Forgetting Foster: A Child’s-Eye View of Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease…

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Today’s offering – Forgetting Foster by Aussie author Dianne Touchell – is a moving look at Alzheimer’s disease and its devastating effects on the family, told from the point of view of Foster, a seven-year-old only child.  Having read Touchell’s debut novel, Creepy and Maud, a number of years back, we knew that we would be in for something special here.  We received a copy from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Foster suddenly recognised the feeling that rolled over him and made him feel sick. It was this: Dad was going away somewhere all on his own. And Foster was already missing him.

Foster Sumner is seven years old. He likes toy soldiers, tadpole hunting, going to school and the beach. Best of all, he likes listening to his dad’s stories.

But then Foster’s dad starts forgetting things. No one is too worried at first. Foster and Dad giggle about it. But the forgetting gets worse. And suddenly no one is laughing anymore.

A heartbreaking story about what it means to forget and to be forgotten.

Forgetting Foster | REVISED FINAL COVER x 2 (18 April 2016)

Forgetting Foster (Dianne Touchell) Published by Allen & Unwin, 22 June 2016. RRP: 19.99

Given that I have a special interest in books featuring characters suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, I can confidently say that this is an excellent addition to the fictional literature on the topic.  Forgetting Foster is made more memorable (pardon the pun!) due to the fact that this is a title aimed at a YA target audience (although I’m not convinced this is a necessary label) and told from the point of view of a child.  It reminded me most strongly of What Milo Saw by Virginia Macgregor, although far less gimmicky in tone and much the better for it.

I loved Touchell’s narrative style; she has a certain ability to evoke crystal clear imagery through writing that is almost poetic at times.  It felt very similar to Glenda Millard’s style of prose, and that is high praise, given that regular readers of this blog will know that we think Glenda Millard is a genius.  If you are familiar with Millard’s Kingdom of Silk series, simply extrapolate that kind of deft and unshrinking confrontation of difficult issues onto a story written for a more mature audience and you’ll have a good idea of the approach Touchell  has taken in addressing the confusion, grief and overwhelming worry of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease.

The use of a child character to address an adult issue is usually a sure-fire way to show a well-worn issue in a new light and that is certainly the case here.  Foster is sharp as a tack when it comes to the realisation that life as he knew it is slipping away, but the social nuances of the adults’ behaviour go over his head.  Many of the self-defeating actions of Foster’s mother are brought into sharp focus when viewed through Foster’s lens and I found it harder to sympathise with her as the book went on, despite the fact that she is obviously under enormous stress and dealing with her own issues of grief and the emotional and mental, if not phsycial, loss of a husband at such an early stage in life.  I found Foster’s aunty to be a breath of fresh air through the whole story, maintaining, as she does, an unflinching sense of optimism.  This optimism is clearly feigned at times, and even though Foster’s mother doesn’t appreciate it, it worked neatly to stop the reader from being sucked into the pit of despair along with Foster’s mother.

This is another one of those “YA” books that will easily cross age borders and be appreciated as clever and touching adult fiction.  I certainly never got any sense that this was specifically written for a young audience and Foster as a character only confirmed this for me.  He is seven, for a start – far too young a narrator for a typical YA tale – and only a tiny part of the story is given over to his life.  He doesn’t seem to have any close friends or engage in any hobbies that might be expected of a seven year old.  For this reason, I suspect that Foster is best described as a gentle conduit into a world of cataclysmic change – a way to allow the reader to experience the emotions that go along with losing a family member while being shielded from the worst of it.

I did feel that I wanted something more from the book once it was finished.  I’m not sure if this was because I was expecting more to be made of the comparative youth of the character suffering from Alzheimer’s disease – Foster’s father – or simply because I have read a number of books already – both fiction and nonfiction – on the topic, but I wanted a bit of a kick in the tale that I didn’t quite receive.  It’s possible that because it was Foster’s dad, not his grandfather, that was quickly moving downhill, I wanted the experience of that loss to feel more significant and raw and I didn’t quite get that from Foster’s narration.  This may be where the book feels closest to the YA category, as those deeper and more troubling experiences related to grieving the total loss of someone who is still alive, are left alone.

