Toby’s Room by Pat Barker

Toby’s Room by Pat Barker was published in 2012, but the book begins in 1912 at the affluent home of Toby and Elinor, a very (too) close brother and sister. They have an older sister Rachel, she’s the one who has done everything that her parents expected of her. Elinor has a difficult relationship with her rather self-centred mother, but she does manage to get to the Slade Art School, where she also studies human dissection to help with her drawing of the human body. This is all very ground-breaking for a young woman. She also rubs shoulders with some of the people in the Bloomsbury Group as well as men who became War Artists.

When World War I breaks out Toby joins up, he is of course an officer, but it seems that he doesn’t treat the men underneath him well, he risks their lives in unnecessary tasks, and lends them out to other units when what they really need is a rest. In 1917 when his family gets a telegram saying he is Missing, Believed Killed his mother is bereft, but Elinor can’t believe it, she has to get to the bottom of it.

Pat Barker never disappoints. I’m usually not a fan of writers who use actual people as characters in their books but with small name changes for some of them and no changes for others such as Rupert Brooke who was already dead by that time, I didn’t find it offensive at all for Barker to use them in her tale.

If you want to read the review of this book in The Independent you can do so here.


Another World by Pat Barker

Fran and Nick haven’t been married all that long and Fran is coming to the end of her second pregnancy with Nick, but she also has Gareth, an older son by a previous relationship. At the beginning of the tale Nick is going to pick up his daughter Miranda. Her mother has had to go into a mental hospital, as she has had a break-down, she hasn’t coped with Nick’s infidelity and desertion at all well. The family is not a well blended one.

They also have to cope with the renovations in the old house they have bought. Scraping the old wallpaper off seems like it might be a bit of a bonding process, but when a portrait of the original inhabitants of the house is uncovered it spooks Fran, they look just like them, and not in a good way.

But Nick also has the stress of having to help his sister look after Geordie, their father who is 101 years old, and a survivor of the Somme. Although Geordie  survived the war the mental scars have never diminished, have blighted his life and now he is dying of cancer the memories are all coming to the surface.

Pat Barker is a really good writer but there were aspects of this book which were too much like my own father’s death, and that wasn’t something I would have chosen to re-visit.

Double Vision by Pat Barker

Double Vision by Pat Barker won the Booker Prize in 1995, it is undoubtedly well written but I’ve read a lot of Barker’s books and this one isn’t my favourite. I admit that I have been reading quite a lot of books for older children or YA at the moment, maybe that’s why I felt uneasy when the storyline took a rather creepy and violent turn.

Stephen Sharkey had been a war correspondent but the death of his friend Ben who had been a war photographer made Ben re-assess his life and he has given up on his old career while he still has the option.

Stephen’s older brother offers him the use of a cottage while he writes a book about his and Ben’s experiences, using some of Ben’s photographs. Ben’s widow Kate lives in the same village and she’s a sculptor, but early on in the book she’s involved in a car crash which leaves her temporarily unable to do the heavy work involved in her sculpting. She has a commission to sculpt a statue of Jesus for the local church and she has to hire a young man to help her. Peter has been recommended by the vicar, despite the fact that he had had a relationship with his 19 year old daughter and had dumped her recently.

You can see Jack’s thoughts on the book here.

The Women of Troy by Pat Barker

 The Women of Troy cover

The Women of Troy by Pat Barker is the sequel to her book The Silence of the Girls. This one continues with the Greeks sitting cramped in the wooden horse, waiting to be able to jump out and overcome Troy, if it isn’t dragged into the city and isn’t burnt with the men in it. All goes to their plan and Achilles’ son Pyrrhus seeks out the elderly King Priam to murder him, which he manages to do eventually although he botches it badly. The women of Troy are now all slaves, the ‘best’ given to the officers and the others being passed around the ordinary soldiers. King Priam’s body lies in a bloody heap with the Greeks not allowing him a funeral, the final indignity for him and those who loved him. Briseis who is now married to Alcimus but pregnant with Achilles’ child goes in search of Helen whom she had met when she was younger. So many people blame her for the war so Helen is not at all popular, but Briseis is trying to forge relationships where she can. She discovers that hundreds of women had commited suicide and she fears that her sister Ianthe was one of them, she can see no little boys at all. It seems that even they have been killed by the victors.

