January Releases II: Nick Blackburn, Wendy Mitchell & Padraig Regan

The January new releases continue! I’ll have a final batch of three tomorrow. For today, I have an all-over-the-place meditation masquerading as a bereavement memoir, an insider’s look at what daily life with dementia is like, and a nonbinary poet’s debut.


The Reactor: A Book about Grief and Repair by Nick Blackburn

I’ll read any bereavement memoir going, and the cover commendations from Olivia Laing and Helen Macdonald made this seem like a sure bet. Unfortunately, this is not a bereavement memoir but an exercise in self-pity and free association. The book opens two weeks after Blackburn’s father’s death – “You have died but it’s fine, Dad.” – and proceeds in titled fragments of one line to a few paragraphs. Blackburn sometimes addresses his late father directly, but more often the “you” is himself. He becomes obsessed with the Chernobyl disaster (even travelling to Belarus), which provides the overriding, and overstretched, title metaphor – “the workings of grief are unconscious, invisible. Like radiation.”

From here the author indulges in pop culture references and word association: Alexander McQueen’s fashion shows, Joni Mitchell’s music, Ingmar Bergman’s films, Salvador Dalí’s paintings and so on. These I at least recognized; there were plenty of other random allusions that meant nothing to me. All of this feels obfuscating, as if Blackburn is just keeping busy: moving physically and mentally to distract from his own feelings. A therapist focusing on LGBT issues, he surely recognizes his own strategy here. This seems like a diary you’d keep in a bedside drawer (there’s also the annoyance of no proper italicization or quotation marks for works of art), not something you’d try to get published as a bereavement memoir.

The bigger problem is there is no real attempt to convey a sense of his father. It would be instructive to go back and count how many pages actually mention his father. One page on his death; a couple fleeting mentions of his mental illness being treated with ECT and lithium. Most revealing of all, ironically, is the text of a postcard he wrote to his mother on a 1963 school trip to Austria. “I want to tell you more about my father, but honestly I feel like I hardly knew him. There was always his body and that was enough,” Blackburn writes. Weaselling out of his one task – to recreate his father for readers – made this an affected dud.

With thanks to Faber for the free copy for review.


What I Wish People Knew About Dementia: From Someone Who Knows by Wendy Mitchell 

I loved Mitchell’s first book, Somebody I Used to Know. She was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s at age 58 in 2014. This follow-up, too, was co-written with Anna Wharton (they have each written interesting articles on their collaboration process, here and here). Whereas her previous work was a straightforward memoir, this has more of a teaching focus, going point by point through the major changes dementia causes to the senses, relationships, communication, one’s reaction to one’s environment, emotions, and attitudes.

I kept shaking my head at all these effects that would never have occurred to me. You tend not to think beyond memory. Food is a major issue for Mitchell: she has to set iPad reminders to eat, and chooses the same simple meals every time. Pasta bowls work best for people with dementia as they can get confused trying to push food around a plate. She is extra sensitive to noises and may have visual and olfactory hallucinations. Sometimes she is asked to comment on dementia-friendly building design. For instance, a marble floor in a lobby looks like water and scares her, whereas clear signage and bright colours cheer up a hospital trip.

The text also includes anonymous input from her friends with dementia, and excerpts from recent academic research on what can help. Mitchell and others with Alzheimer’s often feel written off by their doctors – her diagnosis appointment was especially pessimistic – but her position is that the focus should be on what people can still do and adaptations that will improve their everyday lives. Mitchell lives alone in a small Yorkshire village and loves documenting the turning of the seasons through photographs she shares on social media. She notes that it’s important for people to live in the moment and continue finding activities that promote a flow state, a contrast to some days that pass in a brain haze.

This achieves just what it sets out to: give a picture of dementia from the inside. As it’s not a narrative, it’s probably best read in small doses, but there are some great stories along the way, like the epilogue’s account of her skydive to raise money for Young Dementia UK.

