Thursday 4 April 2024

Blog Tour: The Rabbits, A.A. Milne

This post is part of a blog tour. Thank you to Random Things Tours and Farrago for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and buy I will receive a percentage commission at no extra cost to you.


Today, best known for his delightful children’s stories based around Winnie-the-Pooh and friends, A.A. Milne published many popular stories for adults during his career. These new editions from Farrago give a new generation of readers a chance to discover them. Originally published as a series of sketches for Punch, the stories in The Rabbits centre around a group of friends in the early twentieth century. Their life is largely carefree, being in a position where money doesn’t appear to be a worry. We see them at intervals throughout their young adulthood, often playing games, teasing each other, and generally having a good time. As the book progresses we see them begin to settle down, marry, have children, and move into their own homes. It is heartening to see their friendship continue throughout these major life events, always there to support each other, but always with a sense of fun and irreverence. 


The years covered are 1909 through to 1914. This is not historic fiction, Milne was publishing these short pieces in real time, and so as a modern reader we are very aware of the imminent disaster of war approaching in a way the characters are not. At one point a new mother mentions that her child will be a soldier. It is a harsh reminder to us what that would mean, how the next generation of young adults would have such a drastically different existence. 


Their lives are so very different to ours in many ways, and the book captures the lives of the upper middle class at a very particular moment in time, yet as we watch them grow together, the way they interact, the ease with which they tease each other, and their hopes for their own lives and those of their children, we see that there is so much that is familiar.


This is an incredibly easy book to read, even as someone who doesn’t read quickly I found the pages flying by. The episodic nature of the stories might be off-putting to some but many will revel in the snippets of life we’re privy to. It makes for a light, entertaining read, and you’re able to delve in to each section, feeling satisfied before returning to find out what japes the Rabbits have got up to next. 


Pick up a copy:

Bookshop

Foyles

Waterstones




Wednesday 27 March 2024

Book Review: Brian, Jeremy Cooper

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Brian tracks the life of a solitary man named Brian through his late thirties to retirement. He lives in Kentish Town and works for Camden Council, eats at the same Italian restaurant every day, and is thrown when his normal launderette is closed when usually it would be open. He lives a life of routine and repetition, feeling safe in the knowledge that he knows what’s coming. There is a sense that he longs for belonging, and he suspects he may find it if he joins the BFI and becomes a regular, something that needs some consideration before committing. Once he’s taken the step to join he soon goes every night, aware of a group of regulars who get together in the foyer to discuss the film after the showing. With time he becomes one of them and although he feels very anxious at the thought of saying the wrong thing he gradually feels confident enough to express his opinions, and becomes something of an expert in Japanese cinema.

The book is equally, if not majority, short critiques of the films he watches. In the early days of his membership it feels at times like simply a long list of films without much story development which can be a little tiresome, especially for readers not familiar with the films, but as the book progresses we see more and more of Brian and the sections describing his responses to the films he watches tells us almost as much about him as the film. In the beginning he watches films with a fairly closed mind, too conscious of protecting himself from any kind of emotional hurt that might arise from the themes presented to him, but with time he becomes more open. He remains guarded of his own heart, developing techniques whereby he can be moved by a film but without relating it to his own life however closely it might align. He’s aware that he has missed out on many things in life, and has never engaged much in politics or religion. Film gives him the opportunity to explore new avenues and experience things he doubts he ever will in real life. He goes through a phase of watching sexual content, at first deeply uncomfortable but fascinated, never having had a romantic relationship and not expecting to. We see in his developing passion for cinema the way in which it opens his mind to new possibilities, and offers him the opportunity of companionship with others whose interest in each other goes little deeper than what they thought of the film they’ve just watched. 

