The Lost Lights of St Kilda by Elisabeth Gifford

There are parts of this novel that read like poetry, and totally transport you to the sights and sounds of St Kilda. It took me back to a trip I made to the Farne Islands to visit the breeding puffins. I remembered the way these ungainly little birds wobble as they land, like little clowns with wings. The smell and sight of the birds droppings covering the rocks. The constant bird calls filling the air and whipping away on the wind. The author has an incredible ability to create moments of stillness where all of the reader’s senses are engaged. The sense of place she creates is incredible, and I could see why the islanders feel the landscape is part of them.

Our islander is a young girl called Chrissie and we see the island through her eyes. She is a child when we first meet her and as she experiences this incredible community we build up a picture too. She describes how they survive and in Chrissie’s childhood it is becoming even harder. In the summer the island has tourists, who will buy locally made cloth and other handmade items. The islanders order provisions to be brought by boat, but as tourist numbers diminish, the community has to be more self-sufficient. Island men have a unique and dangerous way of scaling the cliffs for seabirds to cull and use for food. They keep livestock for milk and eggs, but only as long as they can afford to feed them. This scratch living needs numbers of people to carry out the labour, and even in Chrissie’s childhood, young people are starting to leave. They’re looking for work and a better way of life, and they might send money home, but St Kilda needs young, strong bodies to keep going.

The islanders are always interested when the Laird visits and this time, he brings his young son Archie. The laird wants his son to understand the estate he will inherit and he’s left to roam with the children of the island. They take him to all their favourite hiding places, swimming spots and up on the cliffs where they hunt for fulmars. Chrissie is a little bit star struck by Archie. His blond, fair, looks are striking and to a young girl living in poverty he must seem almost fantastical. This visit is on Chrissie’s mind, when years later Archie visits the island again. This time he is undertaking research for university and he brings his friend Fred with him. How will Chrissie feel now that they are both older?

Gifford slips between Chrissie’s childhood and a narrative that takes place in the 1940s. We see Chrissie’s life, now on the mainland, with her daughter Rachel. What happened to bring her away from the St Kilda community? We also hear from Fred, desperately trying to get to Spain after escaping the fate of many soldiers in the Scots regiment s a POW. He has to trust many people along the way, but there is leak in the chain of people willing to help POW’s escape over the Spanish border. When Fred encounters a familiar face, he wonders whether he can trust him, but really has no choice if he wants to get back.

At the centre of the novel is a misunderstanding that left me, as always, mentally pleading with them to talk to each other. I was left feeling I couldn’t trust a particular character involved in this and I was suspicious throughout the whole novel. However, what Gifford does is show us that people are complex and even those with bad character can carry out heroic acts. He most compelling character though is the island of St Kilda in all its rugged and windswept beauty. I think the most heartbreaking part of the novel though is the rift opening up between the St Kildan community and the land they call home. Everything they love about their home is what makes their way of life impossible. Gifford’s words are a poem, an elegy for a dying way of life and the grief of a community torn from their homeland.

#TheLostLightsOfStKilda #RandomThingsTours

@elisabeth04liz @annecater @CorvusBooks

The Lantern Men by Elly Griffiths

How lovely it is to pick up a new novel from one of my favourite series. It’s like putting on a favourite, worn-in pair of jeans. I love Dr.Ruth Galloway, Cathbad and Nelson like old friends, the type you only see once a year, but when you see them, you can simply pick up where you left off. It only takes a page and I’m immediately back in Norfolk, with big skies and the salt marsh. Dr Ruth Galloway is one of my favourite literary heroines. She’s super intelligent, independent, slightly overweight has hair that never does what it’s supposed to and is possibly sweating – to be honest the physical characteristics could be a description of me on any family photo we have. This is why so many female readers like her – she’s one of us.

In this novel there have been some big changes for Ruth and her daughter Kate. She has moved from her little cottage on the Saltmarsh into Cambridge, where she is teaching in one of the prestigious colleges and living with television presenter, Frank. They seem to have a happy existence, teaching and sharing care of Kate, and taking turns to cook. Even Flint the cat is trying to get used to urban living. These are the last few weeks of term and Frank is pushing for them to take a Mediterranean holiday together. Ruth has just returned from a week’s writing retreat at Grey Walls to finish her current book.

