Mrs England by Stacey Hall

After reading so many positive reviews of Mrs England, a new historical fiction by Stacey Hall, I simply had to read it. The title is bold and strangely evocative and the cover is gorgeous too, but it’s what lies between that is utterly compelling.

A slow burn of a book, it draws you in with beautiful prose and marvellously but economically crafted characters (this is high praise – Hall allows you to see and even understand a person with a deft few words). The titular character from which the book earns its title doesn’t appear for quite a while and, indeed, the story is told from the first-person point of view of Norland nurse, Ruby May. Quiet, efficient, in some ways Mary Poppins-like, Ruby is a woman who takes her work and the charges in her care very seriously. She knows her place and responsibilities. The Norland Institute motto – Fortitude in Adversity – is etched on her conscience. 

When circumstances send Ruby to Yorkshire to care for the four children of the wealthy England family, who are part of a greater dynasty who have made their riches from wool and milling, she meets the challenges of a new family, new charges and new area with aplomb. The master of the house, Mr England, is nothing like she expected, nor is his quiet, disinterested wife, the lovely but very fragile Mrs England.

As the weeks go by and Ruby settles in, the children responding to her genuine care and ability to nurture and bring out the best, she begins to sense that all is not as it seems in this strange but beguiling family. As letters go missing, information is misunderstood or misconstrued and mysterious goings-on begin to occur, Ruby starts to wonder if she has misjudged not only the family, but her own abilities. After all, Ruby has her own secrets, ones that if they should be revealed will not only threaten her livelihood, but that of those she loves.

This is one of those books that lingers in a strange and quite wondrous way. The telling is superb and even though in some ways not much seems to happen, it is like an ice-berg with nine-tenths occurring below the surface. You cannot stop turning the pages, wanting to know, to find out more. The story-telling is first-rate, each scene building on the last, persuading you to keep going so you can see the complete picture… and yet, it remains somehow elusive. And then, just when you think you have it all sorted and neatly wrapped up, Hall delivers one of the best OMG moments on the final page. It overturns everything and, if you hadn’t already gleaned why the book carries the title it does, this will cement it for you.

A really clever, completely fabulous read. 

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The End of Men by Christina Sweeney-Baird

I adore eschatological stories – end of the world ones. Whether they’re books, films, TV series, if they’re about humanity and/or the planet facing imminent annihilation, or about to implode, count me in. I think it was Stephen King who said people love horror stories precisely because they’re vivifying and remind us to appreciate life. I think it’s the same with doomsday stories. So, when I learned that The End of Men by Christine Sweeney was, essentially, about this but, as the title indicates, with caveats, I thought, why not? And then I paused with a couple of misgivings: am I ready for a book about a virus that sweeps the world and changes it considering well, you know. And, secondly, is this book a hard-line feminist take on the effects of a pandemic or is it something else? I’m all for feminist narratives, but what if it’s really a thinly disguised man-hating rant? Do I need that right at the moment considering all the rage we’re feeling; the sense of justice delayed? Maybe…

Pushing aside my concerns, I went ahead and read. And read. And read. This book was impossible to put down.

Basically, it describes a world overtaken by a pandemic except, as the title indicates (so no spoilers) this virus only kills men. Very few (about 10%) are immune, but all women are carriers. It starts in Scotland and, as we very much know, despite efforts to contain it, spreads with a virulence. Told from multiple points of view – mostly female, but some men, the reader enters into the head, heart and experiences of a range of people – scientists, journalists, mothers, fathers, partners, single people, politicians, teachers, farmers – ordinary men and women – heterosexual, homosexual, trans etc. In that sense, in style and even progress, it reminded me a little of the power and impact of Max Brooks’s Word War Z (which I also loved). The immediacy draws you in and doesn’t let you go and you long to discover the story arc of a person you’ve just been introduced to, learn what happens to them, their experiences. Do they survive? What about those they love? And so the story develops from the start of the pandemic to its aftermath. It’s an intoxicating and breathless ride. 

