Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell.

Edinburgh in the 1930s. The Lennox family is having trouble with its youngest daughter. Esme is outspoken, unconventional, and repeatedly embarrasses them in polite society. Something will have to be done.

Years later, a young woman named Iris Lockhart receives a letter informing her that she has a great-aunt in a psychiatric unit who is about to be released.

Iris has never heard of Esme Lennox and the one person who should know more, her grandmother Kitty, seems unable to answer Iris’s questions. What could Esme have done to warrant a lifetime in an institution? And how is it possible for a person to be so completely erased from a family’s history?

This book was the first Maggie O’Farrell I ever read, and it really is a little gem. I fell head over heels for the confused and bewildered Esme, discharged from the mental health unit she’s been in for almost sixty years. Great niece Iris, is contacted out of the blue, to be told that the unit is closing and patients are ok to be looked after in the community. Iris had no idea she even existed. In a dual timeline we learn how she and Iris get on, but also how this family managed to remove Esme from their tree so completely. Where does it begin?

Let us begin with two girls at a dance… Or perhaps not. Perhaps it begins earlier, before the party. Before they dressed in their new finery, before the candles were lit, before the sand was sprinkled on the boards, before the years whose end they were celebrating first began. Who knows? Either way it ends at a grille covering a window, with each square exactly two thumbnails wide.

The beauty of Maggie O’Farrell’s description here is typical. A layering of small details captured in the narrator’s mind, that takes us to the preparations for the party towards the end of the book, but also how it appears in our narrator’s field of vision. We drift across three narrators: Esme, her sister Kitty and their great-niece Iris. They stumble across each other sometimes, one pushing in before the other’s quite finished as families tend to do. Esme was a feisty, wild little girl in a time when there were rules about how little girls should behave. In a household overseen by their rather austere grandmother, with her mother and father struggling to control her. This is the 1930s, so their methods are cruel, tying her to a chair for example and forgetting about her. One day they leave her home while they go on a trip out, not wanting to deal with her behaviour. While she and her baby brother Hugo are alone, something terrible happens and from then on, their mother will barely look at her.

We hear through Kitty’s narrative, how differently the family treats her. Now in a nursing home, suffering from dementia, Kitty has always told her great niece that she was an only child, but Esme’s papers prove she is Kitty’s sister. Kitty remembers in fits and starts, disjointed scenes that come to her, then drift away again. This is beautifully managed by the author, who creates a fragile lace work of memories, that shed further light on the sister’s relationship. Kitty was the conforming child, moulded to the will of the family. Esme was more inventive, creative and has constant questions. Finally there’s Iris’s narrative and she really had enough on her plate already, without having a great-aunt with psychiatric problems dropped on her without warning. She has a vintage shop, a married lover who won’t make a decision and a grandmother with dementia to visit. Now she’s fascinated with what she’s discovered, while trying to understand what happened to Esme. She trawls the records at the old Cauldstone Hospital, discovering a list of women and the reason for their admittance to the asylum. She reads with horror, that within these walls, were women who had wandered from the house at night, another who had taken too many long walks, refused too many offers of marriage or had eloped with a legal clerk. All of these reasons deemed enough to commit a woman to time in the asylum, often forgotten about.

What slowly emerges is a heartbreaking secret, so terrible it stuns Esme to silence. I love the way that the author understands how psychological trauma can affect someone. In Esme’s case a build-up of traumatic incidents and abusive behaviour slowly breaks her down. It’s distressing to see a girl with such spirit, slowly being broken like a wild horse. After sixty years inside she has turned into this mute, biddable old lady. Having worked in mental health for over twenty years, I understand the dilemma of what to do with people who are so institutionalised they can’t cope outside the walls of their prison. I looked after some of these people in the 1990s as homes closed and terrified people were being pushed out into the community. Perhaps because of them, Esme is one of those characters I fell in love with. What she experiences is so hard to overcome and I found myself at turns furious and devastated for her. The ending was perhaps inevitable, but still took me aback. This book has stayed with me for years and I think it always will.

Meet The Author

Maggie O’Farrell is the author of the Sunday Times no. 1 bestselling memoir I AM, I AM, I AM, and eight novels: AFTER YOU’D GONE, MY LOVER’S LOVER, THE DISTANCE BETWEEN US, which won a Somerset Maugham Award, THE VANISHING ACT OF ESME LENNOX, THE HAND THAT FIRST HELD MINE, which won the 2010 Costa Novel Award, INSTRUCTIONS FOR A HEATWAVE, which was shortlisted for the 2013 Costa Novel Award, THIS MUST BE THE PLACE, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Costa Novel Award, and HAMNET which readers will know was my favourite book of last year. She lives in Edinburgh.

