Book Review: Old Baggage

In Lissa Evans’s previous novel, Crooked Heart, the reader is briefly introduced to Mattie Simpkin, an elderly lady who was once a suffragette. Old Baggage is set a decade earlier and offers further details on the life of this idiosyncratic character. Neither book relies on the other for its story but, having enjoyed the earlier work, I was delighted by the links that exist.

The tale opens in 1928. Mattie is walking across Hampstead Heath when she is assailed by a memory, her momentary distraction enabling a thief to make off with her handbag. In attempting to waylay the malefactor she injures a girl who then threatens legal action. Mattie’s good friend, Florrie Lee, steps in to help, offering the girl, Ida Pearse, a position in the house where she lives with Mattie. Florrie works as a Health Visitor and is the more practical and empathetic of the pair. She grew up in a poor household whereas Mattie came from a wealthy family. This disparity is more significant than Mattie can realise. The causes she cares about are linked to female equality and aspiration which can be stymied by family circumstances as much as legislation.

Mattie went to university in a time when these institutions refused to confer a degree on a woman, however well she did in their exams. As a suffragette she was imprisoned and badly treated leading to a lifelong contempt for upholders of law and order. When she sees how little Ida knows about the rights Mattie has spent her life fighting for, the older woman decides this is indicative of an important matter that she can address. She places an advertisement in the local newspaper inviting girls to join a club which she will use to propagate her views. As she says to a friend:

“one should try to spark a few fresh lights along the way. To be a tinderbox rather than a candle.”

Mattie is not the only suffragette looking to influence the young people of London. The idea for the girls’ club was inspired by an encounter with another old friend whose outlook has moved towards Fascism. The two groups, which the ladies set up, hold their meetings on the Heath and soon become rivals leading to a confrontation. Mattie has been foolish in her dealings with the attendees at her club – favouring one for personal reasons – with cataclysmic results.

The minor plot threads and contextual references add depth to what is an entertaining and accessible story. Mattie is a wonderful character, her drive, intelligence and willingness to take responsibility for her headstrong actions and their consequences an inspiration. Florrie offers a different perspective, quietly supporting and mopping up after her friend. The varied milieu offer a stark reminder of the importance of the welfare state.

It takes skill to write a book that is congenial and captivating whilst offering the reader interesting topics to chew on. The attributes and actions of the characters demonstrate how multifaceted an individual can be, and how often one judges on incomplete information. Old Baggage is funny, tender, fervent and affecting. It does not shy away from important issues but neither does it preach. It is a joy to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.


Gig Review: John Boyne at the Marlborough Literature Festival

Last weekend I attended the Marlborough Literature Festival – you may read about my first day experiences here. Day Two was more straightforward as traffic had returned to manageable levels in the town. I was also familiar with the venues, knowledge that helps anyone prone to unnecessary anxiety.

Unless an author is of particular personal interest – Margaret Atwood and Hilary Mantel come to mind – I tend to eschew larger events, prefering the intimacy of a bookshop venue. However, having so much enjoyed his latest work – The Heart’s Invisible Furies (you may click on the title to read my review) – I couldn’t miss the opportunity to listen to John Boyne speak. Plus he is Irish. I do like to support writers from my home country, even those as successful as him.

Held upstairs in the town hall, this event was chaired by Tony Mulliken who has worked with the National Book Awards and The London Book Fair. He appeared to be enjoying the ensuing discussion as much as the audience.

Following introductions, John was asked about the impact of the success of his fifth novel, The Boy In Striped Pyjamas, and what he thought of the popular film adaptation. John admitted that it changed his life, enabling him to do what he had always dreamed of and become a full time writer. He told us that he liked the movie, that he had worked on it himself. He also pointed out that a film doesn’t change a book, but it does bring more readers to the author’s works.

Moving on to The Heart’s Invisible Furies, John explained that this was a story about love, invisibility and anger at how his protagonist, Cyril Avery, is treated. Set over seventy years – ten chapters in seven year leaps – it opens when Cyril is still in the womb. John did not wish to portray Cyril’s pregnant and unmarried mother, Catherine, as a victim but rather as a strong, independent woman. He prefers to write his female characters in this way.

