“I Fear I Am Not In My Perfect Mind”………….. Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey

“Pray do not mock me

I am a very foolish fond old man

Fourscore and upward

Not an hour more or less

And to deal plainly

I fear I am not in my perfect mind

Methinks I should know you

And know this man”

King Lear Act 4 Scene 7

In his review of a recent London production of King Lear in The Independent, Boyd Tonkin wrote “If you can sit through a first-rate production of King Lear and come out even trying to make polite chat……then you may have grown a thicker skin than any human should.” And that equally applies to this book-if you can read “Elizabeth Is Missing” and come away without feeling desperate for the main character Maud and her immediate family, then you have an un-naturally deep epidermis in my view!

On one level Elizabeth Is Missing is a very clever and exceptionally imagewell told story of Maud, a woman in her eighties who is trying to solve two mysteries, both triggered by her finding a disused compact mirror.  – in the present she’s trying to unravel the clues and work out what happened to her friend Elizabeth and in her recollections of the past, she’s trying to work out what might have happened to her sister Sukey, who went missing when Maud was a teenager in the 1950’s.

The difficulty for Maud is that she has dementia which prevents her remembering why she’s entered a room 5 seconds after she gets there let alone let her remember the ‘clues’ she picks up in trying to work out what happened to her friend Elizabeth. She leaves herself notes in her bag and her pockets but they do little more than prompt her back to the same place – that she thinks something has happened to her friend Elizabeth but beyond that she can’t remember the context in which she wrote the note (although of course the reader can)

But the flip side of Maud’s almost complete loss of short term memory, is that her recollections of what happened when her married sister went missing after the war are sharp and clear. Through this part of the story we essentially follow Maud re-running in her head the circumstances of Sukey’s disappearance and the information that she, her mother and her father picked up in their search for her, including their varying suspicions of Sukey’s husband Frank, the family lodger Douglas and a woman who has gone mad and lives on the streets in the aftermath of being bombed from her home. Emma Healey’s writing in these flashbacks is very impressive, so richly detailed and yet with some beautiful descriptions, and it’s here that Maud’s memory is comprehensive and reliable.

Or is it?! For at the centre of the book Emma Healey has wonderfully drawn the character of Maud and placed her as the narrator of the book. It’s an exceptional plot device for it puts the reader into the same position as Maud, her family and everyone she meets – you’re at the mercy of her dementia and its impact on her memory in the same way the characters in the novel are – so even the reader can never quite be sure all is as it seems in Maud’s memories!

But for all the uncertainty and frustrations Maud brings you as a narrator, it’s a stunning portrayal of what it’s like to be 90 years old with no short term memory and yet enough understanding to instinctively know that you have no memory.

The depiction of what it might be like to suffer from dementia is really difficult to read in places and the experiences of Maud’s long suffering daughter Helen in caring for her would make you weep. It’s so well done that when Helen snaps and shows her frustrations you sympathise with her and forgive her because it makes you realise just what is really meant by someone who would “try the patience of a saint!”- even though Maud neither means to do it nor can she control it.


One of the most striking things about the book is how the writing makes you react. The book is very funny in places, with a sort of understated, gentle sense of humour, and at times I laughed out loud, especially at some of Maud’s notes and the situations she gets into. And yet I also feel guilty in a way for that reaction because at the heart of the book is Maud’s dementia and it is simply an awful illness to contemplate. As Maud’s memory worsens rapidly some of the consequences are heartbreaking. (And if I’m honest they frightened me a bit, for if this is old age it’s not a pleasant prospect to look forward to)

Overall, while I enjoyed the story as a double mystery, what left the greatest impression was Emma Healey’s superb character study of what it feels like for Maud, and for those who love Maud, to live with the ravages of her dementia. It’s brilliantly done. So that’s why I’d suggest anybody reading this and not getting a gut wrenching-feeling might want to see that dermatologist and get their skin measured!

Book Info
Emma Healey’s “Elizabeth Is Missing” was published by Penguin Books. I bought my paperback copy.
The novel was apparently the subject of a publishing bidding war and I can see why! The book was shortlisted for the Costa debut novel prize for 2014. If you’re interested in finding out more about Emma Healey then you can find her website here, follow her on Twitter @ECHealey and there’s a short video about Elizabeth Is Missing made for its CostaBook Award.
As a much-lauded and best selling book there are a lot of reviews to choose from but if you’d like to do a bit more trying before you buy, then I’d recommend the reviews at BookerTalk and at Normal In London which are both great.
Book Rating
If you’d like to know more about my book rating scale for 2015 click here.


Are These The Sexiest Books Ever?

……………………If your idea of a sexy book is the gardening classic Fifty Sheds of Grey, or it’s Northern cousin Fifty Shades of Gravy, then this post will be a disappointment to you. But if you aren’t looking for the intricate details of what goes on in the Red Room, then perhaps you might read on and consider my nomination for the sexiest books ever!

Penguin Little Black ClassicsFor the sexy books I’m referring to are Penguin’s ‘Little Black Classics’ range! They’ve been produced to mark Penguin’s 80th anniversary and they are being marketed everywhere in London – and I’ve fallen heads over heels for them big time! There’s something very cool and irrestible in these sleek black covers – even the type face on the spines seems seductive!