Posted in Publisher Proof

Let In The Light by Gerard Nugent.

I truly enjoyed this story based around the music scene in Glasgow, most specifically Hope Street where Richie Carlisle works in a music shop. We first meet him after he’s had his big musical break and is now back in his home town. Despite working all day alongside musical instruments he doesn’t play much these days, so it’s only when Ally comes into the shop with an idea for a community music group using the local pub as a venue that he thinks of picking up the guitar again. Richie has settled into his life, where he lives alone,but has his son Finn on weekends and has Sunday dinner round at his mums. He knows everyone on Hope Street by name and it feels as if Richie has a little community around him.

It’s a far cry from a few years before when one night playing in the local pub’s Friday Night Jukey! changes the course of his life. A handful of musicians would come ready to play and the audience would shout out requests – always starting with the Proclaimers o”f course. On this night Richie notices a beautiful woman and when she asks for Crowded House he decides to go for a more obscure track, w.hich gets them talking afterwards. There’s something special about her. On the same night he is approached by a manager in the music industry looking for a vocalist for Karl King’s band. He thinks Richie might fit the bill, despite having a complicated past with Karl. Here are two chances in one night: to start a relationship with Penny and see where it goes, or to head down to London and the possibility of music stardom. He tries a compromise and promises to give it five months, and if the band hasn’t taken off he will come back to Glasgow. Penny agrees to a long distance relationship and when his song Let in the Light is recorded both of them think this is it, they are bound for the charts. However, that isn’t what fate has in store for them.

Richie is such a likeable character, in the present day it’s clear he cares about his family and his much older boss at the music shop. He still cares about Penny, even though they’ve broken up and their son Finn ( the Finn brothers from Crowded House) is his absolute world. He’s a little melancholic and stuck in a routine, so the music group could be good to take him out of that head space. It may also shake off his fear of performing, performing in front of others causes huge anxiety ever since he seize up on stage years before at a festival. It’s like he can feeling his throat closing and he can’t even gasp for breath, never mind get out a tune. Ally’s group seems to bring him out of himself and as he closes his eyes to sing he feels at one with performing again. He’s noticed Ally, giving out a bit of encouragement here and listening to another person’s problems there. Whenever she pops into the shops she’s a little ray of sunshine and I started to get the feeling she might be very good for Richie. Yet, he still can’t get Penny out of his mind. When she suddenly announces that she might return down under to her home country of New Zealand Richie can’t believe that she would take Finn away with her.

Everything is changing. The pub may be closing. His old music manager is back in the picture with news about Karl King. Penny puts the house up for rent. He’s at his most vulnerable when he’s asked to perform one final gig at the pub in Hope Street. Can he do it? This might seem a light story, and the writing certainly is. It’s funny in parts too. Yet it has a central message about being true to who you are, and where you’re from. It’s very positive about mental health and how it’s possible to find ways to manage these emotions when they get out of proportion. It suggests looking to our communities for help and support too, many other people have the same struggles and can have the best tips. I really wanted Richie and Finn to succeed. However, I did find myself a bit irked with Penny. So much so I was hoping he’d end up with Ally. When Penny decides to move back home, it’s like she hasn’t even thought of how devastating this will be, not just for Richie, but for the wider family. Finn belongs to all of them and needs them all in his life. The story of Karl King, tells us that we need roots and ways of belonging to get by in life. None of us can stand alone. This is a great novel, with moving, realistic characters and an enjoyable musical plot. Now I need to go and create a Spotify playlist of the songs featured and inspired by reading this book.

Meet The Author

Gerard was born and raised in Edinburgh, Scotland. He moved to England in his 20s and worked in various northern towns before settling in beautiful Yorkshire with his family and two guinea pigs. He has written three albums (two of which will never be released!) In 2019, he attended a writing class to help him generate ideas for further songwriting, but, instead, started writing a novel.

And this is where it’s ended up. Stay tuned.