Back in Norfolk, DCI Nelson has just jailed Ivor March for murder and hopes he is going to disclose where more bodies are buried. Two were found at his wife’s Chantal’s home in the garden, covered in his DNA and that of his cat Mother Gabley. However, there are two more women Nelson wants to find. Ivor’s first wife is called Crissy and she just happens to run the artist’s retreat Grey Walls. This could just be a coincidence, but Nelson doesn’t like coincidences. March insists that he will disclose where the bodies are if Ruth takes charge of the excavation. Although Nelson makes it clear that she doesn’t have to say yes, Ruth does feel a certain excitement at being asked. There is also the added attraction of spending time with Nelson.

Matters become even more complicated when Ruth’s old boss, Phil, is attacked when cycling home. The attack is foiled by Cathbad (who else) who magically appears just as Phil has a heart attack. Then thief gets away with his backpack containing his laptop and notes on the first Ivor March excavations. A postcard arrives suggesting that Ruth will do the excavation job better than Phil. Of course, Ruth does make a discovery. Not only does she find the two bodies the team were expecting, but a third woman, buried much earlier. The investigation starts to revolve around the Grey Walls retreat and its previous inhabitants – a small group of artists and writers who had a labyrinthine love life. Nelson is also becoming suspicious of a local cycling group which also hosts some of the ex- Grey Walls inhabitants. He is even more concerned when his daughter joins them.

Griffiths beautifully weaves Norfolk folklore through this mystery. One of the dead women wrote a short story based on the legend of the Lantern Men. The Lantern Men are an explanation for the mysterious lights seen on the Saltmarsh late at night, that appear to help lost travellers but actually lure them to their deaths. Could this legend be the inspiration behind these killings? All the women killed also have the same physical attributes. They are tall, slim and have long blonde hair. During the novel I worried about both Nelson’s and Cathbad’s daughters who fit this profile. Could the killer have a specific type or do they have another target in mind? Even more worrying to Nelson is the realisation that if Ivor March is safely behind bars who is behind the postcard and the latest missing woman?

I loved this particular mystery. It had so many potential murderers I kept flitting from one to the other. I enjoyed how the Norfolk legend inspired local writers and artists. I was also interested in Ruth’s personal story. At a time when she is arguably more settled than ever why does she feel restless? She experiences a panic attack when swimming, but can’t think of a cause. When Phil says he might retire after his heart attack, she realises there will be a head of department post at her old university UNN. Could this possibly lure her back to Norfolk, the wild little cottage and the sea?

I felt lucky to have a whole day to myself so I could read this straight through. I’d been feeling poorly and needed to rest so I got the chance to read it all in one go. This was a great addition to the series and my interest in these characters and their complicated lives shows no sign of waning.

The Lantern Men. Norfolk’s Willo the Wisp

A Fight in Silence by Melanie Metzenthin

The subject matter of this book is very close to my heart, so despite the WW2 novel market feeling a bit saturated at the moment, I decided to give it a try. I have a disability and have studied disability and literature to post-grad level so Hitler’s treatment of disabled people and eugenics in general are subjects I’ve read about widely. I’ve encountered novels exploring the issue of eugenics in 20th Century North America. However, I have never seen it in a novel based in WW2.

The novel starts in Hamburg in 1926 when our two main characters, Richard and Paula, meet and fall in love. Soon after they marry, Paula becomes pregnant with twins. She gives birth to a boy and girl and this is the happiest time in their lives, with only one problem; their son Georg has been born deaf. They vow to protect him and have optimism that with his family’s help, all will be well. However, as I was reading, I was aware of the time period tucked in the back of my mind. I knew that the rise of Nazism was just around the corner and everything will change. This was uppermost in my mind as it had recently been depicted in the BBC series World On Fire. As the Nazis seize power, they begin to round up adults and children with disabilities for euthanising. Richard is a doctor and finds himself falsifying documents to help his patients. On a personal level he is hiding the disability of his own son. Will they be able to remain hidden, or even stay together?

What makes this book unusual is that we are reading about WW2 from the perspective of German citizens. Ordinary Germans suffered hardship through bombings and loss of both loved ones and their homes and livelihoods. In 2014 a memorial was unveiled in Berlin to commemorate the 300,000 German people killed by the Nazis. That’s without counting those in Poland, Austria and other occupied countries. The book ends Post-war and describes how the Germans were treated in the years following. I think the fact that this a German author accounts for the incredible detail and historical fact woven into the story. Where it lacked occasionally was in the emotions. This could be a realistic depiction of a culture shell shocked by war or it could just as easily be an issue with finding the right words in translation. I felt the book was well researched and characterised. It shows the other side of a war that we’re used to hearing about from the victor’s standpoint, I really enjoyed this different.

