Book Review: Three Gifts

Three Gifts

Three Gifts, by Mark A Radcliffe, tells the story of Francis Broad, a well meaning but anxious individual living near the coast in southern England. It opens on the day he expects to die, an event he anticipates with deep sadness but also acceptance. Francis bartered away a large chunk of his life in exchange for extensions to the lives of loved ones. What follows is the detail of why and how this happened.

Francis was raised by his loving mother in a degree of poverty. His father was often absent, first by choice and then by circumstance. Also residing in the family home was his grandfather whose incontinence made getting out into the fresh air appealing. From a young age Francis would go running as a way of dealing with his miserable schooldays and complex emotions when it appeared only his mother cared for him.

As adolescence approached Francis would run as far as a local beach, eventually plucking up courage to swim there. Swimming became another way of coping, and provided an introduction to a stranger who seemed to understand what the boy was going through. Despite his mother’s best efforts, homelife never became easier.

Eventually Francis escapes into further education. Here, for the first time, he finds friends. Life moves on. He connects with a loving partner and they have a daughter. Throughout, Francis is calculating how much time he has left before his agreed death date.

This is a story of a man, his friends and his family. From the first page it draws the reader in. Although gentle in many ways there is understated dark humour and much to consider. The characters are mostly decent but face many challenges.

The writing style brought to mind that of David Nicholls. There is economy in observations but also warmth and a comforting empathy. Sad things happen but always there is a backbone of kindness. Friendships endure in a way many can only dream of experiencing.

The central premise – that an individual may choose to trade years of their life to save the life of another – is a curious idea to explore with its conflicting elements of sacrifice and selfishness. Although its exposition here is a tad surreal, the author offers enough ambiguity to make this a point to ponder seriously. I particularly enjoyed how it was woven into the ending.

A story with the potential to appeal to a wide audience, compassionate yet never saccharine. There is much to consider in how best intentions can hurt those they are intended to help.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, époque press.


Monthly Roundup – January 2023


It has been a bit of a month. All started well with a New Year’s Day Parkrun. My little family then enjoyed the remaining few days of the festive holiday, polishing off indulgent goodies in preparation for a healthier rest of January. I even set myself some goals which I wrote about here. The gym was visited and weights were upped for pleasing strength sessions. Although my pacing was still slow, I was increasing my running distances to build stamina. The cold weather put me off cycling so I walked more frequently, including with a friend I hadn’t had a proper catchup with in well over a year. I gathered together final thoughts on my 2022 reading by looking back at and looking forward to favoured books.

On the blog my teddy bear, Edward, opened the month with an introduction to the new friends Santa brought him – New Year New FriendsI then split the month’s reviews between new releases and choices from my vast TBR pile. In the calendar was a literary event in London – the launch of Seraphina Madsen’s Aurora. Sadly, in the end, we couldn’t attend.

While participating in the nearest Parkrun during our autumn trip to North Devon husband pulled a hamstring, not running again until we were in Dartmoor several weeks later. This was the first indication that he was suffering more than a simple, physical injury. Over the summer he had been creeping closer to achieving that elusive sub-20 minute Parkrun time, having clocked it in 5k training. Now he was struggling to get below 28 mins. More worrying was his heart rate. Despite the much slower pacing this was spiking unpredictably during both efforts and recovery.

A lingering cough and frustrating lack of energy – despite rest weeks – dragged on until 10 days ago when he started to feel particularly unwell, eventually agreeing to seek medical advice. Diagnosed with a nasty case of pneumonia he ended up in hospital where continuing erratic heartrate and painful lungs could be monitored. Results of tests proved worrying. It seems likely he suffered a heart attack back in late October and carried on regardless. Having been blessed with good health, enabling an active lifestyle, we have now embarked on a challenging and unanticipated journey with, as yet, no map or signposts.

I have had to get used to driving again as hospital visits are now daily events. I have had to get used to a great many things I would prefer not to have to face. We do not know when husband will return home and can only pray treatment will be effective. If there is a deity out there I hope they are paying attention.

Thus this month has not been one for writing. I posted six reviews, scheduled before the various curve balls were thrown and other priorities took precedence.

As is customary in my monthly roundups, click on the title below to read the review and on the cover to learn more about the book.


