Book review – “Such a Fun Age” by Kiley Reid

This was my book club’s choice for last month. When I first read the blurb it was not what I expected from the title – I thought it would be about teenagers, which tells you a bit about where my head is at right now! But no, the blurb tells us that a young black woman in Philadelphia, twenty-five year old Emira Tucker, is out at a grocery store late one evening with the small girl she looks after when a fellow shopper raises her concerns with the in-store security guard. What is a young black woman, dressed as if she has just come from a party (which in fact she has), doing out at that hour with a fair-skinned white-haired toddler? She must be up to no good, the fellow shopper concludes, and the security guard concurs. The guard challenges her, rudely, and when she resists his challenge, he over-reacts and threatens to call the police. The whole incident is caught on mobile camera by another fellow shopper, thirty-something white male Kelley.

What none of the spectators or the other participants know is the background: Emira is the child’s babysitter (not ‘nanny’ because that would make her employment more formal than the child’s parents have so far allowed) and they have called her for help at this late hour because someone has thrown a brick through their window. The police have been called and Peter and Alix Chamberlain do not want their little girl, three year old Briar, to see the police officers in the house. So they have asked Emira to take Briar out. And the reason that a brick has been thrown through the Chamberlain’s window is that Peter, a television presenter, made a racist comment during a live broadcast. So, you can see where the story is going – layer upon layer of casual racism, the kind where people say “I’m not racist, but…”

The incident I have outlined above is what opens the novel. It ends fairly anti-climactically, actually, whereas from the blurb I half expected our heroine to be thrown into jail for a made-up crime she did not commit (a plot along the lines of Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage). Instead, Emira calls Briar’s father, Peter, he of the on-screen racist remark, who arrives at the store promptly, claims Emira and the child, and the security guard calms down and everyone goes home. The woman who originally alerted the guard apologises, expecting, of course, absolution for her own racist preconceptions. How could she have known? Wasn’t she just being a conscientious good citizen? Kelley, the young man who filmed the whole scene, encourages Emira to alert the networks and sell her story. She doesn’t want to, however, she seems resigned to this level of everyday racism, and prefers a quieter life, claiming that she is quite cool with it all. Kelley emails her the video, just in case she changes her mind, deletes it from his own phone and they part company.

That is the incident over, on one level at least, except that it sets off a chain of events which will lead Emira through a series of dark and challenging times. She bumps into Kelley again, a few weeks later, on a train and the two start dating. Encouraged by Kelley, Emira begins to take a long hard look at her life, comparing herself to her friends, who all seem to be developing their careers, while she barely makes ends meet as an informal babysitter and part-time typist. A major preoccupation is that when she turns twenty-six, she will no longer be eligible for healthcare under her parents’ insurance policy, so she needs to find a way of earning enough money to afford her own cover.

Meanwhile, Emira’s boss, Alix Chamberlain, has decided that Emira is essential to her; Briar adores her and Emira seems to fill in some of the gaps in her own parenting. Plus, having Emira on hand means that she can pursue her own career as a lifestyle blogger and consultant. Alix determines to befriend Emira, to make her a part of their family, using the incentive of a more formal employment contract as the carrot. There is the unmistakeable suggestion that Alix wishes to ‘own’ Emira, and that her own success is on the back of her babysitter. Alix grows increasingly paranoid about losing Emira and takes ever more desperate steps to retain her.

One key aspect of the story is slightly far-fetched (I won’t reveal it) but the whole plot turns on it really, so you have to just suspend disbelief. Doing so is worth it because the author explores deftly and cleverly, a whole series of issues and themes, not just around race, but also the nature of privilege more generally, and autonomy. Who has the power to make the decisions? Which of us really has choice? This could have been a really straightforward novel about racism, but the author makes it about much more than that.

I and my fellow readers in my book club thoroughly enjoyed this book and I recommend it highly.

The end is nigh!

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

I was all set last week to post a couple of blogs, including a book review of Kiley Reid’s international bestseller Such A Fun Age, a super book which I devoured in a few days. There was no devouring of anything last week, however, as ‘life got in the way’ somewhat. I expect life will get a bit more ‘in the way’ in the coming weeks as Coronavirus restrictions begin to ease. It doesn’t look as if we’ll be packing for holidays any time soon but I can already feel a return to my pre-pandemic busy-ness.

