Category Archives: Book Reviews

Scandalous secrets of how hospital doctors are treated

This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor by Adam Kay: book review

If you’ve ever required treatment at a National Health Service hospital, you’ll know how frustrating that can be:

  • Lengthy waits to see a specialist/consultant.
  • Clinic appointments  running hours behind schedule
  • Surgery dates postponed or cancelled.

Sound familiar?

It’s easy to feel after those experiences, that the much-lauded public health service in the UK has reached a breaking point. That it’s on the point of collapse.

Adam Kay’s memoirs make it evident it’s the selfless efforts of junior doctors that prevent it from collapsing.

Equally clear however is that their dedication comes at a huge personal cost.

This is Going to Hurt is a painfully honest memoir from one junior doctor  on the frontline of the NHS.  Adam Kay worked in hospitals for six years. He hung up his stethoscope in 2010 after a traumatic experience with a mother and baby in his surgery.

I’ve read enough newspaper reports to know that junior hospital doctors (those below consultant level) are poorly paid and over-worked. In 2016, in a bitter dispute over employment contracts, they staged the first strike in the history of the NHS. The dispute was settled only this week.

Undermined by bureaucracy

What I hadn’t realised until reading Adam Kay’s book was how much these professionals are undervalued and their expertise undermined.

Junior doctors give up their personal time and put marriages and friendships at risk rather than walk away from patients whose lives are in danger.

Yet scandalously ….

….they get charged for parking their car at the hospital.  And fined when they over-stay ( even when their delay was caused by an emergency patient);

… doctors have to find their own cover when they inconveniently fall ill and

… they are not allowed to sleep on a  spare patient bed after an 18 hour shift. They have to make do with a chair.

I was astounded to discover just how relentlessly gruelling are the lives of junior doctors.  The system makes it virtually impossible for them to have any kind of life outside their work.

It was not unusual for Kay to work a 100 hour week.

He describes times when he fell asleep in his car, in the hospital grounds, or at the traffic lights. Once he nodded off while sitting on an operating theatre stool waiting for his patient to be wheeled in.

On one occasion he was recalled from a long overdue holiday in Mauritius because the doctor meant to be covering his shift was ill. The  hospital refused to pay for a locum. He lost count of the number of  anniversaries, birthdays, weddings and theatre performances he missed “because of work.”

What kept him going was the positive feeling he would get after a shift in which he delivered multiple babies or aided infertile couples to become parents.

Comedy amid the tragedy

Although Kay doesn’t hold back from describing tense situations, when the life of his patient hung on a thread, he balances the darkness with flippancy and witty repartee.

When the doctors and nurses are not attending to patients, they’re busy swapping jokes and anecdotes about the bizarre conditions presented by some of their patients. I suspect this is the kind of black humour often used by police officers and firemen.  It’s a kind of release valve for people working in the emergency services.

Adam Kay has plenty of stories.

There’s the one about the drunken woman who climbed over a fence to get away from policemen. She slipped and ended up in emergency with a metal pole thrust through her vagina. After removal she calmly asked if she could take the pole home as a souvenir.

Or the tale of another woman who secreted a Kinder egg containing an engagement ring, intending to give her boyfriend the surprise of his life. It worked, though maybe not the way she intended, when the egg got stuck…

As a specialist in obstetrics and gynaecology he encountered a surprisingly large number of people who arrived at hospital with foreign objects in their rectums. The staff are so familiar with the problem they’ve even found a name for it: “Eiffel syndrome” (to understand the joke you need to say the following words aloud – “I fell, doctor! I fell!”).

Not all encounters generate humour. Medical staff are often confronted by aggressive patients and family members, or patients who make unreasonable demands. There’s a particularly yucky case he mentions in which an expectant mother wants to eat her placenta. He gets his revenge by ‘accidentally’ revealing the gender of the baby to the most aggressive of the expectant parents.

Lack of investment

This Is Going to Hurt swings between flippancy and  frustration. Some of Adam Kay’s criticism is  directed at hospital administrators for their propensity to introduce ever more new rules. But he lays the greatest blame on the shoulders of politicians who had failed to invest in the NHS over several years, leading to staff demoralisation.

My over-riding impression however is that Adam Kay loved the NHS and preferred to work in the public sector even when private practice would have been more financially rewarding.

Asked to represent the medical profession at a school’s careers event he decides honesty is the best approach:

So I told them the truth: the hours are terrible, the pay is terrible, the conditions are terrible; you’re under-appreciated, unsupported, disrespected and frequently physically endangered. But there’s no better job in the world.

This was a fabulously engaging book that was a good companion to Do No Harm by the neurosurgeon Henry Marsh that I read earlier this year.

Funny, informative and poignant it ends on a note of frustration, particularly when Kay describes the agonising event that prompted his resignation. It let to the death of both baby and mother following a caesarian operation. Although Kay had followed all the correct procedures, he still blamed himself. He suffered a period of depression but was not given any therapy by the hospital or allowed time off to recover. After a few months he handed in his resignation.


This Is Going to Hurt: footnotes 

This is Going to Hurt was published in 2017 by Picador.

It’s written in the form of diary entries that were maintained by Kay during his medical training and his time as a hospital doctor.  The diaries were intended as a  “reflective practice” in which he could log any interesting clinical experiences he experienced. He used the material, suitably anonymised to write his book.

He has since embarked on a career as a comedian and scriptwriter. His new book Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas, is published in October 2019.

Read an interview with him in The Guardian newspaper.

Why Nancy Mitford’s “genius” novel left me underwhelmed

Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford

Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate is supposed to be the novel that best displays her reputed “genius” for sharp and provocative wit.

Naturally, I was expecting to encounter writing that fizzed, crackled and sparkled as Mitford pricked the bubble of complacency surrounding rich, aristocratic families.

What I got instead was a slightly funny book parading the absurdities of a bunch of people who are supremely confident in many things, but particularly their superiority above all other mortals.

I felt cheated. Much like you do when you pull the Christmas cracker but end up with nothing more than a feeble pop and an empty roll of coloured cardboard. Not even a tiny packet of playing cards or a giant paper clip to make the effort worthwhile. 