John then read from the book. This was one of several readings, each of which had the audience in stitches. The story weaves humour and pathos with a warm, impressive adroitness. Its author proved himself a fine, live entertainer.

John explained that although he plots his novels in advance he then allows them to develop. His plan for this book was to tell the story of a seventy year old man looking back on his life. After he had written Catherine’s denouncement by the church, he found the tone of his writing changed. A particular type of humour evolved with Cyril’s adoptive parents. John enjoyed writing in this way, deciding that readers did not need six hundred pages of misery. He hadn’t really done humour before but the change of direction opened a floodgate in his head and he enjoyed the process.

Irish people will know of the teatowels and bar towels and other touristy paraphenalia featuring the eight great Irish writers, all men. He decided that Cyril’s adoptive mother would be an author horrified by the thought of popular success, whose latest novel would suddenly threaten to put her face on such ephemera. Her husband is a dodgy banker whose foolish actions upset the family equilibrium. Both these characters provide much humour despite their sometimes casually cruel behaviour.

The book is historically accurate featuring an emerging homosexual growing up in a country where being gay is still illegal. John was asked what personal echoes exist in the book. He pointed out that all writers feature shadows of themselves. He wanted to write about how terrifying and misunderstood the AIDs crisis was having experienced the fear of it as a teenager in the 1980s. He also talked of the fear of the twenty foot walk, from bedroom to sitting room to come out to parents, and the huge repercussions on all their lives from there. John mentioned the pressure put on gay men to ‘try’ sex with a woman, the suggestion that maybe they might enjoy being married. Few considered how cruel this would be to the woman.

To develop Cyril’s character, to allow him to grow up, Cyril had to be taken out of the claustrophobic atmosphere of Ireland. When he eventually returns, having finally experienced love, the country has changed. The decriminilisation of homosexuality along with the revelations of the extent of abuses within the church allowed more liberal attitudes to develop. There was mirth from the audience when John mentioned the ongoing support of his country’s European friends.

In discussing endings, John does not feel a need for happiness so much as authenticity. He does though enjoy placing well known real public figures in his books and representing them in a certain way.

John was asked about his influences and mentioned John Irving, for his sexual misfits, and Dickens, for his orphans. John enjoys writing children without adults to solve their problems.

Another question asked was why Julian, Cyril’s best friend on whom he had a crush, could not see that Cyril was in love with him. This was because everyone loved Julian, he was used to being adored. Also, it was the 1950s when such behaviour would not be expected. Cyril did not feel he could be honest with Julian which demonstrated a lack of trust in their friendship.

John was asked about how he treats priests in the book. He wanted to start with the hypocrisy. He didn’t want it to be another church book but it is set in decades when the church was still a major social force. John grew up living next door to priests and nuns. He was an alter boy. These were not good memories.

Asked about the notable Irish voice throughout the story John was asked about translations and how this voice could be retained. He talked of the skill of the translator in capturing nuances. He also pointed out that he could not read the translations so would never know.

Did John set out to write a social history of Ireland or to write about Cyril? Both. He wanted to highlight the massive changes in attitudes in Ireland through the eyes of a particular person.

Has John been approached for film rights for this book? Yes, in a way. They have been sold to Ridley Scott as a ten part series. Of course this is no guarantee that the project will be taken further.

I found this a fascinating talk as well as being a highly entertaining event. If you haven’t already read The Heart’s Invisible Furies, I wholeheartedly recommend it.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies is published by Doubleday.

I will be writing about the final event I attended at the Marlborough Literature Festival in the next few days.

Book Review: A Dangerous Crossing


A Dangerous Crossing, by Rachel Rhys, is set on a luxury passenger liner travelling from Tilbury, England to Sydney, Australia in the five weeks leading up to Britain entering the Second World War in September 1939. The story is told from the point of view of twenty-five year old Lily, a waitress and former domestic servent who, along with several other young women, has gained a government assisted passage aimed at providing the wealthy down under with the types of servants they desire.

