Posted in Random Things Tours

The Waiting Rooms by Eve Smith #OrendaBooks #TheWaitingRooms

Wow! This was a tough read in lockdown. There was one point where I was really sweating because it was making me so anxious. Last week I went out for the first time in eight weeks. It was a beautiful sunny day. With the windows down and the music on, it felt like any other summers day. Then we reached the medical centre. The queue outside the pharmacy was ten people deep, all of them were wearing masks. It was so disorientating. Eve Smith creates a world like this. It’s ours, but not quite. There’s a sense of the uncanny. It’s familiar, yet changed completely. This is a world ‘post-Crisis’ and three different women tell the story.

Lily is an older woman, living in a nursing home facility. She is nearing her 70th birthday and this is a huge milestone. After the ‘Crisis’ an act was passed to reduce access to antibiotics for the over 70s. The world became overrun with a resistant form of TB, seemingly spread at a series of large concerts where thousands were exposed to the virus. Life has now changed completely. People no longer keep cats, just in case they are scratched or bitten. Pets were declawed or simply put down. If they have money, elderly people can be cared for well and in comfort. If not or if they get infection they can be bundled off to dormitories of the dying. The author’s description of these wards and how they treat those who die there had me in tears it was so powerful. This is what happens when certain groups in society are devalued. Our treatment of them becomes less humane. They become objects, not people capable of being loved.

Kate is a nurse, working within this changed healthcare system. She works with people who are terminally ill and palliative care is very different to what we’re used to. If someone is over 70 and has a terminal diagnosis they have a choice; they can take their chances in an imperfect system with no interventions possible or they can come to a room with their family and end their life. Again, the author describes such a powerful scene when a man comes with his daughter and son-in-law to die. Kate is so professional, talking his choice through with his devastated daughter and explaining why treatment isn’t available for his cancer. Once he’s ready Kate hands him a glass of whiskey flavoured drug and waits until he’s ready to drink it. Only minutes pass before his pulse slows down and he peacefully passes away. Kate carries this out efficiently and with empathy. In fact it’s preferable to the alternative. No matter how humane it seems, it’s still chilling and sterile. We find out that Kate was adopted, and since the death of her adoptive Mum she’s been looking for her birth mother in her spare time. She’s looking for a woman over 70, who knows if she’s still alive.

Mary takes us back to pre-crisis times and her post-graduate days in South Africa. Mary is a botanist with an interest in finding new species of plant that may have medical applications. She meets Piet in a close call with a rhinoceros and he introduces her to the growing TB crisis in South Africa. He explains that AIDS has suppressed people’s immune systems to the point that they’re vulnerable to other infection. This form of TB is resistant and American drug companies aren’t queueing up to help. Could her research help him find a plant suitable for TB drugs? Piet has talked about radical ways of making the world look at what is going on. They spend more time together and have a trip out to his lookout where you can hear and see incredible wildlife. This is where their affair begins.

Every single thread of this story is compelling. I knew they were connected, but kept reading to find out how and why they were all separated. There was the added mystery of who was targeting Lily with newspaper cuttings, and cards. The eventual reveal was a surprise, but it was the revenge that was particularly devastating. The research that must have gone into the medical and scientific aspects of this novel is staggering. The short, factual sections that are either news reports, or scientific articles feel almost real. Every so often I needed to take my head out of the book and see the world as it is, not that it was much better once I turned on the news. I had to take a few deep breaths in the garden from time to time. This author created a credible dystopia, one that’s closer to the truth than a lot of people would like to think. Within that world we follow three interesting and intelligent women, trying their best in an imperfect system. The cold, sterile present contrasts sharply with the lush descriptions of South Africa. It scared me, made me think about my old age and the way we treat those older and sicker than us. I think it is a staggering work of genius, delicate and detailed, but inside a huge vision. I found it incredible.

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Girl from Widow Hills by Megan Miranda. #blogtour #CorvusBooks #RandomThingsTours #TheGirlFromWidowHills

Taking the missing child narrative and turning it into something different and new is quite a challenge, but I think this author is successful in exploring what happens beyond the initial drama, where most novels end. Arden Maynor disappeared when she was six years old. Thought to have left the house while sleepwalking, she is washed away by a flash flood and isn’t found till three days later, hanging onto the grate of a storm drain. In those moments, absolutely everyone in Widow Hills is focused on her and everyone is affected. From her and her mother, to the man who finds her, the journalists and photographers, rescue teams, police officers and those who treat her terrible shoulder injury at the hospital. There’s a flurry of publicity for all those concerned. Arden’s mother gets a book deal and a fund is set up to support Arden into the future. Then the next crisis happens and the Maynors are forgotten.

