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Most Anticipated 2021! Unwell Women by Elinor Cleghorn.

Publisher : Weidenfeld & Nicolson (10 Jun. 2021)

ASIN: B08HMN732X ( Kindle Edition)

My interest in this book is twofold: first the cover made me stop and look because it reminded me of the art of Frida Kahlo, and secondly, I am an unwell woman. I have been diagnosed with relapsing remitting Multiple Sclerosis for the past 25 years – ooh my silver anniversary, what do I get for that? Since then my health has deteriorated, mainly due to a back injury I sustained when I was 11. I did a somersault and landed awkwardly, causing two fractures to my spine. I was very lucky to be upright and walking, but scar tissue, muscle damage and deteriorating discs have caused so much stiffness and instability. This is managed with injections in my spine for pain and a regular procedure my compressed nerves are severed to stop nerve pain radiating into my pelvis and legs. It’s a lot to deal with, and I truly don’t know how I’m going to wake up every morning. I just wake up, take the medication and see what I can manage that day. I’ve just had a week where even looking at this screen would be impossible because of optic neuritis.

In my many years in the ‘kingdom of the sick’ and working as a counsellor for people with chronic ill health, I’ve noticed a major difference in how men and women, with exactly the same ailments, are treated. This book traces a history of women’s ill health and the treatment of it, for many years solely by a male medical profession. To quote the blurb:

‘In Unwell Women Elinor Cleghorn unpacks the roots of the perpetual misunderstanding, mystification and misdiagnosis of women’s bodies, and traces the journey from the ‘wandering womb’ of ancient Greece, the rise of witch trials in Medieval Europe, through the dawn of Hysteria, to modern day understandings of autoimmune diseases, the menopause and conditions like endometriosis. Packed with character studies of women who have suffered, challenged and rewritten medical orthodoxy – and drawing on her own experience of un-diagnosed Lupus disease – this is a ground-breaking and timely exposé of the medical world and woman’s place within it.’

‘We are taught that medicine is the art of solving our body’s mysteries. And as a science, we expect medicine to uphold the principles of evidence and impartiality. We want our doctors to listen to us and care for us as people, but we also need their assessments of our pain and fevers, aches and exhaustion to be free of any prejudice about who we are, our gender, or the colour of our skin. But medicine carries the burden of its own troubling history. The history of medicine, of illness, is a history of people, of their bodies and their lives, not just physicians, surgeons, clinicians and researchers. And medical progress has always reflected the realities of a changing world, and the meanings of being human.

In my own experience, I have found the world of neurology, clinical, abrupt and sexist. My diagnosis is old now and I have had new neurologists interrogate me on who diagnosed me, why and where – almost as if I’ve made it up out of thin air. I’ve been patronisingly asked whether I might ‘weep’ a lot, or have fatigue and pain due to being depressed. I asked if they’d send me to psychiatry if they felt it was all in my head – I didn’t care whether it was a mental illness, I just wanted to be treated and helped to get better. Once I asked for a referral the consultant backed down and said it’s definitely physical, because we have clinical evidence. I remember thinking that this was a complete ‘mindfuck.’ I started to question my own sanity, if I had a symptom I would wonder if it was real or in my head. Was I making myself ill and for what reason? A change of neurologist and several years of therapy helped me to see that the previous team had been quite abusive and manipulative. My rehabilitation consultant admitted that there was an old trend in neurology of not telling people with early MS about their diagnosis – the thought being that if you didn’t know you had an illness, you wouldn’t act as if you have an illness. Apparently, according to my old team ‘some women give up if they’re told they have a disability’.

I trained over many years in mental health work, and have worked as an advice worker, advocate and now a counsellor for people with disabilities. I have heard the same story told by so many women: being told they need to get a hobby or go out more; that they need anti-depressants when they don’t feel depressed; that maybe they need to have children (?); or that maybe, like the Victorian hysterics, this is all in their heads. My own favourite is being told to get rid of my cats so I could have children, when I have a diagnosis of Hughes Syndrome which causes recurrent miscarriage. My main area of work is reprogramming women who have all eventually been diagnosed with serious health conditions like Lupus, MS, Lyme Disease, Degenerative Disc Disease. All of them once told they were hypochondriacs and hysterical about their normal everyday aches and pains.

One of the ladies from my ‘Authentic Self’ workshop, was so scared of making a fuss about her pain that when she injured her leg on holiday she carried on. She walked on a fracture for four weeks because she’d been made to feel she made too much fuss about the pain she suffered from fibromyalgia and degenerative discs. Women should not be made to feel this way by the medical profession. Not once has a male come to me with the same story. Not one. In a BBC article ( link below) the same stories come up in relation to heart and gynaecological conditions. Women who reported to emergency rooms in acute pain were less likely to be prescribed pain relief, and where it was prescribed it took much longer to reach the patient.

‘This can have lethal consequences. In May 2018 in France, a 22-year old woman called emergency services saying her abdominal pain was so acute she felt she was “going to die.” “You’ll definitely die one day, like everyone else,” the operator replied. When the woman was taken to hospital after a five-hour wait, she had a stroke and died of multiple organ failure.’

I’m looking forward to reading about where these ideas about women’s health come from. I’d hoped once to write this book, but sadly my health meant PhD work on disability being put to one side. I feel this will demystify why women are treated this way and I hope to buy several copies to give to my friends and clients in the future. This book is not just anticipated, it is needed.

Links and Further Reading

Havi Carel. Illness. Routledge; 1st edition (20 Aug. 2008) – this a brilliant look at the ‘lived experience’ of chronic illness, the philosophical background to how we view illness, and the author’s own experiences as a woman and a patient. Utterly brilliant.

Posted in Netgalley

All About Us by Tom Ellen.

This is a great Christmas read and a few friends will be getting this as part of their Christmas parcel this year! I’m a little glad that illness has set me back a few months and I ended up reading this just before Christmas. It’s made me feel fuzzy and full of warmth. This is a sort of Christmas Carol meets One Day type premise. We follow Ben and Daphne who meet at university in an amateur dramatics production and are now married after fifteen years together. From love at first sight this couple’s relationship is fading fast. Ben feels he is at a crossroads and we see their life from his point of view. He feels unsuccessful after several fruitless attempts at a novel, whereas Daphne goes from strength to strength as a literary agent. We start in Christmas 2020 as Daphne goes to her work ‘do’ alone, while Ben is set to put up the Christmas decorations at home. Instead, Ben is at the pub lamenting his lot over a few pints and musing on his marriage, They seem to argue all the time and Ben can’t see a way forward. However, he does find a way back.

