Book review – “Grown Ups” by Marian Keyes

I posted last week about my ups and down dealing with life during Covid-19. It sparked a lot of comments from friends about others feeling similar emotional swings. It just goes to show that you can’t rely on social media to reflect life accurately; if I look at my Facebook or Instagram feeds it looks as if everyone is having an amazing time and achieving all sorts of interesting challenges! Perhaps everyone else is just ‘faking it till they make it’ as well, putting a brave face on, or, if their profile is also their livelihood, perhaps they are thinking about their business. I am not normally someone who suffers from anxiety or other mental health issues, at least not at the severe end of the spectrum, but it strikes me that more openness and honesty would help those who do.

I mentioned in my last post that one of the books that has really helped me this last few weeks is Grown Ups, the latest novel from Marian Keyes. I have long admired Marian; though I have not read any of her other books, I often hear her on the radio. She is also very active on Twitter and is hilarious. She is able to project her personality very strongly, she is forthcoming about her vulnerabilities and her frailties and she is an engaging and witty speaker. Grown Ups was suggested at my book club for April and I listened to it on audiobook. I absolutely loved it and especially Marian’s wonderfully authentic narration.

The novel is set over the course of six months in the life of one extended family – the Caseys – which comprises the three separate families of brothers Johnny, Ed and Liam and their various wives, girlfriends and children. The novel is set mostly in Ireland and mostly in Dublin, where the main characters all live. It opens on the occasion of Johnny’s 49th birthday, and the three brothers and their families have gathered together,, as they do frequently and regularly. These are usually organised (and paid for) by wealthy Type A personality Jessie, Johnny’s wife, successful business owner of a chain of stores selling high-end and exotic groceries. All of a sudden, Ed’s wife Cara begins to have what can only be described as a mental meltdown during dinner. Although I found this initial scene quite difficult to follow because I did not, of course, know any of the characters, it is quite clear that Cara’s outburst is entirely out of character, deeply embarrassing for many of the attendees, exposing behaviours they believed they had masked pretty successfully, and that it is going to cause deep fissures in what might otherwise appear to be a ‘happy’ family. It’s as if Cara has taken some sort truth drug.

All is in chaos and then Marian takes us back six months and we begin to explore the sequence of events that has led to this breakdown. These include an Easter break in a smart hotel in Killarney, a weekend away to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of the Casey brothers’ awful parents (which goes a long way to explaining the various ‘issues’ their sons have), a hilarious but disastrous murder mystery weekend for Jessie’s 50th birthday and a holiday in Tuscany. Most of these extravagant events are organised and paid for by Jessie, who, as an only child, longs for the happy extended family.

Although it’s the three men who are related, the story seems mainly to revolve around their partners – Johnny’s wife Jessie, who married him a few years after she had lost her beloved first husband Rory, Cara, Ed’s wife, a mild-mannered hotel receptionist, who has an eating disorder, and Nell, the young and lovely set designer, who marries feckless Liam after a whirlwind romance.

At first I found some of the scenes overly long, which made the pace quite laboured in the first quarter or so of the book, but on reflection I think this is necessary to building the personalities of the characters, understanding their motivations, and really getting inside their heads. By the time I got to the last quarter I could not put it down. I became totally lost in the world of the Caseys and found I cared very deeply about what happened to them all. Best of all Marian’s dialogue feels entirely authentic and made me feel nostalgic for get-togethers over the years I have had with my own extended family of Irish in-laws, though none quite so eventful as those depicted here!

This book was a real tonic and I recommend it highly. I will definitely explore more of Marian Keyes’s books.

What books have kept your spirits up during the pandemic lockdown?

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 – “Please Look After Mother” by Kyung-Sook Shin

This was the March choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme of which was a book from Asia. I hadn’t realised the coincidence, that, of course, Mother’s Day is in March in the UK, so it was an even more appropriate choice than I planned! If you were looking for some sentimental celebration of the joys of maternal love, this was not it, however. It was, in its own way, though, a celebration of mothering.