Translation Deborah Rachel Langton #NetGalley

In Five Years by Rebecca Serle

This book surprised me, delighted me and broke my heart. It was not at all what I expected, but was all the more special for that. Cleverly, Serle wrong foots the reader into thinking this is a straight forward boy-girl romance, but it isn’t. It is about love though and our heroine Dannie is sometimes unsure what love looks like. My experience reading this book showed me that I sometimes overlook love, when reading and in my own life. We’re used to reading certain conventions in a love story and have expectations about how that story will unfold. This novel teaches us that sometimes, when we’re looking for that special someone, we don’t notice or fully appreciate the love we already have.

Dannie is a corporate lawyer, living in Manhattan and dating the eminently eligible David. David and Dannie live together after dating for two years. They have done everything according to an unspoken timetable; everything about their relationship is planned and just right. In fact their relationship is so predictable that when David suggests dinner at the Rainbow Room, Dannie knows he’s going to propose. She says yes when he presents the perfect engagement ring, but they don’t plan their wedding. They continue to drift along as they are, until Dannie has the dream.

This vivid dream shows a loft apartment in Dumbo with interior design details such as an art print of an optician’s chart with a witty slogan. It’s nowhere Dannie has imagined living. It’s trendy and edgy. She and David live in Gramercy Park. A perfect location for their work and where they are in life. Yet, the Dumbo apartment feels comfortable. Then a man appears. She’s never met him before but yet there is a connection, something she can’t define. As he moves closer she feels actual electricity. She has never felt this before. Like some huge force compels them to be together. When she wakes, Dannie feels strange. Like she’s questioning everything around her.

She has planned to see her friend Bella. They have been friends since boarding school and are still incredibly close. Bella takes more risks than Dannie and in some ways Dannie sees her as someone who doesn’t finish things. Bella loves art, she lives to travel and has a more bohemian outlook on life. Dannie has a more settled and perhaps, conventional life where work is the priority and her stable relationship with David simply ticks along. Up until now Bella hasn’t had a stable relationship in her life, but she has brought someone important to meet Dannie. When he walks in, Dannie is shocked to see the man from her dream. She panics and decides to do everything she can to stop her dream from coming true. But life can take strange turns and a series of events unfold that she never imagined. They make her rethink everything about how to live life and how to love.

I became so involved with Dannie and Bella’s story that it was hard to put the book down towards the end. The story crept up on me from something very light to an emotional tale about the strength of female friendship. These girls are life partners. Their presence sustains each other in ways that romantic relationships sometimes don’t. Bella’s mother lets slip that she purposely placed her daughter in the same school as Dannie, because she saw them together and could not part them. The very structure of the book teaches the reader something. We learn, at the same time as Dannie, that the happy ending is not always about a man, because love comes in many forms. Also, that loss and love are the same thing. When we grieve it just proves how much we loved. I found myself becoming very emotional towards the end of the book and that rarely happens. I found the writing so truthful and similar to my own experience of grief that I had a lump in my throat. I loved the ending and the fact it wasn’t predictable elevated the book above the ordinary. I will be hugging my friends a little closer and appreciating all the people in my life who love me.

Our Little Cruelties by Liz Nugent

In the famous words of Phillip Larkin, ‘they fuck you up your Mum and Dad’. Reading this book was a very interesting experience and patience definitely paid off. Had I given in to my impulses and thrown the book down in frustration during the first part, I would have missed out on a great read. The story of three brothers over their lifetimes is compelling, interesting and a great study in how mental health difficulties can be passed on from one generation to the next.

The structure of the novel is what I had difficulty with at first. The first section was narrated by the eldest brother, Will. Written in short chapters, slipping between decades, we see aspects of his childhood through to the present day where he is a successful movie producer. He meets his wife Kate through his brother Brian,when she’s brought to a family dinner. They have a little girl called Daisy, but Will is much more focused on work than he is his family. We get the sense that Kate is a long suffering woman who gets more support from Brian, who is now Daisy godfather. Brian is there for the birthdays and school concerts and Daisy has a great rapport with her Uncle. Will is dismissive of Brian and his lack of ambition. He is also dismissive of Luke, despite Luke’s success as a pop star in his late teens. He is close to his Mum and through flashbacks we see she favours him, quite openly.

Luke, by contrast, really gets the brunt of their mother’s moods. He is the youngest, the weakest, but soon finds success as a pop star. However, in the later fragments of his life he has times of struggle, where his mental health is poor and he turns to drink or experiments with drugs. He is an unusual child with a religious fixation to the extent where the family priest thinks he has a vocation! The other boys use his goodness against him, it gets them extra food and attention. There are moments where it seems his life is on track and he could be happy, but others where I wondered if he was just not meant for this world.