An Unsuitable Match

Love In a Cold Climate brings us the tale of Polly Hampton, more properly known as Lady Leopoldina. She’s the only child of an immensely rich and very aristocratic  Earl of Montdore and his wife, Sonia.

Polly shines amid the debutants who have flocked to London for the ‘season’; the annual series of glittering balls and big social occasions whose real purpose is to find a marriage partner.  Much to her mother’s frustration, however, Polly shows little interest in the London season and the men she meets consider her cold and aloof.

The cause of Polly’s indifference is revealed to her shocked family: she’s been in love with  her uncle, “Boy” Dougdale since she was fourteen. She’s hell bent on marriage to a man considered by all and sundry to be eminently unsuitable as a husband; he’s a serial womaniser and known for his lecherous behaviour towards young girls.

Polly is determined to have her own way. Her punishment is banishment and disinheritance.

Mitford’s characters 

You won’t find a lot of humour in the plot.  The wit resides instead in Mitford’s characterisation, in particular the figures of Lady Montdore and Uncle Matthew.

Matthew is great fun as a character. because he’s so over the top.  He plays the role of a conventional English Lord very well, with his love of hunting, fishing, shooting and his firm belief in the importance of lineage. He has little tolerance for silly, ignorant women and even less for the business of bringing girls out into society (expensive nonsense in his eyes).

The most fascinating character is however Lady Montdore.

A portrait of egotism

She’s a woman who is so easy to dislike with her  “worldly greed and snobbishness, her terrible relentless rudeness.”  The forcefulness of her personality  generally ensures that she gets her own way, whatever the situation though she can also exploit the social status conferred by her husband’s title and wealth.

So wrapped up in her desires to be the hostess with the mostest and to secure a brilliant marriage for her daughter, Lady Montdore has no idea how condescending she can appear. Marriages of acquaintances and relatives are dismissed as inferior and inappropriate unless they involve solid assets like “acres, coal mines, real estate, jewels, silver, pictures..”  All of the things in fact that her husband has in vast quantitites.

She’s not afraid to use her influence to prevent such a social calamity. Upon discovering  that her daughter’s friend Fanny has made a  “quite ridiculous” engagement to a professor, she offers to call the editor of the Times on the girl’s behalf, to retract the announcement.

Masterclass in how to patronise

One of the funniest scenes in the novel is when Her Ladyship makes an unplanned afternoon visit to  the – now married – Fanny.  It’s a master class in how to be patronising.

I suppose your husband is a clever man , at least so Montdore tells me. Of course it’s a thousand pities he is so dreadfully poor –  I hate to see you  living in this horrid little hovel, so unsuitable.

And with that she wrinkles her nose at the weak tea and broken digestive biscuits served without the nicety of a plate or napkin.

But worse is to follow when Lady Montdore puts on her “we’re hard done by” act:

It’s all very well for funny little people like you to read the books the whole time, you only have yourselves to consider, whereas Montdore and I are public servants in a way, we have something to live up to, tradition and so on, duties to perform, you know, it’s a very different matter. A great deal is expected of us, I think and I hope it’s not in vain. It’s a hard life, make no mistake about that, hard and tiring but occasionally we have our reward  – when people get a chance to show how they worship us, for instance when we came back from India and the dear villages pulled our motor car up the drive, Really touching!

If only all of the novel could have been as delicious as this episode.

The saga of this odd romance and its consequences are related by Fanny Wincham, a distant cousin of Polly and a frequent visitor to the family’s home.

And therein lay my biggest issue with this novel: Fanny is a very dull girl. Fanny is the sensible one, the friend who longs for a stable life (understandable perhaps when you’re mother is known as ‘The Bolter’ because she left so many men in the dust)

I suppose Fanny had to be rather ordinary, in order to make a sharp contrast with the larger than life characters of her Uncle Matthew and Polly’s mother, Lady Montdore. But I would have appreciated a narrator with a little more to her than this ‘nice’ but tepid individual. Perhaps then her observations would have helped the book live up to its much vaunted status as the work of a genius.


Footnotes

About the author

Nancy Mitford was one of six daughters of a British aristocratic family (the very class she features in her novels). The siblings achieved fame/notoriety in 1930s, three of them because of their political affiliations. A journalist for The Times, Ben Macintyre, labelled them “Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover; Nancy the Novelist; Deborah the Duchess and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur”.

Why I read this book

I added Love in a Cold Climate to my Classics Club list having seen it described as a “masterpiece’ of witticism. I also included her earlier novel The Pursuit of Love but now I’m wondering if that will be just as disappointing.

Want to know more

  • Read more about the Mitford family in this BBC article.
  • Vanity Fair has a published an interesting feature  exploring why the six Mitford sisters continue to fascinate people.
  • Ali who blogs at HeavenAli is more of a fan of the Mitford writers, than I seem to be. Check out her reviews here. 

3 lousy books to confuse and frustrate

I thought when I retired that I’d not only have oodles of time available to read but that I’d be quite prompt with my reviews.  Neither has proved to be the case.

Instead of filling my days with reading and blogging, I’m juggling Pilates classes, the gym, gardening, National Trust volunteering, coffee shop visits with friend. Not that I’m complaining. It just means I have less time available to write content for the blog.

It’s been getting steadily worse over the last two years. Despite best intentions about wanting to do justice to each book I know I’m never going to catch up if I try and write full reviews for everything.

So I’m going to be sharing some mini reviews until I get the backlog down to a reasonable level.

Let’s start with three books that turned out to be so disappointing I had to abandon them well before the end.

Reading Through the Night by Jane Tompkins

Published by University of Virginia Press., June 2019.  My copy was provided by Net Galley in exchange for a fair review.

Reading through the nightJane Tompkins was a literature professor but when she succumbed to myalgic encephalomyelitis (also known as chronic fatigue syndrome), reading was about the only activity she could manage.

Her relationship with books and the experience of reading changed substantially. She began to examine whether instead of reading for pleasure, a close examination of a book could provide profound insights into her life.