In the pub he meets a watch seller, an elderly man who reminds Ben of his Grandad. Although he tries not to engage, he somehow ends up with a wristwatch, that seems stuck a few minutes to midnight. This is the device the author uses to send Ben through time to strategic points that will hopefully be revelatory, in time to realise the right path. For some reason I hadn’t expected this magical element and that really elevated it above the ordinary for me. It made me think of the film About Time where life lessons are learned through the ability to time travel (and I always dissolve into a sobbing heap while watching). Ben’s been feeling dissatisfied for a while. He hasn’t fulfilled his potential as a writer, made worse by the fact that his absent father is so successful. He still isn’t over his mother’s death a few years before. He’s been with his wife, Daphne, since university and he really isn’t sure if they should still be together. They’ve struggled over the last couple of years, and he feels Daphne has changed from the girl he married into a bitter and angry woman, always snapping at him. When he thinks back to the pivotal moment they met, at a university play, he wonders whether he made the right choice that night. He and his friend Alice had spent so much time together that term, there’d been mild flirting as this performance drew near and he felt there was an unspoken agreement that the party after this performance might be the time for things to go further. Then Daphne had come through the door and the attraction was instant. Lately though, he’s been in touch with Alice again and they are making plans to meet. He’s now wondering if he chose the wrong girl all those years, that Daphne was merely a distraction, and he’d be happier with Alice. At this pivotal moment he’s offered the watch, that seems to be stuck at five minutes to midnight. Ben thinks it’s worthless, but this watch will propel him through Christmases past and future to answer the questions he’s asking himself.

There’s a reason people reuse Dickens’s Christmas Carol as a narrative structure, and that’s because it works. It shows us how our hero has become the man we meet at the beginning. It shows him how he got here, but gives him perspective and balance by showing the other person’s viewpoint. Finally, the watch takes him forward into the future he was wishing for himself, so he can see if it’s really better than the one he already has. There are many revelations along the way for us and for Ben. In one section we see how Daphne wins an award at work, but blows off the ceremony in order to commiserate with Ben who is feeling down about his work being rejected. Ben had never known about the award and it triggers him thinking about all the little things she’s done that he hadn’t noticed. A meet up with his Dad at his mum’s funeral opens his eyes to his dad’s failures in other areas of his life compared to his career. Ben had envied his Dad’s success as a writer, but does he have success as a father and as a husband? Ben goes into these encounters with all the knowledge he has in the here and now, so he knows how he responded in the past. He wonders whether changing those responses will impact the future? He’s still unsure about his marriage, but the more he sees of Daphne in the past the more he starts to really appreciate his wife. She’s thoughtful, she listens to him, she’s kind to others and has great friendships. She had a great relationship with his Mum and he realises he never once asked how she felt when his mother died. He sat in his grief alone instead of sharing their loss and missing her together.

I love the psychoanalytical aspect to these travels – he’s faced with the truth of himself and past events: is the image he has of his absent father a true one, what upsets him so much about the discussion he had before his mother died, and why does he now believe that it was his friend Alice, not Daphne, who he should have fallen in love with that night long ago? Is he thinking about Alice because he truly feels she’s the one or is it simply that he has idealised her when compared to the complexity and hard work of living with someone long term? If he only thinks about his father as a great playwright could he be excusing his absence as a Dad, as well as imagining he has passed on an inheritance of genius writing talent – as yet unseen in himself. These questions are answered in a series of self-revelations, as each trip back is like a self-contained therapy session. He realises that he’s been looking back on events as if he’s had no control over them, but some events that ‘just happened’ were choices. Daphne didn’t just happen to him that night at the play, like a quirk of fate, he chose to kiss her. Similarly, the events on a break in Paris, were active choices he made. He has to accept there’s a lot of self-pity in his outlook on life and he can’t abdicate his responsibilities for bad choices. I had to keep reading because I was waiting for him to realise that the angry, bitter woman he describes at the beginning of the book is partly his creation. The culmination of all this comes as he sees Christmas future, the changes he thinks he wants in the present come to pass, and he lives a totally different Christmas Day. This is the catalyst for his decision on what future he really does want, but he isn’t sure whether the watch will ever bring him back to the present. Then, if he does reach the present, can he move forward never talking about the revelations he’s had or admitting the things he’s done wrong? Will he have to risk everything he has, to win it back again?

This is a beautifully written book, with a clever premise and a really interesting character at the centre. As with all versions of this Christmas story, the magic happens to someone whose lost all their hope and optimism in life – partly because of events that have shaped them, but largely due to their own character flaws and outlook. Once they are shown other people’s point of view, a different perspective and where their self-destructive path is leading them, it can hopefully bring about change. I did hope all the way through that Ben would find his way back to Daphne, despite some of the things he’s done. I also wanted him to have consequences, to work a little for the love and support she has shown him over the years that has gone largely unacknowledged. With one magic watch, the old man from the pub manages what I try to achieve with clients in therapy. Self-awareness, clarity about their part in their life choices, responsibility for their actions, then a way of reconciling with all of they have learned and planning a pathway forward. It’s just that Ben does it all in one night! Each time hop has helped him come a little closer to the truths of his life. I didn’t always like him, but then I’m not sure we’re meant to. He needs to be a little flawed, in order for the revelations that come his way to have an effect. It’s a simple lesson – that none of us are perfect, that all relationships involve an element of taking the other person for granted even without meaning to, and that we have to accept our own flaws and mistakes as well as the flaws of our loved ones. Love, acceptance, time travel and Christmas – it’s a magical combination.

Meet The Author

Tom is an author and journalist from London, England. He is the co-writer of three critically acclaimed Young Adult novels: LOBSTERS (which was shortlisted for The Bookseller’s inaugural YA Book Prize), NEVER EVERS and FRESHERS. His solo adult debut novel is the romantic comedy ALL ABOUT US (HQ/HarperCollins, published October 2020). His books have been widely translated and are published in 20 countries. He is a regular contributor to Viz magazine, and has also written for Cosmopolitan, Empire, Evening Standard Magazine, The Daily Mash, Glamour, NME, ESPN, ShortList, Time Out London, Vice, Stylist and many more.