From the first pages of the novel we get a real sense of Brian and his personality. Nothing particularly dramatic happens throughout the course of the book, and he does not suddenly become a spontaneous extrovert, but we witness the slow growth of someone who has spent many years alone, subtle changes that indicate he is willing to cautiously let people in a little more, to consider the world beyond his flat and office. The passage of time is not clearly noted, with no chapter breaks it is a continuous piece of prose in which you are only aware that time has moved on significantly by mention of global events or his imminent retirement. It can be somewhat disorienting to realise that decades have passed since you last noted the time frame of the book, which is reflective of life, time slipping by largely unannounced. His retirement is a big moment for him, a possible point of crisis as his routine will be irretrievably changed. Similarly, medical changes that come with age prove a challenge, but he finds ways to adapt, and retirement proves an opportunity to indulge his interests further.

He had made attempts to find somewhere to fit in before braving the BFI, and sadly they always fell apart. The consistency of the screenings and the regulars, even if they change over time, is reassuring and allow him to find a sense of belonging. One regular, Jack, reaches out across the distant familiarity of the foyer discussions, suggesting they meet outside of the BFI. With time, they become friendly and Jack opens Brian’s eyes (or ears) to the depths of film scores. Brian is aware that many of the regulars would be considered outsiders by many, with their unkempt appearances and over-used plastic bags, and he finds Jack’s proclivity to talk to strangers embarrassing. Indeed, you can imagine that Brian is the kind of person people would find a bit odd, but this book reminds us that everybody is just doing their best, everyone has their own history which has shaped them, and that there are precious communities where social norms can be thrust aside and people can bond over a shared love of art.

There are many allusions to traumatic and difficult events from Brian’s past, in particular his childhood. We are drip fed information about his family life, his mother who finally took them away from his father, a brother who he hasn’t seen in 40 years, who lived in Northern Ireland, and yet who Brian is so determined not to see he frequently mistakes strangers in London for him and crosses the road to keep away. We understand that some of his behaviours stem from difficult early experiences, but it is not dwelt upon. For Brian it is merely part of his life’s story. 

An unusual, gentle book. Brian is a fascinating character to spend time with from his quiet, unassuming life, to his repeatedly confusing an accident he was in with having been a victim of one of the London bombings. From early on you want for him to find a sense of belonging. This is a book that can be enjoyed by non-film buffs, but I imagine it might add an extra layer of depth if you’re familiar with the films he discusses. It is an interesting reading experience to be eager to learn more about the protagonist, but instead to have pages of film critique. Overall a heartening read which makes you appreciate the things in life that bring us all joy, whether that be film or books, good food or games, it is to be treasured.  

Friday 8 March 2024

Book Review: Unwell Women, Elinor Cleghorn

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Cleghorn’s acclaimed exploration of the gender inequalities in the medical sphere is a fascinating, horrifying read. The period covered is broad but we see how there is still such a long way to go. For many centuries women were excluded from medicine, healers and midwives were burnt as witches, ostracised and their knowledge ignored, to the detriment of the women they were helping. Female experience of pain has repeatedly been dismissed, more weight being given to the opinion of male ‘experts’. Symptoms have been brushed aside as hysterical or all in the patient’s head. To this day, women are more likely to be prescribed anti-depressants than painkillers. Men don’t have the same problem. 

Keeping women from knowledge about their own bodies led to centuries of embarrassment and misunderstanding. The sexual revolution allowed women to have the words to describe what they were experiencing, and to feel ownership over their bodies. In the nineteenth century it was particularly common to carry out procedures on women without their knowledge or consent. Clitoridectomies were common, with Isaac Baker Brown being their most enthusiastic practitioner. He believed that female masturbation was the cause of many health issues, and clitoridectomy would be the cure. His barbaric surgery was carried out on women we would now recognise as suffering from the likes of endometriosis, epilepsy, or MS. Naturally, it wasn’t successful. Even at the time his practice was considered barbaric, he drew the line only at operating on girls under the age of ten(!) but performed huge numbers of operations on women and girls who hadn’t consented. The other side of this was that girls and women who had been raped were also subjected to this ghastly procedure, indicating the social view that the blame landed squarely with them. As with many of the practices described in the book, the ‘treatments’ were not really designed to help those suffering, but to control them, ultimately making their lives harder.