Please Look After MotherThe premise of the story is very simple: So-nyo is a wife and mother to five children, all of whom are now grown-up and living their lives in different parts of the country (South Korea). So-nyo lives a very simple fairly rural life with her husband at the family home, where there are many privations. The place is almost a throwback to a bygone era. So-nyo’s eldest son, Hyong-chol, lives in Seoul with his wife and family and it is while his parents are on their way to visit him (to celebrate the father’s birthday) that his mother goes missing; she was holding her husband’s hand on the busy underground station platform one moment, then she seemed to slip from his grasp and just disappeared into the crowd.

We meet Song-nyo’s family one week after the disappearance. They are gathered at Hyong-chol’s house, trying frantically to come up with a strategy to find their missing mother. Police searches have so far turned up nothing and although there have been a couple of random sightings, when one or other of the siblings goes to investigate, they find the trail has gone cold. There is tension in the group, all of them, in their anxiety blaming the other for some oversight that has led to their mother’s disappearance. The following chapters are told from a number of different perspectives. Firstly, there is Chi-hon, the third of the five children, a successful novelist and So-nyo’s eldest daughter. Chi-hon is the first of the family members to begin to reflect on how she has taken her mother for granted all her life (as they all have) and is only just now realising this, now that mother has gone. She tries to recall when it was that she discovered her mother could not read, a fact she managed to conceal from the world because she was so ashamed.

Through Hyon-chol’s recollections we learn of how ambitious So-nyo was for her children and of how much she sacrificed for them, particularly her eldest son, traditionally the most prized child according to her culture, a fact resented by the others, particularly Chi-hon, who never understood it fully.

There is also the reflection and sense of regret from So-nyo’s husband, who, for a time, left his wife for another woman, but who came back eventually, though on somewhat different terms. Returning to the home they shared after leaving Seoul, some weeks after his wife’s disappearance, he is visited by a stranger who runs a nearby orphanage, and who is looking for So-nyo, the woman who was a frequent visitor to the home, who gave her time and money generously to the orphanage. So-nyo’s husband realises he barely knew the woman he was married to.

I don’t think it is giving too much away to say that So-nyo herself makes appearances in the novel, particularly in the later stages. She narrates a chapter about her younger daughter, now a woman married with three young children, a bright girl who went to college, but who is now a stay-at-home mother, much like So-nyo, and yet not like So-nyo at all. So-nyo regrets how she did not give her youngest daughter the support and encouragement she deserved, either when she was a young girl or when she became a mother herself.

Through their regrets and reflections we learn about So-nyo, about her commitment to the culture of her ancestors and of how for her children she was the only bridge to that past, which is now, it would seem, gone. As they consider that they may well have lost their mother forever, each of the main characters goes on their own journey, not just rethinking their attitude to their mother, realising the part she has played in their lives, but also learning much about themselves in the process.

This book was at times very difficult for me as it is only a few months since I lost my own mother. The first Mothering Sunday without her did not affect me too much as I was somewhat distracted by the lockdown that had only just been implemented, but it would have been her 77th birthday last Easter Monday, while this book was still fresh in my mind, and that was quite hard. I spent most of the day gardening, something she would have appreciated, I think. In the last few months, rather like the characters in this book, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on what my mother did for me. Perhaps we only truly grow up when we lose our parents.

Not the easiest read, but a powerful one and certainly one of the most unusual books I have read in a while.

Recommended.

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Book review – Black Moss by David Nolan

This was one of my Book Club choices and I read it on a weekend away with some girlfriends (the aforementioned Book Club) for our first Annual General Meeting!! I downloaded it to my Kindle, perfect as it took up less space for our hand luggage only trip. We chose it because it has a local flavour (to us), set in Manchester, and because we hadn’t done a thriller for some time. It is not a book I would ordinarily have chosen (but isn’t that the point of book clubs?); thrillers are not usually my thing, although I have to say that I am usually gripped when I read one (the good ones anyway). Whilst I would not describe it as my read of the year, I did enjoy it, it engaged me and I thought it was a pretty decent story – I did not predict the ending.

