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Friday 21 July 2023

Is This Mutton July Book Reviews

 An open book with flowers. Image by Надежда Дягилева from Pixabay

Dear friends. I've had a fantastic month's reading with 10 days on the beach in Greece,  where I demolished several books.  In the Good Reads' reading challenge I'm on 61 books, seven books ahead of schedule, with a target of 100. 

Some of the books I read on holiday don't come out for a few weeks so I'm sharing those which are available now, or imminently. 

First up, two 5 star reads, coincidentally both set in the 1950s.

73 Dove Street by Julie Owen Moylan (5 stars)

Step back in time to the 1950s:  the hiss of gas, the lime barrel chocolate in a box of Milk Tray, Gold Top milk. 

The story itself is a stark reminder of how different, and difficult, women's lives were, just 70 years ago.  Women were expected to marry at a young age, and "obey" was taken seriously. Working class women invariably had to give up work and were dependent on their husbands giving them housekeeping money.  

Parents often abandoned their daughters if they fell pregnant out of wedlock. Many had to go through "shot gun weddings." The concept of husbands beating their wives was viewed as a joke or a sport by men down the pub, referring to giving the missus a bit of a slap. 

We meet three very different women at 73 Dove Street, all with toxic experiences of men. Edie has been cowed by her brutal husband. Finally brave enough to run away from home, she needs the steadying arm of Tommie to take her real steps to freedom.  Tommie, who's a cook for an elderly woman, is accused by an on/off boyfriend of being "broken".  I love her spirited rebuttal.  Yes, she has had some traumatic life events, but he has been lucky that he hasn't, and will no doubt go through some eventually. The third woman in the story is Phyllis the landlady, concealing her grief and humiliation at finding her husband in bed with another woman. 

The book avoids the usual "instant BFF" ploy that's often employed when writers talk about women meeting, and finding, female soulmates.  

I loved the spotlight that Owen Moylan brings to these times, so recent and yet so distant.  My grandmother had a hard life but she made the best of it. The fight for equality and abortion rights is not over yet. We have come a long way since the 50s, but Roe/Wade and what's happening in Afghanistan shows we still struggle. 

Uncle Paul by Celia Fremlin  (5 out of 5 stars)

This book was originally published in 1959 and I'm so glad Faber & Faber are republishing it.  It's a real gem.  Set in a rainy British seaside resort, where Meg has been summoned to deal with her older sister Mildred, it is extraordinary on many levels.

Firstly, the pacing. Many books nowadays keep you hanging on until the bitter end for some key facts about what's actually happening.  In Uncle Paul, Celia Fremlin gives us enough satisfying nuggets in the first chapter or two to keep us utterly agog.

We learn that "Uncle Paul" was something to Mildred, that there was police involvement, and she wouldn't want to relive all the unpleasant publicity again.  My mind instantly turned to Mildred being abducted, or abused. What actually happened to her was something that was a crime more often reported on in the 50s.

Secondly, there are family dynamics. Meg is quite a lot younger than her step sister Mildred, with Isabel in the middle. Isabel seems to be dominated by her strict ex-army husband while Mildred is one of those women who, in the 50s and 60s, were said to "suffer from their nerves." She is constantly fraught.

The book is laugh out loud funny, particularly with regards to the residents of the seaside hotel and their secret relief when the weather turns cloudy and they can stay inside.

But it also has some observations of the crushing disappointment that life can bring for women, and in particular, the loss of innocence and youth. 

"Mildred is face to face, like many a woman before her, with the terrible realisation that the attributes of her youth are gone. For years a woman may tell herself that she is still at heart the same lively, courageous, generous girl that she always was. It is merely that, just at this moment, she is too depressed to be lively; too ill-used to be generous; and prudence, not courage, happens to be appropriate on this particular occasion. 

And then, one day., she wakes up and knows that these feelings, these qualities, are not merely in abeyance, but gone for ever." 