Lily is a pretty and straightforward working class girl but she harbours painful memories of heartache that she wishes to leave behind. As she befriends the strangers with whom she is to share the crossing she comes to realise that they too have secrets and that, despite their enforced proximity, the discriminatory judgements of fellow passengers can be as insidious here as on dry land. The treatment of the Jewish travellers was particularly painful to read.

There is disquiet when a couple from first class choose Lily and her new tourist class acquaintances as their companions for the voyage. This leads to entanglements that she struggles to deal with. We have come a long way in terms of behaviours wider society will accept.

Lily had to leave school at fourteen in order to help support her family and this journey offers her a chance to enjoy not just the exotic locations they visit en route but also an ease and lifestyle alien to her experience. What she is unprepared for is the intensity of both the relationships and resentments that form, and the inability to step back from her fellow passengers given their incarceration onboard a vessel at sea.

The writing is engaging and the characters drawn from a variety of walks in life. There is a carefully constructed build up to the denouement yet, although neatly done, this left me dissatisfied. I was more upset by Lily’s treatment of Maria than about the outcomes for her cohort of damaged and self-absorbed bright young friends. The time period is well evoked with its prejudices and casual entitlement. What I struggled to conjure was the warmth of empathy. I wished there to be someone willing to take a stand, even though the reluctance to act, given personal circumstances, was understandable.

I suspect that my lack of satisfaction with this book may be down to the expectations I had formed based on other early reader’s more positive reactions. I desired more depth, a challenge to convention. The tale has been well received by many but wasn’t for me.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.

Book Review: The Heart’s Invisible Furies


The Heart’s Invisible Furies, by John Boyne, tells the life story of Cyril Avery, a man born into an Ireland that I recognised all too well. I don’t think I have ever laughed so much at what is, at times, a heart-breaking story. In places the style of writing brought to mind the work of John Irving, to whom the book is dedicated, but this is a much more nuanced, hard hitting yet always compelling read.

Cyril Avery is born in 1945 to Catherine, the sixteen year old, unwed daughter of a Cork farmer. As soon as her condition becomes known she is condemned as a whore by the village priest in front of his entire congregation. He assaults and then banishes the teenager, with the full cooperation of her large and present family.

Catherine makes her way to Dublin where she sets about creating a new life for herself. She understands that, alone and financially insecure as she is, this will not be possible with a child. The convents, well used to dealing with ‘fallen women’, take her son when he is three days old and offer him to a wealthy, married couple who have asked for a baby to adopt. Cyril is accepted, although regularly reminded throughout his life that he is not ‘a real Avery’.

Charles and Maud Avery raise the boy in comfort but not perhaps as conventional parents would. Although never in material want, he feels bereft of affection. When Cyril is seven years old he meets Julian, the handsome and charismatic son of Charles’ solicitor. Julian is unlike anyone Cyril has previously known and he is immediately smitten. The boys become room mates at boarding school and have various, sometimes risqué, adventures. Cyril though has a secret that he cannot bring himself to tell even his best friend.

Ireland in thrall to the Catholic Church. Its sanctimonious attitudes, rampant hypocrisy and mysogeny are brilliantly evoked. Its preoccupation with other people’s sex lives and the indoctrination of guilt lead to horrifying cruelties and acceptance of widespread and very public vilification when those who do not conform to narrow behaviours are found out.

When Cyril’s secret is revealed he travels abroad but can never quite escape the bullies intent on forcing their flawed beliefs on all. Prejudice and related intolerance are damagingly widespread.

At moments in his long life Cyril does find happiness. He also makes mistakes and at times causes suffering for others. He sees the way the world is changing and regrets that he was born too soon to benefit.

The author is an impressive story teller and this ambitious work is masterfully crafted. With just a few lines he can touch the heart of an issue yet is never didactic. Events recounted are sometimes horrifying, but by not dwelling on the misery what comes across is the strength of those who stand up for what is right, and the benefits to society of increased empathy.

I loved this book. It is a powerful, poignant and beautiful tale. It will, I hope, be widely read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.

Book Review: Sirens


Sirens, by Joseph Knox, is a hard hitting crime fiction novel set in the underbelly of Manchester. Its protagonist, Aiden Waits, is a disgraced detective working covertly in an attempt to keep his job and stay out of jail. He is required to infiltrate the inner circle of a drugs baron. He has a weakness for the product.