Her path of introspection begins with Sir Vidia’s Shadow by Paul Theroux, a memoir of his friendship and falling out with the Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul.

The book contains a detailed discussion of this book and Tompkins reactions to different episodes.

I happen to have read – and thoroughly enjoyed – Theroux’s book so I could relate to some of Tompkins’ comments. But she went overboard with page after page of commentary and analysis. I had been expecting to learn about the power of reading to sustain people through difficult times. But this felt more like an academic paper tracing patterns of feelings and behaviours.

I kept thinking surely she would move on to other books or authors. But not a bit of it. Tompkins became so enthused by learning about Theroux that she then progressed to another of his books (The Old Patagonian Express) . And so we were treated to yet another detailed analysis.

At which point (about 25% of the way into the book) I decided enough was enough.

The Midwife by Katja Kettu

the midwifePublished by Amazon Crossing 2016.  My copy was provided by Net Galley in exchange for a fair review.

The synopsis of this book sounded promising. It takes place in the final years of World War II when the Soviet Union and Germany are fighting for control of Finland. This is the backdrop for a romance between a woman nicknamed “Weird-Eye” ,who works as a midwife, and a war photographer who works for the SS.

Unfortunately the author seems to think her readers are deeply interested in the details of Finnish history at this time. Her book begins with a detailed timeline of events the significance of which was lost on me. When the narrative does get underway it becomes even more confusing – the narrative is written in the first person but it switches perspectives between different characters whose identity is not immediately obvious. Too confusing to be a pleasurable experience.  Abandoned after 10%.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

seven killingsPublished by OneWorld Publications in 2015.

This won the Booker Prize in 2015. It relates the story of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley (never referred to by name, only as  “the singer”) and its aftermath. I knew it was written partly in Jamaican patois but once I ‘tuned in” that didn’t present a problem.

The real difficulty was that it has a vast array of characters – the cast list at the beginning shows 75 names. Around a dozen of these jump in to tell their story. One is an American journalist, another is a kid called Bam Bam who saw his father shot in the head. There are several gangsters and a prostitute. Since their appearances are often short, I kept forgetting who they all were. That plus the non linear narrative made the whole book far too confusing.

I gave it a good shot but in the end decided I had far more enjoyable books waiting on the shelves.

 

Obscene and vile: why Zola’s novels ruined a publisher

Zola and the VictoriansIf you were asked to think of a court case involving the thorny question of censorship and fiction, what books or authors would come to mind? D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover perhaps? Or Flaubert’s Madame Bovary?

Coming more up to date, how about the 1933 obscenity trial concerning James Joyce’s Ulysses or the 1961 case involving Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer which went all the way to the US Supreme Court?

No less significant, yet less well known, is the 1888 prosecution of Henry Vizetelly, the elderly head of a family publishing business in London.

His crime: publishing English language editions of some of the  most provocative and “vile” novels written by Emile Zola. His punishment: prison, the collapse of his health and the ruin of his business.

Zola and the Victorians by Eileen Horne  is a fictionalised account of the history of this case. Using court and Parliamentary records, letters and newspaper reports, Horne weaves a narrative showing how Vizetelly became the target of the National Vigilance Society – a group of moral vigilantes who wanted to rid England of “vile literature”.

According to the society young girls were being led to prostitution because of cheap translated versions of books by Emile Zola. In 1888 they launched a prosecution for obscene libel against Henry Vizetelly, Zola’s British publisher.

Three titles from Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series were used as evidence in the subsequent Old Bailey trial: Nana, The Soil (La Terre) and Piping Hot! (Pot Bouille). They were books, the court was told, that featured rapes, pregnancies, menstruation, nudity and women’s sexuality. 

Against such an attack Vizetelly’s argument about the artistic merits of these work by “a great French writer”, held no sway.

Emile Zola’s book La Terre “is a filthy book from end to end,” the chief prosecuting counsel tells the jury.  “I will not call what I am about to read literature. There can be no question of literature with regard to this garbage.” 

He and his sons were ordered to cease publication and sale of the offending books. Faced with financial ruin, they tried to ‘soften’ the translations to make them more acceptable. But even that wasn’t enough – Vizetelly was hauled back into court and this time, the result was a prison sentence.

Naturally Horne devotes a large proportion of the book to the legal case but doesn’t drag her narrative down with exhaustive details of the legal arguments used in the Old Bailey trials.

Her approach is rather to focus on how the whole saga affects the people involved, particularly Vizetelly and his son Ernest who was translator of Zola’s texts.  Horne takes us into the heart of the family, ‘listening in’ to their conversations and their differing views on how to respond to the accusations. Vizetelly comes across as a proud man who believes right is on his side and will not listen to his son’s voice of caution.

By the time he finishes his sentence he is a frail old man.

He is a free man but he is broken. The many weeks of poor hygiene and haphazard medical attention in insalubrious quarters have ruined him physically as surely as the court’s verdict ruined him financially.

Emile_Zola

Emile Zola in 1902. Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons License

The sections of the book that take place in France were actually more interesting than the court case. Most of these are set in Zola’s home, a very large country villa expanded to include a “Nana tower” and a “Germinal Tower”  and reveal much about his process of writing. 

Apparently after a daily walk, Emile Zola would change into his writing clothes – a version of “peasant’ clothes chosen so they didn’t cause itches and thus distract him. He knew exactly the trajectory of the book he was currently working upon. He had done a preliminary plan and research (often that took him longer to complete that did the actual writing). His pace was so measured that he could predict how long each book will take him to write.

Emile Zola didn’t emerge from this book as a very likeable man. He never lent  any support to the Vizetelly, instead actually telling a journalist that he would be pleased if the prosecution succeeded. He would prefer, he said, that people read his books in the original French instead of being sold in “wretchedly done translations to the uneducated who cannot comprehend me.” Ouch…

Zola and the Victorians reveals a fascinating episode in British publishing history.  It pitted moral outrage (and more than a dash of hypocrisy) against literary merits, a clash which continued right through to the watershed trial of Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960. 

