The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae – Stephanie Butland

Being a teenager is tough. It always has been – it was almost certainly tough being somewhere between 12 and 20 even before teenage-ness was invented (as Lucy Worsley’s book from my previous review shows). Whatever society thought young people of that age should be doing (working in mines and factories, marrying and starting to provide heirs or getting a good education) the hormones have, surely, always been there. In the 1500s they, presumably, expressed their angst by sobbing into their virginals or writing rather pointed poetry and in the Victorian era fainting and consumption were popular responses: teens in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have the option of YA novels centred around death. Some focus on murders, and some on suicide, sudden death is also a common theme but some of the best known centre on a young person with a terminal illness or condition. It might seem an odd sort of trend to an adult reader (even though we may all have felt a frisson of something when we read about Helen Burns’ death in Jane Eyre…) but it is a genuine phenomena which helps many younger readers to learn about life and death. But, sometimes, I wonder where the fictional youngsters who survive their traumas, their cancers and illnesses are? What happens to the ones who, against all the odds, do get to grow up?

37435951Stephanie Butland gives us the story of one such person – Ailsa Rae. She has spent her entire life, all 28 years of it, coping with a congenital heart defect. She has had to make allowances for it, missed out on things other people do without thinking and, in recent years, she has blogged about it under the name Blue Heart. While waiting for her transplant she comforts and supports Lennox – her former boyfriend and close friend – who never gets the liver transplant he needs. Now that Ailsa has her new heart she has a lot to learn: how to live with the loss of Lennox, how to gain her independence from her mother without irreparably damaging their relationship, how, in short, to live now that she isn’t going to die. She starts by learning how to tango…

I really enjoyed this book – it is a light romance novel but also had me thinking quite seriously about how it must feel to both be waiting on an organ transplant list and to recover from such a major operation*. I liked Ailsa’s blogging persona – again she was very informative but without blinding us with medical language – and the way that she used blog polls to help her make decisions. We see Ailsa grow up – her condition meant that she had to be looked after for 28 years, she couldn’t get a job, couldn’t live alone – and lose the air of perpetual adolescence. Finally we also see her learning the lesson which many adults never do – working out both who is worthy of love and how to be loved herself.


*And yes, I am on the organ donor register. Are you?



Stories of Mary and Jane (or how to become a Queen in two difficult lessons)

I have a sister called Mary. When we were children we would come home from school and go to our granddad’s until Mum finished work. Quite often we would drop into a shop or two on the way – the cake shop if we’d managed to talk Mum out of some pocket-money (I think our record was to negotiate about two months payment in advance) but almost always the pet shop. We were fascinated by all the animals, obviously, but particularly the fish. There were cold water fish, like plain old goldfish, but also plenty of more exotic specimens – we looked at the guppies, the Siamese Fighting fish and the catfish – but mostly we liked to point out the dead ones to the pet shop man. The only thing we didn’t like about the pet shop was the fact that the owner could never get our names right. I have always been taller than Mary (she is truly my ‘little’ sister), she was blond where I had dark hair, she has the Skudder nose and I, well, don’t, but he always got confused and called us both Mary-Jane. As a child this was very confusing – as an adult I get it – but even now I love anything with both names in. Could this have been the start of my love of the history of Tudor women? In the last week or so I managed to read books about queens called both Mary and Jane…

Lady Mary – Lucy Worsley

9781408869444The Mary in question here is Mary Tudor but not as a queen but as a Princess. This book is written for younger readers so Mary’s age reflects this – at the beginning she is nine years old and knew herself to be beloved by both her parents. We then see the efforts of Henry VIII to end his marriage to Mary’s mother, his marriage to Anne Boleyn, the religious changes and deadly politics of the period from the point of view of a young girl. This is shown well – Mary is frequently afraid and feels abandoned by both her parents at some point, she has an understanding of the politics of power (she has been taught by the example of both Henry and Katherine) but not of the more adult passions. I did sometimes feel that she was shown as being younger than her age – she is, after all, over 20 when Anne Boleyn dies – but her whole girlhood is extremely sheltered. It is also increasing harsh as her father and step-mother gradually take away all those privileges she enjoyed as a Princess. Even, as the title of the book suggests, the name of Princess.

