Eric Ambler – Cause for Alarm


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Espionage and armament sales in the slow build up to the Second World War

cause-for-alarmEric Ambler’s spy novels do follow a set formula, which sometimes works magnificently, and sometimes leaves a little dissatisfaction. Had I never read any Ambler before, I might have liked this one, one of his great five earlier novels written in the build-up to the Second World War and its early days, with less of a slight niggle. Hugely enjoyable, and in the main tightly written, as always, but lacking the brilliance of my personal favourite, The Mask Of Dimitrios.

Ambler’s politics were of the left, and he was someone who saw the dangers of fascist politics quite early. His espionage novels do not involve sophisticated lantern-jawed heroes , imbued with glamour and steely masculinity, saving the State. Instead, his heroes almost invariably are quite ordinary men who are not professional spies or spy killers, but who unwittingly, unwillingly find themselves in dangerous situations as politics and history unfold around them. He is interested in the ‘little man’ caught up in something he doesn’t understand – someone almost an innocent abroad – and, at times, a fool because he fails to understand that innocence is often dangerous ignorance.

So it is here. Nicholas Marlow is an engineer, recently engaged, and recently made redundant – we are in the pre-war thirties, and jobs not easy to find. Marlow is getting a little desperate as he wants a job in order to marry. And then he discovers one for which he is almost a perfect fit. A British firm, Spartacus, is supplying shell-cases to Italian companies. It is late 1936, and Germany and Italy, two countries with Fascist leaders, have already formed the Berlin-Rome Axis. The British company had a British man in Milan who had been creating and managing the business opportunities for trade with Italian armaments firms, but this man had recently died in a hit-and-run accident.

They are looking for an Italian speaker (tick) who is also an engineer who can talk the tech specs (tick) and if possible, someone who is a salesman. Marlowe is not the latter, but otherwise is perfect, and, as no one applying for the job carries the triple kill, he gets it by virtue of the more important first two requirements. And off he goes to Milan, where things appear to be, almost immediately, shady. There are a couple of dodgy or incompetent personnel working in the Milan office. His predecessor had been living in a palatial accommodation he should not have been able to afford on his salary, and, almost immediately Marlowe is schmoozed by a couple of very different characters, each of whom warns him against the other. There are signposts for the reader, and for Marlow himself, which immediately render one more trustworthy than the other. An oleaginous General, a Yugoslav, and a bluff, stocky man with a prize-fighter’s nose, unruly hair, blue eyes, an energetic manner, an American accent and a Russian name.

La Scala, Milan in 1932. A scene happens here!

              La Scala, Milan in 1932. A scene happens here!

And then Marlow’s is summoned by the police to present his documents. His passport is taken away for inspection, and promptly lost. His mail is also being steamed open and read by person or person’s unknown. A lot of people seem to be interested in an innocent salesman selling armaments

Ambler does not labour the clearly ambiguous situation Marlow finds himself in, or that Spartacus itself is engaged in, but here is where ‘innocence’ and dangerous ignorance begin to come together, and the reader, not to mention Marlow himself, have to think that most actions come with agendas, and we need to consider some kind of morality :

If Spartacus were willing to sell shell-production machinery and someone else were willing to buy it, it was not for me to discuss the rights and wrongs of the business. I was merely an employee. It was not my responsibility. Hallett would probably have had something to say about it, but Hallett was a socialist. Business was business. The thing to do was to mind one’s own

Quite quickly, the innocent abroad is in a position of danger, without any real understanding of why and how

This is a terrific, intelligent page-turner. There are a couple of coincidences and deviations too far : I was not quite sure why the encounter with a mathematician was placed in the mix, it seemed a bit of an unnecessary diversion., though in the foreword, which, as is my won’t, I read afterwards, John Preston (foreword writer in my Penguin Modern Classics edition) argues for it. It’s no spoiler to have mentioned it here, though, I promise!.

Ambler is always worth reading. There are thrills, and, in the main, plausible adventures, not to mention great characters. He is always free from jingoism and there is little endemic anti-Semitism in his writing, something which was regrettably common in many books penned at this time, before later events showed what a bed-rock of racial or group prejudice could lead to.ambler-and-cars

Cause For Alarm Amazon UK
Cause For Alarm Amazon USA

a 1951 noir film with the same title is unrelated to Ambler’s novel

Barbara Taylor – The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in Our Times


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Historical analysis of mental health care wedded to an almost unbearably painful warts and warts memoir.

the-last-asylumHistorian and writer Barbara Taylor’s The Last Asylum is partly an objective analysis of mental healthcare provision from the early provision of ‘places of asylum’ and/or places of incarceration, to the more recent dismantling of long stay psychiatric hospitals in favour of ‘Care In The Community’ . Asylum provision itself, which, at its best can provide a place of safety and community for the vulnerable, can at its worst also be a dumping ground for all kinds of people with mental, emotional or behavioural ‘difficulties’ which are perceived as outside society norms. And moreover can be a place where the lost, confused, furious, terrified or despairing can be treated brutally and abusively

History’s verdict has yet to be delivered, and it is possible that the judgment will be more favourable to the old asylums, at least in some respects, than psychiatric modernizers would like us to believe

Closing asylums, however, has been far from an unalloyed blessing. The change in the way psychological dis-ease has been dealt with was not a move done with completely pure, outcome driven intent. Cost was a huge driver. Like asylums themselves, and how patients fared within them, ‘Care In The Community’ as a concept is hugely variable on the ground, as Taylor, explains. At its best, people are supported back into community by skilled case workers, with provision for sheltered housing, day centres, and a wealth of trainings. Unfortunately the ‘at its best’ is a rare beast in times of austerity, and in the aftermath of Thatcher’s ‘There is no such thing as Society’ ethos, the vulnerable may find themselves with little care, and outside any community.

Anthony Bateman summarized the situation to me : “The relational, pastoral component of mental health care has been eliminated. All that is left now is a mechanistic, formulaic, depersonalised substitute for quality care”

The Last Asylum is not only objective and historical analysis. Taylor herself is/has been one of the vulnerable, from very young. She came from a high-achieving and materially successful Canadian background. Material well-being, as she acknowledges, was certainly helpful to her in one of her chosen routes towards recovery, but material well-being is not of course any guarantee that parents will be able to provide good, supportive, loving and unexploitative grounding for their children. Taylor suffered abuse as a child, the sexual dynamics in her family were disturbing, and the relational messages from both parents, remarkably creepy. Early signs of Taylor’s anxiety, depression and instability were ignored, and it seems there was a fair degree of undermining of her, as well as exploitation.