Posted in Netgalley, Uncategorized

Madam by Phoebe Wynne

Publisher: Quercus (18 Feb. 2021) ISBN: 978-1529408720

Why is it always so hard to write a review when the book is so good? It’s as if I have to wrestle with it for ages, in the hope of doing it justice! All I can do is try and put across all of the reasons I liked it. In fact, I loved everything about this feminist gothic novel from start to finish. First the setting – the eerie, almost otherworldly atmosphere around Caldonbrae School, the strange weather conditions suggesting it’s own micro-climate, and the school’s position as an English outpost (or invader) in Scotland. It’s appearance is like a hulking beast on the coastline, something that shouldn’t be disturbed lest it swallow you up. Secondly, there’s our main character Rose, addressed at all times as ‘Madam’ and finally the dark secret her predecessor tried to uncover at the heart of Caldonbrae, before it was Rose’s turn to fight it’s terrible tradition.

For 150 years, Caldonbrae Hall has sat as a beacon of excellence in the ancestral castle of Lord William Hope. A boarding school for girls, it promises a future where its pupils will emerge ‘resilient and ready to serve society’. Rose Christie, a 26-year-old Classics teacher, is the first new hire for the school in over a decade. At first, Rose feels overwhelmed in the face of this elite establishment, but soon after her arrival she begins to understand that she may have more to fear than her own imposter syndrome. When Rose stumbles across the secret circumstances surrounding the abrupt departure of her predecessor – a woman whose ghost lingers over everything and who no one will discuss – she realises that there is much more to this institution than she has been led to believe. As she uncovers the darkness that beats at the heart of Caldonbrae, Rose becomes embroiled in a battle that will threaten her sanity as well as her safety.

This novel was incredible from start to finish. I loved it. Straight away I noticed echoes of two of my favourite books; Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. The younger girls school uniforms reminded me of the aprons of Lowood School. The constant references to the previous classics teacher, and the mystery surrounding what happened to her had definite echoes of Rochester’s wife – hidden from view in the attic for being other than the perfect, meek and gentle wife he wanted. What exactly does this school expect of the teachers and how did Madam fall from grace so spectacularly? The training at the school starts to feel more sinister as time goes on. It begins to feel as if they’re trying to shape young women in a very old fashioned image; teaching them how to stay it in their place and be the 19th Century ideal of the ‘Angel in the House’. Although there’s something a lot more knowing about these girls, they put on this ideal as if its a disguise, designed to please but very aware it’s a conceit sure to reap the rewards of wealth and privilege. The previous ‘Madam’, whose name is Jane, is like the ghostly presence of Rebecca, still holding sway over the girls – especially Bethany who seems to have developed an obsession with her teacher. Jane seems to be everywhere Rose turns, but tantalisingly just out of reach. The author creates an edgy and eerie atmosphere where you feel she might be just ahead of Rose, her gown swishing round the corner.

Rose tries to understand the place she’s come to teach. There is a sense in which this school is a complete culture shock – like a child affected by poverty or a tough inner city environment being expected to thrive at Oxford or Cambridge where there’s an etiquette and language that’s alien to most outsiders. She has to muddle through this aspect of life at Caldonbrae and it makes sense to her if the purpose is to educate and prepare the girls for further education and professions like the law and politics. Yet, alongside this traditional, classical education there are hints of the old ‘finishing school’ where attributes like poise, social etiquette and deportment are deemed equally important. What exactly is she preparing these girls for?

As the secret starts to come to the surface so the tension of the novel rises. Is Rose being trained too? An outsider brought in to see if new teachers can be moulded to the school’s purpose. As Bethany’s attachment to Madam becomes clearer she seems to stalk Rose. and the reader isn’t sure whether she resents Rose being in the place of her former favourite or whether she has simply transferred her affections. When she makes allegations about Rose she threatens her whole future at the school, but is Bethany trying to harm her or warn her? A strange hierarchy operates amongst the girls who know themselves to be the elite performers and those who don’t make the grade are offered inducements to improve, but these inducements can be threats as well as rewards. The horror of a young woman having her head shaved for performing badly is enshrined in patriarchal systems and is designed both to shame the woman and act as a warning to others. Rose guesses what might be happening, before the secret is fully revealed but it’s such an alien and deviant concept in modern society that she can’t believe it could be true. Could she ever be complicit in such a scheme? I found myself wondering how far the girls are ‘groomed’ into accepting this future or how many are knowingly acquiescing to it for the rewards of wealth, status and family honour. Rose is backed into a corner, by fear of what may have happened to her predecessor certainly, but also the knowledge that the school can reward her far beyond what she’s imagined. Her mother, severely disabled by multiple sclerosis, is placed within a state of the art care facility. Can Rose be bought, or will she try and walk away? However, does anyone walk away from Caldonbrae unscathed? Could Rose, as quiet as she seems, finds a way to walk away, but also bring down the whole system in her wake. This was an incredible, unputdownable, novel full of gothic atmosphere, and dark, patriarchal, purpose. However, there is also a feminist heroine ready to shine a light on long held secrets, even at the risk of that light becoming a burning flame.

Posted in most Anticipated 2021

Most Anticipated 2021! Paris While It Slept by Ruth Druart.

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing 23rd February 2021

ISBN: 9781538735183

On a platform in occupied Paris, a mother whispers goodbye.
It is the end.
But also the beginning.

Santa Cruz 1953. Jean-Luc thought he had left it all behind. The scar on his face a small price to pay for surviving the horrors of Nazi occupation. Now, he has a new life in California, a family. He never expected the past to come knocking on his door.

Paris 1944. A young woman’s future is torn away in a heartbeat. Herded on to a train bound for Auschwitz, in an act of desperation she entrusts her most precious possession to a stranger. All she has left now is hope.

On a darkened platform two destinies become entangled. Their choice will change the future in ways neither could have imagined.

Beginning on an ordinary day and ending on an extraordinary one, WHILE PARIS SLEPT is an unforgettable read.