Control was also wielded in sterilisation practices. Forced sterilisation was legal in the US from 1907 and it led to young women under the age of 18 who were suffering with mental illness or epilepsy being sterilised. Again, it was also used on those who had been victims of sexual assault. There were racist undertones to forced sterilisation, with women of colour being subjected to it in far higher numbers. It is sad that the rise of birth control, ostensibly a positive move for women, giving them more control over their reproductive rights, was turned against them to such a horrifying degree. Cleghorn does not shy away from the racial disparities in the treatment women receive, with worse outcomes much more likely in maternity care for women of colour. She explores the history of racism in medicine, discussing the horrific experiences enslaved women endured as they were experimentally operated on repeatedly without anaesthesia. Only recently has the misconception that people of some ethnicities have a much higher threshold for pain been questioned. 

In a sea of shocking tales of mistreatment and abuse, one that stands out is the prevalence of lobotomies in the twentieth century. Again, used as a form of control for any woman who didn’t conform to the happy housewife image that was considered their natural state. There was no argument that it would cure their ailments, merely that it would sever the emotional tie. The measure of success was how obediently they went back to their domestic roles. Sadly, many women became suicidal as a result of this barbaric practice, and even those who didn’t would often die within a few years of the surgery. A truly chilling practice that is hard to believe was ever sanctioned.

This is a well researched book which covers a lot but acknowledges what has been omitted. If you are an unwell woman struggling through the healthcare system it might help you feel less alone, but also acutely aware of the need to persist and be your own advocate. Having studied some medical history, especially related to mental health, during my undergraduate studies, a lot of what was included was familiar, yet still shocking. Cleghorn draws out the voices of women who were silenced in their own time and highlights the sacrifices of the past which have brought us as far as we have come now. Essential, albeit difficult, reading.

Friday 1 March 2024

Book review: An English Library Journey, John Bevis

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After health issues force Bevis to shift his work focus, he finds himself driving his wife around England for her work with prisons, and setting up in the local library to work on his writing, now his full time occupation. From here he has the idea of trying to collect library cards from every authority in the country, allowing him to access the resources of each of them. There are stumbling blocks along the way - the quirks of local authority administration, consortiums that restrict his ability to collect cards, and the fact that he doesn’t live locally. He opts to keep his true purpose hidden as he tries to persuade librarians to allow him to sign up with varying levels of success. Many will allow him visitor status, others have quirky methods for proving he is at least staying locally (posting a postcard to the address supplied for him to return on his next visit brings in the help of a kindly B&B owner). His quest introduces the reader to towns that don’t usually make an appearance in guidebooks, and makes you think about the true value of libraries and their sad decline with chronic underfunding.

If the concept for the book sounds repetitive and perhaps unexciting, Bevis’ writing style and witty observations, reminiscent of Bill Bryson, keep you engaged. He comments on the architecture of the library buildings and how well they serve their purpose once inside. Some, he surmises, spent all their resources on creating striking buildings without much thought as to how the space would be used. Others may look unassuming from the outside but manage to create perfect havens inside for those who want quiet study alongside the myriad other uses libraries offer. Some, most dispiritingly, consist merely of a few bookshelves on the edge of a cafe, an afterthought with empty floors above that could happily house a well-stocked library.

Not only are the library buildings commented upon but the library cards themselves. Some offer a choice from a selection of designs, others go for a more utilitarian design while others still feel more like a ticket to the local football team, the small print revealing that it is indeed a library card. He carefully plans his days to maximise possible library visits, yet on some, reaching the heady heights of six in one day, he admits that it is not all that satisfying. Part of the joy of collecting is going in and using the space, browsing the shelves, and encountering the other users. 

