Book Review: The End of Men by Christina Sweeney-Baird

Firstly, a disclaimer – this book was written in 2019, before anyone had heard of Covid 19! The author herself has added details about this at the start of the book. It isn’t based on what the world has experienced in 2020 / 2021 – but the whole coronavirus crisis does make it so much more believable. I’d seen this book on a few ‘books for 2021’ lists – and was lucky enough to be given an advance review copy by NetGalley.

Here’s the blurb:

Glasgow, 2025.  Dr Amanda Maclean is called to treat a young man with a mild fever. Within three hours he dies. The mysterious illness sweeps through the hospital with deadly speed. This is how it begins.
The victims are all men.
Dr Maclean raises the alarm, but the sickness spreads to every corner of the globe. Threatening families. Governments. Countries.
Can they find a cure before it’s too late? Will this be the story of the end of the world – or its salvation?
Compelling, confronting and devastating, The End of Men is the novel that everyone is talking about.

The book starts in Glasgow being told from Dr Amanda Maclean’s viewpoint when she first identifies this new virus that seems to be killing only men but being carried asymptomatically by women. She tries to quickly raise the alarm – but is dismissed as being a hysterical woman and so it takes a while for it to be taken seriously.

Subsequent chapters are told by different points of view from around the globe. Mostly these are women – because only 9% of men are immune. It deals with horrific grief, jealousy, death, fear, changes to governments, jobs, vaccines, rationing – and the various stories are all intertwined over about 4 years from the initial diagnosis.

I think the fact we’re all going through a global pandemic makes some of the things that may have been considered far fetched – are actually potentially more imaginable. Rationing of food? Deciding who can and can not have children? Enforced labour? Thankfully a few steps further than the lockdowns we’ve endured – but not complete pie in the sky after the last 14 months.

I found some of it incredibly moving – in particular the women giving birth and not knowing if they’d have a daughter who would live, or a son who would probably die within days. Also, the rationing of ‘normal’ medical supplies to people who actually stood a chance of living – rather than men with the plague or the elderly made you question how close the UK could have got to that? We all know how much the coronavirus pandemic has delayed cancer diagnoses – for example – but how much worse could it have been?

The ethics of discovering a vaccine was also part of the storyline – and who the intellectual property rights do or should belong to! Thank goodness Astra Zeneca are distributing their covid vaccine at cost.

Dr Amanda is determined to uncover the initial cause of the virus in patient zero – and the similarities with the suspected start of Covid 19 are spooky, and does question the treatment of animals in foreign countries. The relationships built between some of the characters in the book also evolve really well.

Overall I found the book incredibly well written and thought provoking. I had an early download – so I’m hoping a couple of the continuity errors have been sorted (Devon becomes Suffolk and then back to Devon again at one point!) – but these did not detract from an excellent book. I would highly recommend this debut novel.

A huge thank you to the publishers and NetGalley for my ARC.

Book Review: The Summer Job by Lizzy Dent

“Have you ever imagined running away from your life?
Well Birdy Finch didn’t just imagine it. She did it. Which might’ve been an error. And the life she’s run into? Her best friend, Heather’s.
The only problem is, she hasn’t told Heather. Actually there are a few other problems…
Can Birdy carry off a summer at a luxury Scottish hotel pretending to be her best friend (who incidentally is a world-class wine expert)?
And can she stop herself from falling for the first man she’s ever actually liked (but who thinks she’s someone else)”

The book starts with best friend’s Birdy and Heather in London. Heather is supposed to be working a summer season at a hotel in Scotland – but instead wants to jet off with her current ‘this is it, real love for definite this time’ boyfriend to Italy and ditch the sommelier job. Birdy is supposed to be calling the hotel to tell them Heather can’t go – but instead, decides to go and do the job herself – but doesn’t admit to Heather that this is what she’s doing.

The hotel in Scotland isn’t the run down property that Heather and Birdy were expecting – instead it’s been massively done up and is a beautiful ‘place to be seen’. I have to say that the setting and the Scottish countryside is so well described it made me want to visit immediately. To go and stay in a beautiful hotel, on the banks of a loch, with amazing food and wine flights – bliss………

Birdy is clearly totally out of her depth as ‘Heather’ as soon as she arrives – but she works super hard to get up to speed on the wines – and the team at the hotel become really important to her. Her loyalty to her new friends – and to Heather – is what keeps her going and working so hard.

Whilst the book is generally a fun, light hearted read – with some real laugh out loud moments – it does also cover some heavier topics – alcoholism, being the child of an alcoholic, gaslighting by parents and partners, bullying, friendship – but all as part of the over riding storyline.

Most of the characters were lovely – if slightly flawed in some way. The only one I couldn’t stand was Tim, Birdy’s on / off boyfriend. He was an utter knob – and she could do so much better.

The ending surprised me, and it’s more convoluted that you had expected throughout the book – but I still liked it.

Overall a really lovely read. It’s out in just a few days time – so I’m not tempting you too far in advance!

Thanks to Net Galley and the publisher for my ARC.

