Life’s big milestones

It is a little over a month since I lasted posted on here. On the day of my post, I was called by my brother to say that my mother had been admitted to hospital. She had been unwell and largely housebound for some time. When I went to visit her (her home is in Norfolk, 250 miles away), she was clearly gravely ill. I stayed for a couple of days, but when she seemed to rally a little I returned home as my eldest child needed delivering to university, his first term – a huge moment for all of us and one which my mother would not have wanted me to miss.

I promised Mum that I would return the following week and I kissed her goodbye, not knowing if I would see her again. That possibility hung thick in the air between us, though neither of us could bring ourselves to articulate it. It was the last time I would see my Mum alive again as she died the day before I planned to return.

So, the last month of my life has been a pretty momentous one.

It’s a weird time. First, there is the hectic bit – my father died 10 years ago and as the executor of my mother’s will that now means I get to do all the admin. It’s quite a thing. Repeating the words “I’m ringing to let you know that my mother died…yes, the account number is… yes thirteen, zero four, forty-three…nineteen, zero nine, nineteen” over and over has a kind of numbing effect. I felt like an automaton and then, at totally unexpected moments, the shock would hit all over again – my mother just died! I no longer have parents.

Second, there is the tailspin of intense self-cross-examination that it throws you into – Did I do enough? Could I have been there at the end? Why didn’t I spot how bad things were? Why didn’t I tell her I loved her? Why didn’t she tell me she loved me? All a completely pointless exercise of course.

Finally, grief seems to lead you to question life more generally – why is that? Just when you are vulnerable, you start posing big questions to yourself – what am I doing with my life? – at a time when you are spectacularly ill-equipped to answer sensibly. Plus, with my son no longer permanently at home, my own little nest is emptying slightly and that has left its mark too.

Mum’s funeral took place last week and most of the immediate admin has been done. So, there is a small element of closure. The end of the beginning part of the grieving process. In the coming weeks and months I will no doubt be seeking answers to some of those bigger questions. I hope to get back into my blogging habit soon as it is something I enjoy enormously. With all the ‘organising’ that has been necessary I have not had the usual time to use my writing as an outlet for my feelings, which is so important.

So, readers, I hope you will bear with me on this journey. Thanks for reading.

Book review – “The Lido” by Libby Page

The theme for August for my Facebook Reading Challenge was a ‘beach novel’. It seemed an obvious theme to choose, with it being peak holiday season, and we’ve had some serious and challenging books over the last few months so I thought something light and easy was in order. I was on holiday myself, in Jersey, which I posted about last week and whilst there wasn’t much time spent on a beach (it was quite an active holiday, so actually there wasn’t even that much reading done!) it was a great book to dip in and out of on the flight, in the evening after dinner or in the occasional quieter moments.

The Lido imgThe book concerns two women, Rosemary, an 86 year-old widow, and Kate, a 26 year-old journalist, and how they are brought together by chance when the Brixton lido is threatened with closure. Their relationship evolves as together they mount a campaign to keep the pool open, drawing in other local people and reviving a community spirit that everyone involved thought had been lost. In some ways the two women could not be more different: Rosemary is nearing the end of her life, now alone having lost her beloved husband, and has lived in this area of South London all her life. Kate, on the other hand, is young and bright, and has moved to the city from Bristol to begin her journalistic career on the local paper. Kate too, though, is lonely; unlike Rosemary she has not lost anyone, but she has not found anyone either, and she grapples with panic attacks, anxiety and low self-esteem. She shares a house with a number of similarly isolated flatmates, none of whom she knows, and stays alive thanks to ready meals.

When Kate is asked by her editor to cover the planned sale of the Lido by the local council to a property developer who wants to build a tennis court over it for the private use of residents of its luxury flats, she meets Rosemary who begins to recount to her the special significance of the Lido in her life. Not only that, Rosemary, a former children’s librarian, places it in the context of the decline of the sense of community in the area and how local people are being denied opportunities to come together, to play a part and to be involved. Rosemary’s story captures Kate’s imagination and she enters into full-on campaigning mode, setting up a petition, social media groups, and the story becomes a regular feature in the local newspaper.

