Book review – Marian Keyes – “The Break” #amreading #books


Marian Keyes The Break

Image from NetGalley

I read this book back in July but there was an embargo on reviews until a week before publication and I always obey the publisher’s instructions! Thank you to Penguin UK – Michael Joseph for making this available on NetGalley in return for a fair review. I was really excited to win this one, because I’ve loved Keyes’ books for years and have read every single one of them! They were quite simple in the beginning and have developed over the years in terms of their characterisation and plot, but have had a recognisable combination of wit and good writing which have made them a no-brainer to pick up as soon as they come out. I was glad that this one didn’t disappoint, even though we’re back to a straightforward family story after the different locations and themes of her last few.

Marian Keyes – “The Break”

(10 July 2017 – NetGalley)

Marian Keyes likes to get us introduced to a large family of varied siblings and interesting parents and she’s done it again here, with a new family to get to know, with its Friday night gathering, catered by the siblings in turn since Dad got Alzheimer’s and Mum found it all a bit much, and including ex-partners and all sorts, because, as the heroine, Amy, explains, they’re modern.

Amy has assumed she’s safe and settled after her first marriage went wrong and they had to absorb her feckless brother’s daughter into their family, but now husband Hugh has announced that he needs a break … from their marriage, from their family, and from Ireland. But it’s not so simple: Amy has huge sympathy for Hugh, who has recently lost his dad and spiralled into depression – well, up to a point, anyway, and she stands to lose an old friendship over her lack of desire for revenge. Added to that, we slowly learn about a patch in their marriage when she might not have been as engaged as all that herself.

It’s pointed out to Amy that she’s by definition on a break now, too. Will she go and play the field or just plug on with her blended family and her PR job (I loved the descriptions of her working relationship with her two male partners, although a weird tension with one of them was never quite resolved, and it also gives her the opportunity to pop over to London every week, which seems completely normal, the work of a good writer technically).

Meanwhile, Amy’s daughter Neeve sees an opportunity for Amy to reconnect with her father, and so, it seems, does he – but can a leopard change its spots? Amy’s quiet mum, very ill when younger and now caring for her husband, has developed a secret social life and a new circle of friends, and also becomes an unlikely Internet star. I loved this storyline!

So, there’s a lot going on, a huge cast of characters, but we don’t lose track and can trust Keyes to steer us through. And while it’s bang up to date, with Facebook playing a role in the plot and the intricacies of liking and messaging adding depth to the description of strained relationships, the themes will outlast any slipping out of date that might occur – plus it’s good to record exactly how things are and what we use to communicate at various points in history. The book is full of Keyes’ trademark wit and charm, and uses one character to skewer modern searches for the meaning of life and others to discuss celebrity and reputation. I will share one quotation which I did love, when Amy is in crisis and wishing she’d learned about mindfulness in time to use it in this situation:

Only the very, very oddest would think, Hey, my life is perfect. I know, I’ll sit and waste twenty minutes Observing My Thoughts without Judgement.

In summary, a great read which will appeal to Keyes fans and more. There are two eating-disordered characters and some of their behaviours are described, I just wanted to add that content warning.

Book review – Alan Powers – “Living With Books” #amreading #books #bookconfessions


A lovely coffee-table book today which wasn’t in my planned reading for the month, but it’s been flopping around on my TBR shelf and having to be carefully fitted in and not dropped, and so I decided it was time to bring it out and leaf through it. I’ve been reading it gradually through the month, a lovely alternative place to go at quite a busy time! Also watch out for some book confessions …

Alan Powers – “Living With Books”

(21 January 2017 – from Gill, for my birthday)

How exciting a book that arrived this year being read out of the TBR, but as I explained above, it is slightly out of order – you can see it with the turquoise spine in the picture.

It’s  a lovely, lavishly illustrated book full of beautiful photos of rooms in houses and other spaces full of books, too perfect to be actually inspiring for something you’d do in your own house, but delightful to look at!

It’s bookended (hah) by a history of books and their production and a section on how to make your own bookshelves and the care of books, so it’s a lovely resource. It looks at topics as large as home offices and as niche as trompe d’oeil wall coverings and is a delight to read through.

I’ve recently acquired Daniel Tammet’s “Every Word is a Bird We Teach to Sing: Encounters with the Mysteries & Meanings of Language” to review for Shiny New Books, plus Robert Andrew Powell’s “Running Away” about marathon running and Virginia Hanlon Grohl’s (Dave Grohl’s mum!) “From Cradle to Stage: Stories from the Mothers Who Rocked and Raised Rock Stars”, the latter two in the Kindle sale although I feel I’ll want the last one in a real book. I’ve also won a book on self-publishers through the ages from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme, having not requested anything for months and months, but that hasn’t arrived yet.

