book reviews

‘The Nanny State Made Me’ by Stuart Maconie #FridayReads #BookReview

It was the spirit of our finest hour, the backbone of our post-war greatness, and it promoted some of the boldest and most brilliant schemes this isle has ever produced: it was the Welfare State, and it made you and I. But now it’s under threat, and we need to save it.

In this timely and provocative book, Stuart Maconie tells Britain’s Welfare State story through his own history of growing up as a northern working class boy. What was so bad about properly funded hospitals, decent working conditions and affordable houses? And what was so wrong about student grants, free eye tests and council houses? And where did it all go so wrong? Stuart looks toward Britain’s future, making an emotional case for believing in more than profit and loss; and championing a just, fairer society.

Last week I reviewed Cash Carraway’s book about her struggle to build a life for herself and her daughter under the current social system in this country. It felt timely then to read this book straight after – a book that praises that once great system, when the much maligned ‘nanny’ state looked after the people of this country and helped those who needed help.

I am slightly younger than Maconie, but I very much recognised the world he described – albeit that I lived further south, first in London and then in an estate in a new town, built to cater for the London overspill. Like Maconie’s estate, the estate we lived in had been planned to put open spaces at its heart – terraces of houses not in rows but in squares around a green area, and we had a toilet downstairs! 

I had a free education,  free library, free care from the NHS, and when I when to university I had a grant – a grant that didn’t need to be paid back – ever.

Things weren’t perfect. There was snobbery. There was still need. But it was a damn sight better than now.

Maconie’s book then, is a love letter of sorts to those institutions that meant so much to those of us who were working class – the swimming pools, the parks, the libraries (especially the libraries), the completely free education. And it’s also a warning that we are letting it all slip away. That we are letting this false narrative of scroungers, of benefit cheats, of people swanning up to food banks in Range Rovers (yes, I have been told this I by someone I know – she firmly believes it) to allow us to turn our back on a system that, although not perfect, was genuinely a safety net, was genuinely a way out for many of us.

Maconie writes with wit, with warmth, with intelligence. The book isn’t perfect though. In a section about how the privately educated have taken over the music industry, with the majority of bands in this country formed of ex-public schoolboys, Maconie wonders where are the John Lennons, the Jarvis Cockers, the Johnny Marrs? In doing so he completely overlooks grime – a whole genre of working class and independent music.

I also found his defence of the BBC a little hard to swallow, and a little disappointing too.

That said, however, this is a really important book. The ‘nanny’ state is not a terrible, interfering, wasteful behemoth that needs continuous overhauling – it is a lifeline for many that definitely needs proper funding (might help if the rich paid their taxes). We need those Sure Start Centres, those public libraries, the school playing fields, the public swimming pools. And we most certainly need free university level education. I couldn’t have done without these things. I wish the generations after me had had the benefit of them too. 

A much-needed warning, well-written, very readable, and an important book, especially as we head into the uncertainty of 2022.

‘Skint Estate’ by Cash Carraway #BookReview #FridayReads

I’m a scrounger, a liar, a hypocrite, a stain on society with no basic morals – or so they say. After all, what else do you call a working-class single mum in temporary accommodation?

Skint Estate is the darkly funny debut memoir from Cash Carraway, a scream against austerity that rises full of rage in a landscape of sink estates, police cells, refuges and peepshows.
A voice that must be heard.

Sometimes, when there’s an article posted on Twitter about foodbanks, or people having to choose whether to heat their homes or eat, I read the comments and wonder what’s wrong with people. I can guarantee that someone will say something about flat screen TVs (all TVs have flat screens), or mobile phones (you have to have internet access to apply for jobs, and access information and services relating to universal benefit, and a mobile is often the cheapest way) or alcohol and cigarettes, the lottery or scratch cards (no evidence that people in poverty buy these disproportionatly, and even if they do, well, god forbid the poor should have any pleasure, just sit on the floor and stare at the wall). Anyway, the ignorance, smugness, and lack of compassion always makes me furious. These people should read this book.

Cash Carraway tells it exactly like it is, with an intelligence and wit that makes reading this book bearable. Because without her skill as a writer, it would be unremittingly depressing. Which a life in poverty in the UK undoubtedly is.

