved in a shipwreck in 1854. His mother believed there was a chance he was still alive and advertised widely, offering a reward for information. An Australian butcher saw the advert and made his way to England to claim his position as the lost son. Some were happy to accept him whereas others were more sceptical. The court case that ensued was the longest on record. It became a huge rallying point for the public who remained firmly on the side of the Claimant, despite evidence suggesting he was not the Tichborne heir. 

Diamond sets each scandal within its social and political context and reveals patterns in some of the deeds and defences. He also reminds us that Britain was less revolutionary than its continental neighbours, and that events considered sensational would not have been elsewhere. He discusses the role of celebrity, both in the context of crime, and entertainment. Oscar Wilde had very deliberately created a public persona for himself, but this made his fall from grace that much more severe, and his every move was tracked. Diamond closes with a discussion of P.T. Barnum, the great showman, and his focus on creating spectacle and sensation. He seemed to believe in the oft-repeated phrase ‘all publicity is good publicity’, and had huge success despite causing outrage in some circles. ‘Barnum, an impressario not a performer, had become a star in his own right, and gives a lesson in how to create sensations through size, planning, advertising, and razzmatazz. … Barnum had led the way into the twentieth century.’

This is an accessible book that helps to break down the commonly held view of Victorians as prim and proper with very rigid morals. The popularity of sensation novels and dramas show the huge appetite for such tales. He guides us through the real life events that inspired fiction and the response to these forms of entertainment. He writes also of the role of women’s writing and strong female characters that dominated the genre. The book offers a glimpse into the subjects that titillated and shocked, and the laws that made them possible. There was a fascination with poison as a means of murder, and we learn that arsenic could be freely sold without a licence, whereas items such as tea and coffee, which we consider every day essentials, could not. This is a great read for those who want to dive into the world of Victorian reporting and entertainment, offering summaries and context for a broad range of events. Diamond sets them firmly in their time while allowing us to see that the subjects that capture public interest haven’t changed all that much in the intervening years.

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Dead Rock Stars, Guy Mankowski

Thanks to the author for providing me with a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Emma Imrie had always dreamed of being a rock star, of writing songs that really meant something. She’d been on the cusp of success when her life was cut tragically short, leaving her younger brother Jeff to navigate his grief without the support of his distant parents. He is sent to spend the summer on the Isle of Wight with a childhood friend who is unlikely to provide much emotional support. Finding himself truly alone for the first time since his bereavement leads him to releasing some of the emotion he’s been holding back, and reading Emma’s diary to discover what really happened.

The two narrative strands - an older Jeff remembering that strange summer, and Emma’s narrative through her detailed diary entries run parallel, but it is Emma’s voice, her story, that looms largest, as it seems she did in life. The diary entries come thick and fast and so we don’t get to know Jeff as deeply, to start with at least. It leaves a slight disconnect and a sense of apprehension of how the space will be filled when we reach the last entry. There’s plenty still to come however, and although there were parts of the story that didn’t feel quite right, the way Mankowski writes grief is raw and honest. Jeff’s need to understand what happened, his feelings of wanting to keep reading the diary because it feels like it’s keeping part of his sister alive, are heart wrenching and relatable. Mankowski’s strength lies in the contemplation of life and death and the places in between.

Jeff’s parents are largely absent from the novel, but we do get a good sense of Emma’s relationship with her mother. The opening passages detail Jeff’s single experience of seeing his sister perform in Camden, of his mum’s disgust at the world she has chosen to make her own. Throughout the diary entries we see many examples of them being unable to compromise or understand each other’s point of view. They are clearly neglectful as parents, leaving the siblings with damaged self-esteem and a desperate need to feel wanted. As Jeff matures over the course of the book however, he comes to understand how his mum was also just human like them, trying her best to cope with difficult situations and relationships.

Mankowski’s skilful world-building is demonstrated successfully in this novel, whether it be the beauty and peace of the sea, or the London of Emma’s dreams. He teases out the contrast between reality and fantasy. Never is this more clearly drawn than in Jeff’s memories of going to collect Emma from hospital after her first overdose. He encapsulates the many faces of the city and its potential for both good and bad.

There’s a strong sense of a coming-of-age novel in this book, both for Emma as she tries to cope with her disillusion, and for Jeff as he struggles to make sense of his grief at such a formative age. The combination of Emma’s diary entries and his own memories show how her unfortunate relationship experiences turned him away from the idea of love, afraid of letting people in for fear of the damage they could cause. Perhaps because Emma’s character is so strong, his own self-doubts and dreams get a little lost. It feels slightly out of character or unexpected when he expresses certain views, but they are also authentic representations of the teenage experience. In a way, his summer on the island is a chance for him to find out who he really is, although the shadow of his famous sister is never far away.