The lived past is never really past; it endures in us in more ways than we understand

More than half the book is about Taylor’s long experience of breakdown, rage, terror, despair, self abuse and alcoholism, and details her personal experience as a ‘service user’ of mental healthcare provision – including 3 spells as an inmate in ‘The Last Asylum’ –Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, which on its opening in 1851 represented progressive, enlightened treatment of mental health, but very quickly became associated with some of the worst excesses of institutions where the fragile were dumped, forgotten and incarcerated. At the time of Taylor’s 3 admissions there, in the late 1980s, the final one lasting 5 months, the now renamed ‘Friern Hospital’ was already scheduled for closure, under those changed ‘Care In The Community’ drives. But, as Taylor explains, the Hospital provided a place of safety, support and containment for many, and proper provisions for community care outside were often non-existent

'Colney Hatch Pauper Lunatic Asylum 1851'

Colney Hatch Pauper Lunatic Asylum 1851′

As well as support through hospitalisation, Taylor was also lucky in her NHS psychiatrist. She also took the decision to embark on psychoanalysis, privately paid for. Soon, she was seeing her analyst (including during her spells in Friern) 5 times a week. This went on for 21 years.

I know………it gave me pause for thought too.

Friern Hospital now converted as a prime location for luxury flats as Princess Park Manor

Friern Hospital now converted as a prime location for luxury flats as Princess Park Manor

And a large part of this book recounts the circular conversations between Taylor and her analyst – she kept journals recording what she said, what he said, what she felt, what her dreams were. This makes for pretty depressing reading to be honest. And, it must be said at times extremely wearing. Taylor is, I think, very honest: there is little attempt to charm the reader, to get the reader to like her – she presents herself as grandiose, self-obsessed, manipulative and without empathy, compassion and understanding for others around her. Indeed these aspects of her nature and behaviour formed a major strand in her analysis However…….though all this meant that her personal story at times became utterly wearing, there had to be far more to her than that, as she also had a group of incredibly supportive friends over the decades, who clearly loved and cherished her, and did not wash their hands of someone who, on the face of it, in her account in this book, does not reveal just why those friends so clearly were and remain her loyal friends.

Poverty is a psychological catastrophe. Anyone who thinks that madness is down to defective brain chemistry needs to look harder at the overwhelming correlation between economic deprivation and mental illness

I value this book for the honesty and clarity which Taylor sometimes expresses about herself – she is well aware that the ‘luxury’ – in terms of how it helped her – of that 21 year journey of analysis was only available because of family funds – for a long, long, time she was too ill, too self-destructive, too drunk to work. And she also answers the questions which I think any reader must have about whether that 21 years was a waste of time and money, whether she could/would have got better without it, and faster, whether some of the ‘fast result’ approaches like CBT would have been a better option, whether, if long term stay in Friern had not been available, could she/would she have got better – or might she have killed herself without any or all of these supports. Indeed did some of the support (those 21 years) actually make her WORSE. As she shows, going into deep analysis is not some wonderfully self-indulgent place, it’s at times excruciatingly abrading, an endless delving for suppurating boils. Most of us find ways to plaster over and avoid our deepest pains, if at all possible.

Homeless feelings are boundless; they sweep all before them. Their violence is as all-engulfing as the primeval experiences – aloneness, helplessness, total vulnerability – that power them. Some memories never lose their potency; they live on in the heartbeat, the muscles, the breath

She is honest enough, in effect, to say she can’t really answer any of that – who knows? Nor is she crassly suggesting that any one approach is ‘the’ approach for the treatment of mental and emotional illness. What she cogently argues against is the taking away of choice. Some people needed the support of asylum; some people needed a longer, more relational safer space afforded by a psychotherapist – or even a psychiatrist who was more than just a quick dispenser of pills on a ten or twenty minute appointment. What we have now is, often, doing no more than placing a plaster over an infected wound, dispensing pills which cosh the symptoms of dis-ease, and create dependency. It’s a one size fits all.barbara-taylor

A disturbing, thought provoking book, and a powerful one

The Last Asylum Amazon UK
The Last Asylum Amazon USA

Robert Harris – Enigma


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Breaking the code in cracking fashion

enigmaRobert Harris’ Enigma succeeds on all the counts I had for it – an absorbing, immersive, thriller; one which though a fiction had enough basis in reality for it to appear an authentic possibility; to be educative, informative and clear about the technology without either sending this reader to sleep, refusing to grapple with the nuts and bolts, or employing the implausible devices bad writers use to educate their readers. And, more than this, I wanted the combination of frantic need to turn pages with a wonderfully structured narrative, interesting characters and, above all admirable writing!

Harris delivers all – not to mention twists I didn’t see coming but, once they occurred I rather hit my forehead wondering how I could have NOT suspected and predicted them. Those are the very best twists – not ones which are just rather crude writerly devices, but twists which make complete sense AND are missed by the reader – particularly in a book which in the end is about a top secret mission, so every character in the book is rather in the dark on the whole picture, and those that aren’t in the dark are doing their level best to cover their own tracks! Twisty, turny puzzles and a mounting sense of urgency are the background of the real story and setting – Bletchley Park and the cracking of the Enigma code in World War Two – which Harris constructs his wonderful fiction around

 Enigma machine (not the decoding machine) Alessandro Nassiri - Museo della Scienza e della Tecnologia "Leonardo da Vinci" Wki.

Enigma machine (not decoding machine) Alessandro Nassiri – Museo della Scienza e della Tecnologia “Leonardo da Vinci” source -Wiki.

It is 1943. Alan Turing is not, at this point, in Bletchley Park, but is in America (he assisted in the construction of the famous ‘bombes’ used to crack the codes, for Bell Labs in the States from November 42 to March 43) This ‘absence’ of the known, real figure gives Harris the novelist freedom to keep known and major history in place but have a different cast of characters, without the problems involved in creating untruthful fictions out of real lives.