Less engaging is the way in which Thorne tells the tale. The mixing of present and past tenses irritated me enormously, the reported conversations among the family seldom sounded authentic and the characters came across as one dimensional. I’m not regretting reading this book, if for no other reason than it’s given me an appetite to read those three Emile Zola novels for myself. 


Footnote

Zola and the Victorians was published in hardback by Maclehose Press in 2015.  American-born Eileen Horne worked as a television producer for twenty years before setting up her own production company.  She now combines writing adaptations for television and radio with teaching and editing.

Since reading Zola and The Victorians I’ve  heard of another book about Zola that sounds interesting: The Disappearance of Emile Zola: Love, Literature and the Dreyfus Case by Michael Rosen. It deals with a period in 1898 when Zola fled France because of hostility around his intervention in the Dreyfus case.

Courage and hope in the midst of war: The Hotel Tito [review]

The Hotel Tito by Ivana Bodroziç

Images of death and destruction in a hitherto little known corner of Europe filled our television screens in the early 1990s.  Week after week saw ever more alarming reports about the thousands of people forced to flee as the Croatian war of independence advanced on their homes.

Croatian war of independence

The Hotel Tito is a novel about that experience of displacement told through the eyes of a young girl.

When war breaks out in 1991 she is nine years old. She is sent from her home town of Vukovar to take a seaside holiday far away from the hostilities.

By the time she returns at the end of summer, everything that was familiar no longer exists.

Her father has disappeared while fighting with the Croatian forces. Her town has become a battle ground fought over with shells and rockets.

It’s not safe to stay in Vukovar so she, her mother and elder brother join a stream of residents who become refugees in Zagreb. But then they are evicted and end up in Kumrovec  – a village near to Zagreb, on the Croatian-Serbian border.

And there they are stuck for three years, sharing a one room apartment in the former Political School (known as  Hotel Tito in homage to the village’s most famous son Josip Tito, former president of Yugoslavia). 

Hotel Tito by Ivana BodrozicLife in Hotel Tito:  a strange existence.

The large conference rooms of the Hotel Tito have been re-assigned to serve the needs of a new type of resident.

Conference Room One is designated as an infirmary, number five is the  church, four is used for daycare.

For the young inhabitants of the hotel, the magical room is number seven; a space designated for parties, card games and social activities.  The front lobby is their rendezvous point for ventures into the local night spots.

Though it might sound like a playground, the hotel is hardly an ideal place in which to live. Naturally the family find it difficult to live in a room so tiny it can only just accommodate three beds. Other families are moved on, to bigger and nicer apartments. Why not them, they want to know?

Battling against officialdom

Petitions and appeals to the government result in promises that new accommodation will be found for them. But the promises never materialise. Nor is there any good news about the missing man.

Believe me, it is much harder for the families of the missing because there are things we can never accept, and the uncertainty is crushing us.

The girl never gives up hoping that one day she will learn her father is alive.

But in the meantime she has to get on with the business of growing up. A process which involves ditching the Barbie dolls and embracing the rites of adolescence: the first disco,  encounters with boys,  experiments with smoking and cocktails and the shock of the first hangover.

This narrator is an intelligent girl with a funny way of looking at life but is also keenly observant.  At the beginning of the book she has limited appreciation of the momentous changes happening in her country.  Although her parents don’t explain why she is being sent to the seaside, she has “a sneaking feeling it has to do with politics because everybody talks about politics all the time.” 

I know a thing or two about politics myself, like I call my toy monkey Meso, because my monkey and our president look a lot alike.

About the Croatian war of independence itself she has little to say other than it’s “cruel and went on for ages.”  She is more focused on the daily challenges of getting around a strange place, making new friends and experiencing the sneers of local people towards  incomers who don’t even know the correct names for basic foodstuffs.

The city was lovely and totally insensitive. They didn’t need us, there were enough people in Zagreb already; they felt that being from Zagreb was a matter of some prestige. … We made the switch to salty rolls but when we said the words they sounded off , always with a twang; when we bought them the baker had a little sneer. Like it was something enormous, not a stupid doughy roll.

Teenage confusion amid the chaos

This is a girl who is full of the anxiety and confusion experienced by teenagers. One moment she suffers acute embarrassment at the drunken antics of her grandfather, the next she feels a deep love for the old man. Desperate to get away from home and experience freedom but nervous about whether she will fit in and find friends in her new school.

Her insight and honesty make reading Hotel Tito a very human novel. It relates the experience of people who are displaced in war. The are in a state of constant anxiety about what is happening “back home” and never feel completely accepted in their new “home.” But it is also very much a novel about the process of growing up.

And like so many bildungsroman novels, despite the tribulations and frustrations experienced by the protagonist, by the end you sense that they have come through the challenge. That they have emerged stronger and with a spirit of optimism and hope for the future.


About the author

Ivana Simić Bodrožić  author of The Hotel TitoIvana Simić Bodrožić was born in Vukovar in 1982 though she has lived in Zagreb for many years.

She published her first poetry collection in 2005, Prvi korak u tamu (The First Step into Darkness) and has since published a second anthology plus a short story collection 100% pamuk (100% Cotton).

About the Book 

Hotel Zagorje (Hotel Tito) was the first prose work by Ivana Simić Bodrožić. It is described as an autobiographical novel. We know that Bodrožić  was in fact displaced from Vukovar and did live for a while in Hotel Tito. But the book reads more like fiction than as a memoir of the Croatian war of independence. I suspect that has much to do with the fluidity of the translation by Ellen Elias-Bursac.

Hotel Tito was published to critical acclaim in 2010. It received the Prix Ulysee for the best debut novel in France, and a number of prestigious  awards in Croatia and the Balkan region.  Bodrožić is currently working on the film adaptation of the novel with Bosnian director Jasmila Žbanić (the winner of Golden Bear 2006, Berlin International Film Festival).