Yesterday, the first anniversary of the start of lockdown in the UK, felt like a sombre and reflective moment for the whole country and there was much radio and television time devoted to thinking about what we have lost in these last twelve months. Interestingly, there was also a lot of space given to people talking about what we have gained – a new sense of perspective and appreciation of others, a re-calibration of wants and needs, a desire to live our lives in a different way. My daughter said at the dinner table the other day that she “misses” the lockdown from last spring, when, for her, the pressure of school was taken away, when we started doing more together as a family, and there was time to walk and appreciate nature more. Plus the weather was lovely, which helped! I know what she means. For me, the days have not been ‘lazy’ by any means, but I will miss all that white space in my diary.

I had my Covid vaccination last week, for which I feel enormous gratitude to scientific endeavour. The ease and smoothness of the process from booking to queuing, to the actual procedure was very humbling and the one bright spot in what has been an otherwise very bleak Covid picture in the UK. I was also deeply aware of my white, western privilege in getting the vaccination and only wish it was being rolled out in other parts of the world that need it just as much as we do. The vaccination left me feeling completely wiped out for a couple of days and my arm is still very sore but it was a small price to pay.

So, that’s my excuse for not posting for over a week. The good thing about being a blogger is that you don’t HAVE to do it (unless it’s also your main income source, of course). I don’t need another thing is my life that I HAVE to do frankly! But I do miss it when I don’t post. The last year has been patchy for me in terms of frequency of posting and I set out at the beginning of this year to be much more disciplined, particularly around my social media (which is a Disaster!), so I am disappointed to have let a week slip by.

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

I love writing, and I particularly love writing my book reviews; the very act of it, especially when I’m sharing my passion about something I’ve read, is a cathartic and joyful exercise and a little corner of creativity in the midst of life’s more prosaic activity.

So, hello again fellow bloggers and readers, I missed you last week! Let me ask, how do you keep up with the demands of regular blogging? Some of you write fantastically in-depth and thoroughly researched pieces and I am in awe!

Facebook Reading Challenge – February choice

It’s been a busy old start to the month – paid work has kept me Zooming pretty continuously such that sitting in front of the screen has not been top of my list of priorities. I’ve also set myself the goal of finishing the seventh (and, hopefully, final!) draft of the book I have been working for what must be three years now, and that means locking the door of the study for two hours a day and bashing away. Interruptions have abounded, of course, with home-schooling children and a WFH partner sharing my space, but I’m doing okay and feel on course for finishing the revisions by half term at the end of next week. Sometimes you just have to set a goal and go hell for leather for it. I am telling myself I must not let perfection be the enemy of the good and all that, so after this set of revisions, I really am going to draw that line and say enough, and actually do something with it.

So, that is why I am here, a few days later than planned, to my monthly reading challenge post. I LOVED last month’s book, The Color Purple, by Alice Walker – HOW, had I not read this already?!?!? I have not even seen the film – that is definitely going on my lockdown watch-list. Absolutely gripping, did not go at all in the direction I expected, brilliantly conceived and written. Totally un-put-down-able. It’s made me feel that my own creative efforts look a bit rubbish, but hey, you can’t compare apples and tractors – this book did win the Pulitzer prize after all. More on The Color Purple later in the week.

This month’s theme is “Something that was adapted for screen” – The Color Purple could have worked for that too. Last weekend, we watched the film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy and Colin Firth among others. It was on the BBC iPlayer (only for the rest of this week). I have got quite into spy stories in the last few years – I have now watched all the seasons of The Americans twice over, love them and will probably watch them again, plus we watched the French series Le Bureau de Legendes recently, and I loved that too. John Le Carre died in December last year and I have been intending to read some of his work for a while now, so I thought that would be a good option. I started the book last Sunday, and I’m afraid to say, it’s quite hard work. Maybe the film was just a bit too good? My husband fell asleep during the film, and says the book is better, but I keep falling asleep reading the book, so I’m not sure I agree! The handsome Gary Oldman version of George Smiley from the film, does not concur with the short, plump, tired and ageing Smiley of the book, which jars a bit, and I’m afraid I’d rather be thinking of Gary Oldman! This novel was also adapted for the small screen of course, in 1974, starring Alec Guinness as Smiley. It would be good to watch that too.