As a man who lives with two fashionistas (one highly experienced and fully qualified and one a teenage apprentice!), I’m well acquainted with the ‘little black dress’ or LBD as it’s known to those of us who know our Marc Jacobs from our Marks and Sparks! ( I don’t really know my fashion arse from my elbow patch jacket, but I’ve had to learn these phrases off by heart so I can join in 90% of the discussions in our house!)

Anyway the Little Black Dress is sleek, chic, classy and essentially beautifully, understatedly sexy! The Urban Dictionary defines the Little Black Dress as:

The Little Black Dress: Most women have one in the recesses of their closet. This is the dress that is just a little too short. One that looks as if it was made for your body and your body only. One that makes you feel sexy the second you put it on. It has to be simple. All black, no buttons or ornamentation.

Now take that definition and have a look at the Little Black Classic – ladies and gentlemen I give you a book that is a little on the short side, clothed in black, a simple white typeface, and not a button or ornamentation in site……in short a sexy book cover that looks like it was made for this book and for this book only!

Or as it ought to be known...the beautiful "The Beautiful Cassandra"!
Or as it ought to be known…the beautiful “The Beautiful Cassandra”!

The other thing about the Little Black Dress is it looks good from every angle – herewith further evidence that the Little Black Classics are the sexiest books ever!

The LBC - just as good side on!
The LBC – just as good side on!

But as well as looking gorgeous and doing the mind-association with sexy dresses, the marketing for these books is brilliant. All over the Tube, there are posters with random quotes from one of the 80 books in the series. They are always intriguing and you just can’t help reading them. What’s really clever though is the random quote isn’t credited to the book it comes from by name – to draw you in further it simply lists its number in the series of 80 books.


You read the quote which you then can’t get out of your head and so you then go online with the number, trying to find out the title of the book the quote came from (unless you’re a mega bibliophle and you recognise it at first sight!). I’m so intrigued by these posters I am actually starting to imagetake detours and different routes on my commutes on the look out for the posters!!!!!

And to top it all off, there’s even a very clever flywheel on the Penguin website, apparently inspired by the iPod, which takes the experience of online book shopping to a whole new level – you can click to find any and every one of the 80 books in the series! It’s genius – and all that marketing and a price tag of only 80p a book made these irresistable to me – so I’ve ordered the lot.

So the Little Black Classics is good for family harmony in one way because I now understand why the fashionistas in my family end up buying all these clothes! The down side of course is that instead of buying one book equivalent of the LIttle Black Dress, I’ve bought eighty! So, for quite some time now, on every occasion we get a parcel of clothes delivered to our house I WILL NOT be uttering my usual phrase of “What? Another Black Dress?!!!!!”

Sent from my iPhone

Return Of The Mac!………….Book Review of The Children Act by Ian McEwan

………………………………………Reading this was a bit like rediscovering an old shirt at the back of the wardrobe that I’d once loved, had stopped wearing as I’d put on weight and then eons later finding it AND finding it now fits again…..not only reuniting me with an ‘old campaigner’ (as all my single-man days clothes are known affectionately to me!) but at the same time also magically letting me know I’ve lost weight as well!The Children Act by Ian McEwan

Actually that might be straying too far into the realms of fantasy, but having been distinctly underwhelmed by Ian McEwan’s last two books Solar and Sweet Tooth, I didn’t have the highest of hopes for this book. But right from the first page I knew everything was going to be fine and while its not quite a return to the sheer wonderfulness of Atonement or Amsterdam, I still thoroughly enjoyed The Children Act.

Fiona Maye is a High Court judge in the Family Division and as the story begins she’s got two problems to come to terms with. At home her husband has announced that he plans to have one last fling and embark on an affair and at work she’s required to rule on a hugely complex case involving a young man with leukaemia who’s refusing treatment on the grounds of his religious beliefs….but as he’s just under the age of consent Fiona has to rule on what is in his best interests under the Children Act of 1989.

As the court case progresses Fiona becomes increasingly involved in the life of 17 year-old Adam as she tries to determine his competence to make the decision to refuse the treatment on offer and to ultimately determine whether or not he is making a decision based on his genuinely held beliefs or whether he’s actually taking a decision to meet the expectations of his parents beliefs. Meanwhile her husband Jack follows through on his decision to have the affair, leaving Fiona to decide whether to come to terms with the affair and continue their marriage or to decide that she won’t agree to Jack’s proposition that the marriage and the affair can, and should, co-exist.

The two parts of the narrative have enough in common and enough potential influence to sit alongside one another in the story and as you’d expect from such a great writer he handles it brilliantly. Both of the situations demand complex decisions from Fiona, balancing logic, interpretation and emotion, and I thought it was a great way to illustrate the complexity of family law and the fact that it has a subtlety beyond the usual definitive legal issues of guilty or innocent. Equally though Ian McEwan doesn’t overdo the linking up of the two parts of the narrative and so both develop and draw you in as a reader.

There’s a real attention to detail in the writing and so many little touches that lift this way above the majority of novels I read. Most of the time this just adds to the enjoyment of the book, whether it’s in the descriptions of Fiona and Jack’s home or in the debates between the circuit court judges on their tours of different parts of the country. Just occasionally though it slipped over for me into being either a bit too technical or into being a detail too many. In places the research into family law and particularly complex judgements runs the risk of seeming a bit ‘showy!’. In my work, the cases my staff manage will bring us into the realms of the law and the Family Court so for me, reading Fiona’s judgements or finding out about how precedents might be taken into account was irresistible – but I can see that for others this might get tedious and distracting.

