Tag Archives: grief

Book review: Somewhere Inside of Happy

Anna McPartlinYet again, Irish author Anna McPartlin tackles difficult issues. Grief – as in the superb The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes – dementia and homophobia. And there is laughter and tears. It is a thoughtful book with strongly drawn characters, Irish humour and a fair amount of ripe language. It is the story of Maisie Bean, a single mother who has fought bravely to escape a violent husband and raise her two children, Jeremy and Valerie. The story starts, on January 1, 1995, when Jeremy disappears.

Ever since his mother found the strength to leave her abusive husband, Jeremy has been the man of the family. He has been responsible, thoughtful, helpful, caring for his grandmother Bridie who suffers from dementia, keeping an eye on his younger sister Valerie. In doing so he has repressed who he is because he doesn’t really understand who he is, all he knows is that he is different.

Somewhere Inside of Happy is an examination of generalisations, assumptions and misunderstandings, how the crowd dynamic and a troublesome media can turn a whisper into fact. How a community looks the other way whilst a drug-addict father neglects his son and how gays are referred to as ‘queer’ and worse. The mirror held up to society is not a pretty one. It is a reminder to us all to be more respectful of others, to stop ourselves being unfair and condemnatory about things we do not understand. The setting is Ireland in the Nineties, not that long ago. The title of the book is actually a place within Jeremy, to where he retreats, curled up, when the outside world gets too much.

If I have one criticism, it is the Prologue set twenty years after the main story. It tells us so many things I would expect to discover through reading the book.

My favourite character? Bridie. She is drawn with such affection, a ‘game old bird’ dancing with her sixteen-year-old grandson.

Read more about Anna McPartlin’s other books at her website.
Read my review of The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes.

If you like this, try these other novels set in Ireland:-
‘The Little Red Chairs’ by Edna O’Brien
‘Nora Webster’ by Colm Tóibín
‘Butterfly Barn’ by Karen Power

‘Somewhere Inside of Happy’ by Anna McPartlin [UK: Black Swan] Buy here

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
Love + ignorance: SOMEWHERE INSIDE OF HAPPY by @annamcpartlin http://wp.me/p5gEM4-21A #bookreview by @SandraDanby

Book review: Did You Ever Have a Family

bill cleggEveryone by now must know the premise of this novel by New York literary agent Bill Clegg. A vacation home explodes, a family is wiped out. This is the story of those who remain, of grief, of memories and regret, of resentments and prejudice.

This is a very affecting novel, it feels almost voyeuristic, invading the privacy of those who are grieving. It is clear that Bill Clegg writes from the heart, from his own experience, not only of grief but of the Connecticut landscape, the setting, and the secondary theme of drug use. This novel is a study of how ordinary life can be torn apart by tragedy, so mind-blowing that the irrelevance of real life must stop. But daily life doesn’t stop, not really, day follows night, as June discovers as she drives from east to west coast.

This is one of those books I will buy as hardback. I want to keep it, and re-read it often.
To read more about how Bill Clegg writes, click here.

If you like Did You Ever Have a Family, try this:-
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
If I Knew You were Going to be this Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go by Judy Chicurel

‘Did You Ever Have a Family’ by Bill Clegg [UK: Jonathan Cape] Buy now

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Book review: Butterfly Barn

Karen PowerReading this book was like sitting down with a crowd of girlfriends for a long-delayed get-together. In Butterfly Barn by Karen Power, Ireland leaps off the page, present in the speech of the characters, the scenery and the ‘feel’ of the book.

This is an easy book to read in that the pages turned quickly, but it deals with difficult topics: infant mortality, grief, betrayal, guilt. Like many Irish authors, Karen Power writes with a connection to the Catholic faith and – though I am not in the least bit religious – this did not interfere with my enjoyment of the tale. It is a women’s novel, about women, their strength, their suffering, their mutual support and above all the way they deal with what life throws at them.

On a transatlantic flight, Grace gets talking to the lady in the next seat. A friendship is forged which sees them re-united in Bayrush, Ireland, where Grace’s best friend Jessie is expecting twins. Grace is engaged to Dirk and all looks happy, until Jack – a teenage crush – returns home from Dubai.

This is the first of a series of this wide cast of characters, at times a little too wide for me. I admit to losing track of some of the more distant relations of Grace, Jessie and Kate, but I look forward to the next instalment.

For more about Karen Power’s Butterfly Barn series of books, click here for her website.

If you like ‘Butterfly Barn’, try these novels which deal with grief:-
‘The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes’ by Anna McPartlin
‘The House at the Edge of the World’ by Julia Rochester
‘Somewhere Inside of Happy’ by Anna McPartlin

‘Butterfly Barn’ by Karen Power [UK: Comeragh Publishing] Buy now

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
BUTTERFLY BARN by @kpowerauthor #bookreview via @SandraDanby http://wp.me/p5gEM4-1EO

Book review: The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes

Anna McPartlinRabbit is dying of breast cancer and this is her life story. Anna McPartlin has written the story of Rabbit’s last few days, in a hospice, surrounded by family and friends. And it is the story of her life. It will make you laugh and cry, tossing your emotions around like a washing machine on spin cycle. I loved it.

