Posted in Personal Purchase

The Homes by J.B. Mylet

Lesley and Jonesy have been in foster care together ever since they can remember, in the same room and often in the same bed if Jonesy creeps in late at night. Our narrator is Lesley and she stands out as a little different from the other girls in the homes. She’s clever and goes to the grammar school instead of the one on site. She’s good at maths and seeing patterns in things, so what starts happening at the homes seems to her like a puzzle she can solve. Because someone at the homes is killing girls, possibly raping them and killing them. Who could it be?

The Homes are a sprawling institution made up of 30 cottages filled with the orphans of Glasgow and those needing care. So large, it has it’s own hospital, church and school, with every cottage run by a house mother and father with a Christian ethos. Set in the 1960’s and based on the Quarrier’s orphan village near the Bridge of Weir, where the author’s mother spent some of her childhood. He writes these girls as very isolated and dealt with at a distance, not just from their families, but from the staff too. He throws us in at the deep end with a morning that Lesley’s been dreading. Today she has to face the school bully Glenda, who lives a few cottages up. The adults know that Lesley is very likely to take a beating, but they do nothing. As she leaves for her school bus, Lesley can see a crowd of girls gathering at Glenda’s gate hoping for blood. It’s fair to say they get a bit of a surprise when the encounter doesn’t play out the way they expect. I felt as if the children were treated like animals, like when I’ve brought rescue cats home and left them to sort out their hierarchy amongst themselves. Even so, I would worry if any of them were distressed or fighting. These kids are fed, watered and disciplined, but they’re not cherished.

Only once called by her Christian name, Morag is known as Jonesey and she is a larger than life character. I loved the little characteristics that Lesley relates to us, such as the giggling in church, the constant chatter, and the way she often slips into Lesley’s bed at night but still isn’t restful. Even in her sleep Lesley is often woken by Jonesey’s jerking limbs, she’s like a puppy whose brain is asleep but whose body is still on the go. She’s absolutely irrepressible and incredibly loyal to Lesley, often waiting outside for her bus to arrive in the early evening, wriggling like that excited puppy again. By contrast, Lesley is outwardly very quiet. Her inner world is lively though, bright and full of questions. She has a dogged determination that helps her at school with tricky maths problems, but proves to be a nuisance to the police and the perpetrator of these terrible murders. Unfortunately, her amateur sleuthing is not quick enough to save the third victim. In between the case we learn a lot about the upheaval Lesley has suffered in life. She’s visited by her gran mostly, but she isn’t great at answering all the questions Lesley has. She’s clearly very fond of her granddaughter, but doesn’t want to get into the minutiae of why her mother placed her in care. Her mother visits less, but when the answers finally come there are painful truths to process. I was so glad she had Jonesey and her therapist Eadie but I worried for her going forwards and eventually leaving care. I bonded with Lesley, enjoying her intelligence and sense of fun as well as the way she coped with difficult situations.

A bit like Lesley I suspected every character along the way, knowing that people who work with children are not always doing it for the right reasons. There are people at the homes who are there for their own ends. There are various levels of abuse going on in the community. They’re forced into a religious upbringing they may not want and the expectations, particularly of girls, is tied up in that Christian morality. The discipline is down to each house parent and is always strict, but could also be violent and humiliating. At worst these children are preyed upon by the most horrific kinds of abuser and the tension builds towards a conclusion that not only unmasks a killer, but blows the lid open on everything that is wrong with the institution. I thought the historical setting was captured incredibly well, not so much the location but the emotional landscape of the 1960s. This was a time of secrets, when children were seen and not heard and definitely didn’t have rights. A time when young women were still shamed for their burgeoning sexuality and perfectly normal urges and their consequences. This was the time when my mother was growing up and it felt as if the author had the context just right. I thought the author perfectly balanced Lesley’s personal realisations and growth, with the tension of the murder investigation. As the inhabitants of Lesley’s cottage sit down for Sunday lunch with their houseparents, the Pattersons, she has a very grown up revelation. In the space of her week, this is the only time they feel ‘like a big normal family’ and it’s becoming apparent that all adults will eventually let her down. By the end I realised Lesley had drawn me into her story to such an extent I was wondering about her future. Despite the murders being solved, I was reluctant to close the book and leave her behind.

Published by Viper, 26th May 2022.

Meet the Author

J.B. Mylet was inspired to write The Homes based on the stories his mother told him about her childhood. She grew up in the infamous Quarrier’s Homes in Scotland in the 1960s, along with a thousand other orphaned or unwanted children, and did not realise that children were supposed to live with their parents until she was seven. He felt this was a story that needed to be told. He lives in London.

You can follow James on Twitter @JamesMylet, or find him on Facebook.

Posted in Netgalley

Ginger and Me by Elissa Soave.

Wendy is lonely but coping. All nineteen-year-old Wendy wants is to drive the 255 bus around Uddingston with her regulars on board, remember to buy milk when it runs out and just to be okay. After her mum died, there’s nobody to remind her to eat and what to do each day. And Wendy is ready to step out of her comfort zone. Each week she shows her social worker the progress she’s made, like the coasters she bought to spruce up the place, even if she forgets to make tea. And she even joins a writers’ group to share the stories she writes, like the one about a bullied boy who goes to Mars.

But everything changes when Wendy meets Ginger.
A teenager with flaming orange hair, Ginger’s so brave she’s wearing a coat that isn’t even waterproof. For the first time, Wendy has a real best friend. But as they begin the summer of their lives, Wendy wonders if things were simpler before. And that’s before she realizes just how much trouble Ginger is about to get them in…

I’ve worked for 25 years in mental health and one thing I’ve learned is that there are almost always reasons people behave the way they do, but also that there is no such thing as a ‘normal’ life. I love books that relate the extraordinary lives of ordinary people and Wendy certainly lives a simple life. She’s happy driving the 255 bus through Uddingston, reading books and having a good go at writing her own. Concerned that her social worker thinks she’s stagnating a little, since the death of her mother, Wendy makes a decision to reach out. She joins a writing group to build her confidence and starts to make friends with some of her passengers, but then Ginger comes along. Ginger is going to push Wendy completely out of her comfort zone.