I will persevere a little longer, but if I don’t get on with it, I may just abandon it and go for my second option, which is Rebecca, the 1938 Gothic classic by Daphne Du Maurier. There is a new film version out, starring Lily James (who seems to be in just about every other thing I watch at the moment), Kristin Scott Thomas, Anne Dowd and Armie Hammer (wow, what a cast!). There is also of course, the famous Hitchcock version, made in 1940, not long after the publication of the book, and reviews I have read suggest that the new film does not better the old one.

So, a choice of two! Two books, four film and television adaptations, a late start and a short month – quite a challenge! Let’s see if I’m up to it.

I’d be delighted if you would join me.

Audiobook review – “The Last Protector” by Andrew Taylor

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am an audiobook enthusiast – having long-eschewed the move to digital formats (ie e-readers – I have one, but I rarely use it), I find the audiobook adds a dimension to the experience of ‘reading’; you get the interpretation of a skilled actor/narrator and the sense of connection, as if someone else is enjoying the experience alongside you. The e-reader, on the other hand, for me, takes away; paper just feels more authentic between my fingers than glass and plastic, and the ‘swipe’ is a distraction that removes me from the narrative. I get that it’s convenient (not to mention space-saving!), but it’s just not really for me. The audiobook doesn’t work every time – of the books I have listened to over the last few years, there are some where the narrator annoyed me. One that comes to mind is Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train where the Rachel character just grated every time she spoke.

Andrew Taylor’s Marwood & Lovett books (now four titles) are books that I have enjoyed immensely on audio. I listened to the first book, The Ashes of London, during the summer last year and followed up very quickly with the second book, The Fire Court, both of which I loved. I listened to the third book The King’s Evil, in the early part of this year, and then the fourth and most recent addition, The Last Protector, I downloaded pretty much as soon as it was published in April. It was my companion to my 5-10km running programme during the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic. It was perfect escapism and a timely reminder that we are not the only generation to live through ‘plague’.

In this book, James Marwood, now well-known at court as an effective ‘investigator’ and ‘fixer’ is firmly established in his slightly shadowy ‘civil servant plus’ role; the James Bond of his day, perhaps! His fortune is fairly secure and his household is growing in size; a man of compassion he has gathered around him a group of waifs and strays who have become his trusted and loyal servants. As his successes have increased, however, so have his enemies, some of them very powerful, most notably the Duke of Buckingham, a scheming, two-faced and clever courtier, direct threat to the King himself. With each new book, the stakes for Marwood get ever higher. Cat Lovett is the other constant character in the books, long-time associate of Marwood, intimately connected by their past dealings, and between whom a frisson of energy fizzes, a fact which often puts them at loggerheads.

Cat is now married, rather unhappily, to the ageing and sickly architect, Hakesby so her contact with Marwood is limited, but they are thrown together again by a seemingly chance meeting between Cat and a childhood friend, Elizabeth Cromwell. Elizabeth is the daughter of Richard Cromwell, son of the more famous Oliver, who was reluctantly thrust into the position of ‘Protector’ after his father’s death. He fled to France after the restoration of the monarchy and has now returned to England; he misses his homeland, but is also destitute and needs funds. Cromwell himself is not a threat to the King, but he has become a poster-boy for the still-nascent enthusiasm for the time of Cromwell (Hakesby is among such a group and does not conceal his delight at the return of a Cromwell, much to Cat’s dismay, who, given her own family history, must keep a low profile). His financial needs also make him vulnerable to exploitation by those who do indeed seek to disrupt the existing order (ie Buckingham) and capitalise on the widespread dissatisfaction with the royal court.

Richard Cromwell seeks to retrieve a package that his indomitable late mother had hidden in a sewer beneath St James’ Palace where she once resided. We do not know what exactly is in this package, but Cromwell believes it will answer all his problems. He needs, however, to ingratiate himself to Hakesby, the architect who undertook much of the remodelling at the palace in the years since the restoration, in order to get access to the sewer.

As usual, a simple premise sets off a train of events that lead to violence and duplicity, intrigue and death. Marwood becomes embroiled, once again at the request of the King and senior courtiers, and events seem to spiral out of his control. Once again, however, Marwood (and Cat), through ingenuity, resourcefulness and wit, manage to come through.