Posted in Publisher Proof

The Existence of Amy by Lana Grace Riva

This book is a great insight into something a lot of readers will relate to, especially at the current time when we’re in the middle of the third lockdown of this pandemic. Mental health referrals are soaring, particularly for anxiety, OCD and depression, and although I’m not counselling at the moment I know there are clients who would really benefit from reading this book. It definitely helped me too. Some people expect counsellors to have their mental health in tip top condition, but often we’re ‘wounded healers’ who have experienced mental ill health. I’ve had bouts of depression and anxiety in the past, and so do others in my family, which lead me to a career in mental health. I encourage clients to read books like this one. There’s a great sense of solidarity in knowing you are not alone, gaining an insight into what someone else’s inner thoughts are like, and how they affect their day to day lives.

Amy is the narrator of the novel and despite functioning well on the surface, she has all three of the conditions I’ve already mentioned. Amy works full time, has a home to maintain and manages to keep up with friends. On the outside she is coping. Inside though, she is battling against a constant, exhausting, barrage of intrusive and dark thoughts. I thought the author did an incredible job of creating this relatable and loveable character, because it helps the reader empathise with her daily difficulties and journey moving forwards. It’s a very difficult balancing act to show the reader how it feels to be in Amy’s shoes while creating an easy and engaging read that never felt too heavy. The writer shows us how simply daily living, like going on a bus journey. Amy has to somehow negotiate paying, balancing while the bus is moving, and getting the bus to stop while all the time her brain is screaming ‘Don’t touch that handrail’ or ‘don’t press the button’. Then the hardest part of all is keeping a serene, swan-like surface so that nobody around her notices anything different. Followed by the constant worry about whether people noticed or thought she was weird.

I felt Amy was in a position a lot of people with these mental health conditions face; she could identify her anxieties and concerns as ‘wrong thinking’ but she needed coping strategies for day to day. At lot of readers might identify this as a time when they were part way through therapy, or when facing a flare-up of their symptoms and needing to update or refresh their coping skills.

I found Amy very difficult to leave within the pages of the book when finished. She played on my mind for a few days as I thought about her struggle and what insights I’d gained from the novel. Therapists read case studies all the time, but it was impactful to experience Amy in the format of a novel. Clients bring to therapy their frame of reference. The therapist sees events through their eyes and accepts their account as their ‘lived experience’ without judgement. There are times when we might sense another version of events, and this is what the novel gave me. I felt more immersed in her life, could see how she functioned with family and friends, and in her work situation. The author stripped away all the medicalised jargon and the impersonal language of a case study and instead gave me a fully-fledged person to know inside and out. I did find myself running through how I would help and support Amy.

The novel emphasised something I’ve always thought vital for someone experiencing these conditions; the existence of a strong, support network. In fact, Amy hits her lowest point when her closest friend announces she’s moving overseas. When we’re feeling mentally unwell we don’t always recognise or feel able to accept offers of help. Being honest with friends and family about how we feel and allowing them to support and help us as we move on is so important I felt a lot of hope for Amy going forward, and for the clients I will be able to help more fully after reading her journey.

Meet The Author

Lana Grace Riva has written two books, one nonfiction the other fiction, both based on her experiences of mental health. Her first book ‘Happier Thinking’ is a short collection of tips and exercises to maintain a healthy mind. Her second book ‘The Existence Of Amy’ is a fictional story based on a very real depiction of mental illness. 

Instagram: @lanagraceriva
Twitter: @lanagraceriva

If you enjoyed this I would also recommend the memoir Pure by Rose Cartwright for an insight into Pure OCD.

Posted in Netgalley

If I Could Say Goodbye by Emma Cooper.

#NetGalley #HeadlineReview #IfICouldSayGoodbye

Published: 17th September 2020

Publisher: Headline Review

ISBN: 1472265041

What an incredibly emotional read this was for me. I found myself having a good old cry at 4am over Jen and her family’s story. It begins when Jennifer is adopted by a childless couple and four years later gets an unexpected little sister. Kerry is a determined, mischievous and curious little girl and the pair are incredibly close. In adulthood, the two are still inseparable. Jen now has husband Ed and two children while Kerry has a long term partner in Nessa, who she is hoping to propose to. When a terrible accident happens while the sisters are on a shopping trip for an engagement ring, Kerry is killed. Now Jen needs to find a way to carry on living, but the survivor’s guilt and grief are very strong. As Jen starts to lose herself in her memories of her sister, it becomes clear that Jen can’t let Kerry go. Yet, by keeping hold of her sister, will she end up losing her own family?