This is a great novel that shows how mental health issues can creep up on young girls and when they’re as alone as Wendy is, there’s no one to notice things going wrong. Life is hard for her, because she feels like she doesn’t fit anywhere. She can see that society has rules, but she doesn’t understand them and her ignorance of the rules means she’s socially awkward. Instead of upsetting others, it sometimes seems easier to withdraw altogether. There is a sense in which Wendy’s being failed by the system, plus the double bereavement of losing her mum and dad has left her especially vulnerable. Being stepmum to two teenage girls I know only too well how problems can suddenly escalate and be made worse by social media. This is a gritty story and I knew very early on that something bad has happened to Wendy, so I did have a certain amount of suspicion most of the time. It felt to me like Wendy was heading down a dark road, but the addition of the rather wild Ginger seems to accelerate the downfall. I felt immediately protective of this girl, because it felt like she was out in the world with a layer of skin missing. I wanted to give her a big hug and have a heart to heart over a mug of tea. I found myself thinking about her long after the book finished, so bravo to the author for creating such an incredible character in her debut novel.

Posted in Netgalley

At The Breakfast Table by Defne Suman

I don’t know a lot about Turkey, so I jumped at the chance to read this book that delves into Turkish history and the heart of it’s people. Set in 2017, at Buyukada in Turkey we watch as a family gathers to celebrate the 100th birthday of the famous artist Shirin Saka. They are expecting reminiscences that are joyful, with everyone looking back on a long and succesful artistic career, and on family memories spanning almost a century. Some members of the family are set on this opportunity to delve into family history. However, for Shirin, the past is a place she has been happy to leave behind. In fact she has concealed some of her experiences even from her closest family. In particular her children and great-grandchildren have no idea what those experiences were, despite being aware of their psychological consequences. Some are thinking of Shirin and hoping she can open up and heal. Others want, perhaps, to find answers for their own struggles. In an attempt to persuade her into telling her full story, one of her grandchildren invites family friend and investigative journalist Burak, to celebrate her achievements but in the hope of helping her too. Burak has his own reasons for being there – he was once the lover of Shirin’s granddaughter. I wondered if the younger members of the family truly understood the well of pain that Shirin has kept from them? They have never gone through the type of experience and turbulence Shirin and those of her generation have. Unable to express her pain any other way, Shirin begins to paint her story. Using the dining room wall she reveals a history that’s been kept from her family, but also from the public’s consciousness, an episode from the last days of the Ottoman Empire.

As a believer in the healing power of many different art forms, including writing, I was very interested in how her family’s plan would work out. We don’t always know how people will react to opening up in this way, it’s why trained therapists like me are taught to create a safe space for people to talk and reveal their secrets. Even the client has no idea how they will react, so I felt Shirin’s family were playing with something they didn’t understand. Why would they think their grandmother would want to delve into her trauma on her birthday, let alone divulge her history to Burak? Surely therapy would have been more appropriate first? To tell her history, the author splits the narrative across four characters, each one is a member of Shirin’s family and friend group. This gives us a wide angle lens on the past. I loved the atmosphere created and the way the author didn’t exoticise Turkey. She still showed us a place of vibrancy and colour, but this wasn’t a tourist’s view. It was the Turkey of the people who work and live there. I felt there could have been more balance between the past and the present, because I was interested in Shirin’s recovery from these memories being dragged up, especially at such an emotional time. As it was, the book felt off balance, more heavily weighted in the past and from four different perspectives rather than just Shirin’s.

However, the four narrators did work in terms of showing the same events from different perspectives. There were times when one character’s view of the facts was so far from the truth it had an emotional effect on me! This is an emotionally intelligent author at work, she wants us to feel that dissonance so we can understand the painful consequences of these misunderstandings. I’m a big believer in generational trauma and how strong it’s effects can be. We see that, despite Shirin thinking she’s shielded her children and grandchildren from these events, they have still been deeply affected by her trauma. They are traumatised because of her pain and how it influenced her personality and her actions, without ever knowing the full story. I could imagine the relief of understanding why a parent has behaved a certain way, especially if it caused you pain. Despite me wishing I could have spent more time with them, we do see enough of the present to know that despite the stress fractures in this family, they still love each other. Their playfulness and sibling banter was realistic and touching. The dynamics of their interactions were so deeply rooted in the past, but we’re the only ones who can see it all with our privileged 360 degree view. This was a fascinating look at a family’s history and how their intertwined lives spiral out from one single event so long ago.

Translated by Betsy Göksel. Published by Apollo 1st September 2022

Meet The Author

Defne Suman was born in Istanbul and grew up on Buyukada Island. She gained a Masters in sociology from the Bosphorus University and then worked as a teacher in Thailand and Laos, where she studied Far Eastern philosophy and mystic disciplines. She later continued her studies in Oregon, USA and now lives in Athens with her husband. Her books include The Silence of Scheherazade and At The Breakfast Table. Her work is translated to many languages all around the world.

Posted in Sunday Spotlight

Sunday Spotlight! Great Celebrity Memoirs.

I’m not a usual reader of celebrity memoirs. I know there’s a certain snobbery in bookish circles for the celebrity memoir, so I thought I’d get that in there before you click away to another blog. I’m all for whatever gets people reading to be honest, but it’s a rare book that sits above the usual ghost written Christmas fare. These are memoirs that sit above the ordinary, that have touched me emotionally or made me laugh, that have surprised me with the beauty of their writing or their inventiveness, or even revealed incredible stories that kept me gripped to the final page. Some you may have heard of while others are lesser known, but just as compelling.