Written in the first person the story opens with Waits working a standard night shift and realising it is a year since he got caught up in the events which make up this tale. He had been drinking in the city bars and clubs, observing activity linked to the supply of drugs. He recalls what happened next, his account tinged with regret.

Waits is asked to keep an eye out for Isabelle Rossiter, the seventeen year old runaway daughter of a wealthy politician. She has been linked to Zain Carver, a crime lord famed for the parties he holds in his home. She is mixing with the girls he uses in his business. Sometimes they disappear.

Waits is aware that there is more going on than he is being told, and that he is playing a dangerous game. He gains access to Carver and sets out to earn his trust, a transient concept in this line of work. Waits is attempting to set up a sting operation but to do so must get involved with Carver’s shady operations. When a brick of heroin goes missing events turn personal. The lies he is telling both sides catch up with him and Waits’ enemies close in.

The demand for drugs exists in all strata of society, from the hobos in the abandoned warehouses through the wide variety of pubs and clubs to the thrill seeking party goers in the mansions owned by the conspicuously wealthy. With so much money to be made the power of a drugs lord relies on product veracity and fear of retribution. Carver’s empire finds itself under threat.

The writing is dark and tense, the death toll high. The troubled Waits fits right into the world created. This is a powerful and compelling slice of noir presented in an accomplished narrative, impressive in a debut. A recommended read for all fans of crime fiction. The author is undoubtedly one to watch.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.

Book Review: I’m Travelling Alone


I’m Travelling Alone, by Samuel Bjork (translated by Charlotte Barslund), introduces the reader to Holger Munch and Mia Krüger, former members of a special unit in the Norwegian police department’s Violent Crimes Section. When the story opens Krüger is living alone on a remote island property and planning to take her own life. Munch has been dispatched to try to talk her into rejoining the unit following the disturbing murder of a child, an investigation that he hopes will also facilitate his return from the backwater he was banished to following an as yet undisclosed incident in their past.

Krüger is skilled at spotting clues that others miss, forming theories and associations that have enabled her to solve many complex crimes. When she notes that the murdered child has the number 1 scratched onto a finger nail she suggests that further murders will follow. This proves to be correct. A game of cat and mouse ensues as the reformed team race against time to work out motive and find suspects. Just as they are finally beginning to make headway it gets personal. Concerns are raised that neither Krüger nor Munch will be capable of the impartiality required to bring the perpetrator to justice.

The plot offers many threads for the reader to ponder: pre-school children washed and dressed as dolls found hanging from trees; a mysterious religious retreat created in woodland; potential clues presented as codes and riddles. It is not just children who are murdered but also animals. There is a possible link to a care home for the elderly.

I found the story telling slow to start. The background offered was of interest but the measured pace lacked the tension I have come to expect from crime thrillers. I wondered if the tale would work better on television where the brooding, Norwegian landscapes could add to the suspense.

The characters were as I would expect in Nordic fiction although the protagonists had irritating quirks that were repeatedly mentioned. Krüger was forever taking a lozenge, Munch lighting another cigarette. When the pace finally picked up these mentions ceased, as did the persistant reminder that they were functioning on too little sleep. My attention was not sufficiently diverted by what action there was to ignore this manner of writing.

The final hundred or so pages pulled together all of the carefully crafted threads and it was then a thrilling race to the denouement. There were twists that I had not guessed and satisfying endings. The members of the crime team had become three dimensional and I cared about how things would pan out for several of the supporting cast.

Although newly released in English translation, the book is already an international bestseller in at least half a dozen European countries. This is the proposed first in a sequence of novels featuring Krüger and Munch. Perhaps the slower opening pace was felt necessary as a stage setter for the series.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.

Gig Review: Joanne Harris in Bath


Anyone who follows Joanne Harris on Twitter (and if you don’t, you should) will know that she doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She comes across online as strong, assured, and intelligent. Add to this she is the author of a variety of styles of books, which suggests to me that she has no desire to be pigeon holed. This is the sort of person whose talents I can admire. Thus, when I spotted that Toppings Bookshop in Bath was offering an evening with this estimable author to promote her latest work, Different Class (which I review here), I decided to go along.