This is my second book by Emma Cooper and after reading this she has been bumped up to my list of favourites – those authors where I know I’m guaranteed a great story, emotional impact and believable characters. She has the talent to combine a big emotional punch, with a sprinkling of humour which isn’t easy to do. I honestly fell in love with these characters and their relationships with each other. Jen is a very organised and capable woman, who loves spending time with her family and creating a beautiful home. I loved her with Ed and the way the author has created a balance of the romantic and the mundane into their relationship. There’s enough of a love story to draw us in, but we see the normality too as they get the children ready for school, do the grocery shop and get involved with school activities. Underneath the daily grind though is a strong love and passion for each other. Yet it is becoming tested by changes in Jen. Ed has noticed that Jen doesn’t seem as organised as usual and is often staring off into space. Then at other times she is almost over-excited and far be it from him to complain about more sex, but well, he wasn’t complaining exactly… it just isn’t like his wife. He worries, but labels these changes as part of the grieving process. He doesn’t know what we know. Jen can still see Kerry and talk to her. Kerry has been fuelling the recklessness he’s seen such as daring Jen to leap off a cliff into the sea. There’s a point when Ed realises that this isn’t just getting lost in memories. For Jen, Kerry is as real as he is or even the children and what will he do when this starts to affect them?

This was a tough, but loving and humorous portrayal of the journey relationships take when one partner is struggling mentally. I found the alternate chapters between Jen and Ed so effective because we can see the same events through both sets of eyes, sometimes with very conflicting results. I was so torn because I loved both of them, I wanted them to be together but I could understand each viewpoint too. Ed wants his wife back, the person he fell in love with and his best friend. He wants to be a family, but wants to protect their children too. Jen has a heartbreaking dilemma. Does she follow medical advice and take the pills that might make Kerry disappear forever? The psychiatrist who sees Jen and diagnoses complicated grief understands what she’s feeling. This is survivor’s guilt; Jen wonders why she survived and Kerry didn’t. Kerry saved her life by pushing her away from the oncoming vehicle. In Jen’s mind she’s already killed her once. Now she feels like she’s killing her all over again.

This was a tough read because I struggle with complicated grief. In 2007, as regular readers will know, my husband died from pneumonia as a complication of Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis. It had been coming for some time, but for the final year of his life I was his carer for 24 hours almost every day, unless I had a Marie Curie nurse. He was dependent on me for food, drink, medication and all bodily functions, even breathing. Three months before he died I agreed that he needed to be admitted to a nursing home from hospital. One of our carers was injured and I couldn’t have managed alone. I knew when I made that choice it was very likely he would die. For a few weeks after his death, I would see him out of the corner of my eye, sitting in his wheelchair looking out into the garden. I could also hear the mechanism of his wheelchair and a little beep it used to make. I realised that this wasn’t really Jerzy, this was me being unable to let go. In therapy I talked about survivor’s guilt and how I felt I had killed him by sanctioning the nursing home. I knew rationally I couldn’t have done anything else, but emotionally it’s been very hard to accept my own choice. I also have multiple sclerosis but in a milder form and I discuss choices and possibilities at length with my new partner, because I would hate him to go through the same thing. Reading this was emotional, I did cry, but I also felt less alone with my experience.

The author has taken a really tough subject, but made it warm and humorous. I love the way Kerry is often doing things she did as a little girl like standing on her head or blowing bubblegum. She also sits in the oddest places and actively tries to make Jen laugh. The wider family were lovely too, willing to support and help out with the children or Jen. Her mum is always full of good sensible advice and their acceptance of this peculiar phenomenon is brilliant. The final scenes choked me up. They made me sad for what I lost back then as well as for Jen. I was desperate for her and Ed to make it and come back together as a family. The night I finished the book I was an angling widow! My partner and my brother went night fishing, so I was alone for the final chapters. I had a good cry on the dog – he’s very absorbent. I found myself very thankful for the new chance of love that I’ve had with my partner over the last couple of years. All I wanted to do was hold him close and tell him how much I loved him. This is an honest story about how complicated grief can be, but never lets us forget that where there is grief there is always great love.


Emma Cooper is a former teaching assistant, who lives in Shropshire, with her partner and four children. Her spare time consists of writing novels, drinking wine and watching box-sets with her partner of twenty-four years, who still makes her smile every day.

Her debut, The Songs of Us was snapped up in multiple pre-empts and auctions and is now being translated into seven different languages. Her last novel The First Time I Saw You was also a bestseller.