Everything about this book, and the earlier volumes, delivers. Great plot (logical enough to be credible, and complex enough to entertain whilst being just about understandable), well-rounded believable characters, and, very importantly, a level of historical authenticity that suggests deep and painstaking research.

I recommend this and the rest of the series highly. For best results, read in the right order!

Book review – “Unorthodox” by Deborah Feldman

We are living in an age where minorities are beginning to find their voices. Many people who have experienced discrimination are angry. Their talents have been undervalued, their lives and their health have been damaged, their daily lived experience has, for many, been characterised by fear and by acts of hostility. The #BlackLivesMatter movement is rocking the United States to its very foundations and leading to some intense friction between people who have been historically oppressed and who are saying enough is enough, and people who fear what they might lose. Some of these, no doubt, subscribe to the view that the oppressed somehow deserve their lesser status. The movement has taken hold in the UK and throughout Europe too, although it does not appear to be quite as toxic as in the USA. The conversation we all now need to engage in will be a difficult one.

In the last week or two, we have seen a resurgence of another discrimination issue which is much more long-standing, that of anti-semitism; the UK Labour Party is currently considering a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission on anti-semitism in its recent past. The full report will not be published for some time yet, but this will be a painful period for a party which has tolerance and plurality at its heart. The rapper Wiley was (eventually) banned from various social media platforms after making posting anti-semitic remarks recently, repeating discredited conspiracy theories. Several celebrities and public figures boycotted Twitter in protest at the failure of the social media giant to take down Wiley immediately.

Unorthodox imgIt therefore seems timely that I recently read the memoir Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman. Deborah is in her mid-thirties and lives in Berlin, with her young son. However, she grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn as a member of the Satmar sect of Hasidic Jews. She was brought up by her grandparents; her parents separated when she was very young. Her father was a man with sub-normal intelligence, though the precise nature of his disability or illness was never identified. Deborah’s mother was English, the daughter of poor divorced Jewish parents (though not Hasidic), who was unlikely ever to be able to marry well. The marriage was effectively one of convenience for both of them and Deborah was born soon after. The marriage broke down quite quickly, however, and Deborah’s mother was compelled to leave. The community put enough pressure on to ensure she left her child behind.

Unorthodox is the story of Deborah’s childhood and teenage years as a member of this closed community. It provides a fascinating insight into the norms of this ultra-orthodox group. The Hasidis have separate schools and girls are not permitted to have a full education. In fact, boys aren’t either really, they are just educated to a different end. The girls are expected to marry young, very young, and have many children. From this book I learned that Hasidis (and I hope I am representing this accurately), are opposed to the state of Israel, it being a secular state. They also believe that the Holocaust was a punishment (divine punishment?) for Zionism and by the assimilation of non-orthodox Jews with other societies. I realise the differences are probably far more complex than this, so I hope any Jewish readers will forgive any simplification – I am happy to be corrected.

The Satmar sect to which Deborah and her family belong, continue to follow centuries-old customs, which include, for example, arranged marriage, separation of the sexes and the requirement for women to wear wigs. Menstruating women and girls are considered unclean and must endure cleansing rituals before they are permitted to have sex again. Young people are taught nothing about sex, however. When she is married to a shy and inept young man at the age of seventeen, Deborah does not even know what her body parts are supposed to do. The marriage is disastrous, for both of them, and is not consummated for a year. When, finally, Deborah and her husband manage to have sex, she becomes pregnant very quickly and gives birth to a son at the age of nineteen.

To a western European reader, of no particular religious persuasion, the account of life in the community is both jaw-dropping and enlightening. It is genuinely hard to imagine how such a sect can continue to exist, particularly in the melting-pot of New York. This book, however, is not political, rather it is intensely personal. Deborah develops a curiosity from a very young age; she is interested in books by, for example Jane Austen and Roald Dahl, but she is forced to read them in secret. Her reading opens her eyes to other possibilities, however, and she glimpses a vision of a life outside the community. Her good fortune is that in some ways she never felt fully integrated, her parents having separated and her mother having come from outside the community; we are witnessing discrimination within discrimination within discrimination. This is quite telling in itself.