Wow this book has some incredible reviews and I’m so lucky to have an ARC that I’m going to read over Christmas. Sarah is on a train bound for Auschwitz when she passes her baby son to Jean-Luc. He has been tasked with repairing a fault on the train, while the passengers are still on board. He takes the baby, and with his friend Charlotte he makes his way over to the USA, starting a new life on the West Coast. Nine years later, Samuel is growing up fast and Charlotte and Jean-Luc are the only parents he’s ever had. However, Sarah survived Auschwitz, and along with her husband has spent the last few years searching for her son. One morning, the police come knocking at Jean-Luc’s door. The narrative switches between 1953 and how to reconcile what has happened, to 1944 and how Sarah has survived to find her son, and what Jean-Luc and Charlotte went through to make a new life for the son they handed on a platform nine years ago. Regular readers will know about my late in-laws complicated war history. My mother-in-law had a family of half siblings in America, since her family had been torn apart in Poland. Each half of the family thought the other was lost. I can’t wait to tell you more about this book.

‘Both epic and intimate, this unexpected story had me completely and utterly enraptured. You’ll have your heart in your mouth and tears on your cheeks as it reaches its rich, life-affirming conclusion’ Louise Candlish 

While Paris Slept made me think and cry and rage and smile at mankind’s capacity for both beautiful, selfless love and terrible, heartbreaking cruelty. Prepare to be thoroughly engrossed in this compelling book’ Natasha Lester

‘What a book… Emotional and heartrending…absolutely phenomenal. I was on tenterhooks throughout. A wonderful achievement’ Jill Mansell

Beautiful. Powerful. Unforgettable. A stunning portrait of the brutality of war and the tenacity of love. In the tradition of Virginia Baily’s Early One Morning and M. L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans.

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Christmas with The Conduit by Wes Markin.

A DCI Michael Yorke Thriller

Publisher: Dark Heart Publishing 15th December 2020


I’ve never read Wes Markin before and what a way to start. This is book 6 in the DCI Michael Yorke series and what an introduction! This author is certainly not for the faint hearted and this isn’t a cosy Christmas murder mystery. For this final instalment an old foe reappears at Christmas, tearing Yorke away from his family and bringing him closer to finding a lost friend and colleague.

If you fail to stop a killer, then they will only grow stronger.

DCI Michael Yorke and Emma Gardner are still plagued by guilt over their failure to catch the murderous psychiatrist known as the Conduit, and the loss of their former colleague to insanity. On Christmas Day, following a brutal massacre in Leeds, Yorke and Gardner find themselves once again chasing the ruthless puppeteer, believing that they have the initiative. But as the two investigators draw closer to the Conduit, they quickly discover that they were never truly in control, and completely vulnerable to what comes next. A rising tide of psychological warfare and the horrendous truth behind the fate of their former colleague.

I wonder, considering I’m a therapist, whether I should worry about the amount of books I’ve read recently featuring murderous psychologists/psychiatrists! I choose to think it’s a literary representation of the fear people often have about therapists – what we might magically discern about someone and how terrified they are about facing their fears. This particular sociopath is terrifying, but hides behind the tweedy and beardy disguise of a psychology lecturer. However, behind the new identity, lies the same twisted philosophy. The Conduit believes he can ‘heal’ psychological trauma by using hypnotherapy to take the patient back to the moment of trauma and changing the narrative. Yet the narrative is changed to something destructive and violent, shattering the psyche and planting the darkest rage, paranoia and thoughts of revenge.

The opening is Christmas Day at a nursing home for elderly people in Leeds, where Bernard is looking forward to spending the day with the new lady in his life. He’s been incredibly lonely since his wife died and he is grateful to find love again so late in life. Bernard struggles with PTSD following active service in the Falklands War, where both his friends were shot and killed in front of him. Every so often, loud noises or voices can take him straight back to the battlefield and the chaos of war. On this day, as his fellow residents start gathering for lunch, he receives a text message. From there it’s as if a switch has been thrown in his brain and his fellow residents and nursing staff become the Argentinian soldiers he faced that day back in the 1980s. He collects and gun from his room, makes his way back to the dining room and starts to gun down the soldiers who killed his friends and have come back for him. It’s only after multiple fatalities that Bernard returns and sees the full horror of what he’s done. He doesn’t link it to the genial man with the beard he’s been running into on his daily walk in the park. The man who offered to help with his trauma, if Bernard would trust him and open his mind to him. With no other choice, Bernard turns the gun on himself.

This terrible act drags DCI Yorke away from his family; his patient wife is understanding but he worries about how long this might last. He’s already had one shock this morning, his adopted teenage son has announced his engagement and Yorke isn’t sure he was supportive enough. He also has his previous colleague, Emma Gardener, on his coat tails. She believes Leeds is where her partner Mark Topham is, on the run since his violent reaction to the murder of his partner. Can Yorke really take her with him, when she’s no longer a police officer? Will they be able to unmask The Conduit before he takes over another mind and shatters even more lives? There is also the subplot – a female prisoner, victim and conspirator of The Conduit, having sessions with a prison psychiatrist. A game of cat and mouse seems to ensue between them, that becomes very dark and twisted.

The writing has an addictive energy within it, that means you can’t put it down, even when the horror you’re witnessing is too much. I would definitely suggest trigger warnings for violence and sexual violence. Sometimes, it’s not easy to read. Yet you can’t look away. The author is incredibly skilled at building up tension and it becomes unbearable towards the end. There are so many twists – I thought he’d be caught any minute, then he would elude them again. The way The Conduit burrows into people’s minds and unearths their greatest trauma is very disturbing. These people really have endured terrible experiences and watching this man re-traumatise them made me so angry. I was also horrified by the treatment and horrifying truth of his loyal dog. Yet I did find myself enjoying it. If you have met DCI Yorke before, I’m sure you’ll have been waiting for this novel. If not, this novel stands alone well, but why not look out for the whole series. But be prepared to read them all in one go because you won’t be able to stop once you’ve started! If you like your thrillers darker than dark, and your heroes and heroines battle scarred but steadfast and determined, then this is the perfect book for you.

Posted in Uncategorized

Scrap: Kwansabas by Van G. Garrett

This book is for those who communicate thunder, rain, sunlight, hope, and pain with their hands.