A compelling read that might try to cover a little too much ground, but nonetheless does so with style. References to the Riot grrrl movement and other cultural references from the 1990s had me diving into online research and opened up some interesting topics. This is a well-written book which manages to make an absent character incredibly present and nuanced. A great read if you’re interested in the 1990s Camden music scene, the idea of the tortured genius, or a coming-of-age book that will fully immerse you in the world of its characters.

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

Polina, Bastien Vivès, Translated by Polly McLean

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Polina follows an aspiring dancer from auditions as a child through to adulthood, trying to find her way in the world while reluctant to let go of what she was taught in her formative years. Bojinsky is famed for his high standards and often reduces students to tears, leaving them convinced they should quit dancing for good. He is no less exacting in his training of Polina, but she is determined to stick with it. When she moves on, she begins to realise others see his technique as old-fashioned and try to get her to forget what he taught her. She finds herself torn between the two, studying with him in secret and jeopardising her position at the theatre school. There is a sense of Polina being over-burdened and pulled in too many directions throughout which adds a sense of heaviness, of enclosure, to the novel.

The depictions of ballet training play on some of the over-done stereotypes - her mother tells her not to show if it hurts when the teachers test her suppleness in the early pages of the book. Bojinsky’s views that you can’t be taught grace and other basic elements required of dancers also feels at odds with reality. He is an unsettling character, demanding and unreasonable, and I spent large sections of the book worried that his behaviour was going to escalate. Polina’s devotion to him seems illogical on the surface, but she feels a sense of loyalty to him because he saw something in her and kept her working hard to achieve her potential. There’s a sense that he shaped her as a dancer, even though her career diverts from his technique. Their relationship made me quite uncomfortable, but it was interesting to see the dynamic between mentor and pupil explored.

Polina rarely seems happy, caught in constant conflict with herself and eager to please others before herself. When she suffers setbacks that would be fairly devastating they are quickly passed over and this can create a slight distance with the emotional side of the characters.

The plot progresses at quite a pace, leaving much left to be assumed as we jump forward across the years. This can help sweep you along with the story with no time to stop and dwell, but it can also be a bit jarring as you have to discern how much time has passed and where we find Polina now.

This was my first time reading a graphic novel and although it was easy to get wrapped up in, I was left wanting something more from it. The illustrations themselves nicely capture movement and resist being bogged down in too much detail. For fans of ballet and coming-of-age stories, this is an interesting book to pick up.

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Wednesday, 11 November 2020

Shirley, Charlotte Brontë

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Shirley is perhaps Charlotte Brontë’s least read novel today, but this historic, social novel, has a lot to offer. The book doesn’t have one overarching narrative thread - there are the industrial depression and Luddite uprisings, some elements of romance, and plenty of social commentary. Most prominent however, are the two main female characters - Caroline Helstone and Shirley Keeldar. Their positions are opposite - Shirley has money and is strong-willed and defiant, Caroline has no fortune and is more obliging, but both find difficulties in their status. It becomes clear that for many, money takes precedence over all else, meaning that Caroline cannot marry the man she loves, and Shirley is wary of potential suitors, as well as being reluctant to give up the liberty her single status affords. 

Brontë is forthcoming with depictions of the plight of women. 

What do they expect them to do at home? If you ask, they would answer, sew and cook. They expect them to do this, and this only, contentedly, regularly, uncomplainingly all their lives long, as if they had no germs of faculties for anything else - a doctrine as reasonable to hold as it would be that the fathers have not faculties but for eating what their daughters cook, or for wearing what they sew. Could men live so themselves? Would they not be very weary? And, when there came no relief to their weariness, but only reproaches at its slightest manifestation, would not their weariness ferment in time to frenzy?

Caroline has very little autonomy, even being refused the opportunity to make her own money as a governess, and so finds herself with no occupation to stimulate her mind or add interest to her days. She ponders what her life will be like with very little chance of marriage. Her home life is unhappy; she has no contact with her mother, her father is dead, and her uncle is not pleasant company.