The Greeks are stranded in Troy due to the weather, there’s just no wind to fill their sails. To stop the soldiers from getting bored and drunk, which would surely lead to them fighting among themselves Alcimus decides to hold competitive games. The men all think that they’re unable to sail home because they’ve angered the gods, they’ve treated their priest as a figure of fun in the past.

This was an enjoyable read particularly as the women do feature a lot more in this one and they’re all interesting characters. I’ve always identified with Cassandra!

Thanks to Penguin Books, Hamish Hamilton for sending me a digital copy of the book via NetGalley.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker is the first book in her re-telling of Homer’s Iliad. The story is narrated mainly by Briseis who has been given to Achilles as his prize although from time to time we get things from the perspective of Achilles. It’s a big change in the fortunes of Briseis as she’s gone from being a queen to being a slave and concubine and she knows that at any time if Achilles feels like it he could hand her over to the ordinary soldiers to do what they want with her. Some of the women have chosen to commit suicide rather than be used by their conquerors, but Briseis can’t bring herself to do that.

There’s a clash of personalities between King Agamemnon and Achilles. Agamemnon is keeping safe in his ship, just observing fighting and this is infuriating Achilles who decides that if Agamemmnon isn’t going to risk his life in battle – neither will he. Agamemnon insists on stripping Achilles of his war prizes, meaning that Achilles must give Briseis to him. Achilles had begun to think of Briseis as his wife, he has mental health problems stemming from his mother (of course) who as a goddess had returned to the sea, wading out of it to visit him frequently. Briseis had realised that her own sea bathing had been what had caused Achilles to become interested in her. When he had to give her up to Agamemnon he was bereft. With his army begging him to fight Patroclus decides to pretend he’s Achilles. It’s all going to end in tears!

I enjoyed this although I did think that it is mis-titled as the ‘girls’ don’t feature hugely in the book – on second thoughts maybe that’s the whole idea. Apart from Briseis the most prominent characters are Achilles and Patroclus.

If you’re interested in reading a far more detailed review you can have a look at Jack’s here.

The Century’s Daughter aka Liza’s England by Pat Barker

The Century's Daughter cover

The Century’s Daughter by Pat Barker was published by Virago in 1986. The title seems to have been changed to Liza’s England later on and it is the third book that Barker wrote, not that it reads like an early book, it’s very well written.

Liza was born at the turn of the 20th century, in fact just as the new year was born. The setting is northern England, the Sunderland/Newcastle area I believe. In the first chapter Stephen visits Liza in her home. Her house is due to be demolished but Liza refuses to move and Stephen is a social worker tasked with persuading her to move elsewhere so that the whole area can be cleared. But Stephen quickly realises that he is really on Liza’s side. He loves hearing about her long life which has been hard, her family is scarred by the wars, but before that Liza was damaged by her mother Louise who is definitely not of the apple pie making variety.

The chapters mainly flip from Liza’s story to Stephen’s life as he is having a tough time in other areas of his work. Running a youth club for the youngsters of the disadvantaged area is turning into a nightmare, he just can’t cope and at the same time he’s having to deal with the imminent death of his terminally ill father. He hasn’t been close to his parents, his education and homosexuality seem to have thrown up insurmountable barriers between them.

There’s a lot going on in this book which features the 1930s Depression and the grim early 1980s when there were no jobs for so many young people in the UK and consequently many had no hopes for their future.

That makes it sound like the book will be a depressing read but it really isn’t, although it is sad at times I enjoyed the relationship between Liza and Stephen.

The book begins –

‘No point being eighty, is there?’ said Liza. ‘If you can’t be a bit outrageous?’

And certainly she looked it, Stephen thought, with her scarlet headsquare tilted crazily over one eye, giving her the look of a senile pirate.

She even has a parrot.

Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times

I’m continuing with Judith at Reader in the Wilderness‘ meme Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times which I’m really enjoying, particularly because I actually finished reading one of the books that I wrote about last Friday. This might be a great way for me to concentrate on reading my own books. Mind you the fact that all of the libraries are shut has helped too! I’ll be sharing my thoughts on Flowers in the Grass by Monica Dickens soon.

So this time around I’m again featuring just three books that have languished on various bookshelves of mine.


Doctor Dolittle and the Green Canary is a book for children written by Hugh Lofting, it’s quite a big series, written for children but suitable for all ages. The author illustrated his own books.

Snow by Orhan Pamuk belongs to Jack, Pamuk is one of his favourite authors but I’ve never read any of his books. I think it’s about time that I did.