When I was a baby my Dad used to help make ends meet by bare knuckle fighting at horse fairs. He would travel with local gypsies to fairs like Appleby and fight for them against other travellers. Then he would bring home wads of cash and the odd cut to his lip or round his eyes. Before I was born Dad was in the army and they saw the potential to train him as a boxer. He was the ABA champion at his weight and would have gone to the 1968 Olympics, except for a terrible incident where other soldiers attacked him in the night and threw him from a first floor window onto concrete. He suffered a head and neck injury, and never boxed again. I’m not sure I could ever have watched him box. To me, my Dad is my big cuddly and protective bear of a man. I couldn’t imagine him being aggressive or ruthless, even though he always tells me it’s a controlled aggression. This book of poetry lets us inside the mind of a boxer before and during a match.

Each short stanza cleverly gives the sense that the poem is split into rounds and there is sometimes even a bell punctuating the last line. These are short lines, and short punchy words suggesting the rhythm of a fight – dancing feet, short sharp jabs and staccato movement. This is a debut fight, so there’s no experience for him to fall back on. He’s never felt the bright lights of a proper ring with an audience. We hear his self talk: the talking up of the ‘golden road paved to a win’ but underneath there’s doubt and fear. Then he pulls it back and sounds like his own coach – this isn’t how I do things, I trained, I know what I’m doing, I didn’t come here to lose.

There are beautiful little insights into how it feels physically to take take a punch. I loved the image of the boxer back in his corner, the yelling of the coach and how the ‘water feels like gold, red bee stings.’ I also like his description of taking blows to the head, and the ringing in his ears. He needs the corner again and shake them off, reassess his game plan. He talks himself up, he can beat him because the opponent ‘wants’ to fall. He’s wobbly. It won’t take much. He needs to ‘try to turn his face to a puddle on the canvas’. It’s as much a mental battle as a physical one as the boxer reminds himself that he has a game plan, he just needs to follow it. His opponent is undisciplined: ‘Comes out with loose cannons on fire / Swiping air, wild with no game plan.’ Winning is about being sure of your own game and preparation, but finding chinks of weakness to exploit.

This was an interesting poem, full of insight into how a sportsman thinks and formulates a game plan. The rollercoaster of emotion from self-doubt to almost reckless confidence was fascinating. I could imagine my Dad when he started at 16, trying to keep his fear in check and follow his training. One line that resonated with me more than any of the others when I think of my Dad.

‘The bulbs from bright lights smack me/ as sweat shines like brand new money.’

He once told me that he was fighting in a club, the ring surrounded by tables where men and women in evening dress were shouting and almost baying for blood. It made him uncomfortable that his sweat and brute force were a currency, no more than a paid entertainment to them. That they might bet more than he was being paid to feel sick, to feel pain, to shed blood. This boxer’s thought that his sweat is money reminded me of that story and made me think this is a thought common to many fighters. I was amazed that in this relatively short poem, I could find so many connections between this young fighter and my father.


The Kwansaba is a genuinely African-American poetry form. Created during the peak of the Black Arts Movement, in coordination with the creation of Kwanzaa itself, a kwansaba is praise poem that is seven lines long with seven words in each line with no word longer than seven letters. Given the significance of the number seven to Kwanzaa, the celebration’s meaning is literally built into the poem.

Posted in Uncategorized

Cover Reveal! The Curious Dispatch of Daniel Costello: Stonebridge Mysteries 1 by Chris McDonald.

Today I’m taking part in the Red Dog Press Cover Reveal for Chris McDonald’s book The Curious Dispatch of Daniel Costello.

Wedding bells are chiming in the idyllic, coastal town of Stonebridge. For Sam and Emily, it should be the happiest day of their lives. But on the morning of the ceremony, the best man is found dead. The police quickly write his death off as a tragic accident, but something doesn’t seem right to wedding guest and groomsman, Adam Whyte.

Armed with an encyclopaedic, but ultimately ridiculous knowledge of television detective shows and an unwarranted confidence in his own abilities, Adam and his best friend (and willing Watson) Colin, set out to uncover what actually happened to Daniel Costello.

Buy Links: 

Amazon Link:

Red Dog Press:

Publication date: January 12th 2021

Meet the Author

Originally hailing from the north coast of Northern Ireland and now residing in South Manchester, Chris McDonald has always been a reader. At primary school, The Hardy Boys inspired his love of adventure before his reading world was opened up by Chuck Palahniuk and the gritty world of crime. A Wash of Black is his first attempt at writing a book. He came up with the initial idea whilst feeding his baby in the middle of the night, which may not be the best thing to admit, considering the content. He is a fan of 5-a-side football, heavy metal and dogs. Whispers in the Dark is the second installment in the DI Erika Piper series, and Chris is currently working on his latest series, The Stonebridge Mysteries, to be published by Red Dog Press in 2021.

Posted in Personal Purchase

Books That Give Me The Christmassy Feeling,

I went up to the bathroom and found my mother crying and running the turkey under the hot tap. She said, ‘The bloody thing won’t thaw out, Adrian. What am I going to do?’ I said, ‘Just bung it in the oven.’ So she did.”

Everybody’s favourite misunderstood, totally intellectual, teenage diarist, Adrian Mole, has perhaps experienced some of the most realistic Christmases in literature. His entry on one particular day sees him recall the hectic and hilarious events of the previous 24 hours, after his mum serves dinner to unexpected guests four hours late while his dad ends up drunk. We all know that feeling – of a parent acting manically and those annoying guests that just won’t leave – all too well. Also, I’m amused and touched that he gets Pandora a can of deodorant as her present. Other favourite details of the Mole family Christmases are the one where his prison warden Aunty Susan, brings a ‘friend’ in a disturbingly low cut top and the seasonal Fancy Dress Party at the Braithwaites where Pandora dresses as a belly dancer, much to Adrian’s disgust. Oh and the dog, who always manages to eat something he shouldn’t or has bizarre accidents like getting a model pirate stuck in his paws. His many Christmases, even into adulthood, are always disastrous and still make me laugh out loud.

