C. J. Sansom (2014) Lamentation. Mantle

The sixth in the series of historical thrillers featuring the lawyer Matthew Shardlake and his assistant Barak. Many of the characters are familiar from earlier books, including Guy the apothecary, Richard Rich, Lady Latimer (now Catherine Parr) and Thomas Seymour.

The queen is desperate for the assistance of those she can trust. The king’s health is failing and he is growing increasingly paranoid. Whispers in the ear of the king can cause him to act impetuously. An act of secrecy or the suspicion of disloyalty can lead to accusations of treason, even if you are the woman he loves and even more so for those who seek to help her. Political manoeuvring, the forming and reforming of allegiances and double-crossing abound. Sansom conjures up the atmosphere of fear and despair behind the grandeur of court life where family honour and upholding the religious traditions are more important than the fate of an individual.

Henry’s ambitions in Europe are bankrupting the country and religious practice is again uncertain as the king looks towards Rome. For those at court, and the ordinary people, the need to follow, and be seen to follow, the religious practices acceptable to the king is paramount.

A gripping read although being a large book it is not so easy to read lying down! All the signs are that, although Matthew is ageing, the lawyer could have a role supporting the king’s successor and this may not be the last in the series of Shardlake books.


Shona MacLean (2011) Crucible of Secrets. Quercus Publishing 

A historical thriller set in Aberdeen in 1631 the murdered body of the university librarian is discovered within the first few pages. Although this is the sequel to “The Redemption of Alexander Seaton” this novel is complete within itself.

Beneath the respectable veneer of the day to day life of the university masters, their associates and families lie some unpalatable truths, including an interest in the carefully guarded knowledge of the masons. The masons are intent on discovering the secrets of alchemy.

A second body is found in a shallow grave. Alexander Seaton is determined to investigate the two murders but his investigations into the lives of powerful people in Aberdeen society put the lives of himself and his family at risk. He is left unsure who to suspect and who he can trust.

A good read, as promised by the picture on the cover. I enjoyed being immersed in 17th century Aberdeen although for me it didn’t convey the wider historical context and I won’t be transferring my allegiance away from C. J. Sansom

Thich Nhat Hanh (2008) The Miracle of Mindfulness. London: Rider


140 pages, a very manageable length. I felt that this would be an interesting follow-up to an 8 week MBSR course. This book was borrowed from the fabulous Devon Recovery Learning Community library 😀

A major focus was on using the breath to anchor our mindfulness practice and if this is something you are struggling this may provide some helpful ideas. Similarly with mindfulness of thoughts and thinking. There are also some practical ideas on sitting positions and a suggestion for how to structure a day of mindful practice very simply at home.

I grappled with Chapter 5 and the concept of the five aggregates and to be honest failed to grasp this. Undeterred I carried on reading.

The chapter on exercises in mindfulness has a number of suggestions and some ideas for contemplations, akin to loving kindness or compassionate meditations. There may be a reason why I had to smile when I reached “Compassion for the person you hate or despise the most” – no, really, yep afraid so.

I particularly liked the image in Chapter 4 of a pebble dropping into a river, sinking through the water and settling in the sand at the bottom of the river as you settle into your practice and into your body. As the pebble rests on the sand it is neither pushed nor pulled by the river. This is something that really caught me and I will integrate into my own practice.

Overall an interesting read that you can skim, dip in and dip out of or as I did and read cover to cover. Definitely a helpful supplement after a taught mindfulness course.



Matthew Johnstone (2015) The Little Book of Resilience. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd


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Matthew Johnstone author and illustrator of bestselling books including “I Had a Black Dog” describes himself as a passionate mental health and wellbeing advocate and has a website http://www.matthewjohnstone.com.au. I was very excited when his latest offering “The Little Book of  Resilience – How to bounce back from adversity and lead a fulfilling life” dropped through the letterbox.

This beautifully illustrated book suggests that our ideal life is one where the sun always shines, we are happy, healthy and fulfilled… We spend energy protecting ourselves from the realities of life but life doesn’t play fair. We put a lot of effort into regretting our past, maintaining the face we show the world, wanting things we don’t have… Life for most of us will have joys and sorrows and resilience is about how we respond to adversity.

Johnstone offers helpful perspectives such as “Thoughts are not facts”. Importantly he does not suggest that the advice offered is easy to put into practice, for example, “A vitally important virtue is patience. In this world of everything being instant, we expect the same when it comes to our difficulties.”