The characters in the novel are mixed. I believed in the bohemian academic Jack, with his vanities and unintentional cruelties and found him strangely engaging – maybe I identified with him as a man who might also have ‘old campaigners’ at the back of his wardrobe! On the other hand, Adam, the 17-year-old with whom Fiona develops an obvious affinity and a mutual bond, was a lot less effective as a character. I thought when Ian McEwan let Adam move towards being a character who was on-the-surface calm and rational but underneath a maelstrom of emotions, he was much more real. But other parts of his character, like the viola-playing and the poetry that mesmerises the nurses who care for him, was just a bit too twee for me! But the strength of the book is the character of Fiona. There’s a cold, almost detached feel to her but underneath that logical brain she’s such a contrast. So I enjoyed his portrayal of the same character in two quite different contexts and the Fiona who emerges between the ordered, complex and intellectual world of the law is fundamentally different to the Fiona who emerges in the sad, unraveling world of her marriage, even though there are still huge consistencies in how she acts and reacts in both situations.

The Royal Courts of Justice - where decisions and made and where lawyers made a lot of money!
The Royal Courts of Justice – where decisions get made and where lawyers make money!!!!!!

Overall, I think you have to admire Ian McEwan’s willingness to take on such a potentially controversial subject as the conflicts between religious belief, religious freedom and the law, especially in the world of Family Law with its perennial focus on the debate about the ‘best interests of the child’, which is always a contentious one. Inevitably the story is slightly more weighted in places towards the respective arguments for each side of that debate as opposed to the narrative itself so just occasionally it can feel more like reading a legal discussion paper than a novel. But I found these sections fascinating so they certainly didn’t detract from the story for me. If you’re new to Ian McEwan I wouldn’t recommend you start here as he’s written better books than this. But he’s a wonderful writer and that’s very much on show here, so if you’re a McEwan fan like I am, and if like me you’d started to wonder about his books after the last two in particular then fear not – with The Children Act, one of the very best British authors is very much back where he belongs!

Book Info
The Children Act by Ian McEwan was published by Jonathan Cape. My copy was bought with my own hard-earned cash.
When literary giants like Ian McEwan publish a new novel, you’ve got half the world reviewing it. But if you want to read what others thought of it, I’d recommend you try Girl With Her Head In A Book or a Little Blog of Books – both are well worth a look and their blogs generally are great.
If you’re interested in getting a synopsis of The Children Act, the video below has Ian McEwan giving it an intro himself ( rather unsubtly surrounded by copies of the book!) – but if you ignore the brick-through-jewellery-shop window approach to marketing, it’s actually a short but really good introduction to the book.
Book Rating
Book Rating out of ten! ( You can find info on my book rating scale here)


These Boots Were Made For Walking…………….Book Review of Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

……………………………In the days since I finished reading Emma Hooper’s debut novel ‘Etta and Otto and Russell and James’, I’ve been wondering how to describe because it seems to sit somewhere in between a fairytale and a reality trip! What makes it difficult to describe overall is that there are too many little flights of fancy in the story, such as a talking and country-music singing coyote called James, for it to be utterly grounded in reality and yet there aren’t enough flights of fancy for it to be described as a fantasy or magical realism novel either! Then I decided that it didn’t really matter where it sat between reality and fantasy – who cares – because it’s a charming, beautifully written, wonderful novel.


Etta is an 83 year old woman living in Saskatchewan Canada, who wakes up one morning and decides to walk to the sea because she’s never seen the water. And living in Sasketchewan, there’s no quick route to the sea – but as with every journey there’s a short way to get there, going several hundred miles West or there’s a long way to get there, a journey of more than two thousand miles East! Etta’s husband Otto meanwhile, gets out of bed to find a note telling him Etta’s gone for a walk to see the water and he knows from the ‘tightening of the skin on his chest’ that his wife will go the long way. And he’s right.

From above Saskatchewan looks like a bloody long walk!
From above Saskatchewan looks like a bloody long walk!

Otto is left with a pile of recipe cards and his neighbour and life-long friend Russell for company. Etta has a note in her pocket reminding her who she is and where she’s from so that if she ever does make it to the ocean, she might be able to then find her way back home. And from there the novel follows Etta’s journey across Canada picking up first James the coyote, then mild celebrity as her trek hits the media, and then a collection of random objects which people ask her to take along for them on her journey to the sea. Meanwhile, Otto stays home, learns to cook, adopts a guinea pig and waits. And interspersed with the present-day octogenarian journeys of Etta, Otto and Russell, the novel also journeys back over their lives, from near neighbour Russell’s more-or-less adoption into the family of Otto and his 14 siblings, to Etta’s arrival in their lives as the barely-older-than-the-students village schoolteacher. On the way there’s the most beautiful love triangle between Etta, Otto and Russell and there’s Otto’s time as a soldier in the Second World War which is pivotal in the second half of the novel.