His central character, Tom Jericho, is a young Cambridge mathematician, one of those recruited as one of the Bletchley code-breakers. Jericho is presently back in Cambridge, having suffered some kind of break-down through overwork during an earlier, intense time at Bletchley. He has been sent back to recuperate.

Jericho, one of Turing’s students, has been instrumental in a major decoding operation. It’s not only the stress of working against deadlines to crack the codes used by German U Boats as they targeted Allied shipping which caused Jericho’s breakdown, but a love affair gone wrong.

German U Boat

                                    German U Boat

Inexplicably to those at Bletchley, the Germans suddenly and dramatically change their known patterns of coding. With America about to send fleets of ships, containing supplies to Britain, and U Boats patrolling the sea lanes, it is essential that the codes are re-broken, and Jericho is summoned back to Bletchley, where he half longs to be and half dreads to be, not least because of the pain of the ending of his love affair.

Harris absolutely winds up, tighter and ever tighter, a feverish atmosphere, – working against a dreadfully ticking clock as the likelihood of U Boats finding the American fleet increases, hour by hour. Britain in blackout, edible food increasingly rationed, and dreadful moral calls always lurking – if codes are cracked, how far and how quickly can the Allies save immediate lives in danger, against the fact that such actions will alert Germany to the fact codes have been cracked and lead to radical changes again. And what caused the sudden previous change anyway? Something is not quite right at Bletchley Park…..

This is a brilliant thriller, and Harris looks at wider considerations than just the urgency of code-cracking during the war. It also has much to reveal about class politics, gender politics and the sometimes uneasy relationship between Britain and America, linked to Britain’s class-conscious society. Many of the people who came to Bletchley or were recruited into the Secret Services were old-guard, boys-club, those who had come from the ‘best’ public school backgrounds, into the ‘best Universities, and were ‘people like us’ But the war also needed people ‘not like us’ who had the requisite skills in cryptanalysis, the kind of mathematical ability and conceptional thinking which this needed, who might have gone to the ‘best’ Universities on those merits. And there might be others, ‘not like us’ at all in fact, alien to the whole old boy network – women – who might also have the kinds of minds for the work.

Hut 6, Bletchley Park, War Years

Hut 6, Bletchley Park, War Years

Bletchley Park recruited many women, and certainly some of them must have been hugely frustrated by being utilised well below their intellectual abilities, confined to less demanding, more lowly (but necessary) clerical tasks, simply due to gender. Some of the women would have had sharper, more astute minds for the work than some of their male section heads. And equally undoubtedly the power differentials between men-in-charge and women in lowlier positions would also have been used and abused.

Harris creates two wonderful leading characters, who come into conflict and into a working accord with each other – Tom Jericho himself and the understandably resentful, bitter, highly intelligent Hester Wallace, the house-mate of his lost love, the impeccably upper-class Claire Romilly. It is quite refreshing to see a complex, layered relationship of trust, distrust, dislike, respect and understanding between a male and female, which has nothing to do with a sexual relationship between them, explored.

By all accounts the less than satisfying sounding film-of-the-book did an unnecessary sex-up. The film maker, or possibly eyes-on-the-bucksters of raising finances, took the decision to create a love-interest between Jericho and Hester, thus negating the more interesting dynamic which understands that not every male/female relationship needs sex as its glue.robert-harris

A highly recommended, immersive, well-written and intellectually stimulating page-turner. It had me reading far too late into the night, and waking far too early before dawn to pick up again and read further

And, an edit – better late than never, I posted before finding the pingback links to Fiction Fan’s review of the book which made me determined to get and read it, and quickly, and also of the film of the book, which made me equally determined to AVOID viewing! Hopefully I have got my pings in before she notices the missing credits!

Enigma Amazon UK
Enigma Amazon USA

Jean Rhys – Wide Sargasso Sea


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Giving a voice to the madwoman in the attic

wide-sargasso-seaJean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, a kind of imaginative ‘prequel’ to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, takes as its focus not Jane, not Rochester – though he certainly figures, as one of the narrators – but Rochester’s ‘Mad Wife’ Bertha.

In Rhys’ 1966 novel, which took her 20 years in writing, one of the keynote problems for ‘Bertha’ is that of identity, and being accepted for who she is. As Rhys imagines her, she is not even called Bertha at all, but Antoinette, and is a Creole heiress, married to the unnamed (in the book) Rochester. And married by him, coldly, for money, not for love, though he does develop a physical obsession for her, as well as self-disgust for that obsession,.

There is a kind of sensual languor, a seductive eroticism as well as a dark and powerful sense of almost dangerous magic, which Rhys evokes in the Jamaican setting. There is lush fecundity, and a wild sexuality in the landscape and its vegetation, almost a sense that this might be another Eden, but one unchaste, devouring, snaky. Both Antoinette and ‘Rochester’ marrying for – not thirty pieces of silver, but thirty thousand pounds ‘paid to me without question or condition’ feel the spell and danger in the land itself, and will find they have been betrayed, in some fashion, by each other, though in a society where women were almost always dependent on men for a position and means of survival, the property of fathers and husbands. the stakes were never equal

Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible – the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell. Underneath the tree ferns, tall as forest tree ferns, the light was green. Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not to be touched. One was snaky looking, another like an octopus with long thin brown tentacles bare of leaves hanging from a twisted root. Twice a year the octopus orchid flowered – then not an inch of tentacle showed. It was a bell-shaped mass of white, mauve, deep purples, wonderful to see. The scent was very sweet and strong. I never went into it


I found that description quite extraordinary in its uneasy oppositions – a sense of something of huge vitality, and yet danger, of growth and overgrowth, a surface of beauty hiding something strangulating. This occurs in the first section – narrated by Antoinette, and yet in some ways it encapsulates some contradictions in her own nature, whilst also reflecting some of what ‘Rochester’ sees her sexuality to be.

The book is structured in three sections. The first is Antoinette’s, recounting her complex family history, from child to young woman. It is full of unsettling imagery, told by a young girl who has little sense of home or belonging, whether within Jamaica – her mother came from Martinique to marry her first husband, Cosway, who had been a slave-owner – or within her family. Antoinette’s beautiful, unstable mother fell on hard times following her first husband’s death, and Antoinette suffers from her mother’s indifference towards her

The second section is primarily from the Englishman, ‘Rochester’s’ point of view, and follows the initially cold, condescending view he has towards his intended bride, and the changes which the place, its people and indeed Antoinette create in him – changes resisted and feared.

