Monday 31 May 2021

Love and Miss Harris, Peter Maughan

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

Titus Llewellyn-Gwynne has fallen on hard times. The Red Lion Theatre was bombed during the war and his backer for a theatrical tour has pulled out. Luckily, George appears with a play that nobody has yet agreed to stage, and, perhaps more importantly, the money to fund it. The Company is soon on tour in an old double decker bus, travelling around the south of England, causing mayhem and unknowingly being followed by Reuben Kramer who has less than savoury intentions for their leading man.

The tone throughout is light and the humour frequently plays with farce. There are potential murders on the horizon but the string of attackers following one step behind each other is more comic than threatening. There are some very unpleasant characters, Kramer especially has a lot to dislike, and yet none inspire any great feelings of hostility.  Reuben is also graced with the most complete backstory, allowing us a glimpse into the life that has formed this somewhat unhinged, power-hungry man. Other characters also fall into a life of crime but have a chance of redemption through art.

The reader is only privy to snippets of the play which we are told is George re-writing her own love story with a happier conclusion. An unexpected consequence of putting on the play is a change in her fortunes. Indeed, it offers opportunity and joy to many involved, taking characters out of London for the first time, and creating a close-knit group that’s not without its internal troubles.

This is a light-hearted read with a lively host of characters who are sometimes difficult to keep track of. Maughan offers enough insight to give a sense of their past and the way it impacts their present. The small towns they visit are found in varying levels of disarray, and variously welcome them with open arms or treat them with suspicion. Rural bureaucracy and gossip is played up and contribute to the humour of the book. This would make a great holiday read and is perfect for anyone looking for some light-hearted entertainment with the occasional moment of sincerity.

Tuesday 25 May 2021

Love and Care, Shaun Deeney

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

Deeney has a habit of running away when things get tough. When his long-term relationship breaks down he takes himself off to France to live the life of a secluded artist. When his mother is moved into a care home and his father’s health deteriorates he realises it might be time to go home and face up to the realities of his family life. He soon makes the decision to have his mother discharged and to look after her full time himself. What follows is a moving account of care with all the pressures and pleasures laid out clearly, with a sense of humour but with a sincerity that makes this a thoughtful read. 

It opens with an emotional punch - him taking his mother to the care home and the feeling of betrayal it instils, leaving her there when she wants to go home, not knowing if she understands what’s happening and why. It highlights the vulnerability and loss of control for those who require constant care and will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever had to make a similarly challenging decision. He promises her he’ll take her home one day, with no idea that it will turn out to be true.

Family relationships had been strained for many years with his father increasingly difficult to be around. He took his frustrations out on his family, but especially his wife, and acted as a gatekeeper, making it difficult for loved ones to see her, or for carers to be able to help. When he dies Deeney admits to feeling elated rather than grief, pleased that he'll be free to take care of his mum. It’s clear that his father has cast a dark shadow over the family, with Deeney particularly butting heads with him repeatedly. In spending more time thinking about their family history he is forced to admit his parents really did love each other, for better or worse, and that there’s a lot of good memories buried beneath the bad.

His decision to become a full time career also reveals the reality of the care system (they continue to have carers visiting several times a day). There is a reluctance from the care home and social services initially, partly because it is so rare, there are concerns over the cost (which evaporate when it’s made clear he intends to be entirely self-funded), and additional suspicion because of his gender. The book highlights the gender imbalance in care work, Deeney commenting that his life became almost entirely composed of women. There’s also discussion that for her son and brother she’d only ever been viewed through the prism of caregiver, that her own personality had been obscured. Despite fears that it might be too late, Deeney searches for who his mother really was.

Despite the heavy topic of the book, Deeney writes with a light touch, adding humour, and at times poking fun at his own naivety going in. Before his mum comes home he plans to start dating and has a strong sense that his life should continue, that one life shouldn’t be sacrificed for the preservation of another. There are challenges that he had not anticipated but he works intuitively, trying to make decisions based on what he would want if the roles were reversed. He in no way diminishes the reality of living with dementia, but can also find glimmers of hope within.

More often, as far as I can tell, her thoughts - far from being tethered to the past - are a rich mix of imagination and the world around her, creating a very layered reality, so much more complex than mine, and somehow more real and less conscious at the same time. Often she puts me in mind if a wild animal, tame and trusting enough to allow me to feed her, but all instinct, pure and even beautiful.

I am tempted to say that it feels to me sometimes that in fact Mum lives in a kind of eternal present, which might seem to make her a prisoner of the moment, and so to our minds diminished in some way. And yet I envy her that unfettered interaction with the world. Most of us fritter our lives away with plans for the future and regrets over the past, undermining the whole notion of living in the present that is central to so many enlightened philosophies.