The frustration of moving from temporary home to temporary home, of trying to find work that fits in with childcare, the sheer exhaustion of just trying to keep your head above water, the author relates these things with an honesty that is raw and brave, and with a scathing humour and a justifiable anger. 

I’m currently reading ‘The Nanny State Made Me’ by Stuart Maconie, partly a celebration of the funded NHS, libraries, education, that my generation enjoyed and benefitted from. Had these things still been available, rather than completely decimated by recent policies, you can’t help thinking that Cash Carraway would have had a much better chance in life, that she would have had access to resources, to care, that would have set her on her path earlier, that she wouldn’t have had to have gone through what she has gone through, and write about it, to be a successful writer and journalist. 

I come from a working class background, and I know first-hand the benefits of libraries, and student grants, and access to education. I have also had first-hand experience of the NHS providing lifesaving care for my child – goodness knows what would have happened without it. Reading of experiences like Cash Carraway’s and reading the way people like her are demonised and blamed for society’s ills really brings home just how much in danger we are of losing these things for good. I also wonder how much my life may have been like hers had I been born twenty or thirty years ago rather than fifty-odd years ago.

It’s not just a blessing for the author that her writing and her talent has been recognised, it’s a blessing for the rest of us – her work is so important, and deserves to be shared. She’s a real talent, and I do hope she’ll write more of her experiences. 

‘The Other People’ by C.J. Tudor #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

Driving home one night, Gabe sees the face of a little girl he knows in the rear window of the car in front.

She mouths one word – ‘Daddy’. It’s his five-year old daughter, Izzy.

He never sees her again.

The police believe she’s dead. But three years later, Gabe still drives the roads, searching for the car that took Izzy, never giving up hope . . .

Meanwhile Fran and her daughter, Alice, aren’t searching – but running.

Always one step ahead of the people who want to hurt them.

Because Fran knows the truth about Gabe’s daughter.

And she knows what the people chasing her will do if they ever catch them . . .

The beginning of this book is fantastic – such an exciting and interesting premise. What a clever idea for a novel. 

It’s gripping, dramatic, exciting, with plenty of twists and some characters to get behind too. I so wanted Gabe to find Izzy, or at least find out what happened to her – his grief, his guilt, his longing for her are palpable; he’s so well-written.

I really loved Katie too – at last, a realistic portrayal of single motherhood, the boring, badly paid job, rushing here and there to pick up the kids, she felt very real and, like Gabe, was so likeable.

Living far from family, we spend a lot of time on the M4 and a lot of time in service stations, and the idea of Gabe driving from services to services is compelling. Motorway services are odd places, and the author’s descriptions are spot on. Standing in the queue for a coffee, I often wonder where everyone has come from and where everyone is going – this book opens up a whole new set of possibilities!

A clever, entertaining, and gripping read.

’Dominicana’ by Angie Cruz #BookReview #TuesdayBookBlog

‘This book is a valentine to my mom and all the unsung Dominicanas like her, for their quiet heroism in making a better life for their families, often at a hefty cost to themselves. Even if Dominicana is a Dominican story, it’s also a New York story, and an immigrant story. When I read parts of Dominicana at universities and literary venues both here and abroad, each time, audience members from all cultures and generations came up to me and said, this is my mother’s story, my sister’s story, my story’ Angie Cruz

Fifteen-year-old Ana Canción never dreamed of moving to America, the way the girls she grew up with in the Dominican countryside did. But when Juan Ruiz proposes and promises to take her to New York City, she must say yes. It doesn’t matter that he is twice her age, that there is no love between them. Their marriage is an opportunity for her entire close-knit family to eventually immigrate. So on New Year’s Day, 1965, Ana leaves behind everything she knows and becomes Ana Ruiz, a wife confined to a cold six-floor walk-up in Washington Heights. Lonely and miserable, Ana hatches a reckless plan to escape. But at the bus terminal, she is stopped by César, Juan’s free-spirited younger brother, who convinces her to stay.

