Book Review: ‘The House at the End of Hope Street’ by Menna van Praag

For months I have searched for the perfect romance book. But, I am fussy – the cover doesn’t appeal, it’s too clichéd, or the characters seem boring.  I bought this book as I love fantasy novels but almost as if the house in the novel knew what I was searching for, and it fell into my lap and submerged me in a great literate love story.

Alba, our protagonist is able to see the auras of others – silver for hope, violet for joy, the entire spectrum of emotions that sets her further apart from those around her, even more than being a PhD student that is under twenty which reads at the speed of light. Alba Ashby is broken when the House at the End of Hope Street summons her into the property. The house has been a refuge for those who have needed it for two hundred years, where they are able to stay for ninety-nine nights to sort out their lives. The house is alive and its most remarkable feature is the hundreds of framed photographs which line its interior.  Previous occupants, their souls entrapped within photographs, talking as if they were still alive. History encapsulated within ink, able to guide the next woman that steps in.  Christie and du Maurier and Pankhurst and all the rest which shape the lives of women through their actions and writing stayed at the house at some point or another.

This is something truly wonderful as you may find yourself reading this book in a difficult time, or you may feel a little down and just imagining yourself in that situation, sitting in a cozy kitchen dunking some biscuits into tea while being lectured at by your favourite author. It portrays such a lovely image of the house, almost sagging underneath the history of the photographs.

The characters are distinct and real with realistic problems which weaves nicely with the magic of the house; and they, along with its caretaker Peggy nudge its residents in fixing their lives and for Alba this meant stepping out of her room and believing in the power of courage. I will tell you now, that this book contains a happy ending, and I must warn you now, spoiler right ahead…that the ship of Alba and Zoe is cannon, to use the words of my generation.

But if there is one thing that made me snap the book shut and exclaim in disbelief is that I was again fooled by the patriarchal imprint left on my mind of both sexism and compulsory heterosexuality. Many years ago now, I was told a riddle. Here it goes:

A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad.  The son is rushed to hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate – that boy is my son”

Who is the surgeon?

I was at a lossas the boy’s father has just been killed, so you start thinking well, perhaps he has two fathers.  In a study, an average of 14.5% answered correctly – the surgeon is his mother. And its just so shocking as it was later told by the same individual that when I were very young, I did not want to be a nurse, I wanted to be a doctor.

Now a little older, and a feminist, who loves Grey’s Anatomy and all it’s female lead characters which are doctors and head of departments, who reads about women’s history, was again fooled by gender schemas (stereotypes) carved into our minds though this patriarchal society. The whole time I thought that Dr Skinner was a man, a history professor that had broken our dear Alba’s heart. And the confusion that fell upon me when Alba said “Because I was in love with her.” I was lost.  Had no idea who this individual was, we had not been introduced to any girlfriend or anyone.  Reading onwards we learn that ‘she’ is Dr Alexandra Skinner. I had assumed through the heteronormative society that Alba was straight and so both factors led to me have a serious Captain Holt from Brooklyn nine-nine moment where I exclaimed three consecutive ‘OH DAMN!’s (s5.e14).

Book review: ‘Inferno’ by Dan Brown

Let me just put it out there before I begin – I would not recommend reading this book while in the middle of a world epidemic. Terrible decision.

Professor Robert Langdon wakes up in a hospital bed in Florence with no recollection of how he got there.  He is attacked at the hospital and flees with his doctor, Sienna Brooks. His only lead to what happened is a digitally edited version of Botticelli’s ‘Map of Hell’.  They must follow clues hidden in the digital painting in order to stop a terrible creation from being unleashed.  The creator, Zobrist, believed that the human race was on its downfall due to overpopulation and the only way to save it was to take drastic actions.  His answer? A pandemic.