Finally, there’s Brian the middle brother. If Will is his Mum’s favourite and Luke is doted on by his Dad, it leaves nobody for Brian. He does seem fatally dragged between the two of them. Will is very dismissive of him, even though Brian does so much for his niece. He’s not grateful that Brian stands in for him or that he looks after Luke when his mental health deteriorates. In fact their relationship becomes so destructive that other family members get caught in the crossfire.

The genius of this book is its structure. During the first part, narrated by Will, I was ready to put the book down. I couldn’t stand him. He was arrogant, self-centred and treats women appallingly. If the whole book had been his viewpoint I might have thrown it out of the window. Just when I was at the point of giving up, I saw Luke’s name across the next section and it was such a relief. As the tale goes back and forth in time and perspective we see a tiny bit more of the whole. At a Bob Dylan concert at a local castle, Will ends up in a fight and is taken to hospital with Dad and Luke following. Mum is left behind at the castle and doesn’t arrive at the hospital till late. However, through Luke’s story we learn that something terrible happened to her, something that explains so much about how she behaves. When we finally get Brian’s section we see what a lifetime of being in the middle feels like. Overlooked, unconsidered and brushed aside. We find out things we already suspected and other things that surprise and enlighten us. Every single strand of this novel teaches us that we are only ever a small part of the picture and we must step back to see the whole.

This brings me to the second line of Larkin’s poem, which is the best; ‘they do not mean to but they do’. There are parts of this novel, particularly the way Dad behaves, where genuine mistakes are made and misunderstandings occur in the same way they do with any family. However there are other situations where the damage seems deliberate, especially in their mother’s attitude to Luke, Will’s intervention in Luke’s relationship, and in the treatment of Will’s daughter Daisy towards the end of the novel. These acts are more than little cruelties. They are deliberately causing lifelong psychological disturbance. This is a complex and interesting novel that moves from one narrow perspective to give us all the pieces of the emotional jigsaw puzzle that makes up this family.

Coming Up For Air by Sarah Leipcigar

Coming Up For Air follows three people’s stories across three time zones linked by the theme of water. It starts by creating a narrative behind the resuscitation mannequin used across the world. ’Resuscitation Annie’ is based on the death mask cast from a woman found drowned in the Seine in the 1880s. She was never identified. Leipciger creates a beautiful narrative of how this woman might have lived in the period before her death.

We are then moved to the mid 20th Century, and a toy maker who is haunted by loss linked to water. Then from the 1980s to the present day we follow the story of a young woman drowning in her own lungs due to cystic fibrosis. The themes of loss and water weave these three tales together and even the reading process echoes these themes, because the novel inspires reflection and thoughts of our own mortality. It’s a quiet and introspective reading experience. I found myself thinking a lot about my own loss, my husband died of pneumonia and primary progressive MS in 2007 and also drowned in his own lungs. However, my MS is progressing and I wondered about my own life to come and the ways in which I do follow in his footsteps. That sounds like a morbid reflection, but there is a comfort in the shared elements of these experiences one hundred years apart. It made me think of the Jungian collective consciousness and how much of what we know is shared knowledge.

Water is a metaphor for life. We need it to live. We are drawn towards it – think how many visits we make to the sea, riverside attractions and streams. We build cities around rivers and prioritise sea views when we book a special holiday. We find it exhilarating and welcoming in equal measure. I go into warm water in order to soothe pain, to feel weightless and be able to move easier. It’s amazing how something can give us life, but also have the potential to suffocate, submerge and wash us away. It is strange for me to think about that moment when I float gently in the water and feel cushioned and pain free, but then also think that fluid in my own body could kill me.

The characters in the novel illustrate this dichotomy between life being given and taken away. We each make sense of tragedy in our own ways. For one, water takes life away but also takes away the pain and despair she has felt at the loss of love. For another, a macabre invention is a way out of feeling unbearable grief. A girl fights against a terrible disease that’s literally filling her lungs. Every one of these characters is in a fight with life – trying to live as long as possible, to live with unbearable pain, to leave a life they can no longer bear. Our experiences are not isolated from one another, they are all connected. It made me think about the point at which we truly leave this life. Is it when the heart stops beating or is it when there was no one left in this world to remember us.

This novel made me resolve to talk about Jerzy more, even with my new stepdaughters and nephews who didn’t meet him. I tell them he was charming, cheeky and clever. That when you lose someone the love continues. I found this novel moving, reflective and strangely hopeful. Whatever we experience in life, someone else will have been through it. It made me think of E.M.Forster’s Howard’s End and the exhortation to ‘only connect’.