The book opens with a dramatic tale of a fire at a local library in his youth, the community coming together to help salvage as many books as possible. This leads into a brief history of public lending libraries, including the surprising (to me) fact that Boots used to run one. The book, which tracks his pursuit of library cards over roughly ten years, also examines how library provision changes. Sadly, in most areas the number decreases, with yet more being shifted to community run services, run by volunteers with a qualified librarian available to assist for short periods each week. Libraries are increasingly moved into buildings that house other public services, decreasing the space for books and quiet contemplation. It is a sad decline of a provision that is so incredibly valuable, as anyone who has ever worked in or used a public library will know. 

This is a light, enjoyable read which will make you appreciate the value of the local library, it certainly made me miss my closest one, closed indefinitely due to the discovery of RAAC. It is informative yet conversational, with little snippets of life witnessed on his visits and in the local areas. Each library receives no more than a page or two of space, some even less, yet Bevis manages to bring them to life. A wonderful read for any book lover, and a bright beacon calling us all to do whatever we can to keep these wonderful institutions open and accessible. 

Thursday 15 February 2024

Blog Tour: The Sleeping Beauties, Lucy Ashe

This review is part of the blog tour for the novel. Thank you to Random Things Tours and Magpie Books for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and buy I will receive a percentage commission at no extra cost to you.

It’s 1945 and Rosamund Caradon is escorting the last of the evacuees that she has cared for during the war back to London, her daughter Jasmine enjoying her last chance to boss them around. Their journey back to London is disrupted when Briar Woods, a young ballet dancer, chooses their carriage to travel in. The children are delighted, having taken some basic ballet classes during their stay at Gittisham Manor, but Rosamund is suspicious. Why choose their carriage, noisy with excited children, when there are plenty of empty spaces? Her discomfort around Briar only grows as she encourages Jasmine to increasingly enter her world. Why is Briar so insistent that they become close, and why does she seem hostile to Rosamund?

The early chapters set up the scenario in a way that the reader is unsettled by Briar, seeing her through Rosamund’s eyes, but also have reason to suspect Rosamund may be being overly cautious. She repeatedly mentions how she’d like to be able to stay in the safety of the grounds of Gittisham Manor with Jasmine, away from the world. Could it be that the bustle of London and the sad memories it holds for her are influencing her response to this young woman who is being nothing but accommodating? The focus then shifts to Briar and her history and we follow her for the majority of the book with a few different time jumps to drip feed her story. 

Alongside her friends Martha and Vivian, Briar is a dancer with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet. We get a sense of the wonderful camaraderie between them, an intimacy from living and dancing together. You feel the excitement and promise of young lives, living on their own for the first time, travelling the country and meeting exciting new people. Unfortunately, this comes with a dose of heartache for some, and difficult situations that will have far-reaching consequences. We are reminded that although these young women seem to have freedom and independence, the age they’re living in is still very much stacked against them, and they are held to a very different standard than the men they encounter.

The fictional lives of Briar and her friends are intermingled with famous names from the ballet world (Margot Fonteyn, Ninette de Valois, and Robert Helpmann to name but a few) and events from the company’s history. They travel to the Hague as it’s on the brink of invasion from Germany, a difficult chapter from the past where fictional tragedy is inserted. Ashe seamlessly blends fact and fiction, and ballet fans will enjoy the references to well known figures and productions. There is no shying away from the challenges of being a professional dancer, especially during a time of war and rationing, but the splendour of their production of The Sleeping Beauty as they return to the Royal Opera House stands in stark contrast to the heartbreak of the characters.

This is a story of secrets and an examination of what it means to be a mother. It considers how the choices you make when young can have impacts far beyond what you can envisage at the time. It is a heartfelt, well researched novel. The ballet environment that forms the setting is enjoyable but the heart of the story could happen with any backdrop. The characters are well drawn and believable, and you’re left wishing you could see more of how the revelations play out. A great read, I’ll be going back and reading Ashe’s debut.




