Category Archives: Book reviews

Naoki Higashida – The Reason I Jump

This remarkable book was written by a 13 year old autistic boy, who was unable to speak and communicated by using an alphabet grid. It is presented in the format of questions, to which he has given answers.

It’s a wonderful, honest and revealing insight into his mind and his experience. There was a lot in it that I could recognise in my own son, who also loves water, and needs to play with and in it every day in some form. He makes ‘potions’, he fills containers up with water and lobs them round the garden, his baths are a thing to behold, he looks forward to his weekly swimming lessons with a passion, and at present we are at loggerheads because he simply cannot stop himself chucking things in the pond or dredging out and throwing about the ponds water. Our resident frog hasn’t been seen for a few weeks and I don’t blame him. 

Like Higashida my son also loves walking or scooting round the streets endlessly, he loves being outdoors, he is very repetitive in his choices of games, books and TV. And he loves numbers, oh yes! They are a source of constant comfort and reassurance for him. He draws and writes numbers over and over, and he can’t go to sleep unless he has a watch, a calculator and a ‘clicker’ (a hand held counter). There are those in my life that think I should try to get my son out of these behaviours but I have always suspected that they are a comfort and that I should just let him be. This book gives more insight into why.

All these behaviours I see, and I know they’re are because of his autism, but reading this book has turned that around, in a good way. It’s easy to get stuck into a pattern of seeing a behaviour and trying to work out a response, when actually the behaviour is just one small aspect of a bigger thing, and understanding that helps. I so badly want to see the world from his point of view, and hopefully one day he will be able to explain some of it to me. In the meantime, this book is my reference point. 

Of course as a parent the big, big thing for me is that I can talk calmly and gently to him a thousand times about why he shouldn’t do a certain thing, but he either doesn’t seem to listen, or he does listen and understand but does it anyway, because he can’t control it ‘in the moment’. My ADHD means I have this problem, though to a lesser extent, so I have some sympathy, but I do find it very hard to deal with, having very little patience myself. I have actually photocopied Q52, 53 &54 and put them on my notice board as a reminder for when my son and I are locked in some dispute stemming from exactly this.

Higashida writes beautifully about feeling at one with nature, because he feels more at one with primeval life, and he talks of being “outside civilisation”, which gives him a different perspective on things, particularly the destructive behaviour of so-called civilised humanity. It made me think of Greta Thunberg, who herself has Aspergers, and reflect on the huge benefits of such a perspective. If only people would listen to them!

There are also snippets of Higashida’s own creative writing, including a powerful short story at the end.

Definitely read this. It’s such an important book.

Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler

Arthur Bryant and John May of the Met’s little-known Peculiar Crimes Unit are London’s longest-serving detectives. When a bomb claims Bryant’s life, it ends a partnership that has lasted for over half a century.

I really loved the atmosphere of London in the Blitz, and the workings of the theatre, which give this book a dark, gothic feel. Coincidentally whilst reading it I attended a webinar about art in the Blitz (based on this book, which I must get hold of), which of course fed into the atmosphere in my mind. I enjoyed the characters of Bryant and May (I think I have a bit of a crush on the young Bryant!) and the interplay of their personalities. I also enjoyed the contrast between London now and London then, which was cause for some good insights. What I liked less was the somewhat absurd murder mystery, though it did still pull me along. I stayed up late one night to finish it while simultaneously thinking both “this is bloody ridiculous” and “I need to keep reading so I know what happens.”

Elizabeth is Missing

By Emma Healey

Maud is Forgetful. She makes a cup of tea and doesn’t remember to drink it. She goes to the shops and forgets why she went. Sometimes her home is unrecognizable -or her daughter Helen seems a total stranger. But there’s one thing Maud is sure of: her friend Elizabeth is missing. The note in her pocket tells her so. And no matter who tells her to stop going on about it, to leave it alone, to shut up, Maud will get to the bottom of it.

This is a good read on so many levels, told from the point of view of the elderly Maud who has dementia. The ‘unreliable narrator’ is done beautifully here, with the reader given tantalising clues, red herrings, and distractions on the way to rooting out the truth. It is also an observant and moving portrayal of dementia, and the impact it has on Maud and her relationship with her daughter.

I really recommend it. Also, I have been told there is a TV adaptation with Glenda Jackson in, which sounds so awesome I will have to track it down!

Girl, woman, other

By Bernardine Evaristo

I absolutely loved this book. It is the interwoven life stories of various women, with a beautiful twist at the end that had tears running down my cheeks.