As is often the case in Brontë’s writing, the characters are well-drawn. She is expert in providing descriptions that instantly give a sense of personality, revealing anecdotes that show their true nature. The opening chapter introducing the three local curates contain cutting appraisals and touching stories that will keep you amused and curious. Some parts of the novel drag a little, but the character sketches are little gems scattered throughout. 

Despite there being hardship and unrest present, the main characters are not suffering themselves from the downturn in industrial work, so this always feels like a background feature rather than the main thrust of the book. In our introduction to Robert Moore we are told that he little thinks or cares where his workers get their daily bread when he lets them go, which may fool you into thinking the plight of the industrial worker will play a much more prominent role. In fact, little space is given to the working man.

This is a novel that’s hard to define. Some sections are slow but others are utterly gripping. The headstrong Shirley, famously based on what Charlotte imagined her sister Emily would have been if she’d been born into wealth and health, is a force to be reckoned with, and shows herself to be more than capable of holding her own time and again. There are some touching moments that some may find a little twee but which I enjoyed. Illness and mortality are a concern, and remind us of the fragility of life. It’s said that Gaskell’s Mary Barton, and the loss of her siblings during the writing process, changed the course of the story. We’ll never know for certain what Charlotte had originally intended for it, but what has come down to us is worth picking up, with Brontë's command of the language in her beautiful prose evident throughout.

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Friday, 6 November 2020

Second Cousin, Once Removed, Kenneth L. Toppell

This post is part of the Ultimate Blog Tour for the novel. Thank you to the author and The Write Reads for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Henry Atkinson is an ageing attorney who has taken up genealogy to fill the gap left by his now separated family. To his surprise, he discovers a professional hitman in his family tree, and when he makes contact becomes convinced he is responsible for the death of his uncle Ira. When a woman, Carolyn, turns up from his uncle’s business he is certain his life is in danger. What follows is a race across states both running from, and searching for, his cousin Shelley.

The premise is a tad unusual and you find yourself wondering why the characters are acting as they are. They seem to very easily adapt to life on the road, discarding their true identities, and predictably, falling in love with the person they’re pretending to be married to. The search for Shelley and the twist that makes them re-assess their morals are not particularly engaging. There are attempts to build suspense and mystery with repeated mentions of an incident that happened long ago, but it doesn’t quite hit the mark. The reveal is also fairly inconsequential and largely a device to progress an already convoluted plot.

The characters don’t have a lot of depth - Henry develops a lack of self-confidence for a while and Shelley apparently only accepts jobs where the target is not a good guy, but there’s little in the way of real development. Carolyn is quite an outdated portrayal of a female character. There’s a lot of descriptions of her physical appearance that will make you cringe and she’s often demure and subservient. Despite some blatant gender stereotyping, Toppell does at least give Carolyn and Marian, the only two female characters, an active role in the denouement.

Each chapter is narrated by either Henry, Carolyn, or Shelley. For the most part they pick up where the previous chapter left off, but there is occasional overlap to show scenarios from multiple points of view. The first chapter from Shelley’s perspective is one of the more exciting moments in the book as up until then he is shrouded in mystery and conjecture. 

Overall, not to my taste, but if you enjoy dialogue-heavy writing and exploring the mindset of a professional killer, you might enjoy it more than I did.

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

The Doll Factory, Elizabeth Macneal

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Set against the backdrop of Victorian London, Macneal’s debut is part thriller, part love letter to art. Iris works in a doll factory with her sister Rose, painting faces on dolls and unable to resist trying to divine whether the child its meant to represent is dead or alive. This little tinge of darkness that appears at the start will set the tone for much of the book. Louis is a budding artist and member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, desperately working on a piece for consideration at the Royal Academy. When he sees Iris he knows she is perfect as the inspiration for the Queen in his painting. Silas spends his life away from polite society, preserving and stuffing dead animals, often selling them to artists, but ultimately hoping to open his own museum. The Great Exhibition, in construction at the time the book is set, is his immediate focus. Their lives intertwine in a tale of passion, obsession, and ambition.

Iris is keenly aware of the precarious position of women in society. She watched as Rose’s life fell apart when the man she was due to marry broke off contact when she fell ill. They’re now stuck in unhappy lives with parents willing to cut them off if they do anything considered inappropriate. Rose dreams of owning her own shop and Iris longs to create art. She spends her evenings working on paintings considered scandalous, scraping together dregs of art supplies. When Louis shows interest in her she sees her chance to be trained as an artist, but her association with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and her role as model means she is shunned by society, who consider her little more than a prostitute. As time passes it becomes apparent that Louis is oblivious to her diminished status, and that even his peers do not take women seriously. We are reminded time and again how fraught a woman’s position is and how vulnerable to male violence. 