The Dilemma by B.A.Paris

The Dilemma is one of those novels that’s so difficult to review, because I’m constantly trying to work out how much to reveal. If I reveal this thing will it ruin the whole book? If I reveal that, do I have to signal it with a spoiler alert? So, here goes.

The novel revolves around a couple, Livia and Adam, and the 24 hours of her 40th birthday. Livia and Adam married young when she was pregnant with their son. Her parents severe disapproval coloured all her choices on that occasion, even down to the yellow dress she wore. Livia has a lifetime of regret for not celebrating her marriage more. So, little by little, over the years she has squirrelled away money for a 40th birthday party that makes up for the wedding she missed. She wants her special day. The events of the novel all take place around the preparation for the party. Adam has a present to pick up and caterers to supervise. Their son Josh and his friend, Max, have to decorate the garden with lights and balloons. Livia is whisked away by her best friends Kirin and Jess to a spa day.

Of course, as always with these seemingly idyllic units of friends and family, there are secrets. Some of them are benign whereas others are huge omissions that could blow this whole family apart. Adam is keeping a secret from everyone. A few days before the party he has organised for their daughter Marnie to fly in as a birthday surprise. Marnie has been studying in Hong Kong and originally couldn’t make it. However, she has checked on non-direct flights and could travel via Cairo and Amsterdam. Adam hasn’t wanted to pay out for a direct flight because he doesn’t want to be accused of spoiling her. Josh is flying to America to take up an internship and Adam insisted he take the cheapest route. Adam wraps a really large box to hide Marnie till it’s time for Liv to open her presents. Now he’s just waiting for her to arrive.

Livia has no idea that Marnie is coming and at one point actively thinks she might be glad she’s not coming. The problem is that Livia knows something about Marnie that she hasn’t shared with Adam. Before leaving for Hong Kong, Marnie had a miscarriage. She didn’t want to share who the father was, but Liv has noticed a pattern. Josh’s friend Max was going to go out to Hong Kong and visit her, but Marnie called her Mum to ask for help in dissuading him. Since then, Liv has suspected Max and has struggled to act normally with him around. Then something happens and Liv’s whole world turns upside down. She daren’t tell Adam or Josh. This secret will blow their friendship circle wide open. If Adam finds out this secret has been kept from him, he will never forgive her.

By the start of the party, both of them are in a state of anxiety. However, Adam looks dreadful and is telling everyone he has a migraine. Family and friends keep taking him to one side but he’s sticking to his story. Josh thinks its because something went wrong with Livia’s gift. Liv keeps wondering if he has stumbled upon her secret. Yet it’s much worse than that. Earlier that day, Adam has received terrible news that will change them all forever. But he’s clinging to hope. He hopes he’s wrong. He hopes they will remember this celebration for the right reasons. He hopes, that when she finds out, Liv will find it in her heart forgive him.

This book had me on tenterhooks from the beginning. I read it in two bursts, not able to put it down until I’d found out who had done what to who. Each section of the novel is from a different viewpoint, but mainly Liv and Adam. They are a lovely couple and despite parental opposition they battled through the difficult early years and are now at a comfortable point in their relationship. They’ve had their children early and are now free to enjoy each other. Adam has grown up a lot since their early years where he would disappear if things get difficult. How will things change if either of their secrets get out? What will happen as the news ripples out to family and their very close knit circle of friends.

I felt closer to Adam’s character and his dilemma, than Liv’s. I felt confused by her character’s need for the big party for her 40th. I understood the disappointment of not having the wedding you want, but it seemed to take up so much of her headspace. It seems to be about giving herself the approval and value that was lacking from her parents. I would have thought that she would want a vow renewal and make the party about both of them, not just her. A couple of times she mentally notes that her cream party dress could be a wedding dress. I like the way they accept each other’s needs and dreams. He supports her wholeheartedly in the party she wants. She has remembered he always wanted to visit a bridge in France, and organises a trip as a thank you for the party.

Although the subject matter and time scale seem slight, the author has used the special occasion to examine the relationships between all involved. The party has been such a huge part of their lives it gives the author scope to examine the motivations, mistakes and intentions of even the smaller characters like their friends. It made me realise that in long term relationships we become so enmeshed that no one can leave without uprooting the whole group. The author is a master at creating tension between these characters and in the reader. I was reading an ebook so I did my usual trick of rushing madly towards the end. I then felt so disappointed when it did end, because it was far too soon.