As she grows older, Deborah sees the cracks in the community – the absurdity of some of the customs, the cruelty these can give rise to, how the women conspire in misguided ways against one another to perpetuate their misery, and the hypocrisy in the political power struggles in the community. Deborah finally escapes the sect. You would think that a curious and intelligent girl on the doorstep of one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world find it easy to leave, but reading the book gave me an insight into the degree of control the elders hold over the young people, particularly the young women, disempowering them psychologically, financially and intellectually. Perhaps this comes from a place of fear, but that is not the subject of this book – it is one woman’s story of escaping a kind of captivity and finding her own mind.

It is a gripping account which I recommend highly. It has also been adapted and made into a television series by Netflix – something else to go on my ‘must-watch’ list!

Discrimination and its effects are common literary themes – what are your recommendations for books on this topic?

 

July choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge

Another month passes us by and I’m delighted with myself because for the first time in ages I actually managed to finish the book I’d set myself for the Reading Challenge, ON TIME!!! Wonders will never cease! Perhaps as we begin to ease our way out of the Covid-19 lockdown in the UK certain aspects of life are beginning to return to normal. Certainly, the mood in my household is a little more easeful, and I find myself with more mental and emotional space to settle into the things that I enjoy without my concentration being all over the place. What about you?

The secret Live sof Baba Segi's WivesLast month, the theme of the Reading Challenge was ‘Something from Africa’ and I picked the debut novel of contemporary Nigerian writer Lola Shoneyin The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. If you were able to read along with me, I hope you enjoyed the book – I loved it! Shoneyin, previously a published poet, released this novel in 2010 and it was longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2011. Described as a feminist author, I thought the book was clever in the way it portrayed the patriarch Baba Segi and his polygamous household where, though he is referred to by his wives as “Lord” and “King”, he is in fact a fool deceived by the much cleverer women around him. The book begins in comedy, but its ending is much more sober and ambivalent.

I loved all the characters in the book, how wonderfully well-observed they all were, how cleverly the author tells us just enough about their backgrounds to give us a clear understanding of what motivates them and drives them to act in the way they do. In part they are caricatures, apart from Bolanle, Baba Segi’s fourth wife, the most well-developed character, whose very existence drives the plot and who exposes, completely unknowingly, a complicated web of deceit. The plot is tremendous and the way it unfolds is both entertaining and enlightening. I read the last 100 pages or so in one sitting, I couldn’t put it down.

Sadly, I cannot find a reference to anything Lola Shoneyin has published since 2010. I would have loved to read another novel by her.

Betty B00 imgJuly’s theme is ‘Something from the Americas’. I always had South America in mind here and it was hard as there is so much to choose from among the great classics by Isabel Allende, Mario Vargas Llosa or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to name but a few. However, I really want to explore something more contemporary and less of a household name outside South America. I’ve chosen a book by Argentinian crime and mystery novelist Claudia Pineiro – Betty Boo. This was first published in 2011 in the original Spanish and then in English translation in 2016. It’s available in paperback and on Kindle.

 

 

I hope you will be able to join me in reading this. I wonder if it will be anything like an Agatha Christie?!

Are you finding yourself with more or in fact less reading time at the moment?

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June choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge

My usual routines, including my reading habits, are all over the place right now! What about you? I have both my daughters at home from school and my son home from university, plus my husband working from home. Although we are fortunate to have enough space and enough technology to enable everyone to do what they need to do, there are times when we get in each other’s way. I am also a creature of habit and do not always find it easy to adjust my rhythms to fit with other people’s. So, other commitments permitting, I like sit down with a cup of tea to read at around 3pm most afternoons, just before the return home from school. But, now, that is actually the busiest time of the day in our household – everyone seems to be ‘clocking off’ and wanting interaction! First world problems, as they say. We are all well, work is plentiful; we are among the more fortunate.

At times like this, I find it’s the little things that are important, so I try to find some time every day, no matter how small, to do some reading. I have several books on the go at the moment – Ulysses (which I promised myself I’d re-read this year and which I spent a glorious couple of hours simultaneously reading and listening to on Tuesday, 16th June, Bloomsday), Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the LightThe Beekeeper of Aleppo, which I’m listening to on audiobook, for my book club, and which is amazing, and my Facebook Reading Challenge choice for this month – The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. 