Face the Rising Sun  Boundless as the Sky
That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern, published by Faber & Faber
Boundless As The Sky by Dawn Raffel, published by Sagging Meniscus Press

Aurora  Piranesi
Aurora by Seraphina Madsen, published by Dodo Ink
Piranesi by Susannah Clarke, published by Bloomsbury

Translated Fiction

mios kingdom
Mio’s Kingdom by Astrid Lindgren (translated by Jill Morgan), published by Oxford University Press


Bunny Girls
Bunny Girls by Angela Readman, published by Nine Arches Press

Sourcing the Books

Robyn has been trying to cut down on the number of books she buys as she is reading little due to work related pressures. These four somehow slipped through the door.

robyn books january 23

My book post has been very pleasing and I am looking forward to reading all of these as soon as I have free time again.

Jackie books january 23

As ever I wish to thank the publishers who send me their books to review – the arrival of a book parcel remains a cheering event in my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms – your support is always appreciated.

And to everyone reading this, I wish you and yours good health – something we so often take for granted until issues must be faced. Here’s hoping February proves a better one for us all.

Book Review: The Sound of It

Sound of It

“It was just that during one of the many moments when he was worrying about money, he started wondering if he could come up with a new entrepreneurial idea, something that was bound to work this time. Nothing came to mind, even though he spent a whole cup of tea thinking about it.”

The Sound of It, by Alison Jean Lester, tells a story of the complexity of relationships within a blended family. It is a love story involving two adults but complicated by their attitudes towards each other’s young children from previous marriages. Difficulties surface despite best intentions.

Jeremy is the widowed father of seven year old Ned and thirteen year old Tom. He dislikes the staidness of his name, wishing those he met, perhaps down the pub, could spontaneously start referring to him as Jez, or perhaps Jezza. Thanks to money he inherited from his late mother he has been able to dabble in various business ideas over the years, none of which have met with the success he desires.

Su is the divorced mother of sixteen year old Caoimhe (pronounced Kwee-vah). Su is a sound designer, mostly working with those who produce advertising jingles and need audio clips to represent a product or feeling. She meets Jeremy when they both go to have their old turntables repaired. When she learns he dislikes his name she starts referring to him as Jay, just one of the things he adores about her. He likes how she makes him feel about himself.

The book opens four months into their burgeoning relationship. The couple wish to move in together but neither’s house is big enough to comfortably accommodate their three children. They have therefore decided to build a new house in a field outside the city, designed by Jay and funded by his investments along with the money raised from the sales of their respective houses. Su will support them all while he manages the project. His plans are ambitious.

A month or so before this, the couple had met each other’s children. All had gone as well as could be hoped for. Su and Caoimhe were particularly drawn to young Ned and he soon accepted them as integral members of his family. The teenagers were more wary but did not cause undue issues for their parents.

Jeremy retains a long held aversion towards his father, Sandy, who lives close by and gets on well with Tom. Jeremy longs for Sandy’s admiration, something he believes his disabled brother, Richard, enjoyed before his life was irrevocably altered in a vicious attack. Sandy now cares for Richard and wishes to also be involved in Jeremy’s life.

Each of the key characters is introduced and developed skilfully. Alarm bells ring early over some of Jeremy’s thought processes but these remain equivocal for some time. Su is in love and happy to place her trust in him. Initially they share the details on all aspects of the house they are building. When Jeremy comes to realise that the budget available will not cover all the luxuries he has promised himself, he starts to keep secrets and tries to come up with a way to manage the growing debt himself.

Perhaps partly due to his experiences in childhood, Jeremy does not come across as an empathetic parent although he clearly cares for his boys. Su plugs a gap in the family when the children have problems that need resolving. She does not recognise that Jay is as much a child in need of guidance as his sons. Her implicit trust in him – in his attitude and abilities – makes what happens harder for her to bear.

Structured in three parts, the story unfolds across a mostly linear timeline. The family: meet, move into a rented house together, move into the new house. They grow closer and get used to each other’s proximity. Jeremy does his best to be Jay but cannot fully suppress his true nature.

The crisis, when it comes, is written with painful authenticity. There is no veering from the characters that have been so carefully crafted. Tension builds as the reader learns why certain threads were introduced along the way. Poignancy is tempered by the realism depicted, especially in how the adults truly feel for the children and how time can alter this. The youngsters have long been affected by actions over which they have no agency, adding disappointment and anger to the challenges they must deal with day to day.

