What I’ve been reading (January – June 2021)

Here is a selection of the books, fiction and non-fiction, that I’ve enjoyed in recent months.

Top pick among my favourite genre of English psychological mystery novels is Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins. This held a special attraction for me because of its evocative descriptions of Oxford, where I lived for many years but have been unable to revisit since the pandemic began. Its unusual protagonist is a Scotswoman, a mathematics dropout who works as a nanny for academic families. She becomes closely attached to her latest charge, an eight year old girl neglected by her self-centred parents. The girl disappears, prompting a police investigation. Another good and original read was The Appeal by Janice Hallett, written mainly in the form of email exchanges among the legal team preparing an appeal against a murder conviction. It is set in a fictional town where the amateur dramatics society includes a large cast of players.

After watching the award-winning film Nomadland, I read the book of the same title on which it was based. The author, Jessica Bruder, is a journalist who spent three years observing and befriending some of the thousands of van dwellers who travel around America supporting themselves with seasonal jobs. The majority are single older people who, though often well qualified and skilled, have met with financial hardship and can no longer afford conventional housing. Their fortitude and ingenuity, as they navigate the practical challenges and endure what sound like appalling working conditions in campsites, Amazon warehouses and beet farms, are impressive. I found this book somewhat long and meandering, but its content was an eye-opener.

The only medical book in this selection is The Sleeping Beauties by neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan, who has travelled round the world observing “culture-bound” epidemics of illnesses for which no medical explanation can be found. Such syndromes have been described by many different terms including “hysterical” “psychosomatic” and “functional”. The causes may be complex, but the author believes sociocultural factors to be more relevant than than individual psychopathology. I found the discussion sections at the end of each chapter rather heavy going, but I do know how difficult it is to write clearly about this subject. I liked the final section about the growing “over-medicalisation” of life problems in Western countries.

Two autobiographies are on this list. Father Joe: the man who saved my soul is by the late English satirist Tony Hendra, best known for his work on the Spitting Image TV programmes. As a result of a sexual transgression in his teens, he was sent to Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight to meet the Benedictine monk who was to become his spiritual mentor throughout his colourful adult life. A very different memoir is One Woman’s War by Eileen Younghusband who, aged nineteen, volunteered to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and worked as a “filterer” transcribing Radar transmissions in WW2. After the war she was posted to Europe and among other duties worked in a liberated concentration camp. This beautifully written short book gives a modest account of an extraordinary life.

I recently wrote a separate post about Happy: why more or less everything is absolutely fine, Derren Brown’s take on Stoic philosophy and other things.

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Jennifer Barraclough, originally from England and now living in New Zealand, is a retired doctor and a writer of medical and fiction books. A list can be found on her author pages: https://www.amazon.com/Jennifer-Barraclough/e/B001HPXGZI (US) and https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jennifer-Barraclough/e/B001HPXGZI (UK).

You Yet Shall Die: A psychological mystery about family secrets and a long-ago crime

I’ve recently been so focused on writing my next book that I’ve neglected the marketing of my previous ones. So I’ve now set up a price promotion for the Kindle version of You Yet Shall Die, a gentle psychological mystery set in rural England in the recent past. The novel has 5-star ratings on Amazon, and readers’ comments include “It was superb. Great twist that you didn’t really guess” and “Top marks for an absorbing crime and mystery story without the gory bits.”

How to respond to a stranger who claims to be your half-sister? Hilda, a single woman living as a recluse in a marshland cottage with her rescue cats, is faced with this question when she is visited by a young woman claiming to be the “love child” of her late father. Hilda’s quest to investigate her family background leads to a dangerous conflict with her brother, and to the discovery of some shocking events rooted in postwar Oxford and the 1960s London nightclub scene, but also widens the options for her own future.

The Kindle promotion, available to readers in most but not all countrie, is running from 20-27 June. Please have a look on your local Amazon website, and it would be much appreciated if you can help my marketing efforts by sharing this post with your contacts – thank you.

Murder mystery in Matakana

Matakana, a pretty village in the wine-growing region north of Auckland, was the venue for Sunday’s launch of the novel Blood on Vines by my friend Madeleine Eskedahl. My husband and I attended the event and stayed in the Matakana Motel overnight.

