books

‘The Language of Kindness’ by Christie Watson #BookReview #FridayReads

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Christie Watson was a nurse for twenty years. Taking us from birth to death and from A&E to the mortuary, The Language of Kindness is an astounding account of a profession defined by acts of care, compassion and kindness.

We watch Christie as she nurses a premature baby who has miraculously made it through the night, we stand by her side during her patient’s agonising heart-lung transplant, and we hold our breath as she washes the hair of a child fatally injured in a fire, attempting to remove the toxic smell of smoke before the grieving family arrive.

In our most extreme moments, when life is lived most intensely, Christie is with us. She is a guide, mentor and friend. And in these dark days of division and isolationism, she encourages us all to stretch out a hand.

The NHS is something that should be protected, but unfortunately we tend to take it and those that work in it for granted. With the slow, sneaking privatisation that’s going on at the moment, and the understaffing caused by Brexit, this is definitely a time when we should be celebrating the nurses, doctors and support staff that work so hard under some of the most stressful conditions.

This is a timely book then, well-written, packed full of really interesting historical detail and lots of real life experiences too. Some of these are hard to read, because you can feel the grief that Christie feels in these moments. And it’s lovely to read an account that actually shows what a nurse does – they don’t make the tea or put flowers in vases, you know! I admit I have a personal axe to grind. My sister has been nursing in the NHS for thirty-five years, my daughter’s first few days were spent in the neo-natal unit, one niece is a health visitor, another is a mental health nurse, and, with a son with mental health issues, I’m more than aware of how woefully underfunded and understaffed this area of the health service is. All of these wonderful women in my family are intelligent, well-trained, capable and professional, and they deserve the utmost respect. And the stories in this book show why.

Too often these types of books are sentimental and shmaltzy, and can almost feel voyeuristic – nosing in on a stranger’s grief and tragedy. This book isn’t like that at all. Christie shows great respect to the patients she has nursed and this is a fascinating book.

Emotional, but not sentimental, honest but not gratuitous, this book shows why we should value our NHS, and fight to keep it.

5 stars

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‘Storytellers’ by @bjornlarssen #TuesdayBookBlog #bookreview #RBRT

#RBRT Review Team

I read and reviewed ‘Storytellers’ for Rosie’s Book Review Team

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In March 1920 Icelandic days are short and cold, but the nights are long. For most, on those nights, funny, sad, and dramatic stories are told around the fire. But there is nothing dramatic about Gunnar, a hermit blacksmith who barely manages to make ends meet. He knows nobody will remember him – they already don’t. All he wants is peace, the company of his animals, and a steady supply of his medication. Sometimes he wonders what it would feel like to have a story of his own. He’s about to find out.

Sigurd – a man with a plan, a broken ankle, and shocking amounts of money – won’t talk about himself, but is happy to tell a story that just might get Gunnar killed. The blacksmith’s other “friends” are just as eager to write him into stories of their own – from Brynhildur who wants to fix Gunnar, then marry him, his doctor who is on the precipice of calling for an intervention, The Conservative Women of Iceland who want to rehabilitate Gunnar’s “heathen ways” – even the wretched elf has plans for the blacksmith.

As his defenses begin to crumble, Gunnar decides that perhaps his life is due for a change – on his own terms. But can he avoid the endings others have in mind for him, and forge his own?

An evocative setting, a cast of unusual and intriguing characters, a story within a story, and a dog. What more could you want?

This is an impressive debut novel from an author who really knows how to tell a story. We meet Gunnar, a blacksmith,  when he allows an injured climber, Sigurd,  to recover and recuperate in his home. While the climber’s ankle heals, the long dark nights are filled with a story, told by Sigurd, of a young couple and their life in a remote village in Iceland. The characters in this secondary story are as real and as vibrant as those in Gunnar’s story, and you find yourself, along with Gunnar, waiting impatiently for the next instalment.

Gunnar’s own story intertwines both with the fireside tale and the revelation of who Sigurd is and what he wants. This is a sometimes bleak, always honest portrayal of an isolated life, of the cost of keeping secrets, but it isn’t a depressing read. And there are moments of real humour too. As with all good storytelling, the story runs deep.