Iris’s sections of the book are nonetheless the much lighter - her budding talent and enthusiasm for a life different to the one she has grown to expect are heartening, as is her first taste of love. The sections focussing on Silas however, become increasingly sinister as the book progresses. In early passages you almost feel pity for him - he is an oddball and an outcast and mourns the loss of his childhood sweetheart. It soon becomes apparent however, that he has a violent streak and an unhealthy obsession with women with red hair, such as that of Iris. We are given hints that his violence may have led to fatality and it makes the book unputdownable as you want to discover the truth of his past and how it will impact on the other characters. He is entirely delusional, imagining an elaborate love story between himself and Iris, and unable to cope when she doesn’t behave as he’d like. The reader is led to worry for her safety as we see how easily he snaps, how other characters seem to remember attacks he has carried out, yet Silas has convinced himself an innocent party, misunderstood and mistreated. He is an extremely unpleasant character, yet fascinating to read.

Fans of the period will enjoy references to famous personalities and the art world, Macneal seamlessly placing the fictional Louis in the company of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Her descriptions of the capital ooze with atmosphere and danger, and shines a light on the lives of those struggling to survive. The compassion and generosity of Albie, an orphan who sells animal corpses to Silas in order to save for a new pair of teeth, is touching. He has his own dreams but puts his younger sister, who has been forced to sell her body, before himself. Iris is like a sister to him and he is wracked with guilt when he realises what he’s brought upon her in introducing her to Silas. Albie is one of the most likeable, sweet characters in the book, and you root for him to have a happy ending.

Despite dealing with dark subjects, Macneal succeeds in bringing some lightness to the book with moments of touching emotion and humour, often provided by Louis’ pet wombat Guinevere. This is a promising debut with evocative writing and intriguing characters. There are perhaps a few too many side stories of no real consequence, but once you’ve got your head around who is who it’s a hard book to put down.

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Wednesday, 14 October 2020

In Search of Victorian London

When wandering the streets of London it’s not hard to see remnants of the nineteenth century city - from the grand sweep of John Nash’s parks and surrounding streets, the extravagant museums of South Kensington to the imposing memorials in the likes of Highgate cemetery, and many churches dotted across the city. In honour of Victober, a month-long celebration of literature from Britain’s golden age of writing, I’ve put together this post of places to visit to walk in the footsteps of some of your favourite creatives.

Charles Dickens Museum at Christmas
Charles Dickens

The author most closely associated with Victorian London, famous for walking the streets at night, his writing evokes the darkness and squalor of many of the areas he knew. A great place to start in your search for Dickens’ London is the Charles Dickens Museum. His home between March 1837 and December 1839, it is decorated similarly to how it would have been when he lived and worked there. The museum also owns the property next door, meaning they’ve been able to expand their exhibition space. The interior has been digitised on Google maps, so even if you can’t get there in person, you can still explore the home of this most famous of authors.

If you really want to experience London through Dickens’ eyes, why not indulge in a self-guided walking tour, this one put together by the BBC is excellent.

Mary Shelley

St. Pancras Old Church
A little north of the site of Dickens’ home lies the birthplace of Mary Shelley, in Somers Town. The building itself is no longer standing, having been demolished in 1904, and now being home to Oakshott Court, a plaque nonetheless commemorates her birth on 30th August 1797. Not far away is the grave of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, in the graveyard of St. Pancras Old Church. Those familiar with the legend of Shelley will know that it’s believed her father taught her to write her name by tracing the lettering on her mother’s grave, as well as being a meeting place for secret liaisons with Percy Bysshe Shelley in the early days of their relationship. The house where she lived her final five years is still standing at 24 Chester Square, a blue plaque marks its historic significance.

Wilkie Collins

There is a blue plaque at 65 Gloucester Place, Marylebone, marking the house in which Collins once resided, but it is perhaps Hampstead that is most associated with him. He lived in Hampstead as a child, when it was yet to be consumed by the city. Fans of The Woman in White will delight in walking across the Heath, the location of Hartright’s walk immediately before his first encounter with the eponymous figure at the junction of modern day Finchley Road and Frognal Lane. Hampstead also makes an appearance in both Armadale and The Moonstone. It remains a beautiful place to explore and has retained its village feel despite now being much better connected to the rest of the capital. While you’re in the area, it’s also worth making a stop at another literary location - Keats House. One final stop for those so inclined is Collins’ grave in Kensal Green Cemetery.