Patient by Ben Watt.

‘In the summer of 1992, on the eve of a trip to America, I was taken to a London hospital with bad chest pain and stomach pains. They kept me in for two and half months. I fell very ill – about as ill it is possible to be without actually dying – confronting a disease hardly anyone, not even some doctors, had heard of. People ask what was it like, and I say yes, of course it was dramatic and graphic and all that stuff, but at times it was just kind of comic and strange. It was, I suppose, my life-changing story.’

Benn Watt is half of the band Everything But The Girl and his short memoir covers a period when his bandmate Tracey Thorn was also his partner. In 1992, when I was taking my ALevels and listening to his band, Ben contracted a rare life-threatening illness that baffled doctors and required months of hospital treatment and operations. This is the story of his fight for survival and the effect it had on him and those nearest him. I recommend this book because it is beautifully written and captures the feeling of being seriously unwell perfectly. He describes coming institutionalised, so in sync with the day to day running of the ward that he could tell to the second when the newspaper lady was going to enter the ward. I love his play on ‘Patient’ as noun and verb at the same time, the patience it requires to endure the diagnostic process and to cope with what I call ‘hospital time’ – where ‘I’ll be a minute’ means half an hour. Only two years after his book is set, I was going through my own lengthy periods of hospitalisation, enduring unpleasant tests and realising there are limits to medical science. It’s an incredibly scary place to be and Ben conveys that so well, as well as the strange feeling when discharged when the patient goes from totally dependent to alone. I remember after a lengthy hospital stay, sitting in my flat thinking it was getting close to mealtime and that I was hungry, then a second later realising I had to make my own food! What he captures best is the realisation that what he expected to be a short interlude in his life, is actually becoming his life. The narrowing of his horizons from someone who toured the world to a resident of a single ward, or even to an individual bed.

Ben Watt

Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins by Rupert Everett

I became fascinated with Rupert Everett after seeing him on Graham Norton’s chat show and finding him both hilarious and painfully honest, both about himself and others. I loved his wit and comic timing in My Best Friend’s Wedding and especially in the Oscar Wilde films he starred in. I was pleased to find he was a devotee of Wilde, who wanted to make an honest film about his later life. My best friend from university always sends me a book at Christmas and I was lucky enough to receive a signed copy of his second memoir Vanished Years. I made sure I found a copy of his first memoir above so I could read them back to back. They both lived up to my expectations. I seem to remember first noticing him in conjunction with Madonna back in the 80’s and he had come across as a pretty boy in that context, but there is so much more to that rather spoiled exterior. His performance in Another Country was exceptional and his eventual film of Oscar Wilde was extraordinarily moving, but it is the drama of his private life that has attracted more attention than his talent. These memoirs show that he has always been surrounded by interesting and notorious people, becoming friends with Andy Warhol by the time he was 17. He has been friend to some of the most famous women in the world: Donatella Versace, Bianca Jagger, Sharon Stone and Faye Dunaway. This notoriety and films such as Dunstan Checks In overshadow incredible work with the RSC and I finally saw him shine on stage in the West End as Professor Higgins in Pygmalion.

I have always known, from his interview with Graham Norton, that Everett is a raconteur, but these memoirs show he can write a great story too. He has an uncanny ability to be at the centre of dramatic events: he was in Berlin when the wall came down, in Moscow at the end of Communism and in Manhattan on September 11th. The celebrity stories are deliciously gossipy and terribly honest. It seems Everett doesn’t hold anything back, whether he’s lampooning someone else or himself. His second memoir is again mischievous, but also touching with stories from childhood and early life. He takes the reader on an amazing journey around the world and from within the celebrity circus from LA to London. I loved the addition of family stories, such as a pilgrimage to Lourdes with his father that is both hilarious and moving. There’s a misguided step into reality TV that goes horribly wrong. A lot of celebrity authors are easy on themselves, writing solely from their own perspective rather than presenting life objectively. Everett is unfailingly honest, presenting his flaws and tragedies with the same scrutiny and irreverence he gives to others. Both books are incredibly enjoyable, a journey with the best and most disreputable storyteller you will ever meet.

Rupert Everett as Oscar Wilde

The Storyteller by Dave Grohl.

One of my favourite video clips recently was of the Westboro’ Baptist Church protesting outside a Foo Fighter’s gig. Then with perfect timing around the corner came a couple of majorettes, followed by a flat bed truck with a band playing The Beatle’s ‘All You Need Is Love’. On the back stood Dave Grohl with a microphone, shouting out their love for the protestors. I’ve always known that Grohl was a good guy and despite only enjoying some of the Foo Fighter’s music I’ve always thought he was an interesting and enlightened person. I’ve also wondered how he recovered following the suicide of Nirvana front man and personal friend Kurt Cobain, an event that stood out in my mind in the same way the death of John Lennon did for my parents. I loved Grohl’s humour and willingness to make an idiot of himself. My best friend and I rewatched the Tenacious D video for Tribute where Grohl is painted red and given an amazing pair of horns as Lucifer. I was bought this book last Christmas by my stepdaughters. However, it was only recently, after the death of another bandmate and friend Taylor Hawkins, that I picked it up and read a few pages every night in bed.