Pacing is taut throughout but also well balanced. The story delves into difficult territory but never loses integrity. Each of the children add a new dimension to a tale, offering much to consider. The grandparents’ roles provide additional depth.

An engaging drama that explores parenting from a variety of angles, and how the true nature of individuals can be hidden but not excised. A reminder of the fragility of trust and the problems caused by selfishness and ego. A lingering read that I highly recommend.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Monthly Roundup – May 2022


May opened with a celebration. Husband and I travelled to Cornwall for our 30th wedding anniversary, staying at the lovely Talland Bay Hotel (you may read my review of the place here). Edward, my intrepid teddy bear, came along too and I posted of his adventures here. I enjoy writing these occasional posts alongside my book reviews. Edward has been ‘exploring’ on my blog for a year now and is proving a popular addition.

I am also very much enjoying getting away on short breaks. We choose places that offer plenty of options for walking, along with a Parkrun within easy travelling distance. I am not yet ready to fly anywhere having read of the form filling, security queues, and continuing Covid related restrictions still in place in certain places. This latter issue has also resulted in us avoiding cities. We were disappointed not to be able to visit the Tate Modern when we travelled to London last year due to the need to book in advance, and Robyn tells me she had to pre-book her recent visit to the Science Museum when she was in the capital for a few days. I do hope these requirements are not now permanent as these free to enter attractions used to form the backbone of our valued city visits.

May also contains a family birthday. Elder son opted to eat out at our local pub, something that was enjoyed by all. Our local restaurants have become, once again, places where we feel welcome.

The improving weather is providing added cheer. Running in the sun may be a somewhat sweaty business but temperatures have not yet risen sufficiently to make the endeavour entirely draining. As well as Parkruns I have taken to running with a few other acquaintances on a Sunday morning, a rare chance to interact socially that has proved enjoyable. I managed a solo half marathon this month which was pleasing, and have set several new PBs when strength training.

I posted reviews for 12 books in May. This total included a revisit of a book previously reviewed as I was sent a stunning new edition – a pleasure to peruse.

As is customary in these monthly roundups, click on the title below to read the review and on the cover to learn more about the book.


none of this serious  boy wonder
None of This is Serious by Catherine Prasifka, published by Canongate
The Former Boy Wonder by Robert Graham, published by Lendal Press

hidden child  Trespasses
The Hidden Child by Louise Fein, published by Head of Zeus
Trespasses by Louise Kennedy, published by Bloomsbury

swimmers  Ezra Maas
The Swimmers by Chloe Lane, published by Gallic
The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas by Daniel James, published by Valley Press

dublinersDubliners by James Joyce, published by Penguin Classics

Translated Fiction

Goodbye, Ramona  this world does not
Goodbye, Ramona by Montserrat Roig (translated by Megan Berkobien and María Cristina Hall), published by Fum d’Estampa
This World Does Not Belong To Us by Natalia Garcia Freire (translated by Victor Meadowcroft), published by Oneworld


Fools ParadiseFool’s Paradise by Zoe Brooks, published by Black Eyes Publishing UK

Non Fiction

light rains
Light Rains Sometimes Fall by Lev Parikian, published by Elliott & Thompson

Translated Non Fiction

seven deadly sins
The Seven Deadly Sins, published by Fum d’Estampa

Sourcing the books

Robyn received her special edition, subscription books from Goldsboro and Illumicrate. These are the April and May offerings (I did not share her haul in last month’s roundup). The small bear pictured is also new to our household – a surprise gift from younger son. Ember approved of the fiery colours chosen for the spredges of Robyn’s new books.

I was very happy to receive the titles pictured below, reviewing several immediately. I am looking forward to reading the others closer to their publication date.

Jackie books may

As ever I wish to thank all the publishers who send me their books to review – the arrival of a book parcel remains a cheering event in my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. Your continuing support is always appreciated.