It’s a novel of many parts and most of them were brilliant. It’s impossible not to read without physically wincing, the grittily real description of Etta’s bleeding, ravaged feet after three days of walking. Equally it’s very easy to go along with the beautifully woven flight of fancy in the French woman Giselle who seems to be in every town Otto’s platoon are billeted in and who whispers to him that he’s a favourite of hers. In between, each of the characters life stories are utterly engaging and so full of emotion that they add a richness to the already wonderful characters Emma Hooper has drawn. I also thought that the continually shifting narrative between Etta’s walk, Otto’s waiting for her, Russell’s searching for her and then back into the stories of their lives was what kept the novel a riveting read for me. If it had just been the story of Etta’s walk I’d probably have given up earlier than Etta’s first pair of boots! Instead I was hooked by these characters all the way. And even though I’m not a lover of books with talking animals, even James the talking coyote worked brilliantly throughout – if you are going to have a talking, singing coyote in a novel then why not give him the great comic timing and subtle wit that Emma Hooper has given to James!

In a book that flirts with magical realism, there was always the chance that some of it would be too much for me. And in places it was. The reappearance of his sister Winnie in the midst of the chaos of war and her interchanging with the mysterious French woman Giselle was one stretch too far for me. Equally Russell as a character got a bit lost for me in the middle of the novel. His search for Etta made perfect sense but for me it happened too soon and after it he faded from the present day parts of the novel.

But these are minor quibbles. Overall I loved this story. There’s an easy charm to it all the way through, and the story of Etta and Otto and Russell’s intertwining lives was just one of those tales that draw you in as a reader and keep you engrossed to the extent you really do believe in these characters so much, you start talking about them as if they are real!!! (I know my family think Etta and Otto and Russell and James have moved into our house, so much have I talked about them!).

It’s also a raw and tender novel in places and in some ways those were the bits of it I loved the most – Otto’s homecoming after the war was one of those ‘read-it-with-the-book-held-high’ moments, so that my fellow commuters didn’t see me crying again!

What struck me most in this book was the way the word ‘OK’ is used to such fantastic effect so frequently. I don’t think I’ve read a book which uses it so often, but it’s wonderful in this novel because it captures the mood of these characters and their attitude to life perfectly – a sort of gentle, drawn out drawl of an “Okay!” – those accepting, straight, uncomplicated ‘Okay’s’ which signal a lack of fuss, a simple power in emotions and relationships and a constant willingness to accept people as they are. So to conclude and paraphrase……..

“What did you think of Etta and Otto and Russell and James?” asked Etta and Otto and Russell and James in unison.

“I absolutely loved it!!!!!” I replied.

“O-kay” they said.

Book Info

Etta and Otto and Russell and James is Emma Hooper’s debut novel. It was published by Fig Press in the UK and I bought my copy.

I first heard about this book in a Guardian list of books to look out for in 2015 and then heard a short interview with the author and Mariella Frostrup on the BBC Radio 4 Books and Authors podcast.

Emma Hooper is a Canadian musician and academic as well as an author. She plays viola and is Senior Lecturer in Commercial Music at Bath Spa Uni here in the UK. ( I’ve got most of my family in Canada so I’ve given them a bit of kudos by categorising the book as Canadian Fiction – but as she’s based in Bath and has worked with Peter ‘God-Like-Genius’ Gabriel, I’ve unilaterally decided to adopt Emma Hooper as one of us and so have categorised it as British fiction as well!!!!!)

If you are interested in finding out more about Emma Hooper you can find her website here and she’s on Twitter as @waitress4thbees . In addition there’s an interview she did with the Bookseller and there are other reviews of the book that I’d recommend at both the blog for Leeds Library Service, Leeds Reads, and at Claire Thinking.

Lastly if you like a bit of music with your reading the Bookshop Band have written a couple of songs inspired by Etta and Otto and Russell and James, one of which is below. And if you’ve never listened to the Bookshop Band before ….well you should!

Book Rating

Book Rating Out of Ten (You can find info on my book rating scale here)


Twenty Eejits and Bono – What Do They Have In Common?……..

…………..For those who blog you know one incontrovertible truth – your blog traffic is either the glittery literary who have come to your blog purely because you write about books – or your blog traffic is like mine – they have come here essentially because they are either related to you or they are weirdos who’ve landed on your blog by accident (actually if I am honest sometimes my visitors fit both the ‘family’ and ‘weirdo’ categories!) But glossing quickly over any family foibles, last year I amused myself with looking back over the terms that some eejits put into search engines which led them to my blog and so I thought I’d do it again – for those strange people are still out there!

And at this point, if you’re not a blogger, you’re wondering how the hell I would know if someone came here by accident? Well that’s the magic of blog stats – they don’t just count how many people came here from search engines – that would be too basic! They also record what they put into their search engine which led them to end up here!

And that’s what all these people have in common with Bono……………………. they still haven’t found what they’re looking for!!!!!!!!!

And I’m kind of glad they didn’t find what they were looking for! Because some of them are…….. well………. judge for yourself!

Here are the twenty best searches which led to my blog for 2014! (The little bit in bracketed italics is all the work of my own tiny mind though!) And a note of caution – I’ve quoted these search engine phrases exactly as they were written to find my blog – some of it might be offensive so for that, my apologies Mum!

SEARCH 1. Old People Muttering and Talking to Themselves in the UK

(There are times when Google sees you down and decides to give you a kicking anyway! As if I didn’t already know my bloody hair was grey, my knees are knackered, my memory is shot to shit, I find myself making old man noises and my blog traffic would make you weep! I have a loving family to put these particular boots in to me regularly – I don’t need bloody Google reinforcing the message!)