Matakana Estate, photo from TripAdvisor

I am unable to drive while recovering from a wrist fracture, so we took public transport. This involved working out the connections between four bus routes: 814 to Akoranga, NX1 to Hibiscus Coast, 995 to Warkworth and 997 to Matakana. We were almost the only passengers for parts of the journey, and as the modern double-decker NX1 on its dedicated busway sped past the traffic jams on the parallel motorway we wondered why Aucklanders are so wedded to their cars. However the trip did take a long time because the rural buses are infrequent. Our wait in the charming little town of Warkworth was pleasantly occupied with lunch and a riverside walk.

The book launch took place in The Vintry, Matakana, an intimate bar in a complex which also contains a cinema, restaurant and boutique shops. We were served with a selection of local wines accompanied by platters of cheeses and tapas while listening to readings from Madeleine’s novel. I haven’t opened my copy yet so can only quote from the back cover blurb: “… an ex-wine-maker is murdered … a rampage of death is about to rock the local community to its core.” The event was well attended and it was good to see some fellow members of the Auckland Crime Writers group.

Madeleine and Jennifer

Afterwards a walk down Wharf Road to the Matakana River. The public toilet buildings at the top of the road looked most distinctive.

Photo by Brian Barraclough

A dip in the pool at the Matakana Motel, and a delicious dinner at the Matakana Country Kitchen, rounded off the evening and our overnight accomodation was quiet and comfortable. There was a spot of panic in the morning when, due to a discrepancy between the timetable on the bus shelter and the information on the Auckland Transport app, we risked missing the 997 on its occasional trip from Matakana to Warkworth. But all was well and we were home by lunchtime. It felt good to have had a “mini-break” especially considering that, due to lockdowns, I haven’t been away from Auckland since my last visit to England in 2019.

Recovering from wrist fracture: ten weeks on

Recovery demands a lot of patience, but there have been several positive changes since my last post five weeks ago. I hope writing these updates will help me to appreciate the progress made, and be useful to readers recovering from similar fractures.

My cast was removed about six weeks after the injury. I was anxious about seeing my wrist again, knowing that the two attempts to reset the displaced bones had been only partly successful and the final position would not be perfect. It did indeed look crooked and thickened compared to the other side, and still does, though I hope some of the swelling will go down in time. It was a relief to have the cast replaced by a removable lightweight splint.

I see a physiotherapist once a week, and carry out the prescribed exercises four times per day. I can’t manage the full range of movements but measurements have shown a slight improvement at each clinic visit. Gently massaging the skin with herbal or homeopathic creams, and essential oils, is comforting. I no longer feel any need to take analgesics, but the ulnar side of the wrist is still stiff and tender, and I understand this can be a persistent problem which might require surgery later on.

As regards daily activities the the most significant advances include being able to drive the car and cut my own nails, though I still can’t use a knife and fork. My general vitality, which was impaired for weeks after the injury, has recovered now and I hope to get back to creative writing soon.

On the negative side, the Dexa scan carried out as part of the follow-up showed reduced bone density. This was disappointing because I take plenty of outdoor exercise and eat the right foods. Before considering medication I shall try extra vitamins and sunbathing, and be more careful about avoiding falls.

All the aftercare is free of charge under New Zealand’s generous Accident Compensation scheme.

Recovering from wrist fracture: five weeks on

Five weeks have passed since I fell on a rock and fractured my wrist, as described in my previous post Trauma on Cheltenham Beach. Progress has been frustratingly slow, but there are definite improvements. I no longer take painkillers. I have a synthetic cast which is lighter and more comfortable than the plaster one. I can walk the dog using a harness, and fasten my own watch and wash my own hair. I still can’t cut my nails, drive the car, make beds, cope with tight screw tops or plastic packaging. I type and play the piano with one hand.

Colles fractures are common. While I am out walking people often ask me what is wrong with my arm, and a surprising number of them have gone on to tell me that they or someone in their family have had a broken wrist themselves. From talking to them I have learned that the outcome can vary a great deal. One woman, who had the same operation that I would probably have had but for the Covid lockdown, reported an excellent result and showed me the barely visible scar. Another had a similar operation which appeared to have worked well until she experienced a return of pain, found to be due to displacement of one of the screws used to secure the metal plate, and is awaiting further treatment. A third, whose fracture was treated conservatively several years ago, has persistent pain and weakness in her wrist. A couple of others, however, have recovered well after conservative treatment. The only man in my little sample, whose injury was very recent, is scheduled for surgery this week.