And to everyone reading this, I wish you and yours good health and the ability to pause and enjoy all that can still be beautiful in our world and lives. Above all, may we strive, at all times, to be kind  xx

Random Musings: Death in the Time of Covid

young parents

Two years ago today I received the news that my father had died. Although a shock at the time it was not entirely unexpected. My parents were in their nineties and suffered many health issues including dementia. Despite their noticeable and ongoing deterioration, they were still lucid enough to understand what was happening to them and had made their wishes clear. They did not desire interventions to prolong suffering they knew was only likely to get worse.

My father’s death happened quickly. He developed severe difficulty breathing and was rushed to hospital. He passed away before tests could be conducted but his symptoms were clearly Covid-19. The paramedics who attended him also voiced concern about my mother. She too was taken to hospital where she tested positive for the virus and was admitted.

Several years previously my parents had taken out prepaid funeral plans. They could not have foreseen that memorial gatherings would be outlawed. Lockdown rules meant neither my brother nor I could travel to Belfast to join our sister in mourning. My father’s body was driven direct to the crematorium in a single vehicle with only the funeral director in attendance. There was no church service, no music, no wake. At home in Wiltshire I and my family raised a glass of Dad’s favourite tipple, Black Bush whiskey, to his memory. That morning I learned my mother had died.

whiskey memorial

I left the family home, which my parents bought off plan and lived for six decades until their deaths, in my early twenties. From then, I returned to visit irregularly. My relationship with both my parents was somewhat distant, emotionally as well as physically. Growing up I was always supported by them in my various endeavours, and knew I was loved, but railed against their criticisms. I was not the daughter they brought me up to be.

My mother was of her time. It mattered to her how I was regarded, particularly by the wider family. It was made clear to me that certain aspects of our lives should never be revealed to them. It mattered to her that I be slim and dress modestly. Of all my achievements throughout my life it was any loss of weight that she most admired.

My father was a quiet and somewhat distant parent. He adored my mother, putting her needs first. Towards the end of their lives my mother told me it had been a good life, that they had been happy together, the overseas package holidays they took once their children were old enough to be left behind offered as particular highlights. That neither had to live on without the other is a strange sort of comfort now.

Grief is a complex beast. Although I was happier once I left Belfast, and my parents appeared to enjoy their times as a couple more than when with other family members, their deaths have still left a void that cannot be filled. Their quality of life was already compromised when they contracted Covid-19 so in some ways such a quick death could be regarded as a blessing. For those of us left, it still requires processing.

I have not felt the overwhelming sorrow I know some feel when a parent dies. My grief has been more a quiet, shadowed reflection on how our relationship developed over the years. I was told that I spent the first few months of my life in hospital, my mother visiting daily to cry over my crib. She blamed this for my later distance even though I cannot remember the time. It seems I caused her, and therefore my father, trouble from the very start.

None of this can diminish that they were always there for me. And now that they are not I can focus on the positives they provided. They both came from inner city, working class backgrounds, taking jobs and saving money – the pennies that eventually grew to pounds – to give themselves and their children a more stable life. They were proud that the three of us, and then their six grandchildren, all attended university. My father missed out on his chance to train as a teacher due to the war prioritising returning soldiers. He gave up his deferred place to enable him to marry.

They were the best parents they could be given the people they were, and for that I remain grateful. I am glad I got to tell them this before they died.

mum and dad olderWinnie and Norman at home, RIP

Book Review: Where?


Where? by Simon Moreton is a moving tribute to the author’s late father who died in 2017. It is a hybrid of: memoir, local history, art – inspired by the question, where are you from? The book is beautifully produced and provides a fascinating insight into the impact surroundings have on shaping what a person becomes. It is a reminder that places are constantly changing, that time moves inexorably on.

“In my unfocused arbitrary melancholy I raged at the loss of that place, of a building, a function. Is that how the horrific pledge to ‘the good old days’ is made? To plant my flag, while ignoring the irony of having grown up five hundred feet away, in a house built upon layers and layers of other people’s memories, angry that someone else was now doing the same to me?”

In 1987, Moreton’s father took a job as an engineer, working at a radar station serving the Civil Aviation Authority. Situated on the embankments of an Iron Age hill fort, on Titterstone Clee in Shropshire, the view from the top in fine weather was ‘so pastoral that Tolkien was alleged to have written about it and called it the Shire.’ Weather was, however, unpredictable with squalls and sudden temperature drops providing memorable challenges for staff and tourists.

