Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading – Lucy Mangan


How can any bookworm resist this delightful mix of reminders of childhood favourite books and funny self-deprecating humour of a woman whose life has been shaped by them? Not me!

Lucy was a bookworm from the word go, she remembers the familiar The Hungary Caterpillar with his holes with the same affection she recalls Sugarpink Rose, written by Adela Turin and Nella Bosnia and published by a 1970s feminist collective, this book sadly didn’t appear on my bookshelf  but I now wish it had. Visits to the library, sitting quietly reading under the benign eyes of various women as her mother ran her gynae clinics all are bought to life, a story of an era as well as a story of the books that Lucy sought out in each destination.

In the introduction the author proclaims of her childhood books:

They made me who I am.

And I feel the same way. Would my own past be the same if it hadn’t spent hours exploring lives of fantasy and of hard reality, and those particular books that came on the journey to becoming an adult with me, must surely have altered the person I am? Through the book which provides the reader with a light touch to the history of children’s publishing, the author explores some key books – those where she had her own personal light-bulb moments, proving that books can and do expand the mind, even if they are flights of an author’s imagination but as Lucy Mangan tells us:

You hear a lot about books expanding the mind – less gets said about its occasional usefulness in battering your expectations of life down to manageable proportions. But it really ought to be credited with both. High hopes are the thief of time and contentment.

Yes, not only does this book appeal for the sheer nostalgic value, the author being only a few years younger than me seems to have had a pretty identical pile of books to read as well, but it is the first book this year that has had me laughing out loud at the humour that winds itself around my favourite subject. The other plus of reading this book having been born in same era, is that there is that recognition of a time that will never return. After all I think those of us born in the Seventies were left to our own devices a whole load more than any generation that followed us and these glimpses of that lost time are now even more firmly linked to the books that I read.

As this is a book about books, and even better many of the books that guided me through childhood to emerge into the big wide world I should probably tell you what to expect. The book is structured chronologically so we have the picture books, early readers, school and the slightly longer books with chapters via a pleasant detour through the Puffin Post, onto those classics such as the Railway Children and through to pre-teens (who most definitely had not been invented in the early eighties) to Judy Blume before we launch into books with rude bits in them, followed by the marketing dream Sweet Valley High before easing us into adult fiction.

The books are numerous, the author’s natural delight at most of the books not at all at odds with those natural prejudices which somewhat dictates our choices. There are descriptions of those moments where the passing of a bookworm’s chief enjoyment onto the next generation with mixed results with all those milestones that accompany us through childhood made this an absolute delight to read.

I will leave you at the ending where yet again  the author exactly mirrors how I feel, she was writing this book for me!

Adult reading – by which I mean reading adult books at a roughly adult age – is different to reading children’s books at as a child. It is still my favourite thing to do, it still absolutely necessary to me, I still become fractious and impatient if I do not get my daily ‘fix’ – but the quality of the experience is different. I do not get absorbed as easily or as fully. I am more pernickety.

I’d like to say a huge thank you to the publishers Random House UK for providing me with an advance review copy of Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading. I could honestly spout on about this book for ages, it was a brilliant read and one where I hadn’t got to the end of the first chapter before I pre-ordered a copy of the hardback to delight me in the future too and for ease of referring to the list of books helpfully compiled at the end.

First Published UK: 1 March 2018
Publisher: Square Pegs
No of Pages: 336
Genre: Non-Fiction – Memoir
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

The Facts of Life and Death – Belinda Bauer

Crime Fiction 5*s
Crime Fiction

For some reason I didn’t get around to reading this book by Belinda Bauer despite being a big fan, and having bought a copy of Blacklands in 2010 I’ve read my way through her books pretty much as soon as they’ve been published. No matter, The Facts of Life and Death was well worth the wait, in fact, it is decidedly my favourite of Belinda Bauer’s entire work.

The book is told by the viewpoint of ten-year old Ruby Trick who lives in Limeburn, Devon where she lives with her Mummy who works at the posh hotel and her Daddy a lover of all things Cowboy. He no longer has a job since the industry he was trained for has dissolved. The summer that the killer came to the area was one of those wet, dank summers that we do so well in the UK. Occasionally the sun managed to make a half-hearted appearance but for the rest of the time, it was damp and dismal.

Limeburn is sandwiched between the forest on one side, Ruby is to go no further than the stile, and the sea on the other, the sea where Ruby’s father fishes for their dinner and occasionally to sell. The few children in the village stick together, they have to if they want any companions at all, because it is a way to the larger town and so Ruby spends time in the ‘haunted house’ with her friend Adam throwing sticks into the sea and the rest of her time living for her weekly copy of Pony & Rider and her Mars bar that take up the entirety of her pocket money which she takes back home to The Retreat.

It was owned by a family in London who had bought it and named it and then found it was too distant, too dreary, too damp to retreat to – even just once a summer – and had rented it out until they could sell at a profit.

Meanwhile a twisted man is taking young women off the streets and getting them to strip and call their mothers to say goodbye. The mothers then get to watch and listen as the life is snuffed out of their daughters. Absolutely horrific, need I say more?

The absolute beauty of this book is that although much of what is happening is seen through Ruby’s eyes, with a childhood that is recognisable to many I should imagine, with petty jealousies, nasty boys, priggish girls and a fair smattering of boredom, Ruby is also worried about her Daddy leaving. Daddy is so much more fun than Mummy who is boring but there are rows which Ruby tries to remove herself from:

Whenever the row started, it always ended up at the job. It got there without her.