William Morris' Red House
William Morris 

The William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow is a wonderful place to start your William Morris journey. Housed in a villa that he lived in during his late teens and early twenties, it is an inspiring museum that delves beyond his famous designs  (although you'll find plenty of them there too) into his wider creative and political work, and it’s free to visit. South of the river is Red House, a home Morris commissioned his friend Phillip Webb to build shortly after his wedding to Jane. The house was designed and decorated by Morris and his friends, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, and has been described as a ‘palace of art’. Sadly, the dream only lasted for five years, when he had to move his family back to central London. Finally, a visit to the William Morris Society, housed in the basement of Kelmscott House where he lived for the final eighteen years of his life. Unfortunately, their exhibition space remains closed due to Covid, but there is a virtual tour available on their website.

The Royal Observatory
Joseph Conrad

You can find a blue plaque on Conrad’s former residence at 17 Gillingham Street, Victoria, but to delve into the London of his novel The Secret Agent, it’s Soho and Greenwich that you want to explore. Soho is the location of Verloc’s shop and the area is portrayed as dark, confusing, and threatening. It oozes with atmosphere and the air of corruption that it was known for during the nineteenth century. The novel revolves around a plot to blow up the Greenwich Observatory, inspired by a real life attempt in the late nineteenth century. It remains a brilliant place to visit and dwell upon the importance of it at its creation, as well as offering panoramic views across the city.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Braddon serialised her novels Birds of Prey and Charlotte’s Inheritance in the magazine Belgravia, for which she was editor. In these novels she places London centre stage as she dissects the veneer of respectability, and the darkness hidden beneath, in areas such as Bloomsbury. The buildings in the area are largely still in tact, and it is a pleasant area to wander around, keeping in mind also, of course, the literary associations of the later Bloomsbury Group. Braddon also has connections to the outer suburb of Richmond. She lived with her husband John Maxwell in Lichfield House from 1874 until her death in 1915. The House no longer stands however, having been replaced by the modern development, Lichfield Court. Her final resting place is Richmond Cemetery, where her grave can still be visited, as well as a commemorative plaque in St Mary Magdalene Church in Richmond.

Another literary landmark not too far from Richmond is Strawberry Hill House, Horace Walpole’s famous Gothic Revival house. In Richmond itself, Virginia Woolf’s former home and the place where Hogarth Press was established, can be seen on Paradise Road. It is now a private residence.

Wednesday, 7 October 2020

My Name Is Why, Lemn Sissay

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In 1967 Sissay was born to a young Ethiopian woman in Wigan. The authorities removed him from her despite her refusal to sign adoption papers. He was given a new name, a fact he didn’t discover until a teenager, which made reuniting mother and son more difficult and cut him off from his origins. Official records show that his mother tried to get him back after she’d returned to Ethiopia to be with her dying father, but attempts were blocked. He was never told that his mother wanted him, loved him, and he grew up believing that he was all alone in the world. He was placed in a foster family and subsequently a series of children’s homes that damaged his sense of self-worth and were unhelpful during his periods of depression.

The book consists of his own recollections interspersed with copies from the official files kept on him, which he fought for three decades to be allowed access to. They reveal a system that used bureaucracy to keep him from his mother, for example, sending her a letter with a response deadline of one month when it took that long to reach her. The injustice of ripping him from his family was further exacerbated by the constant interpretation of positive reports from school as being special treatment because of his race rather than acknowledging that he was genuinely a personable and bright child. In reality, he was on the receiving end of a lot of negativity because of racism. 

It was not only the officials chipping away at him. The foster family he was with from birth to around the age of twelve were strictly religious and were unwilling to compromise or accept any differences in behaviour. They taught him that he had evil inside him and that it was his fault he had to leave because he didn’t love them. He was removed from the only family he had ever known and made to believe it was his fault. His social worker, at least, did seem to be on his side, but stuck in a system distinctly lacking in care where his successes were twisted into negativity, it was hard to move forward.

His darkest days were yet to come, when he was sent to Wood End, a remand centre where abuse was common, while a new home was supposedly being sought for him. He includes responses he received from a piece he wrote about his time there, full of trauma and ongoing mental health issues because of the appalling treatment they endured. 

A book that will fill you with a sense of the unforgivable injustice meted out to an innocent child. This is an eye-opening account of life within that care system that lays bare the deception, manipulation, and abuse, that proliferates within the system. Sissay’s determination and talent have meant he has made a success of his life despite all attempts to limit it. 

