Book Addiction – Bad!  Reading – Good! Why there are worse things than a Book Addiction!

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I have noticed recently that my to be read pile is growing at an alarming rate and my book addiction is getting worse.  I find it hard to pass a book shop without going in…’just for a look,’ which inevitably turns into the purchase of at least one book and usually several.  If there’s a two for the price of one offer on I’m sunk.  As for second hand and charity bookshops, it is not unheard of for me to come out with between eight to ten books.

I was berating myself for this the other day, as I tried to cram yet more books onto a shelf which is already overflowing.  The conversation went something like this:

Me: This is ridiculous, this book buying has really got to stop.  Look at all these books….grrrrr.

Me in reply: Oh but look at them, aren’t they fabulous?  I can’t wait to read them.

Me: Read them?  Half of those books have been sitting on that shelf for nearly two years without being read, because you keep buying more.

Me in reply: I know, but I will read them one day.

Me: One day, one day.  Just STOP buying books.  You are a total nightmare.  You keep buying new books before you have even read the ones you have.

Me in reply:  OK, I know that is a bit of a problem and I am going to try and stop doing that.  But I still think there are much worse addictions that a book addiction, and in fact some would say it’s a good way to spend your money.  I am going to think of all the reasons to justify my book addiction, and guess what I might even write a blog post about it.

Me: You do that.  (Carries on day in a huff with self.)

So, here I am ready to tell you all the reasons why it is good to buy books

  1. By the time I am an old lady (if God willing I live into old age) I will have the most fantastic book collection which I may be able to leave to a library or perhaps a group of schools, thus imparting wisdom and learning.
  2. Reading is a fantastic way to learn about life, about people, and about how to make sense of the world. Novels, short stories, poetry and non-fiction all help us in this way.  Thus, books are an essential tool in our lives.
  3. Reading a physical book means you are not looking at a screen which we all now know has to be a good thing. We are spending far too much time looking at screens to the detriment of our long-term health and wellbeing.
  4. Reading stimulates the mind. It has been shown that stimulating the mind slows down the deterioration of the mind and keeps us mentally agile.
  5. Reading helps us become more empathetic as we begin to understand how other people view the world.
  6. Reading helps us feel connected, when we see that other human beings share the same emotions and thoughts as we do.
  7. Reading makes you more intelligent.
  8. Reading helps you unwind before sleep (as long as it is not a page turner in which case, good luck!)
  9. Reading helps you escape your daily grind by taking you to exotic and exciting places.
  10. According to researchers at theUniversity of Sussex, reading for just six minutes can help reduce stress levels by up to 68 percent.

I rest my case.  Now if someone could just help me figure out how to stop buying books until I have read the ones I already have, that would be great.

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‘The Wicked Boy’ by Kate Summerscale

Kate Sumerscale coverThank you to Net Galley for a review copy of this title.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Wicked-Boy-Mystery-Victorian-Murderer/dp/1408851148

Bloomsbury Publishing. 400 pages. £16.99. ISBN number: 9781408851142

Review by Justine McGrath.

The American novelist Jack London characterized East Londoners as “a people of the machine and the Abyss.”  The dismal working class area of Plaistow in London fits this description perfectly, and in 1895 becomes notorious as the scene of an horrific murder. The victim is Emily Coombes; the murderer – her 14-year old son Robert.

A non-fiction account, written in a narrative style based on fact and devoid of emotion, ‘The Wicked Boy’ follows the story of the life of Robert Coombes, who seemingly without remorse or concern, murders his mother by stabbing her through the heart.

He and his brother Nattie (short for Nathanial) who is only twelve, then go on a jolly for the next ten days. They see the cricket at Lords and go to the theatre, while the body of their mother rots in an upstairs bedroom.  They also enlist a friend of their father’s called John Fox to stay with them. He is rather slow and seems oblivious to the foul smell emanating from the upstairs bedroom.

The truth must out and after ten days, the boys’ aunt forces her way into the house, following reports of a strange smell. The author does not shy away from the macabre and the scenes describing the remains of Emily Coombes’ body are grim in the extreme.  Robert Coombes confesses immediately, and exonerates his brother from any wrong doing. Their father is away at sea and oblivious to both the murder of his wife and the subsequent arrest of his two sons.

The politics, society and atmosphere of Victorian London are described in intricate detail, along with a fascinating insight into how child murderers were treated in the late 1800s in England. But the question that preoccupies the author is why did Robert Coombes kill his mother?

Summerscale has written of this murder trial in the same style in which she wrote ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher,’ for which she won the Samuel Johnson prize and garnered much attention.   In that real life narrative, the author also follows the life of the culprit, Constance, after the trial, to see what becomes of her.

During the trial in ‘The Wicked Boy,’ doctors and psychologists claim that Robert’s brain is too large for his skull and that he has always suffered from headaches.  This is verified by his father.  He is diagnosed with a condition known as “cerebral irritation.” Another theory to explain his behaviour, given by the victim himself, is that his mother had a vile temper, and Robert claims he killed her because she had “thrashed” Nattie and he was afraid she was going to continue to beat both of them.

Another theory put forward is that the blame for the murder lies with the ‘Penny Dreadful’ boys’ magazines that Robert liked to read. The author digresses too much recounting stories from the Penny Dreadfuls, which detracts from the more interesting main narrative.  Too much is made of this and as one of the local newspapers at the time, the Gazette stated:

“The books a man or woman reads are less the making of a character than the expression of it.”

Robert may have wished to run away to India due to reading the magazines, but it didn’t necessarily mean he killed his mother in order to do so.  The author is careful not to elicit our sympathy as Robert is portrayed as a cruel, heartless child who also stole repeatedly without the slightest remorse.

“Robert seemed quite the Cockney dandy, a wordly Dodger to Nattie’s wide-eyed Oliver Twist.”

We are initially prompted to feel increasing concern for Nattie, who, as the younger brother appears vulnerable and under Robert’s control. He is released without charge, if he will testify against his brother which he does.  We are never told how Robert feels about this.

Robert seems entirely unfazed throughout the trial and yet the jury takes pity on him and declares him insane at the time of the murder. The alternative was death by hanging. Whether Robert committed the murder as a result of what the doctors termed ‘cerebral irritation’ or due to his anxiety about his mother’s beatings, or as a result of both, we are left to decide for ourselves.

What is more important to Summerscale, and where this book becomes increasingly intriguing, is what happened to Robert after his conviction. He is transported to Broadmoor lunatic asylum and as well as hearing how Robert copes, the author pulls us into incredible story after story of the other prisoners and their lives. Music plays a large part in his life and he becomes accomplished in both the cornet and the violin.

However, that is only the first quarter of the book.  There is so much more.  Largely leaving Nattie out of it, Summerscale follows the rest of Robert Coombes’ life through Broadmoor (where he does well after an initial breakdown) and then through not one, but both World wars and a new life in Australia.

Summerscale writes this incredible tale of one man’s survival against all the odds with intriguing stories of other crimes, criminals and characters from the era.  The book is replete with interesting anecdotes and facts of life in Victorian England.  For example, the prosecuting barrister in Robert’s case, a man by the name of Charles Gill, also prosecuted Oscar Wilde.

As Robert’s life unfolds we begin to root for his ongoing survival, such is his courage and seeming change of persona, which leads back to the original question.  What leads a 14-year old boy to murder his mother?  That is left for the reader to decide through this tale of intrigue, degradation and redemption.