It was a little slow to get going, and did feel a little drawn out at times, but Bjorn Larssen is definitely a writer to look out for.

Definitely recommended

four-and-a-half-stars

 

‘The Craftsman’ by Sharon Bolton #BookReview #Fridayreads

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Devoted father or merciless killer?

His secrets are buried with him.

Florence Lovelady’s career was made when she convicted coffin-maker Larry Glassbrook of a series of child murders 30 years ago. Like something from our worst nightmares the victims were buried…ALIVE.

Larry confessed to the crimes; it was an open and shut case. But now he’s dead, and events from the past start to repeat themselves.

Did she get it wrong all those years ago?
Or is there something much darker at play?

Strong, believable female protagonist? Tick. Witches? Tick. Page-turning drama? Tick. And lots of scares and surprises along the way too.

I love scary films and scary books but I’m not a fan of horror and cruelty for the sake of it. There needs to be a good story, compelling characters that I can really care about, and a hint of the supernatural never goes amiss either. ‘The Craftsman’ ticks all the boxes.

The story follows two timelines – Florence as a young, naïve, female police officer in the seventies, dealing with all the sexism and prejudice that goes with that. We meet her thirty years later too, at Larry Glassbrook’s funeral. Larry was a sadistic murderer, and Florence was the one who put him away. But not everything is at it seems – not then and not now.

Beautifully crafted, intelligent and exciting, ‘The Craftsman’ was an absolute pleasure to read. As someone who is a bit obsessed with the story of the Pendle witches, the references to them and their tragic story went down incredibly well, and it was all so well drawn together.

Dark, disturbing, fabulous!

5 stars

‘The Story Collector’ by @evgaughan #TuesdayBookBlog #RBRT #Bookreview

#RBRT Review Team

I read ‘The Story Collector’ for Rosie Amber’s Book Review Team.

Story Collector

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Thornwood Village, 1910. Anna, a young farm girl, volunteers to help an intriguing American visitor, Harold Griffin-Krauss, translate ‘fairy stories’ from Irish to English.
But all is not as it seems and Anna soon finds herself at the heart of a mystery that threatens the future of her community and her very way of life…
Captivated by the land of myth, folklore and superstition, Sarah Harper finds herself walking in the footsteps of Harold and Anna one hundred years later, unearthing dark secrets that both enchant and unnerve.
The Story Collector treads the intriguing line between the everyday and the otherworldly, the seen and the unseen. With a taste for the magical in everyday life, Evie Gaughan’s latest novel is full of ordinary characters with extraordinary tales to tell.

This novel tells the stories of Sarah, a young woman who, on impulse, flies to Ireland after leaving her marriage, and Anna, who, one hundred years previously, helped a young American academic to collect local stories about fairies.

This dual storyline is seamless, the two stories separate and yet connected, through the diary that Sarah finds. Anna’s account is fascinating, and the events that she is caught up in bring an edge to the tale – and a reminder that fairies and folklore aren’t always benign.

The novel is beautifully written, the settings drawn clearly and evocatively and the author’s love of her subject matter is clear. The two female protagonists are relatable, strong, brave but not unrealistic – they’re not perfect, by any means, and Anna, in particular, has to live within the confines of society. Many novels have their heroines, particularly their historical heroines, behave in unrealistic ways. Anna is a girl of her time – and she has to learn to live with what that entails. Unrealistic behaviour from women in historical fiction is a real bugbear of mine, so it was refreshing to have Anna behave as a girl of her age and time would behave.

I would have liked a little more information about Sarah and what had happened to her. I didn’t feel she was a s fully realised as Anna, which was a shame. But this is the only criticism I have of this lovely book. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable read.

4 stars

Women in Historical Fiction #InternationalWomensDay #IWD2019

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I recently read a lovely book, ‘The Story Collector’ by Evie Gaughan, (review to follow soon) in which the historical female protagonist is that rare thing – a woman in historical fiction who actually behaves within the constraints and confines of her time. It reminded me of this post that I wrote a while ago, and, as the problem of ‘feisty’, unrealistic historical heroines is still one that I come across with depressing regularity, I thought I would post it again, in honour of International Women’s Day.