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Tuesday, 29 September 2020

The Inheritance Games, Jennifer Lynn Barnes

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This post is part of the Ultimate Blog Tour for the novel. Thank you to Penguin and The Write Reads for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Avery Grambs has her life turned upside down when multi-billionaire Tobias Hawthorne, who she has no recollection of ever having met, leaves her his fortune. The inheritance comes with one condition - she has to live at Hawthorne House with his family for one year. This might sound like a simple enough task, but she is less than welcome as the usurper of their inheritance. What follows is a race to discover why Tobias chose Avery as his heir, with plenty of twists, turns, and assassination attempts along the way.

Avery is depicted as intelligent and kind from the start. Life hasn’t dealt her the easiest of hands but she works hard and looks out for those less fortunate than herself. The Hawthornes, by contrast, have become accustomed to a life of luxury and have their share of dark secrets haunting them. Tobias’ four grandsons are exceptional, quirky, and irresistibly attractive. They come across as confident and self-assured, but there are weaknesses in their shining veneer. Avery soon comes to realise that the upbringing that made them excel at so many things also put untold pressure on them and made them ruthlessly competitive. They see Avery as their grandfather’s final puzzle for them and and she fights to be seen as a player, a person, rather than just a clue, a mystery to be solved.

She is warned that the brothers are dangerous and that she shouldn’t get too close. The mystery of Emily, their last infatuation, who passed away after spending too much time at the house, haunts them all. This strain of the novel is reminiscent of du Maurier’s Rebecca - an enigmatic former lover that continues to obsess those left behind. Never is the comparison as apparent as during Avery’s first ball when her outfit is remarkably familiar to the Hawthornes.

Hawthorne House is the mystifying heart of the novel. The sprawling estate contains not only theatres, bowling alleys, and numerous libraries, but also a plethora of hidden passageways and secret compartments. Tobias would add a new room or wing every year, resulting in an eclectic compendium of every kind of room imaginable. It simultaneously makes you want to step into the book and explore its secrets yet knowing it would keep you constantly on edge, never knowing if you were truly alone. 

An enjoyable read that will keep you guessing. The characters are interesting but their inner lives are second to the mystery. A far-fetched tale but one you can’t help but find yourself involved in, wondering who Avery can trust, and as eager for answers as the Hawthornes.

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Wednesday, 23 September 2020

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson

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When Ronson became a victim of a spambot pretending to be him, he met with the creators to ask them to delete the account. They were less than obliging, and although he didn't think he'd come off well, he posted the footage from the meeting online. He was soon pleased to discover that people took his side and began trolling the creators. The spambot was deactivated and he basked in the glow of public justice. It soon got him wondering about the impact of such public shamings, which are a regular feature of social media. Public shamings are not a new concept, but in the past they have been presided over by justice systems - the people being punished had generally broken the law. On Twitter, people’s lives were being destroyed because of ill-advised jokes or unpopular opinions. The mob might move on to the next outrage quickly but for the person being shamed it can have long-lasting effects on their mental health and quality of life.

He meets with a range of people who have been on the receiving end of public shamings, as well as those whose actions were the catalyst for other people’s disgrace. In July 2012 Michael Moynihan noticed some inconsistencies in the work of bestselling author Jonah Lehrer. He did some digging and soon found enough to discredit Lehrer, who begged him not to publish his findings. He did, and regretted it. Lehrer made a public apology in front of a live Twitter feed of people’s reactions. The event turned into a nightmarish humiliation for Lehrer. Moynihan also suffered, experiencing symptoms similar to those who have been through a traumatic event. Throughout the book, Ronson meets with those who have been shamed and have managed to rebuild some sense of normality, but with the constant terror of their story rising to prominence again. He also meets those who remained virtually unscathed and wonders what makes it so much worse for some people. 

In an attempt to find out, Ronson takes part in an anti-shame workshop in which participants attempt to let go of shame by revealing their deepest secrets. He’s not entirely convinced by this method. Later, he meets with people who have learnt how to manipulate Google search results in order to bury the stories they would like forgotten. This is useful not only for the original subject but for those who share their name who suffer by association, but these services are not cheap and therefore not available to the majority of people.