The third section shifts back to Antoinette, removed from her home, bought back to England. Forced into the straitjacket mould of a conventional middle-class womanhood by her husband, Antoinette has reached the place the reader meets her in Jane Eyre –Bertha, the madwoman wife in the attic, guarded by Grace Poole.

Part of the straitjacket which the controlling ‘Rochester’ imposes even includes the talking away of the identity of name – Antoinette is regarded as an unsuitable name. Not only does she lose her second name through marriage, taking her husband’s name – but even her own birth name, the name by which she knows herself; exotic, foreign, French derived Antoinette replaced by the harder, plainer name of Bertha. There is even, perhaps the subtext of the attempted role of Rochester as ‘birther’ of a different, lesser, swaddled person out of the hapless Antoinette.


One of the most admirable aspects of Wide Sargasso Sea, unlike the often seemingly trivial, fashion and market driven modern ‘spins’ on reworking classics, which seem, literally, like charades, is that Rhys’ book springs from as fertile and authentic seeming source as the original. It is clear how deeply Jane Eyre worked its way into Rhys’ thoughts, feelings and imagination. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys does not subvert or untruthfully change anything in Jane Eyre. She creates a prior story for that disastrous marriage Rochester made, and gives voice, story, history and credence to the dismissed ‘madwoman in the attic’’ Within Brontë’s book there is much evidence of a battle between control and surrender to sexual passion in Rochester’s nature, and also a sometimes wilful, cavalier playing with female affection, even a certain cruelty. Rhys merely allows, far from the confinement of an English home, those aspects to be seen more clearly in his nature.

Wide Sargasso Sea stands in its own right as a classic of the English literature canon. Rhys is a crafted writer, creating complex, rounded psychology and subtext in her characters, and exploring many themes, truthfully and imaginatively.
In her earlier writings, Rhys often took aspects from her own life and nature, weaving them into fictions which explore women living outside the moral norms of convention, women who ‘love not wisely but too well’ Although in many ways this book, with another book, and another time and place serving as its inspiration, differs from her present day  (at the time of their writing) settings in Paris and London, Antoinette is only different in degree, not in kind, from the central characters of earlier novels

The Sargasso Sea, as described on Wiki is a region in the gyre in the middle of the North Atlantic. It is the only sea on Earth which has no coastline and is  a distinctive body of water with brown Sargassum seaweed and calm blue water. The unboundaried, flowingness of water and the drifting mass of seaweed is a wonderful image, both of the fluidity and depth of Rhys writing in this book, and the nature of her central character, clarity of the turquoise water, and the unsettling, scummy, seaweed tentacles – suggestions of slimy monsters from the deep – hinting at the dark, subconscious strangles of psychological shadows which rear up and overwhelm, in different ways, Antoinette, ‘Rochester’ and others in this book


It has been a real pleasure to re-new acquaintance with this book, through the Jean Rhys blogging week, and I shall be dusting off the rest of my Rhys collection, and trust those re-reads will prove equally absorbingjean-rhys

Thank you to Jacqui from JacquiWine and Eric from The Lonesome Reader, for this week’s joint hosted Jean Rhys event. And fortuitously, I see my link to Eric’s blog takes you directly to his review of this book!

Wide Sargasso Sea Amazon UK
Wide Sargasso Sea Amazon USA

Tana French – The Trespasser


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Dark, twisty and immersive, just as the reader expects from Tana French!

The TrespasaserTana French’s eagerly waited for Dublin Murder Squad 6 did not disappoint.

For those unfamiliar with her writing, she is a literary fiction writer, subject or territory, crime fiction. Where her lit fic credentials are clear is not only in the excellence of her writing itself, but specifically because it is character and relationship, not to mention the fact that her books have larger themes than the particular story unfolding, rather than plot which is the driver. However, for sure she knows how to keep her readers turning pages, wanting as surely as her detectives do, to unravel the crime. However – if your wish is for a speedier whodunit, howdunit, whydunit, her books might be less grippingly pursued by crime fiction fans, as the dead ends and the solves going nowhere, not to mention the turning towards solutions and the ratchet of tension take their time.

For those who are already firm French fans, this is one to be hugely enjoyed, even if, for this reader, it does not quite touch the giddy heights of Broken Harbour and The Secret Place, books 4 and 5.

As in all her previous books, there is a crime, and that crime will be much more than it seems. Though it will be a murder which has happened to an individual or individuals, the crime will have echoes which happen wider, in the cultural time and place it arose within. French’s original approach is to follow a particular detective or pair of detectives in each book. It is as if the entire Dublin Force is like a chorus, out of which the leading player or players will emerge, and through their investigation, the reader, their colleague or colleagues and the central character themselves, will gain self-knowledge, often painfully

The Trespasser begins with the investigation of what appears to be a murder due to domestic violence. Aisleen Murray, a single woman, but with the table set for a candle-lit dinner a deux, appears to have been punched in the face and hit her head on the fireplace as she fell backwards. Identifying her projected dinner guest, easily done, would seem to nail the suspect. Except, of course, that there is a more tangled trail to follow.


The centre stage detectives in this one are the two from her previous book, The Secret Place. Antoinette Conway and Steve Moran, unwillingly working together for the first time in that book, are now an established professional pairing. Sort of. Both have their histories. Conway, the senior, is wrong, or has always been made to feel wrong, on several counts. Firstly, her gender. Secondly she is mixed race, possibly of Arabic, possibly South American origin – her birth certificate says ‘father unknown’. She is a fighter, bitter, angry, does not suffer fools and takes no prisoners. To say she has chips on her shoulders is an understatement, but the chips have arisen from experience – particularly from the misogyny, overt and covert, from others in the squad. Conway does not need people to like her, or that is what she projects.