The family moved from their former home in suburban Surrey to a new-build house on a small estate in Caynham, three miles from the radar station and adjacent to a then derelict stately home. The locale was rural and quiet, steeped in lore and shaped by past lives and industry. The author revisits key locations, taking the reader on a walk through centuries of past residents’ known experiences and legacies – the marks they left on the area. As a child this was his playground, a place for adventures with his older brother and friends.

“Memories of these woods – pond-dipping, mud-running, grave-visiting, absurdly bucolic pictures – form the scaffolding of my childhood identity. We were a family as any other, thoroughly unaware that the place was a human-made landscape, oblivious to the history of wealth, power, privilege and tragedy to which it was witness.”

The stories are wrapped around the bones of Moreton’s father’s illness – diagnosis, progression and then death within a matter of weeks. As the scattered family come together to keep vigil, the author muses on elements of their personal history. They moved frequently, as did he after leaving home for university. He describes certain aspects of the seventeen years that followed this quest for independence with refreshing honesty – a young man unsure and frequently messing up – and a nod to the unreliability of memory.

“I don’t know what I want. Or rather, I do, but I have neither the experiential common sense nor the emotional vocabulary to work out how to articulate it, let alone go about getting it.”

“he speaks to me about making hard decisions, and being happy, and doing what was right for me. I don’t think he even means the school work or my decisions about university; I think he means for me to stop fighting myself, and make the changes I need to make, for myself.”

The family grief at the impending death is tempered for the reader by historic stories shared – tales of others’ lives and tragedies spanning centuries. Readers are immersed in the Shropshire hills as they too keep vigil. The monochrome artwork accompanying the many accounts and recollections is as poignant and expressive as the engaging prose, photographs and clippings.

where pic 1   where pic 2

A fascinating and moving tribute to an ordinary family man whose legacy lives on through his impact on those he predeceased. A comforting reminder that, despite individual transience, the ripples we make can provide comfort in memory – stories to share and pass on, as the author has done here.

“it’s no surprise that during the period of his illness thoughts about growing up, of how our family came to be and where we were from bubbled up as we sought in trauma and in grief to find common narratives to our diverging life-courses, things that would keep us connected with him and each other.”

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Toller Books.

Book Review: The Heeding

the heeding

The Heeding is a poignant and powerful poetry collection written by Rob Cowen and stunningly illustrated by Nick Hayes. It reflects on the year following the first COVID19 lockdown and will serve in the time to come as a reminder of when the world changed profoundly – how we lived lives altered in previously unimaginable ways. The poems capture the concerns and frustrations of families required to deal with the challenges of: house arrest, homeschooling, a ban on visiting their cared for elderly. It provides an evocative reminder that nobody will live forever.

“They are staring into a child’s eyes, wondering at the storm that’s coming.
How they might put themselves between what they love and everything”

The author is father to young children and his worries centre on them. He reflects on his own childhood and the lessons learned and valued from his parents and grandparents – often appreciated only in hindsight. He was taught to heed what was around him, particularly in nature. He now wishes to pass this valuable skill on to the next generation.

The poems have a depth that belies the ease with which they may be read. Incidents recounted are often everyday yet have an impact, a value, in the connections they engender.

Solidarity on a Saturday Night is a short poem about neighbours lighting up their backyards and somehow feeling together without the need to meet. This Allotment reflects on a humanity that is possible when people are accepting of difference in looks or creed – willing to offer practical advice and their labour along with excess produce.

“When heart-sore, I often wonder if this place is
secretly a model for what should be; how things could be,
were we not so preoccupied with property”

Last Breaths took my breath away, moving me to tears. It is a heartfelt account of a man in a nursing home, dying alone of this terrible plague. He remembers aspects of his life: war, a beloved wife outlived, a daughter who died in childhood, another now banned from seeing him – to keep him safe! The illustration that goes with this poem is perfect, as are so many here. The words brought home to me, perhaps for the first time, how my own father passed away last year – hand held by a nurse in PPE.

Another particularly poignant poem is Dennis, a man taunted relentlessly by local children whose casual cruelty makes their older selves squirm. The reason for his odd tics and behaviour is heartrending.

There are poems that describe encounters with birds and other creatures along with the Yorkshire landscape where the author lives. Nature is depicted as savage as well as beautiful, teeming with life but also death. There are reflections on more human concerns – failing businesses, history, politics, fearful unease.