SEARCH 2. That Feeling When You Really Can’t Be Arsed.

(If I’m honest I can’t help wondering if I put this into the search engine myself! I might use this as a tag line “A Blog For Those Who Can’t Be Arsed!” Have to admit I am perversely proud of this one!)

SEARCH 3. Hamster Sex

(What the……………..! Perverse again but I’m not so proud of this one coming to me!)

hamster-sexSEARCH 4. Bus Conductresses of Greenock!

(My advice is if you know this person with an interest in Greenock Bus Conductresses get them help, because these so men were not to be messed with!! I reckon JK Rowling based Voldemort on a chance encounter she had with a Greenock Bus Conductress!)

SEARCH 5. Hamster by Wife Sex Arctic!

(They do say there is someone out there for everyone – even those with an interest in the sex life of rodents it seems!)

SEARCH 6. How To Do Sex In First Night Images!

(More filth but on the plus side at least it’s not about bloody hamsters? Now there’s sod all about 1st night sex on this blog…..honest Mum!……..But ever eager to help I researched and there’s a book called ‘Newly Wed Guide To Sex On The First Night’ by Richard Smith! Interestingly I also discovered Mr Smith’s previous book was the wonderfully titled ‘The Dieters Guide To Weight Loss During Sex’! And they say romance is dead………!)


SEARCH 7. Hilary Mantel Sex Tube!

(Until I reviewed search terms last year, I thought the only thing that came in a tube was Smarties! You can just imagine the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail’s pompous, foaming-at-the-mouth right-wing vitriol when they find out some people would like our beloved genius author to start a side-line in Internet porn!!)

SEARCH 8. Are Fur Coats For Snobs?

(Now this is interesting. Not ONLY is this one of the great philosophical questions of our time but it was in my list last year too! I feel an Open University doctoral thesis in the making here!)

SEARCH 9. Is Kilmarnock Talking Shite?!

(I’ve been to Kilmarnock and I’ve a mate who lives there …..and he probably is talking shite if he’s honest!)

SEARCH 10. Dream Interpretation Raincoat

(I can’t decide if this is just some misguided fan of Andrew Lloyd Webbers ‘J…J….J…… Joseph, you know what I mean!’ or if it is the creepiest thing ever! Maybe it’s both?!? It’s also scary that I know the words to Joseph songs!)

SEARCH 11. Mary and Joseph On Their Arse!

(I think this might be a blunt Glaswegian version of the Christmas story setting out somewhat colloquially the difficult financial and housing issues faced by Jesus parents at the time of his birth!)


SEARCH 12. Louise Finger-Blasting Basildon

(I’ve been to Basildon and I can see why Louise might well finger blast!)

SEARCH 13. Girl Lifts Signpost With The Name Stephen

(This is either metaphysical poetry or someone shares my previous inebriated student habit of purloining street signs!)

London Guide 009

SEARCH 14. Hamster Sex

(A Threesome?!)

SEARCH 15. Give Zits A Lick!

(Er……….no thanks!)

SEARCH 16. Seigfried Sassoon’s Diary of Adrian Mole (!!!!!)

(This is either someone in need of a frontal lobotomy or who’s overdone the old idea of ‘writing with a bottle in front of me’!)

SEARCH 17. Is Joseph Boyden A Dickhead?

(Now Joseph, author of The Orenda my favourite book of last year, if you’re reading this don’t be offended – cos it could have been a false rumour much worse than this!)

SEARCH 18. Sebastian Faulks Cocaine Addiction!

(See what I mean about those false rumours Joseph………..!)

SEARCH 19. Is The Luminaries An Easy Quick Read?


SEARCH 20. Rabbit Burns Referendum!

robert_burns_scottish_independence_sticker-rc4e9ddd8fd254511807cfae603ffa1fc_v9wf3_8byvr_512(I finished with a bizarre search about Burns last year so at least I’m consistent. I can’t make up my mind if this is suggesting ‘our Robert’ was a bit verbose in his poetry or if it’s suggesting our recent referendum on Scottish Independence was somehow confused about which famous celebrities were supporting the Yes or No campaigns – actually on second thoughts I think it might also be a tad confused about which famous Scots might actually be alive!

Nevertheless, as with last year, Robert is a good place to finish because it brings back again memories of Rabbie’s Bar in Ayr where I lived for about 90% of my student life! And when you’ve been on a journey around the weird and the wonderful searches that led to me, you need a drink to recover! And again, as with last year, I will post this in the category “Road to Nowhere”, after the lyrics in the Talking Heads song – because I think I know where these weirdos are going but I don’t know where they’ve been!!!!! I just can’t help wishing their Road to Nowhere didn’t end up here!)

The Thin Line Between Love And Hate…..Called Indifference……Holocaust Memorial Day 2015

70 years ago today, on the 27th of January 1945, Russian troops first entered Auschwitz concentration camp and the world at large started to understand the full scale of the horror of the Holocaust. Anatoly Shapiro, the Red Army Commander in charge of those troops who liberated that concentration camp simply said, “I saw the faces of those people we liberated.,..,,they went through hell.”