Moran is very different, charming and a people pleaser, but there is a suspicion, and some background, which shows him to be hugely ambitious and possibly not above using charm to advance his career. That was certainly what Conway thought of him when they first started working together. The two are a natural for a hard cop soft cop pairing. The cynical, distrustful Conway – who is the first person narrator of this, and the much smoother, emollient seeming Moran, have formed a professional working friendship and respect for each other, unlikely though that might seem for both of them. It has partly formed from the excitement both feel, and the ambition both have, for being detectives in the murder squad. Or, in Conway’s narration:

Murder isn’t like other squads. When it’s working right, it would take your breath away: it’s precision-cut and savage, lithe and momentous, it’s a big cat leaping full-stretch or a beauty of a rifle so smooth it practically fires itself. When I was a floater in the General Unit, fresh out of uniform, a bunch of us got brought in to do the scut work on a murder case, typing and door-to-door. I took one look at the squad in action and I couldn’t stop looking. That’s the nearest I’ve ever been to falling in love

And, perhaps the trajectory of this book is a kind of love story going wrong, a devastation of love. Conway is well past seeing anything through rose-tinted spectacles. Her acerbic dismissive view of the world and most of those in it is clear, even in her first thoughts about the murder victim

She’s on her back, knock-kneed, like someone threw her there. One arm is by her side; the other is up over her head, bent at an awkward angle. She’s maybe five seven, skinny, wearing spike heels, plenty of fake tan, a tight-fitting cobalt-blue dress and a chunky fake-gold necklace. Her face is covered by blond hair, straightened and sprayed so ferociously that even murder hasn’t managed to mess it up. She looks like Dead Barbie

Something I’m beginning to see is a pattern in French’s very different books, is that the crime her particular detective is investigating will be something of a catalyst for them – there will be something which will push the investigator’s button big time, some kind of psychological resonance.

I just hope she is well along in writing book 7, and am wondering who will make their way out of the chorus in that one

I originally ‘found’ French thanks to a couple of bloggers, firstly Jane of Beyond Eden Rock, but who at the time alerted me to Broken Harbour on her earlier blog, Fleur In Her World and secondly, Cleopatra at Cleopatra Loves Books who seduced me into chasing down The Secret Place. Now I’m needing no urging and at the front of any queue baying for a new Tana French book!Tana French in tartan

I received this both as a review copy from Amazon Vine UK and as a digital review from NetGalley. This review will hopefully whet interest – the book is published on 22nd September in the UK and on the 4th October in the States

The Trespasser Amazon UK
The Trespasser Amazon USA

Jeanette Winterson – Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal


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More than an autobiography

why-be-happy-when-you-could-be-normalIt was by some chance or other that I stumbled on Winterson’s Gut Symmetries a month or so ago. She is a marvellous writer – feisty, witty, ferociously intelligent, weaving words, character and narrative like a dream. She reminds me of a Catherine Wheel, spinning out in all directions, but the central core and drive holds everything together

Very quickly after Gut Symmetries I got her autobiography. The complex and challenging events of her early life had formed the first novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (on my TBR). Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, something her mother said to Winterson will probably contain some material which surfaced in Oranges, I guess shaped slightly differently for fiction.

Winterson’s deeply unpromising beginnings, an early life deprived of the kind of warmth and nourishment of parental regard and validation of the small child which ought to be a given, reminds me in many ways of the equally, but differently, dysfunctional start of another fine writer of similar vintage – Janice Galloway. Galloway was born in 1955 in Saltcoats, Winterson in 1959 in Manchester. Both were treated unlovingly, were girls and women of extraordinary intelligence, for whom reading, and then writing, became escape, vocation and expression of their unique visions. Both writers rather fought, against the odds, for their own education, without parental encouragement, and both have written autobiographies which, whilst recounting horrible experiences are a million miles away from misery memoirs.There are some parallels between this book and Galloway’s The Trick Is To Keep Breathing in terms of quality, fierce intelligence, authenticity and fabulous expression.

Winterson was adopted by a couple who seemed, particularly the mother, to be hugely dysfunctional. They were Pentecostal Evangelical Christians. Mrs Winterson – and this is how Jeanette refers to her in the book, rarely as ‘my mother’ or ‘mum’ clearly had all sorts of problems – with sex, – she refused her husband conjugal rights – and with an obsessive need to control the lives of all around her. Particularly husband and daughter. Winterson describes her :

She was a big woman, tallish and weighing around twenty stone. Surgical stockings, flat sandals, a Crimplene dress and a nylon headscarf. She would have done her face powder (keep yourself nice), but not lipstick (fast and loose)

Little Jeanette experienced not just lack of warmth and neglect, but also cruelty. She would be locked out of the house, as a child, for minor misdemeanours. Her adoptive father was a shift worker, so if he was on a night shift, she might be locked out all night. Jeanette’s father did not stand up to his wife

Inside our house the light is on. Dad’s on the night shift, so she can go to bed, but she won’t sleep. She’ll read the Bible all night, and when Dad comes home, he’ll let me in, and he’ll say nothing, and she’ll say nothing, and we’’ll act like it’s normal to leave your kind outside all night, and normal never to sleep with your husband. And normal to have two sets of false teeth and a revolver in the duster drawer…..

Young Jeanette’s life was a story of adults who lived in evasion and denial, and where systemic attempts were made to break and negate her. But, she discovered the reality of reading, and the opening of other lives, and discovered also that she could write. Jeanette Winterson is painfully, savagely honest about her own mental, emotional, behavioural challenges – how could she not have been damaged by the childhood she had – but she is a writer who observes and analyses

When we tell a story we exercise control, but in such a way as to leave a gap, an opening. It is a version, but never the final one. And perhaps we hope that the silences will be heard by someone else, and the story can continue, can be retold.

When we write we offer the silence as much as the story. Words are the part of silence that can be spoken

I love the space that is made for the reader, in the above extract

I highlighted line after line and paragraph after paragraph in Winterson’s book – things which made me chuckle, things which made me cry, things which gave much pause for thought – there is a lot of honesty, a lot of reflection, rage, forgiveness, excitement, compassion, forgiveness. And an extraordinary story, which is a true one, albeit one told by a writer, who therefore knows how to leave out the boring bits, and keep the reader on their toes by throwing curve balls :

The one good thing about being shut in a coal-hole is that it prompts reflection.