Twenty years on and Arden is renamed Olivia Meyer. She has used the remains of her fund to buy a house on the edge of a new town near the woods. She also has a job in administration at the local hospital and lives a fairly quiet life. She has a routine of work, dinner, a small glass of wine while watching TV and then bed. On Fridays she goes for a drink in a local bar with her friend from work, Bennett, and a new nurse called Elyse. She also has a friend in Rick, an older guy who lives next door, and they keep an eye on each other. This routine is unsettled when she receives a phone call telling her that her mother died seven months before and they need an address to send her belongings to. When the box arrives and she opens it, a cascade of memories come out with the objects. There isn’t much, but Olivia is most touched by the small bracelet with a silver ballet slipper charm attached. It’s something good she remembers from her childhood. She doesn’t remember much of the three days she was missing, apart from the dark, cold and wet. Afterwards, she feels her mother frittered money away, mainly into drug abuse and they drifted apart. That very night Olivia starts to sleepwalk again.

I enjoyed the author’s depiction of someone who is post-trauma. I understood Olivia’s need for quiet, security and routine. I did start to have questions as I read further. It seemed that Olivia’s narrative of her childhood and the trauma was very rote and something she’s defensive about. When she visits the sleep clinic about her sleepwalking, she can’t elaborate on it more than repeating her mother’s description. It’s almost as if she can’t recall the trauma from her own point of view. Even her memories of being missing seem strangely one note. She was missing for three days, but can only remember a small proportion of it. She couldn’t have been in the same place for three days, because the team searched there, so why can’t she remember where she was? As the stress builds, the big wall Olivia has around her memories and feelings starts to crumble and it’s interesting to see her start to question herself. Especially as the bodies start to appear.

I loved that the author showed us the flip side of Olivia’s experience; what it’s like to witness a trauma. Olivia meets the son of the man who found her and while she’s not sure if she can trust him she does listen. Nathan saw his Dad do something heroic, be plunged into a whirlwind of publicity, then left with nothing. There was no fund for the rescuer, no fund for his children, and there is a bitterness that Olivia might have had it easier with her funded education. Similarly, she meets one of the journalists who was there and helped with her mother’s book. She has adopted a lifestyle very like Olivia’s – quiet, and tucked away where she can’t be found. Olivia starts to see how a trauma she thought was hers, exclusively, has affected others like ripples on a pond. All the people she meets ask questions, till she can see there’s something about her experience that’s missing, and even goes as far as revisiting Widow Hills to remember. I had my suspicions, but the final revelation did surprise me. The author taught me that when reading thrillers I can’t trust anything I’m told, from the opening chapter, right up to the final page.

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The Miseducation of Evie Epworth by Matson Taylor. #RandomThingsTours #blogtour #TheMiseducationofEvieEpworth #ScribnerBooks

I was only three pages in to this book and I knew that Evie was going to be one of my favourite literary characters. Favourite as in – on my list next to Jo March, Cassandra Mortmain and Adrian Mole, characters I’ve also experienced growing up and setting out into the world. The book was off to a good start anyway, then as we followed Evie jumping into her father’s MG to do the milk round there was a scene so funny I laughed out loud at 2am waking both the dog and my other half. I devoured this book in 24 hours, knowing part of me would be sorry when it ended, but not able to slow down either.

We meet Evie when she’s at a crossroads in life. She’s in that limbo summer between GCSE and deciding what to do next. Evie’s plan, if she gets the right results, is to do her A Levels. Till then she plans to spend the summer delivering milk from the family farm, baking with Mrs Scott-Pym next door, and reading all the books she can get her hands on. There is only one thing in her way; her Dad Arthur’s girlfriend, Christine. Chrissie has moved into the farmhouse and is setting about making changes. This is 1962 and she’s all for embracing the new. She wants to get rid of the old unhygienic wood in the kitchen, because what they need is some nice modern Formica. She’s already replaced the Range with an electric cooker, because she couldn’t work it. As Evie says, it takes quite an intellect to be outwitted by a kitchen appliance. Worst of all she’s replaced Evie’s Adam Faith clock with a chicken! It has always just been Evie and her Dad, Arthur, as far back as she can remember. Her mum died when Evie was little and she has no memories of her. Chrissie needs to be dealt with, but how? Arthur is a disappointment. Mrs Scott-Pym says he’s like all men, weak and easily confused by a pair of boobs.