The book is a way to tell younger readers about the life of a famous woman from history. I’m not entirely sure what age group I would aim this at – there is no graphic content which would make it totally unsuitable for a child of nine who had an interest in the subject (I’m so thinking of me at that age…) but the emotional toll on Mary is not negligible. Like many books which span the 9-12 to teen ranges it is more about the emotional maturity of a child rather than their reading ability – and, of course, because Lucy Worsley is a historian the facts are sound (and the speculation, because there are always huge gaps in the historical record, is justified in the afterword). Of course, if you are reading it as an adult who can’t get enough well-written historical fiction then the latter stages of the book – looking at Mary’s relationship with her second step-mother, Jane Seymour – lead you inexorably on to the next book in Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series…

Six Tudor Queens: Jane Seymour, the Haunted Queen – Alison Weir

9781472227676I’ve been loving this series about the overlapping lives of the women who were Henry VIII’s queens. It is the overlaps which have been most fascinating – you see Katherine’s view of Anne Boleyn and vice versa – because you can then develop a more rounded impression of their personalities. Katherine was so much more fierce than I can recall her appearing in other histories, even Anne’s view of her is as a formidable enemy, and Anne so much more vulnerable – these books have made these women so much more real for me. I was hopeful, therefore, that Weir would be able to convince me that Jane Seymour was far more interesting than I had previously believed. To be honest, I just thought she was a bit wet…

Jane Seymour does become a much more interesting character than I had previously found her to be. In many ways she is fighting against a lot – Katherine of Aragon was the daughter of royalty herself, a strong figure, and Anne Boleyn is almost a pantomime villain, even the later queens have more of a hook to hang their lives on – and this has made her appear a little pale. Interestingly Weir doesn’t try to deny this paleness – it is the view of her that most of the court has – but does give us a glimpse of the woman which has a little more colour. She portrays a girl with firm religious beliefs, reinforced during her time as a maid-of-honour to Katherine of Aragon, and a strong sense of duty to her family. It is this family, and her ambitious brothers in particular, who encourage her not to reject the King’s advances. She also shows her to be a passionate woman who is eager to marry and have a family and who genuinely loves Henry. She also works hard to promote the interests of Mary Tudor and, in her heart, always thinks of Katherine as the true queen (which doesn’t make her popular when she is part of Anne Boleyn’s court…). These are, I think, factors which come from first-hand reports of her conduct – the things which Weir adds are additional, failed, pregnancies other than the one which led to the birth of the long-awaited son, including one which suggested she didn’t even wait for her betrothal before giving in to the King and, towards the end of the book, the fact that she felt haunted by guilt at the fate of Queen Anne. This was the least successful part for me – it appeared so late in the book that it felt a little forced – but wasn’t totally off-putting. I guess, like me, Weir thought that ‘the slightly wet Queen’ was a poor subtitle to use in this otherwise excellent series.


All tourism is book tourism for me…

Image may contain: sky, cloud, grass, outdoor and natureThis week I’m on holiday. A whole week away from the shop: a whole week without books. Yes, I laughed too! In reality it is a whole week where my reading habit is uninterrupted by having to go to work and, since I’m away in Scotland, I’m not even having to stop reading to do stuff like cooking, washing-up or housework. Okay, I’m also doing quite a lot of (slow) walking, (even slower) running and (not very good) sketching but I’m not neglecting the literary. Yesterday I walked along the Borders Abbey Way between Dryburgh and Melrose (with a bit of a bus ride when the rain got too heavy) and then on to Tweedbank. And from Tweedbank it is just another shortish, but rather muddy, walk to Abbotsford – the home of Scotland’s most famous author*, Sir Walter Scott.

Image result for abbotsford houseI felt a bit guilty going there, to be honest. It was top of my list of places to visit while staying in the Borders but I’m not a fan of Scott’s work. I have read Ivanhoe, which was okay, but have no urge to read more. I wasn’t sure if they’d even let me in! (I’m almost relieved that Dickens’ World has now closed down – I’d definitely not be let in there…) But I needn’t have worried – the visitor centre was a welcome end to my stroll, the tea was piping hot and all the staff very friendly and helpful. The house is fascinating, both architecturally and as the home of an author, with a very good audio guide included in the price; the gardens were large and would have been full of spring flowers if the weather hadn’t spent all of March postponing that season. The weather even co-operated long enough for a wander around some of the woodlands planted by the great man himself.