Read on its own that is an absurd sentence. But as I try and understand how life works – and why some people cope better than others with adversity – I come back to something to do with saying yes to life, which is love of life, however inadequate, and love for the self, however found. Not in the me-first way that is the opposite of life and love, but with a salmon-like determination to swim upstream, however choppy upstream is, because this is your stream…

Highly recommended.winterson

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal Amazon UK
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal Amazon USA

Ruth Goodman – How To Be A Tudor


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Delighted not to be living in Tudor Times

how-to-be-a-tudorRuth Goodman’s focus on what life might have been like as an ‘ordinary’ person living in Tudor times was a much more interesting endeavour (to me) than accounts of the sumptuous lives of the great and the good. Or the not so great and the not so good who just happened to be wealthy.

Goodman is not just a writer and researcher of the period, but known as a presenter of ‘Reality History’ programmes, where she carries out, as far as possible, practical exercises to see just what things might have been like – how DO you bake bread in a Tudor oven, with flour which is very different from today’s kind, how do you make Tudor ‘ale’ from scratch, fermenting your grains.

Overall, the reading left me feeling utterly exhausted – because the life of a working class Tudor person was unbelievably, dreadfully hard – if, for example, you worked the land, ploughing was something which went on for most of the year, and work needed doing on the soil, No mechanisation of course, and the ploughman, in summer, would be up by 4.30 am and would finish with darkness – so the working day might end at 10pm. And there would be the oxen/horses to take care of. The life of Mrs Ploughman was no bed of roses either. Fires to tend, bread to bake, ale to brew, not to mention endless children to bear, care for and keep out of the way of the fire, the bread and the ale!

The structure of the book works well. Goodman takes us from dawn to dusk, and by this device bolts on all sorts of other considerations – what do you do with your small amount of earned leisure, what was the Tudor attitude to sex – the day ends with bedtime, after all – what about the clothes you wore, how would they have been made, how were they washed?

I was fascinated to read how in some ways little changes – what sounded like a description of a Tudor rave where

an alehouse keeper in 1606 in Yorkshire was fined for holding Sunday dances that were attracting over a hundred young people to dance to the music of the piper and drummer he had laid on

I’m not planning on trying this one myself but Goodman wanted to see whether our perception of everyone in Tudor times stinking because they didn’t wash themselves top to toe – but just the bits that showed – hands and faces, was accurate. Well, apparently those Tudors who could were scrupulous about changing their undies. Goodman discovered to her surprise (we are of course talking about natural fabrics rather than synthetics) that for true stinkyness the wrong choice is to bathe the entire body but wear the undies for several days. Unwashed bodies with daily fresh undies is the sweeter smelling option. And is even more remarkable (those undie changes) when you think that hot water did not gush from taps, everything had to be heated on wood (or coal) fires, so clean linen was an incredibly time consuming activity.

'Ermine Portrait' of Elizabeth 1, 1585. Imagine being the beading seamstress, or the ruff laundrymaid, and weep!

Ermine Portrait’ of Elizabeth 1, 1585. Imagine being the beading seamstress, or the ruff laundrymaid, and weep!

I was impressed by the care and understanding Tudor agriculturalists showed to their land and their seeds. Not for them the disaster we have made of the earth by flogging land to mineral deficiency by monoculture, and by drastic reduction of the seed bank, leaving our crops far more vulnerable to the effects of a blight which could sweep world wide. The Tudors were farming via rotation of crops, allowing a field to lie fallow to replenish every few years – and deliberately mixing varieties of grain, so vulnerabilities to a decimating pathogen attacking a single species is minimised

I was fascinated to discover how formal and controlled society was – there was legislation around clothing – depending on your social class and employment certain cloths, cuts and colours were not allowed and fashionistas who attempted to dress ‘above their station’ could be prosecuted. Clothes were meant to show who you were, and what your place was in society. Wearing clothes not applicable to your class, wealth or occupation was in some ways seen as attempting fraud or deception. I thought about modern attempts, for different reasons, to ban female clothing covering the body on French beaches. Clothes as a medium of state control

There was so very much to enjoy and find fascinating in this – and, particularly as a female, to feel incredibly grateful to be living in this place and this time. Many of us feel desperately short of time, with far too much to do..but, in truth we are remarkably fortunate

Live was so hard working in the fields that it only happened in black and white

Life was so hard working in the fields that it only happened in black and white

Perhaps one enviable thought is that this was a time of expansion, and a time of confidence, particularly in Elizabeth’s reign. A sense of energy, positivity – and I suppose the still felt repercussions of the Renaissance.

My only real cavil with the book itself comes from making the wrong decision to get this on digital download – I strongly advise the wood book. There are illustrations, and on digital they are not where you want them. They are all lumped at the end, difficult to get to/make happen, and there is no way of knowing where they might have usefully fitted into the text. Some of Goodman’s not quite easily understood instructions on how to make a ruff or the layers and slashings on doublets, kirtles, false sleeves and the like would have made much more sense with facing pages of illustrations.ruth-goodman

That aside, this was an absorbing read, and I am minded to investigate a similar book she has written about the Victorians

How To Be A Tudor Amazon UK
How To Be A Tudor Amazon USA

Madeleine Bourdouxhe – La Femme de Gilles


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A ‘heroine’ I wanted to shake………

La Femme de GillesBelgian writer, Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s La Femme de Gilles, published in 1937, originally written in French, and published in translation by Faith Evans in 1992, was republished in 2014. The book originally received interest through its ‘quiet strength’ and beautiful writing, and being seen as having something to say about female sexuality and desire, and ‘selfless love’ to quote one of the professional reviews excerpted on the back cover of my 2014 copy.

The French title has been kept in translation because of its nuance – femme holding both the idea of wife and of woman, and indicating that Gilles, the central male character, ‘owns’ Elisa, the title indicating that Elisa, the ‘femme’ in question, gains her identity only in relationship to her man, and has no meaningful ‘I’ on her own account

Elisa is a young woman in her twenties, married to Gilles, a factory worker. The pair have young twin daughters, and appear to have a settled, happy relationship. She is pregnant again, and the two are delighted. Elisa adores Gilles in every way possible. It is he who is the centre of her world, and the twin daughters come second to her man. The book sets this up well, right from the start:

Five o’clock,’ says Elisa to herself. ‘Soon he’ll be home.’ The thought paralyses her completely. She’s spent the whole day polishing, washing, scrubbing, making a thick soup for supper – most people round here don’t eat a proper meal in the evenings but Gilles works at the factory and has only an egg sandwich for lunch. Now she finds herself transfixed, unable even to lay the table. Her arms hand helplessly, hopelessly at her side, Giddy with tenderness, she clings to the metal rail of the stove, stock still, panting for breath.