Book Review: The Best Things by Mel Giedroyc

I love Mel Giedroyc, so when I heard she had a fiction book out – I jumped onto NetGalley and was kindly given an advance review copy. Here’s the blurb:

“Sally Parker had a morbid fear of big social events and it was for this reason that she was crouching down low in the shoe section of her wardrobe…
Sally Parker is struggling to find the hero inside herself.
All she wants to do is lie down.
Her husband Frank has lost his business, their home and their savings, in one fell swoop. Their bank cards are being declined. The children have gone feral. And now the bailiffs are at the door.
What does an ordinary woman do when the bottom falls out?
Sally Parker is about to surprise everybody.
Most of all herself.
A big-hearted story of a family on the brink, The Best Things is a life-affirming tale of failing, falling and finding a way back up.”

There were incredibly mixed reviews on NetGalley – and so I was a bit wary of starting this – but seeing that Marian Keyes and Graham Norton had enjoyed it, I gave it a go. Then I saw Mel interviewed about it on Lorraine the next day (I’d left it very close in the ‘advance’ department to start reading it!) and she was so warm and funny, and said that some of it was based on real life – when she and her family lost everything some years ago – which gave it a different edge.

The first third of the book is the Parker family in their fancy house in Leatherhead. Sally is part of the ladies who lunch / gym / charity fundraise set – and she and her ‘friends’ appear to have more money than sense. (I have to say they reminded me of certain people who live in the village next to ours!!) Frank has a very successful hedge fund business, the kids are all at private school, the house is full of ‘help’ and all is well in their bubble. The referencing of the price of items from the local farm shop was so true!! Sally’s Mum sees them very much as ‘new money’ (which we’ve had thrown at us as an insult in the business class lounge for Emirates at Birmingham Airport by a tweed clad stuck up old crone who was just how I imagined Sally’s mother to look!!)

Then – things go horribly wrong. Frank’s business crashes and he becomes ill and all the material trappings are taken away from them. Sally tries to save the day with help from her one true friend – the dog groomer – when her other ‘frenemies’ take flight.

The reaction of the children was interesting – and different for each one (the concern at lack of phones and devices would be very similar in this house should the same situation arise!)

There is then a cross UK train / road trip for all of the characters which brought its own tales. It then concludes in Wales – but I’d really like to know what happened to everyone next.

There are a lot of characters in the book – the Parker family, their staff, their extended families, colleagues, friends, school friends – and that sometime felt a bit chaotic. There are some real laugh out loud moments – but not as many as I’d hoped for given Mel was the author.

Overall it was a fun, easy, escapist read – but it didn’t set the world on fire and I’m not sure it would have been published if it wasn’t a celebrity author. Thank you to Net Galley and the publisher for my ARC.

Book Review: The Frequency Of Us by Keith Stuart

Last year I loved the BBC2 Book Club programme “Between The Covers” presented by Sara Cox. Recently she revealed the books which will be featuring on the upcoming new series – and ‘The Frequency Of Us’ really appealed, and NetGalley were lucky enough to grant me an advanced review copy. Here’s the blurb:

“In Second World War Bath, young, naïve wireless engineer Will meets Austrian refugee Elsa Klein: she is sophisticated, witty and worldly, and at last his life seems to make sense . . . until, soon after, the newly married couple’s home is bombed, and Will awakes from the wreckage to find himself alone.
No one has heard of Elsa Klein. They say he was never married.
Seventy years later, social worker Laura is battling her way out of depression and off medication. Her new case is a strange, isolated old man whose house hasn’t changed since the war. A man who insists his wife vanished many, many years before. Everyone thinks he’s suffering dementia. But Laura begins to suspect otherwise . . .”

The book follows two timelines – firstly back during the Second World War and the romance between Will and Elsa, and then 2008, where Laura is assigned Will as a client for the care agency that she’s working for.

(This did actually make me realise that it would be difficult to write a book in the present day with people having memories of the Second World War. My Grandmother – who died at the age of 90 two years ago – was an evacuee during the war. My children have been so lucky to be able to talk to their Great Grandma about her experiences when they’ve studied evacuees at school. As the last few people of her generation pass away, so do the real life stories of the war, which has made me quite emotional.)

I enjoyed both timelines a lot – and I have to say the city of Bath was a character in the book in its own right. The descriptions of it were excellent – and it’s made me want a weekend break there (when we’re allowed again, obviously!)

The relationship between Will and Elsa was beautifully written – and I wanted to find out more about them. Equally the very different relationship between Laura and Will is also interesting, if not conventional. Laura has so much ‘stuff’ going on in her own life, and her struggles with her own mental health – that being able to focus on helping Will seems to help her too.

The comparison of young Will (radio geek, passionate about his work. madly in love with Elsa) and old Will (grumpy, rude, loner) were excellent – and as the story develops you realise why this has happened.

The book also looks at Laura’s past and her relationship with her every present Mother – and absent Father – and why this has made her the person she is today. It’s not been an easy life for Laura or Will.