The Long Winter is just one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books with wintry scenes that make me feel Christmassy. There’s the party in Little House in the Big Woods where the girls stay with extended family so they can help with collecting maple sugar. There are such wonderful descriptions of making candy by freezing the maple sugar in the snow, beautiful descriptions of all the women’s best dresses as they get ready for the party and an incredible table groaning with food! Later, in her novel The Long Winter, Laura is a teenager and the family are living in North Dakota. As winter nears, the family move to their house in town from their ‘claim’ out on the open plains. Winters are harsh and this one is the worst, as blizzards rage for months. The Ingalls family have a very lean Christmas. They make presents for each other and sit down to a dinner of watery soup. It takes till May for the tracks to clear and the trains to run, but when they do a Christmas ‘barrel’ turns up with presents and food to allow them a second chance and they enjoy their first ‘Christmas in May’. A final favourite is Pa’s friend Mr Edwards arriving unexpectedly through a blizzard to ensure the Ingalls girls get a Christmas present. This scene can bring tears to my eyes:

“oh thank you, Mr. Edwards! Thank you!” they said, and they meant it with all their hearts. Pa shook Mr. Edwards’ hand, too, and shook it again. Pa and Ma and Mr. Edwards acted as if they were almost crying. Laura didn’t know why. So she gazed again at her beautiful presents.”

“It struck me as pretty ridiculous to be called Mr. Darcy and to stand on your own looking snooty at a party. It’s like being called Heathcliff and insisting on spending the entire evening in the garden, shouting “Cathy” and banging your head against a tree.

This is a modern classic and nothing can beat those excruciating moments when Bridget’s parents take her to their friend’s Turkey Curry Buffet. Bridget in her antlers enduring endless insinuations about her love life, or lack of it. Mark Darcy in his ridiculous Christmas jumper. Oh dear, says a friend of her parent’s, have you lost another man Bridget. It’s always the same, off they go, wweeeeee…. It really is mortifying. It’s the perfect update of Pride and Prejudice, the modern equivalent of the ballroom arena. Bridget is simply herself, it’s those around her who are irritating and embarrassing, but we see the stiffness in Darcy and the way he makes judgement. It’s all so real. Fielding pitches the comedy and emotion perfectly. She completely represents the awkwardness of being an adult but returning home for Christmas and reverting to childhood. The childhood bedroom and the dreaded single bed! I think it’s wonderfully written.

‘Nobody spoke for a minute; then Meg said in an altered tone, “You know the reason Mother proposed not having any presents this Christmas was because it is going to be a hard winter for everyone; and she thinks we ought not to spend money for pleasure, when our men are suffering so in the army. We can’t do much, but we can make our little sacrifices, and ought to do it gladly. But I am afraid I don’t,” and Meg shook her head, as she thought regretfully of all the pretty things she wanted.”

Of course no Christmas round up is complete without Little Women. ‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents’ is the first line, but the March girls are going to learn the true meaning of Christmas. Christmas Day might be very lean on the present front, but the girls are excited about the breakfast Hannah has made for them. They’re just about to start when Marmee comes home to tell them that a poor German family nearby have no fire, no presents and are hungry. Their Mum has given birth the night before. With only the odd grumble from Amy they pack up their breakfast and take some firewood round to the Hummel’s shack. Witnessing the family on their errand, Theodore Lawrence is inspired to make a Christmas gesture of his own. He has watched the family, from his lonely position in the mansion next door with his Grandfather. To repay their kindness to the Hummel’s the Lawrence’s send an incredibly luxurious breakfast over to the Marches. Even Amy is inspired not to be selfish with her one dollar Christmas gift from Aunt March. Everyone else has used their dollar for a gift for Marmee, but Amy chose to gift a small bottle of cologne so she still had money for drawing pencils. But she goes back and buys a bigger bottle and returns her them. The girls Christmas gift is a letter from the their father who is a chaplain with the army, fighting in the Civil War. Even though this isn’t strictly a Christmas film, just watching any adaptation of Little Women with its opening of the festive season makes me feel that Christmas spirit.

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Tumnus.”
“I am very pleased to meet you, Mr. Tumnus,” said Lucy.
“And may I ask, O Lucy, Daughter of Eve,” said Mr. Tumnus, “how you have come into Narnia?”
“Narnia?” What’s that?” said Lucy.
“This is the land of Narnia,” said the Faun, “where we are now; all that lies between the lamppost and the great castle of Cair Paravel on the Eastern Sea. And you–you have come from the wild woods of the west?”
“I–I got in through the wardrobe in the spare room,” said Lucy.
“Ah,” said Mr. Tumnus in a rather melancholy voice, “if only I had worked harder at geography when I was a little faun, I should no doubt know all about those strange countries. It is too late now.”
“But they aren’t countries at all,” said Lucy, almost laughing. “It’s only just back there–at least–I’m not sure. It is summer there.”
“Meanwhile,” said Mr. Tumnus, “it is winter in Narnia, and has been for ever so long, and we shall both catch cold if we stand here talking in the snow. Daughter of Eve from the far land of Spare Oom where eternal summer reigns around the bright city of War Drobe, how would it be if you came and had tea with me?”

Of course the worst thing about the country of Narnia is that it’s always winter, but never Christmas. In fact it takes Aslan’s amazing return from death for Christmas to finally be celebrated in Narnia, and Father Christmas brings the children the gifts they will need as they become Kings and Queens of Narnia. Yet for me, I get a Christmas feeling from the very first time Lucy finds her way through the wardrobe. She feels her way through the furs and can smell a pine forest and feel the cold. She finds a snowy forest landscape and slowly makes her way towards the light of a lamppost. It’s here she meets one of my favourite creatures in all literature – Mr Tumnus. I have a beautiful painting in my hallway of the way I imagine him, with his furry haunches, velvet coat, long striped scarf and carrying a pile of books and an umbrella. If I could be taken to any point in a book it would be tea in Mr Tumnus’s little house, next to a warm fire. There would be lots of books, a ticking clock and a wonderful tea tray of crumpets and cake. In this warm haven with snow falling outside I would feel completely relaxed and immersed in this magical world.

“Christmas ought to be brought up to date,” Maria said. “It ought to have gangsters, and aeroplanes and a lot of automatic pistols.