In the late 1970’s as a very young student, I visited Auschwitz while on a wonderful adventurous tour of countries behind what was then ‘The Iron Curtain’. But for all my joy and excitement as a young guy visiting East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland, nothing has remained as firmly fixed in my memory as that visit to Auschwitz/Birkenau. Even now, 35 years later, I still find it impossible to describe how it felt. But I remember the huge glass partitions running the length of each hut, stacked floor to ceiling with spectacles in one hut, suitcases in another, toys in yet another. I remember going into a small museum-cum-cinema at Auschwitz and watching a Polish language documentary about the liberation of the camp – there wasn’t an English subtitled version so we went to watch it subtitled in French. When the images appeared, we realised it didn’t matter what the subtitle language was, for the images were beyond the reach of any words. Perhaps most chilling of all in my memory is the women’s camp at Birkenau nearby. Back then Auschwitz was in a sense maintained, and organised, as a memorial and a reminder for future generations. Birkenau on the other hand had been left to the mercy of the elements and time….broken windows, crumbling brickwork, waist high grass, doors missing or splayed on one hinge and that huge gaping entrance through double gates where a rail track had once been. And while I don’t think it was intended, the effect was much more sinister and chilling – if Auschwitz horrified and appalled the rational part of the brain, then Birkenau gave you the involuntary reaction – it literally made your skin bristle with fear and dread. The experience left an indelible impression on me.

I watched a news item last night about the few remaining survivors visiting Auschwitz as part of events to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. Ten years ago there were 1500 survivors. Now as they grow ever older, there are less than 300. There was the tragic yet uplifting reunion of 4 of the survivors in the photograph below who’d all been children at the time.

Auschwitz Survivors pointo out themselves as children when the concentration camp was liberated by the Red Army in January 1945
Auschwitz Survivors point out themselves as children when the concentration camp was liberated by the Red Army in January 1945

But it also made me realise how important Holocaust Memorial Day is, for as those survivor numbers grow smaller and smaller each year, the world will need to try much harder to remember what was done at Auschwitz and the other camps, in part remembering those who were let down by humanity to become its victims and in part as a reminder that we must not let this happen to any group of people ever again.

imageAnd of course books have such a crucial role to play in reminding us, and educating us, about the Holocaust. I know I’ve read many books about the Holocaust, be they works of fiction, biography, or historical study. In their own ways they’ve all had an effect on me at the time of reading them but one books stands apart. So as I’ve done before on my blog, I want to single out Primo Levi’s ‘If This Is A Man!‘ – if ever a book deserves the accolade of ‘life-changing’ then it’s this one for me. If you’ve not read it I urge you to do so. It’s a book as much about the capacity to survive as it is about the capacity to destroy and a book as much about our humanity as it about our inhumanity. I’ve read so many books in my life that I think are enlightening, entertaining and rewarding but ‘If This Is A Man’ is the only book I’ve ever read that I would absolutely label ‘indispensable’.

If you are interested in finding out more about If This Is A Man you should read Claire’s review at Word by Word or Howard Jacobson’s re-read review at The Guardian from 2013.

Ryan’s Daughter!…………..Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma by Kerry Hudson

…………There’s a so-called award in Scotland for the most dismal town called the ‘Plook on a Plinth’ ( a ‘Plook’ is the delightful colloquial term we Scots give to a pimple!). The nominees for this award for the most

Every town should have one!
Every town should have one!

dismal, awful town in Scotland for 2014 pitted my home town of Greenock against Aberdeen. Which is the home town of that aforementioned ‘Ryan’s daughter’! For in this case it is Iris Ryan’s daughter, Janie, the central character in the wonderful Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma!!! So in some senses I was maybe destined to get on with this book for our home towns have much in common. But my praise for this wonderful novel is based on much more than just the affinity Janie Ryan and I both have with crap Scottish towns!

Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma - a great book and the best name given to anything since the emergence of the band Joe Lean and the Jing Jang Jong!
Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma – a great book and the best name given to anything since the emergence of the band Joe Lean and the Jing Jang Jong!

Janie Ryan is the next desendent in a line of Aberdonian fish wives, women who live on the sharpest edge of poverty……….. with the sharpest of tongues and the sharpest of attitudes to match. The story follows her from her birth to adolescence, through a succession of fresh starts, shitty houses and even shittier ‘new Dad’s’. Janie makes just about as inauspicious start to life as anybody can, with early flirtations with care and women’s refuges, and from that desperate start, things don’t get any better. Their early life is dominated by the spectre of Tony Hogan, an all-too-familiar blend of criminal ambitions and almost psychotic domestic violence. So begins the Ryan families ‘tour’ of the best that the North, South, East and West of the UK have to offer in the way of sink-housing-estates in dead-end towns, ranging from Aberdeen to Canterbury, Great Yarmouth to Coatbridge. And in each one its a succession of benefits offices, Social Security BandB’s, and diets shaped by corner shops and frozen food.

One of the things I loved most about this novel is the way poverty and the bloody hard life Janie and her family lead is almost a character in itself. It just pervades every bit of the novel, and it’s done without a hint of cliche or sentimentality – and as result it’s quite stark and very real but it doesn’t drag the novel down either – it’s certainly distressing to read but it doesn’t mean the novel turns into some grim-fest! Equally though, you can’t read this and not think about what it is actually like to be living in this kind of poverty, when the highlight for kids like Janie comes in the shape of pathetically ordinary treats like an ice-cream, or in the joy she finds in local libraries. And it’s not any different for her mother for hers is a world where you live on bread, margarine and tins of creamed rice all the way from Thursday to Monday waiting for the next weekly pittance of a dole cheque to turn up.