Then there is school where Ruby’s problems are magnified, not the most attractive of children with red hair and a fondness for sweets, which Daddy often indulges, she has a teacher Miss Sharpe who tells them all to write a diary daily. As any self-respecting child would, this meant that Ruby spent one day a week filling in her entries in her ‘Dairy’ Seriously I could have been Ruby and I adored Miss Sharpe’s character:

A couple of the other teachers tittered nervously. Not Miss Sharpe. If Miss Sharpe ever caught herself tittering, she’d give herself a good smack.

So it is a story of childhood, a world interpreted without the context to fully understand, it is also funny which makes it a real joy to read… and scary – I don’t want to think about the terror of those women, particularly those caught later on, who knew all about the murderer, or their poor mothers. The juxtaposition of childhood innocence with depravity makes for an incredibly powerful story and the outstanding plotting, the steady pace where there is not one scene too many, nor a single word seemingly without importance.

An outstanding read which was truly exceptional. If you haven’t read any of Belinda Bauer’s books, all of which I highly recommend, The Facts of Life and Death is up there with my favourite crime novels of all time, because it is about so much more than just crime; it is a reflection of a type of household, a type of community, a type of school and a type of man – all of which could be just around the corner from you or me.

First Published UK: 27 March 2014
Publisher: Bantam Press
No of Pages: 336
Genre: Crime Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Belinda Bauer’s Books – NB these are all standalone books, so no need to read them in order

Blacklands (2010)
Darkside (2011)
Finders Keepers (2012)
Rubbernecker (2013)
The Facts of Life and Death (2014)
The Shut Eye (2015)
The Beautiful Dead (2016)

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

Castles in the Air – Alison Ripley Cubitt

Memoir  3*s

This book is billed as a memoir of love and loss with the synopsis based around an incident as viewed by the eight year old Alison on the eve of the family’s departure for New Zealand.

So what is the book about? Well it is definitely a book of two halves, the first which covers Molly’s, Alison’s mother, surviving documents from the early part of the Second World War. The family were travelling for Molly’s father’s work in various outposts of Bletchley Park cracking codes in Asia. Through Molly’s letters, mainly those to family friend Steve, and a ship’s log given to her to record an early voyage at this time, we get plenty of information about the people they met, the kind of life they led and some snippets of the context of the world at that time, but sadly not enough. Molly I suspect was a typical teenage girl of her time. Longing to be grown up, maybe especially in Steve’s eyes, but betraying her age with the everyday events of friends lost and found, shopping trips when the ship called at port and tales of parties attended and school exams. The loss of detail about the surrounding world, the real sense of danger the family sometimes found themselves in is not necessarily telling of Molly’s natural introspection, but a by-product of the censorship operating. To be honest the news of other families soon wore thin and this part could have done with more editing and some context for those not familiar with the war being fought in these far-flung parts of the world.

In the second half of the book we hear far more from Alison who details the downward spiral of her parents just when she was going away to college. Here we had the opportunity to see how life had turned out for the optimistic Molly after she had trained as a midwife. From my point of view these chapters were far more interesting although perhaps Alison is still too worried about family members reading this poignant memoir as the episodes are littered with excuses for the behaviour of both parents to a degree that became intrusive to the narrative. That isn’t to say the sadness of the tale being told was completely lost, it wasn’t, and the everyday struggles of making a life far from their family albeit one that was built on an itinerant background were expertly revealed.

An interesting read but I felt that this could have been far better presented, especially in the first half which revolved around various sea voyages and staying in unsuitable lodgings with far too little money. Molly’s tale is worth hearing and it was interesting to understand a little of the pressure on the code-crackers, no matter where they were posted, something I had been unaware of until I read this memoir.

I’d like to thank the publishers Lambert Nagle Media who allowed me to read a proof copy of this book in return for this honest opinion. Castles in the Air was published on 25 November 2015.

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

The Unknown Bridesmaid – Margaret Forster

Contemporary Fiction 5*'s
Contemporary Fiction

I’m a big fan of Margaret Forster; she manages to write eloquently on a number of different subjects, this means that some topics will be more of interest than others. In The Unknown Bridesmaid the story revolves around a child psychologist, Julia which I found immensely readable.

The story is written from Julia’s perspective both in the present day revolving around her caseload of troubled young girls and her past; starting from the time she was asked to be a bridesmaid for her cousin Iris. Margaret Forster has a particular skill in depicting family relationships, not the sugar coated ones but the real life misunderstandings and difficulties that beset most families at one time or another. Julia spent the run up to the wedding terrified that this opportunity was going to be snatched away from her due to her mother’s anxiety. As Julia grows she spends more time with Iris and soon a terrible event changes the course of her life forever.

This book has themes of childhood memories, jealousy and guilt running through its pages. There are some wonderful characters although not necessarily likable ones.

This is an absorbing tale, well written with a real understanding of how a child processes information and memories. The only criticism I have is that the girls in Julia’s caseload seemed to be solved in a very simplistic manner, I presume this was to illustrate that all the girls needed was the wisdom of Julia’s advice but I found it a little bit too dismissive. Despite this it was well worth a read and a good example of how well Margaret Forster writes and her immense skill at handling difficult subjects.