Maybe the reason I associate this book with Christmas is that when I was primary school age this book was serialised on the BBC and shown on Sunday teatimes. It is set as a young boy called Kay travels home on the train for Christmas, and is waylaid by a travelling Punch and Judy man called Cole Hawlings. Hawlings is being pursued by a band of criminals dressed as clergymen. They are seeking the ‘box of delights’ – a magical box that can take the bearer on a world of adventures. My middle-aged brain remembers tiny mice appearing through the floorboards, meeting the King and Queen of the fairy folk inside a tree, a wonderful Christmas celebration and a plane that can take off vertically. I love the nostalgic feel of the book too, with Kay using terrible school slang – I haven’t a tosser to my kick – and the very lively heroine Maria who is toting guns she took from the villains! She had a very Agatha Christie view of Christmas thinking it should be filled with guns and gangsters!

‘In my old age, I see that life itself is often more fantastic and terrible than the stories we believed as children, and that perhaps there is no harm in finding magic among the trees.’

The Snow Child is such a beautiful book and although it’s not specifically set at Christmas, it has such a snow filled setting and a fairy tale quality that makes me feel that Christmassy magic. Jack and Mabel are married, but don’t have any children after a traumatic miscarriage. They long for a child and one winter, at their homestead in Alaska, they build a snow child – complete with mittens. The next morning their snow child is gone and tiny footprints lead away into the forest. From time to time the couple see a little girl in the woods accompanied by a fox. We’re not sure whether she is a magical manifestation of their wish or exists just in their mind, but what is so stunning is the background. The Alaskan wilderness is not easy to survive in, but the author makes it so beautiful:

‘The sun was setting down the river, casting a cold pink hue along the white-capped mountains that framed both sides of the valley. Upriver, the willow shrubs and gravel bars, the spruce forests and low-lying poplar stands, swelled to the mountains in a steely blue. No fields or fences, homes or roads; not a single living soul as far as she could see in any direction. Only wilderness. It was beautiful, Mabel knew, but it was a beauty that ripped you open and scoured you clean so that you were left helpless and exposed, if you lived at all.

This is an absolutely stunning book, full of magic and the realisation that life is short and we need to grab our happiness, wherever we can.

And finally these two little gems above and below are this year’s Christmas reads. Christmas is a time for romance and both of these novels are unashamedly romantic. In Last Christmas in Paris it’s 1914 and Evie Elliott watches her brother, Will, and his best friend, Thomas Harding, depart for the front, she believes—as everyone does—that it will be over by Christmas, when the trio plan to celebrate the holiday among the romantic cafes of Paris. But of course it all happened so differently. Evie and Thomas experience a very different war. Frustrated by life as a privileged young lady, Evie longs to play a greater part in the conflict—but how?—and as Thomas struggles with the unimaginable realities of war he also faces personal battles back home where War Office regulations on press reporting cause trouble at his father’s newspaper business. Through their letters, Evie and Thomas share their greatest hopes and fears—and grow ever fonder from afar. Can love flourish amid the horror of the First World War, or will fate intervene? In Christmas 1968, with failing health, Thomas returns to Paris—a cherished packet of letters in hand—determined to lay to rest the ghosts of his past. But one final letter is waiting for him…

In Tom Ellen’s All About Us we meet Ben, tasked by his wife Daphne to put up the Christmas tree he decides to meet his friend Harvey for a drink instead. Daphne is at a work party, alone. Ben is at a crossroads in his marriage, he barely recognises his wife these days because she seems so angry and tense. His mind has been wandering to his old uni friend Alice, who he always imagined he’d get together with some day. There is one pivotal moment, at a university play, where he felt it was an unspoken agreement that he and Alice would take things further. Then in walked Daphne and he was instantly smitten. What if he made the wrong choice. In a format based on A Christmas Carol, Ben meets a watch seller who gives him a magical watch set at a few minutes to midnight and he’s astonished to wake up the next morning on 5th December 2005: the day he first kissed Daphne, leaving Alice behind. This is just the first of his stops into the past, and the possible future, to make the biggest decision of his life, all over again. But this time around, will he finally find the courage to follow his heart?

I’m so looking forward to curling up by the Christmas tree with some chocolate and both of these novels.

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Cover Reveal! The Red Admiral by Matthew Ross.

#TheRedAdmiralsSecret #CoverReveal @mattwross @RedDogTweets

Publication: 3rd February 2021. Publisher: Red Dog Press.

A Premier League bad-boy murdered at his newly refurbished home; a teenage runaway’s corpse uncovered on a construction site; a gunman shoots up the premises of the local gangland boss – all of them projects run by beleaguered builder Mark Poynter. Can he fix it?

Things seem to be on the up for builder, Mark Poynter. Mark’s got himself a nice little earner taking care of the sizeable property portfolio built up from the career earnings of former Premier League bad-boy and local celebrity, Danny Kidd. But when Danny Kidd puts an interested party’s nose out of joint by using his star status to gazump them on a development site – the derelict Admiral Guthrie pub – things turn ugly and incendiary, leaving Mark to deal with the consequences.

Meanwhile local villain, Hamlet, uses his subtle persuasion to dupe Mark into unwittingly help him launder vast sums of dirty cash but when it drags the area to the brink of gang warfare, Mark’s help is needed to try and broker a truce.

At the Admiral Guthrie secrets from the past meet conflicts of the present – will the rising flames reduce Mark’s future to ashes?

“The Red Admiral’s Secret” is the second in the series of darkly comic crime fiction novels featuring the beleaguered builder Mark Poynter, aided and hindered in equal measure by his trusted crew of slackers, idlers and gossips, and the lengths they go to just to earn a living.

Meet The Author

Matthew Ross was born and raised in the Medway Towns, England. He still lives in Kent with his Kiwi wife, his children and a very old cat.He was immersed in the building industry from a very early age helping out on his father’s sites during school holidays before launching into his own career at 17. He’s worked on projects ranging from the smallest domestic repair to £billion+ infrastructure, and probably everything in between.A lifelong comedy nerd, he ticked off a bucket-list ambition and tried his hand at stand-up comedy. Whilst being an experience probably best forgotten (for both him and audiences alike) it ignited a love for writing, leading to various commissions including for material broadcast on BBC Radio 4 comedy shows.

Matthew moved into the longer format of novel writing after graduating from the Faber Academy in London in 2017. ‘Death Of A Painter’ was his first novel and the first in a planned series of stories featuring Mark Poynter and his associates. Matthew enjoys reading all manner of books – especially crime and mystery; 80s music; and travelling and can’t wait for the next trip to New Zealand to spend time with family and friends.