In Part II Johnstone identifies a number of important areas that need to be attended to if we want to build our resilience which include but are not limited to:

  • physical activity,
  • taking part,
  • helping others,
  • keep learning
  • taking notice

Incidentally these are the 5 ways to well-being promoted by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) see http://www.fivewaystowellbeing.org

This is followed by a list of websites for potentially relevant organisations offering information and support.

Finally there are a few empty pages for your own notes.


Paul Hoffman (2010) The Left Hand of God. London: Penguin Books

The first thing that attracted me to this book in our community library was the title and then the cover – I was looking forward to some exciting combination of murder and religion (a bit like Umberto Eco and “The Name Of The Rose”). It also helped that Eoin Colfer, whose work I like, called it “Magnificent”

Hoffman has created a fictional world the historical context for which is approximately biblical. A group of “Redeemers”, somewhere between monks and warriors, are training up “acolytes”, boys who if they survive the training, are to become ruthless soldiers fighting a war against the “Antagonists”, the purpose of which is not quite clear. The boys are often orphans or children whose families are prepared to sell their sons to the Redeemers. So far the war on the Eastern Front is not going well and reinforcements are needed.

Much of the early part of the book is spent detailing the boys education in the “Sanctuary” which is unforgiving and austere conditions in which the boys live. The Redeemers naturally favour somewhat more luxurious conditions for themselves.

The book’s central character is a teenage boy, Thomas Cale, whose future is bound up with the success of the Redeemers. Thomas plans to outwit the Redeemers and escape, which is no easy matter made somewhat harder by the fact that the escape party is finally made up of Thomas, his two friends and a girl. Girls have not featured until now in the boys’ lives…

At times Hoffman’s style put me in mind of Terry Pratchett. For example, “The Guelphs – a people of notoriously ungenerous disposition – have a saying: no good deed goes unpunished. Cale was soon to discover the occasional truth of this miserable proverb.”

Fans of Hoffman will be pleased to know that there is a sequel. I did enjoy this, particularly once the characters were on the run. Perhaps we are meant to feel somewhat ambiguous about Thomas by the end of this book but I felt so ambiguous that I don’t feel the need to read the sequel.

Described by the Daily Express as “A cult classic”, throughout the book there seemed to be clever allusions to our own culture and history. For example, is the “war” the redeemers are fighting World War I? A war that required the unquestioning sacrifice of large numbers of young men. The Redeemers revere statues of the “Hanged Redeemer” and I was wondering if in this twist on a monastic order the hanged redeemer is meant to be Judas? If anyone can add to these speculations that would be great, please get in touch.


Glenys O’Connell (2011) Post-traumatic Stress Disorder – The Essential Guide. Peterborough: Need2Know Books

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This book was well laid out and easy to read. Each chapter has a summary of the key information and the end of the book has a list of other sources of information, inc the NICE guidelines, and resources. 

Increasingly we recognise that people who have suffered extreme and life threatening situations can develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, PTSD can also develop following less extreme events, for example, serious car accidents, sexual abuse and bullying.

This book covers what PTSD is, the different forms of PTSD and the potential causes, diagnosis, PTSD in children and living with a person who has PTSD. 

Other chapters address the treatments available – here the key message is to get help, starting with your GP – and some of the language used to talk about symptoms e.g. flashbacks, numbing and hyper vigilance. Ways in which a person can help themselves are suggested as “a sense of empowerment is important in an illness that leaves a person feeling helpless”.

I was looking for a book on PTSD and this was one of the two titles in the Devon libraries’ stock. It seemed like a good place to start for an overview, published in 2011, so fairly current.

I would recommend this as an introduction to the subject for anyone who thinks they or a loved one may be struggling with PTSD or who has had a recent diagnosis and wants further information.

Henry Marsh (2014) Do No Harm – Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery. London: Orion Books Ltd.

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I found this book a great read and the draw of “just another chapter” hard to resist. Inevitably there is some terminology but always well explained.

Henry Marsh’s medical career had an unconventional start by today’s standards. He describes how, as a young doctor, he became hardened and detached from his patients seeing them as a separate race from the all-important, invincible young doctors. Earlier in his career he describes himself as having felt threatened by and fearful of failure.  Approaching the end of his career he now feels less detached from his patients and more aware of his own vulnerability.

He talks about the reality of informed consent and how as patients awaiting surgery we tend to invest doctors with superhuman qualities.