As I am currently writing this at the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak in the UK it’s a pretty dire novel to read. This is a strength of the novel, in that it manages to convey that fear that many of us have about the state of the planet into a plotline impending global catastrophe.  By that I mean, fear is an international language and no matter how small or substantial the cause it is still the same.  Squeezing toothpaste out of the tube and noticing the ‘save water’ logo brings a rising panic of how we with our abundance of fresh clean water may one day become similar to those in dryer lands, with scarcely enough to survive. Back to the novel itself, I know that the situations are not the same and that we have antivirals and ventilators etc, but given that the Black Death started in China and hit Italy badly, it hits a little close to home.  With the Black death reducing Europe’s population by an estimated 50% and the fact that there is currently no vaccine for COVID-19, Dan Brown managed to scare me sh*tless – from describing in detail the levels of hell which makes me want to become a devout Catholic, to overpopulation which makes me want to sacrifice myself to try and save the planet.  Thanks for that.  

Like most terrible ideas from terrible people, there is usually some sound reasoning behind their crazed ideology. Zobrist’s transhumanist ideas could revolutionize the way that we tackle major infective diseases.  A few years ago the world was shocked when a Chinese scientist gene-edited embryos to give HIV protection.  Modifying somatic cells such as that seen in treatments for cystic fibrosis is not inherited into the next generation, while the modification of germline cells (embryos) could be inherited. Zobrist’s example is that such gene therapy could change the way we deliver vaccines – instead of delivering billions of vaccines each year, one generation could be treated, which protects the subsequent. Inherited immunisations.

The novel forces us to think about life and death in terms of culture.  I never knew that The Black Death was followed by a Renaissance in Europe, a rebirth of culture. It gave us the works of the revolutionary Leonardo da Vinci which threw our understanding of the human body forward, the plays of Shakespeare, Michaelangelo’s carving of David, and Copernicus who said that the sun was the center of the universe, not the earth. It is beautiful really, that something so destructive was followed by something so revolutionary.  History repeats itself, where the The Spanish Flu gave us the Flapper and a giant leap in women’s rights (I mean, women’s rights had been a long fight but just for the sake of this review). Now a century later – what will we churn out?

‘One great work of art inspired by another’

This quote refers Langdon referring to the fact that Dante’s poem inspired Botticelli painting of the ‘Map of Hell’, and I feel like sometimes we forget that there are millennia of ideas out there and that we shouldn’t dismiss them just because they didn’t have the same technological advances as us. Art can inspire science, and science art.

The three sections of Dante’s poem – inferno, purgatorio, paradisio reminds me of quote linked to WW2 – ‘If you’re going through hell, keep going’.  We are in the middle of darkness, and what is to come will also invariably be dark. But just because our future may look bleak at the moment, we cannot despair.  We must continue with our journey through this darkness to fight the virus and the recession to come.  We have a choice, to stop now and be in a prolonged darkness, to fight, and be freed from it a little quicker.

Another quote from the book which I totally loved was that ‘the truth can only be glimpsed only through the eyes of death’ – coming out from a mental cloud of darkness, or emerging from this isolation during COVID-19, we will see things differently. Perhaps this nation will finally start treating healthcare professionals as heroes as they are.  Perhaps that is too much to ask of the British public.

Book Review: ‘Little Women’ by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women is a novel written by Louisa May Alcott which has captured generations of readers as they read about the lives of the four March sisters as they grow up – although unremarkable their tale; their starkly contrasted personalities form instant connections with the reader.  I plead guilty to some serious spoilers ahead.

At the beginning of the novel these ‘Little Women’ are of extraordinary grain and each different to one another, with their willingness to live and be a force within the circles that they moved within..  

“There are many Beths in the world, shy and quiet, sitting in corners till needed, and living for others so cheerfully, that no one sees the sacrifices till the little cricket on the hearth stops chirping, and the sweet, sunshiny presence vanishes, leaving silence and shadow behind”

Beth, the youngest, is a wallflower and her sweetness is adorable and yet completely relatable – sneaks into Mr Laurence’s house to play the piano quietly in order not to disturb although she had his permission to play. Yet, Beth’s force was in her peace of soul.  Beth had accepted that she was dying with such grace in a way that most of us cannot fathom today. Are are not ill and do not die in such ways.  We take drugs which fight when our bodies cannot, we are radiated, and scanned, and operated upon.  We do not have that certainty of death anymore, we fight until we cannot.