Grohl addresses my reservations about about celebrity memories straight away, stating that he’s even been offered a few questionable opportunities: ‘It’s a piece of cake! Just do four hours of interviews, find someone else to write it, put your face on the cover, and voila!’. Grohl writes his early experiences with fondness and an obvious nostalgia. He found the writing process much the same as writing songs, with the same eagerness to share the stories with the world. He has clearly linked back to old memories and emotions, feeling as if he was recounting ‘a primitive journal entry from a stained notebook’. He has definitely embraced the opportunity to show us what it was like to be a kid from Springfield, Virginia with all the crazy dreams of a young musician. He takes us from gigging with Scream at 18 years old, through his time in Nirvana to the Foo Fighters. What’s lovely is that same childlike enthusiasm while jamming with Iggy Pop, playing at the Academy Awards, dancing with AC/DC and the Preservation drumming for Tom Petty or meeting Sir Paul McCartney at Royal Albert Hall, hearing bedtime stories with Joan Jett or a chance meeting with Little Richard, to flying halfway around the world for one epic night with his daughters…the list goes on. We may know some of these stories, but what he promises is to help us reimagine these stories, focused through his eyes. I’ve seen reviews that claim he has glossed over or withheld some of the truth of his experiences, particularly around Kurt Cobain with Courtney Love absent from proceedings. I don’t think this is being disingenuous, I think this is what Dave Grohl is like – generous, humble and honest with regard to his own take on events. Perhaps he feels other people’s stories are their own and not his to tell. I was so impressed with how grounded he is and how aware of the most important things in his life: his family; his daughters; his friends; those who remind him of where he’s come from; and lastly, his music.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King.

Stephen King begins this memoir with the accident that he says has made the last twenty years of his life an incredible gift. With some humour he recounts being on his four mile daily walk and taking a break to relive himself in the woods. As he was returning to the road, a van driver was simultaneously trying to prevent one of his dogs rummaging in a beer cooler. This unlucky coincidence meant King was in a position to be struck as the van swerved off the road. A man who witnessed the crash watched as the impact threw King up and over the van, smashing the windscreen with his head and propelling him into a ditch 14 feet away. Local man, Donald Baker, found King ‘in a tangled-up mess, lying crooked, and had a heck of gash in his head. He kept asking what had happened.’ The van driver seemed devoid of emotion or panic, claiming he thought he’d hit a deer until he noticed King’s bloody glasses on his front seat. In a strange parody of his bestselling novel Misery King was left hospitalised with a shattered hip and pelvis, broken ribs, a punctured lung and fractured femur. The driver died only one year after the accident, from unrelated causes. It took King months to recover, with some limitations remaining to this day.

This strange hybrid book comes out of that time, from that trauma which affected him mentally as well as physically, back to his childhood, his early adult life, his marriage and the drinking that nearly cost him his relationship. If people read this hoping to read a masterclass or a shortcut to writing a bestseller, they’ll be disappointed. You don’t need a fancy masterclass to be a writer, you simply need to write. However, he does explore his own process and influences. There’s some practical advice on character building and plotting, showing how a spark of an idea was turned into Carrie. He also talks about pace, plots and presentation of a manuscript. He talks about he origins and development of certain books and uses examples of other writer’s work to illustrate what he’s advising. What he can’t do is identify that magic or spark that made him a No 1 bestseller for almost half a century. I enjoyed his stories about his early adult years when he was struggling financially, but was so persistent. The jobs he had to take to support his family, when the writing simply wasn’t paying. He was teaching by day and writing in the evenings. He also talks about the perceptions of him in the industry, perceptions I have always thought unfair, that despite incredible economic success and prolific output, he will never be considered a good writer. I loved his advice to write in a room with blinds and a closed door, if you’re not distracted by a view it is easy to disappear into a vista of your own making. He also plays loud rock music, but that wouldn’t be for me, I need silence or calm background music, no TV and no talking. It’s true that every writer needs their own best conditions for writing – although a closed door with no interruptions seems universal – you will need to find your own process. However, I do think he hits upon something important about life, like Dave Grohl, and that is the importance of family to ground us and stand by us while we create and especially when economic success does come.


Posted in Sunday Spotlight

Sunday Spotlight! Memoirs and Non-Fiction

I’m continuing my look at the books that have had a huge effect on me personally or helped me to make a difference in my life. If I’m facing a difficulty, challenge or setback in life I usually look for something to read about it. My late husband used to say that knowledge can’t be taken away from you and that the more knowledge you have, the more options you have too. I’m looking at four books today, all of them memoirs in different forms, but each quite different in how they communicate to the reader. Each one did make me think and I can honestly say I came out of each book feeling changed a little: whether it was energised and inspired; feeling less alone in the world; learning how to face life’s obstacles or reaching an emotional catharsis.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.

Joan Didion’s memoir is award winning for a reason. I found it a dense read in parts, but then my intelligence is probably far below Ms Didion’s level. However, there’s no denying the power of her opening chapter as she and her husband are preparing the table for dinner. Joan and her husband John had already been given the terrible news that their daughter had been placed on life support. Quintana had been suffering with flu symptoms, that became pneumonia and eventually septic shock. In the throes of grief, they are preparing for dinner when with no warning John collapses. John died from a heart attack instantly. In the maelstrom of emotions surrounding his death, Joan writes to make sense of what she’s thinking and feeling.

I found her writing raw and painful. I read this in my own grief and I recognised so much of the past year of my life in her descriptions. The way mind and body become disconnected; one carrying out the duties and routines of everyday life while the other is in another place. I felt like the bit that’s me, my ‘self’ had hunkered down deep inside the shell of my body, unable to cope with the shock of what happened. We were now in a world without my husband, where he didn’t exist. I think my ‘self’ was still in the one where he did. With her beautiful choice of words, Didion articulated a grief I didn’t have words for yet.

Illness by Havi Carel.