I’m still reading “Madame Solario” but fear I won’t have it done by the end of August or the end of #20Books as it is a biggie. Very good, though. I’m off to the Iris Murdoch Conference at the weekend, so will be taking the Tammet and some post-its and my Kindle to that and trying not to come back with too many more tomes …


Book review – R.C. Sherriff – “Greengates” @PersephoneBooks #20Booksofsummer #amreading


20 books of summer pile 2017Another fantastic Persephone – I’ve read Sherriff’s wonderful “The Fortnight in September“, unfortunately not in the Persephone edition because I bought it before that came out (a decade ago, I notice), and I was very pleased to open this from Ali on Christmas Day last year.

R. C. Sherriff – “Greengates”

(25 December 2016 – from Ali)

You wouldn’t think you could get a whole book out of a retired couple buying a house, but this is the master of making the everyday fascinating and it’s an absorbing and poignant read.

It opens with Tom Baldwin’s last day at work in an insurance office in London, where he has to be ‘surprised’ by a retirement gift giving the pattern of which he’s seen infinite numbers of times before. We see him retire at 58 (lucky him!), full of ideas for the future and plans to make his mark on the world, and then at home, gleeful in his possession of a house and land:

A vast wedge that tapered slowly away until as a minute pin-point it met everybody else’s land.

– who, after reading that, will think of their garden in exactly the same way again? But then he very quickly upsets their long-standing maid (who contributes much of the poignancy to the book, aching for her mistress’s sorrows and, when the time comes, doing the right thing neatly and unobtrusively), and his wife Edith starts to very much regret the assumption that when he retires, she retires, too, losing her light lunch and her afternoon naps with much reluctance and guilt:

The slave to a habit that showed its teeth when it was disturbed.

They gradually fall into bitter despair: Tom sees that his historical researches are going to go nowhere and realises it’s hard to make your mark on the world, and Edith is driven down by his depression and her inability to make 12 hours’ worth of conversation a day. Tom even starts to be drawn to the comforts of becoming semi-invalid, and as they leave the house to take a walk, one of the neighbours pegs him as someone who’s a potential suicide, something linking back to a newspaper article he read on his final train journey home (we’ll see more of these clever little links later).

But in fact, they’re about to embark upon a life-changing experience, and we will them on as they scrape the money together and hope they will be able to negotiate a new life in one of those new developments that sprang up in the 1930s (that we’re all aware of now). will they manage to sell their house and achieve their new dreams, and will those dreams, once fulfilled, actually be all they hoped?

There are some lovely side characters and flashes of deep emotion and humour – such as when Tom categorises a new friend by how he refers to his wife (“The wife” is worse than “My wife”). The charming epilogue rounds things off and provides an interesting contrast: when they are first described looking at the landscape, which Edith is criticised for preferring to castles and other historic monuments, her knowledge of the trees is shut down by her husband. Yet when their garden has finally burgeoned, it’s because she has taken it over and, presumably, balance has been restored.

This book falls into the All Virago/Persephone All August category AND is Book 19 in my #20BooksofSummer project.

Book review – Laura James – “Odd Girl Out” #netgalley #books #amreading


Odd Girl Out Laura JamesAnother NetGalley read slipped into the middle of my Virago month and Books of Summer. Thank you to Pan Macmillan for making it available via NetGalley.

“Odd Girl Out” is the story of a woman diagnosed with autism in her adult years, who surprises people with this fact when they only know the externals of her life as a busy and successful journalist and PR. When she finally discloses her status, and the raft of careful work to build her environment to be as supportive of her condition as she can that entails so much hard work on her part, she finds her people and draws comfort from other, hidden, autistic women.

It’s a very open and honest book – as what get called ‘high-functioning’ people on the autistic spectrum often are, and this is both an advantage and a disadvantage, as the sections detailing her medical procedures and addiction clinic experiences can be a little too searing at times. James does make an interesting point about the idea of the ‘spectrum’ being just that (rather than a continuum) with different characteristics appearing in different people to different extents. Therefore, she can function in interviews but has some very specific needs around comfort and her bedroom, and this is normal – or it’s her normal, anyway.

The book also touches on the important fact, really just coming to light recently, that just because girls are less frequently diagnosed as autistic than boys, it doesn’t mean they are less frequently autistic. She teases out the idea that girls, socialised to be, well, socialised, use copying neurotypical behaviour as a very strong coping mechanism. This helps them to ‘pass’ more easily (maybe unless they have co-morbidities, as James does, with issues with hypermobility, GI problems, a very delicate skin and hyper-sensitivity to drugs – still, she exhibited all this yet her autism was missed for decades). This ‘passing’, however, is much more exhausting than simply living as a neurotypical, needing hypervigilance and leading to meltdowns (for her, more melt-inwardses) and exhaustion. She’s very powerful on the hard work of maintaining that surface for the outside world.