World War Z (reprint) (paperback) By Max Brooks : Target

Yes, it is a feminist take on the end of the world, written with such searing intellect and a huge heart. It’s political, social, moral, psychological, economical, cultural and so much more besides. It is completely thought-provoking and I am so in need of people to talk to about some of the notions raised, I am pressing my partner and close friends to read it just so we can debate and discuss. If that’s not a sign of a great book, I don’t know what is. Book clubs will love this. And what of my second concern, that it might be a man-hating treatise? On the contrary, while there are some hateful men (and women) in it, it’s a realistic take on patriarchy, how it has shaped the world – for better and worse – and what the loss of 90% of one sex – those who essentially built it – might do. What changes would be wrought? Would life as we know it continue? (and, of course, you have to ask, what if the virus had killed 90% of the women? Would men have handled the situation the way the women in this novel have? I think we all know the answer to that… but what a discussion is to be had right there!). Far from loathing men, the novel portrays the multiple roles they play in relationships, families, professional spheres – including trades, medicine and politics – and what their loss signifies and the changes that must be wrought to compensate. In so many ways it points to how we (mostly) need each other – regardless of sex.

I am not going to say too much more except to recommend this over and over in the highest possible terms. It’s not so much an end of the world narrative as, to borrow from the song, an “end of the world as we know it” book. I think I have to call it now and say, this is one of my all-time favorite reads. Not just the story, the way its told, but for the fact it is so plausible and that it makes you think and feel and ask, “what if?”… and then wonder… 

Absolutely sensational. A ripper of a read. 

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The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

The origins of the Oxford English Dictionary have been explored by a number of authors over the years – The Surgeon of Crowthorne, by Simon Winchester (a fabulous read) a non-fiction book and recently a film, possibly being the most famous. Yet, Pip Williams‘s, The Dictionary of Lost Words, though a work of fiction (using an accurate historic setting) could well topple Winchester from this throne.

Lost Words takes the creation of the OED as its raison d’être, but instead of focusing on the primary male actors in the development of the dictionary, it concentrates on the women and the female-centric words that were excised from the original work – for no other reason than they weren’t regarded as having enough significance. 

Weaving the fictional story of Esme, the daughter of one of the lexicologists working on the dictionary project, we follow her from early childhood where she finds the word “bondmaid”, a word that refers exclusively to a subordinate female position, discarded on the floor of the “Scriptorium”. This is the place where her father and his colleagues work tirelessly to collect and collate words under the supervision of the real historical figure, Sir James Murray. Esme’s discovery and the word’s exclusion sparks a life-long quest in Esme, to understand the power of words, why and how they shape us and why some words are selected for inclusion in such an important work and others aren’t. I don’t want to say too much more and risk spoiling what unfolds. Needless to say, with a backdrop that includes the rise of the Suffragette movement and World War I, Esme’s professional and personal journey, which have words at their very heart, is riveting, deeply moving, as well as beautifully and lyrically written. On top of that, it’s an erudite exposition on the power of language, how it evolves (or not), and why the (male) gate-keepers are so reluctant to give ground. It’s about power, its imbalance and who is regarded as having a legitimate voice and why and how others are silenced. It’s also about women’s struggles for recognition and agency in a world that was keen to deny them both – even when they were intrinsic to the very project that enabled their exclusion. 

I couldn’t stop reading this book, not only is it exquisitely written, but it’s also completely engrossing. Esme’s life and the wonderful characters who enrich it, and the events that become significant and heart-breaking yardsticks are captivating, but so was the story of the English language. While on the one hand, I was turning pages rapidly, I also didn’t want the book to end. 

I cannot recommend this glorious book highly enough. It will go down as one of my all-time favourites and that is a big call. 
Honestly, I am so proud of Australian women writers. Seriously, I’ve just read about eight magnificent books by them in a row – all completely different and yet all telling wonderful stories in rich, creative and intelligent ways. Thank you. Thank you. 