I came across this lesser known book when I was researching for a PhD. I was interested in the gap between a person’s perspective of their illness and the self presented in disability memoirs. My argument being that people write about their disability using certain tropes and archetypes – such as Christopher Reeve still presenting himself as superman. There is often a narrative of redemption or triumph that doesn’t relate to someone whose illness or disability is lifelong. I didn’t know whether these tropes were so ingrained in our society, there was only one acceptable way of writing about disability experience, or whether the truth simply doesn’t sell so publishers pressure writers to frame their disability this way. My supervisor suggested I needed to read Havi Carel’s book, because not only was she a professor in philosophy, she also had a long term illness that affects her lung function. What I was floundering around trying to describe was the phenomenology of illness – the ‘lived experience’ to you and me.

In some ways this is a text book, as Carel looks into what is illness? Is it a physiological dysfunction, a social label, or a way of experiencing the world? How do the physical, social, and emotional worlds of a person change when they become ill? Can there be well-being within illness?Carel explores these questions by weaving together the personal story of her own illness with insights and reflections drawn from her work as a philosopher. Carel’s fresh approach to illness raises some uncomfortable questions about how we all – whether healthcare professionals or not – view the ill, challenging us to become more thoughtful. A scene where Carel is devastated during a test of her lung function, because the result shows a decline, is so much worse because of the cold, unfeeling, practitioner. I had tears in my eyes reading it. Illness unravels the tension between the universality of illness and its intensely private, often lonely, nature. It offers a new way of looking at a matter that affects every one of us, because every one of us can become ill or disabled in our lifetime.

Before I Say Goodbye by Ruth Picardie.

Back in 1998, way before Dame Deborah James and You,Me and the Big C, there was Ruth Picardie. Her column in The Observer was read by millions and it was the cancer experience laid bare. Searingly honest and raw about her illness one minute and the next the day to day routine of being a Mum to two small babies. I loved how Picardie debunked those myths and archetypes of illness. How people still associate being ill with the old Victorian consumptive idea of wasting away. Those who are ill should at least be thin. However, as a result of steroid treatment for a secondary brain tumour, Picardie gains weight and has the characteristic ‘moon face’ that I remember from my own steroid days. She is angry with herself for being shallow, especially when she has to dress up for a wedding and nothing fits. She expected that being faced with death, she might be able to let go of the small stuff that doesn’t matter. It does matter though and she goes to Ghost to buy one of their flowy maxi dresses to make herself feel beautiful. She documents the progress of her cancer without holding back and when she can no longer do so, around two days before she died, her husband and sister Justine conclude.and put a frame around this collection of diary events from The Observer. This is a tough one, because I know the context is needed, but losing her narrative voice and hearing her sister Justine’s still chokes me up today. Ruth died from complications following the misdiagnosis of breast cancer in September 1997, leaving a young husband and two-year-old twins.

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

I read Gilbert’s book before all the hype and the film version. I’d been on holiday and picked it up as an easy read and I was hooked by page one. Liz Gilbert has a way of writing that makes the reader feel like it’s just you and her, two friends having a catch up after a long time apart. It’s an intimate and honest account of how she found herself again after a marriage breakdown and a long term relationship that wasn’t healthy. She decided to take a long trip and broke it into sections, each one to feed part of her: body, spirit and heart. First she went to Italy for the eating part, then India for spirituality, then Bali which sounds like an absolute paradise and the perfect place to conclude a healing journey. If you read this as a simple travelogue you won’t be disappointed. Her descriptions of the food in Rome and Naples made me want to book a plane and the warmth in the friends she made there were really heartwarming. I found the discipline and struggle of ashram inspiring, it was her time to really go inside and work things out. She needed to confront what had happened in her marriage, forgive her husband and herself, then remember the parts that were good.

Bali is a like a warm place to land after all that mental work, where the people are welcoming and Liz finds work with a holy man transcribing his prayers and wisdom to make a book. Here she learns to love again and there was something that really chimed with me, when Liz meets a man at a party and they have a connection, she’s absolutely terrified about what it might lead to. She has worked hard and found her equilibrium and now her emotions are stirred up and unpredictable. She felt safe and grounded before, so she doesn’t want to lose it. I’d spent six years on my own, after the death of my husband I’d ended up in an abusive relationship and it had taken me a long time to recover. Then I met my current partner and I remembered back to this book and the wise friend who advised Liz to think of her life as a whole, it could only be balanced if it has periods of imbalance. Sometimes we have to throw ourselves into life. I used meditation a lot to keep grounded and it has changed my life in terms of improving mood and helping me cope with life’s difficulties. However, we can’t avoid life and stay in neutral all the time. When I read this with my book club there were mixed responses, the most negative being ‘it’s okay for some, able to swan off round the old and get paid for it’. It’s a valid point, but I never felt that. I thought she was in need of something drastic to get her life back on track and I didn’t begrudge her a moment of it. You might also like to try Eat, Pray, Love Made Me Do It. A series of stories about women’s journeys inspired by the book.

Posted in Squad Pod Collective

All About Evie by Matson Taylor

This novel is the second in Matson Taylor’s series following Evie Epworth (Yorkshirewoman, Fashion Lover, List Maker). So now, I can categorically say that each time I finish a book about Evie I have a big sunny smile on my face. Of course all books make us feel things, even if it’s to throw them out of the nearest window, but it’s a rare book that gives us a real physical reaction such as the spooky ones that give us goosebumps on the arms or lift the hairs on the back of our neck. I’ve only spontaneously burst into tears once, thanks to David Nicholls’s One Day and that twist none of us saw coming. Not only is Matson is great at those laugh out loud moments, such as the ‘cow incident’ that precipitated her car accident in the first book. As I finished All About Evie I found myself unable to stop smiling. This book feels like liquid sunshine being poured into your veins.

