Category Archives: Book reviews

Woman on the Edge of Time

By Marge Piercy

Wow, I can’t believe I have made it to 42 years old and never read this before!

A gripping, readable, thought-provoking book that I know will live on in my mind long after I’ve finished reading it. It’s that rare gem, easy to read and digest but also textured, ambiguous and complicated.

The hardest parts were all the ones in Connie’s own time, where I was angry and frustrated by the injustice of it all. This really is a masterful depiction and critique of it. Through her experience we get to see just how an individual can be crushed by inequalities of gender, race, and social class. Though she herself is not blameless there is no question that she would have turned out differently and behaved differently in Luciente’s time.

The brutality of the psychiatric treatment on her and the other inmates (there is one character who is essentially in there to be ‘cured’ of being gay), is particularly nasty, but unfortunately accurate in that these things did happen (and in some places still do). That makes its contrast with the future world of Luciente particularly stark. In this future world they haven’t sought to ‘cure’ anything, they have worked out better ways of managing it.

As she visits this future world the book has Connie constantly reacting and questioning just as we, the readers, would which is a clever storytelling device and the reader accompanies her through a process of understanding and learning.

I know others really disliked the ending, but I loved it. I could feel her growth as a character and her new awareness and strength. And yes, it is deliberately ambiguous, and all the better for it.

The things I loved most about Luciente’s world:

  • The natural way everyone is per or person. It is very easy to get used to and shows us a glimpse of just how rational and easy a genderless language can be.
  • People’s differences are respected and celebrated and space is given for them to explore themselves and choose their own name
  • The link with nature is restored
  • Healthy balances in production and consumption seem to have been largely achieved, although with plenty of ongoing tensions and debates
  • Parenting seems a lot more sensible, giving children the chance to think and speak and develop, to choose their own path, and it recognises something that I think our current culture likes to ignore -that children ‘mature’ a lot quicker than we think, and that they understand a lot more than we like to acknowledge.
  • There is an implicit acknowledgment that to allow individuals true freedom there needs to be a managed, functioning collective society behind it. This is a truth universally ignored, so it was liberating to see it realised fully here.
  • Their approach to death is wonderful. Just to let everyone talk and reminisce and then to move on, seeing it as part of the cycle of everything.
  • Decisions are reached collaboratively and through debate, and power is shared. Luciente fully acknowledges that it’s exhausting, but it is too important to be devolved to just a handful of people.

What I like about this utopia is that they haven’t eradicated wars or desires or jealousy or disagreement or mental health problems, they have just worked out better ways to deal with them. They take time out to deal with their mental health if they need it and then come back to the community. Again, progress is not really technological (although in some ways it is , but only to serve to make things more sustainable), but it manifests in other ways.

The theme that seems to get people talking most is that of motherhood and gender identity. The book suggests that to have true equality women have to give up their sole rights to being mothers. The biological link is severed. It seems shocking at first, but I went on the journey with Connie and, like her, came to realise it was a necessary and worthwhile sacrifice.

This particular debate has such relevance for the present day. I co-parent with my ex, and we have a 50-50 split in childcare. I have never been happy with that. I’m their mother, I should have them waaaay more than 50%. Even now, 3 years in, I still feel a pang of emptiness and loss the days they are not with me. But then is this just ego? Is this just me selfishly wanting them totally to myself (I used to fantasise that my ex would just run off and leave us so I could have the children exclusively to myself, however hard it would be… but what a selfish thing to wish for, to wish for my kids to have no father and for him to have no relationship with them? I’m pleased I got over that one).

But to have true gender equality the ‘mother’ role needs to be equally open to both genders. The link to biology is broken too, so in that culture I would not be raising offspring that had anything to do with me biologically, which shouldn’t be a radical idea really, as adopted children are loved by their parents just as birth children are. In fact, it takes ego out of it. Nobody would be raising their child to be a mini me, or to keep the ‘family line’ going, concepts which I thought were old fashioned but which sadly seem to be still going on. In Luciente’s world mothers choose to be so for the joy of raising a child, and they raise the children to be admirably self sufficient, and to follow their own path, even choosing their own name when they reach maturity.