Why I Read This Book

My edition was published by Seven Stories Press. I wouldn’t have known about the book however but for the fact it was chosen by Asymptote for their book club in November 2018.  Including it in my #15booksofsummer list meant I could read my first ever Croatian author. Another country that I’ve now covered as part of my World of Literature challenge.

15 books of summer

Myth and magic in darkest Wales: Ghostbird [Review]

Ghostbird by Carol Lovekin

 

GhostbirdOne thing guaranteed to turn me off a book is the presence of a ghost. I don’t understand the fascination with spectres, phantoms, wraiths or spirits or anything of a supernatural nature. Give me real flesh and blood any time. 

 

Having made that disclosure you are probably now puzzled why my #15BooksofSummer reading list includes a title using one of my dreaded words. Sounds contradictory doesn’t it, especially when you hear that Ghostbird  in fact makes multiple references to the supernatural world?

Ghostbird draws on folklore, for example, particularly the fables found in the collection of medieval Welsh folk tales known as The Mabinogion. Lovekin’s novel also has one female character who is believed to have magical powers and another who is the spirit of a dead child.

 

Not my cup of tea by any stretch of the imagination.

And yet despite all of this I did enjoy reading this book.

 

Magical powers

Ghostbird is a tale set in rural Wales. This is where 14-year-old Cadi Hopkins lives with her mother Violet, a woman who has experienced tragedy in her life. Her eldest daughter drowned in a nearby lake while still a young child and her husband was killed soon after in a road accident. She has withdrawn emotionally from the world, including her surviving daughter.

 

In the neighbouring cottage lives her aunt (Violet’s sister in law), Lili Hopkins, a woman who according to the locals has magical powers just like all the Hopkins women down through the generations. Lili acts as a surrogate mother to Cadi but feels torn between her love for the girl and a promise she made to Violet many years earlier.

 

Women with secrets

All three women have secrets. Secrets that Cadi is determined to unravel because her life is full of gaps and mysteries. Her mother never speaks of the past. There are no photographs of her father in the cottage. Her sister died before she was born so of course Cadi never got to know her. But she doesn’t even know whether her sister’s real name was Dora or Blodeuwedd, a character in The Mabinogion who was turned into an owl. 

Cadi’s quest for knowledge coincides with the beginning of visitations from her dead sister. The girl is undergoing a metamorphosis into a bird, making her presence known through dead leaves and bird feathers. As her transformation progresses she draws Cadi closer to her and further away from Violet and Lili. 

Initially I wasn’t keen on the scenes where we encounter Blodeuwedd’s presence. But by the end of the novel, it became evident they were integral to the novel, acting as a catalyst for the progress Cadi makes towards enlightenment and the start of a new relationship  with her mother. 

Close relationship with nature

The real gem in the novel is how Carol Lovekin represents the women’s relationship with nature. Whether it’s the lake that magnetically draws Cadi to its edges in defiance of her mother’s command or the magical garden lovingly created over decades by the Hopkins women, there is a strong sense of place in this novel.  

Unless you knew what you were looking for it wouldn’t be obvious you were in a witch woman’s garden. … In the lea of the wall, pots of herbs stood on a flat slab of oak: sage and coltsfoot, peppermint and lemon balm. … A mass of clematis, jasmine and honeysuckle tumbled over the walls. In the orders, flower upon flower, marigolds and lavender, cornflowers as blue as heaven. 

Oh for a garden like that…..I’d even put up with a few strange rustlings in the trees or unexpected deposits of feathers in my bedroom. 

 

 


 

Introducing Carol Lovekin 

Carol Lovekin author of GhostbirdCarol Lovekin was born in Warwickshire and has worked in retail, nursing and as a freelance journalist and a counsellor. She is now a full-time writer living in Wales, a country she describes as her adopted home. Carol blogs at Making It Up As I Go Along

Ghostbird was her debut novel, published by Honno in 2016. It was a Guardian Readers’ Choice in 2016 and  longlisted for the Not the Booker Prize (run by The Guardian) in 2016. She is now working on her fourth book.

Why I read Ghostbird

A number of independent presses in Wales had the inspired idea to open a pop up shop in Cardiff in December 2016. Of course I had to visit and of course I had to buy. Ghostbird was recommended by the team from Honno and it had a beautiful cover. It’s been sitting on my shelves since then although I did read Carol’s second novel Snow Sisters in 2017 (see my review here)

When I put together my list of books for #20booksofsummer I knew I wanted to start with a novel from Wales. What a perfect opportunity to read Ghostbird.

15 books of summer

 

 

Is The Franchise Affair the perfect crime novel? [review]

The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey

The Franchise Affair

Sometimes a classic mystery or crime novel is the only type of book that will satisfy my mood. I don’t want the kind that oozes with blood or is  ultra complex but equally the novel shouldn’t be  ‘cosy’, or pedestrian.

Josephine Tey’s 1948 novel The Franchise Affair fitted my recent requirements perfectly.

It’s what I would class as an ‘intelligent’ mystery/crime novel.  There are no bodies to be counted, no trail of blood, no criminals to be tracked down and unmasked in a grand dénouement (á la Poirot) and no unexpected plot reversals (á la Christie). Instead Tey presents her readers with a puzzle and invites them to follow along with the ‘detective’ as he seeks to find the truth among a knot of lies and inconsistencies.

The job of sleuth in this novel falls on the shoulders of Robert Blair, a respected solicitor in a respected family law firm in the country town of Milton.  He’s called upon to defend Marion Sharpe and her mother who live in “The Franchise”,  an imposing house on the outskirts of town.

They’re accused of kidnapping fifteen-year-old Betty Kane, holding her prisoner for a month and beating her when she refuses to do their cleaning. This is far from Robert’s  usual kind of case but he’s been feeling lately that his life is rather unexciting and predictable. He’s rather taken with the Sharpe women and their sensible, forthright manner but he distrusts Betty’s story even though she can describe accurately items and rooms inside The Franchise.

Robert begins a painstaking search for clues that will prove his clients’ innocence and reveal that Betty is more of  a cunning minx than the butter-wouldn’t-melt figure she presents to police and jurors.