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My recent post about the portrayal of women of a certain age in fiction certainly seemed to strike a chord with many of you. So I thought I’d have another bit of a rant – this time about the way women are portrayed in historical fiction.

Now, I’m not talking about historical romance here, because to be honest it’s not a genre I read and I know that the female characters  don’t really have to be historically accurate (and I don’t mean that to sound demeaning).

In the historical fiction that I enjoy, there will be strong, likeable, intelligent female characters. These characters will often be inspiring and admirable. There are enough real historical women who have acted bravely and out of the bounds of convention after all. But, without exception, all of these women would have found it tough, and would have met resistance and hostility and often real danger.

So what really gets on my nerves in historical fiction is women who act rashly, or who are rebellious, or adventurous and who do these things without any consequences whatsoever. Women of upper class families who go out on their own, for example, without permission. And this is acceptable because after all, she’s a feisty one (god how I hate that word) and it’s all just a bit of a giggle.

And women who show no fear. Who stand up to adversity and discrimination and their fear, their anger, their frustration isn’t portrayed. I’m willing to bet everything I have that every single woman who stood on the gallows, accused of witchcraft was utterly, completely terrified. That every single woman who fell under suspicion and was arrested and tortured felt helpless. That every single woman who wanted more for herself than to be a wife or a mother felt totally frustrated and angry.

In too many books and films these women stand up for themselves and are defiant. Would they really have been? Or would they have crumbled, and cried and begged for mercy? And wouldn’t you? I think we do a disservice to these women when we write their feelings out of our fiction. These women were often completely, utterly, helpless and alone and would have had no agency at all. There would have been no one, absolutely no one to help them. It would have done no good for to be feisty. They just had to bear it and they just had to suffer.

I began reading a book the other week that was a best seller. The author is well-respected and very, very successful. I’ll admit I had my reservations before I began. The book is set in France, in the occupation. In the opening scenes, a local woman, very young, very clever, very outspoken, is put into a very difficult and scary situation that could end with her being killed. But she’s fine, because she’s strong, and brave and clever and beautiful and feisty. She stands up to the nasty Gestapo officer. And all is fine.

How utterly insulting to all those women who were left to deal with the occupation and who did whatever they could to keep themselves sand their children safe. What a judgement on those who weren’t feisty enough or pretty enough or brave enough. I wouldn’t be brave in that situation. I doubt that I’d stand up for myself.

I know fiction is make-believe. I know that people can act differently in fictional worlds to how they act in the real world. But I also feel so strongly that we owe it to the millions and millions of women that have suffered, that have been tortured and murdered and abused and vilified and subjugated, to portray them honestly. A woman that confessed under torture to things she hadn’t done, a woman that betrayed someone because she was scared for her children, a woman that didn’t do all the things she was capable of because she COULDN’T. Because not everyone was bloody Florence Nightingale (although she certainly had her struggles too). These women are part of female history too. And if you’re writing historical fiction, please show these women how they would have been. And please do remember – there weren’t many happy endings.

‘Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

Eleanor

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Eleanor Oliphant has learned how to survive – but not how to live

Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend.

Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything.

One simple act of kindness is about to shatter the walls Eleanor has built around herself. Now she must learn how to navigate the world that everyone else seems to take for granted – while searching for the courage to face the dark corners she’s avoided all her life.

Change can be good. Change can be bad. But surely any change is better than… fine?

There’s a lot of hype around this novel, and, for a change, it’s completely justified.

Eleanor is such a complex character. She is difficult, with odd little opinions and ideas and no idea at all how to navigate the modern world. But it’s these ‘quirks’ that we come to love as we get to know her better and to understand her and her past.

This is a novel about loneliness, how we can be so caught up in our own lives and our own needs and wants and problems that we can ignore the sheer misery going on around us. It’s also about how being kind, being human, being nice, can make such a difference. And it’s not preachy at all, it just is.

