REVIEW: The Mermaid and the Bear by Ailish Sinclair

I have followed the author Ailish Sinclair for while and know we share some interest in Folklore and ancient places in Britain so I was excited to finally read The Mermaid and The Bear . It did not disappoint.

Set around a  Scottish castle in the 16th Century, this historical romance starts with an escape from a horrible betrothal. The book is told from the perspective of the rather naive Isobel. She is full of romantic ideas and fairy stories and is quickly at home in the delightful setting of glades and stone circles. The stories she tells become intertwined with the Old Ways taught to her by the affable Bessie Thom. The relationships that build in the castle, and the beautiful historical details especially around the Twelfth Night celebrations are very captivating.

The only criticism I might level was I was hardly surprised by the events in the second part of the novel. But that might be that the mixing of religion, both the Old Ways and Catholicism through the Christen Michell character was never going to end well in that era of Scottish history. With James VI mania for catching witches, we always feel that these strong-minded independent women may be in danger in this world. However whilst some of the things that go wrong for dear Isobel and Bessie and Christen are unsurprising, the way Isobel draws her own conclusions about how all the women’s beliefs sit side-by-side is done very well.

Overall the characters are lovable, I found it interesting that their lives intertwined slightly with Shakespeare and also touched on LGBT culture and attitudes at that time. It really felt that there was a depth of historical knowledge informing the narrative which I always enjoy. My only lament was that I wished I could learn more about Jasper who equally had a fascinating tale to tell.

I really enjoyed the historical detail in the novel even though at times it is a hard novel to read. I appreciated how the author cut away from the most violent acts. I think it will appeal to historical fiction fans including those who enjoyed Stacey Hall’s The Familiars.

REVIEW: The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr by Frances Maynard

First person narrative continues to be a big hit, falling in love with the characters is one advantage of this style.

Reviewers recommend this novel for fans of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and while I enjoyed that novel, I think Elvira Carr touched my heart even more.

First person narrative can be so effective. This novel is a story about a young woman whose life is changed when her mother becomes unwell.

“Elvira Carr is 27 years old, neuro-atypical, and has never lived alone. But her father – who she suspects was in the secret service – is dead, and her mother has a stroke and is taken into care, Elvira suddenly finds herself home alone.”

The way Elvira begins to manage her life- though she doesn’t know how, nor has ever been shown,- is very inspirational. Central to the novel is the mystery of who her father and mother really are. It has you gripped, although at times I worried that we the reader, seemed like the “normaltypical” people around her who know the truth of what’s going and don’t tell her. Elvira has not been given the tools or information to understand. At times, I needed to lay the book aside to absorb the sadness of her experience.

One of the achievements of this novel is to write so well about Autism Spectrum Conditions. Frances Maynard, I believe, works with adults on the Spectrum and with learning disabilities. For me her portrayal felt very truthful. As a parent of a child on the Spectrum, I actually felt this book would be great as an educational tool for both people in my position and in a wider community. Although the topic meant I felt sadness and worry that I might not equip my own son (which by the way is a daily fear). I would hope that those represented in the novel would feel Maynard has been thoughtful and loving in her creation of Elvira.

The rules Elvira develops to live by show how communication with others can be unclear for her (and everyone at times). It’s frustrating at times to see Sylvia seem to belittle her work, by telling her what she has done wrong she is also breaking the rules around diplomacy and kindness. As such Sylvia acts as a good foil. Her neighbours and the cast of characters who come into her life are really well-drawn and we see a group grow and develop around her which is very heart-warming.

The only thing I will say I didn’t like as much is that there are moments in this novel where Elvira is the victim of abuse and this hateful behaviour is very difficult to read. That someone can be so vulnerable to bullying and assault makes the fact she is teaching herself these rules to live by imperative. But it will also hit any reader hard, I think. The positive is that by the end, the novel gives a model for how a neurodiverse community can be built. And we are left very hopeful for her future.