In caring for his mum he re-evaluates life, meditating on some quite philosophical questions and growing as a person.

This is a brilliant, emotive read that will make you want to hold your loved ones close. It forces consideration of some challenging topics yet manages not to feel too heavy. The writing style is conversational and candid, accepting that mistakes were made but learnt from, and advocating for a less adversarial approach from some professionals. He highlights how dire the situation can be without someone in your corner and appreciates the great compassion and dedication evident in the carers that help him in his journey. 

Pick up a copy:




Wednesday 19 May 2021

WWW Wednesday, 19th May 2021

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The WWW Wednesday book tag is hosted by Taking On a World of Words.

The three Ws are:
What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you'll read next?

What are you currently reading?
I'm going to finish Love and Care by Shaun Deeney today which has been a brilliant memoir of a son taking care of his mother. It really makes you think about life, death, and familial love. I'm also reading The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne which I'm loving. The characters are so skilfully drawn they feel completely real, although you might wish some of them didn't! Unusually for me, I've got a third book on the go too - When Will You Get A Real Job? by Elin Petronella, a fascinating case study of her and her (now) husband's first year as creative entrepreneurs.

What did you recently finish reading?
My most recent read was Jaipur Journals by Namita Gokhale, a book with an entertaining array of characters that all converge on the Jaipur Literature Festival, sometimes with some very dramatic results.

What do you think you'll read next?
I was meant to be taking part in a readalong of Hallie Rubenhold's The Five this month but as my copy hasn't arrived at the library it's looking unlikely that I'll be able to join in. I look forward to picking it up eventually though as it looks fascinating. Otherwise, my next read will be Love and Miss Harris which promises some lighthearted fun.

Wednesday 12 May 2021

Jaipur Journals, Namita Gokhale

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

This post is part of the blog tour for the book. Thanks to Random Things Tours and HopeRoad Publishing for providing me with a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

We meet Rudrani Rana on her way to Jaipur Literature Festival, carrying two bags with her, one of which contains a precious manuscript of her as yet unsubmitted novel that she’s never quite managed to bring herself to let go of. Also on the train is a promising young writer named Anura who is scheduled to talk at the festival. Once in the hustle and bustle of the festival itself we meet an array of other characters at various points in their creative journeys, and all harbouring secrets ranging from affairs to burglary, or poison pen letters in the case of Rudrani.

Gokhale’s decision to give Rudrani a spiteful side is an interesting one. Many readers will relate to her struggles with writing and editing her novel, of a reluctance to put her life’s work in the hands of strangers, yet her cruelty when hiding behind a pen and paper causes us to question her morals. We see the devastating effect her little notes can cause their recipients and in snippets from her childhood see where her unpleasant habit began, how she's always enjoyed tripping others up to reveal their weaknesses. On the first day of the festival she meets Anirban while he is people watching, capturing likenesses in drawing. They feel an instant affinity to each other, both obscuring parts of their creative outputs from the world. He is able to see the pain at the root of her behaviour and through his eyes we’re able to see a softer side to her.

From their first introduction we get a good sense of where the characters are coming from and what they’re like, although Gokhale throws in some curveballs to challenge assumptions. Each story arc is interesting but I did find myself getting a bit lost from time to time trying to keep up with who everyone was. Rudrani is at the centre of the novel but is absent for large parts of it. Each character’s story subtly interacts with another, and by the end we see the profound effect that the interactions and chance encounters have had on all their lives.

This is an enjoyable book that brings to life the colour and energy of the famous Jaipur Literature Festival which might just be the cure we need to the absence of in-person events over the past year.

Friday 7 May 2021

Grown Ups, Marie Aubert (trans. by Rosie Hedger)

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Thanks to Pushkin Press for providing me with a free review copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

We meet Ida on the way to her family’s cabin to celebrate her mother’s 65th birthday. In the opening sections we see her frustrated by a child on the bus playing with an iPad at full volume, and later interacting with Olea, her sister Marthe’s step-daughter. In these interactions we see how important it is to her that she knows how to behave around children. Marthe is three years into trying to get pregnant and the topic has dominated conversations during that period. Ida, single and 40, has quietly started the process of potentially freezing her eggs, believing that it might be the first step toward the life she wants. The birthday celebrations are overshadowed by the news that Marthe is in the early stages of pregnancy, and the sibling fallout that ensues.

The relationship between Marthe and Ida is fraught with jealousy and misconceptions. Ida finds her sister’s relentless complaints difficult to stomach when she has everything Ida doesn’t. On the other hand, we see that throughout life Ida has generally been considered the more attractive, more successful sibling. Marthe suffers from Crohn’s Disease and her health has often put limits on what she’s able to do. Their mother always prioritised taking care of her, leaving Ida craving the kind of attention and care she sees Marthe receive. There is a sense that her achievements and struggles fell to the wayside while Marthe was coddled and anxiously cared for.