Friday 2 February 2024

Blog Tour: A Sign of Her Own, Sarah Marsh

This review is part of the blog tour for the novel. Thank you to Random Things Tours and Tinder Press for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and buy I will receive a percentage commission at no extra cost to you.

Ellen Lark was born hearing but an illness in childhood results in complete hearing loss. Her family develop their own sign language and communicate smoothly, but as she grows older and she must find a way in the world her mother considers her options. Originally she is intended to study at a deaf school where communication will be in sign language, but her grandmother has other ideas and she is forced to an oral school where the aim is to develop the student’s speech to the point where their deafness is unnoticeable. This is as a concession to hearing people rather than as a benefit to the students who find it much easier to communicate in sign. A repeated theme throughout is how difficult relying on lip-reading is and how much is missed. Eventually Ellen comes into contact with Alexander Graham Bell and his Visible Speech, a system where the movement of the mouth and tongue are symbolised so words can be formed without knowing what’s being said. The glaringly obvious problem with this is that it does not aid the person speaking it but merely creates a type of party trick, a way to make hearing people more comfortable. 

This dive into deaf history and the discrimination faced by those who wish to use sign language is the most interesting aspect of the novel, but the plot also focuses on Bell’s attempts to progress his inventions. There is some intrigue with a rival and the suspicion of spying that led to two patents being submitted on the same day. The narrative jumps between Ellen’s youth and several years later when Bell is leading up to demonstrating his new invention - the telephone. The period between the two timelines closes as the story progresses and the technique is not entirely successful. The switch in time is only denoted by the heading of a different city and it can be a little disorienting. I didn’t personally find it added anything to the story to know that things had become fraught later on before we reached it in the earlier narrative, and the closening in time made the jumps even less relevant. A straightforward narrative may have helped build connection to some of the characters, and given them more of an introduction than the slightly confusing structure allows.

Ellen becomes quite taken with Bell when he is teaching her, her youth showing through as she hopes to impress him and hold on to the belief that he shares things with her he doesn’t with his other pupils. He is impressed with her lip-reading abilities and so she is reluctant to admit how ineffective it is. She hates to think that he speaks to her more slowly than he does with hearing people, that he sees her only as a student. In time, she has to accept that his affections lie elsewhere, and ultimately, that he is not a true ally of the deaf community. When she meets Frank, a deaf printmaker who is steadfastly against Visible Speech she sees what life can be surrounded by people who sign. He also confronts her with some difficult truths about Bell who in turn reveals some unfortunate events from Frank’s past. Their relationship is difficult but it’s clear there is genuine affection between them, and it is a stark contrast to her relationship with her fiancĂ©, with whom we see very little desire.

She often feels out of place in both hearing and deaf circles as her signing is not strong due to her oral education, and she comments on how unnatural communication is with hearing people. She misses out on side jokes and chit-chat. It is exhausting constantly trying to understand what is being said around her, and she even writes an essay on homophenes - words where the lip shape matches that of a different word. It really drives home the fact that lip reading can be useful to aid comprehension but is incredibly difficult to rely on entirely. Throughout we see people look on sign language as animalistic, unintelligent and uncouth. It is sad to witness this discrimination and refusal to allow people the ability to communicate in their own language. This is a very real part of deaf history, and one that is only recently being turned around.

This is a beautifully written novel which allows us to see the world through Ellen’s eyes. The descriptions of signs are written in such a way that those who know BSL will recognise them, and those who don’t will easily be able to picture the movements. This is a coming of age novel with Ellen trying to find her voice in a world which tries to silence it. A promising debut.



Monday 29 January 2024

Book review: Lost Connections, Johann Hari

This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and buy I will receive a percentage commission at no extra cost to you.

This review contains discussion of antidepressants and their efficacy. Please do not make any changes to your medication without discussion and advice from a trained medical professional.