This always happens a few minutes before Gilles gets back. Overcome by the thought of his return her body, drowning in sweetness, melting with languor, loses all strength.’

Almost right at the start, the tragedy of the book uncurls itself into the harmonious setting. Elisa, a remarkably passive submissive woman, – one might say she has a certain rather cow-like placidity – insulting though that may sound – has a younger sister, Victorine. Victorine is far more worldly. Whilst Elisa seems almost timeless, rural, the ‘ideal’ hausfrau, well behaved, biddable, whose vocation is to serve her man, – abnegating self, if you like, Victorine is sharp, mocking, utterly selfish and driven only by her own fast and giddy desires for her own pleasure – be that sexual or monetary. She could be said to stand for a kind of greedy capitalism – she does not feel loyalty or responsibility to anyone.

Gilles, right at the start, suddenly sees Victorine, who up till now has just been his wife’s younger sister, as an object of desire. In a coup de foudre moment, he is smitten.

This is a novel about adultery, about the breaking down of a marriage, and it is Elisa the reader is invited to feel for and care about. However……this reader did not see this as any kind of story of ‘selfless love’ – it is a story of a dreadful, unhealthy co-dependency. Perhaps because it is set in the modern era, I had far less empathy and compassion for Elisa than, for example – Madame Bovary, or Hardy’s Tess – some obvious comparisons who suggest themselves. In earlier times, women had far fewer choices.

I did ‘like’ the book for the quality of its writing, and also because it provoked me to such impatience with its central character, who is rendered very real, rather than being ‘symbolic’ of a certain kind of femaleness. Though if ever a woman needed to find a consciousness raising group to belong to……

Patience ona Monument, Smiling at Grief, by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope

Patience on a Monument, Smiling at Grief, by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope

One event, or a couple, puzzled me, making me unsure what the author wanted her readers to think/feel about Elisa. There are a couple of occasions when Elisa leaves her young children alone in the house, for some hours, the two little girls (and they are little) being left responsible for the new baby boy, whilst she obsessively tails Gilles, wanting to see where he is going – she is aware, very early, of what has happened to Gilles’ affections.

No comment is made about this – she doesn’t arrange for neighbours to look after the children, she just goes, because Gilles is all she cares about. The ‘trope’ I was obviously expecting was that something would happen, or even, that there would be some self-realisation that she should not be so careless of her children, or that Gilles would return home and discover she had done this. But no reference is really made. It’s almost as though her complete lack of identity outside that of being ‘La Femme de Gilles’ is rendered acceptable. I could not rid myself of the feeling that the author was not just asking us to have compassion for her creation (as Flaubert does, as Hardy does) but in some way finds her a noble figure, that this sort of love IS what the state of being female is about.

Bourdouxhe died in 1996, aged 90. I wondered how the rise of politically conscious feminism in the 70s touched her.

The book was made into a film – here is the subtitled trailer

Now I came to the book  on the back of a strong review of it by Heaven Ali, which was reinforced by an equally strong review from Jacquiwine . I had intended to (and indeed DID) read it as part of a challenge run by Biblibio – August as Women In Translation Month. Though I had indeed READ it last month, it took days to simmer down enough to review it! I do enjoy books which confront me and make me think/feel outside their pages, books that have a substance to them. And this has, though the substance frustrated.Madeleine Bourdouxhe

La Femme de Gilles Amazon UK
La Femme de Gilles Amazon USA

It won’t be re-released in the States till November – the earlier publication is available, expensively, but I have linked the November 2016 publication

E. Nesbit – The Railway Children


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A beautifully written, heart-warming and exciting ‘real’ adventure story for pre-teens

I neither remember reading this as a child, nor do I remember seeing the TV or film adaptations, though the story was extremely familiar – and, as I have a clear image of Jenny Agutter seeing her missing father, and wringing the withers of the viewer with a line which is in the book, causing the image to surface, as I read, I can only assume I did read, did see, or both

(the 1968 BBC TV adaptation – regrettably wooden and a little ponderous, lacking the charm of the book on this showing!)

I came to this reading belatedly on the back of a marvellous book for adults, covering a similar territory – Helen Dunmore’s Exposure. That book clearly references this one – 3 children, 2 girls and a boy, a father working within Government, a secret disgrace, manipulated, innocence wronged, and trains an integral background, Dunmore’s book was set in the early 60’s, and this one by Nesbit in 1905. Obviously Nesbit was writing for children, and it is the three children in this one who occupy centre stage – they are the calalysts for all events – whereas Dunmore was most focused on the husband and wife, but, still, what struck me was an optimistic innocence in the Nesbit. This is, in the end a feel-good book. There isn’t an unpleasant character within it – and even ones which might seem, on first meeting them, to be aggressive and unpleasant – like a bargee, are only waiting to have events transpire which reveal their humanity.


Still from 1970 film. Agutter, now 15 as the 12 year old Bobbie has put on a bit of a growth spurt!

Though this does not have the goody goody children of much ‘improving’ fare for Victorian children – Nesbit had, after all, a rather complex, progressive character – she was a co-founder of the Fabian Society, did not marry her first husband till she was seven months pregnant, and ended up adopting the two children he had with his mistress – Nesbit’s good friend – there is a strong moral sense that everyone can be, and wants to be, ethical.

The three children argue and fight, and struggle to swallow their pride and apologise. They sometimes do wrong things – steal coal, because they are cold and poor, but are lucky enough to find that acknowledging their wrongdoing leads to kindly forgiveness. Lots of opportunities for heroics present themselves, and the children prevent a railway crash, rescue someone with a broken leg in a train tunnel, save a baby from burning, and unite a community. The book is a remarkably uplifting and moral one – but it is not the morality of ‘know your place’ or pious god-fearing, but can clearly be connected to Nesbit’s political consciousness.

