8. The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

Screen Shot 2017-12-28 at 10.54.52I was recommended this book by a friend who knows that my daughter is now living Danishly and enjoying herself immensely. The byline of the title is ‘Uncovering the secrets of the word’s happiest country’. It’s great news that my daughter is living in the world’s happiest country but what is their secret? I had a read to find out. The first thing I find out is that the author is taken to Denmark when her husband gets a job at Lego, the headquarters of which are about an hour away from where my daughter has settled so there is even some familiarity in there from when I have visited. It is written in an engaging and easy to read way though there are rather a lot of statistics.

Visiting another country often open us up to other cultures which is one of the joys of travel for me. Here the author is living in another country and despite not being very far away, the Danes’ lives are quite different to ours. The author takes us through her introduction to Denmark on a month by month basis, always trying to find out why the Danes are so happy.  She asks each of the Danes she meets or speaks to how they would rate their happiness out of 10. No one scores below an 8 which certainly backs up the theory that the Danes are very happy though I can’t help feeling that not everyone can be that happy.

It isn’t all good though, with sexual discrimination appearing to be quite prevalent. While the laws protect against discrimination and the maternity and paternity packages are very generous, according to the book there is a lot of less formal discrimination in the form of questions at interview about likelihood of having a baby, a high rate of women being let go during maternity leave and a somewhat shocking and bizarre TV show. Here, fully clothed men appraise a line of naked women, commenting on every aspect of their body. It certainly brings a new meaning to the likes of Blind Date!

Despite that, the Danes are friendly and do indeed seem happy and suffer less stress. As the author points out this is particularly commendable for a country that experiences severe winter weather and a distinct lack of daylight for a large part of the year. The conclusion is that the Danes are happy as they appreciate the simple things in life (part of hygge that has been so prevalent of late), appreciate each other and live in a country with a relatively small population helping the sense of being part of an exclusive club. They also know how to play (well, they did create Lego!).

Does the author extend her year of living Danishly – I won’t give that one away just now!



5. The Oz Principle by Roger Connors, Tom Smith and Craig Hickman

Screen Shot 2017-09-22 at 18.52.59This is a different type of book that I am reviewing as it is a non-fiction management book so absolutely the type of book I am very good at starting and very poor at finishing! But I am pleased to say that I did read to the end of this one, despite the small margins and even smaller print. I enjoyed the book, but feel as I often do with this type of book that it could give you all the information in a much smaller volume! Notwithstanding that, there are some good and powerful messages and approaches in there.

The book is based on a simple premise – if we take accountability for ourselves and what happens to us, we will feel more empowered and be more successful. This simple premise is of course not so simple to live by. Many people, in fact at some point in life, all people fall into a victim cycle where things happen to them and they feel helpless to change. The authors argue that people who take accountability, rise out of the victim cycle and make things happen. I liken this to a ‘can do’ attitude which is only possible if you identify what you can do and then do it!

But where you might ask does the title come from? The authors have woven their advice around the story of the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy, the lion, the tin man and the scarecrow journey along the yellow brick believing themselves to be victims of circumstance. When they arrive at the Emerald City they learn that actually they possess in themselves the power to get the results they want. The authors use this to show how we all have that power, while acknowledging that we cannot control everything that goes on around us. We can of course control what we do about it and how we react to it.

The book draws out the concept of being below or above the line. Below the line is akin to being in victim mode while above the line is taking accountability and indeed control of situations, be they personal or work related, and bringing about more success.

Below the line is typified by behaviours such as blaming others, sticking your head in the sand, denying responsibility (it’s not my job!) and covering your back. Above the line behaviour involves seeing the issue for what it is, owning it by taking on the responsibility, solving it (not necessarily alone) and doing something about it. All this makes a lot of sense and is really not new, but always useful to be reminded.

The authors do acknowledge that we all fall below the line from time to time and stress the importance of self-awareness in this which then enables you to take the steps to move above the line. It is human to fall below the line and sometimes we all need a moment to rant or whinge and the key here is to know when to stop and move up above the line. That is the only place where we will truly feel empowered and happy with our lot.

The book goes into detail on how to take the steps to get above the line, namely, see it, own it, solve it, do it. I know I have already used some approaches in keeping myself above the line and have been more aware of falling below the line. It will take time to make a big difference, but in time it will.