The fact that this novel does

Here is a list of some other novels that feature #neurodiversity or difference:

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Orange is the new…what now?

I am only one to spend every waking hour my son is not awake finishing Orange is the New Black?

I have been absent from the blog this week. I will post my updates at the weekend. The TV has kept me a bit busy…

And now it’s done, stories wrapped up more or less completely, how do we process the loss of these loved characters.

Jenji Kohan changed the game and helped create the juggernaut that is Netflix for content creation according to this interview in The Guardian this week. What she did more for me is to put women and their multitude of voices front and centre. She proved there is no excuse, really no-one need fail the Bechdel Test again. And that kind of quiet feminist revolution it changes story-telling.

While the final season rushes to conclude some character arcs (and includes a death that’s so unnecessary it is painful), there is also a warmth in the final episode. Even the cheesy waves from the actors in the final credits left me satisfied because the inclusion of so many of the ensemble cast speaks to how beloved these characters are for everyone.

You are gripped by each tiny slice of their lives outside prison. The bounce and hurly of all the stories makes you hone in on what it is you connect with for each woman. The effect is a deep connection with so many characters, it’s actually quite startling.

I am feeling shaky having sobbed for the last few hours. Adding the pain of what is happening in the Immigrant detention centres to the final season more than updates the conversation, it wrenches at you powerfully. An urgency in the writing elevates the messages that have been so clear. The prison system was broken season one, look how much worse it is.

But in the mean time for me, I am trying to recover from the unique loss that book lovers know too well…

Recommendations to get you through

Podcasts around or about prisons, links here for Spotify:

Convicted and Wrongful Conviction with Jason Flom. Looking at how Wrongful Conviction can occur.

The excellent Ear Hustle from inside San Quentin prison

And if you want compelling true crime told well In the Dark podcast and The Fall Line. Both of whom represent marginalised communities and discuss issues of race and prejudice in the justice system.

How is everyone else holding up now Orange is the New Black is over?

Something Borrowed

REVIEW: The Borrower: Rebecca Makkai

Library book of the month

I am forever on the hunt for novels where the main character runs away from their life. In recent years there was a surge of novels such as Gone Girl or the somewhat bizarre Where’d You Go Bernadette?  I think it’s a fascinating idea that you could escape life, it sometimes appeals anyway! But really I wonder if in reality, life would catch up with you? This is an idea I have been exploring in my own writing. With this in mind, when I read the blurb for The Borrower I picked it up immediately from the library.

Lucy Hull is working in a small-town library in Hannibal Missouri after graduation. It seems she wants to escape the influence of her family. She forms a friendship with precocious reader Ian, a boy who comes alone or barely supervised to the children’s library. She soon starts to help him smuggle books out of the library because his mother would not approve. The friendship comes to a head one day when she finds him camped out in the library. Somehow her worries about him and his mother overtake any common sense and she helps him run away.

I had a little jolt of pleasure a few chapters in when we learn Lucy graduated from Mount Holyoke. I was lucky enough to study for a year abroad there in 2004 and it is a  very special place. Her drive to help Ian, her idealism and activism may seem out of place in the Missouri portrayed in the novel, but would fit right in on campus. . And of course where else would you go if you were in love with libraries.

Aside from my own personal connection to the novel, a passion for libraries is central to this novel and really it is a book for all book-lovers. Particularly children’s book lovers. Her writing is peppered throughout with tropes from children’s literature and she cleverly weaves in the books with italicised passages aping the style of various children’s tales. I really enjoyed the Choose Your Own Adventure chapter.

There were so many books that were mentioned or seemed to be forming the narrative. Makkai plays cleverly with ideas from many Dahl novels. It’s hard to know which reference is more pleasurable to recognise in the story. Maybe, Lucy’s father’s story of USSR Chocolate Factory, complete with espionage?