The writing is skilful, it flows so well and is, like Eleanor, straightforward. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t beautiful – again, a bit like Eleanor. There are places where the sheer emotion conveyed brings you up short, for example:

‘I took one of my hands in the other, tried to imagine what it would feel like if it was another person’s hand holding mine. There have been times when I felt I might die of loneliness. People sometimes say they might die of boredom, that they’re dying for a cup of tea, but for me, dying of loneliness is not hyperbole. When I feel like that, my head drops and my shoulders slump and I ache, I physically ache, for human contact – ‘

This isn’t a depressing book, however. Rather, it feels very life-affirming. Eleanor is strong, stronger than she knows, and Raymond is a beautiful portrayal of how the most innocuous person, the type of person we all know and probably overlook, can be someone else’s lifeline, and it’s also about how the smallest gestures, how a little bit of concern and thoughtfulness, can make a huge difference. We all need to be kinder.

Eleanor will stay with me for a long time.

5 stars

‘Now You See Her’ by Heidi Perks #FridayReads #BookReview #Thriller

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Charlotte is looking after her best friend’s daughter the day she disappears. She thought the little girl was playing with her own children. She swears she only took her eyes off them for a second.

Now, Charlotte must do the unthinkable: tell her best friend Harriet that her only child is missing. The child she was meant to be watching.

Devastated, Harriet can no longer bear to see Charlotte. No one could expect her to trust her friend again.
Only now she needs to. Because two weeks later Harriet and Charlotte are both being questioned separately by the police. And secrets are about to surface.

Someone is hiding the truth about what really happened to Alice.

I really like the idea behind this novel. Charlotte is looking after Alice for her friend – something Harriet never usually allows. Alice is nervous, timid, shy, a bit like her mum. Charlotte, on the other hand, seems confident, sociable, the opposite of Harriet.

She takes her eyes off Alice for a few minutes – and Alice is gone.

This is the part of the novel that really interested me – Charlotte’s reaction, her guilt and distress. We can all imagine how dreadful we would feel, and the way Charlotte reacts is portrayed really well. And Harriet’s reaction too is really convincing. It would be so hard to forgive someone in those circumstances. That’s the stuff of a really gripping tale.

But that’s not what this story is. There’s more to Alice’s disappearance than meets the eye. And that’s where, for me, the story fell down. Without giving too much away, when the ‘twist’ was revealed, I was left feeling a bit confused, because the character’s story up until then, her reactions and emotions, hadn’t led to this. And while it’s the mark of a good twist that you’re shocked and surprised, then there’s the dawning realisation when you think back on what you’ve read and remember little things that pointed to this all along. For me, that was lacking, and so the twist didn’t work.

It’s well-written, and the author can obviously write. It’s just a bit disappointing.

three stars

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the review copy.

‘The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae’ by Stephanie Butland #BookReview #TuesdayBookBlog

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Ailsa Rae is learning how to live.

She’s only a few months past the heart transplant that – just in time – saved her life. Life should be a joyful adventure. But . . .

Her relationship with her mother is at breaking point and she wants to find her father.
Have her friends left her behind?
And she’s felt so helpless for so long that she’s let polls on her blog make her decisions for her. She barely knows where to start on her own.

Then there’s Lennox. Her best friend and one time lover. He was sick too. He didn’t make it. And now she’s supposed to face all of this without him.

But her new heart is a bold heart. 

She just needs to learn to listen to it . . .

This isn’t usually the kind of novel I go for, but there was something really appealing in the blurb, so I thought I’d give it a go. And what a lovely book it is – I’m so glad I decided to read it.

When we hear about people who have had serious illnesses and then are offered hope, we assume they should be grateful, and Ailsa is grateful, but it isn’t as simple as that. There’s also a feeling that things should now be plain-sailing, that everything is wonderful, but Ailsa has been ill all her life, and now everything is changing. It’s fantastic but it’s difficult too. She needs to find out who she is and what she wants.

This is such an interesting idea for a novel, and Ailsa is a lovely main character. I felt really involved in the story and was really rooting for her. The things she has been through, the doubts she has, her relationship with her mum (which is a fabulous portrayal of the mother-daughter dynamic) and her burgeoning relationship with the gorgeous Seb, makes this a compelling, character-driven read. It’s hopeful without being unrealistic, sweet without being sickening and just a lovely book.

There were some elements that stretched belief a little, but I didn’t care, to be honest. I just really, really liked it.

5 stars

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the review copy.