Forgetting Foster is certainly worth a read if you are looking for a contemporary novel that deals with grief, loss and confusion in an extremely accessible way – not to mention if you are looking for a cracking OZ YA title.  Again, I wouldn’t be put off by the fact that this is a “YA” novel, because it reads magnificently as adult fiction.  For grown-up readers looking for nonfiction reads on the same topic, allow me to suggest Green Vanilla Tea by Marie Williams (another brilliant Aussie tale).

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

A Wild, YA Double-Dip Review: Chronicling Dementia and Obesity…

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image

Today I have a diary-ish Double-Dip for you, with two very different social issues discussed from the point of view of teenagers past and present.  We received both of these titles from their respective publishers via Netgalley.  Let’s settle down with a memorable and/or healthy snack and check them out.

First up, we have The Dementia Diaries: A Novel in Cartoons by Matthew Snyman and the Social Innovations Lab, Kent.  here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Brie’s Granddad has always been a serious man, never without a newspaper and knowing the answer to everything. But now he keeps losing track of the conversation, and honestly, Brie doesn’t really know how to speak to him. At first, Fred was annoyed that Gramps had come to live with them, it meant he had to give up his room! But then he starts to enjoy watching old films with him and spending time together… although there’s the small problem of Gramps calling him Simon.

Follow the stories of Brie, Fred, and other young carers as they try to understand and cope with their grandparents’ dementia at all stages of the illness. Adapted from true stories, and supplemented with fun activities and discussion ideas, this book for children aged approximately 7-14 cuts to the truth of the experience of dementia and tackles stigma with a warm and open perspective.

Dip into it for…dementia diaries

A highly engaging and light-hearted read that sheds some light on a major health issue around the world, from the perspective of youngsters living with a relative who has dementia.  The book is structured to reflect the progression of the disease, from the early stages, through the diagnosis, and what happens when the patient can no longer be looked after in their own home.  The young people’s illustrated stories are accessible and demonstrate the range of emotions, challenges and changes that the family experiences when trying to support a family member with dementia.  Each chapter also suggests further tasks, research and discussion questions, making this a perfect resource for the classroom.

Don’t dip if…

…you are looking for an in-depth exploration of how supporting a person with dementia affects a young person psychologically.  The stories related here are intended to be a teaching tool and point of access for young readers to get a glimpse into what might be expected when caring for a family member with dementia.

Overall Dip Factor:

This is a clever method of providing young people with information on a relevant topic in an enjoyable and non-confrontational way.  The different experiences of the diarists are perfect conversation starters and allow young people who may be feeling alone in their situation to realise that many others face similar challenges and have similar emotions about the changes happening for their loved one.  More than that however, the book is simply an interesting, fun and touching read, regardless of whether or not one has experience with the illness and its affects.

Next up, we have a bit of historical narrative non-fiction with My Mad Fat Diary by Rae Earl.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

It’s 1989 and Rae Earl is a fat, boy-mad 17-year-old girl, living in Stamford, Lincolnshire with her mum and their deaf white cat in a council house with a mint green bathroom and a refrigerator Rae can’t keep away from. She’s also just been released from a psychiatric ward. My Mad Fat Diary is the hilarious, harrowing and touching real-life diary Rae kept during that fateful year and the basis of the hit British television series of the same name now coming to HULU. Surrounded by people like her constantly dieting mum, her beautiful frenemy Bethany, her mates from the private school up the road (called “Haddock”, “Battered Sausage” and “Fig”) and the handsome, unattainable boys Rae pines after (who sometimes end up with Bethany…),My Mad Fat Diary is the story of an overweight young woman just hoping to be loved at a time when slim pop singers ruled the charts. Rae’s chronicle of her world will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever been a confused, lonely teenager clashing with her parents, sometimes overeating, hating her body, always taking herself VERY seriously, never knowing how positively brilliant she is and keeping a diary to record it all. My Mad Fat Diary – 365 days with one of the wisest and funniest girls in England.