I found the portrait of James’ marriage incredibly sad in many ways. She has happened upon a man who, although he has his own battles with depression, loves spontaneity and adventure, something she isn’t bothered with (well, is actively bothered by, but not in that way).  He asks her at one point if she ever experiences joy, and the part where she explains – to us, but not to him (although obviously he will have read the book) – that when he puts his hand on her knee to comfort her, she has to bear it, rather than drawing comfort from it, is heart-breaking. However, when he’s asked what about her autism upsets him, he looks to her wearing of a uniform rather than dressing for others, presumably in an effort not to hurt her. Still, you never really know what goes on in someone’s marriage, and it’s clear that they have found a way to hold together – more power to them.

The book is ordered very oddly, jumping around between the present, recent past and older past, with childhood scenes to boot, and I found this quite confusing, as there were few anchors in the text to remind you where you were, or links to justify the jump. Of course, in a print book, it’s easier to flick back to check. But overall it’s a valuable and good read, especially for women living with autism and their husbands, wives, parents and children, as well as for the generally interested public who like writers such as Oliver Sacks. This adds greatly to the small literature on and by women with autism, falling somewhere between Temple Grandin and Donna Williams.

New acquisitions and some excitement of my own … #bookconfessions


I’ve had another little burst of book-buying and I don’t always like mixing that up with Persephone reviews or Shiny New Books links, so I thought I’d do a post about those. And I’ve got some exciting book news of my own – I know some of my readers will know this already, as I shared it on my work blog, but this is where I have kept details of my Iris Murdoch project and I wanted to share with you, too, that I’ve finally finished my research project.

Four pretty books that seem to go together first (I could have taken the labels of those two, couldn’t I – but they’re shelved now! “Proust and the Squid” is about the science of reading, it was passed to me via BookCrossing by my friend Sian and I know just the friends in Cornwall who will find it interesting, so will take that down to read on my autumn trip and then pass it along. “Adventures at Black Pony Inn” was bought last week because I was basically sick of seeing “FURTHER Adventures at Black Pony Inn” sitting on my Extra Pile, waiting for its forebear (excitingly, this was listed as a paperback but is a nice substantial hardback). Clare Balding’s “Walking Home” is not exactly an update on her autobiography (“My Animals and Other Family“) but about walking and her life in general, apparently. And Robert MacFarlane’s “The Old Ways” is one of those books EVERYONE has read, isn’t it, and I really should, again about walking, and the old tracks of the countryside (I’m assuming this is like Roger Deakin’s “Waterlog” and you’re all going to tell me you’ve read it).

Now, I do like a nice walk although I’m a complete wuss when it comes to “undulations” and scree slopes and business like that. Give me a road to run down and I’m happy, though, the longer the better. There are almost infinite numbers of running-related books out there, and I’m even in a running readers Facebook group, but this one was mentioned by my friend Cari (old BookCrossing friend, now a happy new runner) as something she thought I’d recommended to her – nope, and then I looked, and then I clicked and now I’ve got a copy, too. How did that happen? Anyway, it looks rather good, all about running round at the back of marathons, with cartoons and everything. I have a few running books I need to dig out to read before I do my next marathon in October – although I’ve already got another booked for the spring (NOT London, not yet) so there’s plenty of time, I hope. Anyway, one more running book on the shelf, and it looks like a quick read.

A little bit of self-congratulation now. For seven years – yes, SEVEN YEARS, I’ve been doing a very part-time, very unofficial research project on what I would call (Virginia Woolf’s) Common Readers but might be called Ordinary Readers – you and me, really, and Iris Murdoch. First I compelled a group of friends to read all her novels in chronological order (this was the start of our various enthusiasms for doing the same with Hardy, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym, etc., all ending up with Dorothy Richardson!) and then I managed to persuade 25 book groups to read “The Bell” and fill in a questionnaire for me. Imagine! Anyway, I tried to write it up as well and as academically as I could, various ideas about doing official research or approaching a publisher were posited, but all of that seemed too formalised and deadline-bound for what I could manage between paid work, volunteering, reading and running, so I ploughed my own furrow right to the end and have produced a write-up myself.

So, here it is, and I’m going to put the Amazon links up so you can go and have a look at it if you want to, but no one should feel compelled to (I’ve stopped making people read things now!). It’s funny to have it all out of my system and to be going to the Iris Murdoch Society Conference next month without quivering about doing a presentation on my Work in Progress, and not having it hanging over me, unfinished, lurking in the corners, but I’m quite proud that I saw it through to the end.

Buy from Amazon UK Buy from Amazon US Buy from Amazon CA Buy from Amazon AU Buy from Amazon FR Buy from Amazon ES

Have you read any of these books (not my one, the other ones!)? Am I last to the pile with “The Old Ways” yet again?

