Category Archives: Book Reviews

‘The Skeleton Cupboard’ by Tanya Byron – Review

the skeleton cupboard

Many of us are familiar with Tanya Byron from her work as a TV psychologist, or from her regular columns in Good Housekeeping and The Times. A respected academic, she advises governments on issues relating to children, young people and mental health, and now she has drawn on her extensive background in the area of mental health to write a work of fiction ‘The Skeleton Cupboard – the making of a clinical psychologist’.

The Skeleton Cupboard opens by telling us about the author’s violent introduction to the concept of frontal lobes at the age of 15. Brutal and shocking, this part of the story deals with the murder of her grandmother, and represents the point where she first became fascinated by mental health as it affects every one of us. This chapter is the only one of the book which details a real life experience; from here on in, the book becomes a fictionalised account of the training placements undertaken by Tanya’s on her journey to becoming qualified. In the words of the author,

 ‘[The characters] are constructs, influenced by the many incredible people I had the privilege of meeting during my training. I dedicate my book to them.’

We are then taken through six case placements in diverse settings, ranging from a psychiatric unit for 12-16 year olds, to a GP surgery, to an older persons’ residence. Each placement brings with it its own challenges and the author does a good job of portraying these in a realistic fashion, whilst at the same time charting her growing confidence – and occasional over-confidence – in dealing with situations arising.  The story also depicts an initially tricky relationship with Tanya’s academic supervisor, which develops into a mutual respect, and as we learn in the book’s epilogue, an enduring professional relationship.

Although the backbone of the story is the author’s journey to becoming qualified, the real flesh on the bones comes from getting to know the diverse characters Tanya meets within each placement. All of these people have stories to tell – some are heartbreaking; some are heartwarming; some are tragic and not all have a happy ending:

‘Paul taught me that my rescue fantasies were my problem. He was my professional salvation. You can’t save everyone. Rescue fantasies are just that; they’re fantasies.

Some people you can’t save.’

The story also informs us about how attitudes to – and treatment of – mental health issues have changed over the years – and raises valid questions about the accepted view that institutions are automatically an inhumane way to treat those with serious mental health problems, as opposed to caring for them in within the community.

‘It was about de-institutionalisation; patients were put on ‘social skills’ programmes in order to one day blend back into the community – a community that just did not bloody care and was frightened by and could not tolerate difference.’

The over-riding message of the story is that we are all, more or less, touched by mental health issues in some way – and this is brought home by some of the very ordinariness of the characters we meet and the lives they lead. In addition Tanya’s supervisor Chris suffers her own breakdown part way through the story, but we are also shown her coming back to work and continuing with her highly successful academic career; the clear message being that nobody, not even a ‘brilliant supervisor…one hard-core, fiercely intelligent, no-nonsense woman’,  can consider themselves immune from mental ill-health at some point in their lives. A point that is made again with the last words of the book:

‘I will end now by re-iterating that none of these people I have written about in The Skeleton Cupboard exist; I have betrayed no confidence by telling their stories.

But then again, I would suggest, and forgive me for leaving you with this, that they actually do exist – bits of them exist in us all’.

I found The Skeleton Cupboard to be an engaging read, easy to get into and follow, despite the complexity of the subject matter. The book deals with a difficult subject, one that is still not as openly discussed or accepted as it should be, but it does so in a non-threatening and unpatronising fashion. I would definitely recommend this book – if you have an interest in psychology there is plenty to fascinate you; equally, if you don’t think mental health issues are any of your concern, reading the book may open some interesting doors onto the subject.

**Disclosure – I received a free copy of this book from Mumsnet and PanMacmillan Books, in exchange for writing a review. I have not been otherwise recompensed for this post, nor have I been asked to say anything specific in the review.**

‘The Hive’ by Gill Hornby – Review

‘Welcome to St Ambrose Primary School. A world of friendships, fights and feuding. And that’s just the mothers’.

The Hive by Gill Hornby

The Hive is a school gate saga, which runs from the beginning of the Autumn term through to the following September. We’re introduced to a bunch of mothers – there’s Rachel, the nice, normal, if slightly scatty one who is just recovering from her husband doing a runner; Bea, the Queen Bee who everyone wants to hang out with; Heather who tries too hard; Jo, the permanently downtrodden stressball; Georgie, ascerbic and refusing to get involved. The beginning of the book sees this long standing group expanded by the arrival of Bubba, best described as nice but dim,  Melissa, a boringly perfect Fairy Godmother type and – of course – Tom Orchard, handsome new headmaster.

Most of the action takes place at drop off or pickup time, or at PTA related activities like the fundraising committee meeting, the Lunch Ladder or the Lakeside Ball. This leads to something of a whirlwind narrative; conversations are left unfinished, misunderstandings have room to flourish, we never find out quite what’s going on behind the facade. This is of course an accurate reflection of life at the school gates – half formed friendships that never have a chance to blossom, snatched snippets of conversation, wondering if that person is really in a hurry or if you (or your kids) have done something randomly wrong. However, the very accuracy of the device leads to the book’s biggest downfall – I did not get to know any of the characters enough to really care what happened in their lives. I mean I know I was supposed to be looking forward to Rachel and Tom getting together, and I know I was supposed to be glad that the new Queen Bee of the playground seemed to be a force for good rather than the shallow and heartless Bea, but really? I just wasn’t that bothered.

