Reading for pleasure
This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor
Confessions of a Menopausal Woman
Andrea McLean (Penguin: £9.99; e-book £4.99)
According to Andrew C Ferguson's charming Platinum blog (April 2019), 53% of solicitors in Scotland are female. If you add to that figure female paralegals, support staff and administrators, it becomes clear that a substantial proportion of workers in the legal sector possess ovaries and a uterus and will therefore at some point experience symptoms of the menopause. I am sorry if the male proportion of the readership have stopped reading and skipped to the next review: that is really the whole point of this.
The employment tribunal case of Davies v Scottish Courts & Tribunals Service (2018) caught my attention around the time I picked up this book. In that case the symptoms of the menopause were accepted to be a disability under the Equality Act 2010. Ms Davies was found to have been discriminated against for a reason arising out of that disability and unfairly dismissed. As well as financial compensation, an order was made for reinstatement.
Andrea McLean co-presents ITV's Loose Women, a programme I confess I have never watched. The book is an honest and personal account of her own menopausal experiences, backed up at the end of each chapter by professional medical views. It's chatty, readable, and a book to dip into rather than plough through from start to end. She includes chapters on diet, exercise and mindfulness. She talks about personal relationships. Ms McLean's workplace seems to have been more able to accommodate her particular needs, and indeed turn them into a feature of the show. She talks about survival and personal development, and how to avoid feeling like you've been thrown on the scrapheap because your hormones are changing.
What the book does is show that the subject of menopause is not taboo, not one to be hidden away from colleagues behind a brave face. Ms McLean does not advocate handing a free pass to women of a certain age for "special treatment" because of what our parents' generation might have referred to as "women's problems". She does however make a very relevant point that for 53% plus of the legal sector, the symptoms are real and need careful and sympathetic management. It is not worth sacrificing a valuable and experienced section of the workforce because of menopausal symptoms. They do not last indefinitely.
Finally, to the male readership who have read to the end, I'm proud of you. There's hope.
The Second Worst Restaurant in France
Alexander McCall Smith (Polygon: £14.99; e-book £5.03)
In this latest work of whimsy from the indefatigable professor we once again make the acquaintance of Paul Stuart, food writer and hero of My Italian Bulldozer. Back in Scotland after solving a little problem of vineyard boundaries, Paul is embarking on his next project, a volume on The Philosophy of Food. His relationship with editor Gloria has developed into something more than a professional one. Yet the suspicion is that not all is ideal. Clear divergences of opinion on the respective merits of dogs and cats suggest there may be problems looming. The unwanted attentions of Siamese cats Hamish and Mrs Macdonald in the vicinity of his keyboard make the writing project nigh on impossible.
Enter remarkable Cousin Chloe, and the stage directions toward the titular restaurant begin. Nothing, of course, would ever be so direct in a Sandy McCall Smith novel. There is a misunderstanding in Marchmont with a young lady and an olive. This precipitates the move to a French village outside Poitiers, possibly recognisable in spirit to readers of Joanne Harris. There is the baker; the twin sisters who own half the place; pregnant Audette with unfortunate taste in, and opinions of, men; and, of course, the restaurant. We meet Claude, the second worst chef in France, and Hugo, his kitchen porter nephew. But the glue to bind all of this together is the indomitable Chloe, force of nature and mouthpiece for many non-PC views, a favourite McCall Smith device. Paul is initially swept along, as helpless as a champagne cork popped into a torrential stream; however, none of McCall Smith’s heroes can be anything other than an all round good guy.
Will Audette find safety from the bullying father of her child? Will the doubts cast over Chloe’s veracity (and tales of her five husbands) be dispelled? And will Paul somehow help to transform the fortunes of the restaurant? Come on, boys and girls. This novel is by the creator of Precious Ramotswe and the Number One Ladies Detective Agency. What do you think? But as they would say in maths exams, it’s not just the result that’s important – you have to show working. And it’s discovering how they get from A to B that makes this the fun read that it is.
Devils and Disciples
Ian Simpson (Austin Macauley: £9.99; e-book £3.50)
Regrettably this book was published posthumously, the late Sheriff Ian Simpson having died in December 2017.
Ian brought us many new characters in his second career as author. In this book he acknowledges, as he put it, those who "taught me to write as an author, not a lawyer".
In this novel, Ian Simpson gives us another new character, and one so well written, it is sad to think we will hear no more of him. He is Andrew Carswell QC. He is married to Winnie and his devil is Abigail Hunter. Needless to say, Winnie is suspicious of Andrew and Abigail's relationship, fearing it has crossed a line beyond being only professional. We see the archetypal New Town set in which Winnie and Andrew mix but with reluctance.
PC Cammy Fraser trained as a lawyer but quit to become a police officer. He has run up against Carswell and others. A fellow officer tries to persuade him to lie under oath but he declines, resulting in both an acquittal and the identity of the owner of the safe house used by the police as an observation post being disclosed. His fellow officers point out the "error of his ways" and Cammy relents when next he gives evidence. His senior officers take the view that a few lies and false convictions are all part of the game and the "bad guys" deserve it.
Confessions with Blue Horses
Sophie Hardach (Head of Zeus: £18.99; e-book £6.47)
It is reported that the State Archive of the former East German Ministry of State security has 111km of files, and 15,000 sacks of shredded files of which 91,000 pages have been reconstituted since 2013. There are 45,000 requests annually from former residents of East Germany to view the file kept on them by the Stasi.
This is a breathtaking story crafted from the reality of life for those who sought to escape the former East Germany. The book opens with a father and mother with their three young children approaching an area of border where they are led to believe they can escape. They fail, and the story moves back and forth between the past and present, as Ella, the daughter of the family, decides to delve into what occurred that day near the border and why her parents sought to leave. Her father was shot, but it is unclear whether that was as a result of the shoot to kill policy (for which no proof has yet been found amongst the papers left by the Stasi) or accident. Her mother was imprisoned, her youngest brother's whereabouts are unknown.
Aaron works as an intern at the Stasi archive. He is involved in the reconstruction of papers the Stasi sought to destroy. He becomes engrossed in both the process of reconstruction but also in a particular file. A former East German citizen has requested access to his file. However, while working on it, Aaron finds that under interrogation by the Stasi, the man's son betrayed him. Would the father want to know this? The story gently unfolds as Ella travels to Berlin and she encounters Aaron who undertakes to assist her with the file on her mother. This is an intelligent book raising questions about reconciliation of the past with the future, how much do we really want to know and, in doing so, are we prepared for the truth, no matter its consequences? This book deserves a wide audience.