In the afterword he discusses the responses he received to the book and his own small taste of shaming when a controversial paragraph present in the proofs but removed from the final edition made its way onto social media. He considers the impact of public shamings and the way in which fear of being the subject of a pile on leads us to censor ourselves. ‘We see ourselves as non-conformist, but I think all of this is creating a more conformist, conservative age. ... We are defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart the people outside of it.’

An interesting, easy-to-read book that shows the very real consequences of the mob mentality we’ve all become so susceptible to in an age of anonymised social justice. His critique of popular case studies offers food for thought and you’ll find yourself questioning people’s motives and the damage being done to the possibility for debate and varied world views. He admits when his experiences don’t match his expectations however, such as the young man sentenced to public humiliation - walking along the side of a road with a sign proclaiming that he killed two people while drunk driving. Instead of his punishment destroying him as similar sentences did to others, he found a purpose in life, being an example to others, rather than dwelling in a pit of of guilt in a prison cell. An eye-opening book on the complexities of misdemeanours in the digital age. ‘The great thing about social media was how it gave a voice to voiceless people. Let’s not turn it into a world where the smartest way to survive is to go back to being voiceless.’

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Wednesday, 16 September 2020

White chocolate and raspberry bread knot

As we enjoy the last of the summer sun this bread makes a lovely use for any leftover raspberries you may have. Delicious while still slightly warm.


500g strong white flour, plus extra for dusting

5g salt

40g caster sugar

8g fast-action yeast

40g butter, melted

100ml water

100ml milk

100ml mango purée (optional, if you don’t want to use this then add an extra 50ml each of water and milk)

1 egg

100g white chocolate chips, plus a handful for drizzling

200g fresh raspberries


Mix the salt and flour together in a large mixing bowl, then add the sugar and yeast.

Put the butter, milk, water, purée (if using) and egg in a jug and beat together. 

Pour into the dry ingredients and mix until a dough forms.

Tip the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead for around ten minutes, until smooth and elastic.

Place in an oiled bowl covered with either cling film or a damp tea towel and leave to rise for an hour, or until doubled in size.

Once the dough has finished its rise, tip it back onto a floured surface and roll out into a long, thin rectangle. Sprinkle the chocolate chips across the length of the dough and then do the same with the raspberries.

Roll from the long side into a long sausage shape. If your roll seems a little thick, massaged the length of it to make it a little longer and thinner. Cut across the sausage, leaving you with two long rolls. Pinch the ends together and twist them into a knot, bringing the two ends together.

Place on a lined baking sheet and leave to rise again for 45 minutes.

Pre-heat the oven to 180º/160º fan.

Bake the bread for 35-45 minutes, until it’s golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool on a cooling rack.

In the meantime, melt your handful of chocolates chips, either in a microwave, putting them in a microwave safe container and heating for 60 seconds or, put a heat-proof bowl over a pan of gently simmering water and melt in the bowl. Once the bread has cooled, drizzle the melted white chocolate over the loaf.

Wednesday, 9 September 2020

A Bit of a Stretch: The Diaries of a Prisoner, Chris Atkins

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In July 2016, film-maker Chris Atkins was sentenced to five years in prison for his role in a tax fraud scheme used to finance some of his films. He was sent to one of Britain’s most notorious prisons, Wandsworth, where he kept a diary to help stay sane. What follows is a horrifying account that leaves you in no doubt about the sorry state of our prisons. Britain has the highest prison population in the EU and a reoffending rate of 48%. Chris Grayling cut staffing by a third during his tenure as Justice Secretary, resulting in prisoners being locked up in their cells for twenty-three hours a day, only being able to shower infrequently, and no training or education provision. 

The outdated, overly complex bureaucracy of the prison system is endlessly frustrating as well as failing in severe ways, resulting in the early release of dangerous inmates, and protracted sentences for minor offences. Atkins does his best to wade through a system that doesn’t seem to make sense even to those enforcing it, but finds that the many forms he fills in generally remain ignored.

He is desperate to gain Enhanced status which allows slightly more freedom, and ultimately aims to be made category D, which would mean being transferred to an open prison. He picks up as many jobs as he can to aid in this but admits that he benefits from his race, affluence, and education. It is disappointing to see that social inequalities in society are mirrored in prisons and, although he acknowledges the unfairness of the system, Atkins happily takes advantage of the opportunities available to make prison life more bearable.

