Book Review: My Shitty Twenties

My Shitty Twenties, by Emily Morris, is a memoir focusing on the author’s pregnancy and early years of motherhood. At twenty-two years of age, having just completed her second year of a three year degree course at Manchester University, the author was horrified to discover that she was pregnant. Nevertheless she decided to keep the baby. The father had no interest in either her or his child.

The book recounts how this party loving, messy living student had to defer the university life she loved and work full time whilst continuing to live in shared digs with students. Her mother offered her a room in her childhood home but Emily was reluctant to leave Manchester. Friends and family were supportive but she felt guilty at the prospect of single motherhood instead of a degree.

The account is searingly honest. There is none of the rose tinted, sugar coated wonder prevalent in typical tales of growing a child. This is the reality of a cessation of activities most regard as fun. Emily gave up cigarettes and alcohol. She discovered the long list of banned foods for mothers-to-be, and strangers all too eager to share with her their toxic views on a young, single woman bringing a child into the world alone. Whilst her friends continued to party, Emily grew fat and joined the on line forums frequented by opinionated women, where she learned the passive aggressive language of well-meaning advice.

When the baby was due Emily realised that she would have to move in with her mother. After the euphoria of escape to university this was difficult for all concerned. She would not bow to the popular notion that women should give birth as naturally as possible. She stayed in hospital for as long as they would keep her, eager for the medical professionals’ support.

Once home with her baby Emily endured the loneliness of early motherhood, the difficulties in simply leaving the house with a young child. Health Visitors pressured her into joining mother and baby groups; her experiences of these are painfully recounted. She now had little in common with many of her old friends.

Reluctant to conform to the widely derided stereotype of single mother on benefits, Emily was determined to find a job and fund her own place to live. She learned that employers regard mothers of young children as unreliable, especially when they have no partner to share the burden of the inevitable childhood sicknesses.

When her baby became a toddler Emily decided to use a small inheritance to prove to herself she could still enjoy life despite having a child. She started to find ways to take pride in what she could achieve.

This is not a book about a baby but rather a young woman becoming a mother, who would have preferred not to be single but just about coped anyway. The open and honest style of writing is refreshing and a welcome addition to the often infuriatingly upbeat accounts of parenting, a task that may be rewarding but is rarely easy. Emily’s treatment by the smug mums, signaling their virtues in the guise of advice or minor complaints, reminded me of my own experiences. Guilt and pressure to conform are ever present demons.

Around half of the book recounts the author’s pregnancy with the remainder focusing on the eighteen months after. Although I just occasionally lost engagement, and felt minor irritation when a recollection did not follow the mainly linear construction, this remained an empathetic read that many will relate to.

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

Book Review: Vinny’s Wilderness

vinny's wilderness

Vinny’s Wilderness, by Janet Shepperson, explores the lasting impact of school exams, especially on those deemed failures at a young age. Set in Belfast, where the continuing prevalence of grammar schools requires that ten year olds are groomed to sit selection tests in order to gain entry to the ‘good’ schools, it introduces us to two very different families.

Vinny is a single mother, a divorced teacher raising her daughter in the least sectarian area of the city she can afford. Alex is a stay at home mum of three, the wife of a wealthy doctor living in a large property off the moneyed Malone Road. She employs Vinny to tutor her youngest child for the transfer test, still commonly called the eleven plus, as he is struggling to grasp the concepts required to gain the sought after A/B grade.

Vinny’s home is small and untidy, her garden wild and overgrown, a haven for children’s play and imagination. She has taken on the tutoring to raise money to take her daughter, Roisin, on a summer holiday. Roisin is on the cusp of adolescence, an intelligent child who will not have to sit the transfer test as she is to attend one of the few integrated schools which cater for all abilities as well as both sides of the sectarian divide.

Alex’s home is as perfectly toned and groomed as its mistress. Both have featured in the glossy Interiors magazines that grace a polished coffee table. The glazed sun room is devoid of a single fingerprint, smudge or blemish. Even the garden is manicured to within an inch of its life. Alex’s elder two children are heading towards the successful careers expected in such a family. Her younger son, Denzil, is the anomaly, a dreamy child who relishes creativity and the great outdoors. His father blames Alex for what he regards as his son’s failings, pointing out that she attained a mere C in her eleven plus.

In a society where each person’s perceived intelligence may be judged by the school they attended from age eleven, exams take on a stratospheric importance to aspirational parents. Alex may have attended the school for those expected to be failures in life but she subsequently reinvented herself as a supportive, trophy wife, essential to the smooth management of her accomplished husband’s immaculate home. Vinny, who passed her eleven plus and thereby attended a coveted grammar school, became a teacher but was apparently less successful when it came to her personal life.