Our previous book ended as Evie is being waved off to an adventurous new life in London, alongside mentor Caroline, the unconventional and glamorous daughter of Evie’s lifelong neighbour and baking partner Mrs Scott-Pym. All About Evie starts ten years later in 1970’s London, where Evie is working in a junior role on BBC Radio Four’s Women’s Hour. Previously, we met Evie at time of great change and this novel is no different. Thanks to a terrible incident with a visiting Princess Anne and the misuse of a mug Evie is sacked from the BBC. Does this mean her life in her little London flat is in jeopardy? Caroline thinks this is an opportunity to try something new so Evie tries working in an art gallery. When it turns out art, particularly the modern variety, isn’t for her she lists things she’d like to do and falls upon the idea of writing for a magazine. She finds the magazine Right On in an office above a sex shop – handy windows for checking one’s hair before walking into the office – and asks for a job. Assuming she’s been a journalist at the BBC, NickStickUpBum and NickWithCollars agree to give her a trial on the listings pages, essentially long lists of what’s on in London across the arts from opera to poetry evenings. With the offer of help from Lolo (Radio Three producer, homosexual, basset owner) on the classical music listings, Evie decides to give it a go and sprinkle some sunshine over her work, in her own inimitable way.

In between Evie’s story there are a couple of flashbacks to other character’s lives. Evie’s neighbour Mrs Scott-Pym has died recently and we see her packing a case for Evie, with little artefacts to remind Evie of their time together – including a pestle and mortar wrapped in a tea towel of Bolton Abbey. Evie is grieving for her old friend, but the reminiscences become even more emotional when we realise that Mrs Scott-Pym was, aside from Dad Arthur, the only link back to Evie’s mum Diana. Preserving her memories of their friendship for Evie is so poignant and it does make Evie think about her future. Can she keep dating totally unsuitable men, who she carefully and comically lists for us, or does she want to meet someone she can share her life with? I thoroughly enjoyed the tension between Evie and her rather hippy dippy workmate Griffin. Griffin is a proponent of high culture and wants the magazine to remain intellectual rather than popular. So to try something a little more highbrow, Evie accepts Lola’s invitation to her first opera. Afterwards, NickWithCollars suggests she write a review for the magazine. This infuriates Griffin who thinks Evie is definitely low culture and would rather they published one of her own poems. When the men are out of the office, Griffin places herself in charge and gives Evie petty tasks to fulfil, often creating a mistake to trip Evie up or keep her working late. Evie tries to take the high road, but her yoga chant trick is absolutely brilliant and well deserved. I couldn’t wait for Griffin to receive her real comeuppance! Meanwhile, there’s a lovely friendship forming between Evie and Lolo, as well as his basset hound.

Yet underneath the humour, there’s so much more going on. A beautifully poignant thread running through the novel is that of motherhood. There are memories of Evie’s mum of course and we’re aware of all the life experiences Evie would have loved to share with her. Evie’s mum never got to see her grow and all that promise is encapsulated in one little throwaway object from the suitcase. Evie has many mother figures though, obviously Mrs Scott-Pym and her friend Mrs Swithenbank who gives Evie a call every week just to check in. Caroline and her lover Digby are disagreeing over the possibility of becoming parents, particularly as Caroline would have to carry the child and believes she doesn’t have that maternal instinct. However, both women have been invaluable to Evie, she even loves popping in and watering their plants while they’re away. Their house gives her the sense of having a family in the city, an anchor that keeps her from being swept away amongst the crowds. We see Evie draw on all these maternal figures when Mrs Swithenbank’s daughter Genevieve turns up in London in search of a fashion career. Genevieve carries just one suitcase, but is full of ideas and her outlandish outfits were so funny – one inflatable hoop dress brought back terrible memories of being stuck in a dress in Laura Ashley’s changing rooms and having to ring my Mum to get me out. Evie feeds Genevieve, lets her stay and starts introducing her to the right people. Every day she comes home, dejected from receiving lots of knockbacks, despite her inventive fashion portfolio. Every time Evie props her up and brings her spirit back. It was lovely to see Evie in this life stage, being the mentor and feeling so confident. As much as I love London, it was also nice to see her at home on the farm with old friends reunited and new ones being introduced, plus a very exciting finale which gives us a nod towards what Evie might do next. I can’t wait to celebrate this fantastic novel with a 1970s party. I’m hoping for a cheese and pineapple hedgehog and Babycham to toast this joyful new stage in the Evie story.

Published 21st July 2022 by Scribner UK

Meet The Author

Matson Taylor grew up in Yorkshire (the flat part not the Brontë part). He comes from farming stock and spent an idyllic childhood surrounded by horses, cows, bicycles, and cheap ice-cream. His father, a York City and Halifax Town footballer, has never forgiven him for getting on the school rugby team but not getting anywhere near the school football team.

Matson now lives in London, where he is a design historian and academic writing tutor at the V&A, Imperial College and the Royal College of Art. Previously, he talked his way into various jobs at universities and museums around the world; he has also worked on Camden Market, appeared in an Italian TV commercial and been a pronunciation coach for Catalan opera singers. He gets back to Yorkshire as much as possible, mainly to see family and friends but also to get a reasonably-priced haircut.

He has always loved telling stories and, after writing academically about beaded flapper dresses and World War 2 glow-in-the-dark fascinators, he decided to enrol on the Faber Academy ‘Writing A Novel’ course. All About Evie is his second novel.

Posted in Publisher Proof, Sunday Spotlight

Sunday Spotlight: All About Evie by Matson Taylor

So I’m having a book blogger’s dilemma. The arrival of this book through the door made me do a little Snoopy dance! There are a few books I’ve earmarked as my most anticipated summer reads, but this is right up there as my mostest anticipated novel. I know, we bloggers do love to throw out superlatives here and there, but I’ve honestly been waiting for this book ever since I finished The Misadventures of Evie Epworth two summers ago. Now I’m in an awful quandary. I want to devour it in one go, but once I do, the moment will have passed and Evie is gone again. I don’t know whether Evie’s story ends this time, or whether there’s more to come, so I’m trying to hang on for a little while, at least until my fellow Squadettes are reading so we can talk about it.