The secret Live sof Baba Segi's Wives This book by Nigerian writer Lola Shoneyin, was published in 2010 and longlisted for the then Orange Prize for fiction the following year. Shoneyin writes beautifully. I have only just started it but I already love the characterisation and the humour, although a more melancholic note is now beginning to enter. It is described in the publisher’s blurb as at once funny and moving and I can definitely see that. Baba Segi is a traditional Nigerian male, still following the practice of polygamy in modern-day Nigeria. He has seven children by his first three wives, but desires more and when he meets Bolanle, a young graduate from a more enlightened family, who are against the marriage, he thinks his wish has been granted. Not all goes to plan, however.

I am enjoying the exploration of the family dynamics – a polygamous household will be outside the experience of most Western readers – and how the relationships between the four wives are beginning to evolve.

If you would like to join me in my reading challenge this month, hop on over to the Facebook Group– there is still time! It’s a fairly short book and we are only just over halfway through the month; I might even finish on time this month!

How have your reading habits changed in these last few months?

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Book Review – “The King’s Evil” by Andrew Taylor

As I sat down at my computer to write this review, I was struck suddenly by the irony of being in lockdown as a result of a global pandemic, to write about a book whose title is the common term for an ancient disease. Scrofula (or mycobacterial cervical lymphadenitis to give it its medical name!) causes unsightly swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck which may burst to create open sores. It is an infectious disease, often associated with tuberculosis, which declined rapidly by the 20th century as more successful treatments for tuberculosis came on stream. It is still around today, mainly affecting immunocompromised patients, and there was a resurgence during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Who knew?!

Scrofula became known as ‘the king’s evil’ because it was once believed that the touch of a monarch was enough to cure a patient of the disease. If only such treatment were enough for Covid-19. Although this book is not about scrofula directly, it opens in the Palace of Westminster where King Charles II is bestowing his ‘cure’ on a group of his disease affected subjects in a public ceremony.

The Kings Evil imgThis is the third book in Andrew Taylor’s series of Marwood & Lovett novels. I have thoroughly enjoyed the first two books, The Ashes of London and The Fire Court and have listened to all three on audiobook. I love the narration of Leighton Pugh who is able to conjure the most amazing range of voices to suit the various characters. The fourth novel in the series, The Last Protector, was published earlier this month and I can’t wait to get on to that one now.

The book is set in Restoration London, in 1667, the year following the Great Fire (the first book in the series takes place during and in the immediate aftermath of that terrible event). In a further ironic twist for the times we are living in, let us not forget that the Great Fire immediately followed the plague epidemic of 1665-66 which is thought to have killed 100,000 people, or a quarter of London’s population at the time.

James Marwood is a Whitehall clerk, the son of a former Fifth Columnist, or traitor against the monarchy, who was imprisoned for his crimes. Marwood senior, a frail and senile character, was present in the first book, but died in the second, but the son is never quite free of his father’s reputation. Cat Lovett is the daughter of a regicide, a spirited and ambitious young woman with a passion for architecture, who, in the first novel was raped by her cousin, and, in fighting back, almost killed him when she poked his eye out. As a result she lives in hiding under an assumed name. It helps if you have read the first two books as it provides context and gives you an idea of the characters and their motivations, but it is not essential as the author brings in elements of the back-story.

Death and murder seem to follow James Marwood like a wasp to honey; when you are watching television shows like Midsummer Murders or Morse, you have to suspend your disbelief that so many suspicious deaths could occur in one small place, and it is rather like that with these novels! What I really like, however, is how the character of Marwood is developing, how his activity is drawing him ever closer into the inner workings of the royal court and therefore ever more entwined in the inevitable intrigue.