It’s an interesting story to read, from an author’s point of view, as we know what happens. The title tells us that this is the story of Rabbit’s last days, therefore she is going to die at the end. But this doesn’t matter a jot, as we see her life in flashbacks. I liked the character so much I wanted to read about her. It is at times irreverent, it will make you laugh out loud – especially at the scene which involves Rabbit sleeping, her mother, and a priest – and it will bring a tear to the eye as the future of Rabbit’s daughter hangs in the balance. Will she stay in Ireland, or go abroad?

To find out more about Anna McPartlin, click here for her website.

Read my review of Somewhere Inside of Happy, also by Anna McPartlin.

If you like this, try:-
‘The Language of Others’ by Clare Morrall
‘Please Release Me’ by Rhoda Baxter
‘The Last of Us’ by Rob Ewing

‘The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes’ by Anna McPartlin [UK: Black Swan] Buy now

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
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Book review: The Pure in Heart

the pure in heart by susan hill 30-11-14

The nature of death, grieving and hope are examined in this, the second Simon Serrailler novel by Susan Hill. To give these books a label – thriller, crime novel, detective novel – is to underplay the complexity of the subject. It is an examination of human nature.

A nine-year boy waits by the garden gate for his lift to school, but is never seen again. A severely handicapped young woman dies. Both families struggle with grief, reacting in different ways, ways which cause tension within the family. And involved in the mix is a local man, an ex-con newly released from prison, struggling to stay straight, struggling with the prejudices of his family. Reading this book will make you examine your own prejudices, your attitude to death and dying, it will make you as ‘what would I do if…’

The small cathedral town of Lafferton is like an extra character in Susan Hill’s Serrailler novels. Surrounded by wooden hills and deep ravines, it is at once brooding and at the same time reassuring.

Read my review of the first Simon Serrailler novel The Various Haunts of Men.

If you like this, try:-
‘The Truth Will Out’ by Jane Isaac
‘No Other Darkness’ by Sarah Hilary
‘Jellyfish’ by Lev D Lewis

‘The Pure in Heart’ by Susan Hill, Simon Serrailler #2 [UK: Vintage] Buy now

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
THE PURE IN HEART by @susanhillwriter #books via @SandraDanby http://wp.me/p5gEM4-1oE

Book review: The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy

the love song of miss queenie hennessy by rachel joyce 17-9-14I was blown away by this book and read it in two sittings. First, you do not need to have read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry before you read this. I don’t really think it matters which of the two you read first, they are companion books rather than prequel and sequel. Second, this is the most accurate portrayal of people living in a hospice that I have read, and it is not something often written about.

Rachel Joyce confronts head-on the fact of Queenie’s terminal illness, and that of her fellow residents at St Bernadine’s Hospice. But she doesn’t concentrate on their illnesses, she concentrates on their characters and in this way they form a colourful backdrop to Queenie’s story. They are not defined by their illnesses, and neither is Queenie. This is the story of her life, a story we learn because she is writing a long letter to Harold Fry.

Queenie is in the North-East of England, Harold is in Devon. They worked together many years ago. Queenie writes to Harold to tell him he is dying. He writes a reply, but instead of posting the letter he decides to deliver it himself and starts walking. That was the plot of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, a book about Harold coming to terms with his own life.

This book is about Queenie’s life. Afraid he will not arrive before she dies, Queenie starts to write the story of her life – with the help of nun Sister Mary Inconnue who re-types Queenie’s handwritten notes. It is Queenie’s explanation of and apology for a wrong she did to Harold while they both worked at a brewery in Kingsbridge, Devon. As she nears her end, Queenie struggles to write, but Sister Mary quietly encourages her, lifts her when she is faltering, puts the notebook in her lap and tells her she has to finish her story.

It is so moving, and it is very funny. St Bernadine’s Hospice is a real place populated by real people and they are the fabric of Queenie’s life now. This is a book about death, and about life. It is about love, grief, difficult choices, and finally it is about making peace with yourself before the end.

Just read it!

Watch this exclusive Richard and Judy Book Club interview with Rachel Joyce.
Click here for Rachel Joyce’s website.
For my review of Rachel Joyce’s second novel, Perfect, click here.
‘The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy’ by Rachel Joyce [UK: Black Swan]

Book review: Nora Webster

nora webster by colm toibin 11-9-14This novel is such a slow burn. I came to it after reading a thriller, so perhaps that’s why the pace seemed so slow. And then I took a deep breathe and let myself sink into the deep pool of the story. Reading this book was a little like listening to my mother tell the story of her life, tiny baby steps. The everyday voice of Nora, a kind of everywoman, is so clear. An ordinary woman, she is grieving for her husband Maurice and living in a world of echoes. This is a novel about grief, living with grief, and the slow re-awakening of life. Tiny baby steps.

