Book Review: Lessons In Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

I am lucky enough to get to read lots of advance review copies of books – and consequently I sometimes miss books that have hit bestsellers lists. ‘Lessons In Chemistry’ was on my radar – not least because it featured on the Sara Cox TV programme ‘Between The Covers’ – but I’d never got round to buying it. I was then given it as a Mothers’ Day present! I thought my husband (or kids) had been super clever, and read back through my blog posts to see what I had or hadn’t reviewed – but seemingly it was a lucky suggestion from a lady in Waterstones Solihull!! Anyway – it was a very thoughtful gift, and it leapfrogged the contents of my TBR pile. Here’s the blurb:

Your ability to change everything – including yourself – starts here.
Chemist Elizabeth Zott is not your average woman. In fact, Elizabeth Zott would be the first to point out that there is no such thing.
But it’s the early 1960s and her all-male team at Hastings Research Institute take a very unscientific view of equality. Except for one: Calvin Evans, the lonely, brilliant, Nobel-prize nominated grudge-holder who falls in love with – of all things – her mind. True chemistry results.
Like science, life is unpredictable. Which is why a few years later, Elizabeth Zott finds herself not only a single mother, but the reluctant star of America’s most beloved cooking show, Supper at Six. Elizabeth’s unusual approach to cooking (‘combine one tablespoon acetic acid with a pinch of sodium chloride’) proves revolutionary. But as her following grows, not everyone is happy. Because as it turns out, Elizabeth Zott isn’t just teaching women to cook. She’s daring them to change the status quo.”

The book starts with Elizabeth and her daughter Madeline at home – but then jumps back in time to when Elizabeth first met her soul mate – Calvin Evans. The descriptions of the Hastings Research Institute and it’s overtly sexist atmosphere was excellent. I also loved the rowing descriptions (whilst my kids don’t row – lots of their friends do – and there was lots of recognisable rowing shenanigans, and I found out why an erg is called an erg (a rowing machine to most of us, but a friend had mentioned the erg in their kitchen and I hadn’t had a clue what she meant)!)

The chapters then fill out the intervening period – and carries on with the story of Elizabeth and Mad.

Whilst the story is primarily about Elizabeth Zott and her fight against the patriarchy (although it’s never actually called that!) the supporting cast of characters such as the neighbour Harriet, whose husband is abusive, and the ‘secretary’ Miss Frask also have their own awakenings. I enjoyed all of this additional group of characters – and not just the women – but also the TV exec Walter Pine, the clergyman Wakeley – and, of course, the dog Six-Thirty.

Whilst in my own working life since the mid 90s – I’ve seen huge change in the attitude to working women, it’s shocking that in my own Mum’s working lifetime things were as described in this book – just totally unimaginable to young people today!

It was a great book – with a storyline I enjoyed, and at the same time well written, with interesting characters and lots to learn. It’s definitely worth all of the accolades it has received. I’ve just seen it’s being turned into a TV series by Apple – and I can see that being a massive hit too (although I’m already nervous as to whether it will do the book justice or not!) I would recommend reading the book first – in fact that is pretty much a motto for life!

Book Review: Thrown by Sara Cox

I love Sara Cox and feel like we’ve grown up together – from drinking pints to keep up with the lads in the 90s, through multiple kids in the 2000s – and now settling down with good books. I really enjoyed her autobiography, and when I saw she had her first fiction book out, I asked Net Galley for a copy and was lucky enough to receive one. Here’s the blurb:

The wise and gloriously big-hearted debut novel from the much-loved broadcaster, Sara Cox
Becky: a single mum who prides herself on her independence. She knows from painful experience that men are trouble.
Louise: a loving husband, gorgeous kids. She ought to feel more grateful.
Jameela: all she’s ever done is work hard, and try her best. Why won’t life give her the one thing she really wants?
Sheila: the nest is empty, she dreams of escaping to the sun, but her husband seems so distracted.
The inhabitants of the Inventor’s Housing Estate keep themselves to themselves. There are the friendly ‘Hellos’ when commutes coincide and the odd cheeky eye roll when the wine bottles clank in number 7’s wheelie bin, but it’s not exactly Ramsay Street.
The dilapidated community centre is no longer the beating heart of the estate that Becky remembers from her childhood. So the new pottery class she’s helped set up feels like a fresh start. And not just for her.
The assorted neighbours come together to try out a new skill, under the watchful eye of their charismatic teacher, Sasha. And as the soft unremarkable lumps of clay are hesitantly, lovingly moulded into delicate vases and majestic pots, so too are the lives of four women. Concealed passions and heartaches are uncovered, relationships shattered and formed, and the possibility for transformation is revealed.”