Book review – Amber Reeves – “A Lady and Her Husband” @PersephoneBooks #20BooksOfSummer #amreading #Persephone


I’m very much enjoying my little whirl of Persephones towards the end of this month – here’s my review of “A Lady and Her Husband” and I’m currently reading “Greengates”, which is proving lovely so far, with “Madame Solario” to go. What treats! I’ve also been buying books again, but I think that’s for a different post. So here’s my review of a book which Ali bought me for Christmas last year and I suspect I might have bought it for her, too. I link to her review at the bottom of mine – I saved it up to read when I’d written my review!

Amber Reeves – “A Lady and her Husband”

(25 December 2016 – from Ali)

An excellent feminist novel, written in 1913 so looking forward quite confidently to women getting the vote but still perhaps looking at the quieter and more subtle ways in which women can effect social change. It certainly celebrates both socialism and suffragism and people’s commitment to society – not a surprise when you consider that Reeves was the daughter of the authors of the wonderful “Round About a Pound a Week” which I read back in 2010 and lover of HG Wells (a sister in arms of Miriam from “Pilgrimage” as well, maybe, in that case).

Mary – considered old and faded at 45, which shocked me a little, reading it amidst hard work and marathon training at the age of … 45 – is encouraged by her daughter to take an interest in the firm her husband runs, but of which she owns half. She has a secretary employed for her who is a bit of a caricature of a man-hating New Woman socialist but to whom Mary becomes closer, and, reluctant at first, she has her eyes opened to the conditions under which the tea-shop girls have to live. I was expecting here more details about the running of the tea shops, maybe thinking of Dorothy Whipple’s “High Wages” about shops, but it’s a different kind of book, exploring a marriage and a dawning consciousness.

Rosemary, Mary’s younger daughter, is a proud socialist and rather strident, but Mary possibly achieves more in her quiet way. I loved her assessment of her daughter and her principles:

Fortunately, it was not of much importance what Rosemary believed – she was a dear, good girl under all her modernity and could be trusted not to act on her convictions.

While James’ assessment of “Little Mother” Mary is patronising and awful, this seems to be more clear-eyed and affectionate, and indeed, Rosemary eventually succumbs to married bliss, having protested a little, although Mary now wonders how long that will actually last. I liked Rosemary a lot and wondered how her marriage would indeed go.

So, Mary doesn’t really want to be mixed up in James’ business, he sees a little role for her which will not interrupt his masculine workings, and both of them continue in their belief of the different spheres men and women occupy in business and life – this feels like very much a product of its time and you wonder what a different book it would be if written just half a decade later. Mary charmingly educates herself, meeting different kinds of people, reading books recommended by Rosemary and giving herself space to think and join up her half-remembered, rather patchy education.

A couple of significant scenes awaken Mary’s practical knowledge of the darker side of life and she’s brought to see that ‘luxury’ can consist of being protected from this as well as lying in houses and possessions. “A long forgotten curiosity awoke in Mary and urged her to see for herself what the world was like” – she decides she won’t let herself be persuaded she’s an invalid and i love that she goes out to learn about the world and business and economics rather than ‘awakening’ into just love affairs and whatnot. By the end of the book, she’s coming to terms with using the power she didn’t realise she had all along and has expanded her view of her duties towards her fellow people. An excellent and unusual read.

You can read Ali’s review of this novel here.

This was Book 18 in my #20BooksofSummer project. It would have covered 1914 in my Reading A Century project had I not already read the equally excellent (and perhaps companion-piece), “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists“. It’s also part of my annual All Virago / All August project!

Book review – Debbie Macomber – “Any Dream will Do” #amreading


Thank you to the publisher, Random House, for making this one available on NetGalley. The photo isn’t entirely apt, as this is an e-book.

A very different topic for Macomber here, as the central character is ex-wild-girl Shay, who has just come out of prison – fair enough, she went there for helping a family member – and is in danger from her low-life brother. At least her drug dealer ex is in prison (right?) and can’t get at her. Shay meets Pastor Drew at a turning point in her life and unwittingly gives him – a widower whose church is starting to lose congregation – a reason for hope, too.

Will Drew stand against the church elders to protect his growing friendship with Shay? Macomber does a clever thing by having the other main character a man of religion, as she can weave in themes of redemption and pardon and use themes her readers are used to. I also love how he picks up on something Shay says for a new line of sermons that help the church get full again.

There are a lot of details about the process Shay goes through at the centre she lives at for a year, and it’s well-researched and grittier than you might expect, with Shay clearly almost swearing at points and one of the homeless men she later befriends still struggling with alcohol. I really enjoyed its clear sightedness, but I wonder if very conservative friends who look for a comfort read might find it a little challenging. I suppose we’ll have to see!

Older Entries