Little Monsters by Adrienne Brodeur (4 stars)

Publisher's blurb: Ken and Abby Gardner were raised in a remote home on Cape Cod. As adults, their relationship is strained, but their lives are still deeply intertwined. Ken is a successful businessman with political ambitions and a picture-perfect family, but when his wife walks in on him in an internet chatroom, she demands they go to therapy. Abby is a talented artist who depends on her brother's goodwill, in part because he owns the studio where she lives and works.

Their father, Adam, raised them as a single parent. As his seventieth birthday approaches and he begins to stare down his mortality, he comes off his bipolar disorder medication in order to make one last scientific breakthrough; he has secretly stopped taking his pills, which he knows will infuriate his children.

Meanwhile, Abby and Ken are both harbouring secrets of their own, and there is a new person on the periphery of the family - Steph, who doesn't make her connection known.

My Thoughts

A dysfunctional family of the middle class type, where everything is covered up but unravels very quickly over the course of one fraught summer. 

Adam is so lifelike he walks off the pages.  Nearly 70 and a distinguished oceanographer, his bipolar disorder gives him grandiose views of his achievements.  He's excited about a party to celebrate his milestone birthday, being thrown by Ken and his accomplished wife Jenny. He has been selfish in his relationships with women. The reasons why his second wife disappeared all of a sudden have been hushed up.

Ken, who aspires to become a Republican politician, is deeply unlikable. He seems obsessed with Abby, jealous and dismissive of her, and not allowing her to own her artist's studio, which belonged to their mother.

Abby is bohemian and conflicted. She has pushed her lover David away because marriage seemed too conventional.  But now she is pregnant, and knows he is not happy with his wife, she doesn't know what she wants.

As the story develops there are hints about impropriety in the childhood relationship between Ken and Abby, and it creates an atmosphere of unease and tension. 

Everything unravels at Adam's party when Abby unveils a huge painting called "Little Monster." Ken has already seen it, although she doesn't know that. He finally concedes he needs to be serious about therapy, and to confront his feelings about Abby. 

I am left puzzled about Adam and Abby's reaction to what we have learnt.  Was Abby traumatised?  Her art suggests she was, but she doesn’t divulge very much beyond this. Did Adam know what was going on, and ignore it, apart from banishing his second wife? I didn't see the Steph character adding much to the story, but in a sense she was a catalyst in helping the family members see their true selves.

Oversharing by Jane Fallon  (4 stars)

Fallon is infallible in her handling of revenge. On the surface, a mummy influencer gets her just desserts when a woman whose husband she stole, Iris, decides to troll her online. Isn't that the normal spin, that successful influencers are leading a life of lies? Not in Fallon's hands. Her believable characters, and deftly revealed twists along the way make us re-evaluate our perceptions.  

Iris, in her early 40s, grieves for the life she should have had with husband Tom and a few kids. Instead she is childless, divorced, and having to share her house with an irritating flatmate. Her elder sister is forever going to wellness retreats funded by their mother. And Iris is worried about how her mother is increasingly lonely in a village with no amenities.  

Fallon is always so adept at honing in on what matters to women, in this case in their 40s and 70s.

This sounded so familiar to me: "Mum is in uber people-pleasing mode, something she does when she's over compensating for feeling a little anxious."

There is always humour and reality. 

Iris, preparing to spy on her nemesis, has sandwiches from Sainsbury's, a bottle of water and a huge coffee from Starbucks. She has located the toilets by the cafe for emergencies.

I read recently that Fallon worries she may sound out of date. She's never sounded more contemporary.

The Girl at the Party by Danielle Stewart (4 stars)

A group of friends are celebrating their last night as students. It should be a joyful occasion but one of them is later found murdered after leaving the party. Police investigations were perfunctory and inconclusive. 

Now, a few years after Stephanie's death, one of her cohorts, Chris, a successful podcaster, decides to focus his true crime podcast on Stephanie's case, and plans to speak to all her friends, including those who were at the party,  to try to build a picture of the events leading up to her death.

The skeletons that fall from the cupboard are so numerous I'm amazed the police didn't have more success in their investigation, but perhaps podcasts are the future for solving cold cases. 

None of the friends emerge with much glory and a few are quite detestable. 