There are many examples and case studies, some feel a little simple but help to illustrate the point. Of course all the case studies show a dramatic change of fortune when the Oz Principle is applied and I remain to be convinced it is quite so simple. Though I would happily be proven wrong!

A good, if slightly long, read with parts in it that can help in all aspects of life.

7. Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey by the Countess of Carnarvon

Screen Shot 2017-09-08 at 18.43.29I am one of the many who was charmed by the Downton Abbey series and the goings on both upstairs and down in a large stately home in the early 20th century. It also spanned the time of the First World War which has been uppermost in so many minds of late as we live through the centenary commemorations of so many dreadful battles. Having been beguiled by these tales and equally beguiled by the setting, in 2015 I headed off to visit Highclere Castle, the real Downton Abbey. Here the beautiful surroundings enchanted me and the house, standing proud in the midst of its stunning gardens, made an impressive statement. I can certainly imagine the impact on people coming up the long drive to be greeted by such an imposing sight. So what of the people who lived here, the real Downton Abbey? As luck would have it, the current Countess of Carnarvon has done a lot of research on her husband’s ancestors and one of the results of this is Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, of course I had to buy a copy.

The book did not disappoint, there is a glittering cast of characters full of the nobility and royalty. It is a big cast though and at times hard to keep up with who was who! It was helpful that some of the names were familiar to me though I wasn’t aware of the Carnarvon’s links to the Royal Family, nor their influence during World War One. In fact the part of the book during the period of the Great War was fascinating. Having watched Downton Abbey I knew that many great houses had been used as hospitals during the war and Highclere was no exception. The difference was in how the hospital was laid out, with the bedrooms at Highclere being used for individual men rather than a large ward set up in the main rooms downstairs. There was the also the question of how the nurses and doctors would be paid, to my surprise Almina funded that herself. Highclere did not remain a hospital for the duration of the war, to get the best doctors of the day Almina moved the hospital to London and continued to care for many heavily traumatised and injured men to the very end.

The other big story is the uncovering of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Another endeavour funded by the Carnarvons. There is no wonder Lord Carnarvon needed an injection of capital which his wife was able to supply through her family links to the Rothschilds. The success of the Egyptian endeavour is well known, to have the perspective of the family was fascinating.

Lady Fiona Carnarvon (the current Countess) has an easy writing style and her passion and enthusiasm in the history of her husband’s family shines through. This was history brought to life with real characters living through some gruesome times.


6. Farewell Manchester by Audrey Jones

img013This is a book telling the story of evacuees from Manchester by the evacuees themselves. The author was herself evacuated, a process that must have been so very frightening to youngsters. I learnt a lot from this book, I hadn’t appreciated how many evacuees returned home during the phoney war period and then endured many a night in a damp and cold Anderson shelter which must have been just as frightening as being evacuated.

Audrey tells us a little about the context around evacuation and the practising the children did. I didn’t appreciate that before war was declared all the plans were being put in place in the lead up to the outbreak of war. The evacuation started in the days before the start of the war after which followed the phoney war, the period between September 1939 and May 1940 when little action took place. This clearly led many parents into a false sense of security and, missing their children, brought many evacuees home. Some were evacuated a second time when the bombing started in earnest particularly in mid to late 1940 when Manchester suffered its own blitz.

This book gives us the children’s perspective and how it impacted them through to adulthood. Published in 1989, Audrey Jones compiled these memories of those who lived through such a turbulent time in our history.

There are many different tales but the common thread was fear of where they were going and who they would end up with. There was little information, no one was told where they were going. Parents were letting their children, some as young as 5, go with no knowledge of where they would be or when they would see them again. In fact, the evacuees from Manchester didn’t go that far, 20 miles or so. But in a time of war and when so few people had a car this was quite a distance. Place names had been removed from stations by then, so the children didn’t know where they were until someone told them.

Once they arrived at their destination, the locals came by and chose who to take home. I remember only too well the unpleasantness of being the last one chosen in games at school so this must just have been awful. It would not have been easy for those who had to take in evacuees either, and most of the stories show that the children were well cared for, though there is of course nowhere quite like home. Many suffered appalling homesickness motivating some to head home on their own.