I would have liked to know more about the children too – perhaps this is the mother in me speaking but for a novel based at the school gates, they seemed conspicuous by their absence – even in the life of Rachel, the main protagonist. Right now I can’t actually remember the name of a single one of the kids belonging to this gaggle of mothers and while I get that the novel is about female friendship rather than motherhood, perhaps some more about the children and their interactions would have provided a bit more depth to the mothers themselves.

There were some potentially serious themes in the book – a parent’s suicide; classroom bullying (pretty much unnoticed by the mothers);  Heather’s growth in confidence being accompanied by a growth in meanness; but these were treated to much the same haphazard narrative as the more lighthearted events that make up the bulk of the book, and as such, did not add anything at all. I also personally found the final flourish of Bea’s downfall somewhat unnecessary. I’m all for comeuppance where it’s needed but the flippant references to Zimmer frames and the need for a carer – along with the complete lack of interest from the supposedly good hearted main characters – left a sour taste in my mouth.

I approached The Hive in the way that I’d approach a Catherine Alliott or an Adele Parks. Not the kind of reading matter I’d bring up in a job interview, sure, but usually enjoyable, amusing, and perfect holiday reading. I’m sorry to say that despite being generally well reviewed, I really was not that fussed on it at all. However – in the balance of fairness, you might like to read these other, far more positive reviews before making up your mind!

Jenny Turner for The Guardian

Angela Huth for The Spectator

Sam Baker for The Sunday Times (paywalled so I haven’t read it – but quoted on the cover)

**Disclosure – I received a free copy of this book from Mumsnet and LittleBrown Books, in exchange for writing a review. I have not been otherwise recompensed for this post, nor have I been asked to say anything specific in the review.**

‘Just What Kind of Mother Are You’ by Paula Daly – Review

Just What Kind Of Mother Are You - Paula Daly

‘Just What Kind of Mother Are You’ is Paula Daly’s first novel, though she’s bringing out a second this year and working on her third as we speak.  Published last year and receiving positive reviews both here and stateside, the story promised to be ‘a cracking page turner’ (the Bookseller) and ‘fiendishly addictive as well as perceptive about guilt and social class’ (the Guardian).

The story is told by Lisa, a forty-something mum living in a small Lake District town. I was immediately drawn to Lisa – probably because there are some aspects of her life that I recognise – she’s a Mum of three,  permanently knackered, a bit too skint for comfort, constantly chasing her tail to keep life ticking over for everyone around her. And then, within the first couple of chapters, she makes a mistake – a terrifyingly easy mistake – which leads to the disappearance of her close friend’s daughter.

Lisa’s guilt and anguish is well depicted and is easy to identify with as she continues to relate the story, and as she does so, we come to know some of the other main players in the book, and their shared histories – namely her husband Joe, the missing girl’s parents Kate and Guy, Kate’s sister Alexa, and brother-in-law Adam. Needless to say, all is not what it seems and the desire to get to the bottom of the apparent contradictions, and of course to find out what happened to the missing girl, does indeed make this novel a page turner.

Interspersed with Lisa’s narrative are chapters written in the third person describing the thoughts and actions of the detective who’s been assigned to the case, and infrequent but chilling descriptions of the behaviour of an unidentified male. The three strands of the story are cleverly woven together to keep the novel moving along at a good pace, and it’s certainly true to say that I was picking it up every spare minute to find out how it played out.

As promised by The Guardian’s review, the themes of social class and guilt were both explored, although not in any great depth; while the overriding message that the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence is of course true, I felt that perhaps this message was too simplistically portrayed. In addition the line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people was drawn very arbitrarily in the final pages.  I did feel that an opportunity was missed here – just because someone is immensely dislikable does not make them any less of a victim; and in this case, I would certainly have liked to know more about Alexa and felt that this would have added something worthwhile to the narrative.

On the other hand, the character and life of DC Joanne Aspinall is given some prominence throughout the story, and while this did not detract from the experience of reading the novel, I was not really clear why. It did not seem to me that there was quite enough linkage between Joanne and the main characters to justify the time spent on her – in fact I find myself wondering if perhaps the author has plans for us to meet her again in a future story, like Jodi Picoult’s Jordan McAfee. I hope so – I think there’s an interesting character there waiting to come out.

I thoroughly enjoyed the story, though it’s probably not a novel I will return to a second time – I am not sure how much more there is to discover after reading it once through. However I have added Paula Daly’s second book, ‘Keep Your Friends Close’, to my Kindle wish list, and based on my experience of ‘Just What Kind of Mother Are You’, I fully expect to enjoy it.

On the whole, I would recommend ‘Just What Kind of Mother Are You’ to anyone who wants an engaging, fast and gripping read. If you’re a parent there are parts that will resonate all too well, but that isn’t a pre-requisite for enjoyment – there’s enough to keep you entertained even without the ‘it could happen to me’ fear factor. If you do give the book a try based on this review, I’d love to know your thoughts – as always, please do comment below or via the twittersphere!

**Disclosure – I received a free copy of this book from Mumsnet and Transworld Books, in exchange for writing a review. I have not been otherwise recompensed for this post, nor have I been asked to say anything specific in the review.**