Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

My Mother the Psychopath – Olivia Rayne

Non Fiction
4*s

I don’t typically go for the ‘misery memoir’ genre of reading because quite frankly I find much of the books that proliferated at the peak of its popularity grim, unrelenting and almost voyeuristic. However when the contents move away from a catalogue of actions to something more thoughtful, an exploration of a person, well I find that fascinating.

Olivia Rayne always knew as she was growing up that other mothers didn’t behave like hers but it was probably more of a slow realisation to making the leap to giving her the diagnosis of a psychopath. This term is thrown about with a fair degree of abandon these days, thanks in part to the popularity of Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test which educated the population that not all psychopaths are serial killers, in fact the vast majority move among us.

Mothering though is generally accepted to require all the good skills, protecting, nurturing, and caring which don’t square with what comes naturally to the psychopath. This of course means any child born to such a parent, and you could argue particularly if it is the mother who is wired in this way, is going to suffer to some degree. Coupled as these people often are to weak and ineffectual partners and the result is disaster.

Rayne heads up each chapter to her memoir with a description of one of the 20 accepted psychopathic traits and then follows it with an example of her life with her mother. Some of these events took place when Olivia was a small child, some more recently but many show that the face presented to the world was far from that which she used to scare and humiliate her daughter away from the public gaze. Of course this methodology also allows the reader to make a judgement on the truth of what we are being told in a way that a list of awful events is less likely to have the same impact on the reader.

The book is also testament to that movement that I am desperately hoping will gather pace. Olivia isn’t using what happened to her in childhood as a reason for behaving like a victim. She’s hidden her identity in part so that she can continue working amongst her peers without the prurient details defining her for ever more. Most fascinating of all was the discovery that Olivia had broken ranks on the silence of her childhood a couple of years ago when she submitted an article about her mother to an online paper. The reaction was in line with that which had occurred when she initially broke off contact, a ceaseless barrage of emails in turns abusive and appealing, not just to Olivia herself but to her boss, colleagues and friends.

With a definite feeling that this book is both putting the past behind her and reaching out to others who are in this little studied relationship and giving a feeling of hope for a different type of life. For that you can only applaud this brave author.

I’d like to say a big thank you to Ebury Press who allowed me to read a copy of My Mother the Psychopath. This unbiased review is my thanks to them.

First Published UK: 24 January 2019
Publisher: Ebury Press
No of Pages: 336
Genre: Non-Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

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

Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading – Lucy Mangan

Non-Fiction
5*s

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

My Life in Houses – Margaret Forster

Non-Fiction – Memoir
4*s

In hindsight so many of Margaret Forster’s books contain autobiographical detail but it was Hidden Lives which first really opened my eyes to the link between this talented story teller and her own background, although cleverly only ever apparent by reading between the lines. In My Life in Houses we learn more details about Margaret’s first house, the one on the Raffles estate which she was so ashamed of, preferring those on the better side of town. And though the book’s pages, we learn that from the tender age of seven this author began her own game of choosing another house to live in.

Of course, as an adult with a number of ‘important’ houses in her life, she realises that what she started with could have been so much worse, and so she explains how it defined her. How a house with only room for Margaret and her younger sister to sleep together in an alcove in their parent’s bedroom left her yearning for her own space. Even when the girls got older they had to share a bed even if they did have their own room because their older brother was off doing his national service at the time.

Having read Hidden Lives I was already aware that Margaret’s mother had aspirations and so eventually, through her hard work, although the money to fund the move and the increased rent was down to her husband working overtime, the family moved to the better side of town.

From here we follow Margaret to her student digs, her first house as a young married woman on the edge of Hampstead Heath, and beyond, including holiday homes both abroad and nearer her native Carlisle.

This is a fairly slim novel and the houses described are littered with personal details about the way she felt about neighbours, builders, her writing and sadly her illness. Sadly the cancer had already spread by the time she wrote this, her last piece of non-fiction, and more than likely is the explanation for the brevity and the matter of fact way she touches on her options is probably even harder to read in retrospect. Margaret Forster died on 8 February 2016 aged 77 having left a wealth of books behind to entertain and enlighten new generations of readers.

The most fascinating part of this book of however has nothing to do with the author and everything to do with how life changed so considerably between 1938 when she was born and 2014 when the book was published. Her early memories include the black-leading of the fireplace and not without a certain amount of wryness does she delight in this once hated job being integral in her second home in Carlisle. Of course Margaret Forster was more affluent than most but as she references sitting-tenants and shared bathrooms in the past she is describing the lives that certainly were the options open for my ancestors if they wanted to leave home. Life is very different with so many household gadgets nowadays but here is a woman describing the novelty of a home telephone.