As the Dominican Republic slides into political turmoil, Juan returns to protect his family’s assets, leaving César to take care of Ana. Suddenly, Ana is free to take English lessons at a local church, lie on the beach at Coney Island, dance with César at the Audubon Ballroom, and imagine the possibility of a different kind of life in America. When Juan returns, Ana must decide once again between her heart and her duty to her family.

In bright, musical prose that reflects the energy of New York City, Dominicana is a vital portrait of the immigrant experience and the timeless coming-of-age story of a young woman finding her voice in the world.

What a wonderful book. Warm, heartfelt, honest and beautifully written, I just loved Ana and so wanted her to be happy. I felt all her frustrations, her dashed hopes, her spirit, and felt so invested in her story.

A girl with dreams, hopes, aspirations, Ana hopes she will have a better life as a married woman in the US, even if she feels nothing for husband Juan, a man twice her age. Only fifteen, she has to grow up far too quickly and do her best to make a life for herself. She has so much to contend with, so much responsibility, and so much pressure from her mother, still in the Dominican Republic, always demanding that she send home money. 

It’s difficult to imagine what it must be like to have to make a new life in a country where you don’t know anyone, where you don’t speak the language, where you have no money, no job, no friends. The resilience and courage Ana shows is a testament to all of those who have been forced to build a life in a strange, often hostile land. 

Her story is told beautifully; the author is incredibly talented. 

Highly recommended.

‘Dear Edward’ by Ann Napolitano #BookReview #FridayReads

A transcendent coming-of-age story about the ways a broken heart learns to love again.

One summer morning, a flight takes off from New York to Los Angeles: there are 192 people aboard. When the plane suddenly crashes, twelve-year-old Edward Adler is the sole survivor.

In the aftermath, Edward struggles to make sense of his grief, sudden fame and find his place in a world without his family. But then Edward and his neighbour Shay make a startling discovery; hidden in his uncle’s garage are letters from the relatives of other passengers – all addressed him.

Following the passengers’ final hours and Edward’s unique coming-of-age, Dear Edward asks one of life’s most profound questions:

What does it mean not just to survive, but to truly live?

I used to love flying – I even flew to Singapore by myself at the tender age of nineteen. I didn’t give safety or plane crashes a second thought. Then once I had children, it began to really bother me and I’m not sure why. Now, I really, really don’t like it and have to take Valium before a flight.

So a book centred around a plane crash may not have been the most sensible choice, but this was a really unusual and thought-provoking read, full of emotion, without being sentimental, and a really sensitive and intriguing take on a very unusual situation.

Edward is lovely, really sympathetically portrayed, his awkwardness, his confusion, his guilt, his grief, all so well-written. I really wanted him to find a sense of peace, contentment, and happiness.

The reactions of those around him, family, friends, strangers, is an interesting commentary on how we often feel entitled to bits of a person’s life, even if we don’t know them. For me, the interactions with the families of those who died in the crash were a highlight of the book.

My only niggle was that I really didn’t warm to Shay at all. Their friendship didn’t feel authentic to me. Otherwise  a lovely book, beautifully-written, and intriguing.

Hasn’t made me feel any better about flying though!

’Big Girl, Small Town’ by Michelle Gallen #Book Review 

Routine makes Majella’s world small but change is about to make it a whole lot bigger.

*Stuff Majella knows*
-God doesn’t punish men with baldness for wearing ladies’ knickers
-Banana-flavoured condoms taste the same as nutrition shakes
-Not everyone gets a volley of gunshots over their grave as they are being lowered into the ground

*Stuff Majella doesn’t know*
-That she is autistic
-Why her ma drinks
-Where her da is

Other people find Majella odd. She keeps herself to herself, she doesn’t like gossip and she isn’t interested in knowing her neighbours’ business. But suddenly everyone in the small town in Northern Ireland where she grew up wants to know all about hers. 

Since her da disappeared during the Troubles, Majella has tried to live a quiet life with her alcoholic mother. She works in the local chip shop (Monday-Saturday, Sunday off), wears the same clothes every day (overalls, too small), has the same dinner each night (fish and chips, nuked in the microwave) and binge watches Dallas (the best show ever aired on TV) from the safety of her single bed. She has no friends and no boyfriend and Majella thinks things are better that way.