What I loved about it particularly is that it is compelling and readable and yet within that manages to incorporate themes of love, race, identity, sexuality, culture… the breadth and scope is vast, and yet the stories are intimate, familiar, accessible and very readable.

I think it’s also a book that will stand the test of time and become a classic as it gives such a wonderful glimpse into a particular time and place, just like those great nineteenth century novels, whilst also addressing universal human themes. I am going to keep my copy on the shelf, that’s for sure.

The Mirror and the Light- Hilary Mantel

It took me a whole month to read this, partly because I kept re-reading bits to drink it in properly, and partly because I kept stopping and taking a break because it was all too much!

Even now, a few days after I finished, I am somewhat at a loss as to how to review it. I think the best thing to do is to try to write a short, useful review, for anyone who was thinking of reading it, and the after that put my own rambling views.

So, the short version:

This is a superbly written, thoroughly engaging book. Despite its size and subject matter it is not difficult to read and the evenings flew by for me as I was totally immersed in Mantel’s Tudor world. I have read a fair few historical novels in my time but none have ever come close to the clarity of the Wolf Hall trilogy, which made me feel so utterly convinced by the reality of it. I came out of it feeling that if I had a time machine and went back to that time it would be exactly as she describes.

In addition to this vivid backdrop the scope of human behaviour, experience and feeling depicted is phenomenal and compelling. I will definitely hold on to all three books for a future re-read one day.

The long version:

My main observation about it was the way the narcissistic despot Henry VIII just uses people up. It made me think of that footage of Saddam Hussain in a room just giving orders and various of his advisors being taken out of the room on his command to be shot. 

I put off reading the final chapters of the book because I couldn’t bear it. However, Cromwell himself is no saint, and in the end was undone by the same processes he himself used, no trial, just rumour and circumstance used to convict him. I remember being quite upset in the previous books when he destroyed those men around Anne Boleyn. What sticks with me most is the fact that if someone was a commoner they would be hung, drawn and quartered, but if they were ‘noble’ then they would get the swift option. This constant contrast between the rights of the commoner and the nobility was a theme, and it was Cromwell’s background as much as his religious leanings that earned him enemies that brought him down. The hardest bit to take was the betrayal of some of those closest to him, and the others that left the sinking ship, and the speed with which it all happened. 

What a terrifying time to be alive. It seems those final years of Henry’s reign were genuinely a reign of terror, and whilst I feel kind of triumphant that the Howards were brought low very quickly after Cromwell (Katherine Howard was executed, Jane Rochford was executed, Surrey was executed, and his father Norfolk imprisoned in the Tower for much of his later years, though the wily bastard escaped execution by a twist of fate) it is a horrible fate for them all. Such high stakes and such violent ends.

I remember studying the Tudors at school, and I can see why it is considered an important part of our history. There is a whiff of the modern world being born. The fact that people could rise from being a kitchen hand to a powerful advisor, based on merit and ambition, that there also is a growing merchant class, and providing a Bible in English so the common people could understand it, and breaking the manipulative stranglehold of the Church and reforming the government. And at the same time the old world fighting back viciously. 

Henry’s reign itself is a fascinating, contradictory time of wavering, changing religious doctrine, and the years that come after it, well, first it’s a death sentence to be a Catholic, then it’s a death sentence to be a Protestant then back again. The only way to get through it was probably to keep your head down and just go along with whatever was in favour. One of the enduring mysteries to me is that Cromwell was so helpful to Mary. I thought this was well covered in the books, depicting that actually he genuinely didn’t want her to die, and didn’t want Henry to have her executed, as he would regret it, and that all these relationships and machinations were full of grey areas and apparent contradictions. But at the same time I found myself mumbling away at the book “don’t bother, she’s a monster when she’s Queen, just let him execute her”. 

There were some great depictions of women as well, as women were undoubtedly a huge feature of the time, though mainly via their bodies. Poor Anne of Cleves, humiliatingly rejected, Jane Seymour, such a short life, and then of course Katherine Howard, a pawn in Norfolk’s game, would come to a violent end while still a teenager. Look at the start of page 507 – it is so beautifully observed and described I read it a few times.

And take time to look through the names and family trees at the beginning. I had to keep referring back to them. They even have categories for ‘the recently dead’ and ‘in the Tower of London’. I could have done with updated versions at various points through the book to keep up with it as both lists frequently changed.

Grim but fascinating reading.  

The Midnight Library

By Matt Haig

SPOILER ALERT: Most of my reviews discuss the ending of a book so if you don’t want to know the result look away now 😉

This was so compelling and readable, I devoured it in only two sittings, which happens when I get stuck into something. My sleep suffers but my dopamine benefits. 