There are risks in meeting someone not personally known but admired. An author is not their work and I would never wish to judge a book by any prejudices I may hold against its creator. With Ms Harris this was not an issue. Attending a talk and a reading is still to observe a public persona, but when warmth and a sense of fun bubbles through as it did at this event my admiration can only increase.

As is my wont I arrived early at the venue. I was studying the window display when I noticed Ms Harris enter the shop. Not wishing to intrude upon her introductions to the staff I hung back before making my way inside. Unlike many visiting authors she had not moved out of sight but was browsing the stacks. When I gave my name to the manager she recognised it. “You are @followthehens” she said. My evening was made. If only I had the skill for small talk I believe she would happily have chatted on. Never have I regretted my social failings so much.

The evening commenced with a short introduction after which Ms Harris talked of her inspirations. Her mother had cautioned early that writers often died peniless and that a more secure job was required. With such a gauntlet thrown down Ms Harris penned two works with quiet success. Quiet success is not enough, however, and to continue she needed to find a home for her third work.

It was while she was constructing a sculpture of her rejections that she received a thirty page letter from a prospective agent detailing her failings as a writer. These included not setting her story in America, and not including enough sex. The manuscript was for ‘Chocolat’ whose subsequent success (without the suggested changes) enabled Ms Harris to leave her secure job. She talked of the film adaptation saying that she was content not to have been involved. That it was made was pleasing as many books are optioned and go no further.

Of the variety of styles of her books, Ms Harris sees all as similar, all inspired by her time as a teacher at a boys’ grammar school in Leeds. Each is set in a small community, is character based, and explores the masks constructed to facilitate acceptance and survival in society. She is interested in how even friends rarely know each other well, an obvious theme in her latest work.

As a former teacher Ms Harris is familiar with the issues she explores. She commented that, when writing fiction, fact must often be toned down or readers will not find the thread realistic. She sets her books in the past as that is what she has experienced. She believes that most teachers will have had to deal with the problem of a special little friend amongst their pupils.


We were treated to a couple of readings from Different Class before questions were invited from the capacity audience. These were fielded with humour and a sprinkling of anecdotes. I particularly enjoyed hearing of the young Ms Harris who, on arriving for her first day teaching at Leeds Grammar School wearing a smart trouser suit, was informed by the second master that ladies must wear skirts or frocks. The next day she donned a red PVC mini skirt and long boots, carrying the trouser suit over her arm. She was permitted to change.


It was disappointing when the bookshop manager called time, although we were then invited to come forward and have our books signed. Once again Ms Harris showed warmth and friendship and I regretted my inability to engage in chat. It was a fascinating and enjoyable evening.

The photos I took did not come out as well as I had hoped – I failed to capture the smile in the author’s eyes and the fun she conveyed. My new phone has a camera I find tricky to operate. Or perhaps it is simply that a lovely personality shines through the masks constructed for the public, and such things require that you be there.

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Different Class is published by Doubleday and is available to buy now.


Book Review: Different Class


Different Class, by Joanne Harris, is the third book in a series of psychological thrillers by the author, each set in the fictional Yorkshire town of Malbry. I have not read the first two books so approached this one standalone. This did not detract from my enjoyment although has made me eager to pick up the prequels. There are numerous references to past events of which I would like to know more.

The story is set in an old and venerable fee paying school, St Oswald’s, which has been rocked by scandal. The elderly Latin master, Roy Straitley, arrives for the start of a new academic year curious to meet the recently appointed headteacher. He has seen several heads come and go during his thirty-four year tenure at the school, which he himself attended as a boy. Despite the difficulties of the previous year he believes that the institution can once again rise and wishes to ensure it does so without losing that which has made it what it is.

The new headmaster arrives with his sharp suit, his Crisis Intervention Team, plans for restructuring, IT and paperless administration. Alongside this leap into the future he brings a whiff of the past which Straitley balks at as much as the proposed changes. The new head is also an old boy, one who Straitley taught and who was complicit in sending a master and friend to jail. Neither head nor teacher holds the other and their ways of working in high regard.