“These cancelled birthdays.
These bans on being together.
These redundancies, uncertainties,
limits on impulse and joy,
on movement and autonomy.”

Black Ant highlights how we may try to save a tiny creature in difficulties, but will not tolerate those that threaten the structure or safety of our dwelling and family.

Pharmacy Cake brings home the loneliness of lockdown life for the elderly it was sold as designed to protect.

“This braving of sleet and virus;
this coddling of staff, is a way to treat a pain
more mangling, more unbelievably sore
than any of us are collecting prescriptions for.”

Viking Gold is a wonderfully evocative remembrance of a stern grandmother who, in the end, offered the author a window into all she had kept in check throughout her life, just before ‘her mind unspooled towards infancy.’

“Born of bleak moor and indoctrinated patriarchy;
the dark, meagre modesties of mill town terraces.
Be grateful for the least. Repent, repress
the sin of boastful joy; let your worries be endless
lest God give you, with a clout,
something proper to worry about.”

Lockdown, with all the mental baggage it has created, has certainly given the author much to worry about. He is scathing in his opinion of those who do not take the vaccine, especially those who spread fear about side-effects, branding them murderers. I pondered how many were living with such concerns and if this will change how they interact once guidelines are lifted.

Whatever views one ascribes to on this, the collection offers much to consider along with an appreciation of the natural world that continues to turn through the seasons however man is living within. I found this thought uplifting, that we too may choose to go on, perhaps still at risk but not allowing this to rob us of the joys to be found both in our back yards and beyond.

“Be kind. Forgive. Attend and heed.
Be strong, but lead with love not power.
Look for the universe inside the seed”

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott & Thompson.

Book Review: What Willow Says

what willow says

“you don’t need ears to hear the trees, you only need to listen”

What Willow Says, by Lynn Buckle, tells the story of an artist grandmother and her hearing impaired granddaughter as they learn to communicate, aided by a mutual appreciation of nature. The granddaughter can lip read and grows increasingly adept at using sign language. The grandmother is doing her best to learn this latter skill. Their conversations mostly rely on a more primal understanding, on observation and resonance.

The story opens during a hot spell in summer. The girl wishes to play with other children in the neighbourhood. Some accept her, many do not. She is not averse to turning her deafness to advantage when opportunity arises. The grandmother admires her audacity. When alone the pair walk their locality as the seasons progress, seeking out untamed areas and sharing stories of time and place. Set in Ireland, these include many myths and legends – of flora, fauna, and the people they represent.

The child has a metal detector, the grandmother an art project she wishes to complete – ‘A Compendium of Native & Non-Native Trees of Ireland’, illustrations rather than a field guide. They collect their treasures on planned excursions. The child asks what sounds different trees make.

“All those years studying their structures, weights, and textures while missing their inherent languages. I do not know what the breeze brings through them or how their sounds differ”

The grandmother has known loss and is now eager to appreciate the unique abilities of her young charge, however much authorities may wish her to adapt herself to a prescribed ‘normality’. Medical professionals do not appear to understand that cochlear implants may provide improved hearing, but that the granddaughter would lose the world she now happily inhabits.

“Sometimes there is no one so deaf as a hearing person”

As the year progresses it is not just the child’s health care that unsettles. The grandmother receives a diagnosis that will be life changing for them both.

These bones of a story make for interesting and engaging reading but what raises the book to something special is the use of language, the evocation of the spirits inhabiting what some may regard as untidy spaces. There is both lyricism and the lightness of a dancer in the prose – what those who understand the discipline, as it interprets musical accompaniment, recognise as poise and strength to limn feeling and beauty. In music, the silences are as important as notes played.

Grandmother and granddaughter stand beneath tree canopies listening – to the leaves and branches, to the unseen root system that joins trees together. When felled, these roots remain to nourish new growth. It is a fitting comparison to the love and learning the elderly can offer a younger generation.

Although there is much beauty in the metaphors evoked, the author does not shy away from difficulties faced by the deaf community as they navigate a hearing world reluctant to pay attention. Neither does she avoid the subject of death – the lasting sense of loss, how those remaining must adapt to change.