Media ethics in the spotlight

The Franchise Affair is a cleverly paced novel.  The first half is very much about Robert’s inability to find the holes in Betty’s story. Though he learns some surprising facts about her, he’s frustrated there is no real breakthrough. The second half has more tension; a race against time as the Sharpe’s find themselves arrested and the evidence appears to be firmly stacked against them.

Beyond the mechanics of the investigation lies a well crafted portrayal of how the media and a community react to a scandal in their midst.

Marion Sharpe and her mother were already viewed with suspicion in the town. They’re ‘outsiders’, for one thing and have acquired a reputation for being rude. The conservative townies think Marion looks like a gypsy with her dark hair, browned skin and colourful scarves. Perhaps, it’s whispered, they are witches…

The people of Milton find it easy to believe that these women who live in a ramshackle ugly house behind large gates, could be kidnappers and abusers. They find it equally easy to believe in Betty’s story, particularly when the girl’s youthful appearance and clothes makes even sober men think of “forget-me-nots and wood-smoke and bluebells and summer distances.”

This is a novel about the way people jump to conclusions. The townsfolk assume Betty is innocent because she looks that way and because she was orphaned during the war .  They assume Marion Sharpe and her mother are wrong-doers because they live in a large house (hence must be wealthy) and are a little odd.

Tey clearly doesn’t have much time for people like this. But she is even more disapproving of the way the media feed their prejudices. One newspaper, the Ack-Emma is described as:

… the latest representative of the tabloid newspaper to enter British journalism from the West. It was run on the principle that two thousand pounds for damages is a cheap price to pay for sales worth half a million.

The Ack-Emma’s  sensational headlines are instrumental in whipping up public animosity against the Sharpes. They take Betty’s story at face value, publish a picture of the Sharpe’s house (which then becomes a target for vigilantes) and allow abusive missives about the Sharpes to appear in their letters’ page. Tey’s narrator bemoans this new style of reporting. Time was, says the narrator, when newspapers could be relied upon to exercise sound judgement about the contents of their editions. But newspapers like Ack-Emma’ don’t confirm to those old principles.

However the narrator also acknowledges the Ack-Emma’s new style of reporting has clearly found favour with readers since sales had boomed and “in any suburban railway station seven out of ten people bound for work in the morning” were reading its pages.

Faultless characterisation

The Franchise Affair is a darn good story pepped up with sparky social commentary. It also has some first class characters. Robert Blair is a joy as the lifelong bachelor with a peaceful life. He has tea and biscuits brought each day to his desk on a on  lacquered tray covered with a clock. He can clock off work after the post has gone at 3.45pm, just in time for a round of golf before dinner. He’s also waited on hand and foot by a devoted aunt). I

His client ‘old’ Mrs Sharp is a fun character. Her acerbic tongue matches her name but she has has an equally sharp eye for spotting a winning race horse.

Pride of place however goes to one of the members of the supporting cast; Robert’s Aunt Linn: “a solid little figure with the short neck and round pink face and iron-grey hair that frizzed out from large hairpins.” She’s a woman perfectly content with her life which revolves around recipes, church bazars  and film star gossip gleaned from magazines. Though she’s not too keen on her nephew taking on the Sharpe’s case because the people at The Franchise “aren’t the kind of people I naturally take to” she is one of the few people in Milton who doesn’t let appearances get in the way of a desire for justice.

Though there are aspects of The Franchise Affair that situate it in a particular period (a post-war England which still has the death penalty)  it deals with issues that are still relevant today. Questions about media responsibility and accountability and the way communities take ‘justice’ into their own hands, are just as pertinent in 2019 as they were in 1948.


About the author

Josephine_Tey_portraitJosephine Tey was the pseudonym of Elizabeth MacKintosh  who was born in Inverness, Scotland in 1896. She also wrote plays under the name Gordon Daviot, a surname that might have been chosen because it was the name of the place near Inverness where she spent family holidays.

Her first published work appeared under the name of Gordon Daviot in The Westminster Gazette in 1925.  Her first mystery novel, The Man in the Queue, was published in 1929, marking the first appearance of Inspector Alan Grant from Scotland Yard. Grant makes a few brief appearances in The Franchise Affair.

Why I read this novel

I read and enjoyed another of Tey’s novels, The Daughter of Time in 2017. It’s an unusual novel, an investigation into the mystery of a historical event (the deaths of the Princes in the Tower). I was taken by her writing style, enough to want to read more of her work and luckily found a copy of The Franchise Affair in a charity bookshop. Incidentally this novel was included in a list of  recommended crime novels published by The Sunday Times.

Brilliant memoir of optimism and courage: The Salt Path

Salt PathRaynor Winn had never given much thought to the problem of homelessness.

But at the age of 50, she and her husband Moth became one of the estimated 280,000 households in the UK without a roof over their head.

The Winns lost their livelihood – and their home – when an investment in a friend’s business went sour. An obdurate legal system refused to allow them to present key evidence showing they were not liable for that firm’s debts.

Bailiffs were instructed to seize the Welsh farmhouse the couple had rebuilt from a pile of stones and turned into a thriving holiday business. Worse news followed.  Moth was diagnosed with CBD, a rare degenerative brain disease. The specialist told him that death usually comes six to eight years after the onset – and that he’d probably been suffering for six already..

While hiding under the stairs as the bailiffs banged on the door, Raynor discovered a copy of Five Hundred Mile Walkies, an account by Paddy Dillon of walking the 630-mile South West Coast Path with his dog.

The book became the catalyst for their own journey. When they took their first steps on that same path almost everything they possessed went with them:  a small tent bought on eBay, a couple of cheap, thin sleeping bags, some basic cooking equipment and a change of clothes.  In their pocket they had £115 in cash and a bankcard to collect £48 a week in tax credits.

south-west-coast-path

The route of the South West Coastal Path

They had no plan beyond starting in Minehead and following the path down to Land’s End and then along the southern coastline to Poole in Dorset. A plan for their future would emerge they hoped. Until it did,  they would just put one foot in front of the other.