In this book, Marwood, who is in the employ of a senior Whitehall official and has gradually secured that man’s trust, is called upon to investigate a mysterious death at the home of Lord Clarendon, a relative by marriage of the king, but a man whose past has earned him many enemies at Court. By coincidence, Clarendon House is also undergoing building renovations which are being supervised by the architect James Haxeby, the ageing fiancé of Cat Lovett (masquerading as Jane Haxeby, the architect’s cousin). The dead man turns out to be Edward Alderley, Cat’s cousin and the man who raped her a year earlier, and Cat is about to be fitted up for the crime. When she then disappears, certain courtiers believe her guilt is obvious. Marwood believes Cat did not do it (though it must be said he is not 100% sure), and when sent in to investigate the circumstances of the murder he finds he is drawn into a much more sinister web of intrigue, of political turmoil among factions at Court and find himself in direct contact with the King himself, whom he has to inform about certain facts of the case which do not suit the accepted (and acceptable) version of events. For the first time in this series there is also a bit of love interest for Marwood, though I don’t want to reveal any spoilers!

Marwood’s fortunes and prospects are improving with each novel, but so is the degree of difficulty he finds himself in. This is a really fascinating series and I cannot wait to find out what happens to him in The Last Protector.  The sense of time and place is powerfully evoked and it is clear that an impressive amount of research has gone into this and the other books in the series. These books are great to get thoroughly lost in, reading about a disease in the distant past may help you forget the disease we are facing in the present.

Highly recommended.

What kind of books provide escapism for you?

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Book review – “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot

I’d been reading some books about writing non-fiction (to try and improve my own writing) and I came across this book, extensively cited as a fine example of the genre. It’s a chunky book that I intended to skim read, with a view to getting an idea about structure and the concept of writing about a personal journey, but I quickly became engrossed in the incredible story of Henrietta Lacks, a black woman, mother of five from Virginia, who died in 1951 at the age of thirty-one from an aggressive form of cervical cancer. Without either her consent or knowledge, the surgeon treating Henrietta took some of her cancer cells and passed them on to a colleague who was trying to find cells which would survive long enough outside the human body to be useful for research. The idea of doing this without the patient’s consent seems shocking to a 21st century reader, but remember this occurred at a time of segregation and ethical concerns and patient rights were concepts not widely considered to be essential elements of medical practice.

Henrietta LacksThis may have been unremarkable and probably happened more than we care to imagine, but for what happened next: Henrietta’s surgeon had noticed how rapidly her cancer cells had grown, but when George Gey, the scientist to whom he had sent the cells, received them, he found that they divided and reproduced at a rapid rate, and, most remarkably, seemed extraordinarily robust outside their host, unlike all other cells he had dealt with. Gey soon forwarded cells to other colleagues working in the field and they too found the ability of these cells to thrive truly remarkable. HeLa (the name given to the cells) was born and they quickly became an essential part of research worldwide into therapies not just for cancer but for polio and HIV to name but a few. It is thought that around 50 million tonnes of HeLa cells have been cultivated since 1951.

 

Meanwhile, Henrietta, died and left behind a widowed husband and five young children, two still in nappies, who would never have any memory of their late mother, and one with severe disabilities who would later be committed to an institution. They were poor; Day, Henrietta’s husband, tried to scrape together a living for the family as best he could while Henrietta’s sisters helped with the children. The family would know nothing of what had happened to Henrietta’s cells.

Rebecca Skloot, the author of this book first learned about the HeLa cells in a science class, but it was not until several years later, reading a research paper that her interest was truly piqued and she decided to do a little more digging. She tried to get in touch with the family and was at first rebuffed, but she became increasingly fascinated, obsessed even about HeLa, and the woman behind the headlines, and what had happened to her family. Eventually, she built a relationship with Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter, who had been an infant when her mother died, and a woman who had never come to terms with her loss.

This book is not just the story of Henrietta and her family, and her cells, it is the author’s journey of discovery of the truth about medicine and science in the second half of the twentieth century. It is also a story about racism and health inequality, about exploitation and greed. The author put years of her life into this book and a glance at the references pages will show you the huge amount of research that went into producing it. It also raises some interesting questions about ethics and consent which may surprise you – you might think the answer to the question “who owns discarded parts of our bodies?” is obvious, but when the complexities of the proposition are explored we see that it is not quite so straightforward.

I expected to skim through this book in a few hours, but I found myself captivated by the story and by the issues it raised. Perhaps there are some bits the author could have left out, but I think it is also pretty clear why she couldn’t!

Recommended, especially if you have any interest in the world of medicine.

Have you ever found yourself becoming engrossed in a book that you didn’t expect?