The possible drawback is, a biological child of mine may have ADHD like me or a personality like mine, so am I more likely to understand and guide them but….. Often times we bring our own baggage to these encounters, and if it’s a culture that allows for neurodivergence surely it matters less, as whoever are the mothers will be able to handle it. Interestingly I was drawn from the start towards the character of Jackrabbit, and realised throughout that per is very ADHD. We learn during the wake that one of the mothers couldn’t cope with mothering Jackrabbit and so stepped down from the role which I thought was interesting. So the impact of ADHD is still there for the individual and those around them, but is given so much more freedom. Look at the beauty and love Jackrabbit brought into the world, given the freedom to do so.

What interests me with the motherhood issue is that Connie’s objection (and it chimes with a lot of present day feminists) is that childbirth, breast feeding, being the nurturer are the only things women have for themselves, so why give up that last realm. I hear this echoed in some of my friends who object to trans people being able to call themselves female. But if by opening up that realm and sharing it, it allowed all genders to be equal then surely it’s worth it? Surely it’s a price worth paying to be able to participate as an equal in everything else? I think so and by the end of the novel so does Connie, but it is a challenging change of perspective to embrace.

(As an aside: I personally have never liked or been comfortable with the idea of a female culture, of things only women know or do or understand. I have more male friends than female ones and both my children are male, so that doesn’t leave me with much! And my identity as a woman is only important to me insomuch as society treats me differently because I am a woman and I live that experience everyday, something which only other women understand because they live it too. But I don’t see that as the foundation of an identity or a culture, I just see it as necessary solidarity whilst we bring down the patriarchy, then after that let’s do away with the whole gender thing. )

I was also interested in the fact that it remains multicultural but that the link with race is broken. I was thinking back to ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ and the debate about the Asian baby being raised by white parents. I was firmly on the side of the biological mother in that one. But there surely the problem in that situation was that the child would grow up in a world of and for white people, and would be aware that she looked different. That’s why growing up without Asian role models and culture would be such a loss to her. But if the world she inhabited and grew up in was completely racially mixed, so that there were some people who looked racially similar to her and some that didn’t, then it wouldn’t matter anymore. I think that is the utopia to be aimed for and it is so beautifully, compellingly depicted in this book.

Of course, it is not obvious whether Luciente’s world is real, or whether it’s just Connie’s hallucination. The novel makes perfect sense with either, and they are both equally plausible*. It has been deliberately written that way and I am fine with that. I don’t feel a desire to answer it one way or the other and am comfortable with the enigma. I am more interested in the utopia and the ideas it brings up.

*There are bits towards the end where it seems more like it’s in her head (though I would argue it’s no less ‘real’ for that).

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a compelling read with themes of motherhood, cultural identity and what shapes us. It was heart rending at times.

Although my book group found there to be sympathetic elements to her I thought Mrs Richardson was odious. It’s a while since I’ve read a book where I disliked someone so much!

I also like the 90s-ness of it, with some familiar cultural references. Let’s face it, I was stomping around in my Doc Martens and listening to Tori Amos at the time, just like Izzy, and also feeling like the prevalent rights and wrongs and conventions and expectations of the time were so at odds with what my own heart and head told me. Izzy was definitely my favourite character and if I’d had a mother like hers I would have done what she did too.

I won’t put in any spoilers but suffice to say the ending was hugely satisfying and had me cheering.

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The Island Home by Libby Page

The Island Home by Libby Page

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is the story of a woman in her 40s returning to the Hebridean Island she run away from when she was 18.

I found all the characters likeable and sympathetic to some degree, and the landscape and community were nicely depicted. On the surface of it this book is very much my sort of thing. So why did I only think it was ‘OK’?

It’s a perfectly nice, inoffensive book but I just found that I was underwhelmed and bored. The storyline was very predictable with far too many words spent on internal dilemmas that weren’t really dilemmas.

Don’t listen to me though, as most people who have read it rave about it. I probably have my curmudgeon mode on again!

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Naoki Higashida – The Reason I Jump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler

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

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

Elizabeth is Missing

By Emma Healey

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

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

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

Girl, woman, other

By Bernardine Evaristo

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

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

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

The Mirror and the Light- Hilary Mantel

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

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

So, the short version:

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

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

The long version:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grim but fascinating reading.  

The Midnight Library

By Matt Haig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By Nora Ephron

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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