mad fat diary

Dip into it for…

…some of the greatest, angsty, rhyming teen poetry ever seen.  There were echoes of Adrian Mole in this amusing foray back to the eighties, except Rae is obviously a lot smarter and more insightful than fictional Adrian.  Some parts – such as the name-calling from random strangers and friends alike – are quite hard to read and other parts are simply quite funny.  This being a North American edition of the book, there is also a glossary of sorts in the front, explaining all the British terms that our friends across the Pond might not be familiar with.  For me, this was the funniest part of the whole reading experience as I imagined confused Americans flicking back to the glossary to decipher Rae’s cryptic ramblings.  Adrian Mole art imitating life indeed!

Don’t dip if…

…you’re after a reading experience that involves enormous changes in the diarist by the end of the tome.  One of the problems of diaries is that much of the change recorded happen little by little, and by our very habitual nature, much of the content becomes repetitive after a while.

Overall Dip Factor:

Rae is a supremely relatable narrator and her anguish and triumphs and daily struggles will be recognisable to teens of today as well as those of us who were there the first time around.  It will no doubt be quite an eye-opener for youngsters of today to note that Rae has to use the phone booth down the street because her mother won’t get a phone at home! Overall, this is an absorbing read in parts and generally a humorous jaunt into the mind of a teenager on the outer.

Until next time,

Bruce

How Not To Disappear: A Top Book of 2016 Pick!

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Bruce's Pick

Ding Ding Ding! It’s another Top Book of 2016!

How Not to Disappear by Clare Furniss is a YA road-trip novel featuring dementia, secret pregnancy and lots and lots of gin slings.  We were lucky enough to receive a copy from Simon & Shuster Australia for review – thanks!  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Hattie’s summer isn’t going as planned. Her two best friends have abandoned her: Reuben has run off to Europe to “find himself” and Kat’s in Edinburgh with her new girlfriend. Meanwhile Hattie is stuck babysitting her twin siblings and dealing with endless drama around her mum’s wedding. Oh, and she’s also just discovered that she’s pregnant with Reuben’s baby… Then Gloria, Hattie’s great-aunt who no one previously knew even existed comes crashing into her life. Gloria’s fiercely independent, rather too fond of a gin sling and is in the early stages of dementia. Together the two of them set out on a road trip of self-discovery – Gloria to finally confront the secrets of her past before they are wiped from her memory forever and Hattie to face the hard choices that will determine her future.

how not to disappear

Apart from the excessive drinking that no one on the shelf (except for Shouty Doris) really goes in for, this book had everything we enjoy in a good novel:  England (Whitby in particular), road trips, poor decision making, flashbacks and snarky elderly ladies.  I’ll be honest with you – it was a slow-burn decision to nominate this book as a Top Book of 2016, but the ending is so sensitively written that it would be a travesty for us to leave it off the list.

The narrative moves back and forth between the present (narrated by Hattie) and the past (narrated by Gloria) and so the reader slowly discovers the events that have led Gloria to her current living conditions.  It is made clear from the start that Gloria’s past was not a happy place and as Hattie finds out more about Gloria and Gwen (Hattie’s grandmother), she begins to question whether or not the road trip down unhappy-memory lane was such a good idea.

It is obvious to the reader pretty early on that Gloria must have experienced some life events that might resonate with Hattie’s current condition and so it turns out to be.  The first half of the book unfolds much as one might expect it to, with Hattie wavering over what to do about her pregnancy, and Gloria wielding pointy, pointy words with a mastery that comes from a lifetime of practice.