Vinny has, however, been happier since her divorce. She is now able to relax in a home that welcomes her children’s friends, never worrying about muddy footprints, creative mess, or the timing, style and contents of an evening meal. In contrast Alex appears brittle and on edge as she scurries too and fro trying to fit her home and children into her husband’s precise mould.

As Alex and Vinny grow closer they learn of each other’s pasts and start to influence their futures. Vinny’s comfortable chaos is threatened, Alex’s ordered life develops cracks.

As a native of Belfast I relished the memories so poignantly evoked. The author has captured the vernacular as well as the attitudes of a place where a portion of the population fights to remain a part of a kingdom whose laws it rejects, while others prioritise wider family over home. I enjoyed the small part played by the German lady whose pithy comments on the education system, and on grown men who spend too much time with their mothers, offered humorous truths to be pondered.

This is a tale of friendship, motherhood, and the importance of substance in a life judged by wrappings. It invites the reader to reflect on the weight given to homogenisation in education, leading to the segregation of those who do not fit and subsequent outcomes that affect all. It is a reminder that intelligence, academic and emotional, is more than providing prescribed answers in a child’s test.

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

Book Review: Mister Spoonface

perf5.000x8.000.indd

Mister Spoonface, by Paul Blaney, explores what it means to be a father. Set in and around contemporary London it tells the story of Fred Pooley, a thirty-seven year old bachelor who has never wanted children, until one day he realises that he does. He has a gap in his life that is making him miserable. This tale chronicles his attempts to find some means by which to fill it, to give him purpose and make him whole.

It opens with this memorable line:

“A year before his actions won him nationwide notoriety and a prison term, Fred Pooley landed in Heathrow.”

Having decided to give up a lucrative job in Hong Kong, Fred returns to London unsure of what he is going to do next. He finds a flat and makes contact with his ex-girlfriend, Sally. She is now living with her new partner and they have a two year old child. Fred is entranced by the toddler.

Through a writing group at a local library he meets Petra and they begin a relationship. Petra makes it clear from the off that she does not want children, a state with which Fred concurs. Much as he likes Petra though, he is still drawn to Sally and her child. He starts to fantasise about fatherhood, watching children in parks and on the streets around his new home.

Fred has a troubled relationship with his mother who raised him alone. She has never told Fred who his father is, and he now wishes to find out. His attempts at making contact do not provide him with the solace he desired.

Petra works at the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority which sets Fred thinking about a time when he donated his sperm before he went to Hong Kong. He takes pleasure in the possibility that the children he has been watching could be biologically his.

Idle fantasy and casual observation morph into obsession. Fred crosses a line, knowing that what he is doing is dubious but seemingly unable to control his urges. He observes the surly teenagers who shout abuse and litter the streets, questioning the parenting techniques of the families he is increasingly drawn towards.

The tightly written plot oozes an undercurrent of menace as Fred’s obsession takes over his life. He pushes away those who care about him, ingratiating himself with strangers to get close to their kids.

His fall is expertly presented, offering as it does some understanding of why Fred acts as he does. It is still the stuff of every parent’s nightmare. The denouement offers a satisfying conclusion to a disturbing tale.

This is a timely and thought provoking read given the advances in reproductive techniques and the moral complexities introduced when conception requires a third party. Resultant children have a legal right to details of donors, yet can donors be considered parents in any real sense of the word?

Recommended for the quality of the writing and tensity of the plot realisation. The issues raised are an added bonus for those who like to ponder beyond the final page.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Red Button Publishing.

Random Musings: Going up and Coming down

stethoscope

It is the end of the summer, the August Bank Holiday weekend. I am nearing the end of my fourth, big summer read and I am hibernating from the world. It has been a summer of highs and lows.

We managed only a few days away; once again there was no big family holiday this year. The children could not agree on where they wanted to go or commit to dates when they would be free. Even the weekend we booked was boycotted by elder son who preferred to stay home alone than come away with us. At least this precluded the need to organise a chicken sitter as he can be trusted to look after our feathered friends.

Yet these difficult to please children provided me with the major highlight of the season when they managed to achieve straight A’s in their exams. Elder son can now apply to the universities to which he aspires. After two years of focused effort daughter will be going up to medical school in October. I am so incredibly proud of their achievements.

I announced to the world that daughter had achieved her dream and was accused of crowing. Other friends quickly stepped in to reassure me that I had every right to feel proud. My view? It would be sad if, after dealing with all the crud that teenagers throw at their parents, we were not permitted to take enjoyment from their successes.