For a different type of memoir this method is incredibly effective although I’m not sure I would have loved it quite so much had I not already had an insight not only into the author’s life but those important beliefs around feminism and socialism which seem to have featured long before they might have been expected to surface.

This copy of My Life in Houses was from the local library in my bid to support this wonderful community lifeline which has previously been such a huge part of my life. I would not be the reader I am now if it hadn’t been for libraries to keep me stocked up with books.

First Published UK: 6 November 2014
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
No of Pages: 272
Genre: Non-Fiction – Memoir
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2016, Book Review, Books I have read

Testament of Youth – Vera Brittain #20Booksofsummer

Book 15

Non-Fiction 3*s
Non-Fiction
3*s

An alternately moving and exasperating memoir written by a woman who moved from childhood to adulthood during the lead up to World War I, this book published in 1933 uses her diaries and letters from that time to give us a picture of what the realities of war meant for a young woman of her generation.

The book opens with Vera’s desperation to go to Oxford despite her family’s, particularly her father’s objection to this course at odds with the opportunity to study being freely offered to her brother, Edward. It is exceptionally hard to picture a life of the fairly privileged, intelligent and inquisitive Edwardian young lady whose life was still mapped out by the strictures of the Victorian Era. Funny also to read her comparison to the young people of the day when she was writing this memoir who she viewed with envy for the freedom offered to them. Of course from my perspective the generation she envied for the easiness of their lives; the freedom to court without chaperones, to receive degrees even as women and to be employed despite being married, appears to be wildly exaggerated compared to the freedoms we have nowadays. This is just one example of why I’m glad I finally made time to read this book as it demonstrates how feminism wasn’t one wild gallop to get the vote, the struggle was long and incremental and yet women like Vera appreciated the progress made towards a better future.

The book covers Vera’s coming down from Oxford to join the VADs nursing in England, Malta and France throughout the war whilst she simultaneously worried about her brother and her friends fighting in the conflict which as the war progressed she began to hate with a vengeance for its waste of life at the behest of political masters. She saw through the treaties for the young to become heroes to give up their futures for egos. She also records one of the rarely recorded views of the older generation, those who had to live without servants for the first time in their lives, the men and women who had given their children to the fight both on the battlefields and to other war-work thereby forgoing the previous right to call on their unmarried daughters when required.

Following the end of the War Vera retakes her position at Oxford this time to study History rather than English becoming ever more interested in international politics which I’m regretful to report I found in the main a struggle to read as they referenced matters that my knowledge simply wasn’t great enough for me to fully appreciate. With my interest far more keen on the politics relating to women’s lives, this section wasn’t a complete right-off as the considerations proposed for women during the War were under attack following the conclusion of it – to have these put into wider context was enlightening.

My exasperation with the book was in part with her condescending tone which covered whole swaths of the population; the locals from her teens, those women who wanted to seize life rather than study or grieve, those who hadn’t worked through the war because they were too young, men, in general who weren’t her brother or her friend etc. etc. and whilst some of the earlier sections can be considered a faithful recording of her younger self, this continual holding herself up as a paragon of one whose life has been more meaningful than those that didn’t share her experiences, her political ambitions or her daily preoccupation with being taken seriously by everyone got a little wearing.

This is a huge book at over 600 wordy pages with parts, such as the experiences of nursing during the war that I found exceptionally interesting and poignant and those latter pages which detail her work with the League of Nations that frankly I found less so. That said, with a book full of detailed accounts of life before, during and after the war I felt that I truly put flesh on the bones of what I understood life to be like in the UK during this time and even more when right at the end of the book Vera and her friend Winifred take a tour of Europe to have a taste of what those nations lives looked like a decade after the war started compelling reading.

A worthwhile book to read and one that although this short review merely highlights a small proportion of its content, has broadened my knowledge of the time period, albeit for one section of society in particular. At times desperately sad and a reminder of quite what an entire generation went through in the hopes of forging a better future at others I was cheering Vera on with her ambition to make the world a better place. Sadly my overall feeling when I reached the end was discomfort as I couldn’t help but consider Vera’s hopes for peace were to be dashed with the Second World War already looming on the horizon at the time of publication.