Clearly the prognosis for each individual depends on details of the fracture and the general health of the patient. There will be many months to wait before I know what it will be like for me.

Book review “Happy: why more or less everything is absolutely fine” by Derren Brown

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have been an admirer of British illusionist Derren Brown since watching his brilliant and controversial TV shows such as “Miracle” and “Sacrifice”. He is also a writer and when I learned that he shared my interest in Stoicism, and that this informed his book Happy: Why more or less everything is absolutely fine, I was keen to read what he had to say. It’s a big book, ambitious and sometimes provocative, spanning a wide range of topics. The style is fluent and engaging, though tends to ramble at times.

I very much enjoyed the potted history of philosophy and psychology, the critical appraisal of the self-help industry, and the practical guidance on modern applications of Stoicism in Parts One and Two. I would have given 5 stars if the book had ended there but was less impressed with Part Three, in which Derren presents his views about death and dying and argues against the existence of an afterlife. Reference to the work of the many thinkers and researchers who have studied these fields, and to others’ contrasting experiences and beliefs, would have made these chapters more balanced and helpful.

Reservations aside, this is an original and stimulating book that can be recommended for serious readers seeking a fulfilling life.






View all my reviews

Writing a book is like having a baby

This is a light-hearted piece about the possible parallels between writing a book and having a baby. It’s adapted from Wellbeing for Writers by Jennifer Barraclough, a short guide full of practical tips about finding fulfilment and enjoyment through a writing career.

Although the time it takes to write a book can vary from a few weeks to many years, it is said that the average is about nine months – the same as a full term human pregnancy. But just as some babies are delivered prematurely, some books are submitted for publication too soon, because their writers are so impatient to see them in print. It would have been better to take more time to check for typos in the manuscript and flaws in the plot and generally polish up the finished product. At the other extreme some books, like some babies, become overdue. Maybe the writers are continually revising them in a futile quest for perfection. Or maybe, as first-time authors, they are afraid to take the step of putting their work out to the world.

Of course many pregnancies end in miscarriage. Similarly, many manuscripts are abandoned before they have developed into a complete book. This may not be a bad thing. Writers often need to experiment with different styles, genres and themes and it may become clear that some early drafts are not going to work out well and the best policy is to give up and make a new start.

Just as good care for mothers and babies before the birth is important, writers working on new books need to avoid the physical and mental health hazards associated with their occupation. There’s a chapter in Wellbeing for Writers about how to avoid problems like these.

Publication, like giving birth, is both exciting and stressful. Although writers are spared the physical pain of labor, they may experience acute complications such as discovering a last-minute problem with the proofs, or technical difficulties when uploading their files.

It’s not uncommon for new mothers to develop post-natal depression, due to the huge hormonal and social changes they are experiencing. And writers often feel low after finishing a book, though for different reasons. There is a sense of anticlimax, and sometimes the best treatment is starting to write another one. But inspiration does not come to order, and the equivalent of infertility is writer’s block.

Just as children need care from their parents for many years after they are born, writers need to keep on looking after their books after publication if they hope for ongoing sales, by continuing with marketing and by updating the content if required.

Both having children and writing books represent ways of expressing creativity and leaving a legacy for the future. Just as your children contain some of your genes, your books contain some part of yourself – yet they also have separate lives of their own and you cannot predict or control just how they are going to turn out.

Wellbeing for Writers is available in Kindle or paperback format from your local Amazon website.

Podcasting

Apologies to those readers who had trouble accessing my site today. I decided to explore the new opportunity from WordPress to create podcasts from my blog posts. With my technical skills being fairly limited, I didn’t manage to record a satisfactory version with my own voice. So I adapted one of my posts slightly so that it would make sense when converted from text to audio and read by “Remy”. I think she reads it very well, even though her American accent may sound incongruous to people who know me! So here is my first podcast, on the topic of “The Fascination of Crime Fiction” – I hope it works.