Kate and Rosemary also begin to develop a close friendship; Kate starts to swim regularly and take care of herself more and this gives her a new energy and new coping strategies to help her deal with her feelings of anxiety. It also initiates Kate into the community and she finds a new circle of friends. For Rosemary the campaign and the friendship help her come to terms with the loss of her husband and when both women at different points have particularly bleak moments, the other is there to pick them up.

This book does exactly what it promises: it’s a heart-warming story, with strong themes around community values, friendship and companionship. It also deals with the taboo issue of depression as it affects a young woman, who has her whole life ahead of her and “should” be living a great life, and an elderly woman, a group whose mental health is so often neglected.

This wasn’t the ‘finest’ novel I’ve read all year, but it was one of the most charming and fitted the bill perfectly for a straightforward and honest summertime read.

Recommended.

What sort of books do you like to read on holidays?

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Time for a September re-boot

It’s been a busy summer holiday in my household; we’ve been doing a lot of travelling, both individually and together, visiting family and friends, as well as taking our own family holiday in Jersey (more of that in a moment), and getting my eldest prepared to start his new life as a university student later this month. The weather has taken a distinctly autumnal turn this week here in north west England, and with the children back at school it’s a definite reminder of the change of season.

Booker Prize

With all the “excitement” in the British Parliament this week it was nearly possible to miss the announcement of this year’s Booker Prize shortlist and goodness what a list! As well as the serious literary heavyweights (arguably celebrities) Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood, you have a literally heavyweight book! – Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport must surely be one of the longest shortlisted books ever at over 1,000 pages. With other entries from Bernardine Evaristo, Nigeria’s Chigozie Obioma and Turkey’s Elif Shafak it is one of the most exciting shortlists I have seen in years.

 

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As usual I will set out to read all the books on the shortlist, and will post about that in due course, but I don’t think I have any hope of getting all six read by 14 October, when the winner will be announced.

Beautiful Jersey

We booked our family holiday very late this year and ended up taking a last minute trip to Jersey in the Channel Islands. It is a location that has never before crossed my radar – we just needed an easy, low-key week together that did not involve too much preparation or travel hassle (it’s less than an hour’s flight from the UK. You can also go by boat but this would have been much longer for us.) We had a truly wonderful time. It’s not a particularly diverse place, but it’s extremely friendly and welcoming. The beaches are beautiful and the rural interior is charming. It’s small so very easy to get around – we cycled or walked everywhere (slightly offsetting our guilt about flying) or made use of the extensive and great value bus network. The weather was sunny and warm, without being too hot (for us pale rain-soaked Brits!) And, historically, it’s a fascinating place. It was the only part of the British Isles to be occupied during World War Two and the story of the Occupation is told in fascinating detail at the Jersey War Tunnels Museum – brilliantly done. You can see that the events of over 70 years ago have left an indelible mark on the islanders’ consciousness.

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Beautiful beaches and clifftop walks in the north of Jersey

We came back from Jersey relaxed and happy and grateful for the time we had together as a family. It’s a destination I recommend highly.

Facebook reading challenge

I’m thoroughly enjoying my Facebook Reading Challenge this year and getting some lovely comments from fellow participants – so glad you are enjoying the books. I think we’ve only had one dud so far this year? Whilst in Jersey we visited the island’s famous zoo, formally known as the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. Founded by author and naturalist Gerald Durrell 60 years ago in 1959 it is a wonderful, open green space with a relatively small but fascinating collection of creatures, that campaigns for a wilder, healthier, more colourful world”.

Our visit inspired my choice for September’s reading challenge, the theme being a memoir – I have of course chosen Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. I read this book many years ago and thoroughly enjoyed the television series The Durrells, so I’m looking forward to reading it again. The first incarnation of this blog was in fact called My family and other books in honour of the man himself and his work (I changed the name as it felt a bit unwieldy after a while). So, if you would like to join us for this month’s challenge and read along, hop over to the Facebook group and leave your comments.