First Published UK: August 1933
Publisher: Virago
No of Pages 640
Genre: Non-Fiction (Memoir)
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

Castles in the Air – Alison Ripley Cubitt

Memoir  3*s
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

A Fifty Year Silence – Miranda Richmond Mouillot

Memoir 5*'s
Memoir
5*’s

As a child Miranda suffered with fears that would be inexplicable in most young children but Miranda had grown up with shadowy stories of having to flee in the night and being ready just in case… this is because both her Grandparents, Anna and Armand were Jewish and had been in France at the time of the Second World War. Quite astonishingly Miranda was quite old before she even realised that they had once been married to each other as they didn’t talk to each other at all.

Until she was 14 Miranda was far closer to her Grandmother but then she went to a boarding school near to Armand and got to know the prickly man who was pernickety, fussy and an unlikely companion for a lonely teenager but every now and again a snippet from the past would present itself, often in the form of a book or a painting. One day she finds that there is a house and somehow it still appears to belong to both of them despite a forty plus year silence between them. Miranda’s mother is called upon to persuade Anna to sign a document to allow the building to be sold, but that isn’t going to be an easy task!

As an adult Miranda convinces herself that the separation precipitated by Anna when she left with her two children and her typewriter followed a passionate love affair and was determined to get to the root of the split to prove her theory. Anna was on the surface the more helpful of the two giving over a file of her life, there was just one problem Anna didn’t talk in a linear fashion and she certainly didn’t write in one. The narrative of this memoir was built over years following some careful questioning to nail down the timing of events as the couple met and then got separated by circumstances too awful to contemplate, even the date of their eventual marriage is unknown in the beginning. Miranda has to tread carefully as both Anna and even more so Armand are quick to take offence and she clearly adores both of them so the piecing together of the complex tale takes patience and time.

This is not only a story of this couple with their memories overlaid with the horrors of the time they lived in, the friends that disappeared and even after the war, the coming to terms with all that had gone before particularly as Armand was one of the translators at the Nuremburg Trials. It is also a picture of two elderly people, the present day consists of Miranda trying to look after them both, especially Armand whose prickly nature softens in old age.
It is only to be expected with such a complex task that the author never really gets to the bottom of what happened to cause the rift, but by the end of the book the theory she presents matches the evidence she found on her journey through their lives. Taken at this level the story is a mystery, there is some pleasure to be gained by deciding whether or not you feel that the right conclusion has been drawn. However, be warned this is a book that will arouse your emotions as much because of the unaffected way the tales are told, there is no manipulating of the reader, the events depicted are on the one hand only too easy to imagine, on the other, impossible for those of us for whom it is something we’ve heard about but never, thank goodness, had to experience.

The author’s writing is lyrical, the story flows that despite the many elements which include her own life’s adventures, they never seem irrelevant or padding to the ‘main’ story. Anna and Armand are ever present with the reader able to compare the carefree way Miranda explores the abandoned house in France with the horrors that the couple faced in the years before its purchase.

I thoroughly recommend this memoir to immerse yourself in the reality of those dark days and to get a sense of how history can be passed through the generations. The holocaust wasn’t just an event, the effects last until this day as we recently witnessed on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

I’d like to say thank you to the publishers Text Publishing who allowed me to read a copy of this wonderful memoir in return for my honest opinion.

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

84 Charing Cross Road & The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street – Helene Hanff

Non-Fiction  5*'s
Non-Fiction
5*’s

I first heard about this book many months ago on the Blog:Musings From A Bookmammal and sold on the fact that this was an epistolary novel written by a booklover.

A delightful book, 84 Charing Cross Road is a book entirely made up of letters detailing the correspondence that spanned twenty years between Helene Hanff and the booksellers Messers Marks & Co.

Starting in 1949 Helene from New York, wrote to the booksellers requesting a list of books, having found their details in a newspaper and Frank Doel responds with his finds three weeks later. As the correspondence deepens Helene Hanff’s humour and kindness shine through and soon other members of staff and their families are also writing and receiving their own personal responses. Booklovers will enjoy tracking the non-fiction titles Helene demands with varying levels of urgency.

It has to be said not a great deal happens in this very slim tome but Helene Hanff manages to give the reader a little slice of social history, especially detailing the ongoing rationing in the early 1950’s. The writing style is what carries his book along.

In The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street the reader gets to hear all the details of her long-awaited trip to London which followed the publication of 84 Charing Cross Road. A delightful addition where the author is courted by both those she corresponded with and her newer fans. Written in the form of a journal of her stay her humour is even more pronounced.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book quite like this one and I’d like to thank Bookmammal for the recommendation.

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

The Girl From Station X – Elisa Segrave

Memoir 3*'s
Memoir
3*’s

This memoir was born out of the difficult relationship Elisa had with her mother Anne. When Anne started suffering with dementia, probably caused by her alcohol abuse, Elisa was left with the task of clearing the former family home. In the attic she found a box, filled with notebooks; Anne’s diaries written from the age of fifteen.