2000 remake - and here is Agutter again - but this time as Mum!

2000 remake – and here is Agutter again – but this time as Mum!

I was also struck by the ‘reality’ of the book – this was not a book set in a fantasy world, but one set ‘in reality’. The children are children of a middle-class family but for reasons which we learn as the book progresses (I suspect adults would immediately leap to the correct conclusions) the family have fallen on hard times, and it is the mother who has to earn money to put food on the table. The children and their mother struggle over their ‘hard times’ – but they get through by supporting each other. Even the youngest child contributes. If there is ‘unreality’ it is only because (or is that just my cynicism) not everyone so clearly chooses to be progressive, enlightened and morally working for the common good as Nesbit’s characters all do.

I think everyone in the world is friends if you can only get them to see you don’t want to be UN-friends”

“Perhaps you’re right,” said Mother, and she sighed

It is, of course ‘only’ a book : one I enjoyed immensely, one with a lot of engaging E Nesbithumour, one very well constructed, one full of hope and positivity – but I kept thinking that Peter, the young boy, brave and sometimes impetuous, ‘in real’ would have no doubt become trench fodder in 1914 : I was very aware, reading this, that it came out of a sense of progressive hopefulness that events of 1914-1918 rather destroyed, and I suspect this book could not have been written 10 years later

The Railway Children Amazon UK
The Railway Children Amazon USA

Virginia Woolf – Orlando


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Woolf at her fizziest, dizziest, most glittering and playful

OrlandoBecause we know how Woolf met her end, and because we know that she suffered several breakdowns, it is easy to backward read her writing to find evidence of the intensity of her suffering, and forget that she also lived with an intense awareness of joy – and, perhaps more easily ignored, wit, playfulness and ordinary moments of satisfaction , gaiety and pleasure

All these – including suffering, ennui and so-so are to be found rolled up in Orlando – as well as evidence of her intellect, her research and her always questioning mind

Written as a kind of love-letter, game and amusement both for her own creative pleasure and as the same for her lover and friend Vita-Sackville West, Orlando is both a highly readable, accessible introduction to Woolf’s writing, easily enjoyed by a teenager – I was 14, 15 or 16 when I first devoured this – and repaying later, more nuanced and reflective study, after surrendering to her more complex ‘difficult’ work

Vita Sackville-West 1916

                   Vita Sackville-West 1916

Why this is such a pleasurable read for a thoughtful teenager is that one of its major themes is the trying on of identity and the discovering both its fluidity and dizzying possibilities, and its kernel of ‘this is my true core’, inviolate from the influence of time, place, culture – and gender.

What a very surprising and modern book this must have been on its publication, in 1928, for those who looked behind its playful inventions and fantasies

For if it is rash to walk into a lion’s den unarmed, rash to navigate the Atlantic in a rowing boat, rash to stand with one foot on the top of St. Paul’s, it is still more rash to go home alone with a poet. A poet is lion and Atlantic in one. While one drowns us the other gnaws us. If we survive the teeth, we succumb to the waves. A man who can destroy illusions is both beast and flood. Illusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth. Roll up that tender air and the plant dies, the colour fades. The earth we walk on is a parched cinder. It is marl we tread and fiery cobbles scorch our fett, By the truth we are undone. Life is a dream. ‘Tis waking that kills us. He who robs us of our dreams robs us of our life – (and so on for six pages if you will, but the style is tedious and may well be dropped).

Orlando is a beautiful young man, son of an aristocratic family, aged 16, with spectacularly attractive legs, shown to perfection in the costume of the times – the latter years of the sixteenth century. He is a moody, sullen and open-hearted, candid young man. Lest that sound contradictory, people are, and Woolf always reminds us of that. The elderly Queen Elizabeth, who always took a shine to comely young men, makes him an Order of the Garter.

However, there is something strangely androgyne about Orlando and this is not the full extent of his strangeness. He has something, which Woolf does not waste time on trying to explain, which makes him able to jump time as easily as space. She is not interested, as an SF writer might be, in explaining this : her interest is in identity in time, in history, in geography, so we follow Orlando, who not only jumps time – and various of his acquaintances similarly do so – but jumps gender.

Falling into a deep sleep and melancholy following the failure of a love affair with a similarly androgynous young woman in 1608, and after making one of his seamless time jumps to the Restoration, and becoming an Ambassador in Turkey, another sleep follows, and he wakens as a woman. The Lady Orlando is no different in many ways to Lord Orlando – his/her core nature is the same, though gender allows, encourages, forbids – in time and in place, certain manifestations of nature. Woolf has great fun with this, but also, she is offering delicious possibilities to readers who come to her in that time where they are exploring identity, discovering who they are, who they might be, who they won’t be

Certain susceptibilities were asserting themselves, and others were diminishing. The change of clothes had, some philosophers will say, much to do with it. Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us. For example, when Captain Bartolus saw Orlando’s skirt, he had an awning stretched for her immediately, pressed her to take another slice of beef, and invited her to go ashore with him in the long-boat. These compliments would certainly not have been paid her had her skirts, instead of flowing, been cut tight to her legs in the fashion of breeches. And when we are paid compliments, it behoves us to make some return

Woolf of course was the daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen, himself an author, a critic, an historian and biographer – and all of these strands are woven into this book, which is an once a history and a ‘biography’ of Orlando, and a meditation upon writing, reading and literary criticism. In fact, the final joke is Woolf’s presentation of this as a non-fiction by the inclusion of an index. Within which we will find Shakespeare, Pope, Dryden and others referenced, alongside such marvellous inventions as Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, and the Archduchess Harriet of Finster-Aarhorn (see Archduke Harry) – who, with a physiognomy remarkably like a startled hare must surely be a little dig at Lady Ottoline Morrell.

Though I did find the final section of the book, bringing it to the ‘now’ of her writing in 1928, dragged a little, this was such a pleasure to read again. And was spurred to this by HeavenAli’s year long Woolfalong, just squeaking into August’s Biography section.Virginia Woolf musing

Orlando was of course filmed, with the magnificent Tilda Swinton, intelligent, spirited, mercurial and very much a person out of her own mould, as the central character. The film was directed by Sally Potter.

Orlando Amazon UK
Orlando Amazon USA