I’ll back on book reviewing duty in the coming weeks. It’s great to be back!

What have you been up to this summer?

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Book review: “Normal People” by Sally Rooney

I’m travelling to Dublin on the ferry from Holyhead, north Wales as I write this, making our annual summer visit to see family and friends. I love Dublin and think of it as a second home, having visited the place several times a year for about two decades now. I haven’t seen all the ‘sights’, although Dublin Zoo, the art gallery, Powerscourt, and the Natural History Museum have all been well and truly ‘done’! When we visit we seem to spend much of our time just hanging out, visiting people, sharing meals, etc. For me, it’s only when you do that, after visiting a place so many times that you really get to the heart of it.

Normal People imgIt seems appropriate that I should be posting a review of Normal People this week, a book so very much about Ireland, the challenges and contradictions at the heart of a nation that has transformed itself in recent years. It is not just about Ireland, but about what it means to be young in Ireland and about class. It is also about identity and, in common with some of the issues faced in the UK and many other societies I am sure, the draw away from regional towns and cities, towards a centre, a capital, where there is perceived to be more opportunity, and what that means both for the individual and for society in the wider sense.

 Connell and Marianne are two teenagers attending the same high school in Carricklea in the west of Ireland. Both are very bright and hopes about their future prospects are high, but that is where the similarities end; their lives couldn’t be more different. Connell is the much-loved only child of a young single Mum. The live together in a small house and Connell’s mother cleans for Marianne’s family. Although academically a high achiever, Connell still manages to be popular and admired. Marianne is much more of a loner and lives with her working Mum and brother (a threatening figure who becomes increasingly violent towards her). She is remote from her family, not well-liked at school, and has a spiky personality.

Despite their differences, Connell and Marianne develop a closeness which soon blossoms into an intense and sexual relationship. The author portrays skilfully the subtle differences in their perspectives, which will at times lead to difficulties of communication and understanding throughout their young lives and the ebb and flow of their relationship.

The pair both end up with outstanding exam results which means that both secure a place at the prestigious Trinity College, Dublin. We follow them to college and here their positions are reversed – it is Marianne now who finds her ‘tribe’ amongst the affluent, the elite, the middle classes, and Connell who struggles to feel at home, whose financial and social background contrasts so markedly with that of his peers.

Despite this, Connell and Marianne continue to have an on-off relationship for the duration of their university careers and beyond. At times their relationship is passionate and sexual, at others it is more platonic, mutually protective. But always it is intense, even where there is little contact between them, such as the period Marianne spends on a Scandinavian scholarship with the abusive artist she has for a boyfriend at the time.

It is a fascinating and compelling book, part elegiac romance, part social commentary, where there is very little in the way of plot, but an abundance of humanity that is acutely observed and intimately drawn. The book has rightly earned its young author widespread plaudits and praise and was shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. (The winner, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, which I reviewed on here recently, was a worthy victor but I don’t envy the judges having to choose between these two outstanding novels.)

Normal People is a beautiful, clever book that will at times break your heart and at other times lift it, and I heartily recommend it. The only pity is that it’s relatively short!

Normal People has been widely read and reviewed – what did you think of it?

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Care to join us for the Facebook Reading Challenge this month?

A few days ago I published a review of Fear of Falling by Cath Staincliffe, which was the July choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge. The book seemed to go down quite well and I enjoyed it too. The theme for August is ‘a beach read’, reflecting the fact that many people will be going on holiday this month (if, like me, you are confined to school holidays). But even if you are a holiday free agent and choose June or September to go away (I know I would!), August is often languid month when the pace of things tends to slow and you can take the opportunity to rest mind and body. The ‘beach read’ theme reflects this too as I wanted something that will be pure pleasure and not too demanding of our normally over-taxed brains.

The Lido imgI have chosen a book which caught my eye a couple of months ago – The Lido by Libby Page. It concerns a friendship between two women, 86 year-old widow Rosemary and 26 year-old Kate, who strike up a bond when their local outdoor swimming pool in Brixton, south London, is threatened with closure. The two women have different reasons for wanting to campaign to keep the lido open, but they are brought together in a common cause.