The exhibition helped me the understand why Scott is a pretty important figure in literature in English. Although he didn’t write the earliest novels (that place is taken by Cervantes, Daniel Defoe, Aphra Behn and the like) but he wrote the earliest commercial novels. His books were based (more or less…) on the history of Scotland but were, at heart, adventure stories. Gulliver’s Travels has adventure but also quite a lot of ‘pondering’ on deeper subjects – that could be the start of the literary novel. Jane Austen’s books don’t really have great adventures, just little, domestic ones – they are the prototype for contemporary women’s fiction perhaps. But Scott’s stories don’t have morals any deeper than that it is better to be good and honourable and are full of battles, intrigue and romance – they seem to me to be the precursor of authors like Clive Cussler, Edward Rutherford, Ken Follett or even Dan Brown. And that, QED, is why I’m not a huge fan – this is a genre I have read a bit of but don’t particularly enjoy. The history side I love but the kind of story where the plot is more important than the historical facts…not so much! The story where adventure rather than character takes centre stage is not for me, on the whole. Not that they are bad – just not my kind of good.

Image may contain: foodSo, if you are a reader of modern adventure stories looking to try some classics I can recommend Sir Walter Scott. And if you like a wander round a quirky house followed by a really good cream tea then definitely try Abbotsford.



*To be fair J.K. Rowling is probably more famous now but, at time of writing, nobody has built a mahoosive statue of her in Edinburgh. It could just be a matter of time…

The One Who Wrote Destiny – Nikesh Shukla

Every person I know seems to have an opinion about immigration. Because I am a white British woman the majority (although not all, thank goodness) of people I know are also either white, British or both the opinions I hear are varied but also rather one-sided. They are usually about the politics, the logistics or the reasons behind immigration – they are very rarely given from the point of view of one who has actually upped sticks and moved to a different country, culture and climate. They are very rarely about the actual experience of being an immigrant. Nikesh Shukla has edited a very well-received book, The Good Immigrant, which looks at the real and personal experiences of 21 immigrants from around the world* and has now given us a novel on the same themes.

9781786492784.jpgAt the centre (although not the start) of the story is Neha – the daughter of Mukesh, who came to England from Kenya and is Indian. She has discovered that she is dying from the same lung cancer that killed her mother and, among other things, decides that she should find out more about her family, about who they are and where they come from. Her father often tells the story of how he and Nisha, his dead wife, met but this isn’t enough for Neha – she needs something more. The story moves back and forth – from Mukesh’s rather stylised and sentimental telling of the ‘how I met your mother’ tale, to how Rakesh, Neha’s twin brother, copes with her death. Finally we meet Ba, the twins’ grandmother, and hear about the one time she meets the children – when they are left with her for a month after she has returned to Kenya. The stories intertwine – and are told from each person’s perspective so we see each one’s (not always flattering) view of the others – but the theme of identity and immigration run through them all. Destiny is also ever-present – partly in the idea of what will happen to a person in the end, how they will die but also in the idea of what kind of person they become in life.

I think this was an interesting book in my quest to understand those who are immigrants. I particularly liked the fact that, overall, nothing much happened. This was a book about a family – their lives, their illnesses and their deaths. Although they met with racism and prejudice this was something that happened to them not who they were. Nobody was radicalised, or had an arranged marriage. No-one became a doctor or lawyer (and thus a ‘good immigrant’). They were always just a family…


Time is a Killer – Michel Bussi

There is a fine line between using stereotypes to denigrate or belittle people from particular countries or regions or to poke a little affectionate fun at them. Yorkshire people are among the most generous I have ever met but I still smile at the reaction of the average Yorkshireman when they realise it is raining and they need to pay 5p for a plastic carrier bag. Fiction, however, can throw up some great ‘types’ set in various regions: love stories set in Paris tend, in my experience, to be philosophical and tinged with sadness, crime novels set in Scandinavian countries are heavy on dark themes and blood-stained snow and books set in Australia will, at some point, feature extreme weather. This is not to suggest that these books are clichéd but they do play to their strengths (or rather the strengths of how people think of those regions). Michel Bussi’s crime thrillers have been set in a range of French settings (the Franco-Swiss border, Giverny, the tropical island of La Réunion) so I had high hopes for his latest – featuring the island of Corsica, a place associated (rightly or wrongly) with crime and the Mafia…

9781474606677Clotilde was 15 years old in 1989. Holidaying, as usual, in her father’s birthplace on the island of Corsica and staying at a campsite on land owned by her grandfather. She is a fairly typical girl of her age – moody, dressing all in black, writing all her thoughts and feelings down in the notebook which never leaves her side – but all normality disappears on the night when the family car goes over a cliff and Clotilde is the only survivor. In 2016, 27 years later, she returns to the island with her husband and her own fifteen-year-old daughter to try to remember the events of that summer. Her memories are sporadic, the notebook containing her thoughts and feelings was never given back to her after her stay in hospital, and the faces from the past she meets give her a variety of contrasting points of view. But then her world is turned upside down when she receives a letter which appears to be from her mother: the mother who perished all those years ago.  Her memory gradually resurfaces as she finds out more about the events of that fatal day, old enmities and romances are rekindled and Clotilde’s family are once again in terrible danger. The need for revenge is still active in Corsica.