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A Banquet of Consequences by Elizabeth George

Having adored the Inspector Lynley series since I first stumbled upon it years ago, and always enjoying the beauty and detail of George’s sublime writing, I’d found a few of the more recent Lynley books a little disappointing in terms of the main character, so much so, in one of my reviews I actually filed a Missing Persons Report on the Eighth Earl of Asherton, one Inspector Thomas Lynley.

22571556When I picked up this nineteenth instalment in the series, A Banquet of Consequences, I first though, oh no! Tommy and Barbara Havers, his prickly side-kick with a propensity for pop tarts and trakky daks, have gone AWOL. So much so, they don’t really appear, except in some readily forgettable scenes till almost a third of the way through the book. Having said that, the narrative that commences the book, a tale of many threads that take a while to join and then unravel, is engrossing. It’s so good, in fact, that Havers and Lynely feel like intrusions or even unnecessary – goodness! Did I write that? Yet, before long, Lynley and Havers step up and become an intrinsic part of this fascinating tale of families, love, loss, huge dysfunction and a betrayal of trust like no other.

So, while I almost gave up on the book early, believing that George had abandoned her dynamic duo in favour of another story, relegating them to almost laughable secondary roles as Havers undergoes an attempted make-over to please her irrational and demanding boss and presage a return to form, and Lynley languishes in love, I am so glad I didn’t. George doesn’t let the reader or fans of Thomas Lynely and Barbara Havers down. Though they don’t burst onto the scene until well into the book, with her accustomed mastery, George allows us peeps of them while introducing the reader to a multitude of complex, rich and deep characters, from a feminist scholar and author, Clare Abbott, to her anxiety-ridden publisher, a young man, Will, suffering from Tourettes Syndrome and crippling doubts, and his heavily tattooed and pierced girlfriend, Lily. There’s Will’s psychologist brother, Charlie, and his unhappy wife, India, and the pushy, narcissistic mother of the two men, Caroline, who is married to the down to earth baker, Alistair – just to name a few.

At first, you think, what have these people to do with anything? Then, a tragedy occurs and you find yourself thinking, that’s simply awful but what role does it play in this mystery, especially when there seems to be no mystery and no relationship between all these characters in the unfolding tale? Please explain!

Well, explain George does… and how.

It turns out the least likeable and most magnificently drawn of these characters, the hugely disordered Caroline, is the bridge uniting what at first appears to be two disparate groups of people as Caroline works for Clare Abbott. Authoritarian and prone to organising those who don’t wish to be, Caroline is an unpleasant and entirely selfish force to be reckoned with, something Barbara Havers experiences first hand.

When a death occurs that on the surface appears like suicide but upon further investigation turns out to be murder, Havers is contacted by one fot he characters for her help. Begging Lynley to intervene with Superintendent Isabelle Ardery (who, unfortunately, is still at the helm of the Met) and grant her the case, Havers has her wishes (against great odds) fuflilled. Sent to a small town, Havers, along with Winston Nkata, begins to examine the lives of all these people to whom the reader has already been introduced, uncovering a hotbed of secrets, lies, deceptions and betrayals. Relying on her boss, Lynley, in London to pursue other leads, when another person involved with the case is almost killed, both Havers and Lynley uncover more than they ever bargained for…

I don’t want to give away any of this plot as it is a cracker. The characters are amazingly well drawn, so much so, I can forgive George the faffing around at the beginning with Havers and Dorothea (which almost had me putting down the book) and the fact the lead roles, Tommy and Barb don’t really take centre stage for pages and pages.

This is a terrific crime novel and a great story, full of twists, turns, excellent writing, forensic but fascinating (in the real sense of the word – unable to turn away from because it is both awful and thrilling) exploration of families – the roles each member plays, the masks they wear, how behaviours impact upon others, how we bury truths and live lies.

The conclusion is so horrendous and though you see it coming in some senses, you do not want it to arrive. It’s like watching a crash you cannot stop or change, you just have to witness the impact, but already know the damage that’s been done.