Trauma on Cheltenham beach

One of the loveliest walks on Auckland’s north shore, only possible at low tide, goes around the headland between Cheltenham and Narrow Neck beaches. Three weeks ago I set out on this walk but slipped over backwards on a wet rock and automatically put out my hand to break my fall. A sharp pain, accompanied by faintness and nausea, told me I had broken my wrist. A kind passerby helped me walk to the road, and a kind friend drove me to an emergency clinic where Xray confirmed a displaced Colles fracture of the radius and fractured tip of the ulna. Over to the public hospital, and a long wait to have the fracture reduced under local anaesthetic. Home at midnight with swollen fingers peeping out from a pink plaster cast.

Having had previous injuries that recovered quite easily, I wasn’t prepared for the long haul ahead. For the first fortnight I was constantly in pain, and struggled with basic self-care. It was a great help to have my husband taking over household tasks, and relatives and friends providing meals. I expected the worst would soon be over, but met with a setback. A followup Xray at the outpatient clinic showed that the bones had slipped back out of place and a further attempt at reduction, this time without local anaesthetic, was unsuccessful.

Surgery was proposed. I packed my bags and spent an anxious few days awaiting the call to come into the hospital, after starving from midnight. But apparently, discussion within the orthopaedic team had reached the conclusion that the likely benefit of the operation was too marginal to justify the risks (and New Zealand had just gone back into another Covid lockdown, limiting hospital services). I’ll find out more at my next appointment this week, but from what I gather so far the recovery will be a slow process and I’m likely to be left with some permanent deformity and weakness. Things could be far worse, I know, and I hope to be able to return to my former activities of dog-walking, cathedral choir, swimming and driving before too long. Meanwhile I can still go for walks, and enjoy the glorious summer weather. And in theory I have plenty of time to work on my next novel, though typing with one hand is cumbersome and inspiration lacking.

I’d like to be able to say that my recent exploration of Stoic philosophy is helping me to cope with all this. A recent article https://classicalwisdom.com/philosophy/stoicism/marcus-aurelius-stoicism-and-pain/ emphasises the basic precept of focusing only on those aspects of an illness or injury that are under personal control – for example making informed choices about treatment, and taking general steps to maintain a healthy lifestyle. There is no point dwelling on the negative aspects, or getting stuck in feelings of resentment, frustration or regret. The aim is to accept the situation and develop a constructive response. Simple basic advice, not so easy to put into practice.

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Jennifer Barraclough, originally from England and now living in New Zealand, is a retired doctor and a writer of medical and fiction books. Details can be found on her author pages: https://www.amazon.com/Jennifer-Barraclough/e/B001HPXGZI (US) and https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jennifer-Barraclough/e/B001HPXGZI (UK).

Summerland and Hope Gap

For many years after coming to live in New Zealand in 2000, I was able to make regular return visits to England to see my friends, relatives and favourite places. Spending a day with Lesley, who lives in East Sussex, was a regular feature. After having lunch either at her home or in a local pub we would go for a walk on the windswept downland between Seaford and Eastbourne with its views of the Seven Sisters cliffs (inspiring a scene in my novel You Yet Shall Die) followed by a cup of tea in her beach hut.

My 2020 visit had to be cancelled due to the pandemic restrictions. It’s been some compensation to be able to talk to people on Zoom, and to see my home country on screen. I was excited when Lesley told me that two movies – Hope Gap and Summerland – had been filmed in the area where we used to walk.

Hope Gap, which I saw last year, is a family drama charting the breakdown of the marriage of a middle aged middle class couple. Their young adult son takes long walks by the sea while pondering how to mediate between his introverted father, who has announced that he is leaving to live with another woman, and his melodramatic mother who is devastated by the situation. This film tackles its subject seriously but with touches of humour. It would not be to everyone’s taste, but I found it an absorbing story intelligently told.

Summerland has only just arrived in New Zealand cinemas and I saw it yesterday. The main action is set during World War 2. A reclusive woman writer, embittered since the ending of a lesbian love affair, is furious when she is forced to take in a boy evacuated from bomb-ravaged London. Predictably, her heart eventually softens and the film has a happy ending. I found the story rather sentimental and contrived, but the scenery was lovely. Although allegedly taking place in Kent, most of it had been filmed in the same part of the East Sussex coast pictured above.

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Jennifer Barraclough, originally from England and now living in New Zealand, is a retired doctor and a writer of medical and fiction books. A list can be found on her author pages: https://www.amazon.com/Jennifer-Barraclough/e/B001HPXGZI (US) and https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jennifer-Barraclough/e/B001HPXGZI (UK).