But Majella’s safe and predictable existence is shattered when her grandmother dies and as much as she wants things to go back to normal, Majella comes to realise that maybe there is more to life. And it might just be that from tragedy comes Majella’s one chance at escape.

Some aspects of this novel are fabulous. The writing is excellent. The author brings life to every scene, however mundane the setting, and is obviously a talented writer. There is definitely a place for main characters like Majella – there are far too few of them, and far too few portrayals of the ordinary lives that are somehow extraordinary.

I did enjoy the first half of the book, but then it did all begin to feel a bit unrelenting. I don’t mind ‘gritty’ in the slightest, but I couldn’t find any humour here, despite the reviews. There was nothing to lift things, not a great deal of warmth and I did feel a bit disappointed in the end.

That said, I’d certainly read more by this author.

‘Love Lives Here’ by Amanda Jette Knox #BookReview #FridayReads

All Amanda Jetté Knox ever wanted was to enjoy a stable life. She never knew her biological father, and while her mother and stepfather were loving parents, the situation was sometimes chaotic. At school, she was bullied mercilessly, and at the age of fourteen, she entered a counselling program for alcohol addiction and was successful. 

While still a teenager, she met the love of her life. They were wed at 20, and the first of three children followed shortly. Jetté Knox finally had the stability she craved–or so it seemed. Their middle child struggled with depression and avoided school. The author was unprepared when the child she knew as her son came out as transgender at the age of eleven. Shocked, but knowing how important it was to support her daughter, Jetté Knox became an ardent advocate for trans rights.

But the story wasn’t over. For many years, the author had coped with her spouse’s moodiness, but that chronic unhappiness was taking a toll on their marriage. A little over a year after their child came out, her partner also came out as transgender. Knowing better than most what would lie ahead, Jetté Knox searched for positive examples of marriages surviving transition. When she found no role models, she determined that her family would become one. 

The shift was challenging, but slowly the family members noticed that they were becoming happier and more united. Told with remarkable candour and humour, and full of insight into the challenges faced by trans people, Love Lives Here is a beautiful story of transition, frustration, support, acceptance, and, of course, love
.

I started following Amanda Jette Knox a couple of years ago on Twitter – admiring the grace patience and humour she showed when dealing with sometimes horrific abuse directed not only at her, but also at her children. 

A brief glance through Twitter most days of the week and you’ll see some of the horrible things transgender people have said to them – things I’m sure people wouldn’t be brave enough to say to their faces. There’s so much misinformation out there about transgender people and transitioning. I would really encourage everyone to read this wonderful book to hear the truth about what transitioning actually entails from a family that actually knows.

The book is honest, brave, sometimes heart-breaking, ultimately uplifting. The author reveals a great deal about herself, her fears, her hopes, and is honest about mistakes she’s made. And it’s all told in a way that makes you feel as though you’re sitting down with her for a chat over coffee – the warmth and humour – and the love – comes through so clearly.

I remember Section 28 in the late eighties, and the misery it caused. I remember the homophobia of those times and it’s dreadful to hear the same old tropes and lies now being used against transgender people. It’s so depressing. It’s so important that transgender voices are heard, that the real people going through this are listened to and reading this book certainly is a great way to do that.

Incredibly important, well-written, honest and authentic, this is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

‘I Dare You’ by Sam Carrington

AN INNOCENT GAME. A SHOCKING CRIME. A COMMUNITY FULL OF SECRETS.

Mapledon, 1989
Two little girls were out playing a game of dares. Only one returned home.
The ten-year-old told police what she saw: village loner Bill ‘Creepy’ Cawley dragged her friend into his truck and disappeared.
No body was found, but her testimony sent Cawley to prison for murder. An open and shut case, the right man behind bars.
The village could sleep safe once again.

Now…
Anna thought she had left Mapledon and her nightmares behind but a distraught phone call brings her back to face her past.
30 years ago, someone lied. 30 years ago, the man convicted wasn’t the only guilty party.
Now he’s out of prison and looking for revenge. The question is, who will he start with?

Anna, a school teacher, about to enjoy the summer holidays, instead finds herself returning to her childhood home in the village of Mapledon. Her mother is being targeted for her role in the arrest and trial of Bill Cawley – convicted of the murder of Anna’s best friend thirty years ago.

