March reading round up

March seems to have shot by, mainly as I have been sooooo busy this month. But on the whole, a month of good reading, so that’s something.

Love and Saffron – Kim Fay

This is a story written in letters between two American women. Joan, younger and living in California is a fan of Imogen, who lives in Oregon and writes a magazine column. Joan writes Imogen a fan letter and encloses some saffron and a recipe and from there, a friendship is born. As is often the case in these things, secrets are exchanged, lives are altered and a lot of food is cooked (there are recipes – if you’re a fan of Mexican-style, fusion cooking, then this could be the book for you). It’s rather sweet but this feels like an old-fashioned book. Not just because it’s set in the past (the early 1960s) but also the feel of it. Clearly I’m wrong (as it was published last year) but it doesn’t feel like they make books like this any more.

Hotel Splendide – Ludwig Bemelman

I kept seeing recommendations for this floating all over the place and finally got round to picking it up. It’s the highly stylised diary of Bemelman’s time working in a hotel restaurant in New York and the people he encountered there. It’s funny in places, and all quite naughty, and illustrated by Bemelman’s own line drawings of the staff and guests. Obviously a lot of the people are ghastly, otherwise what would be the point of writing about them? But he captures absurdities and small mannerisms well and it’s all rather fun.

Stone Blind – Natalie Haynes

Another in the current trend for retelling Greek myth and we find ourselves with a favourite of mine, Medusa. Stone Blind is very sympathetic to the Gorgon girl, so woefully treated by those bastard Greek gods. Haynes, being a classicist, makes this a broad sweeping tale with many different voices and characters all vying for a part in her downfall, and so this is not as totally centred on Medusa as you might expect (or hope). There is a chapter written from the point of view of the snakes though, so there’s that. I did enjoy this but had hoped for something perhaps a little more emotionally engaging.

Violets by Alex Strong

So many books out there about unwanted babies, adoption and secrets. Here is another, but based on a true story and one with redemption and love at its heart. Two women, both called Violet, are going through the Second World War. One has just miscarried twins and had to have surgery that means she can no longer have children. Meanwhile, her husband is away at war, fighting in the Far East. The other Violet runs away from home to serve overseas and hide her illegitimate pregnancy, the product, she thinks of a liaison with a Polish solider quartered nearby for a while. The book watches these two scenarios play out and it doesn’t take much imagination to work out how it will end. Strong is a poet, so there are passages of poetry addressed to the baby in these pages (which, like the philistine I am, I skim read). But what makes this different to other books is that this is about wanted children, loved children, despite the circumstances of their birth, and for that alone, it’s worthwhile.

Good Grief – Catherine Mayer and Anne Mayer Bird

This is an interesting hybrid book. Mostly autobiography, partly a guide and partly social commentary, it covers recent history of the pandemic but from the point of view of Catherine Mayer, writer, political party founder (the Women’s Equality Party) and widow of Andy Gill, guitarist from Gang of Four, who died early in 2020. Two months earlier, Catherine’s step-father John had also died and Catherine has to deal with helping her mother navigate grief, being alone for the first time in her life, the endless paperwork of death, and then deal with her own widowhood, all the while going through lockdown and all the restrictions that brought with it on funerals, socialising and anything that could have brought comfort. Both women had already experienced bereavements of friends and family in their pasts, and the impact of this on both of them is evident on every age. It’s a story of legacy – of love, of music, of resilience in the face of so much pain – and is mostly written by Mayer, with excerpts from her mother in the form of letters Anne wrote to John after he died expressing her grief and telling him how she was managing. In many ways a social history, Mayer is trained to have an eye on the bigger picture of the political decisions of the time that impacted on them, though this also reads as a way she could make sense of her husband’s death and also as a way of getting her point across about Gang of Four’s acrimonious split without creating a scandal in the music press (although, is there a music press these days?) Anyway, there’s a lot going on here. It’s a good book but you need to be in a strong place to read it so if you’re going through a recent loss, I’d give it a miss for a while.

The Children of Jocasta – Natalie Haynes

Haynes again, this time with an older title for my reading group’s choice this month. This is written in a more personal style that her other myth retellings, and is the better for it, I think. The book is split into two narratives – that of Jocasta and her marriages, to Laius and then to Oedipus (woops) – and that of Ismene, daughter of Jocasta and witness to the next generation’s tragedy. Ismene is written in the first person while Jocasta is not, and it took me some time to work out the timeline as the two narratives are intertwining, but I got there in the end. The purpose of many of the women-focused retellings of Greek myth has been to give voices to the women so central to the myths but so lacking in lines, but this also looks as the impact of storytelling and the power of myth to cover up what might be necessary, to manipulate and deceive. I really enjoyed this one.