In pulling these themes together amongst the imagery of trees, what seem human tragedies are granted perspective. The family story told is one of support and tenderness. The wider tale provides food for the soul that left this reader sated.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, époque press.

Book Review: The High House

the high house

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“It is not enough to have an ark, if you do not also have the skills to sail it”

This is the third book by Jessie Greengrass that I have read. All have been enjoyed. Her writing just keeps getting better.

The High House is set in the near future. It explores the impact of climate change, particularly rising sea levels. More than that though, it revolves around a small cast of characters skilfully rendered. Few words are wasted on what they look like. What matters is how they feel and react to each other, and how events they must live through shape them.

The story is told from three points of view with chapters headed by their names: Sally, Caro, Pauly. The timeline is non-linear with much of the narrative filling in gaps. Structured in short sections, pace is pitched perfectly to maintain interest and momentum. There is an underlying tension in knowing what is to come.

Caro is raised in London by her father, an academic. When he marries Francesca, a scientist, they spend holidays at the High House. This is a large coastal property left to Francesca by an uncle. Visits cease after baby Pauly is born. Caro, now a teenager, helps care for the child. A respected expert in the field, Francesca is becoming more concerned about the impending climate disaster she can see coming – that the world appears wilfully blind to. She spends increasing amounts of time away from home.

Sally is raised in the village below the High House by her grandfather, Grandy. He has lived there all his life, watching it change from a farming and fishing community to a place filled with holiday homes. Grandy is employed as caretaker by the absent owners. When Francesca decides to make the High House an ultimate refuge for her family, he becomes involved.

Caro is not made party to Francesca’s plans. She feels abandoned, believing her stepmother has chosen work over her son. At the same time she enjoys the role she plays in Pauly’s upbringing. Francesca’s wider concerns bring tension to the home that affects them all.

News reports tell of increasingly unpredictable weather events in other places – the refugees created when floods wreak havoc. Viewer shock is short lived when events feel distant, while they remain okay.

“drone footage of torn buildings and flooded streets which showed the water lying still and calm and deep across places people had thought they owned.”

Sally is unimpressed by Francesca, resenting the attention Grandy pays her as she talks of what is to come. Grandy understands the power of the weather having experienced the lasting impact on his and neighbouring villages of the last great flood.

“-This isn’t going to be like that,
Francesca said.
-There won’t be memorials in church halls. No one is going to make up songs. There will be nothing left.
I asked, and I felt gleeful, as though I had found the point at last, and now could press it home.
-Or only nothing of yours? People have nothing already. People are dying already. How can a threat to you be an apocalypse when the rest of the world is drowning and it’s only a fucking preamble?”

In London, residents and visitors enjoy the lengthening seasons of warmth and sunshine. Caro takes Pauly to their local park to play, aware of changes to plants and wildlife but not paying attention. There are day to day concerns to deal with whatever is happening beyond.

“We had the habit of luck and power, and couldn’t understand that they were not our right. We saw that things were bad, elsewhere, but surely something would turn up, because didn’t it always for us?”

From the first few pages the reader knows who ends up at the High House and that Francesca’s efforts enable their survival. The story is of what happened and how they got there. The writing is incisive but also empathetic. The denouement is quietly devastating.

There are elements of domestic drama – jealousies, irritation, resentment, love – that draw the reader in, yet what this story offers is so much more. It is painfully easy to see the reflections of our current situation. When resources grow scarce, what is anyone willing to share and with whom?

Any Cop?: A tale so well crafted it may be enjoyed despite the warnings therein. Book reviewers are sometimes mocked for employing certain overused phrases. In this case I have no qualms in saying, The High House is a must read.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Hidden Valley Road

Hidden Valley Road, by Robert Kolker, tells the true story of the Galvin family and their lives growing up in post war America. It was written in collaboration with all living family members, along with many of their friends, relatives, and the medical professionals who tried to help them. Of the twelve Galvin children, six were diagnosed with schizophrenia. The family became an important case study in the genetics of mental health.

The author is a journalist who agreed to tell this story if it could be fully fact checked. He makes clear his sources and looks at key incidents from various perspectives. The style and structure adopted enables the reader to observe each Galvin as an individual with personal feelings and grievances. Their problems are real and often horrifying but the details are never sensationalised.