The book has received pretty universal praise, so far as I can tell, is a Sunday Times bestseller and looks like being one of the hits of the summer. I’m looking forward to this one as I’ll be doing some family visiting and some holidaying myself over the next few weeks, and after some books which have been either quite tough reads on the reading challenge this one feels like a reward for hard work!

I hope you will join us on the challenge this month. Hop over to the Facebook page if you’d like to join the group.

Enjoy the rest of the summer!

Does your reading taste change in the summer or at holiday time?

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Book review – “Fear of Falling” by Cath Staincliffe

This book was July’s choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge 2019, the theme of which last month was contemporary crime fiction. I picked Cath Staincliffe because I have met her and she’s very nice (and very successful!) and I have read a couple of her other books which I have thoroughly enjoyed, even though crime fiction is not usually my thing. Unlike much of her other work (and the last book of hers that I read – The Girl in the Green Dress), this is not strictly crime fiction, although a crime is committed. To that extent it is something of a departure for this author, I think, although the dedication at the front of the book to “my mothers”, Evelyn Cullen and Margaret Staincliffe, both of whom died in 2017, gives a clue as to what might have motivated this book, which was published in 2018.

Fear of Falling imgThe centre of the story is the relationship between two women, Bel and Lydia, who meet at a New Year’s party in 1985, when they are both sixth-formers although at different schools in Yorkshire. They are very different people – Lydia is reserved, generally quite sensible, and from a secure and ordinary family. Bel is wilder, her family rather more bohemian and she has a difficult relationship with her parents. Bel grew up in France and then London and it is her father’s job that has brought them to northern England, where she is something of an outsider. Bel and Lydia are drawn to one another, despite their very different personalities; for Lydia, Bel represents spontenaiety, excitement, danger even. For Bel, Lydia represents security, a steady point in a turning world.

Their lives begin to diverge after university: Lydia works in the scientific field, in a hospital laboratory, enjoys a successful career in which she is respected, and eventually meets the love of her life, Mac, an Irishman who runs a tattoo parlour. Lydia flits from one job to the next, travels the world, and never holds down either a long-term job or a long-term relationship. She seems to flee from commitment. Although she is never as diligent, thoughtful or kind a friend to Bel as Bel is to her, she somehow always seems to return to her.

Some years into their relationship Lydia and Mac decide the time is right to have children, but they find they cannot conceive. After three failed IVF attempts they decide to apply for adoption. In the meantime, Bel, in her usual fashion, finds herself unexpectedly pregnant by a man who wants nothing to do with the baby. Bel gives birth to Freya and the contrast between her indifference to the child, her inability to cope and her post-natal depression, and Lydia’s anguish at her and Mac’s  infertility is starkly portrayed. Lydia and Mac’s journey through the adoption process is equally traumatic, but eventually they are given a little girl to adopt, Chloe. She is about the same age as Freya.

This is where the story really begins: Chloe, it turns out, has had a very difficult start, with parents who neglected her. This absence of attachment in her first two years of life has caused damage which Lydia and Mac, despite their very best efforts, will never be able to repair. Chloe’s life becomes a series of dramas, problems, misdemeanours and eventually crimes. In contrast, Freya, who has a stormy relationship with Bel, becomes a bright, high achieving, outgoing teenager. Like the differences between Bel and Lydia, the contrast between their two daughters is stark.

I don’t want to give away the plot, although it is arguably not difficult to work out what is going to happen, but, as readers, we watch with horror as events unfold. Chloe gets increasingly out of control and Lydia and Mac become ever more desperate as they try and fail to bring their vulnerable daughter back from the precipice, time after time.