As part of his campaign to be moved into more comfortable accommodation he trains to become a Listener, a scheme organised by the Samaritans for peer support. His Listener status allows him a more spacious cell, but the burden of caring for others in a system that makes it virtually impossible for him to help them in any practical way takes its toll. He regularly sees people self-harming and rarely has the opportunity to find out whether they made it through. He talks about the fact that the complete lack of control and uncertainty experienced by inmates has a damaging effect on mental health, not to mention the isolation. Mental illness is punished as bad behaviour, meaning that those who are suffering are likely to have their sentences extended. There is an isolation cell for those at highest risk but the small, bloodstained cell that offers not a shred of privacy or comfort only serves to humiliate and exacerbate problems. The prison experience is hugely damaging to both prisoners and officers and Atkins talks openly about his own struggles to adjust to new environments.

An interesting read that mixes personal experience with facts and figures, and manages to be funny despite its dark subject. Atkins’ descriptions of the endless noise, lack of personal space, and loss of agency gives a shocking glimpse into prison life. He discusses the huge difference made by various cellmates, some endlessly cheerful, others absolutely terrifying. Whatever preconceptions you go in with, you’re bound to discover something new and reassess your views on the role and efficacy of prisons. A manifesto for urgent reform.

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Wednesday, 2 September 2020

Travellers, Helon Habila

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Habila’s fourth novel examines the motives and reception of a variety of migrants, condemning the hostile environment tactics of governments and reminding us all that no matter where we are from we are all human, with the same needs and desires for safety and love. The novel is split into six books, each focussing in on a different character, our unnamed narrator ever-present. The book opens with him and his wife Gina trying to hold their marriage together after a traumatic event. They have moved to Berlin temporarily for Gina to complete an art project and with the hope that it would help her husband to resume his halted academic work. She is painting a series of portraits entitled Travellers, and when he finds himself drawn to one of her rejected subjects he is thrown into a revolutionary world of activism. It soon becomes apparent that the circles Gina moves in hold racial prejudices that she either doesn’t worry about or chooses to ignore, something made impossible when Mark, an activist, joins them and refuses to bow under the pressure of social convention.

From here we see stories of exile, fractured families, and the narrator himself accidentally ending up in a refugee camp. There are heart wrenching tales of a husband repeatedly going to an arranged meeting point in the hope of seeing his wife again despite there being little chance of her having survived the journey, parents making heartbreaking decisions in an attempt to protect their children, and the constant judgment and resistance of Europeans to accept them. You can’t read this book without feeling guilt at the way governments and individuals respond to migrants. The book deals with heavy topics but the writing will capture your attention and whisk you along, completely absorbing you in the lives being portrayed.

These stories are not mere fiction, but based around the lives of people Habila met during his own time in Berlin. It shines a light on the systems that make migration so challenging and the unique loneliness of being in a foreign land, whether by choice or necessity. A searing portrayal of the lives that so often go unspoken, I cannot recommend this highly enough.

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Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Renni Eddo-Lodge

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Eddo-Lodge’s bestselling discussion of racism in Britain jumped to the top of the charts once more with the recent prominent protests of the Black Lives Matter movement. It takes an uncompromising look at race relations in Britain today, giving sound evidence for the structural racism that permeates every aspect of society. It is an uncomfortable but important read.

It opens with a discussion of the history of racism in a country that deludes itself into thinking it doesn’t have a problem with race. Some of the facts I was familiar with but continue to be astounded by, such as that it was the slave owners who were compensated when slavery was abolished rather than those who had been enslaved. I was horrified to discover the frequency and brutality of lynchings of people of colour throughout the twentieth century. ‘…looking at our history shows that racism does not erupt from nothing, rather it is embedded in British society. It’s not external. It’s in the system.’

The troublesome history of racism in Britain is followed by an examination of the current disadvantages faced by people of colour. It soon becomes apparent that throughout every stage of life black people are disadvantaged by racism, whether conscious or otherwise. That black students are generally marked down by teachers and only receive their true grade in anonymous examinations is particularly relevant in the midst of the current grades debacle cause by the pandemic. The book leaves you with no doubt that claims that we live in a meritocracy are entirely unfounded, which brings us on to the push-back against positive discrimination and attempts to make recruitment processes less biased. It’s common to hear cries of unfairness when attempts to even out the playing field are made. Indeed, even those pushing for more gender and class equality often seem to falter when the same arguments are made about race.

This book will open your eyes to discrimination you may never have noticed unless you were on the receiving end, making you reassess the current state of Britain. An important book that I plan to revisit so as not to lose sight of how far we still need to go. It will spark conversations, often uncomfortable, to help deepen our understanding and realise that silence is complicity.

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