Jo is rather the opposite of little Beth.  She is opinionated and unafraid to step outside of the traditional feminine boundaries placed upon her – pays little attention to her attire and would gladly be found outside, roughing it with their wealthy neighbour Laurie.  It is Jo’s ‘demise’ that made me rather want to light a match and set the book up in flames.  Although I had just seen the film, it hurt quite a bit more when reading it. The younger Jo is wild and temperamental and these ‘faults’ are slowly moulded away to form a generic ‘angelic’ figure.  These traits are what make us human, what sets up apart from one another but the elder Jo has conformed to what was expected of her. The younger was quite against marriage and thought that such relationships were…perhaps ‘beneath her’ is not the right phrase, but was not in her vision of the future.  However, to a huge disappointment, Jo becomes like every other girl and is found to be a blushing desperate figure who marries Professor Bhaer. To further worsen the dire situation which has been thrush into the reader’s mind, ‘Mrs Bhaer’ opens a boarding school for boys– Jo, who would have thrived at being given the same opportunities as her male counterparts, could have excelled at University where she could have met other women of the same substance.  Mrs Bhaer becomes a wife and a mother and is lost.

Amy perhaps had one of the best attempts at freedom and independence, regardless of her attitude towards marriage.  Amy was unabashed in the knowledge that she wanted to marry for money, but not in a selfish way but in a way that if she married for money, she knew that she would have some sort of independence.  Money can in fact, buy happiness on occasion.  This is perhaps said better in Greta Gerwig’s adaptation which was released in 2019 in a conversation between Amy and Laurie:

“I‘m just a woman.  And as a woman, there’s no way for me to make my own money.  Not enough to earn a living, or to support my family. And if I had my own money, which I don’t, that money would belong to my husband the moment we got married. And if we had children, they would be his, not mine.  They would be his property.  So don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is.  It may not be for you but it most certainly is for me.”

I admired Amy’s persistence in trying out new art forms in an unabashed way that some individuals can try their hand at new things without fear of judgement.

“…talent isn’t genius, and no amount of energy can make it so. I want to be great, or nothing.”

I deeply admire this attitude of trying out new things but I also sympathise with her.  The more you try things there will be a part of you that hopes that there is something out there that you will be a natural at it and each new attempt brings a fresh wave of quiet disappointment that you, like everyone else, are just ordinary and must persevere in order to become great.

I don’t have much to say about Meg only perhaps that her situation is more comparable to ours. Meg remembers the luxury that the family once had and on occasion is swayed by it all by simple hedonism that plagues us today.  She allows herself to be dolled up in rich fabrics and her face powdered…only to be made felt ludicrous.  As a generation, we are shaped by social media, whether consciously or not.  We want the newest iPhone and a plain white t-shirt from a high-end brand just to show that we can afford it.  This toxicity is putting a rather large dent on our aim for authenticity (can’t believe that I’m referencing positive psychology but here we are). 

I have loved reading about the March family, especially about the early years of their lives, yet the ending ruined it for me and so I possibly won’t be re-reading it for quite a few years.  Or until I have sufficiently calmed down from the whole ordeal that perhaps I, like the March sister must resign and marry and bear children and die.

Book Review: ‘Forever and a Day’ by Anthony Horowitz

I have been a fan of James Bond since an age that was probably too young to watch the films, but it has taken until now for me to try the books, well, audiobooks.

Forever and a Day is a prequel to the Bond novels written by Anthony Horowitz which follows Bond’s first case in the double O section – to find out who killed his predecessor, and eliminate them.  Set in the French Riviera it takes us into the world of mobsters and drug dealing and 

ticks all the boxes of what you expect from Bond – gambling, a woman, and an epic car chase (when I say car chase, I mean a chase in a little bakery delivery van, similar to what I imagined as a grey Postman Pat’s van – epic regardless).

I was a little worried before starting on how the novel would portray the legendary ‘Bond Girls’ but Sixtine as she calls herself was no clueless object.  She is quite the force, in fact, and able to stand her ground both against Bond and others.  Drowned in danger and unafraid of it Horowitz managed to incorporate a peaceful and beautiful homely scene between her and Bond in the midst of the action.  Bond sets the table before they have dinner, they drink, and she tells him her tragic past. What I truly loved was how I spent most of the book unsure of which side she was on – was she on Bond’s side or was I about to receive a curveball and find that she would doublecross him?