Life goes on. After the highs of family celebrations came the inevitable low. I have been through this often enough to know that it will pass but have still to deal with the noises in my head. I unfold each of my strategies: good food, regular exercise, fresh air, early nights. The lethargy of body and relentless questioning that anxiety brings drain my reserves.

Thank goodness for my books. I have read some wonderful works this summer. I discovered Urbane Publishers who sent me ‘Leaves’ and ‘Eden Burning’, both of which I enjoyed immensely. Another small, independent publisher, Influx Press, sent me two non fiction works which turned out to be fascinating reads; look out for ‘Imaginary Cities’ and ‘Total Shambles’. I had the big books set aside for summer to enjoy: ‘Purity’, ‘The Bone Clocks’, ‘Wolf Hall’ and the incredible ‘A Little Life’. And then there were a slew of less demanding but still thoroughly enjoyable works. I have written reviews for them all, do check them out.

We now have this long weekend at home before school resumes for my boys. Both are entering academic years which will culminate in yet more important exams. Daughter will be with us for another month before going up to Imperial College in London. There will be shopping to do, packing for her move and then the challenge of a drive into the city to settle her into her new home. Husband is already saying that he does not wish to deal with the inevitable difficulties of traffic and parking so I, the reluctant driver, will be taking on this challenge.

Life goes on. I received no new books in the post this week. My husband is pleased as he tuts at the size of my overflowing TBR mountain. He is not a reader. He does not understand. Although I feel no entitlement to ARCs the buzz of receiving them never diminishes. When a publicist offers me a book and it does not then arrive a little part of me shrivels. Do I not write good enough reviews? Is my readership not big or diverse enough? I comfort myself with the thought of the books which I already own that I can now read instead.

I had planned to attend an event last week to hear an author, whose book I enjoyed over the summer, talk about her work. Then my little car died. Husband diagnosed the problem, ordered the necessary part and left elder son to fit it. I was dubious but he did a careful, effective job and my car is once again on the road. I should have more faith.

I should have more faith in myself. That is my biggest challenge.

 

 

Book Review: Adult Onset

adultonset

Adult Onset, by Ann-Marie Macdonald, is a powerful and hard hitting story about parenting, depression, memory and the scars that are carried within families.

The protagonist, Mary Rose, is a successful author who has put her writing career on hold in order to raise her two young children. She lives in fear of something hurting them, especially herself.

During the week in which the story is set her wife is working out of town leaving Mary Rose to cope on her own. As she struggles with the insatiable demands of her intransigent two year old daughter she considers her own upbringing and her sometimes fraught relationship with her parents, especially her mother.

When Mary Rose was her daughter’s age her mother gave birth to a son who died. In the months that followed she struggled to cope, relying on her older daughter, Maureen, for help. However, when Maureen was at school she would be alone with Mary Rose, often ignoring her and leaving her to cry. She was depressed and incapable of dealing with her younger child’s needs. Mary Rose has hazy memories of this time but struggles to order them or to fill in certain blanks that she believes hold the key to an injury which coloured her childhood.

Even aside from this traumatic time theirs was not always a happy home. Due to the Rh factor in her mother’s blood she suffered multiple miscarriages and a still birth as well as this early loss of a living child. Her three surviving children grew up aware of their dead siblings and Mary Rose carries guilt for the negative thoughts that she had about them at the time.

As the week progresses Mary Rose struggles to deal with her internalised anger, her memories and her feelings of isolation. To those around she appears to be coping but beneath the surface a crisis is brewing. She questions if her fear of abusing her child is because she herself suffered abuse that she cannot now recall. It becomes important to her to find out from her family what went on. Even when raised the detail of their memories often differs from her own, each having lived from their own perspective.

This story is a slow burner. It portrays the frustrations of full time motherhood by allowing the thought processes and narrative to be constantly interrupted by the minutae of life with a toddler and a school aged child. The flashbacks to Mary Rose’s mother’s life seem more compelling in these early pages. I was not truly drawn in until around half way through after which I could not put the book down.

It is easy to blame parents for their behaviour despite being aware that they raised their children by the mores of the time. It is easy to recall things said in anger and grant these words precedence over kinder thoughts. It can be hard to deal with conflicting memories from siblings when what is desired is an ally.

All of this is explored alongside Mary Rose’s current relationships with her family and friends. We see a life that is accelerating towards a precipice.

The denouement is beautifully done. I particularly liked the way in which the plot lines of Mary Roses’s books were woven in. This may not be a tale of happy ever after but neither is life. The important questions were answered, even if these were not always the ones being asked.