‘The Swooping Magpie’ by @LizaPerrat #TuesdayBookBlog #RBRT #BookReview

#RBRT Review Team

I read ‘The Swooping Magpie’ for Rosie’s Book Review Team.

swooping magpie

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The thunderclap of sexual revolution collides with the black cloud of illegitimacy. 
Sixteen-year-old Lindsay Townsend is pretty and popular at school. At home, it’s a different story. Dad belts her and Mum’s either busy or battling a migraine. So when sexy school-teacher Jon Halliwell finds her irresistible, Lindsay believes life is about to change.
She’s not wrong.
Lindsay and Jon pursue their affair in secret, because if the school finds out, Jon will lose his job. If Lindsay’s dad finds out, there will be hell to pay. But when a dramatic accident turns her life upside down, Lindsay is separated from the man she loves.
Events spiral beyond her control, emotions conflicting with doubt, loneliness and fear, and Lindsay becomes enmeshed in a shocking true-life Australian scandal. The schoolyard beauty will discover the dangerous games of the adult world. Games that destroy lives.
Lindsay is forced into the toughest choice of her young life. The resulting trauma will forever burden her heart.
Reflecting the social changes of 1970s Australia, The Swooping Magpie is a chilling psychological tale of love, loss and grief, and, through collective memory, finding we are not alone.

This is a hugely emotive and important subject and one that deserves to be in the spotlight. While this is fiction, these dreadful things really did happen and the way unmarried mothers were treated was absolutely appalling. Anyone who has read about the Magdalene laundries, or watched ‘The Magdalene Sisters’ or ‘Philomena’ (both very much recommended) will be familiar with the issues behind this novel.

Lindsay is naïve though she tries to be a grown up. She’s vulnerable, though she seems to have it all. She’s looking for love, acceptance, acknowledgement. So she’s the perfect target for the slippery, creepy Jon.

This is a very well-written book. Lindsay is a great main character – she’s not perfect, she’s selfish and headstrong and vain. But she doesn’t deserve what happens to her. Her development as a character, the relationships and friendships she forms, all change her. And what happens to her shapes her life. Her story is written with honesty and candour, and feels completely authentic.

The cast of characters are memorable and their own stories are heart-breaking, particularly poor little Dawnie. And these are stories that deserve to be told. Anything that shines a light on the way these girls and women were treated is a good thing and this novel shows their stories so well.

That said, there were a couple of things that prevent me from giving this novel five stars. I felt that some of the historical detail used to give a sense of time and place were a little forced, felt a little shoehorned into the narrative. I also felt that the story’s full potential wasn’t completely realised – it felt like there was so much more to tell. I wanted to know more about the conditions at the home, Lindsay’s emotions and feelings at having to be there, more about her time afterwards. It felt a little rushed at times, and though it’s not a short novel, I felt that the characters and their stories deserved a bit more time.

That said, this is an important novel, well told and a must-read.

4 stars

 

The David Bowie Reading Challenge #TuesdayBookBlog #DBowieBooks #DavidBowie

It’s David Bowie’s birthday today, and since his death three years ago I’ve been intermittently taking part in the David Bowie reading challenge, which I first heard about here.

To be completely honest, I’ve not done too well – but the challenge has led me to read some wonderful books, and I’m determined to read more from the list this year.

Here are the books I’ve read so far with links to my reviews.

‘Nights at the Circus’ by Angela Carter

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‘As I Lay Dying’ by Williams Faulkner

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‘Room at the Top’ by John Braine

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‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ by Muriel Spark

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‘Billy Liar’ by Keith Waterhouse

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‘Last Exit to Brooklyn’ by Hubert Selby Jr

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‘1984’ by George Orwell

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‘Fingersmith’ by Sarah Waters

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‘Madame Bovary’ by Gustave Flaubert

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You can find a complete list of the books here.

I’ve also read ‘Passing’ by Nella Larsen, and will post my review soon.

I do recommend the challenge – there are so many books out there, new and old, but there are books on this list that really are must reads and many are books that I’ve been meaning to read for years, so it’s a good way of focusing on that goal.

Do let me know if you’ve read any of the books on the list, and what you thought.

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