It’s also a novel that treads that fine balance between describing how desperate their lives are at times and giving out some hope for a better life for Janie – all without decending into the realms of schmaltz! Janie, her mother and her sister are such strong and believable characters you can’t help but root for them, overlook their faults, forgive them every time they fuck things up themselves and admire their ability to somehow get back up every time they are knocked down – and sometimes that’s literally by a nutter like Tony Hogan. So some of it is very uncomfortable, for these families don’t measure their luck in terms of whether or not there’s domestic violence but in terms of where it sits between the odd slap and grievous bodily harm. They live in worlds strewn with dog shit, used needles, loan sharks and handouts.

So it’s awful to read but for all the poverty, grime, violence and despair, it’s also incredibly uplifting in places for it’s as much a novel about family love and family loyalty. Those family bonds definitely waiver and at times they get stretched to breaking point but they never actually break. There’s a fierce determination to these characters, and though they are the first to recognise and brutally confront the flaws in one another, they are also the first to defend and support one another.

Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream isn’t a novel to read if you are offended by the odd swear word here and there – from the first sentence it’s there in what might be appropriately termed ‘shitloads!’ But I think it works and it fits so it never felt like it was done for effect. Of course that might be something else I have in common with Janie Ryan for I once heard someone describe Glaswegians as people who could deliver a meaningful sentence of 10 words even when nine of the 10 words is ‘fuck!”. While I can see how it might put some people off, rather than be shocking, I thought it was the dialogue that made this book so brilliantly realistic to me.

Overall I loved this book – absolutely f…ing loved it! In fact I loved it so much, as soon as I finished reading it I went off and got the audiobook and entertained myself all over again as I walked the dog, listening again to the life story of Janie Ryan. And I discovered the audiobook is just as raw, just as gripping and just as fantastic to listen to as the book is to read.

So even if you’ve never been to Aberdeen or Coatbridge or Greenock, I’d thoroughly recommend you try ‘Tony Hogan’. It will give you a view about life in a place that might be in line for a ‘Plook On A Plinth!” and introduce you to women who will make you smile, cry and cringe all at the same time. I’ve frequently heard the joke that the only good thing to come out of Scotland is the M74 motorway to England – Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma is a novel that shows just what a pile of shite that theory is!

Book Info

Kerry Hudson’s “Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma” was published by Chatto and Windus and I bought my copy. The subsequent audiobook I listened to was narrated by Jane McFarlane and was produced by Random House Audiobooks.

To put not too fine a point on it, it’s a book that’s won an absolute shitload of awards and well deserved it is too! Among it’s accolades were a nomination for the Guardian First Book Award, the Green Carnation Prize and the Saltire Scottish First Book Of The Year Award. If you’re interested in finding out more about Kerry Hudson, she tweets a lot (often about food and recently storms in Buenos Aires!) and you can follow her @KerrysWindow  – she also has her own site here which is well worth a look.

If you want to read other reviews of Tony Hogan they are plentiful – but as I’m a biased Jock, you might get a more impartial opinion, as well as a better class of review, at What Hannah Read and at UtterBiblio

Book Rating Out of 10! (You Can Find Info On My Rating Scale Here)


Stephen Hawking versus My Mother In A Battle To Find Out Who Really Has The Theory Of Everything!

Bucharest……..(Why Did The Romanian Stop Reading for the night????……To give his Bucharest! Old joke but a classic! Just occasionally I chunter on about something other than books…..here goes……!)

You wouldn’t think your average Glaswegian mother could compete with the genius and intellect of Stephen Hawking! But they could in one crucial area – while Stephen Hawking is still looking for The Theory of Everything, your average Glaswegian mother HAS ALREADY GOT a theory for everything!!!!! And in my family, the theory is that everything leads to jaundice!  My mother had a long list of theories about things that would induce jaundice, including going outside with wet hair would definitely give you jaundice!!!!!!! And what’s worse, Glaswegian mothers expound these theories like ‘wet hair and jaundice’ with such certainty and confidence that other mothers believe them!!!!!!! And then repeat them to their kids!!!!!! Before you know it,  there’s a whole neighbourhood of kids TERRIFIED of getting their hair wet!!!!

So with a tentative fear I might have the causal link between wet hair and a yellow tinge to my skin and eyes confirmed (years of brainwashing about jaundice doesn’t dissolve easily!), we went to watch The Theory Of Everything at the cinema last week. Not only is it a truly fantastic film there’s not a hint of drivel about jaundice anywhere!

imageUnless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last few weeks you’ll know everything about it. So I wI’ll spare you the details! But for any ex-rock dweller who happens on this post, it tells the love story of Stephen and Jane Hawking, from their first meeting as Cambridge students up to what’s pretty much the present day. It’s written from Jane Hawking’s perspective, based on her autobiography ‘Travelling To Infinity: My Life With Stephen’. I’ve not read it but I definitely will now because………………….