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

 

 

Book Review: The Boy Who Loved Rain

boyrain

The Boy Who Loved Rain, by Gerard Kelly, is a story about parenting, teenagers and the difficulties inherent in communicating with those we love. When the truth will hurt it can be hard to confront, especially when a lie has been perpetuated for many years.

Fourteen year old Colum suffers from recurring nightmares that he cannot explain. He feels numb, depressed and harbours suicidal thoughts. Despite an apparently loving and happy childhood he now feels alienated from his parents who put his moods and silence down to his age. His father has immersed himself in his work while his mother struggles to cope with their sullen, uncommunicative son. When serious issues at school are brought to her attention she recognises that he needs help but will not defy her husband’s wish to keep things within their church.

The church, religion, is a recurring theme that I felt was overdone. Having established its importance in the lives of several of the characters and the subsequent impact on their decision making I felt that it should have been given less prominence. I am now aware that this book is published by Lion Hudson who are ‘committed to publishing quality literature which is true to the Christian faith’ but I read it unaware of this, regarding it as I would any other work of fiction.

Putting that aside, the depiction of this troubled family was credible and universal. There were interesting issues of nature versus nurture to explore as well as the selective blindness that can occur when parents see their child as all he has been rather than what he is now. The apathy, simmering resentment and truculence of the teenager were well described.

I was less impressed with the subsequent mellowing of the boy as the friend and counsellor gradually uncovered and addressed the issues that were causing so much pain. I felt that, by the end, the teenage character had become a little too much how adults would like children to be. The development of the parents as the story progressed seemed more believable. I would be interested to know if the psychological issues explored had any basis in scientific fact.

The story is nicely written with plenty of food for thought about how we see ourselves and those we are close to. It will perhaps appeal more though to those who choose to live their lives by the tenets of the Christian church to which the key characters ascribe.

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

Summer hiatus

I will go back to my book blogging soon, but so much is happening just now, life, and I am not reading as much as I would like. I have a fabulous pile of books that I am excited about getting through. Time though, I need more time. And space. I am sorely lacking in a space to call my own.

Husband has been out of work for a little over a month. With no signs of paid employment on the horizon he is doing his best to enjoy the sunny weather, and I am doing my best not to worry. He wants to be more active than the rest of us desire so I am peace keeper, trying to balance everyone’s requests. Compromise rarely leaves anyone feeling truly satisfied.

The three teenagers are doing their thing: sleeping late, staying up into the wee small hours, emptying the fridge of food and appearing with random demands at moments of their choosing. They are fine and good, although as scathing of my efforts as ever. I feel so busy. What they see is me working away with no worthwhile goal that they can discern.

My fiction writing has had to be shelved for now, I miss the places it took me. It requires periods of peace and quiet that are not currently available in my full house. It requires a state of mind that I have not got the space to acquire. With my family around all the time I am regularly reminded just how little they regard what I do. They see my purpose as to cook and clean, to service their needs. Mostly I choose to comply.

Yet I do so much more and this matters to me. I have completed the history course that I was studying on line with the University of Leicester. I have set up the book sharing initiative which will enable me to regularly distribute books amongst the travelling public in my area over the coming weeks and months (see @BooksAsYouGo on Twitter). I have read and reviewed some fabulous books, receiving welcome feedback from authors and publishers that my efforts are appreciated.

It feels good to be appreciated.

Husband wants me to go on more walks, to enjoy days out to places of interest, to join him at the gym or the swimming pool. Sometimes it feels as though he wants me to be more like him. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy these activities, but perhaps not as often as he would like.

We have had our away days. They have been enjoyable even when I have had to work my socks off to keep everyone cheerful, not always entirely successfully. Sometimes I try so hard and realise afterwards that nobody required it of me, that it was unnecessary.

I feel an undercurrent of disappointment, that I am not behaving in quite the way that is desired.

The weather has been unusually warm and sunny. My hens are laying well. Thanks to Husband’s efforts our garden is being brought under control. My children are pursuing the interests of their choosing. My little family is fine.

Do all mothers feel pressurised, responsible for the peace and happiness of the entire household? What is it with the guilt that I feel when I am yet again discovered to have spent another couple of hours on my computer?

It sometimes seems that those who matter the most to me see my role purely in terms of what I do for them.

In a little over three weeks my children will return to school. I want to make the most of our freedom, to spend time together, to please them and Husband. Yet still, yet still I have so much that I want to do, things that matter to me and which make me feel that I am more than a shadow.

I have been blessed with a wonderful life, but no life can be entirely perfect all of the time. It is a question of balance. Perhaps that is what I am struggling to find.

rocks_on_balance_0