In his controversial book Hari delves into the world of depression and anxiety and questions whether we’re looking at the problem the right way. The world’s obsession with medication could be obscuring the root cause of a lot of people’s unhappiness. He walks you through nine possible causes of depression and anxiety (disconnections from meaningful work, other people, meaningful values, childhood trauma, status and respect, the natural world, a secure future, and the role of genes and brain changes). His focus is heavily on the role disconnection plays in the way we experience the world. He shares parts of his own journey with depression and comments on the enthusiasm to prescribe him medication without ever asking about what the rest of his life looked like. The latter part of the book considers ways we can create a more connected life, with the likely outcome being more positive mental health. Unfortunately, a lot of these solutions require societal change rather than individual change, and as a result this isn’t really a self help book so much as popular psychology. It is a fascinating, gripping read, but could be challenging for those currently receiving treatment for depression and anxiety. 

The most shocking revelation for me reading this book was the claim that serotonin levels being the cause of depression has never been scientifically proven, or indeed credible enough to warrant disproving. Hari gives a fair amount of space to discussing studies that have been done around the efficacy of anti-depressants, and the split between experts on whether they are useful. It seems that although they might not do what we thought they did, they do still prove useful for some. There are others however who believe the effects to largely be placebo, whereas the negative side effects are very real, and we should therefore move away from our reliance on them. He carefully references all studies he refers to and encourages the reader to go to the source material and come to their own conclusions. 

Hari looks further in to how depression is diagnosed, considering the fact the DSM checklist used to include a ‘grief exception’ which acknowledged that grief presents in similar ways to depression and would give someone a year after their loss before diagnosing them. This has now been removed. He wonders at why one specific circumstance was considered as reasonable to experience emotional challenges but other life events were not. 

Hari believes that the modern world is set up in such a way as to damage our mental wellbeing. Community used to be central to the human experience but increasingly we are living isolated lives. The old adage of ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ is still bandied around but in practice parents are often on their own, or with support from their parents if they are lucky. There is not a broad support network for many, leading to further disconnection from the local environment and your neighbours. He also considers the impact of work that is found to be meaningless by those employed to do it, and the precarity of the job market meaning that people do not feel they have security. This naturally causes distress and feelings of hopelessness. Delving deeper still he considers why people don’t make the changes they need to improve their lives when they have the opportunity to.

Advertising culture has also had an impact on the way we feel about ourselves and our lives. We are constantly bombarded with messaging that tells us we should be thinner, more youthful, wealthier, that if we could just obtain x or y we would be happier and garner more respect. This is internalised and causes many people to constantly seek the short-lived dopamine hit of buying the latest gadget or most current fashion. Ultimately these things don’t bring us lasting happiness, but that truth doesn’t make people money, and so we are constantly encouraged to look for extrinsic validation through the possession of stuff.

It is a well acknowledged fact that spending time in nature, or indeed, just seeing it, can have a positive impact on our mood. Indeed, some doctors have begun prescribing activities that involve the outdoors, or the joining of groups that have a practical aim (gardening, painting, etc) which fulfil the need for community, purpose, and nature. These things are encouraging, both that the establishment is considering the wider circumstances that lead to good mental health, and also that we can make some changes to our lives to include these things on a personal level. However, there are many suggestions which are up to business and governments to change. Can working in a co-operative business boost wellbeing? Would Universal Basic Income have the incredible benefits that Hari claims? 

Hari does not dismiss the fact that depression can have biological causes, or at the very least, biological pre-dispositions, but he questions why biology has been the main focus for so long. His examination of the things we need to be happy in life is thoughtful and important. He acknowledges his own privilege that has allowed him to implement some of these changes, with positive results. The book can be a little repetitive and, as already mentioned, most of the solutions are much bigger than one person can do, but it is an absolutely fascinating read. I couldn’t stop talking about it while I was reading it.