A few children were evacuated overseas, Canada and Australia two of the destinations. On the one hand that must have been a tremendous adventure, but on the other the most terrifying. One child, sent to relatives in Canada, was on a boat which was torpedoed and after spending time in a life raft was taken back aboard the torpedoed ship as it could be mended at sea and continue its journey! The saddest part of this tale is that the evacuee settled so well in Canada that when she returned home after the war that was when she was most unhappy.

Many of the children kept in touch with their second families and continued to visit them after the war. I find this heart warming – such a difficult time for all but lasting friendships and connections shine a positive light on those dark times.

I am very privileged to have been able to read this book. I have kept it too long I know, but want to thank Stephen, Audrey’s son, who trusted me with his treasured copy.

4. Purged by Peter Laws

Screen Shot 2017-08-04 at 10.17.31This is not an easy read, a crime novel and psychological thriller underpinned by religious zeal and evangelism. That said, it was a real page turner, the plot was well constructed, the characters well put together leaving you guessing as to who the murderer was, indeed guessing whether there actually had been a murder at all.

The murder scenes were described clearly but not overly gorily. As the reader I was left wondering who the perpetrator could be and as the bodies were not found wondering if murder actually happened. There were many flashbacks in the book and the narrative changed in tone for both the flashbacks and the crimes leaving a sliver of doubt as to whether they were in the past or maybe even a dream.

The author is heralded as ‘an ordained Baptist minister with a taste for the macabre’ and I certainly can’t argue with the latter part of that statement. I found it very interesting that a man of the cloth would write about the effects of religion in such a way. The pastor and community could be called extremists and certainly the actions of the perpetrator were extreme. Written by anyone else it could come across as religion bashing. If you want to read the book and not know what happens, please stop reading now as I will be talking about the ending.

The Purged of the title refers to people who are about to be baptised. At a party these people are purged of their old selves to become newly born in the eyes of the church. The baptism itself was full immersion in the local lake. While there is nothing sinister in this itself, it is set with the backdrop of a missing teenage girl whose murder took place immediately after, you could say as part of, her baptism. Then a terminally ill woman suffers the same fate.

The tension is increased as we follow the main character, Matt Hunter. He is a former minister who lost his faith when he lost his mother in horrific violent circumstances. We learn about this through the flashbacks Matt has as the story unfolds. Matt, his wife, teenage step daughter and young daughter are staying in an Oxfordshire village as his wife has been invited to tender to be the architect for the church renovations. But it is no coincidence that they are there as the vicar of the parish is an old college buddy of Matt’s and their turbulent relationship is also uncovered as the book progresses. There are many strands but they are cleverly woven together so it does not become confusing and in fact adds to the tension and mystery of the situation.

This is a great whodunnit, I’ve read reviews where people have said they worked it out half way through the book but I certainly didn’t. I wouldn’t say it was a complete surprise as it really could have been anyone. I will have to read it again to see if I can pick up the clues better knowing the answer. But for me the identity of the murderer was not the pinnacle of the story. It was a far more rounded and interesting tale for that.

If I question the book at all it is on two points. Matt seems quite detached from his family, while he is running around the county helping the police and indeed himself as he becomes a suspect, his wife and daughters are having a day out in Oxford and then heading to the cinema. If felt a bit like he was doing the ‘man’s work’ while the girls were sent to be occupied elsewhere.

The other is the end and indeed the last murder. The motive for the murders of the teenage girl and the terminally ill woman was to save their souls. They were baptised and then killed before they had chance to lose their cleanliness by sinning. But the murderer’s last victim was the minister and it was not clear what the motive was here. He was not baptised prior to being killed and as the minister leading this particularly strong church community was clearly leading a holy life, so this killing seemed out of kilter. The murderer himself then tried to force Matt’s step daughter to kill him by pushing him over a waterfall, he couldn’t jump as suicides all go to hell. I’m not sure why he was so ready to die when he was discovered. I’m all in favour of endings where not all the loose ends are quite tied up, a little wondering about what happened adds to the intrigue, but I was a little perplexed by that.