As the tension builds we find ourselves constantly changing our mind about the likely protagonist.  Like Chris, I found myself becoming exasperated with Laura and her obsession with shielding and sparing her brother Jake, even though his behaviour in the run-up to the party was poor  (but so was that of all the male students). .

I was very satisfied with the aftermath where some of the characters' actions were explained and rationalised. 

If I was a female student now at university, I would hold my friends close, give people my time if they appear to be struggling, and ensure no woman walks home alone.


Fearless, by Louise Minchin (4 stars)

Former BBC Breakfast presenter Louise doesn't disappoint.  As you'd expect from someone who does triathlons, Louise doesn't just write about women who have amazing adventures, she joins them.  So we see her caving in pitch blackness, free diving under the ice in the dark in Finland with the first woman to swim a mile in the Antarctic Circle, and swimming from Alcatraz with two teenage sisters who have braved the shark-infested waters over 70 times. 

You have to wonder why these incredible women don't have more public awareness, but wasn't this always the problem. How can we inspire young girls when the patriarchs who dominate publishing, film production and the media make all the decisions? Minchin's book is a must-have for parents of teenage girls. 

An inspiring and motivating read. 

The Truth About Anti Aging Foods (3.5 stars)

Eat Back the Years with the Best Foods to Fight Aging! Elad Oren

I'm not too keen on the phrase "anti aging" because we all age, so why does it have to be approached as something to fight?  I prefer the term pro-aging. But aside from that, here's a good compendium of what to eat for maximum fitness and health. The author Elad Oren shares what he’s learned in over a decade working as a sport nutritionist and personal trainer.

He guides us on topics including which foods to enjoy and which to avoid; how inflammation, oxidation, and glycation impact aging, and how nutrition can prevent and reverse damage on the cellular level.

Some of the guidance is controversial. Oren, who's in favour of a low carb diet, says we should avoid all grains, even whole grains, as they are the foods that accelerate aging the most. He is not too keen on the alternatives. "While options such as oatmeal, brown rice, and quinoa are definitely better choices, they are still very high in carbohydrates and if you are not a very active individual, can still influence blood sugar levels and lead to weight gain."

Inside the Tudor Home by Bethan Watts (4 stars)

Hands up if your perception of ordinary people in Tudor times is that they lived in hovels, had terrible teeth and smelt. 

Bethan Watts' charming book will assure you that this was not always the case. They really were just like us.

I'm always intrigued to learn how things we take for granted were actually made 500 years ago, when there were no factories as such.  Bricks, for example. They were made from clay collected from riverbeds, kneaded into what looked like dough, and shaped with wooden tools. Once they had dried in the open air, they were fired, usually as close to their desired building site as possible because transportation was difficult.

Tudor homes were generally pre-fabricated from timber frames and erected quite quickly and simply. Some 16th century houses had plumbing. Water was transported to a house through water pumps, which were dug into deep wells and water sources, This ensured the Tudors had fresh, clean water in bathe in and drink, contrary to what most of us believe.

I enjoyed this book for giving us an accurate take on Tudor life.  There's a lot of detail around what the houses looked like and how they were furnished;  how people earned a wage and spent their spare time.

You May Also Enjoy:

Book Spotlight: Lessons by Ian McEwan

Book Spotlight: Salt and Skin by Eliza Henry-Jones

Book Spotlight: The Bad Wife by Sarah Edghill

I'm Joining Sue from Women Living Well After 50, Donna from Retirement Reflections, Joanne from And Anyways and Debbie from Deb's World for the  What's On Your Bookshelf  (#WOYBS) link-up. 

Sharing this post with  #AnythingGoes at My Random Musings, Rena at Fine WhateverTalent Sharing Tuesdays at Scribbling Boomer, #Neverendingstyle at The Grey Brunette, Final Friday/Traffic Jam Weekend at Marsha in the Middle Senior Salon Pitstop at Esme Salon #FridayCoffeeShare at Natalie the Explorer Crafty Creators at Life as a Leo Wife, 5 on Friday at Penny's Passion 


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1 comment

  1. haven’t read these books yet! great reviews on each…
    B | Mind Beauty Simplicity


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