Saturdays at Noon by Rachel Marks

In Rachel Marks’s new novel, Jake and Emily meet at anger management class. Jake is there because of the frustration he feels trying to deal with his son Alfie. Jake wants to find a way of dealing with Alfie that works, because at the moment every day feels like a battle. He’s also aware that the stress is having a negative effect on his marriage to Jess. Emily probably looks, to most people, like the stereotypical anger management client. With her shaved head and big boots she’s able to give off an aura that clearly says ‘leave me alone’. She’s quiet, doesn’t share much and the main person in her life seems to be her Nan. Surprisingly, especially to Jake, Alfie is the bridge between them.

I found myself grabbed early on by the character of Alfie. I loved his inner monologues that help us understand his outer behaviour – often more than his parents. I had sympathy for their frustration in not having the insight we had into his thinking. His relationship with Emily works because she doesn’t expect anything of him. Jemma and Jake hold resentment about the child they expected to have and although they love Alfie he represents a lot of grief and pain. They are grieving the child they expected and longed for, because their first experiences of parenthood were very different from anyone else they knew. Their baby son was difficult from the beginning, crying all day and night and seemingly inconsolable. Since then he has found it hard to relate to other children, struggled with instructions and waiting for things to happen. He is very angry and frustrated but his parents can’t understand why.

Jemma has taken Alfie to several doctors but they’ve all dismissed his behaviour, leaving Jake and Jess facing the possibility that Alfie is just naughty and they are bad parents. When Jemma leaves I wasn’t surprised, but I was heartbroken for Alfie who simply has no idea why it is difficult to look after him. I thought the author was brilliant at building tension in the scenes where Jemma and Jake are struggling to cope. To them, Alfie seems to have outbursts of anger where he’s destructive and nothing they say or do seems to break through to him. These scenes are contrasted perfectly with Alfie’s inner world where everything he does is completely natural to him and not designed to cause stress. Where his parents see anger, there’s really distress and confusion. It’s like watching people speaking two completely different languages.

We don’t know why Emily is at anger management or why she has shaved her head, but it’s clear when she meets Alfie that the walls she’s built around herself might be about to come down. Jake has no idea why his son gets along with this spiky woman, who he can’t weigh up at all. Faced with needing to return to work, Jake takes a risk and asks Emily to be Alfie’s nanny. The two form a strong bond and Emily finds ways to make life easier such as using a timer for certain tasks and letting some of the smaller things go, such as his after school biscuit. It’s only by accident that Emily sees a programme about a lesser known autistic spectrum disorder called Pathological Demand Avoidance. People with PDA experience extreme anxiety around everyday demands and use strategies to avoid them. They may seem comfortable socially, but actually mask how they feel and often feel more comfortable in role play or pretence. However, when Emily suggests this to Jake he loses his temper. How can someone who has only known Alfie a few weeks understand what’s going on better than him? He feels like a bad parent, and Emily’s research brings back memories of Jess trying to find something ‘wrong’ with their son.

Despite their initial differences, Jake gets to know Emily and see beyond the exterior. He realises that she has been hurt badly at some point in life and that she’s using strategies like her image and drinking to manage everyday life and keep people at bay. He starts to see her as a friend. Emily is surprised by Jake too. She can see he gets it wrong at times, but that he’s really trying his best to be a good dad. I love the way their ideas about each other change and how their friendship helps them view themselves differently too. Emily allows herself to be vulnerable with Archie and then with Jake too. Will her newfound trust in Jake be rewarded or will he let her down like everyone else in in her life?

I wasn’t surprised to learn that the author had experience with PDA in her own son. She has a great understanding of the condition and her ability to get inside the mind of this troubled and scared little boy and put it on the page shows real empathy and skill as a writer. I found myself hoping for the right outcome for him, more than the adults in the story. I did like that Emily starts to put her own life back together towards the end of the novel. It’s not Jake, or even Alfie that ‘rescues’ her. She allows herself to be vulnerable with the whole anger management group and starts to make plans for a new life. There’s a sense she’ll be okay even if they’re not part of that life. Any choice she makes to stay is made on a strong foundation, rather than out of weakness. This is a really great read that shows the power of vulnerability and sharing our weaknesses. The adults in this book are learning to understand each other, in much the same way as they need to learn Alfie’s social language. I fell in love with this complex and misunderstood little boy and his story helped me to understand autism and PDA a lot better. I also think there’s a broader message to take away from the novel. Emily understands Alfie better because she listens and works within his abilities. In a world where we’re quick to judge, both Alfie and Emily teach us to look a bit closer, approach without bias or making comparisons, and meet people where they are instead of where we think they should be.


