A(nother) Review: The Six Loves of Billy Binns

I’d seen a lot of good things about The Six Loves of Billy Binns but I wasn’t entirely sure what it was about – it just felt like it was going to be one of those books that I’d enjoy.

Luckily for you, I’m going to give you a little summary of what it’s about so you can decide for yourselves if you’ll enjoy it (you will).

Billy Binns is 117 years old, he’s the oldest man in Europe and the longest-serving resident of his care home, having been there for over thirty years.

He’s your typical, sweet old man, but – as you’d imagine for someone approaching his thirteenth decade – he’s pretty frail and his memory is failing him.

He decides to write down his own potted history, exploring the relationships he experienced in his life so that he can share them with his son Archie, the next time he comes to visit.

The book flips back and forth between Billy as an old man and Billy’s younger life – a method that works well to put you in Billy’s fragmented memories. He starts off as young a boy, innocent but curious and then begins to grow up into a man who makes mistakes – some quite big ones, some perhaps unforgivable.

In a way, the book makes me think of a cross between Joanna Cannon’s Three Things About Elsie and Anne Griffin’s recent When All is Said.Both concern older people approaching the end of their lives, reflecting on their past.

The difference between them is I a hundred per cent believe their account of things, even Cannon’s Florence who is suffering from dementia… but there’s something about Billy where even at the end of the book, I’m not sure we completely know the truth.

That’s because we see everything from his point of view, we don’t see anybody else’s version of events and there’s enough vagueness in Billy’s to make you realise it’s only an interpretation not necessarily an accurate count.

What this novel does succeed in doing is making the reader think about the nature of aging and how easily their interpretation can be dismissed. There is one thing about his past that is contradicted by a staff-member at the care home and from then on, I immediately began to doubt everything he was telling me.

The lasting thought though is how he has spent thirty plus years in a care home. We all like to think that when our time comes, if we have to spend any of it in a home, that it will be brief, but to spend a third of your life in one is a scary thought. 

Sometimes the only thing scarier than dying is living forever.

The Six Loves of Billy Binns is available now from Tinder Press

A(nother) Review: You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr

I finished this book a little while ago and it’s been hanging around the edges of my mind ever since. Maybe, partly because Jacob Rees-Mogg was waxing lyrical about the Boer War the other day on Question Time

You Will Be Safe Hereby Damian Barr is a novel set in South Africa. It starts – after a brief prologue – at the turn of the twentieth century following Sarah van der Waat’s diary entries from her time in a concentration camp. 

While very well written, it seems to bear little relation to the character of Willem, a young boy who appears in the prologue based in 2010.

As part one gives way to part two, we jumped forward to 1976, and we meet a new character, a young woman named Rayna. Again, very well written, very engaging, but her story of her family life and her marriage has seemingly no connection with Willem. 

I was enjoying it, but there was a niggling voice at the back of my head that was asking ‘where is this going?’ – which actually made the read more enjoyable. 

I read hundreds of books and with most of them I have a fair idea of where it is going, I’m pretty good at spotting twists, but this is unlike anything I’ve read in a long time. 

And that’s because this isn’t a book about Willem, or Sarah or Rayna. This is a book about war and nationalism. 

The effects of the Boer War – fondly looked back on by the likes of Rees-Mogg as the last gentleman’s war – had and continue to have a lasting impact on South Africa. 

There’s a quote on the back of the copy I read from Diana Athill that says‘You come out of reading it a different person from when you went in’, while another, from Alex Preston reads ‘A book that will change the way you see the world’.

I highlight these two particular quotes because they manage to sum up exactly how I feel, in perhaps a more eloquent way than I ever could. I knew nothing about the Boer war – apart from Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army who claimed that ‘they do not like it up ‘em, sir’.

I didn’t know a huge amount about South Africa. I didn’t realise it was the British who basically invented concentration camps – perhaps not the gas chambers of Hitler’s war – but the British army was responsible for a huge amount of deaths in that country.

I’m angry that I didn’t know about this. It’s because history is written by the victors and the Empire as it was saw it a great victory. It’s not, it’s a shameful period of our country’s history and should be recognised as such. It should be taught in schools, alongside both World Wars. We should grow up knowing that we’re not always the heroes. 

I did know that. Of course I knew that. But this is perhaps the first time I truly know what that means. 

One last word before I go, and it’s another quote from the back cover – this time, from Patrick Gale: ‘Astonishing’. 

You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr will by published by Bloomsbury on the 4thApril.

A Keeper by Graham Norton


A couple of years ago when Graham Norton published his first novel HoldingI rushed out to read it. Norton is one of my favourite broadcasters and never fails to make me laugh, but if I was expecting one of his famous opening monologues in book form, I was disappointed.

Norton managed to do what so few celebrities do, he created such a strong voice for his characters that it instantly took the celebrity shine off the book – to leave you in no doubt, that’s a good thing.

My verdict at the time – this man can write, but there was something missing. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. As debut novels went, it was a very solid start, but it was his next book I would be keenly watching.

That (difficult?) second novel came out a few months ago, and while I didn’t quite rush as quickly as I did the first time, I kept my eyes keenly on a copy, ready to insert into my reading schedule. 

A Keeper is about Elizabeth Keane who travels from New York to her childhood home in Ireland in order to pack up her mother’s house after her death. While there she must face an estranged family and confront secrets her mother had kept hidden for years.

Once again Norton manages to avoid writing what most would expect of him (when are we going to get a super-camp love story?) – but hidden letters and family secrets are like catnip to me, so I thoroughly enjoyed this novel.

The pace has picked up since his first novel, but the writing is just as good, with a plot that just begs you to keep reading and do it quickly, please. 

Loved this! When book three comes out, it will go straight to the top of my to-read list! 

8/10

A Keeper is available now from Hodder & Stoughton

A(nother) Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

January turned into a pretty crazy month for me. I left my job of sixteen years with nowhere to go and then had a short case of man-flu towards the end of the month.

There are bigger stories behind both of these things, but you don’t care about them. All you need to know is I’m using them as my excuse as to why I haven’t written any blog posts so far this year.

I have still been reading during this time though, and the first book I read this year was Normal People by Sally Rooney.

You’ll almost have certainly seen this book around – it was longlisted for the Booker, shortlisted for the Costa, and declared Book of the Year by Waterstones. It’s been hard to miss, but maybe like me, you’ve gone several months having seen its distinctive cover without knowing exactly what’s underneath?

Normal People follows the relationship between Marianne and Connell – two teenagers who go to the same school in the west of Ireland, but have nothing really else in common and nothing to do with each other. Their lives start to become entwined, though, when Connell’s mother starts to clean for Marianne’s.

An attraction is formed and we become voyeurs to their relationship over the years, watching how they drift toward and away from each other as their circumstances change, drawing ever closer to what we assume is the natural conclusion.

Your next question, as is my duty to answer, is how good a book is it? There’s certainly been a lot of hype about it and it is well written, but the characters left me a bit lacking. I didn’t connect with either Marianne or Connell in a particularly strong way.

I didn’t dislike them, but to be ambivalent about the two lead characters when the lens is so tightly drawn around them is a problem.

Perhaps I was expecting too much after all the critical acclaim, or perhaps, as they title alludes they were supposed to be this normal.

It’s still very well written and an enjoyable read, I just didn’t quite get into it as much as other readers did.

7/10

Normal People is available now from Faber & Faber