The run up to the ending was really unusual – and not what I’d expected at all. I don’t even want to compare it to anything (although I have a book and a TV programme that I could easily reference!) but I think it’s better reading it without any spoilers at all.

Overall I enjoyed the book and a big thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for my ARC – but you don’t need to worry, as if you like the sound of it, it’s out now so you can order it immediately!

Audiobook Review: Rebel Ideas by Matthew Syed

I have always enjoyed watching Matthew Syed on the Sky News paper review – finding him very sensible and level headed, and taking a reasonably middle of the road view on most topics. Then, when on holiday with my parents in Summer 2019, and the paper review came on, and I voiced my Matthew Syed appreciation – my Mum proceeded to tell me that Matthew’s father, Abbas, had been her tutor for an accounting qualification in the mid 90s – and how proud he’d been of his table tennis playing champion son! I didn’t realise Matthew had had this prior career – or the family connection – how totally random is life sometimes?!?

Then in Autumn 2020 I was out for a walk with a friend – and she raved about the new book she was reading ‘Rebel Ideas’ by the aforementioned Matthew Syed. Obviously, I impressed her with my story – but the premise of the book really interested me. This particular friend and I often enjoy the same fiction books – but now it was time to see if the same could be said for non fiction.

Here’s the blurb:

“Where do the best ideas come from?
And how do we apply these ideas to the problems we face – at work, in the education of our children, and in the biggest shared challenges of our age: rising obesity, terrorism and climate change?
In this bold and inspiring new book, Matthew Syed – the bestselling author of Bounce and Black Box Thinking – argues that individual intelligence is no longer enough; that the only way to tackle these complex problems is to harness the power of our ‘cognitive diversity’.
Rebel Ideas is a fascinating journey through the science of team performance. It draws on psychology, economics, anthropology and genetics, and takes lessons from a dazzling range of case-studies, including the catastrophic intelligence failings of the CIA before 9/11, a communication breakdown at the top of Mount Everest, and a moving tale of deradicalization in America’s deep South.
It is book that will strengthen any company, institution or team, but it also offers many individual applications too: the remarkable benefits of personalised nutrition, advice on how to break free of the echo chambers that surround us, and tips on how we can all develop an ‘outsider mindset’.
Rebel Ideas offers a radical blueprint for creative problem-solving. It challenges hierarchies, encourages constructive dissent and forces us to think again about where the best ideas come from.”

I started listening to the book back in December 2020 on my school runs up and down the M5 – but then Christmas and the subsequent lock down meant trips in the car on my own were few and far between – so it’s taken until the return to school recently for me to finish the audiobook (read by Matthew himself).

I have to say I enjoyed it from the off. The first chapter looks at the ‘Collective Blindness’ of the CIA in not uncovering the 9/11 plot before it happened. Primarily because the members of the CIA were all of a certain ‘type’ and didn’t believe that some ‘tall bloke with a beard in a cave’ could actually plan such a catastrophic event. Clearly I’m paraphrasing, and the book is much more informative. The attention to detail in Matthew’s writing is excellent and satisfies the inner geek in me immensely.

As well as 9/11 there are other significant events that are used to prove the theory behind the benefit of diverse thinking. From the staffing of Bletchley Park (randomly I read a fiction book about the site at the same time), a fatal Everest expedition, to the beginnings of wheeled suitcases – it covers a huge array of topics, but all looking at the power of diverse thinking.

On an incredibly smaller scale, I’ve seen the power of diverse thinking in my own marriage! I’m a geeky, girlie swot, teacher pleasing, rule following, pedant, chartered accountant whereas my husband is dyslexic, with no formal qualifications, a rule ‘bender’ and an entrepreneur – but therefore the different things we bring to the table in our family life, to our kids, and in the construction business we run together, is definitely greater than the sum of our individual parts. I think the same also goes for my friendship groups. My politics is fairly middle of the road – but I have real life friends, and social media friends, who are much further left and much further right than me. This makes for interesting discussions (generally in real life – I try to avoid controversy on social media!) but I think makes me a more rounded person for being happy to have those discussions. As Matthew says in the book – society has become so polarised, many people on social media exist in an echo chamber where the points of view they see, exacerbated by the algorithms on sites such an Facebook and Twitter, are only the ones they agree with.

The maths graduate in me enjoyed the ‘Beyond Average’ chapter a lot (although the most recent averages I’ve done was for home schooling Year 4 and Year 6 maths) I enjoyed the way Matthew had such a varied set of examples to back up his views – which makes the book feel really well researched.

I can totally see why my friend was so passionate when talking about ‘Rebel Ideas’ – and I completely concur that it has made me stop and think (and espouse the principles to anyone who will listen!).

In a full circle back to my family story, the book is dedicated by Matthew ‘For Abbas. my inspirational father’ – perfect.

I’ve just noticed the Kindle edition of Rebel Ideas is currently only 99p on Amazon – so I would highly recommend you download it immediately if you want to read something a bit different that makes you think over the Easter weekend.