I really enjoy Michel Bussi’s thrillers. They are atmospheric stories with very, very French settings and, so far, I’ve not yet spotted the real villain before Bussi is ready to reveal them.


A Grand Old Time – Judy Leigh

After my previous post’s musing on age it seemed appropriate that my next read was on a similar subject. Older protagonists have become the new ‘thing’ it seems – The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window started it, Harold Fry and then Hendrik Groen took up the baton – but, I’ve noticed that most of them seem to be men. Which is slightly odd given that, on the whole, women outlive men (try buying a 100th Birthday card – lots of florals, very few views of cricket/trains/sailing ships…). Since my older years are rapidly approaching (well, I hope they continue to approach but they can slow down if they like!) I was interested to read Judy Leigh’s book in an effort to even up the gender balance.

9780008269197Evie Gallagher is 75 and is quietly living out her days in a care home. Until she reminds herself that she is only 75 and, despite being very recently widowed, she isn’t dead yet. She walks out of the home and, helped by a big win on her very first visit to a bookmakers, into a new adventure. First she travels from her native Dublin to Liverpool and then on to France, ending up in a small village near Carcassonne. Along the way she meets a variety of people who help her to realise that she still has plenty of life left to live. By contrast her son Brendan, and his wife Maura, seem to be getting older by the minute: their marriage seems to be a matter of habit rather than love, neither of them is happy and they are, understandably, concerned about Evie herself when she disappears from the care home. They decide to follow her to France, with the intention of rescuing her – bringing her home to her old, safe life – only to find that she has other ideas. For Evie seems to have found the love and happiness that Brendan and Maura have lost. She has also been reminded (despite what some are still trying to tell her) that 75 isn’t old – it certainly isn’t too late to start living.

This is a feel-good book, but not without its moments of sadness. We all hope to live to a healthy and happy old age (although we won’t all manage this) but many will get too caught up in everyday pains and sorrows to achieve this. We can’t all escape to live in the South of France but I hope to keep Evie’s energy and joie de vivre in mind as the years creep up on me. She makes growing old disgracefully look so much fun!


Hall of Mirrors – Christopher Fowler

Getting older is a funny thing. Some mornings my knees and ankles try to convince me I’m rapidly approaching decrepitude: at other times I forget I’m not in my twenties anymore…Some fictional characters can be equally confusing. Hercule Poirot was already middle-aged when he is first introduced in 1920 yet he is still solving crimes forty-six years later. For most of those years he is still described as middle-aged and can’t possibly be – surely no-one could consider that time of life to last into one’s 70s or 80s (although I’ll probably still have my moments when I get there…). But characters in long-running series don’t age normally in our minds (the Famous Five seemed to be at school for far longer than educationally possible) unless we are specifically told about it. Harry Potter and his colleagues are an exception. What this means is that, if we meet characters in a series when they are rather old, we often don’t find out about their youth. It is only on tv that we get the story of Inspector Morse’s early years in the police and, up until now, it has been hard to imagine Christopher Fowler’s pair of aging detectives, Bryant and May, as anything but corderoy-wearing, Werthers Original sucking, curmudgeonly old men. In this latest novel, however, we go back to 1969 and find out what they were like as young men.

9780857523440To be honest, we do find out that Arthur Bryant was never really very good at being young. He is even less comfortable with Swinging London, young women or the country house party the two detectives have to attend while trying to protect Monty Hatton-Jones, the star witness in a high-profile court case attempting to prosecute a crooked property developer. He is particularly uncomfortable being away from London  and finds everything about the countryside scary, untrustworthy  and confusing: to be fair, by the time we get through a couple of dead bodies and two or three attempted murders, some catastrophic weather, dead phone lines and a particularly sinful vicar you kind of get his point. As becomes usual through their long career our two heroes are in trouble with their bosses from the start – as usual they use their unique skills to solve this most peculiar of cases. The author says that he wrote the book as a kind of traditional country house crime novel set just as that way of life was being killed off by the modernity of the 1960s – I was fascinated to think that, in fiction at least, that world of weekends in the country and complex period murder plots is still alive and kicking. But we are no longer the centre of the fashionable world – London is as class-bound as it ever was and only the fashions have changed…