However, that said I enjoyed this book. It is the first of a series of books with Matt Hunter the next in the series being ‘Unleashed’ which I shall read at some point. But I have other books to catch up on first…



3. The Girl Before by JP Delaney

Screen Shot 2017-07-22 at 17.47.18I was really looking forward to this book, it sounded intriguing and that it would be full of suspense. I heard about it first on Simon Mayo’s Drivetime show as one of his Monday bookclubs in February. The reviews were good and this held a promise to be a real page turner. Sadly, for me the book didn’t match its promise. It has also had me questioning the reviews on the radio as I’ve never heard a bad one.

I liked the idea of this book, one apartment, two women separated in time, the first who met an untimely and unexplained death, the second who became intrigued and curious to try to solve the mystery. A lot of scope for a great read but the architect of the minimalist apartment where there were over 200 rules if you wanted to live there was a familiar figure. Set at the centre of the story he was ridiculously wealthy, good looking and fit, aloof, rude and runs rough shod over other people. The two women in the story, supposedly intelligent and both having suffered recent traumas, fall for him and he dominates them in every way, including in the bedroom. A shadow of 50 Shades of Grey was cast over the story. Yet in the end, the architect is a bit of a red herring.

Reading other reviews I am not alone in making the comparison to 50 Shades. As I really didn’t like that book, it was not going to enhance my experience in reading this one. To be fair, there wasn’t as much sex and the focus was more on the architect’s desire to dominate every aspect of the women’s lives using the house as well as his charms, hidden though they were to me.

There were a few twists in the book but none that really took me by surprise and the ending was as I had thought it would be, at least the murderer was who I suspected. The ending in fact was the biggest disappointment, as the architect softened to become almost weak which didn’t stack up to his previous persona.

It was an easy read if not a riveting story, with short chapters which suit my life right now as it was an easy book to dip in and out of. I’m sad I didn’t like this book when it had so much potential.

2. The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman

Screen Shot 2017-07-16 at 18.13.12I struggled with this book, it starts very slowly and I felt for a good third of the book that nothing really happened. Having read others reviews it seems I’m not alone. I think the author is setting the scene and drawing the reader into the characters’ lives so that empathy abounds when they do what they do – more on that later.

The book is set in Australia in the mid 1920s, following a young man on his return from the war. He is obviously traumatised by the things he has seen and the friends he has lost and struggling to come to terms with his own survival. His answer is to become a light house keeper in a remote spot where he spends months on end totally alone. On shore leave he meets Izzy who is coming to terms from her own war story, in particular losing both her brothers. And so starts a love story led by Izzy and the two end up married and living in glorious isolation on their island paradise.

Spoilers coming up so stop reading now if you want to read the book and not know what happens.

The book turns on an event which I found somewhat hard to believe. I didn’t feel the isolation and I didn’t get the sense of longing I think I was supposed to get. So it came as a bit of a surprise when a boat with a small baby and a dead man washed up and Izzy was so drawn to the baby to insist on keeping it. Her pregnancies and subsequent miscarriages had been glossed over in my view. So I couldn’t empathise with the choice that Izzy made and why Tom went along with it. They knew nothing about the man or the baby yet somehow persuaded themselves there was no one waiting for the pair or worried about their whereabouts. There was an element of guilt coming through but overall just a happy little family, I think I was more bothered than they were!

When the inevitable happened and their secret was found out, I found it got more unbelievable. Izzy seemed convinced that the best thing for the child was to stay with her, she turned against Tom and wouldn’t talk to her parents. I struggled to understand how Izzy had no empathy with the baby’s birth mother, as one who had suffered loss it seemed natural that she would have some understanding for another who had also suffered loss, but none of that was there. The baby, now a young child spent most of the time screaming. It’s very understandable that she would be upset and confused, but the way it was dealt with was just to place her back with her birth family and use her birth name. Where is the effort to work with the child, help her with this hardest of transitions? I know this was the 1920s and today’s ways of dealing with these things are completely different but it felt lacking to me.

After much angst, screaming and arguing, Tom spent time in jail and Izzy didn’t. The child eventually settled and Tom and Izzy reunited mainly on the premise that an experience such as this means the future can only be shared with the one you shared it with in the first place. I won’t give away the ending here, just say that it was all a little too happily ever after for me, albeit in a bitter sweet way.

I think it fair to say this was not my favourite book, but it was easy to read. It’s been turned into a movie which is no real surprise, the chance to film in a great and beautiful location with a tear jerker of a story. I won’t however be rushing to see it.