This feels like a soap opera or a TV drama straight away. Four different women who live near each other but don’t really know each other – and how their lives intertwine, primarily around a new pottery class at their local community centre.

Each of the main characters has issues going on behind closed doors – and you get involved in all of their lives. I liked them all in their own ways – although Becky was my favourite.

I’ve never watched ‘The Great Pottery Throw Down’ – but it would appear Sara has learnt lots about potting from presenting it – and that threads through the book.

There are some gentle twists and turns – but I have to say I guessed some of the ‘shocks’ – and there were no OMG moments for me. It was a lovely, gentle, comfortable read and I did enjoy it. But I do wonder if it would have been published if it didn’t have a celebrity author?

Thanks to Net Galley and the publisher for my ARC – and it’s out now if you fancy some pottery based escapism.

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!

Book Review: Till The Cows Come Home by Sara Cox

Till The Cows Come Home.jpg

I’ve always felt an affinity with Sara Cox.  We were both born in 1974, although I was the school year above (honestly, why is that still ‘a thing’ in your mid 40s?!) I spent the 90s being a ‘ladette’ and keeping up with the lads booze consumption-wise.  Admittedly Sara’s ‘party girl years’ were spent being a model around the world and making it in the world of TV – whilst I was training to be a chartered accountant in The Midlands – but otherwise, practically parallel lives?!  Thankfully my exploits never made the Daily Mail (but if anyone has back copies of the Birmingham Chartered Accountants Student Society newsletters – there are some dodgy photos of me at BCASS Balls!!) We both then had short lived first marriages, and thankfully longer lived second marriages – and our kids are similar ages.  In fact some Christmasses ago Sara and I shared a tweet exchange about a particular Sylvanian Families house we were both having to put together for our firstborns – when they were about half the age they are now! I made the move from Radio 1 to Radio 2 at a similar time to Sara – admittedly only as a listener rather than a presenter – but on numerous occasions Sara has read out my texts (in the olden days) and more recently tweets – which I like to think is because we are kindred spirits (and not just because there wasn’t much sent in by listeners that day……)  Anyway – when I saw Sara had written a book about her childhood I was keen to read it – and as I’ve said before, I’m lucky enough to be sent loads of free books to review – so it’s quite unusual for me to part with cash for a book – but in this case I did!

Here’s the blurb:

“Till the Cows Come Home is DJ and TV presenter Sara Cox’s wonderfully written, funny coming of age memoir of growing up in 1980s Lancashire.
The youngest of five siblings, Sara grew up on her father’s cattle farm surrounded by dogs, cows, horses, fields and lots of ‘cack’. The lanky kid sister – half girl, half forehead – a nuisance to the older kids, the farm was her very own dangerous adventure playground, ‘a Bolton version of Narnia’.
Her writing conjures up a time of wagon rides and haymaking and agricultural shows, alongside chain smoking pensioners, cabaret nights at the Conservative club and benign parenting. Sara’s love of family, of the animals and the people around them shines through on every page. Unforgettable characters are lovingly and expertly drawn bringing to life a time and place.
Sara later divided her childhood days between the beloved farm and the pub she lived above with her mother, these early experiences of freedom and adventure came to be the perfect training ground for later life.
This funny, big-hearted and often moving telling of Sara Cox’s semi rural upbringing is not what you’d expect from the original ladette, and one of radio’s most enduring and well loved presenters.”

 

The book tells the story of Sara’s life (and how she ended up Sara rather than Sarah professionally at least) from her birth and childhood, up until she started on TV with The Girlie Show.  It’s not strictly chronological – but basically is – with some meanderings, just as you’d expect if you were chatting to a mate. In fact, because Sara’s voice is so familiar – you can almost hear her saying what she’s written and it feels like chatting to a mate – albeit a bit one sided.  (Actually, if you were to buy the audiobook you would exactly hear it in Sara’s voice!)

Being the same age, loads of the reference points were the same – shops, TV programmes, dress sense, sickly sweet drinks etc – which was great.

I grew up in the suburbs of Brum – and not on a farm – but in recent years we have acquired chickens, pigs and horses – and so lots of those references were also apt.  We also have a horse traumatised by a plastic bag blowing the breeze…….

I really enjoyed the romp through the 80s and 90s and was keen to know how the story developed – as this isn’t the ‘Sara’ that you have read about in the papers over the years.

The book made me realise we have other things in common too – a shared love of our families – immediate and extended, and more than anything, a powerhouse 4 foot 11 inch mother to credit for where we are today (although my Mum is probably now going to comment that she’s actually 4 foot 11 and a half?!)

All in all a great read – and I look forward to a future instalment in a few years time.