Anne was the heir to her mother’s fortune which meant that she rubbed shoulders with the elite of England. The pre-war years are filled with travel, finishing schools and seemingly endless parties. The war years tell an entirely different story of a privileged young woman working as a WRAF, including a lengthy stint in intelligence and a posting at Bletchley Park. I found the diaries, especially those written during World War Two really interesting, as Anne documented her daily life as a WRAF, her satisfaction for feeling useful for the first, and only, time in her life. Elisa has cleverly selected enough to give a true sense of the young woman’s first experience of connecting to her colleagues, a very different experience from the cosseted world of her earlier years.

It takes some time though, to get to this part, the beginning starts with a seemingly endless litany of how difficult, indecisive and uncaring Elisa’s mother was. The abuse of alcohol, interesting never mentioned by either family or friends, the selfishness of her endless travels and some tragic losses, seen from Elisa’s perspective is the background which makes reading the young woman’s adventures far more poignant.

The power of this novel is the understanding it gave Elisa about who her mother really was, although at several points her interjections about her mother’s faults, led me to believe that perhaps the misunderstandings between this mother and daughter perhaps ran too deep ever to be truly healed.

I received a free copy of this memoir to read as part of the Lovereading Review Panel, ahead of the paperback release on 15 March 2014.

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

Daddy’s Rules – Rachel Sontag

Memoir 4*'s
Memoir
4*’s

I picked this book up at a second-hand book sale to raise funds for Guide Dogs for the Blind and it has sat on my shelf since October unopened. This morning I picked it up to read the first few pages whilst I was running a bath and read right until the end.

Stories about families fascinate me. I didn’t have what you could call a conventional childhood and so I have an almost prurient interest in what happens in other families, particularly dysfunctional ones. Rachel Sontag illustrates perfectly just how easy it is for everything to go badly wrong for some families.

This memoir is written in a way which never seems to exaggerate the psychological abuse Rachel suffered at the hands of her father but at the same time leaves the reader in no doubt about how damaging this was. Of course this kind of abuse is the hardest to detect, the hardest to reason with and the hardest to do anything about. Steve Sontag played his part in public (mostly) and appeared to be a hard-working, funny, Jewish doctor but behind closed doors, and often in public places his sheer unreasonableness, the lectures dressed up as life lessons endlessly repeated and the damaging way he viewed her every action continued until Rachel was at breaking point . I say was, because ultimately this is a positive book, Rachel had the strength of character to live her life and this book is her story of how she did so.

Families are complicated, no two operate in the same way and there is often a cast of many, whether that cast is separated by distance or emotions all have a part to play. Rachel tells the story of her ‘monster’ of a father but also the story of her ineffective mother and her ‘invisible’ sister. A story where all the normal relationships were turned on their heads as these three tried in their own way to avoid being the one who Steve Sontag noticed, as being noticed was never good in this household.

A good book to read for those who want an insight on how a certain combination of parents can be catastrophic and that psychological abuse is no less damaging for the lack of broken bones.

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

Sixteen Sixty-One – Natalie Lucas

Memoir 5*'s
Memoir
5*’s

I came across this book via a blog (unfortunately now deleted) and was intrigued by the concept of such a large age-gap.   I know this isn’t what you instantly think of as a good beach read, but I loved it!  This book was simultaneously what I expected and something entirely different to how I thought it would be presented.

I knew from the blurb that it was the story of Natalie Lucas who at sixteen embarked on a relationship with a family friend of sixty-one. What I didn’t expect was such a rich tale covering so much more than ‘just’ the relationship and even better it is very well written!  It is entertaining and seeringly honest,  a winning combination.

Told by Natalie this isn’t a book of a woman expressly blaming the man in question for grooming and manipulating her; instead it left to the reader to draw their own conclusions from the apparently honest appraisal of what happened. That said of course each reader will bring their own history and preconceived ideas to the table.
This story will resonate with anyone who has kept a secret, lied to keep a secret, dealt with a manipulative partner or been in the eye-of-the-storm when a relationship breaks down. A word of warning for those who don’t like explicit sex in their reading matter, this won’t be for you!

Natalie’s story is all the more powerful for the seeming lack of over-dramatisation or projecting her adult-self onto the pages, which lest we forget, is about a very young girl.

A fascinating read which I devoured whilst silently urging the young Natalie to realise what was happening to her. For those readers in the UK this is currently available on kindle for a bargain 99p.