Space Hopper – Helen Fisher

I cannot for the life of me remember where I heard about this. It’s about a woman whose mother died when she was very young and who was brought up by two elderly neighbours. Now a mother of her own two children, her mother’s loss haunts her until one day, spurred on by a photo she finds in an old recipe book, she goes into her attic and finds the box her childhood space hopper came in. An accident makes her fall through the box, which is a portal back in time, and she encounters herself as a child and her mother, a year before she died. This had a lot of potential but I felt it would have benefited from a better editorial steer – there was a lot of excess explaining about feelings and making very sure the reader understood the significance of every single event. I was curious about how it ended so didn’t give up reading so there was clearly something in it, but it could have been better.

Getting Better – Michael Rosen

I picked this hardback up in the Waterstones sale – cheaper than a paperback – and it’s another curious mixture of a book. On the whole, it is about the title but in a broad sense. Resilience is the word people bandy about these days but this is one way of looking at resilience as a concept – how do we get better, move on, cope, manage, any of these things, after some defining life event? Michael Rosen started writing this having made it through Covid where he was put into a medically induced coma with a 50% chance of survival. But this isn’t just a book about getting better from illness, but also getting better when you’ve been told something shattering: like you had a brother who died as a baby, as Rosen was told as a child; or how his family coped with the impact of having relatives killed in the Holocaust; or how to keep on going after his son Eddie died of meningitis, aged 19. Rosen tells us of these incidents, and discusses what he remembers about how he or his family got better. The book’s strength is in telling us that you don’t totally recover and that’s normal, that you are shaped by these things, but that with the help of friends, family, the kindness of strangers, community, exercise and raisins, you can have some hope of carrying on.

Dance Moves – Wendy Erskine

This is a volume of short stories by Northern Irish writer Erskine, all set in Northern Ireland too. These are all very detailed and cover tiny snapshots in time, often where barely anything happens, and certainly very little is totally resolved. As such, they’re skilful slices of real life and there is much to admire from a writer’s point of view. I find I often read short stories or flash fiction and the compulsion for the writer to put down some amazing twist or clever ending is really off-putting – first as a reader as I feel manipulated, and second as a writer because I can’t think of clever twists – so these were really refreshing and interesting to read.

A Terrible Kindness – Jo Browning Wroe

I wonder if this book has suffered a little from the marketing machine? When I say suffered, Wroe has been listed as a best debut novelist and it’s a bestseller, so I mean mainly as a misconception through marketing. This was known on publication as the book about Aberfan, which it is – a bit – but mainly it’s about trauma, grief, misunderstandings and misplaced pride. And of course, it’s about recovery. In short, William Lavery is an embalmer who goes to help with the recovery of children’s bodies following the Aberfan disaster and this event obviously has a huge impact on him. But William is already suffering from events that took place after the death of his father, an embalmer himself, and the rest of the book is about those. Some reviewers have questions the use of Aberfan as a plot point but Wrote is from a funeral family (it’s often a family trade) and wanted to honour those who did that ‘terrible kindness’ to the people of Aberfan, but also to look at the impact of grief. It’s an assured debut book, well written, although I think some people might find the middle section a bit slow (I enjoyed the characters so wasn’t bothered). I liked the cast of characters here, especially the lovely Martin, William’s friend.

Moments of Pleasure

I have been to the theatre three times this month. Unprecedented I think. The first was to watch E in her Theatre Royal debut in Nottinghamshire’s Gang Show – singing, tap dancing, four costume changes, six months of rehearsals and what felt like hours standing outside the stage door in the sleet all week. The second trip was to watch An Unexpected Twist, an adaptation of a Michael Rosen story based on Oliver Twist. It was mainly a retelling in modern day, using children whose families were visiting foodbanks to be preyed upon by county lines gangs, the perfect Dickensian device. I thought it was very clever but, here we are as a country learning nothing, and leaving children unprotected and exploited. The final trip was to watch Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) which is touring, having closed in the West End. I loved this irreverent retelling of the classic novel, which is a bit tongue in cheek and with more swearing than you’d find in an Austen novel, but it was obviously affectionately done and with an accurate eye on the original characters in order to retain the spirit of the original. Austen is a much bitchier writer than her reputation gives her credit for, and this adaptation had fun with this, as well as adding some of the girly nonsense that would come with five sisters all making a play for handsome rich men. Loved it – highly recommended.

Finally, An Irish Goodbye, Oscar winning short film, is on BBC iplayer for a few months and I absolutely recommend it. It’s what I thought The Banshees of Inisherin was going to be like – funny, dark and sweet. (Banshees is good but so sad! Why do people call it a comedy?) Anyway, it’s 23 minutes of excellent Irish film comedy and well worth your time.

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