Lizzie, a journalist, is on her way back too – and between them they discover the shocking truth of what really happened thirty years ago and who was responsible.

The writing is impeccable, the settings authentic, the premise interesting. Mapledon feels claustrophobic and creepy, a local place for local people, and the complicated relationships have so much potential for a really gripping read.

Unfortunately, I felt very distanced from the characters – I didn’t like any of them, except for Lizzie,  and so didn’t particularly care what happened to them. 

I also felt the set up was a little unlikely, with the village children, encouraged by the adults, allowed to behave so horribly, and I thought the dénouement too was really unrealistic. It all felt very far-fetched, if I’m honest.

‘The Temple House Vanishing’ by Rachel Donohue

Power. Jealousy. Desire.

Twenty-five years ago, a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl and her charismatic teacher disappeared without trace…

When Louisa arrives at Temple House, an elite catholic boarding school, she quickly finds herself drawn to sophisticated fellow pupil Victoria and their young bohemian art teacher, Mr Lavelle. The three of them form a bond that seems to offer an escape from the repressive regime of the nuns who run the cloistered school. Until Louisa and Mr Lavelle suddenly vanish. 

Years later, a journalist with a childhood connection to Louisa determines to resolve the mystery. Her search for the truth will uncover a tragic, mercurial tale of suppressed desire and long-buried secrets. It will shatter lives and lay a lost soul to rest. 

The Temple House Vanishing is a stunning, intensely atmospheric novel of unrequited longing, dark obsession and unintended consequences.

Rachel Donohue certainly knows how to create a claustrophobic, intense narrative, full of tension, repression and teenage fantasies.  

The boarding school setting, the rustling nuns, the louche art teacher, the awkward outsider, all work beautifully together and the mystery disappearance of one of the pupils keeps you guessing. The pace is good, the drama builds in a satisfying way, and there is great insight into characters’ motivations.

A couple of things didn’t work that well for me, however. I felt that the journalist’s story could have been developed more fully, and I didn’t believe completely in the final dénouement, which, after thoroughly enjoying the novel up until then, was quite disappointing.

That said, Donohue certainly knows how to write convincing characters and atmospheric settings, and I look forward to her next book.

A week of book reviews – ‘Needlemouse’ by Jane O’Connor #BookReview

I have been absolutely snowed under with work over the last few weeks – not that I’m complaining – and although I’ve been reading as much as I can, I haven’t got round to reviewing. So this week I’m determined to catch up with a review a day.

needlemouse

Hive   

Time to come out of hibernation…

Sylvia Penton has been hibernating for years, it’s no wonder she’s a little prickly…

Sylvia lives alone, dedicating herself to her job at the local university. On weekends, she helps out at a local hedgehog sanctuary because it gives her something to talk about on Mondays – and it makes people think she’s nicer than she is.

Only Sylvia has a secret: she’s been in love with her boss, Professor Lomax, for over a decade now, and she’s sure he’s just waiting for the right time to leave his wife. Meanwhile she stores every crumb of his affection and covertly makes trouble for anyone she feels gets in his way.

But when a bright new PhD candidate catches the Professor’s eye, Sylvia’s dreams of the fairy tale ending she has craved for so long, are soon in tatters, driving her to increasingly desperate measures and an uncertain future. 

Sylvia might have been sleep walking through her life but things are about to change now she’s woken up…

This is a tricky one – I’m still not sure whether I liked this book or not! It’s well-written, without a doubt, and it’s an interesting story. But there were aspects of Sylvia that just didn’t work. She’s intelligent, resourceful, independent, yet she behaves like a schoolgirl around the professor, who seems to be devoid of any redeeming qualities. That didn’t really ring true for me. And she’s so spiteful, so cold about everyone except the professor, that it’s hard to really believe in the changes that happen. When we learn more about her, we understand her so much more, but this doesn’t happen until around the second half of the book – I think the novel would have worked so much better if there had been a few more hints earlier on, a few subtle suggestions about what was behind her behaviour.

So a bit hit and miss – but worth a read.

three and a half stars