Ida’s behaviour toward her sister is often less than admirable, constantly undermining her with Olea, taking pleasure in problems she caused but which Marthe appears responsible for. She is jealous and spiteful and struggles with the idea of her sister ‘overtaking’ her. She’s so used to consoling her that she’s not sure how to navigate their relationship when things go well for Marthe.

The way Ida is treated by her family is also often far from fair. They sideline her and fail to consider her feelings. When Ida opens up about her attempt to freeze her eggs it is a short conversation and no concessions are made to take into consideration the fact baby talk might be a sensitive subject for her.

Outside of the family circle Ida admits to feeling invisible. Her friends’ lives seem to expand and grow whereas hers remains much the same. She fears that she may have decades of the same ahead of her. Ida may not always come across as likeable but her insecurities are clear, and the way in which society views women of a certain age that aren’t settled down with a family have become internalised. Her desperation for companionship often leads her to make rash decisions and become clingy, choosing men who are unavailable or unwilling to consider a serious relationship with her.

This is a short book but one that manages to capture the essence of a family dynamic that will be familiar to many. All the characters have their imperfections and know how to hurt each other. The short passages showing their past are revealing as to how they became the people they are. We see where their insecurities come from and understand how this feeds into their need for reassurance. They feel very real, as messy and contradictory as anyone you’ll meet in real life. A brilliant examination of a grown-up family that draws on wider societal concerns to add an extra layer to their pre-occupations.

Sunday 2 May 2021

Spring, Ali Smith

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The third in Smith’s seasonal quartet introduces us to Richard, ‘Doubledick’ as he’s affectionately known to his dear friend Paddy, who has recently died. He’s making his way to Scotland as a reaction to his grief, and interacting with his imaginary daughter in his head. We see scenes of him and Paddy together and her sons who act as gatekeepers. It is clear that she has had a profound effect on not just his professional life but his internal one too. Their relationship and affection for each other is touching to read. You become wrapped up in their lives and those of Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke, the subjects of a project Richard has been somewhat reluctantly working on.

The narrative is then interrupted with the introduction of Brit, an employee at an Immigration Removal Centre (IRC), who has learnt to dissociate from the terrible treatment she witnesses and enables every day. Enter Florence, a mystical figure in the shape of a twelve year old girl who manages to walk straight past security guards, onto trains with no ticket, and into dangerous settings, emerging unscathed. She has an uncanny ability to get people to do what she wants, initially causing wonder at the IRC when she persuades them to give the toilets a deep clean (which will also give an idea of the shocking conditions described at the Centre).

The lives of these three characters intertwine briefly in Scotland in a way that feels natural and unforced. Florence helps Richard to see things in a new light, as well as opening discussions with Brit about what she does and how it intersects with the trauma of the detainees. Brit has not entirely succeeded in closing her heart to humanity, or at least not enough to have assuaged any guilt she feels. She is defensive yet privately acknowledges that within her first two months in the job she knew something terrible was happening. By the end of the novel she will have made a decision that clarifies whether or not there is hope of redemption for her.

The use of a child as the moral compass of the novel serves several purposes - her story is heartbreaking, although she doesn’t reveal the full extent of it, and her youth makes it that bit more hard-hitting. Her ability to see and understand what adults cannot, or choose not, to see holds us all to account, as well as highlighting the rise of children’s activism in recent years. There are short sections throughout lifted from Florence’s notebook on topics such as the post-truth world, the commodification of humans by big tech companies, and the dehumanising of refugees. Small bullets of truth that will stop you in your tracks. These aren’t new discoveries, but they are situations that we should never allow ourselves to become numb to, and novels such as this help remind us all of this.

Considering the past year, I felt somewhat apprehensive about opening this book, despite having enjoyed the previous two. Would the concerns that weighed so heavily in 2019 feel like old news in the light of the pandemic? Are they old wounds that are too painful to reopen? The answer is no, and not just because they’re issues that haven’t gone away, but because in Smith’s skilful hands you are there one hundred percent. Her writing is so thoughtfully constructed, so full of observation not only of current affairs but of the intricacies of the human heart, that you can’t help but be swept up in it. This is a deeply affecting novel, both in the beautiful friendship and devastating loss of Paddy and Richard, and in the horrors revealed about a system that mistreats people to such an appalling extent that it is said to be worse than anything they have been through before. Smith has once again crafted an awe-inspiring feat of literary prowess that will grab hold of your heart and mind from the first page to the very last line.