With thanks to Bloomsbury for the proof copy for review.


Some Integrity by Padraig Regan

The sensual poems in this debut collection are driven by curiosity, hunger and queer desire. Flora and foods are described as teasing mystery, with cheeky detail:

I’m thinking of how mushrooms will haunt a wet log like bulbous ghosts


The chicken is spatchcocked & nothing

like a book, but it lies open & creases

where its spine once was.


For as long as it take a single drop of condensation to roll its path

down the curve of a mojito glass before it’s lost in the bare wood of the table,

everything is held // in its hall of mirrors

An unusual devotion to ampersands; an erotic response to statuary, reminiscent of Richard Scott; alternating between bold sexuality and masochism to the point of not even wanting to exist; a central essay on the Orlando nightclub shooting and videogames – the book kept surprising me. I loved the fertile imagery, and appreciated Regan’s exploration of a nonbinary identity:

Often I envy the Scandinavians for their months of sun,

unpunctuated. I think I want some kind of salad. I want to feel like a real boy, sometimes.


Thank you

for this chain of daisies to wear around my neck — it makes me look so pretty.

Highly recommended, especially to readers of Séan Hewitt and Stephen Sexton.

With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.


Does one of these books appeal to you?

15 responses

  1. I’d read the poetry. The dementia book is scary – I watched The Father with Anthony Hopkins last night (on Prime) and it was amazing, so clever and so sad.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Not as scary as the dementia memoirs I’ve read from carers’ perspectives — knowing from the inside what she feels and experiences is really valuable.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting books, very ably reviewed. Of the three, Regan’s poetry is far the most interesting (I liked the poem about the grapefruit!).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. I do love the grapefruit poem! All the foodie ones, really.


  3. The dementia book looks really useful at the moment, although I suppose there is a difference in early-onset in that the body itself is not as frail as when an older person is experiencing it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. True. She’s lucky that she can still live alone, at home, though she knows that won’t be her reality forever. I felt I learnt a lot from reading this one.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. That grapefruit poem makes me want to get one! I love grapefruit.

    The dementia book from the view of a person living with it sounds fascinating. I’m glad something like this exists.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha ha, I’m not a grapefruit fan, though I do love blood oranges. I was intrigued by the use of the fruit as a metaphor for masochism!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. The Regan looks enticing. I’m too near the possibility of dementia myself to want to do anything but stick my head in the sand, and you’ve by no means sold the Blackburn!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Alas, the Blackburn is the worst thing I’ve read in a long time. Normally I’d just politely not say anything about a book I so disliked, but I felt readers needed to be clear on what they’re getting into with it.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. staciachapmanbookish | Reply

    Like Annabel & Margaret, Mitchell’s book, on the surface, sounds like it could be a challenging read (especially for me – having a close relative with the disease). However, you share that there are some informative features shared in the book about the importance of focusing on what people (who have this disease – any perhaps all of us?) are still able to do and to find meaning and pleasant moments despite affilictions. I think I will pick up the book and read it in small doses – it sounds informative and for some of us, not something we can deny as a possibility in life… Thank you for sharing this one!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I enjoy getting glimpses into other lives, and my attitude is that it’s always better to learn more rather than to avoid a subject because it seems scary. I know that Mitchell’s first book is available in the USA, but I’m not sure about this new one.


  7. Not particularly. But I really want a grapefruit now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You and Laila! Well, it’s appropriate that Regan made you crave one. His poems of desire did their work!


  8. […] Some Integrity by Padraig Regan: The sensual poems in this debut collection are driven by curiosity, hunger and queer desire. Flora and foods are described as teasing mystery, with cheeky detail. An unusual devotion to ampersands; an erotic response to statuary; alternating between bold sexuality and masochism to the point of not even wanting to exist; a central essay on the Orlando nightclub shooting and videogames – the book kept surprising me. I loved the fertile imagery, and appreciated Regan’s exploration of a nonbinary identity. […]


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