Black Moss imgThe book jumps back and forth in time between the present day and April 1990. In the present day we meet a middle-aged Danny Johnston, a long-in-the-tooth presenter of investigative television documentaries. He is past his peak professionally and clearly has some deep-rooted, well-suppressed emotional difficulties; the book opens with him crashing into a tree whilst drunk. He lives an empty life alone in London and is borderline alcoholic. His accident is well-publicised in the media and as a result he loses his television contract and is let go by his agent. With nothing to keep him in London he decides to return to the north, to Manchester where he grew up and where he began his career as a local radio reporter.

When he is back in Manchester Danny decides to follow up a police case he was involved in that was never solved. It was April 1990 and the riots at Strangeways prison dominated the media for weeks. The ‘occupation’ of the prison by the inmates lasted twenty-five days. At around the same time, the body of a young boy is found at Black Moss reservoir just outside Oldham. Danny is assigned to report on the case, the more senior reporters having their attention fully occupied by Strangeways, and happens to be the first reporter on the scene. He catches a sight of the boy’s body as a breeze lifts the covering on it, and sees that it has been partially taped up, presumably by the killer. This detail is omitted from the public statements made by the police which makes Danny feel there is more to this than the average homicide. Danny starts to build a relationship with the chief investigator on the case Detective Inspector Smithdown who takes Danny into his trust, he being one of only two reporters showing any interest in the case. The other is a reporter from the Oldham Messenger called Kate, who also happens to be the daughter of DI Smithdown.

As a disgraced middle-aged ex-broadcaster Danny gets in touch again with Kate. He learns that her father is still alive and he goes to see him. They talk about the unsolved case of the boy at Black Moss and Danny feels it is time for him to try and resolve it once and for all. It sets him on a journey which will expose him to a dark underbelly of historic child abuse in the Manchester area and police corruption. It will also force him to face aspects of his past that he has suppressed all his life and to learn things about his childhood that go part way to explaining his present day problems.

I enjoyed the book and felt the pace was good. It was a decent story to get your teeth into and deals with some important issues. Here in Manchester and the north west of England more widely we have still to come to terms with some dark facts of recent history where children, particularly those living on the margins of society, were abused. Whilst this book is fictional, I think it is a brave piece of work and part of the catharsis which it will be necessary to experience before we can all put this chapter behind us. I understand that police officers and child protection professionals were consulted in the writing of it.

Well worth a read, and a local author (to me anyway!) to boot.

I find thrillers a bit hit and miss – have you read any good ones lately? I also like Cath Staincliffe.

The art of re-reading – “To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf

I’m not a big re-reader; I often feel overwhelmed by the amount of books that I still desire to read so the thought of going back to something I’ve already ticked off the list can feel like a waste of time! I still haven’t quite accepted that I probably don’t have enough years left in my life to get through all the books I will want to read (perhaps not even the books in my TBR pile!). The joy of reading, though, is not about who can read the most, who has the most impressive library or can quote most extensively from their bookish knowledge. It is about the individual and the solitary pleasure of getting lost in a story. And you can do that in the same book many times over, if it’s good enough and if you love it enough. Re-reading gives a pleasure all of its own.

To The Lighthouse imgI had that very experience recently with my book club when we decided to read To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Some of us had read it before (though years earlier) others had not read it at all. But even those of us who had read it before could not remember very much about it! I read it when I was studying for my English degree 30 years ago; I would probably have got through most of Virginia Woolf’s books in a very short space of time, because that was what my degree entailed – reading lots and lots of books very quickly! I always remembered that To The Lighthouse was my favourite, but I could not honestly have told you what happens in it, except that the journey to the eponymous lighthouse was about something desired more than something fulfilled.

Coming to it again, therefore, was a perfect pleasure and I am so glad we chose it. I read it of course, through totally different eyes. I was in my early twenties when I read it first and now I am…somewhat older! I am a mother of three children and so I saw aspects of the novel that I simply could not have understood fully before. By happy coincidence, the current lockdown gave me the opportunity to read it in three long sittings, which this book definitely deserves. I became totally absorbed in the life of the Ramsay household, the inner world of the characters thrown uneasily together in the Skye summer house and the quest for something unattainable.