Discussing the risks in the outpatients’ clinic he acknowledges that the patient’s choice to go ahead with surgery or not depends on how he explains the risks of operating compared with the risks of not operating. He is committed to making sure that relatives are also aware of the risks “It can be difficult to find the balance between optimism and realism.” Most patients and families research their disease on line. “…the paternalistic white lies of the past will no longer be believed.”

“You [the surgeon] must learn to be objective about what you see, and yet not lose your humanity in the process.” “Knowing when not to operate is just as important as knowing how to operate, and is a more difficult skill to acquire.” Excellent communication skills are key, although he observes that in some situations it is tempting to operate where the patient may survive but be hopelessly disabled, in order to avoid a painful conversation with a family and being honest about the likely outcome. He states that death is not always a bad outcome and a quick death can be better than a slow one. Unquestioning treatment, operating on every case, will result in many people surviving with terrible brain damage. Most neurosurgeons get increasingly conservative with age. The patient leaving the hospital alive he says is not the definition of success, if the result is a human disaster.

In his routine of visiting patients on a Sunday evening before surgery, presumably now a thing of the past with patients now admitted only on the day of surgery, he describes how the confidence that his patients’ have in him is contagious and how he disliked talking to patients on the morning of their operation saying “I prefer not to be reminded of their humanity and their fear, and I do not want them to suspect that I, too, am anxious.”

He describes with touching candour the sense of responsibility when things go wrong as the result of surgery and the experience of having to face a patient “you have damaged it feels as though there is a force field pushing against you, resisting your attempts to raise a hesitant smile… It is much easier to hurry past the patient without saying anything.”

His honesty and self-awareness are particularly reassuring. Whilst envying the generation of surgeons who trained him “who could rage and roar to relieve their frustration and intense stress without fear of being had up for bullying or harassment” he notes that years ago, faced with a delay to the start of surgery (caused by a new computer programme), he would have stormed off in a rage, demanding that something be done, his anger has now come to be replaced with fatalistic despair.

This book was a finalist in the Wellcome Trust book prize 2015, short listed for a Guardian first book award and the Costa Book Awards 2014.

This book was lent to me by a very kind friend, a retired GP, who had himself been involved in training medics. Knowing that I had had a bruising incident with a consultant whilst sitting in on her consultations, his recommendation of this book was probably not a coincidence and I found some of Henry Marsh’s observations extremely helpful, in particular that “Surgeons find it difficult to admit to making mistakes, to themselves as well as others, and there are all manner of ways in which they disguise their errors and try to put the blame elsewhere.” The sense of “self-importance” which Henry Marsh recognized in himself earlier in his career has clearly given way to compassion and an ability to come alongside his patients.

Inspired by this I have read “The Other Side” Kate Granger and can’t wait to start her second book “The Bright Side”.

Atul Gawande’s “Complications” & “Better” are also in my book stack.


The Little Girl in the Radiator (Mum, Alzheimer’s & Me) – Martin Selvin published by Monday Books

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Very accessible and readable. This book follows the experience of a son and primary carer from the point at which his mum is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
There is plenty of light in this account and I was banned from reading this in bed when I couldn’t stop myself from snorting with laughter over the mother and son visit to dog obedience classes. The experience of loss is very vividly illustrated and the most distressing part of the book concerns his mum’s experiences in the first care home.
It is of course one person’s perspective and one family’s experience but it has a huge amount to say about memory loss, cognitive difficulties and the response of medical and social services. I felt it had some really helpful ways of thinking about this type of progressive memory loss, in particular the consultant who likens the loss of memory to rolling up a carpet, where we stand at one end of a long carpet (in the present) and the other end of the carpet represents the early life of the person with memory loss. As the carpet is rolled away from the present the person’s recall and connection with the present is lost, inaccessible within the rolled up carpet. The more the carpet is rolled up the further in time the person has to go back to find a point in their life that they remember (and this becomes their frame of reference).
This book feels like it would further the understanding of health and social care professionals who are working alongside families and individuals especially when we struggle to come to terms with how the reality of a person with cognitive impairment can be so different to our own. I am guessing that if you are a carer some of what is described will resonate with you own experience.
Not surprisingly this book has won the “BMA Board of Science ‘Chair’s Choice’ Book of the Year Award”.
It is available as an e-book and appears on the “Books on Prescription” list of personal stories of living with dementia published by the Reading Agency in September 2014.