Rules of the Road by Ciara Geraghty

There is always a certain trepidation I feel when reading a book about someone with an illness I know very well. Twelve years ago, my much loved, cheeky, charming and romantic husband chose to refuse treatment for aspiration pneumonia and let nature take its course. He was 42 years old. The strong and athletic body that carried him up and down the rugby field had started to fragment and disintegrate. He’d had primary progressive multiple sclerosis for twenty years. More difficult than providing his care, was the fact that I have relapsing/remitting multiple sclerosis. Was I watching my own fate play out in front of me? Aspiration pneumonia occurs when the swallowing reflex is affected by disease, causing choking and the aspiration of food, drink or even saliva into the lungs causing infection. So, being something of an MS expert, I wondered if this book would affect my emotions strongly or whether the portrayal of the disease would be sugar coated to make it palatable.

Geraghty either knows MS personally or has done her research very well. Our narrator is Terry, a mother of two in that middling age where time seems to be divided between caring for elderly parents and teenage children. She is also worried about her friend Iris, who hasn’t been in touch for a few days. Terry decides to go and look at her house, so grabs the spare key and plans to check in. Her task is complicated when her father’s nursing home calls to say they’re doing work on the building and residents need to move out for a few days. Terry collects her father, Eugene, who has Alzheimer’s, and they make their way to Iris’s house with Dad singing Frank Sinatra in the passenger seat. Inside the house Terry gets a huge surprise. The house is immaculate: bins are emptied, surfaces are spotless and clothes are missing. Then Terry finds an envelope addressed to her and starts reading.

Iris is a strong character, who always wants to live life to the full, despite the limitations of her disease. She uses crutches to get around, but still manages to lead an interesting life. This makes it all the more difficult to comprehend her letter. Iris is taking the ferry to Holyhead on the first leg of her one way journey to Zurich. Iris means to take her own life, while she is still able to make decisions and before life gets too hard. The mobility issues and fatigue are manageable, but Iris dreads the thought of choking and having seen it with my own eyes I can understand the fear she feels. It’s a very difficult decision to curtail life while you are still well and love living it. However, from personal experience, it is harder still to realise you’ve left it too late, that you can’t administer the drugs yourself and are now trapped inside a failing body. Terry is horrified and her immediate thought is to get to Iris and change her mind. So begins an unusual road trip for the two friends and Terry’s dad. Will Terry be able to persuade Iris to give up her plans or will she return to Ireland without her? More importantly, can she stand by while her friend follows through with her plans for ending her life?

I know this sounds like really tough reading, and despite the odd lump in the throat, I found it engaging and very funny in parts. Both of these diseases are heartbreaking for patients and their families. However they can throw up some really funny moments. I remember once feeding my husband tomato soup when he choked and sprayed the soup all over my head until tomato soup was dripping off my fringe. These are often the moments that we treasure and remember. In the same way, some of Eugene’s quirks and experiences are charmingly funny. The two women have a great friendship and it was great to see two interesting, intelligent, middle-aged women at the heart of the story. I loved the way this journey is just as vital for Terry as it is Iris. In a couple of terse phone calls from her husband we can see that Terry lives to keep home running like clockwork for him and their daughters. This may be the first time Terry has ever taken time for herself, to pursue something important to her and place her friendship first. She worries and feels guilt, but she does it anyway, This shows us how much Iris’s friendship means to her. It is also interesting to see that in caring for two people with debilitating conditions in less than ideal circumstances, Terry forgets her own anxieties. Iris’s determination to live whatever life she has left to the full, seems to rub off on Terry.

Iris is a force of nature. I felt a kinship with her, not just because we share an illness but because we have the same fears and concerns. I don’t want to be a burden to anyone. I am also phobic about choking, which is a P.T.S.D response to watching my husband struggle for breath constantly. For about a year after he died I would wake up suddenly in the night and panic that I hadn’t checked his airway. The other comment that rang true for me was Terry’s observation of how others see Iris and respond to her disability. Iris thinks that people only understand visible disability. This is something people with invisible or varying disabilities know only too well.

I was reading this alongside Anna McPartlin’s Rabbit Hayes sequel ‘Under the Big Blue Sky’ where Rabbit’s love Jonny Faye has MS too. It gave me a stark reminder to keep looking after myself and enjoy all the things I want to do, just in case things get worse. So I booked a trip to Venice. Me and my other half, in a canal room with a balcony for a whole week. It took a while to find my new love and I’d been alone for several years. I understand that isolation is damaging, when you top it off with a life limiting illness it’s even more so. I can see how Iris feels alone when she makes this choice. I think Geraghty writes this with experience and compassion. Terry believes she can make Iris fall in love with life again and luckily that is what my new partner has done for me. He’s popped the sparkle back into my eyes and reminded me of who I am.