I really liked Nora and Mrs Elm and I loved the idea of it. I definitely need to check out Henry David Thoreau. References to him always seem to turn up in things I like! 

It was a nicely observed account of a woman lingering between life and death and exploring the different paths she could have taken, and unravelling her regrets to learn that every possible life has its ups and downs and that her choices have different outcomes for different people in her life as well as for herself.

Possibly the only bum note for me was this: Is it supposed to all be in her imagination, in which case I can see that she could be an Olympic swimmer, a Cambridge lecturer, a rock star etc. However, if, as it hinted, these are actual parallel lives, then I don’t buy it. She couldn’t be all of those things just on the basis of her making different choices.

Seriously, I played tennis through most of my childhood but I quit in my teens. If I went back and undid that decision would I go on to become a professional tennis player and play at Wimbledon? No, I wouldn’t. Because choices are not the only factor, it’s also about talent. The book seemed to be saying we can be whatever we want, it’s just a matter of different choices, and I don’t agree with that. The other messages, however, were all spot on. 

The concept resonated with me because I am usually living a parallel life too. I don’t know whether it’s an ADHD thing, I suspect it probably is, but I am always imagining a parallel life that I’m in, and it’s with me alongside my current one. I have a vivid imagination so I can imagine it in detail, and whilst it is most definitely not real it is like a film playing in my mind. So I could identify with Nora’s library, though mine isn’t so much about regrets or not wanting my current life, mine is about my mind having its little adventures to keep itself entertained. 

I enjoyed the ending very much, and I loved that it was not clear what path she was going to take, but she had more self knowledge with which to navigate it. 

Heartburn

By Nora Ephron

“Seven months into her pregnancy, Rachel, a cookery writer, discovers that her husband is in love with another woman”.

I found this book very readable with some good observations and wit but I did find most of the characters annoying at some point. I think it’s all the therapists these rich Americans have. “My therapist”, “his therapist”, “her therapist”, because everyone has one. And they all rattle about these nice apartments eating expensive food, bitching about each other and cheating on one another. In the end she sells her diamond ring for $15,000.

It did also seem quite dated, with talk of how women like to be married and stay married and need to turn a blind eye to men, who are innately and unavoidably restless and crap, two assumptions that did not sit right with me. Thankfully Rachel is able to overcome those voices and part of the joy of the novel is in seeing that happen. 

It made me ponder love and marriage though, and the nature of infidelity. I have never been unfaithful or (to the best of my knowledge) been cheated on but it seems like it is generally a very common thing, and not just in fiction. Are we asking too much of one another when we seek to keep people monogamous? Is it the best or most natural way to be? How do we know? Who decides? I loathed the husband in this, but for me whilst the infidelity would be hard (though not impossible) to forgive, it was his arrogance and contemptuous treatment of Rachel that angered me so much and which I would find unforgivable. 

There is a superb bit about the impact of children on marriages, (“A child is like a grenade… all the power struggles of the marriage now have a new playing field”) and some other sharp observations that hit home.

The final chapter of the book is actually my favourite. It starts with the lines:

“If I had to do it over again, I would have made a different kind of pie. The pie I threw at Mark made a terrific mess, but a blueberry pie would have been even better, since it would have permanently ruined his new blazer, the one he bought with Thelma.”

I think this would be an excellent opening to any novel, not just a chapter. I didn’t love the book enough for it to be one I re-read (or maybe I did, but I didn’t love the characters enough for it to be a favourite), but I may open it again for the recipes, particularly the key lime pie.

Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England.

By Alison Weir.

Alison Weir’s writing is so accessible and compulsively readable. She is careful to weigh up evidence and say when something is inconclusive, but at the same time she manages to tell a fabulous story, with descriptions vivid enough to play in my mind. 

Remarkable in her own time and from the distance of 800 years, Eleanor’s story is fascinating: Riding like an amazon to the Holy Land astride her horse, getting an annulment from her marriage to the King of France and then riding straight off to marry his enemy, having an affair with her uncle (actually, probably having affairs with two different uncles at different points in her life…), sailing a stormy journey across the Channel at seven months pregnant with an infant in tow, and watching her many children grow up to fight and intrigue (often against one another, or their father).

In fact, it’s crazy how much moving about the Royals did. They were pretty much nomadic, riding or marching hundreds of miles, crossing mountain passes in winter (which Eleanor did at age 77), and thought nothing of nipping across the Channel as frequently as a modern day commute, whatever the weather. 

It is horrifying though, the way people viewed things. That a woman could wield such power and yet at the same time have so little of it. One month she’s de facto ruler of a Kingdom, the next she’s imprisoned for overstepping. It’s as though they realised that women were capable and intelligent, but they kept getting scared of this realisation.