If you haven’t read Matson Taylor’s first novel then where have you been? I think this is one book where reading the previous instalment of Evie’s adventures is really helpful. You have a whole new literary heroine to meet and I think knowing where Evie comes from is vital in understanding her. I’m not going to use spoilers so it’s safe to read on. In book one we met Evie in the 1960’s, the summer after O’Levels and before A Levels. Her only plans for the summer are reading, helping their elderly neighbour with her baking and, most importantly, getting rid of her dad’s girlfriend who would like to see Evie working through her summer at the local salon. Christine has moved in and is slowly trying to erase everything Evie loves about the farmhouse, including her Adam Faith wall clock and that won’t do. Evie and her dad would like things to stay as they were when her Mum was alive. They love their Aga and old country kitchen, but Christine wants Formica and a new cooker that’s easier to clean. Her wardrobes are wall to wall pink, synthetic fabrics and she colonises the kitchen with her Mum and lumpen friend, who’re usually in tow. Her dad can’t seem to see that his girlfriend and daughter don’t get along, there’s quite a lot of avoidance practised here, he’s often got his head in the newspaper or listening to the cricket scores, or just popping out for a pint. Whatever the tactic, it means he hasn’t heard anything. This problem needs another woman to solve it. So, when her neighbour has an accident and her daughter Caroline arrives to look after her, the three women put their heads together to deal with the problem, just in time for the village fete and baking competition.

All About Evie starts ten years on from the previous novel with Evie settled in London and working at the BBC. She has all the things a 70’s girl could wish for – including an Ozzie Clark poncho. Then disaster hits. An incident with Princess Anne and a Hornsea Pottery mug means she must have a rethink about her future. So what can she do next? Will she be too old to do it? Most importantly, will it involve cork soled sandals? I have no qualms in saying this is my most anticipated book of the summer. I think I’ll have to compromise and as soon as I have a two week gap from blog tours I’ll be delving in to find out what happens next….

I’ll keep you informed.

Published by Scribner U.K. 21st July 2022.

Posted in Publisher Proof, Random Things Tours

Freckles by Cecilia Ahern

It seems a strange admission to start a review with, but I’ve never liked Cecilia Ahern’s books. In fact P.S. I Love You brings me out in a rash. There has always been something too saccharin and sweet about them. So, when I was browsing NetGalley and saw her new novel I had pretty low expectations, but the blurb piqued my interest and here I am swallowing my words. So, when I had a chance to come on the blog tour, I had to take it. I wanted to let other readers, maybe those who hadn’t liked her other novels, know that Freckles is a fantastic read and I absolutely LOVED it.

Five people.

Five chances.

One woman’s search for happiness.

Allegra Bird’s arms are scattered with freckles, a gift from her beloved father. But despite her nickname, Freckles has never been able to join all the dots. So when a stranger tells her that everyone is the average of the five people they spend the most time with, it opens up something deep inside.

The trouble is, Freckles doesn’t know if she has five people. And if not, what does that say about her? She’s left her unconventional father and her friends behind for a bold new life in Dublin, but she’s still an outsider.

Now, in a quest to understand, she must find not one but five people who shape her – and who will determine her future.

Told in Allegra’s vivid, original voice, moving from modern Dublin to the fierce Atlantic coast, this is an unforgettable story of human connection, of friendship, and of growing into your own skin.

Our heroine, Allegra Bird, is quirky, surprising, incredibly loveable, and finds other human beings quite difficult to understand. She’s a parking warden in her little corner of Dublin and every day has a strict routine. She walks down to the bakery where owner, Spanner, greets her with a coffee and a Belgian waffle. She then follows her route, making sure that the same car is parked outside a certain hairdressers, then makes her way to where a yellow Ferrari is constantly illegally parked. She has a small flat in a large family home, with babysitting duties as part of the deal. On Fridays she goes to a small art gallery in town where there’s a life drawing class. It turns out she’s the regular model – I said she was surprising – and she is fascinated with how the artists approach her freckles. There are some freckles that she used to scratch into star constellations, and she’s fascinated to see if they ignore them or over dramatise them as if they’re huge, angry slashes. This is her daily routine, but when she gives the man with the yellow Ferrari his umpteenth ticket, something changes. He tells her she’s the sum of the five people she’s closest too and he doesn’t mean it as a compliment. As a reader we can see that from his perspective Allegra is a pernickety, humourless, jobsworth. However, we also know that Allegra is sensitive and this really hits home with her. She doesn’t have five people – but what if she could curate her five from people who inspire her or who are really successful? If the theory is correct, then by curating her five she could curate her life, becoming more successful in the process.

The joy I felt in this novel was from seeing how Allegra related to other people. For her, other people behave in totally illogical ways (and I have to say I was in agreement with her about some of them – particularly her dreadful landlady). I loved the relationship with Tristan, built from his inability to park his Ferrari legally. She thinks she’s simply being helpful by taking him forms for permits, so is baffled when he illogically persists in paying from hour to hour, relying on his rather lazy staff to keep an eye on the time. These two hate each other at first, but watching as they try to understand each other is wonderful. When Allegra goes back home to visit her Dad she thinks she might slot back into island life easily. She imagines, like people do when they move away, that nothing will have changed when they return. Will old friends be there for Allegra and make up her five? When she’s with her Dad, we see where some of her quirks come from, because he isn’t the best at picking up other people’s signals either. She finds out he’s been stopped from attending his choir because he’s made a pass at one of the administrators, who has felt uncomfortable and made a complaint. He’s a man stuck in the behaviour of an earlier decade, he seems baffled that just touching a woman on the knee is enough to be labelled a pervert. He has brought Allegra up by himself, but she had come to an age where she wanted to know more about her mother and life beyond this place stranded in the Atlantic. When the results of her search are revealed, I was genuinely surprised. I felt so protective of Allegra by this point, I was desperate for everything to work out the way she wanted. It was this hope that created so much tension towards the end, and I couldn’t stop reading.