The Theory Of Everything is magnificent….wonderful…..You name a superlative and it deserves it!!! Eddie Redmayne as Stephen is simply mesmerising and if anything, Felicity Jones as his wife Jane is even better! The story is fascinating and heart-breaking and uplifting all at the same time!

imageI know nothing about cinema so not only is there no point in me pretending I know anything about acting as an art, I won’t pontificate about locations, or lighting, or sound either. Instead I will simply say it looks great, it sounds great and it is……great! On top of the great story and performances I’d also give a special mention to the music. It’s not often I even notice a film score but I thought the music was just beautiful in places.

I absolutely loved The Theory Of Everything and so did my partner, so much so that on leaving the cinema she and another woman were having a debate about which of them had cried more!!!! I urge you, implore you, beseech you to go see it. You won’t be disappointed……… though you may well go through at least one box of tissues………. so go prepared because popcorn is useless for drying your eyes!!!!!

Film Info

The Theory Of Everything stars Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, with David Thewlis ( fab!), Emily Watson and the brilliant Maxine Peake among others. It is directed by James Marsh and according to Wikipedia that fantastic music is by Johann Johannsson. It is on general release across the UK at the moment so if you are even the tiniest bit tempted, go see it!


Brothers In Harms………..Three Brothers by Peter Ackroyd

……………………Four nights a week millions of us in the UK sit down to watch the TV soap opera detailing the lives, loves and discovering-that-the-woman-you-thought-was-your-sister-is-actually-your-mother-making-the-creep-who’s-just-attacked-your-wife-your-brother revelations that make up the London kitchen-sink drama that is EastEnders. My family are among those millions……and it’s awful, mostly sounding like it’s been scripted by cut and pasing a years worth of tabloid headlines and then getting it polished up by a committee at the end of a night out doing the legendary Circle Line Pub Crawl (i.e. seriously pissed up!)

As they watched, I was reading a stylish, engaging London kitchen-sink drama, and who is better qualified to write that than Peter Ackroyd, author of among other innumerable things, biographies of The Thames and also of London itself! And he puts those qualifications to great use, for Three Brothers is a cracking book!

imageBorn a year apart on the exactly the same day and time in May, the brothers Harry, Daniel and Sam Hanway begin life in the humble surroundings of 1950’s Camden Town. Their father is a disappointed and soon to be disillusioned man of literary ambition and their mother mysteriously disappears when the boys are young. So they essentially bring up themselves and each other, shaped in part by their personalities, in part by the streets that surround them and in part by their respective roles within the family.

The story follows their lives in alternating chapters as they grow up and grow increasingly apart. Harry moves into the world of journalism, Daniel into Cambridge academia and Sam drifts onto the streets of London. Their life stories are driven by their very different characters, Harry’s naked ambition, Daniel’s inverted snobbery and Sam’s introversion, which on the one hand drives them down very separate roads from a relatively young age and yet their lives are still interwoven, as if the unseen hand of fate is continually threading their lives together. This weaving their fates together could have been trite and tenuous, but it isn’t. Peter Ackroyd connects up their lives in ways that the characters themselves rarely see, but for the reader, it’s done just often enough, and in just the right places, for it to be a very clever, and very effective plot device.

And it’s all encompassed by the almost sinister and very harsh character of London itself. But it’s less about the city as a place in this book and more about the characters it attracts. It’s a city of risk, of top dogs, underdogs, chancers, winners, losers, bullies and victims. There’s an unsavoury underbelly of racism……. corruption……. racketeering……. prostitution……. you name it, if it’s unpleasant, the London of ‘Three Brothers’ has someone doing it! And those ‘someone’s’ are a collection of great, but dark and unsavoury characters, such as Asher Ruppta the corrupt slum landlord, and Sir Martin Flaxman a newspaper proprietor vile enough to make you cringe ( though perhaps that’s par for the newspaper proprietor course!!)

The only negative for me was that much as I loved the narrative and the characters, at times I found the style of the novel slightly cold. In those biographies of the Thames and of the City, Peter Ackroyd’s style of mixing an almost forensic, scientific approach to facts, with prose which was descriptive and imaginative really brought the river, and the streets to life. Yet in Three Brothers, that same style at times seemed to have the opposite effect, and for me it lacked a little bit of feeling and emotion and occasionally it drained the book of a sense of the feeling behind the menace or the helplessness or the despair. But it’s a relatively minor quibble, for the narrative fairly sweeps you along and for all the unpleasant characters and odd characteristics of the Hanway brothers, I was still riveted by the story of their lives.

Throughout the book there’s an air of loneliness and detachment. Even in the midst of a crowded city like London, the book creates a rather sad, lost in a sea of faces feeling for each of the Three Brothers. It’s that as much as anything that gives it such a gritty realistic feel, and combined with the fact that the story of each brothers life is rich and varied enough to keep you engrossed from start to finish, overall it makes ‘Three Brothers’ a terrific novel.

And while it might be damning it with the faintest of praise, Peter Ackroyd delivers a story here that the scriptwriters of East Enders can only dream of! If only my family were watching stuff as good as this it would be a much better use of their four hours a week!

Book Info

Peter Ackroyd’s ‘Three Brothers’ was published by Vintage and my copy was bought with my own cash!

I can’t remember where I originally read about Three Brothers and then added it to my list of books to try, but on looking again now I think it was prompted by either this review at A Life In Books or from reading Alan Massie’s review in The Scotsman. Either way, if you are interested to find out more about Three Brothers, I’d recommend both reviews.

Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)









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