The plot unfolds along two major timelines, 1981 and 2005. The earlier includes diary entries written by a boy newly arrived at the school and with obvious issues. Both timelines include first person accounts by Straitley. He is a traditionalist who cares deeply for his pupils, especially his Brodie Boys, favourites because of their initiative which manifests itself as minor rebellion. It is interesting to look at the school through these two sets of eyes, pupil and master. The reader can easily empathise with the challenges faced by both.

The diary entries emanate menace. The writer addresses an erstwhile friend, Mousey, and appears preoccupied by death. He enjoys watching animals suffer. His family are members of a strict church and insist he adheres to their skewed interpretation of godliness. They are outwardly successful and will not permit him to befriend those of a different class.

The diary writer makes two friends, also new boys at the school, and they are drawn towards a hip, young teacher who plays them music that would be banned in their homes. Their parents wish to protect their malleable young minds from corrupting influences, whilst filling them with their own narrow beliefs.

Although the school has a system of pastoral care it is Straitley who pupils approach for advice as he does not judge based on the Christian ethos promoted within the school. Straitley is not, however, without his personal prejudices. In the later timeline he is also constrained by the changing official views on what is acceptable behaviour for a master. This made for fascinating reading, how the old system was more effective than the strictures apparent now, yet how much damage could thereby pass unseen.

It is clear from the off that bad things are going to happen but, as with the best thrillers, the plot twists and turns offering the reader clues that will prove significant but not as expected. The provenance of key characters is revealed gradually with possible outcomes remaining shrouded, palpably sinister.

The denouement ties up the many threads yet leaves much to consider, not least the purpose of punishment. There is poignancy and frustration at young lives damaged. None of the characters emerges unscathed.

I read this book in a sitting as I could not put it down. It is brooding, complex, utterly compelling. Put simply, a fantastic read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.

Book Review: The Ballroom


The Ballroom, by Anna Hope, is a love story set in what would have been considered a progressive mental asylum a century ago. It is a damning indictment of the innate sense of superiority still evident amongst wealthy, white skinned men, and the danger this poses to all of society. The way these men think and the power they hold over those less fortunate than themselves in terms of governance makes for familiar and chilling reading.

The story opens with the admittance to Sharston Asylum, a six hundred acre facility for the mentally deranged on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors, of a young mill worker named Ella Fay. Ella has been sectioned for causing a disturbance at her place of work, for breaking a window and then attempting to run away. Her life has been hard, not just at the mill but before that at home where her father regularly beat her mother, now dead.

Ella is assessed by the apparently affable Dr Fuller. Fuller has hopes of using music and dancing to improve his patients’ outcomes. As a member of the Eugenics Society he agrees with many of his peers that the poor are lesser beings than the wealthy. He reveres a lecturer he had at medical school named Pearson.

“During his lectures, Pearson spoke of many things, but alongside the danger of the inferior man he spoke of the superior man and of the need for these superior men to populate the world”

Many of the inmates at the asylum were admitted due to their pauperism, which Fuller believes is a fault of their genes and something that could be eradicated if they were prevented from breeding.

“pauperism is to a large extent confined to a special and degenerate class. A defective and dependent class known as the pauper class. Lack of initiative, lack of control, and the entire absence of a right perception is a far more important cause of pauperism than any of the alleged economic causes.”

At Sharston Asylum a strict policy of separation ensures that no breeding can take place. The only time any of the two thousand men and women can meet is at a weekly dance in the ornate Ballroom at the centre of the massive building. Attendance is strictly monitered and is regarded as a reward for good behaviour. Ella is determined that she will be good in the hope of one day being released.

Over on the men’s side is an Irish melancholic, John Mulligan. He and his friend, Dan Riley, are assigned jobs in the grounds where they dig graves and tend the fields. When Dr Fuller requires a subject to study for a lecture he plans to give arguing for self sufficient colonies, work camps to house the increasing number of degenerates threatening to swamp society, he picks on John. He intends to scientifically demonstrate that the regime at Sherston is a model which could benefit the inmates, the surrounding community, and society as a whole.