It’s not only the characters about whom the crime revolves who are wonderfully crafted, Tommy and Barb as well as Winston are also fully rounded and eminently satisfying to read and champion. Though Tommy still grieves and is forever changed by the terrible loss he’s suffered, he is sharp, kind and loyal – the old Inspector hewn afresh; a little careworn and vulnerable, but no less noble in every sense of the word. And Barb, well she too has been hurt and yet gained from the experiences she endured in the last novel (which was wonderful). Ardery, however, is an unreasonable and quite vindictive woman whom I hope George transfers soon. She is predictable as well – which makes her boring. Just like Haver’s career, this series does not need her.

Overall, a fabulous and gripping read I found hard to put down.


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Book Review: The Fictional Woman by Tara Moss

One of the most thoughtful and erudite books on the female experience I have read in a long time. Rather than being exclusive or looking to apportion blame, Moss tackles the sometimes divisive subject of feminism and females through inclusivity and such a depth of understanding of culture, society and the various forces that shape us all.22309219

Part memoir, part treatise on the way women are labelled and stereotyped and then read accordingly (and men as well), Moss patiently and cleverly deconstructs a range of assumptions, using a mixture of theory, excellent research, personal experience and anecdotes.

Commencing with herself as subject, she then goes on to explain her objectification – as model, a body, a survivor and even as a writer. Having entered the fashion industry at an early age, her desire to be a professional writer was delayed but when she finally did have her first novel published, she found that the “tag” of model and the negative (and at times crushing) social and cultural assumptions of this profession haunted her aspirations. Not one to let this deter her, Moss unpacks her slow acceptance by the literary scene with humour and stoicism, and uses it as a case study through which to examine the ways in which women are constructed in mainstream culture and why this happens and, more importantly, why it’s essential to critically examine these reductive representations and understand the limitations they impose on subjectivity and female agency.

Lucid, entertaining and always engaging, Moss briefly considers the female experience through history, thus providing a context before discussing topics such as “gender wars”, male and female beauty, the notion of the invisible and visible woman (the latter through marketing and advertising) as well as how the social and cultural roles of mother and father, among many others, impact, define and either elevate or reduce us.

Moss gently but very persuasively argues that while we have a tendency in society to target individual women (and sometimes men) for harsh criticism and worse, we’re actually failing to identify and thus change the greater forces that work to uphold and restrict women’s agency. Complicit in patriarchal culture we might be, but that doesn’t mean we cannot step outside its constraints or work to change it. Her message is strong and beautifully and succinctly delivered. Her chapter on “The Feminist” had me cheering.

Moss also tackles why we need to deconstruct and critically think about the images that bombard us, the labels that we so readily bestow. She discusses the value we assign to women’s appearances and how these are also connected to morality, redundancy, conformity and a great many other emotional and psychological hurdles and burdens. Citing statistics and a great many studies, she demonstrates the lack of female representation (and diversity) in everything from parliament, politics generally, Hollywood, workplaces, education, role-models, to the dearth of meaningful representation of women of all ages, shapes, sizes and talents, in culture generally. Women are still rendered as object (often domesticated) and the power of our bodies lies mostly in their ability to arouse desire or open wallets – in other words, female bodies are most often used to sell – even the idea of competition to each other. But what Moss also investigates are the ideas our bodies both sell and perpetuate in the limited representations available and what the labels thus assigned do to our standing and understanding or ourselves and others – at the individual, family, relationship, social and political level.

The tropes of maiden, mother and crone as well as “Madonna” and “Whore” enjoy a great deal of scrutiny throughout the book, and the power they have had historically, socially and culturally to shape an understanding of women – through popular culture and beyond – is explored.

A powerful book but without being preachy, I could not put this down. If I was still lecturing at university, I would place it on my courses. As it is, I can only recommend that people of all ages, both sexes, read it. It’s an enriching, thought-provoking experience that I for one am so glad I had and will do so again.

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