At the beginning of the novel, she is reading the book Matilda to the children and in many ways this novel writes back to Dahl’s masterpiece. The older I get reading Matilda it always seemed odd that within minutes the Wormwoods agree to Miss Honey’s adoption of her. Perhaps it’s because I worked in Children’s Services. The telekinesis I can cope with, but adoption being that easy? The reality of the impact of interfering with the child’s life, even though we are on Lucy’s side, are that it cannot be her role, she cannot really be Miss Honey.

Characters are brilliantly drawn. The build up to the road trip part of the novel we are drawn to Lucy and Ian. Then when it is just the two of them, the book is both comical and touching. You are rooting for both of them in the end, and compelled to read on to find out if Lucy will be arrested for kidnapping him. The pace of the novel really picks up for the sequence where they are on the road making this the most enjoyable part, I felt.

It seems a hopeful novel. And in a time when we are fighting library cuts, an important one too. Everyone who can believe in the power of books to change lives, you are going to like this book.

REVIEW: The Perfect Girlfriend

A few weeks ago, we went away for our annual night in a luxurious hotel: January is a great time to get a bargain. (I’m saying annual so I can insist we do it again, by the way) Picture me chilled out from the hotel spa, relaxing on a lounger and unable to go in the steam room because I needed to devour this book. The Perfect Girlfriend was the perfect book for my getaway.

the perfect girlfriend

REVIEW: The Perfect Girlfriend by Karen Hamilton

Juliette has reinvented herself, becoming a flight attendant to get closer to pilot Nate. He may be her ex-boyfriend, but not for long. They were perfect together. She will do whatever it takes to be with him again. Finding any means to insert herself back into his life, she will follow him anywhere. She she will become what she knows he wants: The Perfect Girlfriend.

From the moment Juliette applies the tacky pink lipstick I was hooked on the woman, someone who knows how to “look calm and controlled” and as we get to know her, we learn the extent of the control she asserts over her life.  I was hooked by the twists and turns of the mind of Juliette as she lurches from one devious plan to another to win Nate back into her life.

The strong, and at times unstable voice of the main character has this odd appeal. As she reveals those who may have wronged her, including the mean girls at school, you can’t help but side with her. This is a great strength in Hamilton’s writing, the slow reveals of details, this whisper of a back story that involves her brother Danny. All of it makes you feel sympathy for Juliette when really, we can see from the first pages, that she is at best scheming.

Much like Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, we are misdirected by the appeal of her character. She manages to get back into Nate’s life in some ways that I won’t spoiler for you, but it is chilling. The thing I think that is most interesting to consider is that if the character were male, attempts to be so controlling would be abhorrent. There is a double standard which I think speaks to the history of the character’s relationships, how she has been treated in the past that makes us think again about whether her behaviour can be understood, if not forgiven.

It is the strength of the novel that the author plays on the use of technology, while of course it shows the tight plotting, it also shows how relaxed we have become by a modern the accessibility of online stalking. By virtue of the life she is leading she has isolated herself so some of the other characters we only get to know through her unreliable narration. No-one is very likeable, Bella, Miles and particularly Nate leave us cold.

I love that we get the detail about the life of a flight attendant. Karen Hamilton has been a flight attendant for many years, and her knowledge of the rigours, of the routes and maybe even some of the drama too, really comes across. I did find some of the details slowed down the narrative, like when they fly off on one of their trips and do some tourism. At times I perhaps was a little incredulous at some of the coincidences that happen with these flights.

But still, the journey Juliette goes on makes sense to us. The details about that lifestyle that Hamilton shares explains why Juliette is compelled to join the nomadic life of a flight attendant. It suits her personality a bit too well. And like the pink lipstick, only superficially glamourous, it seems.

The real master stroke is the unravelling of Juliette’s plans as the stakes are raised again and again in the final hundred pages. The unexpected consequences of her actions make for great twists that keep coming. Even if at times you want to read only half-looking through your fingers.

Overall this fascinating thriller had me gripped over a long weekend and will be the perfect book if you’re flying off somewhere.

Further reading

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