Nora cannot indulge her grief. For one thing, money is short and her two young sons must be cared for. Her two daughters too, though older, need their mother although they don’t think they do. Nora struggles to get through her own day in which every minute is shadowed by her loss, but life gets in the way, decisions must be made. Day to day she does the best she can, trying to get the everyday detail right but not seeing how her sons’ grief is manifesting itself. Instead she worries about paying the bills and avoiding people in the street who want to pay their respects. Colm Tóibín [below] has created a timeless rural Ireland where everyone knows everyone else from childhood, where the etiquette of grief is followed, where it is difficult to have secrets.

[photo: theguardian.com]

[photo: theguardian.com]

As readers we experience all of this in Nora’s own mind, we are inside her head: this is Tóibín’s real skill. It would be easy to say this is a book about the grief of an Irish woman, and not much else. And to be fair, there is not a lot of action in the first half of the book. Then, unable to say ‘no’ to an invitation as it would be impolite, Nora starts to sing. And that is the first baby step of her re-awakening.

At the beginning, I wondered if I would finish it. When I finished it, I wanted to start reading it again.

For Colm Tóibín’s website, click here.
Why does Colm Tóibín love listening to the radio? Click here to read an interview with The Telegraph.
‘Nora Webster’ by Colm Tóibín [UK: Viking]

A poem to read in the bath… ‘Elegy’

Today’s poem to read in your bath is about timeless love that persists beyond death. ‘Elegy’ by Carol Ann Duffy is from her anthology Rapture, published in 2005, before she was appointed Poet Laureate in 2009. Her poetry is at once instantly accessible, and bears deep consideration.

[photo: Picador]

[photo: Picador]

Because of copyright restrictions I am unable to reproduce the poem in full, but please search it out in an anthology or at your local library.

Who’ll know then, when they walk by the grave
where your bones will be brittle things – this bone here
that swoops away from your throat, and this,
which perfectly fits the scoop of my palm, and these
which I count with my lips, and your skull,
which blooms on the pillow now, and your fingers,
beautiful in their little rings – that love, which wanders history,
singled you out in your time?

The love, the longing, the wistfulness, brings tears to my eyes.

Click here to visit Carol Ann Duffy’s website.
Listen here to Carol Ann Duffy interviewed by The Guardian after her appointment as Poet Laureate.

Rapture by Carol Ann Duffy 16-6-14


‘Rapture’ by Carol Ann Duffy [Picador]

Book review: Wake

wake by anna hope 4-1-14Amongst the profusion of novels about the Great War, Wake stood out for me from the rest because it is about the aftermath rather than the fighting. The spine of the narrative is the journey of the body to be entombed in Westminster Abbey as the ‘Unknown Soldier’. I have visited the tomb but had not considered its selection, the post-war politics and social consequences of choosing one soldier’s remains rather than another. Anna Hope handles a delicate topic – isn’t everything to do with war emotionally-delicate? – with confidence. Wake is a powerful novel by a debut author.

There is something unsettling about the first scenes where un-named soldiers drive out into what was no-man’s-land, not knowing where they are going or why. They are directed to dig up the remains of a soldier: unidentified soldiers dig up the remains of an unidentified victim. Four bodies are laid out, not so much bodies as heaps of remains. A Brigadier-General closes his eyes and rests his hand on one of the stretchers, this body is put into a thin wooden coffin. The three not chosen are put into a shell hole at the side of the road, a chaplain says a short prayer, and then re-buried. The chosen one is taken to London.

Three storylines run parallel to this central spine. Hettie and Di are dancers at the Hammersmith Palais. Charging 6d for a dance, Hettie is skilled at spotting the injured soldiers who are disguising the lack of a limb, she is skilled at matching the rhythm of her dancing to theirs. Dancing is the bright spot in her life; her home is under the shadow of her father’s death and her brother’s shell shock.

Evelyn works in a Government department, her job is grey, her surroundings are grey. She is no longer close to her brother who returned from the war seemingly uninjured but is emotionally removed from life. Every day she deals with former soldiers, struggling to make a new life, and each soldier she sees reminds her of her lover who died in the war. She wants to move on from the war but feels that she, like everyone else, is trapped in a cycle of grief, disability, guilt and memory.

Ada is still grieving for her son, a grief which puts distance between her and her husband. Her solace is her neighbour Ivy, also grieving. Then one day an ex-soldier knocks on the door, wanting to sell her dishcloths, and something happens which sends her to a medium.

All are drawn to the streets of London on November 11th, 1920, looking for catharsis.
‘Wake’ by Anna Hope [published in the UK on January 16, 2014 by Doubleday]