The Century's Daughter

The Century’s Daughter by Pat Barker is one that I bought fairly recently. I’ve read a few books by Barker and really liked them, this one seems quite different though and it’s a Virago publication.

Aberdeen book purchases – part 2

Yet More Books

The second bookshop in Aberdeen that we visited is a charity one right in the Merkat Square and as the books are all donated they sell them very cheaply. I bought:

1. The Century’s Daughter by Pat Barker
2. The Rendezvous by Daphne du Maurier
3. The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay
4. Beautiful Just! by Lillian Beckwith
5. Green Hand by Lillian Beckwith
6. Bruach Blend by Lillian Beckwith
7. The Spuddy by Lillian Beckwith
8. The Road Home by Rose Tremain
9. A Pack of Lies by Geraldine McCaughrean
10. Young Bess by Margaret Irwin
11. The Cockle Ebb by Isabel Cameron
12. The Herries Chronicle by Hugh Walpole This is an omnibus consisting of four books which are set in the Lake District/Cumbria area, and first published in 1939 although mine is a 1955 reprint.
Rogue Herries
Judith Paris
The Fortress

Visiting St Andrews just after Christmas I bought a lovely edition of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, illustrated by Arthur Rackham. You can see some of the illustrations here. – also from St Andrews – Young Bess by Margaret Irwin, and the postman brought me –
In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S. Haasse.

That lot should keep me going for a while. Have you read any of them?

Library Booksale Haul

Last Saturday there was another library booksale and although I’ve bought a lot of books recently I just couldn’t ignore the sale, as Jack said – you never know what you might miss if you don’t go.

Anyway, I ended up buying:

Double Vision by Pat Barker
Pink Sugar by O.Douglas
Rifling Through My Drawers by Clarissa Dickson Wright
A History of Britain by Simon Schama

I’ve already read Pink Sugar but as I had borrowed it from the library I thought it would be nice to own a copy, I’d like to have a complete set of O. Douglas books. Yes, they’re twee, in fact in this book the author is really defending herself from that criticism. Her books are couthie and looking at them from this standpoint, nearly 90 years after it was first published, it is a bit of social history of the times.

I enjoyed Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy about the First World War. Double Vision still has a war theme but it’s Afghanistan this time, the modern war. I’m not sure about this one but at 50p it’s hardly a tragedy if it ends up in a charity shop.

I enjoyed the Two Fat Ladies when they were jaunting about the place in their motor-bike and sidecar, and I couldn’t resist Clarissa Dickson Wright’s book Rifling through my Drawers – what a great title!

The Simon Schama, History of Britain from 3000BC – AD 1603 book was a replay of the moment when I spotted the David Dimbleby book at the last sale. About 15 minutes into the sale I spotted it and couldn’t believe that nobody had snaffled it – so I did. I enjoyed watching the BBC series of the book.

So, not a bad haul really, considering I shouldn’t have been buying anything at all.

Life Class by Pat Barker

Life Class was published in 2007. It is set in the spring of 1914 and the characters are art students at the Slade School of Art in London.

Paul Tarrant has been left a small legacy by his grandmother and he is using the money to finance his art studies, although things aren’t going well for him and he is thinking about leaving the college before his first year is up. He doesn’t think he is progressing with his art and seems to feel that he doesn’t fit in with the rest of the students because of his northern background. He forms a relationship with Teresa, an artist’s model and fellow northerner.

I felt that this part of the book was the least successful bit, and it annoyed me that Barker couldn’t make up her mind whether the character of Elinor had cropped hair, bell shaped hair or it could be tied back with a ribbon.

At the outbreak of war, Paul and Kit, an ex Slade student and up and coming artist, decide to do their bit, hoping to be ambulance drivers in Ypres but starting out as hospital orderlies, although both continue to paint. I think this is the most interesting part of the book. It seems that Barker is most comfortable with the subject of the war.

However, she still made annoying small mistakes. For instance, whilst Paul is back in London and recovering from a leg wound which has left him with a stiff knee, he meets up with Elinor. When they reach her rooms, she asks him to light the fire, which he does and then sits back on his heels. Now I don’t know how it is possible to sit on your heels without bending both of your knees. But a couple of paragraphs later he is saying that he can’t bend his knee.

I know it’s nit-picking and probably nobody else bothers about that sort of thing.

Anyway, apart from that I did quite enjoy the book although it isn’t one which I would read again. If you like books which are set in The Great War you will probably enjoy this one.