 

Ill-prepared mentally, and physically one obstacle they never expected to encounter was the prejudice – and sometimes hostility  – of people they met along their way.

Only a few days into their journey a boisterous dog sent Raynor flat onto her face in the street and her precious coins rolling down the hill .  “You tramps should learn how to control yourselves. Rolling around in the street – it’s disgusting,” shouted the dog owner.  Raynor at that point began to lose what little sense of herself she had remaining :

A tramp. A homeless tramp. A few weeks earlier I’d owned my own home, my own business, a flock of sheep, a garden, land, an Aga, washing machines, a lawn mower. I had responsibilities, respect, pride. The illusions of life had rolled away as quickly as the pound coins.

Often the strangers they encountered would physically recoil when told why the Winns were walking the path, gathering their children and dogs towards them as if they feared harm. The word ‘homeless’ was the trigger.  So Moth changed their story, explaining they had sold their home to go looking for adventure wherever the wind took them. The response was telling; they became people to be admired not feared or despised. They were two ‘inspirational’ oldies having an adventure of a lifetime.

What was the difference between the two stories? Only one word, but one word that in the public perception meant everything: ‘sold’. We could  be homeless having sold our home and put money in the bank, and be inspirational. Or we could be homeless, having lost our home and become penniless, and be social pariahs.

south-west-coast-path2

A stretch of the South West Coastal path

All of this makes it sound that The Salt Path will be a gloomy book. But it’s actually brimming with humour because Raynor has a tremendous sense of the absurd (like the  man walking his tortoise) and of the beauty of nature. At times their situation is desperate: days with little more to eat than noodles and fudge to keep them plodding on; nights when their flimsy tent perched on the edge of a cliff is almost whipped from in a storm.

But in between there are the joys of moonlit swims, of dolphins and translucent fish. And the generosity of strangers who provided them with a place to camp or to stay and with food. Together they help her and Moth come to terms with their situation.

The Salt Path is a sobering reminder of easy it is to fall out of mainstream society and to become an outsider. It’s a remarkable story; thoughtful, honest, unflinching; about human strength and endurance.

 


 

The Salt Path, published by Michael Joseph, was shortlisted for the Costa Book of the Year.  Raynor and her husband Moth live in Cornwall close to the South West Coastal Path.  Their experience has been an inspiration to other homeless people as recounted in this article in The Big Issue magazine.

Has Kate Atkinson lost the plot?

When a novel is described as a work of rare depth and texture, a bravura modern novel of extraordinary power, wit and empathy” I expect something ultra special. 

transcriptionImagine my disappointment then, having read said book, that it had neither depth nor power. Yes it was amusing in part but nowhere close to being extraordinarily witty. As for being a ‘bravura’ performance, I rather think the person who wrote that blurb should have consulted a dictionary before committing words to paper. Bravura means “great technical skill and brilliance shown in a performance or activity”; something that is brilliant and dazzling. 

As much as I have appreciated Kate Atkinson’s ability in past years to tell a story compellingly, her latest novel Transcription is can in no way be described as brilliant or dazzling. In fact it’s well below the standard she showed in her debut novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum and in the four bestselling novels featuring former detective Jackson Brodie.

Transcription focuses on the shady world of British Intelligence during World War 2. Juliet Armstrong is an unsophisticated eighteen-year-old girl recruited into the Secret Service at the start of the war.  She’s despatched to an obscure department of MI5 which has set up a sting operation in a block of flats in order to monitor and trap British Fascist sympathisers. Juliet’s job is to transcribe the secretly recorded conversations those sympathisers have with Godfrey Toby, a British spymaster masquerading as a Gestapo agent.

Ten years later, Juliet is working in children’s programmes for the BBC when she spots Godfrey Toby. He rebuffs her, denying their past acquaintance. Ever the inquisitive one, Juliet begins to investigate the people that once populated her life. She discovers people that she believed long dead or sent to some far flung corner of the world or shot, returning to haunt her.

For a novel concerned with spies and espionage, it’s not surprising that its themes are deception and hidden identities.  Julia’s identity is unclear even to herself at times:

And then there was Juliet Armstrong, of course, who some days seemed like the most fictitious of them all, despite being the ‘real’ Juliet. But then what constituted real? Wasn’t everything, even this life itself, just a game of deception?

In fact almost everyone in this novel is leading a double life. They’re all engaged in an elaborate game of make believe just as much as the actors and the sound engineers Julia relies upon for her history programmes at the BBC.

It’s hard to take it all seriously because the parallel Atkinson draws between the techniques of artifice used in the world of intelligence and those deployed in the world of the arts, borders too much on farce.  The situations are highly improbable – at one point Julia shimmies down a drainpipe to avoid discovery,  while another scene has her dispose of an inconvenient body. And, with the exception of Julia, the characters are not fully fleshed out to any extent.

The few mannerisms ascribed to her co-conspirators in the Secret Service don’t differentiate them sufficiently so it was easy to forget who they were, and why they were in the novel. Maybe this was deliberate and we were meant to understand that spooks were shadowy figures whose success relied upon their ability to meld into new personas and backgrounds. Lack of personality might have been a professional pre-requisite but for a reader it made the novel dull.

Transcription is a novel which had a lot of potential. But it was never fulfilled.  Part of the problem I think was the overall tone. The content matter was serious yet the text so often was anything but serious.  It made for an uneasy mix. Were we meant to laugh or despair at the ridiculous way in which intelligence was managed in a time of heightened tension? I really have no idea because all the time I was reading I felt as if there was some vital element in the book that I was simply not getting.

This was a doubly disappointing experience because Atkinson is an author whose work I used to love. I didn’t enjoy her novel Life after Life and wasn’t interested in its successor A God In Ruins. I was hoping Transcription would mark a return to the quality of the past. But it was not to be.  I haven’t given up on Atkinson yet however – I’m hoping the new  Jackson Brodie novel which is due out in a few weeks, will prove a more enjoyable experience.

 

 

Mary Barton: A bold novel of social turmoil [review]

Mary Barton By Elizabeth Gaskell 

In the early 1840s, the city of Manchester was the engine house of the Industrial Revolution in Britain.