Ella befriends Clem, a well educated young woman from a wealthy family who pay for her incarceration in an attempt to persuade her to conform. Fuller concurs with the widely held opinion that men and women are inherently different, that men are naturally inclined to progressive thought whereas women are born to nurture. When Clem refused the suitor chosen by her father and brother, desiring instead to attend university, they considered her behaviour hysterical and requiring treatment.

Ella and John meet at the weekly dances. They exchange letters, which Clem reads and writes due to Ella’s illiteracy. The drudgery of their days is lightened by the feelings kindled. It is exactly the sort of behaviour that Dr Fuller is determined must be stamped out if the expense to the state of pauperism is to be eradicated.

The writing evokes the hard life of the inmates: the heat, smell, discomfort and boredom that must be tolerated alongside the knowledge that all power of self determination has been removed. If they were not mad to begin with it takes great effort to prevent madness developing in these circumstances. The inhumanity of the staff is painful to read. Above all of this sit the doctors meting out what they see as benevolence. They have no idea how their patients think and feel because they cannot perceive of them as equals.

A powerful, satisfying read that is a chilling reminder of the need to rebel against the lies peddled by government of the inferiority of certain classes of people. Our Eton educated overlords are still being raised to consider themselves superior types of being, and to persuade those beneath them of the need to eradicate the poor by whatever means.

This is also a love story of the first order. I was rooting for Ella and John throughout, despairing over Clem’s circumstances. Beautifully written, emotive, and all too relevant today.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.

Book Review: For The Most Beautiful


For the Most Beautiful, by Emily Hauser, is a retelling of the story of the fall of Troy as seen through the eyes of two women, Breseis and Krisayis. Based on events described in Homer’s ‘Iliad’, the author imagines how life would have been during those turbulent years for the people who lived within the shadow of the warriors and their epic battles. As today, youth and beauty were valued by men who give little credence to women’s thoughts or opinions. Despite this, they find ways to affect outcomes by refusing to accept the narrow lives the men dictated should be the sum of a woman’s aspirations.

The book opens on the slopes of Mount Ida. Paris, a son of the King of Troy, is approached by three beautiful women who reveal themselves as gods. They demand that Paris judge which of them is the most beautiful, offering incentives in an attempt to sway his decision. Paris’s choice and subsequent reward provide the catalyst for the Greek invasion which will culminate in Troy’s fall.

Interspersed between the chapters that tell of the mortal’s lives are tales of the gods as they watch events unfold from the gardens of heaven above Mount Olympus. They are bored and the looming war offers entertainment and the opportunity for a few wagers. They take sides and offer assistance to their favourites. It is not a view of the deities that the worshipful humans comprehend.

Both Bresias and Krisayis must watch as the men they love lose their lives to invaders. The young women are taken as slaves and, because of their beauty, claimed by the most senior warlords. This gives them access to plans that may assist their people if they can find a way to be heard.

Bresias’ loyalties are challenged as she recognises how pointless the fighting is, that it leads to nothing more than further death and suffering on both sides. Krisayis has no such qualms and risks her life to pass intelligence back to the leaders of Troy, holed up behind the walls of their beautiful city while the towns around them are sacked and their people killed or enslaved.

The conceit of the men, who do not consider that women may not fall into line, enables Bresias and Krisayis to act; yet this is nothing compared to the conceit of the gods. The outcome of the earthly fighting is as much driven by their whims as by knowledge, skill or bravery in battle. To the gods, mortals are their playthings.

A little licence is taken in the denouement, inspired by archeological finds as much as by the text of the poem on which this retelling is based. Of course, the Iliad is itself a story. It is a neat reminder that narrators of history present a version of the truth that suits their time and place.

This book is easier to read than the translated classic texts and offers the characters more depth and backstory. The gods reminded me of the depictions of certain gods in the Marvel universe, although the mortals view of them offers insights into more modern religions. Man has not been created in any god’s image so much as the gods have been created in man’s. That the female gods appear even more shallow than their earthly counterparts suggests that they have been created by man as well. It is the women in this story who bring it to life.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.