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Book review – “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E Frankl

This was the February choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme of which was a non-fiction book. I’d had some excellent suggestions from others, but when I walked into the bookshop, this slim little volume with the beautifully coloured bird on the front, jumped off the shelf at me. It was only on closer inspection of the cover that I noticed the barbed wire and the unmistakable image of a watch tower in misty monochrome. This book is written by a Holocaust survivor, a former inmate of Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi concentration camp where over a million Jews were murdered; the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz was commemorated at the end of January.

2020-02-06 12.42.07Viktor E Frankl was a psychiatrist who is credited with developing one of the most important theories in the field human psychology (logotherapy) since Freud. He was developing his theory before he was captured by the Nazis but his time in the concentration camp enabled him to observe human beings in extreme conditions and further evolve his ideas.

The core idea of logotherapy (if I understand it correctly) is that human beings have a ‘will to meaning’ and that is what enables them to survive even the most shocking brutality. To illustrate his point, Frankl writes in the first part of the book (about two thirds of the total) about his day to day experiences in the camp. We all know how terrible, degrading and dehumanising these were, but I certainly never fail to be shocked when I see or hear of them. Frankl suffered terribly, but he was also fortunate, as a doctor, to be called upon to look after sick inmates, and this enabled him to observe others at their most vulnerable.

It often occurs to me that it was a particular torture to keep those rounded up into the camps alive when the ultimate goal was extermination. Prisoners were used as slave labour and Frankl describes the horrific conditions they were expected to work in, digging up frozen ground in sub-zero temperatures wearing only the standard issue striped pyjamas, shoes which injured their feet, and surviving on a thin broth that was barely more than hot water. Frankl writes that horror was so commonplace and exhaustion so total that people became inured to feelings – being insensible was a necessary protection. Some inmates effectively ‘colluded’ with their captors and became mini foremen, acting as wickedly as the Nazi guards at times, but Frankl is philosophical:

“No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.”

In the face of absolute degradation, where the prisoner’s life had no value, stripped of all freedoms and autonomy, Frankl observes that the only thing left is ‘spiritual freedom’ – the ability to choose one’s attitude in a situation. And this fragment, he believes, is enough to give one hope and purpose. He also observed that once this is lost, when a person can no longer see a goal or meaning, their physical life ebbs away.

Very few of us will ever have an experience like that of Dr Frankl or the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, though a few experience extreme privation, imprisonment and torture. Dr Frankl carried his theories into his work with normal people experiencing difficult things in their life. He cites an example of a bereaved colleague, devastated after the death of his wife, who felt that there was no longer any purpose to his life. Only once Dr Frankl was able to show him that his loss meant his wife had been spared the grief of being widowed, was he able to find meaning in his life again and thus move beyond his grief. Frankl is clear though that suffering is not necessary in order to find meaning in life, rather, that even through suffering, meaning can be found.

According to logotherapy we can find meaning in three different ways: by creating a work or doing a deed; by experiencing something or someone; and by the attitude we take to unavoidable suffering. Even when we are no longer able to change a situation, we are able to change ourselves. This for me, was the strongest message that came out of the book – Dr Frankl’s account of his time in the camp is both harrowing and compelling, but he is nonetheless able to draw from it, wisdom that is relevant to us all.

Viktor Frankl died in 1997. The second part of the book was revised and updated in 1962. I was struck by his reference to what he calls the ‘existential vacuum’, the depression people experience when they seem to lose the meaning in their life. He writes of how increasing automation in the workplace could lead to such a state. Retired an ageing people, he writes, can easily be afflicted by this as their once busy lives become seemingly empty. Here in the 21st century many of us have more leisure time than ever, but many of us don’t know what to do with it and may in fact be lonelier and less fulfilled than ever. Perhaps this explains the ‘Blitz spirit’ that older British people often reminisce about – in the suffering they found community and meaning and purpose. Perhaps it also explains the mental ill-health epidemic that seems to be affecting developed nations all over the world.

All of the above may be total gobbledygook, the ramblings of a middle-aged woman trying to work out her own purpose! I hope what will have come across to you, however, is that this is a very powerful book, that we should all read and which, I guarantee, will give you much food for thought.

Highly recommended, maybe even essential.

If you have read this book, I would love to hear your thoughts.

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