Amazon Link:

Use the link below to purchase Mark Painter’s first novel in this series direct from Red Dog Press at 25% .

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The Synonym Tables by Jennifer Roche.

Published: Jan 15th 2021 The Poetry Question

The Synonym Tables invite the reader to examine language closely and investigate how it shifts over time. By extracting synonyms that are deemed “most relevant” by for common words used today and comparing them to synonyms for the same terms from a 1947 textbook via the scientific format of a table, the reader is asked to consider how the tool of language evolves, shrinks, expands, and fails.

I agreed to read this new volume of poetry because I am fascinated with how language changes and how it’s used. I rarely get political on the blog, but where we see changes in language everyday is the media and in politics. I have a disability and if we think about the language around people with illnesses and disabilities, there has been a shift. In fact activists think it has changed significantly in the last fifteen years. There was a move away from using neutral terms towards words that insinuated blame. Here Roche closely examines words surrounding certain subjects – health, employment, status – in order for the reader to see if: there’s a difference; whether tone or agenda has changed; to look for patterns. The main aim is to give the reader food for thought.

There were a few differences the stood out to me. The first table/poem tackles synonyms for poverty and I was interested to see how words had become ‘sanitised’. Instead of ‘destitution’, in 2020 we used the word ‘debt’. It had me thinking about what those words mean. Destitution conjures up images of extreme poverty, having absolutely no resources to draw on. Debt doesn’t quite conjure up the same image, possibly because it has become the norm to live with a certain amount of debt. When I think about destitution I imagine people in rags, no food and possibly no shelter. It conjured images of Victorian orphans. Destitution is something that happens to people, whereas debt carries an amount of blame – it’s something we get ourselves into. Destitution can only be rectified by others helping and giving. Debt is something that carries individual responsibility; only the debtor can rectify the situation. We give to the destitute, but look down on the debtor. We make programmes about bailiffs and watch as they chase down the debtors and take away people’s belongings, There’s a lack of compassion in the word ‘debt’.

In another table the author compares words for ‘opulence’ and there are far fewer words in 2020 than there were in 1947. I always think of opulence in terms of interiors – velvet and silk cushions, a richness in colour from jewel like tones, and chandeliers casting a warm glow over everything. It makes me think of stately homes. To see that our 2020 synonym is ‘worth’ made me feel a bit cross. I didn’t like the idea that riches were comparable to worth. I’ve always been taught that everyone is of the same worth, no matter what they have. I know we live in a world where money equals status, but it shouldn’t equal worth. The synonyms associated with femininity and masculinity were also interesting. On Strictly Come Dancing recently, there was a bit of uproar among feminists when Shirley Ballas kept describing Maisie has powerful. She also commented that about her being ‘feminine but strong’ as if the two things didn’t usually fit together. I saw many women on Twitter change the but for and, being feminine is not one set of traits. So it was interesting to note that in 2020 our thesaurus synonym for feminine is ‘soft’. Equally a word that has crept into our synonyms for masculine is ‘muscular’. This shows that men are now equally judged on appearance to women. There is now an ideal body and appearance for both sexes, written into the language.

From my own disability perspective there were two things I found disturbing in the comparison table. Of course there are many more synonyms for illness in 2020 – for good reason where it’s referring to whether someone’s illness is a virus or an infection. The word ‘syndrome’ also makes an appearance – referring to a bundle of symptoms that have unknown cause, but significant effect on the body. However, when I came across the word ‘defect’ it made me feel very uncomfortable. It signifies a fault with that person instead of a difference or variety. When things are defective we either have them fixed or throw them away. Then I saw the table for synonyms of healthy, and there were some instances where the words didn’t differ at all. Words like ‘robust’, ‘vigorous’ and ‘hearty’ were present both times. However, it was one of the extra words in 2020 that shocked me. In a time where I see use of this word being pulled up all the time when referring to sexuality or gender, one of the synonyms for healthy was ‘normal’. In a medical environment I can understand doctors having to use a word for when someone is functioning at peak condition. Medicine is very much about classification – another reason for the word ‘syndrome’ making an appearance, where someone does not fit an existing or traditionally detectable illness pattern. So, doctors must have a word for the body, that functions within acceptable levels of fluctuation. There’s never just ‘normal’ in the medical world because we all vary so much, so someone’s blood pressure might be ‘within the parameters of normal’. I love it when doctors use that phrase because it tells me that they allow for variations even within a healthy body. However, when we say normal without that caveat, it says that anything different from this narrow field of human functioning, is abnormal.

This very unconventional book of poetry shows us that far from being ‘just words’, the synonyms we choose are very important. Words are very powerful and the ones we choose are fraught with meaning and betray a political, social and economic outlook. It changes the whole meaning of what we say. Someone out of work and struggling financially can be seen as needing help or alternatively as ‘workshy’ or someone to look down on. Someone with a disability can be seen as a hero in context of being injured in military service or a Paralympian. However, when written about in the context of claiming disability benefits, I’ve seen the media use derogatory and offensive language. So, language matters and in the synonyms that we see in a Thesaurus we have to remember the context around their inclusion. We must think about the point in history and the socioeconomic factors in play at that time. It’s worth further study to look at where these synonyms are used most and what effect they have on the piece of writing and the reader. I found these unconventional pieces of poetry interesting and it left me wondering why the author had included certain words and how she’d chosen to place them. Perhaps the particular words I’ve chosen, jumped out at me due to how they’re placed. Maybe the poet wanted to create a certain effect in the reader. It reminds us we should always be aware of the intention behind language when reading. For me this was a fascinating look at the words we use and why.

Meet the Author

Jennifer Roche is a poet, writer, and text artist who lives in Chicago, IL. She is the author of “20,” a chapbook of erasure poems from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Alternating Current Press). Her work has also appeared in Storm Cellar; Tule Review; Footnote: A Literary Journal of History (#2); Oyez Review; Rain, Party & Disaster Society; and Ghost Ocean. The Chicago Guild Literary Complex named her a “Writer to Watch in 2019 & Beyond,” and she was a 2016 Charter Oak Award Semifinalist for Best Historical writing