I enjoyed the book, I found it very compelling. Staincliffe has a writing style that is deceptively simple, but actually draws you effortlessly into the world of the characters. A lot of the novel is spent on building up the history of the friendship between the two central women, which I must admit, at first made me feel slightly frustrated as I just wanted to get to the main plot. By the end, however, it was clear that this was part of the author’s building of the narrative. The relationship IS the story; the two girls, the adoption story, yes these are also key plot lines, but it is as much about the vulnerability of mothers, about single mothers left alone and especially about couples who adopt (usually post-IVF disappointment) and are unprepared for the challenges, as it is about the plight of ‘looked after’ children.

The author’s afterword, where she writes about her own experience of being adopted as a baby after her young Irish mother became pregnant outside marriage, makes clear what has driven her desire to write this book. Her story had a happy ending, but for too many adopted children today, that is not the case.

It is a heartbreaking novel that will give you an insight into world about which most of us know very little. A difficult read but one that is definitely worth it.

How do you cope when a difficult story doesn’t have the ‘happy ending’?

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#KeepKidsReading: Book review – “What not to do if you turn invisible” by Ross Welford

This is my third Ross Welford novel. I loved the two others that I have read – Time Travelling with a Hamster and The 1,000 Year Old Boy – and have recommended them widely. What not to do if you turn invisible explores some similar themes to the other books – a child who has lost a parent and who feels slightly set apart from their peers, childhood fears and worries, dealing with bullies, and choosing to be brave. It is also set in the same north east England neighbourhoods of Whitley Bay and Tynemouth (an area I know well as I lived there for a few years) and the made-up town on Culvercot (sounds rather like real-life Cullercoats to me!).

What not to do if you turn invisible imgThe main character in the book is a girl this time – 12 year-old Ethel Leatherhead; yes, it is an unusually old-fashioned name, but that is significant. Ethel lives with her ‘Gram’, a very conservative, very proper lady who has strong views about things that are ‘common’ or undesirable. We learn that Ethel’s mother died when she was young, and that she is not aware of her father. Ethel also has a great-grandmother, who turns 100 in the course of the novel. Great-gram lives in a nursing home and speaks very little until one day, after Ethel visits her, she grabs her by the arm and says to Ethel, rather mysteriously, “Tiger. Pussycat.”

Something else we learn about Ethel from the outset is that she suffers from severe acne. That fact is key to the story as it is her search for a cure that leads her to try a mysterious Chinese medicine she buys from the internet and an old sunbed. It is the combination of these two potent remedies that causes her to experience bouts of temporary invisibility. Once she discovers this, and comes to terms with it, she and her friend Elliot Boyd (another school outsider, who is teased because he is from the South and because he is overweight) seek to use the invisibility, firstly, to help Elliot in the school talent competition and, secondly, as a means of exposing the bad behaviour of school bullies Jarrow and Jesmond Knight, boy and girl twins who have been kidnapping local dogs and demanding ransoms for their return.

The scene is set for a number of interwoven plot threads – how will Ethel cope with her invisibility and will it have any long term physical effects? Will Ethel and Elliot succeed in getting the incriminating video evidence back from the Knight twins, who become aware of Ethel’s ‘power’? What did Great-gram mean when she said “Tiger. Pussycat.” to Ethel? And who is Great-gram’s mysterious visitor? Finally, what has the late pop-singer Felina, who apparently died from the pressures of fame, the paparazzi and alcohol problems, to do with Ethel?

There is a great deal going on in this novel, and some of it does not seem relevant at the beginning, but things start to come together towards the end, so it rewards patience. There are some brilliantly tense moments of adventure and peril, for example, when invisible Ethel breaks into the home of the Knight twins while they and their father are there, in order to wipe their computer hard drives and mobile phones (to destroy the video), but I found this book a much slower burn than the other two I have read. For that reason, I would recommend it more for the older end of the target age group (11-12 years) rather than say 9-10 year-olds. Also, the themes are quite mature – the problems of growing up, the loss of a parent (there is no miraculous ‘happy ending’ like in Hamster, but there is acceptance and reconciliation, and discovery of her Dad), the nature of true friendship and possible romance.

This is quite a long book, but a relatively quick read, thanks to the shortish chapters. A nice one for travelling with, I would say.

Recommended for 11-12 year olds.

I love having an excuse to read kids’ books – what about you?

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