I loved Allegra’s unique voice as she lets us into her mind and her world. This wouldn’t be a Cecilia Ahern book without being heartwarming and full of humour, but this story is more complex than that. There are darker characters, parts that are more painful or remain unresolved, that show a real maturity and development. It’s about being proud of where you’re from, but also finding your authentic self – a journey that sometimes needs some distance from where we grew up. The author contrasts genuine, warm and accepting people with the false, Instagram brigade who are more interested in how life looks than how it is. Her characters are brilliant here, more complex and nuanced than I’ve seen before. There are even some that turn out to be deeply narcissistic and I wanted to protect Allegra from them. I loved the contrast between the city streets of Dublin and the wild Atlantic island Allegra calls home. In a way this is the decision she has to make. Where is home? Which place truly suits the person she is instead of the woman she thought she had to be in order to be accepted. Does she know that when we are our authentic selves, we attract people to us anyway. Our true five perhaps? All through the novel I found myself responding emotionally to the story, but Allegra’s character simply made me smile and perspective on her world made me smile inside. Not that she needs it, because I know millions love her writing, but if Ahern keeps writing characters like Freckles, she has found herself a brand new fan.

Meet The Author


After completing a degree in Journalism and Media Communications, Cecelia wrote her first novel at 21 years old. Her debut novel, PS I Love You was published in January 2004, and was followed by Where Rainbows End (aka Love, Rosie) in November 2004. Both novels were adapted to films; PS I Love You starred Hilary Swank and Gerard Butler, and Love, Rosie starred Lily Collins and Sam Claflin. 

Cecelia has published a novel every year since then and to date has published 15 novels; If You Could See Me Now, A Place Called Here, Thanks for the Memories, The Gift, The Book of Tomorrow, The Time of My Life, One Hundred Names, How To Fall in Love, The Year I Met You, The Marble Collector, Flawed, Perfect and Lyrebird. 

To date, Cecelia’s books have sold 25 million copies internationally, are published in over 40 countries, in 30 languages. 

Along with writing novels, Cecelia has co-created the US ABC Comedy Samantha Who? and has created many other original TV projects.

Posted in Damp Pebbles Tour

Your Friend Forever by Zena Barrie.

I was thrown back into a time warp with this book from Zena Barrie, because I was almost the same age as Maud at the same time. In the early eighties I was given my first cassette player and I loved Adam and the Ants – it think it was the same year I was given a stage make up kit so I could paint the white stripe across my face, although it didn’t have the same effect on an adolescent girl. I understood completely the place that Maud found herself in, a turbulent time at home and no one to talk to, plus being fascinated by a musician for the first time. I used to get Smash Hits and cut out lyrics and photos to collage on my note books. Maud picks up a pen and paper and writes to the lead singer of her favourite band Horsefly. While the family carries on with their own drama, Maud is asking Tom what to make of it, but also some of the bigger questions in life. Will her Mum and Dad get back together? Are teachers naturally clever people? Is her teacher Mr Hanson really having a wank in the stationery cupboard?

The author has that brilliant skill of making us laugh on one hand, while also being incredibly poignant at the same time. It reminded me of Sue Townsend and her wonderful teenage diarist Adrian Mole who manages to be hilariously funny while also worrying about life’s dramas that keep going on all around him. It’s not all fun for Maud as her Dad leaves, they can’t afford much so she’s often hungry, and the house is damp. Her clothes aren’t always washed and sometimes they don’t fit. Her mum is really struggling with depression, which comes across from her appearance and lack of care. The school don’t notice, which is so upsetting, although safeguarding in 1980 was different to the stringent regulations schools abide by now. Neglect is a very hard thing to call or prove, but terrible for the child involved. Yet through it all Maud is her charming, funny and endlessly questioning self. Not that she wants to make these enquiries of her friend Sarah, because she’s bound to get an answer that revolves around sex. In between there are snippets of interviews and exchanges of Tom’s that show us Maud really has very little idea about how a young music star would behave or spend his time.

We then jump to 2011 where Maud is 43 and married with two children. Tom meanwhile, is still trying to revive his career. Is Maud his only fan though? She begins corresponding with him again and I loved the brilliant way the author has written the narrative of a middle- aged woman, but with the same character that we’ve got to know from her teens. She’s still so open and confessional, but with some wisdom and experience. Tom is her sounding board, her journal, the person who has been there all the time. He hasn’t ‘known’ her, but she feels that connection, because he’s heard all her teenage secrets she’s held nothing back. In the same way she did as a girl, Maud uses her letters to Tom to understand herself and to stay sane in difficult times. The most poignant thing about her letters are that she hasn’t yet lost hope that things will get better. I think people will enjoy this, especially those who remember their teenage years with fondness.

Meet The Author.

Zena Barrie lives in Manchester and runs the Greater Manchester Fringe and the Camden Fringe. She ran the Kings Arms pub and Theatre in Salford for a while and also the Etcetera Theatre in Camden, as well as working in a wide variety of roles at the Edinburgh Fringe (from street performer to venue manager). In the 90s she did a degree in Drama and Theatre Arts specialising in playwriting. Up until recently she has been co-hosting the award winning spoken word night Verbose. She is also one half of performance art duo The Sweet Clowns. Your Friend Forever is her first novel. @ZenaBarrie