Thank you to Random Things Through My Letterbox for the chance to host today’s blog tour. Please check out these other great bloggers.

Reading ‘Persuasion’ by Jane Austen

I was reminded today, in a discussion about our favourite Austen heroes, that I hadn’t added Persuasion to my round up of love stories for Valentines Day. How could I have forgotten the love story that speaks to anyone who has ever loved and lost? For me, this is the most relatable Austen love story, and becomes ever more so the older I get.

As we get older our preferences for heroes, heroines and books can change. My idea of a good love story has definitely altered. As a teenager I loved Wuthering Heights and Cathy and Heathcliff seemed like the ultimate lovers in literature. They were young, star-crossed and passionate. In fact, it was these memories of romance that made me pick the novel up again, several years later. I was horrified I ever thought this was love. What Cathy and Heathcliff have is obsessional and they are both abusive. Heathcliff also commits domestic violence and hangs the Linton’s dog! I remember once writing an essay arguing for Cathy’s character over Jane Eyre. I wouldn’t argue the same now. I thought that Jane was a really lame character for walking away from Rochester. Now I know how powerful that decision is for Jane. It gives her the power in the relationship and also means she keeps her principles.

However much I love Jane. It’s Austen’s quietest heroine, Anne Elliot, who really speaks to my soul. I mentioned Precious Bane in my Valentines blog and I guess there are some similarities with Anne. They are both quiet and unassuming. They both have low self-confidence and seem to keep in the background. Both have lost a parent, Prue has lost her father and Anne has lost her mother. They may seem meek, but both have a resolve in them that’s admirable. Anne is so thwarted in life, she possibly once had the sparkle of Emma or the outspokenness of Lizzie Bennett, now she keeps everything within. We glimpse her intelligence and kindness only because we can hear her inner monologue.

Outwardly, she is very easy to overlook and definitely not the obvious Austen heroine. She’s not young, beautiful or spirited. When we meet her she is established as a spinster and thought very unlikely to marry. She is something of a joke to her dreadful family and even someone to be pitied. For a father who cares more about money and how he appears to society, an unmarried daughter is a burden. Far better to farm her out to distant relatives and family friends to reduce costs. In truth she is kind, gentle and thoughtful. She is loyal to friends, even where they find themselves in reduced circumstances. She has so many loveable qualities but doesn’t see them as eligible.

Of course, what her family and friends don’t often acknowledge is that Anne had a chance to marry Wentworth, a man she loved and who loved her in return. She was schooled to refuse his proposal because he wasn’t eligible enough and Wentworth left to join the Navy. Now, in a twist of fate, his sister is brought into Anne’s sphere of acquaintances and by association the newly promoted Captain Wentworth. It’s in this new acquaintance that I most feel like Anne, as would any woman who has ever felt too old, too fat or too ordinary. It never crosses her mind that Wentworth might still have feelings for her. She’s too used to being overlooked and underestimated. At one point, she assumes his attachment to Louisa, a young and beautiful girl in their circle. Everything Wentworth does for Anne, she assumes to be in deference to her age and spinster status.

My favourite adaptation of Persuasion

Whether I’m reading the novel again or watching an adaptation on television I physically feel the tension building. Austen does this perfectly by creating a world where two characters should be together but are not. They revolve around one another, silenced by etiquette and decorum, but with a burning passion. This culminates in a scene at a pub, where both characters are surrounded by people, yet Wentworth’s passion finally finds voice in a letter he writes and leaves at the table for Anne. For me, this is the most romantic letter in fiction.

‘you pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me that I am not too late, that such precious feelings are gone forever. I offer myself to you with a heart even more your own than when you broke it eight and a half years ago’.

The beauty of the scene is that Wentworth is revealing his inner soul, while maintaining a public face. Anne is so repressed, that it takes this open declaration to remind her of all those young, passionate and unbridled feelings she had eight years before. It breaks through to her and reminds her that, not only did she once had feelings, she acted upon them. It contrasts so sharply with the woman she has become, overriding her own needs in order to do her best for others. As readers we hope she will overcome the outer reserve and feel again. To meet Wentworth with all the love she too felt eight years before. However, it isn’t just about the romance, but about a woman acknowledging her own feelings, and knowing they are valid. She gives herself the permission to act upon them and seize a life of happiness, she missed out on before. I always imagine Anne living a life of adventure on the high seas as a Captain’s wife. A life that her family could only imagine.