Its huge cotton mills were a magnate for people from the countryside who saw in them an opportunity to improve their lives, particularly since industrial employees were paid more than agricultural workers.

But when demand for cotton began to fall away in the mid 40s, thousands of workers were put on reduced hours or dismissed. Dissatisfaction mounted as newly unionised workers began to demand a better deal.

The social turmoil of strikes and lockouts added to the misery of overcrowded streets, inadequate water and poor sanitation.

Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell, the wife of a Unitarian minister in Manchester, saw at first hand the consequences: starvation, disease, early death.

In the preface to Mary Barton: a Tale of Manchester Life she confessed that she knew nothing of political economy or the theories of trade, but she had always felt ” a deep sympathy with the care-worn men, who looked as if doomed to struggle through their lives in strange alternations between work and want.”

Her intent in the novel was to give a voice to those care-worn men in order to reveal the common humanity that could serve to unite social classes.

The more I reflected on this unhappy state of things between those so bound to each other by common interests, as the employers and the employed must ever be, the more anxious I became to give some utterance to the agony which from time to time convulsed this dumb people.

Driven to desperation

Gaskell uses the figure of John Barton, a mill worker, to illustrate how even honest men are driven to desperation in such a climate.

At the start of the novel Barton is an intelligent, thoughtful man who cares strongly about two things: his family and his livelihood. He goes into a rapid decline when his wife dies in childbirth and  then the factory where he works is closed. He cannot find a job anywhere else.

He is a proud man. When his daughter asks why he does not accept money from the town so he can buy food, he replies angrily: “I don’t want money, child! D — n their charity and their money! I want work, and it is my right. I want work!”

In anger and frustration he succumbs to the temptation of opium and becomes heavily involved in the burgeoning trade union movement and the Chartist cause.

When all efforts fail to get politicians and mill owners to listen, he concludes that the only way to get their attention is through an act of violent rebellion.  He turns murderer, killing Harry Carson, the handsome but arrogant son of a mill owner.

Is violence a solution?

Gaskell rejects such violence as the solution to the problems of the working poor of Manchester.  The core of the issue for her is that workers and employers simply don’t understand each other.  As John Barton says early in the novel:

The rich know nothing of the trials of the poor; I say, if they don’t know, they ought to know. We’re their slaves as long as we can work; we pile up their fortunes with the sweat of our brows, and yet we are to live as separate as if we were in two worlds …

Through her narrator Elizabeth Gaskell openly pleads for the two sides to come to a meeting of the minds through communication. In the final stages of the novel she puts this idea into the mouth of one of her worker characters, an intelligent and rational man. After a meeting with the mill owner Mr Carson, father of the murdered man :

You say our talk has done no good. I say it has. I see the view you take of things from the place where you stand. I can remember that, when the time comes for judging you; I sha’n’t think any longer, does he act right on my views of a thing, but does he act right on his own. It has done me good in that way.

It’s a worthy sentiment but it’s hard to see how improved communication can have any practical application as a solution to poor wages and slum conditions.

Love and devotion

Gaskell’s other solution to the problem of the poor is revealed in the novel’s parallel plot of the problematic love life of John Barton’s daughter Mary.

Mary Barton is a good girl at heart, a hard working seamstress who is devoted to caring for the father. But she has her head turned when Harry Carson, the mill owner’s son begins paying her attention.

The silly girl thinks she can marry him and thus secure a comfortable life for herself and her father. Only after she rejects a proposal from Jem Wilson, a hard working boy she’s known all her life, does she realise it’s Jem she loves after all. But it’s almost too late.

Jem gets arrested on suspicion of Carson’s murder and it takes all of Mary’s courage to find a way of saving him. It all ends happily ever after with Jem, who had been a much respected foreman at a forge, and Mary setting up home in Canada.

It’s meant to seem a reward from his boss for his loyalty and dedication but is Gaskell suggesting that the only way out of the poverty in Manchester is to leave the country? It’s not exactly a vote of confidence in England and can surely only have limited application. Emigration was for sure an escape route for many (particularly the Irish) but how many of them really found live on the other side of the Atlantic a bed of roses?

Power of redemption

The book’s conclusion, with its emphasis on the power of redemption and heavily sentimental tone,  is the one flaw in an otherwise perfectly constructed and engaging novel that depicts real, rather than idealised Victorian family life.

The world of Mary Barton is one in which mothers die in the agony of childbirth, children suffer starvation and scarlet fever and women abandoned by their lovers end up wandering the streets as gin-soaked prostitutes. Gaskell’s characters speak in a natural voice using Lancashire colloquialisms and dialect.

It’s a bold move.

Other Victorian novelists, such as Charles Dickens, often had their protagonists and most virtuous characters speak in ‘standard English’, regardless of their social or regional background. But Gaskell’s decision gives her novel an added dimension of realism. Some of her most frequently used words such as ‘clem’ which means to suffer from extreme hunger and ‘frabbit’ which apparently means peevish, convey sentiments that would be difficult to fully capture in ‘standard English’.

Mary Barton is a novel with multiple elements.

It has a love triangle, a murder,  a tale of a wronged woman and a life and death chase, all set in a city in the grip of an industrial revolution.  It does tend towards the polemic and the melodramatic at times but fortunately it doesn’t spoil what is otherwise a powerful and moving picture of working-class life in Victorian England.

Publication history of Mary Barton

Elizabeth_Gaskell

Mary Barton was the first novel to be published by Elizabeth Gaskell.  She wrote it at the suggestion of her husband as a response to the death in infancy of  her  son from scarlet fever. It was published anonymously in 1848 though relates the events of a few years earlier and is believed to have been based on the real-life murder of a progressive mill owner in 1831.

Why I read this novel

The first novel by Elizabeth Gaskell that I read was North and South which I thoroughly enjoyed.  But having been disappointed by Wives and Daughters and Cranford, I wanted to get back to her gritty realism. Mary Barton features in my Classics Club list.

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