I have lived in villages and on farms for my whole life so I can honestly say that the author’s depiction of the characters and events of country life are not exaggerated – no, not even that cow scene. There are still characters like this in rural villages. The comedy comes from the brilliantly blunt Yorkshire dialogue, the gap between what we as adults understand and Evie doesn’t yet, but mainly the amazing characters created by the author. Mrs Swithenbank is a comedy gem, always at the mercy of her explosive bowels. The long suffering Vera, Chrissie’s mother, who is never far behind her daughter like a human ‘buy one-get one free’ offer. Then, Mrs Scott-Pym’s daughter Caroline, comes into the village like a whirlwind and along with Evie shows that constant dilemma young people in villages face – do they stay put or go out into the wider world, perhaps needing to try the anonymity of the city? It can be hard to develop into your true self in a village where everyone knows who you are and any attempt to change is the object of ridicule. I remember a perm I had at 15, thinking I looked like Baby from Dirty Dancing, only to hear ‘ugh what have you done to your hair’ at every house on the pools round. I loved the depiction of the petty rivalries around the village show and what a surprise it is that Chrissie, who struggles with making toast, wins the best fruit cake. On top of everything else she does, the fact that she possibly cheated at the village show is viewed as the worst crime and given the last reveal.

Chrissie though is the best comic creation of the lot, but isn’t left to be one dimensional either. Though she is truly awful in a lot of ways, it’s clear that she’s from a poorer family in the village and her upbringing hasn’t been easy. There’s class war over the Range cooker for sure. She lets slip in an exchange with Evie that she’d done every job going, from waitressing to wiping arses. While that might excuse her yearning for an easier life, it doesn’t excuse her way of getting it. There are times when it’s all out war at the tea table and Arthur stays behind his paper hoping it will blow over. I loved her ever present ‘pinkness’ and a crimplene wardrobe that Evie observes doesn’t end in Narnia, but at a bingo hall in Scunthorpe (I love seeing my birthplace in print). Poor Vera is always struggling a few paces behind, usually sweating and doing all the fetching and carrying. Chrissie is always exhausted – I need to put my feet up, Mum put the kettle on – and always rushing towards getting another grasping finger on Arthur, preferably a finger with a ring on it. This should have been a mild flirtation or dalliance at most, everyone can see they are not suited.

There are interludes between Evie’s chapters where we see the meeting of her parents, Arthur and Diana. They are serene, even romantic chapters where we see them meet at a dance, get married in a rush during the war and settle at the farm. We see Diana form a friendship with Mrs Scott-Pym and rush round to tell her friend when Evie is on the way. There’s so much of this interesting woman left, hidden in plain sight such as a particular teaspoon in the drawer and the recipe book Mrs Scott-Pym has kept for Evie. It’s so sad that Evie and her Dad don’t talk about her more openly and honestly. If wishes and spells aren’t going to change this, there needs to be a catalyst. When Mrs Scott-Pyle falls down the stairs and her daughter Caroline arrives we see a force of nature equal to Chrissie. She wears elegant clothes, big black sunglasses and scarves tied round her neck like the French do. Evie is very impressed with her sophistication, but also her nerve. She cooks up a great scheme to get Evie out of working in the village salon, takes her to Leeds to shop in an Italian deli and has the means by which Chrissie’s true nature can be revealed. She is also the only lesbian Evie has ever met, leading to her asking visiting friends of Caroline’s whether they are a lesbian too as a conversation starter! Evie is trying on different futures, and may be adding Caroline as an extra role model alongside The Queen, Charlotte Bronte and Shirley MacLaine.

This novel is an absolute joy. A great read to cheer you up and honestly, make you laugh out loud. Every character is beautifully drawn and the comic timing is perfect. I couldn’t believe it was a debut, because it has all the confidence and timing of Sue Townsend and also made me think back further to the blunt Yorkshire characters of James Herriot. On a personal level I needed a lift, after being very strict with lockdown rules due to my MS, and this was just the lift I needed. Thank you Matson, for such a great set of characters and for providing exactly the book I needed at exactly the right time.