The book definitely filled in the 007 void that occurs in the lengthy time between films and the narrator, Matthew Goode (Henry Talbot of Downton Abbey) brings a great voice to Bond, seductive and raspy at times.  Extremely disappointed that he isn’t the voice of following audiobooks in the series. There is a scene early on in the book (chapter 3) which I adore, where Bond introduces us to his houselady and how she was chosen for the job – how she saw right through his cover story of a job as a civil servant at an obscure office and stated so fact to his face. Goode acts this part out like everyother with a Scottish accent reminding me of Julie Walters’ character of Mrs Bird in Paddington.  My only wish was that I had hoped that she reappeared in the book, but alas, no.

Overall, chuffed to have discovered that the books live up to the legendary blockbuster films, and highly recommend.

Book Review: ‘When we left Cuba’ by Chanel Cleeton

I learnt about the Cuban Missile Crisis all those years ago during GCSE History which is one of the reasons why I picked up the book, that and the rare occurrence of female spies.

The novel is set mainly in Palm Beach in Florida where the Perez’ family, having fled Cuba, try to integrate themselves into high society and marry off their daughters. Beatriz, who’s story we follow is a rather likable character – strong willed and unwilling to bend to familial pressures to marry well.  The only word that I am able to label her with is that she has a deep sense of ‘hiraeth’ which is a Welsh word transcribing the fact that she is missing something – for her it is of a different time, a time where she was in Cuba. This seeped through the pages and made me notice the similarities between how she felt then and how we live now. We are so interconnected through technology and have the ability to travel so far away from our roots that we are able to settle wherever we please without sacrificing relationships and yet perhaps ‘hiraeth’ is woven into our soul.  We seek mountaintops and sunsets to feel something but when we physically leave a part of us never leaves, not completely.  We see it in our mind when we dream, when we feel sad or lonely.  We all seek for some sort of utopia where have have all our favourite things in one square mile.

Although the mild scandals and occasional breath-taking kisses make for a good historical romance, it feels a little lacking in the espionage sense.  Nerve-racking spy scenes are built up but fail to deliver as they are glossed over quickly in order to connect little communist threads together for the final scene.  What disappointed me was that Beatriz had such incredible conviction in her determination to help change Cuba by taking down Fidel Castro but this energy was dissipated in the detail lacking spy scenes.

Saying that, she is a complex character and is a refreshing change to others which become house/trophy wives.  She remains true to who she was in the beginning and makes a life for herself, becoming independent of the men in her life.  It has a strong ending conveying legacy and heritage and the promise of change to come in a way that says that we may not have seen the last of the unconventional Beatriz Perez.

Book Review: ‘War Doctor: Surgery on the Front Line’ by David Nott.

Picture from Panmacmillan.

We have grown up desensitised to the horrors around us.  The news reel shows us billowing smoke and crumbled buildings, airstrikes and screaming civilians.  We watch unfazed.  This is life for us.  But all this hate around us has given us moments of lucidity where we have an unexplainable urge to drop everything and save the world before we sundown once again.

Dr David Nott is a consultant vascular and trauma surgeon (who is Welsh, might I add) who spends some of time in war-torn countries and his extraordinary account allows us hours of lucidity, and the hope that we can make a difference.

I didn’t understand what people meant when said that something was ‘raw’ until I read this book. 

It tells us of the horrors that the medical professionals faced regularly in areas of conflict such as Gaza, Aleppo, and Kabul, to name a few – the aftermath of snipers and barrel bombs on civilians, the amputations and blast injuries, and the attacks on hospitals. His detailed cases are enough to both satisfy any medical drama addict who loves all the gory surgical bits, and repulse them of how cruel individuals can be.  But it also shows us another side, the moments of fragility of these superheroes. Moments where Dr Nott admitted complete fear in a situation, and his belief that his life was about to end.

I highly recommend this extraordinary account of humanitarian aid to all individuals who are in need of a lucid moment– those who have a need to do something more, but are not decidedly so of the how and when and where.

Its a bit short but its my first book review so I’m sorry.

Until next time.