It is the second half, or possibly final third, of this book which really sets it apart from the common herd.  For a start, there are a few twists in Gloria’s tale that I didn’t see coming until they were upon me, and Hattie’s character development goes into overdrive.  The final chapters, which focus on life for the two ladies post-road-trip are moving and authentic and really touched this old gargoyle’s stony heart.

The best recommendation for How Not To Disappear I can give is that it is a story that transcends its YA categorisation.  Sure, the main character is a young person, with young person friends, dealing with young person problems, but the story as a whole avoids YA tropes and clichés and allows Hattie to be read as a protagonist in an adult fiction novel.  If you are after a contemporary read that is funny, realistic and moving and approaches the legacy of damaged family ties with real authenticity then you could do a lot worse than picking up How Not to Disappear.

Until next time,

Bruce

Adult Fiction Haiku Review: Elizabeth is Missing…

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It’s Mad Martha with you today to share a haiku review for a book that we have read recently and very much enjoyed.  Dealing, as it does, with senior citizens, we were already predisposed to feel affection towards it, but the writing and the plot have cemented this book as one which will remain with us for a long time (ironically, given the afflictions of the main character). I speak, of course, of Elizabeth is Missing, a contemporary literary fiction novel by Emma Healey.

The book follows the slow decline of Maud, an elderly lady who experiences a constant feeling of distress at the fact that her friend Elizabeth has gone missing, and this distress is exacerbated by the fact that no one seems to believe her.  Maud, it must be said, is also suffering from what can only be described as dementia, but despite forgetting to turn the cooker off, the names of her carers, and various other important facts of her day-to-day existence, the pressing need to find out where Elizabeth has got to consumes her waking mind.  As Maud’s condition deteriorates, she is drawn ever deeper into memories of her past, in which her older sister, Sukey, also mysteriously disappeared without trace shortly after the War.  While Maud’s daughter Helen does all she can to distract and reassure her ailing mother about the current mystery of Elizabeth’s whereabouts, nothing will stand in the way of the indomitable Maud as her disintegrating mind works to uncover the secrets that are being hidden from her.  With single-minded purpose, Maud continues on her quest to find Elizabeth, and in the process inadvertantly digs up some clues that may also help solve a family mystery that has persisted for rather longer.

elizabeth is missing

What was it again?

My friend, yes! She’s missing! Who?

Elizabeth? No…

Healey has done a fantastic job here of capturing the frustration, confusion and general sense of loss that accompany the decline of a once-agile mind without sinking any of her characters into a mire of depression.  From her own recollections of girlhood, we can tell that Maud has always had a curious and fairly tenacious personality and this is reflected in the character’s ever more drastic attempts to make people aware that Elizabeth is missing and that something must be done about it.  Helen, Maud’s daughter and carer, is realistically portrayed as a frustrated woman of middle-age trying to manage both teenage daughter and elderley mother simultaneously.  While I was reading I had the strongest feelings of resonance between the events and emotions portrayed in this fictional work with the events and emotions portrayed in the real-life memoir of Andrea Gillies, Keeper: One House, Three Generations and A Journey into Alzheimer’s,  in which Gillies describes being a full-time carer for her mother-in-law.  Despite Maud’s hot-and-cold relationship with Helen as her disease progresses, Healey never demonises Helen but, I think, strikes a nice balance between the frustration of the declining and the frustration of the carer.

My favourite relationship here is that between Maud and her grand-daughter Katy – throughout the book Maud has a hit-and-miss record of remembering who Katy is, but it is obvious that Katy, slightly rebellious teenager that she is, is the only one prepared to meet Maud where she’s at.  The two have some brilliant conversations in which the patronising tone of other adults in the book towards Maud is completely absent and it’s delightful to see how this simple dynamic changes Maud’s outlook and reminds her that she is still a functioning individual on many levels.

Apart from the fantastic characterisation in the book, the mystery of Elizabeth has a nice arc of suspense to it.  Although as the story moves on, the reader can make some educated guesses about Elizabeth’s whereabouts, the final reveal is compounded by this new (old) mystery of the disappearence of Maud’s older sister.  There’s a good sense of balance played out between the two mysteries – as one begins to wind down in the mind of the reader, the other is picked up, creating a continuous sense of puzzlement that is reflected in both Maud’s actions and the actions of those around her.