There are discussions around nature vs nurture, and of the wisdom of having so many children. Each of the Galvins had to cope with trauma that, from the outside, appears unimaginably harrowing. That they wanted to share their experiences, and also contribute to medical research, demonstrates their wish to help others avoid the pain they suffered – and still struggle with.

Alongside the family story are chapters on the treatment of mental health issues, particularly schizophrenia, throughout and beyond the twentieth century. These are written to be accessible and provide a picture of changing attitudes and the focus of research. What comes through is the way medical experts in the field of neuroscience can be quick to blame parents for their children’s afflictions – be it in how they were raised or the problems passed on in genes.

Don Galvin and Mimi Blayney first met at a swim competition as they were entering their teenage years. He was handsome, serious minded and personable. She came from troubled wealth, appreciating high artistic endeavours and harbouring a need to impress. They married when Don was called up to fight in the Second World War, by which time Mimi was already pregnant.

The couple went on to have their twelve children over the course of twenty years – ten boys followed by two girls. Don’s work often took him away from home. He regularly mixed with the rich and famous. Mimi was left to care for the house and children, tasks she undertook with fierce determination. It mattered to her how the family were regarded – moreso than how they behaved privately. Home never felt a safe space for any of the young offspring.

The synopsis ensured that I opened the book ready to sympathise with the parents. This was almost immediately brought into question. Don and Mimi captured and trained wild birds of prey. Their methods suggested they had little empathy with the suffering of living creatures, focusing more on what Don and Mimi would gain. Likewise, their children were allowed to fight viciously and bully each other with impunity. So long as they did their chores, publicly achieved, and turned up for mass on a Sunday in their smart clothes, Mimi felt she was mothering well. Don encouraged her to leave the children to sort out grievances between themselves. This resulted in numerous injuries – many serious – and a culture of fear that manifested in hatred, and a determination to get away.

When, as young men, the sons started to fall ill, Mimi undertook what care she could offer when they were not hospitalised. She focused on her sick boys, resulting in her well children feeling overlooked. Any complaints were met with an impatient reminder that the others had it worse.

The two girls contribute many details that shine a light on the horror of their existence – including abuse. All of the children appeared to idolise Don while blaming Mimi for not doing enough for them as individuals. They question why she chose to have so many children. In an interview, near the end of her life, Mimi states that she considered herself a good mother – not a view apparently shared by those on the receiving end of her mothering. When their mental illnesses could no longer be kept hidden, Mimi stated that she felt embarrassed by her children.

Details provided of the young Galvins’ habits suggest there was a great deal of drug taking. In amongst the many details of medical research and treatments, the potential impact of this is not mentioned, and would have been of interest.

An aside I found saddening, if not surprising, was the focus of pharmaceutical companies on making money over finding a cure. Several paths of promising research were abandoned when it became clear they could not be quickly monetised.

The Galvins were not wealthy but seem to have managed financially. The benefits system in America is portrayed as more generous than was my understanding. There are brief mentions of wider family and I pondered if any practical help came from them. Mostly it is wealthy friends who are cited as benefactors, although the children still had issues with the fine opportunities this offered them. They wanted their parents to behave differently – to focus more on them.

And it is this honesty – the desire even grown children retain for parental attention and appreciation – that is a strength of the story. Each of the children needed their needs to be noticed.

The horrors inflicted run alongside details of sporting and artistic achievements that were supported by the Galvins as a family, even when siblings expressed little interest. What is most remembered looking back, though, is the impact of living with schizophrenics. Whether the illness to come caused the early and ongoing violence is not delved into in detail.

A cure for schizophrenia has yet to be found, and the next generation of Galvins has not survived unscathed. The denouement gives cause for hope if not full closure of the issues investigated.

This is a fascinating if disturbing account of large family dynamics and the impact on all of mental illness. The resentments of the well siblings as the family aged resonated.

“From her family, Lindsay could see how we all have an amazing ability to shape our own reality, regardless of the facts. We can live our entire lives in a bubble and be quite comfortable. And there can be other realities that we refuse to acknowledge, but are every bit as real as our own. She was not thinking of her sick brothers now, but of everyone – all of them, including her mother, including herself.”

An illuminating story that disturbs as much as it engages and informs the reader. A window into living with and alongside compromised mental health – the cost to all involved, not just the patient.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Quercus.