Though I love history and am fascinated by it, my vivid imagination and empathic brain always struggle with it. There’s all these enthralling tales of Kings, Queens, Dukes, Empresses and their squabbles and plots and wars, but every time I read “so he laid waste to the whole region in revenge”, or “he was busy capturing this town that was under siege”, or “the soldiers rampaged through the surrounding lands” I just think of the ordinary people going about their lives. People trying to make a living, taking care of their homes, rearing animals, raising a family, kids playing …and then in sweep these armies to kill, torture, rape, plunder, and set everything on fire. Those that survived the onslaught faced famine as their ravaged lands could no longer feed them. And then probably, after all these lives, loves and hopes are swept away the two warring parties will kiss and make up, all chivalrous after their quarrel. It’s all a bit too much for my angry heart sometimes (that massacre in the ‘Holy Land’ is going to stick in my mind for the rest of my life). 

I am sure you will hear this again as it happens every time I read a history book*. It really plays with my poor sensitive soul! However, it doesn’t diminish the fascination I have with history or with Eleanor’s truly amazing life story. I really recommend this book as it’s so readable and yet thorough. Just brace yourself, it’s a bumpy ride!

*I am aware such things are not entirely consigned to the past, so I extend that to “anything about wars and armies at any time or place, past or present”.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. By JK Rowling.

Marketing has such an influence these days that my younger son (known on this blog as R) has been obsessed with Harry Potter for about a year without being familiar with the story or characters. We have an agreement that we’ll read the books together and after we’ve finished each one then we can watch the film of it, then move onto the next book. He’s only five so I’m hoping this will spread it all out somewhat so he’s as close to seven as possible by the time we reach the scarier stuff. I am also a believer in always trying to read the book of something before watching the screen version if you can. It’s better to build up your own mental pictures first.

Having read them more than a decade ago, it was a joy to start again, this time with a five year old’s interjections enhancing the experience: “oh mummy, I think this is going to be a good bit, I can just tell”, “why is Hermione so bossy? I think she’s like you because you’re bossy”, a twenty minute in-depth (yet inconclusive) discussion of what houses the sorting hat would put us in, and my personal favourite “do centaurs do person poos or horse poos?”

They’re at that age where magic and reality are indistinguishable and R is utterly convinced that he will be going to Hogwarts when he’s finished his current school. At random points in the day he will keep coming up to me in a panic saying “I forgot the spell for making the feather float!” or “do you think we can go and buy my owl today?”

He was so into the story and had excellent recall. Even if we missed a day he would still remember what had happened and exactly where we were up to. I think I need to up my game as a reader though. I haven’t done that much ‘out loud’ reading for years and I could only really manage distinct voices for one or two characters. I also shamefully let the side down when I started blubbing at the end. When Dumbledore gives Neville those 10 points it always gets me. R looked at me in disgust “mummy are you actually crying?”.

Reading is the best lesson and the best gift for kids. I had to make a diversion to explain that Diagon Alley is a pun. So he now sort of knows what a pun is, and it was quite a few days later when we were doing a wordsearch and he said “mummy, that one is done diagonally, like in Diagon Alley”. He also now knows the difference between duel and jewel thanks to this book.

Having worried that the kids just weren’t ready I now realise I was wrong. We are eagerly awaiting the next book.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. By Gail Honeyman.

Eleanor Oliphant has learned how to survive – but not how to live. Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend. Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything.

An enjoyable read with a narrative that speeds along nicely. What the author has captured well is the different perspective neurodiverse people can bring and there were some absolute gems that caused me to laugh out loud. The bit about school sports is particularly good. 

I did get angry as well, on Eleanor’s behalf. Her mum was clearly very mentally ill but nobody knew or helped, or intervened to protect the children. The support Eleanor herself received was very poor. Of course she was going to have mental health issues and struggle with her life, but they left her pretty much alone to deal with it. The letters from the foster carers are heartbreaking, with all their talk of ‘discipline’. It is bad that they weren’t allowed to know her history but at the same time, surely if you foster or adopt you are primed for the child having been through some kind of trauma. Seriously, if you foster a child and they have a major aversion to cleaning or setting the fire wouldn’t you think that just maybe it was a trauma trigger for them?

The one bit that didn’t quite convince me was the attitude of her colleagues. I can understand that they might leave her out due to not understanding her but the level of nastiness was more akin to school rather than grown adults. I don’t know, maybe I have just been surrounded by nice people for so long! I’m sure if she worked at my place of work she would not be treated like that.