Overall, this was a thoroughly enjoyable read with a clever twist on your standard cosy-type mystery.  Although there is a bit of humour peppered throughout the book, it felt to me to be quite a dense read, so I would suggest picking it up when you have plenty of time to unravel the threads of memory along with Maud.

Until we meet again, may your ration books be plump and juicy and your marrows be ever filled with stamps…or something like that, anyway.

Mad Martha

* I received a digital copy of Elizabeth is Missing from the publisher via Netgalley *

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Odds and Ends: Double Haiku Review and Fi50 Reminder…

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Good morning to you, munchkins of Blogland! I have a bit of a mixed bag today – firstly, Mad Martha will present you with two haiku reviews for some great books we’ve encountered recently, and then I’ll provide you with this month’s Fi50 prompt, so you can all get working over the weekend on your micro-narratives.

Well, after a spate of middle grade and young adult ARCs, we shelf denizens have spent a little bit of time reacquainting ourselves with big people’s books.  Today’s first offering, Green Vanilla Tea by Marie Williams is a highly readable memoir in which the author reflects on experiencing the journey toward her husband Dominic’s terminal illness, alongside their two teenage sons.  Green Vanilla Tea recounts the experiences of this young family before, during and after Dominic’s diagnosis with early onset dementia and motor neurone disease in his early forties.  William’s memoir charts the confusing and sometimes frightening incidents pre-diagnosis, through the everyday struggles of caring for a young man in rapid decline, and the difficult decisions she faced around finding suitable end-of-life care for her husband.  One would expect the subject matter of this book to be harrowing and deeply depressing, but William’s honest reflections and use of humour lift the book out of that mire and result in a life-affirming and ultimately hopeful read that we highly recommend.  And we also give bonus points for being an Australian book.

Mad Martha’s haiku for this one is based on her favourite anecdote in the book…

green-vanilla-tea

Wife losing life’s love

asks, “How would you like your tea?”

Perplexed. “In a cup”

And while on the subject of hopeful, uplifting narratives, I recently discovered that shelf-favourite Alexander McCall Smith has released as an e-book The Slice of No. 1 Celebration Storybook: Fifteen Years with Mma Ramotswe, to celebrate this milestone of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series.  As great fans of this series (that was introduced to us through the inspired gifting of a very insightful friend of the shelf!) we simply had to purchase this, despite it’s e-format.

The book is quite miniscule and contains two short stories with all the old favourite characters – nothing ground-breaking here, but certainly a happy addition to the series for long-time fans.  I’ve recently seen some reviews for the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, panning the books because there simply isn’t enough mystery or crime-solving going on in their pages.  I can’t help but feel those people have missed the point of the books.  For my money, the books are about relationships, pure and simple; and how we can recognise and affirm each other’s humanity (or creaturely-ness as it were, depending on your origin) in the most mundane of encounters.  If you haven’t ever picked up one of these books, start at the beginning when you’re in the mood for something light and relaxing.

slice of celebration

Pride of Botswana

reaches jubilant milestone

Congratulations!

And finally, a reminder that the monthly Fiction in 50 (Fi50) Flash Fiction Challenge is on again starting next week from the 23rd of September!

fiction in 50

….the prompt for this month is…

…UNCONVENTIONAL RELATIONSHIPS…

So pick up your pen, stylus, keyboard or pointy finger and create a piece of fiction in 50 words or less, then post a link so we can all enjoy your efforts.  It doesn’t have to be good, it doesn’t even have to be insightful or serious, but it does have to be MICRO-SIZED!

For more information and a slightly more detailed explanation of the challenge and its requirements, click on the button above, or the appropriate page in this blog’s header.  Hope you will all join in!

Until next time,

Bruce and Mad Martha

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