The other difference was that when I read it all those years ago, I was the student and the reading would have been for a different purpose – to write an essay, spot the references or the autobiographical aspects. This time I read it just for itself.

Re-reading is definitely something I would like to do more of. One of the opportunities this period of lockdown offers is a suspension of all normal routines, time proceeds differently and I feel less boxed-in to my usual routines. I feel we have stepped off the treadmill. We will be desperate to get back on it soon enough, no doubt, especially as the economy teeters, but until then my next re-read is going to be Ulysses. I first read it on a lazy week’s holiday in Spain about twenty years ago (pre-children!) – I think it deserves my time again now!

Are you a re-reader or do you tend mainly to read new titles, like me?

 

My lockdown plans

 

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Lockdown means more reading time! (Image by FotoReith from Pixabay)

What strange times we live in! When I last posted, about two weeks ago, life was going on as normal, I’d just returned from a short trip to France and I was making plans for the coming weeks, including booking train tickets for work trips to London. Sure, there was talk of the Coronavirus in China, a few cases in Italy, but it didn’t seem like it was going to affect me, it was happening somewhere else. How long ago that now seems!

I didn’t post last week mainly because I was in shock. My elder daughter was due to be taking her GCSEs this summer, indeed, I was also going to invigilate at a local school. When the announcement came that exams had been cancelled, I think it hit me then how serious this was going to be. Suddenly, I feared for elderly relatives and neighbours and spent the week calling them, offering (please!) to help. I was comforting my daughter who seemed to be going through all the stages of a bereavement and, having worked so hard for the last two years, suddenly had no clue what she was meant to be doing with her life now. Plus, I could hardly tear myself away from the rolling news and the numbers dying in Spain and Italy increasing by the hundreds. We had to make rapid plans to get my son home from university (I’d only been to see him the weekend before!) and he was finding his local shops were empty by the time he got there – dinner for him one night was a pack of hot cross buns! I found it difficult to focus on anything.

This week is different – the high anxiety of last week has been replaced by a strange calm. We are all now under one roof, school, activities, hobbies, gym, everything now, has been cancelled, even the occasional Flat White at my coffee shop of choice. Unlike some, I’m not too worried about how I’ll cope with the ‘isolation’ – on the contrary, as an introvert who spends most of her days alone, it may be challenging for me to have everyone else around all the time! I think I will actually enjoy the opportunity to take a guilt-free foot off the gas. I will be giving help and support where I can in my community, but I will also be observing closely the need to keep others outside my household at (double) arms-length.

Whilst I don’t want to start creating lists of jobs for myself, I am better when I’ve got some goals, so here’s what I plan to do with all the found time:

  1. Top of the list is reading, of course. I have been wondering how I was ever going to get to The Mirror and the Light, the third and final part of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy….!
  2.  Re-read Ulysses – I am not a big re-reader, but I read this when I was much younger so I want to read it again through more mature eyes. This was one of my aims for 2020.
  3. Appreciate my garden, especially if this wonderful spring weather continues.
  4. Breathe – I’ll miss my yoga classes most of all but can practise at home.
  5. Take a virtual museum tour – perhaps the Guggenheim in Bilbao, somewhere I’ve long wanted to visit.
  6. Write – I have been finding it very difficult to get back into the re-writing stage of my book since my mother died, but perhaps this is the impetus I need.
  7. Keep in touch with my relatives.
  8. Make some photobooks – we don’t really print photos any more do we? I’ve made a few family photobooks over the years, but there are a few years missing.
  9. Clear out our files – paperwork, paperwork! My husband and I are terrible hoarders and keep everything, but do we really still need all those invoices from 10+ years ago?!
  10. Pay attention – we can still go out, once a day, for the moment at least, so whilst we still can I will enjoy my neighbourhood, with all its wonderful trees, and enjoy the lack of vehicle and aircraft noise!

I would love to hear what your plans are for ‘lockdown’ – above all, follow all the advice and stay well and safe.

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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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